Saturday, June 19, 2021

Former Rockbridge County jail superintendent gets 51 months in prison for corruption

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The former superintendent of the Rockbridge County Regional Jail has been sentenced to 51 months in federal prison for charges related to federal civil rights violations and public corruption, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Tuesday.

After a six-day bench trial in 2020, 62-year-old John Marshall Higgins — a former member of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors — was convicted of three counts of deprivation of civil rights for denying medical care to an inmate and failing to protect two inmates from physical abuse, one count of conspiracy to commit mail and honest services fraud, and two counts of mail and honest services fraud for accepting things of value in exchange for engaging in official acts, according to court documents.

“Higgins violated the public trust placed in him as jail superintendent. He repeatedly interfered with certain sentences handed down by Virginia courts, taking matters into his own hands by allowing the abuse of certain inmates, but treating another inmate favorably to enrich himself,” Acting U.S. Attorney Bubar said on Tuesday, May 11.  “As the court found today, this conduct was simply egregious and went on for years. Today’s significant sentence ought to serve as a deterrent to any public servant who may be tempted to carry out the administration of justice with anything less than fairness under the law. I thank the FBI, the Virginia State Police, the Rockbridge County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and the prosecution team for their tireless work to bring Higgins to justice.”

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“The responsibility of investigating federal Civil Rights and Color of Law violations rests with the FBI, regardless of an individual’s status amongst our community or law enforcement affiliation,” said Special Agent in Charge Stanley M. Meador of the FBI’s Richmond Division. “In his official capacity, Mr. Higgins turned a blind-eye to the medical needs and security of inmates while profiting personally by helping another. A clear abuse of his position, and catalyst for mistrust in law enforcement – which cannot and should not be tolerated. We are fully committed to protecting the rights of all citizens, and appreciate the partnership of the Virginia State Police, the Rockbridge County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and the Western District of Virginia, United States Attorney’s Office during this investigation.”

According to evidence presented at his trial, as superintendent of the jail, Higgins failed to protect the rights of inmates at the regional jail by failing to provide an inmate with medical treatment and failing to protect that inmate from physical abuse from other inmates, which resulted in bodily injury.

Officials say Higgins was made aware on multiple occasions of abusive conduct towards certain inmates and did nothing to prevent the abuse from occurring.

For example, Higgins reportedly refused to let an inmate with potentially serious injuries be seen by a physician for three days, resulting in the inmate not being provided medical care until after other staff members sent the inmate to the hospital emergency room.

In addition, the DOJ says evidence demonstrated that Higgins, while superintendent of the jail, agreed to accept things of value from the family and friends of an inmate at the Rockbridge Regional Jail in exchange for providing preferential treatment to the inmate. Meanwhile, these relatives and friends provided at least $3,000 in payments and other items to a scholarship fund operated by Higgins and his family.

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The evidence showed that in exchange for these payments, the inmate — who had been ordered to serve a three-year sentence at the Department of Corrections for vehicular manslaughter — received significant privileges while incarcerated at the Rockbridge Regional Jail.

Examples of those privileges and preferential treatment reported by officials are listed below:

  • Unsupervised contact visits with family and friends at the jail and at a farm located in Rockbridge County
  • Deliveries of ice cream from Higgins to the inmate
  • An upgrade to the cable package at the jail at the inmate’s request
  • Unfettered access to jail facilities and Higgins’ personal office.

Furthermore, at Higgins’ direction, the DOJ says the inmate served his entire sentence at the Rockbridge Regional Jail rather than being sent to the Virginia Department of Corrections to, as dictated by policy and procedure.

According to authorities, the former head nurse at the jail, Gary Andrew Hassler, was also convicted in 2020 on one count of impeding a federal investigation into civil rights violations at the Rockbridge Regional Jail by falsifying a document. Evidence presented at trial showed that Hassler falsified a document to claim an inmate at the jail refused medical care on March 5, 2017.

Hassler was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison, officials say.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Virginia State Police reportedly investigated the case — with some assistance from the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for Rockbridge County — before it was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zachary T. Lee and Matthew Miller.

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