One of the four Dayton men indicted in a federal corruption investigation has a history that includes a fire-bombed car, hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and debt, numerous lawsuits and judgments against him, and public contracts that made his companies millions of dollars transporting dead bodies.
In an ongoing effort to get to the bottom of the allegations, the Dayton Daily News reviewed public records and conducted interviews to learn more about who is Brian Higgins, the embalmer-turned-restaurateur who now faces four federal mail and wire fraud charges.
Though prosecutors said his arrest was part of the “culture of corruption” probe in Dayton area politics, the charges against him make no reference to corruption and federal authorities won’t say if or how he is connected to the other cases. His indictment accuses him of collecting insurance money after a fish tank leak damaged his 8,000-square-foot home but pocketing the money instead of paying for repairs.
Higgins wouldn’t comment on the charges against him and said it wasn’t clear how they are linked to the corruption probe.
“I have my theory, but obviously I can’t speak on a theory,” he said.
Higgins said many of his financial troubles can be traced back to a decade spent trying to expose corruption in Chicago that he believes cost him a lucrative public contract there.
Higgins once ran a company that was paid millions of dollars by some of Ohio’s largest counties and the city of Chicago for hauling dead bodies.
He lost the Chicago contract — worth $13 million over about five years — in 2011 after he alleges he refused to “pay to play” with a powerful city alderman who questioned the costs. That alderman, Ed Burke, was indicted this year on unrelated corruption charges. Burke didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Montgomery County body-hauling contract was terminated after a 2012 Dayton Daily News investigation found he hadn’t paid taxes and had a business relationship with the director of the coroner’s office.
Higgins claims he has suffered finanically from the loss of the Chicago contract and the money he has spent over the past 10 years on attorneys and public records to expose alleged corruption in the Illinois city’s bidding process.
“Obviously that’s going to create a financial strain. That’s going to create a domino effect,” he said.
Higgins said he has worked to improve Dayton and invested in downtown.
“My value, or what I have given this community, far outweighs things that have been said in the past,” he said.
Insurance ‘red flags’
Higgins has repeatedly reported being the victim of misfortune, according to police records, though some of his claims were questioned by investigators.
Among the incidents:
• Higgins went into the restaurant business in Dayton, opening Sidebar restaurant at 130 W. Second St. and then — after being sued for back rent — moving to the Oregon District. In 2011, the restaurant filed a claim for water damage, a claim that led to a lawsuit. In 2012, Higgins told police $22,000 was stolen from a safe at his restaurant just days before it was evicted and shut down.
• Someone set Higgins’ car on fire in early 2017.
• Weeks after the auto arson, he reported a break-in at a friend’s home and claimed the thieves stole $40,000 in mink coats.
• A Dayton house he had been staying at caught fire in 2018.
If all these incidents resulted in insurance claims, that would be a “red flag,” according to Mason Wilder, research specialist with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
“Numerous unlikely incidents over a short period of time that involve high-price assets and all involved one person claiming tens of thousands of dollars of loss is certainly suspicious and would prompt investigators to take a closer look,” he said.
Higgins denied ever committing fraud. He said all of them were legitimate claims that were investigated thoroughly by insurance companies. None of them ever came back to him alleging over-payment, he said.
“At the end of the day, the insurance companies conducted their own investigations on all of them I believe,” he said.
The federal indictment unsealed April 30 alleges that Higgins submitted an insurance claim in August 2014 to Assurant in the name of someone identified as “C.H.,” who previously lived with him in an 8,000-square-foot home in the 7200 block of Meeker Creek Drive in Butler Twp. His trial has been set for Sept. 23.
In February 2007, Higgins and his then-wife, Chonda Higgins, took out a $904,400 loan to purchase the Meeker Creek Drive home, according to real estate records. They divorced about three years later.
The house, once valued at more than $1 million, formerly belonged to prominent homebuilder George Oberer.
U.S. Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against the home in 2010.
The property sustained significant water damage in July 2014 after a leak in a 600-gallon fish tank, according to the federal indictment. At the time, various financial institutions still had foreclosure proceedings ongoing against the home.
