David George (left) fought to free Briggs.
David George (left) fought to free Briggs.
Daniel Kramer

Total Contempt

The scam was so simple, it hardly counts as a scam: Take the money, and don't even bother to run. Just stall.

The author of the plan was a flimflam man from Beaumont, a former nightclub owner desperate for cash. Back in 1979, 41-year-old Odis Briggs was just "jobbing around," as he later testified, living in public housing and trying to support his wife and three teenagers. When he met the family he would swindle, he claimed to be a land man, paid to help people establish claims to disputed property. He admits today that he had little experience beyond helping his own relatives in Louisiana.

But the family had a dream that was ripe for exploitation. The descendants of Henry Lewis had grown up hearing stories about their near-miss at fortune. It was a wrong they were willing to spend money to right.

A hundred years before, Lewis had a 4,000-acre homestead in what is now Monroe City. At some point, the story went, white settlers decided they wanted the land, and they ran off Lewis. African-Americans at the time had few legal remedies, especially against white men with torches. So when there was a major oil strike on the property in 1935, it wasn't Lewis who got rich.

Lewis's descendants didn't have any documentation. All they had was their oral history -- a difficult claim even for someone versed in the intricacies of title claims.

But Briggs was more than willing to provide encouragement. For the right money, he said, he could find the paperwork establishing their title and hire Craig Washington, then a Houston state representative, to fight for it in court.

Briggs insists he didn't go into the deal meaning to scam the family. "I thought it could be done," he says today. "I didn't believe it could be that tough to handle, but things just didn't go right."

Regardless, Briggs told the Lewises they had a good case and accepted their checks. He promised that things were progressing nicely. He always claimed to be close to proving their claims, and they believed him.

Instead, he became quite the man around Beaumont -- with their money. "When he first came down, he was eating hamburger," sniffs one member of the Lewis family, Dollie Humphrey. "In two weeks, he was eating steaks."

However, Washington, the former legislator, says he never even heard of a land man named Briggs. The claim never advanced. The family lost everything.

End of story.

Except the story is never that simple.

Some 23 years after Briggs first began taking the family's money and ten years after they realized it was gone, the onetime scam artist has been transformed into the poster boy for civil rights abuse. He's received hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of pro bono work by ACLU attorneys, attracted the intervention of Jesse Jackson and had a state law designed to help people like him.

Today he's the one ranting about constitutional rights, corruption and malfeasance. Today he's calling for a Justice Department investigation.

To his lawyer, David George, it all makes sense. The court system, he says, can't discard basic rules just because someone's a bad guy: "The rules have to work for everybody."

When that doesn't happen, even a con man can become a victim.

Freddie McKinley Johnson is 84 years old, with sunken cheeks and a fine fuzz of white hair. His layered flannel shirts are designed to block the morning chill, not make a fashion statement.

As a boy, Johnson heard about the land his family once owned. Today it's Monroe City, he says, but back then it was called "Out on the Ridge."

When Johnson was a ranch hand living in Double Bayou, a white rancher's words made a big impression on him. "He told me, 'Johnson, you know where we're riding now; if the black people could ever get a good lawyer, they could own that land.' "

When his cousins hired Odis Briggs to fight for their claim, Johnson joined with them. His sister saved money from her job at Foley's. His brother sent checks back from the Union Pacific train where he was a cook. And Johnson sold the family's cows and trapped muskrats in the marsh, selling their pelts for cash.

"We paid out quite a bit," Johnson says. Slender and wrinkled, he still stands erect in his cowboy boots. His voice is barely audible, perhaps the result of his having more gums than teeth. "We had to come up with $6,000 between us."

The relatives who hired Briggs came from 17 branches of Lewises, representing Hankamer, Double Bayou, Beaumont, even Houston. They were organized. They kept receipts; when they met, they kept minutes.

The minutes are full of talk about money. The families questioned where it was being held. Briggs said it was in a bank earning 5.25 percent interest. Often he talked about the balance due. Someone always needed to kick in more. Someone always did: $1,000 here, $2,000 there.

When Briggs needed travel funds, Johnson says, the group collected and turned it over. When Briggs reported that one of his parents had died, Johnson says, "We raised a little something to help him go see them."

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.

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.

"This is taxing my patience," Zbranek huffed. "It's always something. Something didn't get brought, something is not here. We will be here until late summer at this pace before we get anything."

Zbranek gave Briggs two hours to drive to Beaumont, get the records and return to court. "You ducked and dodged the last time," he said. "So, today's the day to fish or cut bait."

