ROANOKE, Virginia – John Marshall Higgins, the former superintendent of the Rockbridge County Regional Jail, and a former member of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, was convicted yesterday on multiple charges related to federal civil rights violations and public corruption in an opinion issued by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon, Acting United States Attorney Daniel P. Bubar, David W. Archey, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division, and Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police announced today.
“For years, Higgins acted as though he was above the law and ran the jail accordingly—failing to protect and assist certain inmates in need of medical care, but providing special treatment to another inmate that could enrich him,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bubar. “I am proud of the hard work put in by our partners at the FBI and VSP and our prosecution team that brought about this just result.”
Higgins, 62, and Gary Andrew Hassler, 58, the former head nurse at the jail, were indicted in August 2018 and charged with multiple federal crimes related to Higgins’ failure to protect inmates, denial of medical care for an inmate’s serious medical needs resulting in bodily injury, and charges related to Higgin’s use of his position of authority at the Rockbridge Regional Jail to improperly enrich himself. Hassler was charged with falsifying documents to obstruct a federal investigation.
Following a three-day trial in July 2019, a jury convicted Hassler of one count of impeding a federal investigation into civil rights violations at the Rockbridge Regional Jail by falsifying a document. Evidence at trial showed that on March 5, 2017, Hassler falsified a document to claim an inmate at the jail refused medical care. Hassler was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of twelve months and one day
After a six-day bench trial in August 2020, the Court found Higgins guilty of three counts of deprivation of civil rights for denying medical care to an inmate and failing to protect that inmate 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 evidence presented at his trial, Higgins, as superintendent of the jail, 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. On multiple occasions Higgins was made aware of abusive conduct towards certain inmates and did nothing to prevent the abuse from occurring. On one occasion, Higgins refused to allow an inmate with potentially serious injuries to be seen by a physician for three days. The inmate was only provided medical care after other staff members sent the inmate to the hospital emergency room.
In addition, 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. These family members and friends provided at least $3,000 in payments and other items to a scholarship fund operated by Higgins and his family. The evidence demonstrated 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. These privileges and preferential treatment included, but were not limited to, unsupervised contact visits with family and friends at the jail and at a farm located in Rockbridge County and deliveries of ice cream from Higgins to the inmate. Higgins’ also upgraded the cable package at the jail at the inmate’s request, granted the inmate’s unfettered access to jail facilities and Higgin’s personal office. Finally, at Higgins’ direction, the inmate was never sent to the Virginia Department of Corrections to serve his sentence, as dictated by policy and procedure, but instead served his entire sentence at the Rockbridge Regional Jail.
The court has not yet set a sentencing date.
The investigation of the case was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Virginia State Police. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for Rockbridge County assisted with the investigation. Assistant United States Attorneys Zachary T. Lee and Matthew Miller prosecuted the case for the United States.