Higgins allegedly submitted “false, fictitious and fraudulent paperwork that materially misrepresented the repair work performed on this property,” resulting in Assurant issuing funds and sustaining losses in excess of $100,000, the indictment says.
Among the alleged evidence against Higgins referenced in the indictment is a check totaling $14,666 to a company identified in the indictment as “U.D.” Higgins confirmed to the Dayton Daily News that a company from Dayton konwn as United Demolition worked on his house after it flooded.
A November 2014 police dispatch report obtained by the Dayton Daily News says Higgins called the police from United Demolition’s office downtown and claimed he paid the company $30,000 but the company failed to do the work or return the money.
Dayton police responded, according to the report, and noted that no one would answer the company’s door, even though they appeared to be in the office. Higgins said the company never finished the work or returned the money but he didn’t press charges.
United Demolition officials couldn’t be reached for comment. The Dayton Daily News previously reported that United Demolition received a couple of city of Dayton contracts, despite some red flags, including unfavorable work references.
Higgins’ Butler Twp. home went to sheriff’s sale in late 2016 and the bank took possession in early 2017. It resold in August 2017 for less than $360,000, according to real estate records.
Sidebar restaurant issues
In mid-2010, Sidebar moved to 410 E. Fifth St. in the Oregon District from its original home at 130 W. Second St. That was after being evicted by its landlord for alleged nonpayment of more than $15,000 in back rent, court records say.
In April 2011, Sidebar reported to its insurance company that it sustained water damage to drywall and carpeting after heavy rains, according to Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas records.
Auto-Owners Mutual Insurance Co. says in court documents it requested supporting documentation related to the damages, but Sidebar did not respond. In October 2012, months after Sidebar closed, the restaurant submitted a sworn statement and proof of loss seeking nearly $13,000 in payment related to the alleged water damage, court records say.
Auto-Owners denied the claim after the insurance company said it investigated and determined the damage wasn’t covered. Sidebar responded with a lawsuit, which it voluntarily dismissed in September 2013 after the restaurant didn’t provide documents, according to court records.
Missing money from restaurant
On July 24, 2012, a group of employees entered Sidebar after hours and drank alcohol, partied and caused damage to the inside of the business, a police report says. Higgins accused employees the next day of theft and told police someone accessed the safe and stole $22,000.
Police asked Higgins why he had $22,000 in the safe. Higgins told detectives he borrowed the money from a friend because he had a “light weekend” and needed it to make payroll. Higgins said he gave the cash to Ledra Boyd, who worked at the restaurant, to put in the safe, according to the police report.
Only four people, including Higgins and Boyd, had the pass-code for the safe, the police report says.
Police said Higgins had no records or documentation for the $22,000.
“It should be noted that Mr. Higgins became very nervous when we began questioning him on how he came in possession of $22,000 and what type of friend would allow him to borrow that kind of money,” according to a report from police Officer Stephen Clark.
Attorney Richard Skelton talked to detectives on behalf of a group of Sidebar employees who were in the business the night before the alleged theft. Skelton said the theft could be a “ploy” to avoid paying the employees, the police report says.
Police said Higgins did not provide information requested for the investigation, including complete employee contact information, correct times for the security footage and banking information.
“Based on evidence collected so far, and the lack of help from the complainant (Brian), either from distraction or deception, this investigation has been exhausted,” the report says.
Police talked to a local business owner who said he loaned Higgins $22,000 in cash. The individual said he had no records or documents related to the loan.
Higgins told the Dayton Daily News he complied with the police’s investigation.
“I gave them everything they wanted, including the video,” he said. He said the video showed a dozen or so people breaking into the building, having a party and damaging property, but did not show the safe.
Employees and ex-employees then picketed outside Sidebar on July 28, 2012, claiming they hadn’t been paid. The restaurant shut down a few days later.
Higgins’ car burned
Higgins had a tow truck drop off his broken-down, custom 1962 Volkswagen Beetle in late August 2016 at a repair shop on North Dixie Drive. But shop owner Samuel Dilldine said the car never was repaired because Higgins didn’t agree to pay for car parts.