When the hearing resumed two days later, Briggs had brought a box of paperwork. There were no bank statements in it. Nor would he answer questions about what he'd done with the money.

Zbranek threw Briggs in jail for contempt of court. He stayed two and a half months.

That isn't unusual, says Alex Albright, associate dean of the University of Texas School of Law. "If you disobey a court order in a civil case, they can toss you in the slam or fine you," she says. "And they can keep you in jail until you cure the contempt" -- in this case, answer questions.

A federal court ruled that Briggs had a right against incriminating himself and ordered his release. But the judge was allowed to order him to turn over the documents -- and Briggs just wasn't producing them. The best he could do was say they'd been misplaced. (The bank was no help, attorney Baker says, since it destroys records more than seven years old.)

More than a year had passed since Briggs's release when Zbranek decided in April 1997 that he'd, again, had enough. The judge openly wondered if Briggs was hiding the records to avoid criminal prosecution. "I think that he could produce them if he wanted to," Zbranek mused, "and therefore I'm going to hold him in jail until he does produce them."

The case had become a test of wills. Zbranek, a man too experienced and too feisty to be rattled by bad publicity, was not about to blink, but neither, apparently, was Briggs. He insisted he couldn't turn over the records because he couldn't find them.

He would stay in jail for the next four years and six months.

Certainly, Briggs's testimony had changed repeatedly, from promising the records to pleading the Fifth Amendment to claiming the documents were lost. At times, he seemed to be obstinate just because he didn't like Zbranek.

But by the April 1997 hearing, Briggs had good reason to surrender the records if he had them. His wife, Ira, had just suffered a stroke. Briggs had to leave her hospital bed to go to court.

The couple had been together almost 40 years. He'd dropped out of Texas Southern University after his first year, thanks to her ultimatum: "If you're not ready to get married, I'll move on." He got ready in a hurry. "A good girl is hard to find," he says.

In the next two years, while Briggs stewed in jail, doctors discovered cancer in his wife's colon, liver and ovaries.

By February 1999, it was clear: Ira Briggs was dying. Yolanda Renee Whirry, Briggs's oldest daughter, brought photos of her dad to the hospital. "She was giving up," Whirry says. "She said, 'I just want to go.' That was hard."

Briggs asked Zbranek to let him see his wife one last time. Zbranek declined.

Briggs grew to hate the judge, he says. As the case continued, "The judge was thinking, 'He's a black man, and I can have fun with him. Regardless of the law, I can have fun.' "

Without any evidence to prove it, Briggs became convinced that Baker and Zbranek were conspiring against him. "It's like they'd go out and drink whiskey at night and say, 'Here's what we're going to do to him.' And then they'd come to court the next day and do it."

Briggs felt helpless, alone and more than a little paranoid. He didn't see that he'd pushed the judge to the brink, only that he hadn't been charged with any crime and yet was growing old in jail. It must be because he was a black man in a justice system run by whites.

So someone in his family -- Briggs can't remember who -- summoned Jesse Jackson.

When Briggs's supporters reached Jackson, the leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition was still flying high. Just months before, Jackson had found himself in the spotlight thanks to President Bill Clinton's sex scandal. It was two years before Jackson would be engulfed by a sex scandal of his own, and he was only too willing to hit the talk show circuit as the first family's spiritual counselor.

And if Jackson was a master of anything, it was the bully pulpit. Corporations frequently caved in the face of his aggression, offering money or concessions to Rainbow/PUSH just to shut him up. Zbranek, an elected official and a good Democrat, must have seemed equally approachable.

Jackson started politely enough, with a letter to Zbranek in March 1999: "If Mr. Briggs is guilty of any civil wrong and or crime, then he and not his family should answer," Jackson wrote, appealing to the "moral and humanitarian equitable character of the court."

But Zbranek would not be swayed. "I'll let him out as soon as he produces the documents," he told the Beaumont Enterprise.

Ira Briggs died April 1. Her husband again petitioned the judge, this time to attend the funeral. Zbranek wrote back the same day, with a terse one-line note: "Dear Mr. Briggs, The keys are in your pocket."

Jackson tried again. "Surely in a town named Liberty, there must be some quarter given for compassion, even in the exacting domain of the law," he wrote to Zbranek. "This may end up being one of the most momentous decisions you are called to make."

When Zbranek refused, Jackson flexed his public relations muscle. There was a press conference on the steps of the Liberty County Courthouse and a call for then-governor George W. Bush to intervene. Jackson's right-hand man, Leonard Mungo, cornered every microphone he could find, even calling Zbranek a "tool of the devil." (Mungo did not return repeated calls for comment, nor did the Rainbow/PUSH Houston office.)

