John Marshall Higgins, the former superintendent of the Rockbridge County Regional Jail, was sentenced this week to 51 months in federal prison for charges related to federal civil rights violations and public corruption.
According to court documents, Higgins, 62, a former member of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, was convicted following a six-day bench trial in 2020 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.
“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 today. “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.”
“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,” Special Agent in Charge Stanley M. Meador of the FBI’s Richmond Division said today. “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, 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 and granted the inmate unfettered access to jail facilities and Higgins’ 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.
Gary Andrew Hassler, the former head nurse at the jail, was also convicted as part of the investigation. Hassler was convicted in 2020 following a jury trial on 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.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Virginia State Police investigated the case. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for Rockbridge County assisted with the investigation.