In January 2017, Butler Twp. police were called to the repair shop for a vehicle fire. The inside of Higgins’ custom 1962 Volkswagen Beetle had been set on fire using a plastic bottle full of gasoline.
Dilldine told the Dayton Daily News he was at his shop after hours on the cold Friday night when he heard a loud boom. He ran outside, saw the Volkswagen on fire, opened the car door and a fireball shot out.
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Dilldine fetched extinguishers and put out the blaze before it did severe damage to the exterior of the car. He said it was quiet and snowy in the area at the time, and the culprit likely believed the shop was unattended.
Dilldine contacted Higgins and told him about the fire. Higgins asked if Dilldine saw a maroon-colored car.
When Higgins arrived on scene, he told an officer he recently experienced some trouble with people from Chicago but did not elaborate, the report says.
Higgins estimated the Volkswagen to be worth about $20,000.
Higgins told the Dayton Daily News he doesn’t know who fire-bombed his car.
In late February 2017, Dayton police were called to a home in the 400 block of Otterbein Avenue on a burglary complaint. They spoke with Higgins and Ledra Boyd, who owned the house and was a business associate of Higgins.
Boyd did not return requests for comment.
Higgins previously had owned the home and said he was moving back in. He told police someone kicked in the back door and stole four of his mink coats, which he claimed in the report were worth about $10,000 each.
Days later, Boyd phoned the officer assigned to the case and said they just noticed a laundry basket full of designer purses, a humidor full of Higgins’ watches and an iPad also were missing, a police report says.
Higgins told the Dayton Daily News the neighborhood had a problem with home break-ins and noted that before his belongings were there, the home was broken into several times.
Dayton police were called to the same home about three weeks earlier at the end of January 2017, according to police records, and Boyd reported that someone had broken in and stolen two TVs and three pairs of Nike shoes.
Police also responded to the home in May 2014 when Boyd told police someone forced open the side door and stole about $3,600 worth of electronics, jewelry and other valuables.
The home is currently unoccupied after it caught fire in January 2018. The fire started in an upstairs bedroom, where Higgins left a candle unattended, according to fire department records. The fire department estimated damages at $13,000.
Higgins’ largest business venture was GSSP Enterprises, a company that had public contracts to pick up dead bodies and deliver them to coroner’s offices in several counties.
GSSP was hired in 1996 to haul bodies for the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. He received an embalmer’s license from the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors in 1999, according to state records.
GSSP grew considerably in the following years, acquiring contracts in Cuyahoga, Hamilton and Lucas counties, then in 2006 landing a massive contract to transport bodies for the city of Chicago — with references from then-Montgomery County coroner’s office director Ken Betz.
The Chicago contract earned GSSP $13.7 million before it was not renewed in 2011 amid concerns about the amount that was charged. Higgins was then sued by a union in Chicago, and a judgment was issued against him for unpaid pensions and benefits.
In 2012, the Dayton Daily News published an investigation that found Higgins owed more than $215,523 in federal and state income taxes, and workers’ compensation premiums. The investigation also found Higgins had a business relationship with Betz.
Two days after the story ran, Higgins terminated his contract with Montgomery County. His company had been paid $1.1 million over the life of the contract.
Higgins said he has no indication that GSSP contracts are part of the federal investigation.
Betz did not return a call for comment for this story. He retired from the coroner’s office in 2017.
Betz said in 2012 that their shared business, founded in 2001 while GSSP was under contract with the coroner’s office, was intended to open a jazz bar in downtown Dayton that never got off the ground. Betz said then the business relationship had no bearing on Higgins getting the county contract.
GSSP’s other Ohio contracts all were eventually not renewed. Higgins said the company is currently not operating.
Aaron Esposito worked for GSSP in Cleveland and currently owns the company that took over body hauling for Cuyahoga County after GSSP lost the contract. He said he found out he lost his job when he showed up to work one day and there was a note on the door.
“It’s a sad situation because he had everything,” Esposito said. “He just doesn’t pay his bills.”
Esposito said Higgins is charismatic and a man of great potential.
“You want to work hard for him,” he said. “You want to buy into his dream, but he doesn’t want to share his dream.”
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