Total Contempt

He cheated a family out of $120,000. It took four years in jail to make him the victim.

The money added up, until one branch of the family got suspicious. By 1989, eight years after the payments began, Tura Dean Lewis Nichols and her brothers and sisters realized they'd put in $12,806 -- and had nothing to show for it. Briggs refused their request for an accounting.

"So much time had passed," explains Nichols, 67, a retired music teacher. "I didn't know or care what the rest of the family was thinking, but when you put up that much money -- it's quite a bit."

Claiming fraud, she and her siblings sued in Chambers County state district court. Briggs denied their allegations, but when they set a date to take his testimony, he suddenly agreed to make a refund. In June 1990, Briggs signed an agreement to pay them $10,000 in three monthly installments; if he defaulted, he'd owe the full $12,806, plus interest and court costs.

Dollie Humphrey refused to drop the case, even at the request of Jesse Jackson.
Sarah Fenske
Dollie Humphrey refused to drop the case, even at the request of Jesse Jackson.
Richard Baker insists the case is about his clients' loss, not Briggs's rights.
Sarah Fenske
Richard Baker insists the case is about his clients' loss, not Briggs's rights.

By November, he still hadn't turned over a cent. The judge ordered him to pay, but it was a paper judgment -- as every lawyer knows, it's one thing to get a judgment, and something else to get payment. And Briggs was in no hurry.

They never got a dime.

Nichols was shocked. "Really and truly, we had thought he was down to earth," she says. "I never met anyone who lied like that. I just couldn't believe it."

Strangely, the rest of the family continued to believe Briggs. Johnson says his branch of the family didn't know about Nichols's lawsuit and continued to hope that the long wait would mean a bigger payoff. And Briggs kept offering assurances, Johnson says. "Every time we'd try to do something, he'd say he had somewhere else to go."

Humphrey ended that. An elegantly coiffed nurse who used to own a Double Bayou beauty salon, she started her own research into her family's land claim in 1993. Her questions led her to Briggs.

When she learned that her sister alone had paid him $12,000, she got suspicious enough to go from house to house, collecting receipts. "I went to most everybody that I knew," she says. "And we ended up with $120,000 of receipts."

Then she went to the Beaumont police.

The officer Humphrey talked to has since retired. But Sergeant Les Worden says his colleague's hands were tied; police have just five years after a theft to file charges. For fraud, they have only three years. And 13 years had passed since Briggs started collecting money.

The officer told Humphrey to write Briggs and demand the money. In April 1994, she did, to the consternation of some relatives. "She just came in like a tiger in a china shop," says Ed Moore, a member of the group and then a Jefferson County commissioner. Briggs told Moore that he had been ready to turn over the records he'd found, but now he might not. "He was just furious," Moore says.

Humphrey was nonplussed. "They were believing this or that -- but I figured the money was already gone." Her final straw was a call from Briggs, who never explained and never apologized -- he just told her to butt out.

So she looked up a lawyer in Liberty named Richard Baker, who'd attended the Anahuac public schools with her sons. Baker agreed to file a lawsuit demanding the money back.

At 31, Baker was relatively inexperienced. But he did his homework. He read Nichols's case file and decided he wasn't going to let Briggs skate twice, that the money hadn't gone up in smoke.

And that meant finding it. If Briggs had bought real estate, Baker could get a lien. If he had bought a car, Baker could get it seized. If there were bank accounts, they could be tapped into.

It sounded easy enough.

It wasn't.

J.C. "Zeke" Zbranek is the son of Czech immigrants, a Korean War veteran and a loyal Democrat. He'd been chairman of the Liberty County Democratic Party for 18 years and elected state representative three times before earning a seat as state district judge.

Eventually Zbranek would become the man who turned Odis Briggs into a cause célèbre.

Liberty has just 8,000 residents; its judges and lawyers can't help but know each other. But the bond between Baker and Zbranek was tighter: Zbranek gave Baker his first job out of law school, hiring him as an associate for his practice. Zack Zbranek, the judge's youngest son, was Baker's partner when Dollie Humphrey hired Baker for the fraud case.

"He's a good lawyer. Diligent," Judge Zbranek says of Baker. But the judge adds that he has no problem being impartial. "I'm used to correcting Richard," he says. "It wouldn't be a new thing."

But Zbranek wasn't used to correcting Briggs. And soon enough, the evasive con artist was driving the judge crazy.

First Briggs failed to come to court. He thought the earlier litigation in Chambers County had concluded the matter, he explained. When he did show up, he caused more delays because he didn't have a lawyer.

When Briggs arrived in Zbranek's courtroom on January 29, 1996, the case was more than a year old. Briggs wanted more time. His attorney had just quit, he told the judge, and he'd only met his new lawyer that morning. He didn't have the bank records he was supposed to have, either.

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