By Crawford Humphreys
A key component of former Rockbridge Regional Jail Superintendent John Higgins’ conviction on corruption charges last month centered around preferential treatment and privileges he extended to a former Washington and Lee University student serving a sentence for a fatal DUI.
In 2013, Nicholas Hansel was driving an SUV packed with W&L students when he lost control of the vehicle. Kelsey Durkin, 21, of New Canaan, Conn., was killed, and two other students were seriously injured. Two years later, Hansel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon in Lynchburg convicted Higgins of three of four charges stemming from his acceptance of over $3,000 in payments and other items from Hansel’s parents and their friends. The judge’s opinion described Hansel’s incarceration as a privileged existence with unrestricted access to an office and computer, unsupervised work release on a nearby farm and unmonitored contact visits with family on weekends away from the jail.
“You treat someone better [in jail] because they have proven to be reliable,” said W&L Law professor Nora Demleitner. “You’re not treating someone better because they are paying you to get better treatment. That is a federal offense.”
Higgins opted for a bench trial with no jury to determine his fate on the allegations against him, which also included violating the civil rights of inmates by failing to respond when they were attacked and beaten by other prisoners. In a 38-page opinion, Moon found Higgins guilty of depriving two inmates of their civil rights and convicted him of denying a third inmate of medical care. The judge’s decision was filed on Jan. 31.
Hansel should have been transferred from the Rockbridge jail to a prison operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections. But Higgins decided to keep Hansel at the jail and out of the state prison system. Typically, convicted felons sentenced to more than a year serve their time in prisons. Exceptions to this rule occur if a prisoner possesses a special trade skill that could be utilized at a jail and taught to other prisoners.
But Hansel had to be taught how to mow the grass and wash cars by the jail’s maintenance director, the judge wrote.
“Higgins had previously requested that certain inmates not be transferred to VDOC if they had a special trade skill,” Moon said. “Hansel did not have any specific skill or trade advantage.”
Hansel was also granted trustee status after just one day at the jail, in violation of a policy that required inmates to earn the privilege after establishing a record of good behavior. Hansel was one of only a few inmates to receive immediate trustee status from Higgins during his nearly 30-year tenure, according to Moon’s ruling.
The judge also said Higgins went to great lengths to provide Hansel with freedom on a work-release job. The former superintendent wrote a two-page request to the corrections department, which was unusual for him. Typically, Higgins wrote just a few sentences in seeking work release for other inmates.
Hansel landed a work release job at Hostetter Excavating in Lexington, performing office duties while other prisoners were assigned to manual labor. The judge said Higgins also went out of his way to make sure jail supervisors knew that he was in charge of verifying Hansel’s compliance with the rules.
But Hansel’s compliance with work-release rules was verified only one time between October 2016 and March 2017. During this period, Hansel routinely left the jail under the guise of participating in work release—even when Hostetter Excavating was closed. Hansel also left the jail on Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2016 and New Year’s Day in 2017.
Moon said Hansel had numerous direct contacts with family members when he was supposed to be on work release, a violation of the jail’s policy that allowed only non-contact visitation. The judge said the visits were unsupervised and occurred away from the jail.
Higgins also bestowed Hansel with numerous privileges. The judge said Hansel moved throughout the jail as he pleased, raiding the kitchen for food when he wanted it, using the jail’s computers as if they were his, and even converting a small shed into a private get-away.
Moon ruled that prosecutors had proven that Hansel’s parents and their close friends contributed at least $3,000 to a scholarship fund that Higgins had set up in memory of his deceased nephew. Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that the Hansel family and their friends sent letters and checks to the address they’d been provided, often mentioning Hansel by name.
Court documents show that the Hansel family and their friends were the largest cash donors to the scholarship fund in 2016. Prosecutors presented evidence that the fund received no contributions after Higgins resigned in the wake of an investigation in 2017.
“This is kind of a stunning thing that he could get away with this for so long,” Demleitner, the law professor, said. “I think one of the problems with this is there isn’t much supervision of the superintendent.”
The evidence also showed that Higgins told a coworker at the jail that the Hansel family had donated to his campaign for the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors.
“The Court believes that the only reasonable explanation for Higgins’ preferential treatment of Hansel were contributions to the Scholarship Fund from Hansel’s family and family friends,” Moon wrote, “and that the only reasonable explanation for Hansel’s family and family friends’ contributions to the Scholarship Fund was to attempt to influence Higgins’ treatment of Hansel.”
A sentencing hearing for Higgins has been set for May 11.