Mungo asked Humphrey to drop the suit against Briggs. In exchange, she says, he offered to help with the land claim. But Humphrey was not moved. "Common sense would tell you, all they'd do is get Briggs out of jail and that would be the end of it," she sniffs.

And if the TV cameras rattled Zbranek, he certainly didn't show it. "Did you see where the lawyer for Jesse Jackson said I was an instrument of the devil?" he cackles. Nonplussed, he adds, "My wife agreed with him!"

Briggs listened to the funeral from jail via his sister's cell phone.

After the funeral, Jackson's people departed. (Says Michael Pichinson, an assistant attorney with Liberty County, "They left pretty quickly when they realized all the plaintiffs on the case were also African-American.") The reporters stopped calling.

But Briggs's daughter, Whirry, had made a promise to her mother. Ira Briggs's last request, she remembers, was simple: "Look after your dad. Don't forget about him. God may take me -- but don't forget about him."

Whirry was seven months pregnant. She didn't have any connections or money. So she did the only thing she could think of. She wrote to the NAACP, Montel Williams and Oprah Winfrey. Not one wrote back.

As a last resort, she also sent her letter to the ACLU.

When Michael Skaddon got Whirry's letter in the spring of 2000, Briggs had been in jail three years and two months. He'd never been charged with a crime. If he had the bank records, he argued, why would he have chosen to miss his wife's death and burial?

As chair of the ACLU's legal review board, it was Skaddon's job to sort through complaints. And he couldn't believe what he was reading.

"I don't know why Judge Zbranek took this so personally," he says. "Nonproduction of documents happens all the time. People are sanctioned, and then they go ahead with the trial."

Judges do have a wide latitude: A man getting divorced in Pennsylvania, H. Beatty Chadwick, failed to produce $2.5 million his wife claimed he had stashed overseas. He's spent eight years behind bars.

Jail can be a necessary tool, says David Crump, a law professor at the University of Houston. "Most of us obey the law, as well as the order of the court," he says. "But there are a few individuals who say, 'I'm not going to do it.' " In those cases, judges need the threat of jail.

If anything, Crump says, judges might want to use it more. "We think we don't want judges doing something because they're annoyed, but I've seen dispassionate judges let a case run literally to the point where it bankrupts everyone who's come there in good faith." Ordering a defendant to jail becomes a problem, he says, only if that person cannot comply with the judge's order.

Skaddon and his ACLU cohort, David George, were convinced that was true in this case. "If you can't comply, it's illegal," George says of the order for the bank documents. "And if it's clear you're never going to comply, it's also illegal" to keep someone locked up.

So the lawyers filed another motion. Testifying before Zbranek, Briggs explained that he didn't know what had happened to the records. He had no receipts. He explained, vaguely, that he was "in the world" at the time.

Zbranek didn't buy it. "Now, you know, Bill Gates or Nelson Rockefeller or some of those people might forget and not remember what they did with $120,000, but I don't believe Mr. Briggs has forgotten," Zbranek fired back. "And I think he's still evasive."

Stealing $120,000 is a first-degree felony, Zbranek noted. "You know, I was born at night but not last night. You don't get rid of $120,000 and just don't know how it happened. 'I was in the world,' he said. You can't. It's just not credible."

First Zbranek, and then the appeals court, turned the ACLU attorneys down. Then the Texas Supreme Court. So they asked the U.S. District Court in Beaumont to order Briggs's release. The court agreed to hear the case in July 2001, but refused to let Briggs out in the meantime. And even when Briggs stood before Zbranek in 2002 and explained, finally, that he'd destroyed the records years before, the judge said he didn't believe him.

When George first took the case for the ACLU, he was at Baker Botts, a large prestigious Houston firm. But within the year, he and another lawyer started their own firm, and they took Briggs with them.

For the fledgling two-lawyer operation, the pro bono case was a major drain. George estimates that he alone donated some $100,000 of his time.

But it did bring acclaim to Edwards & George. The suite's walls are lined with framed newspaper clips about the case, each carefully matted, each portraying Briggs as an unfortunate victim, a jailed man "never charged with a crime." It was thought to be the longest imprisonment for civil contempt in Texas. ("Judges do get fed up," says Albright, the UT dean. "But five years is pretty outrageous.")

"This was a huge fight, but one that we would never even consider giving up," George says. "This is the reason you become a lawyer."

Richard Baker is flushed. Fair, with light blue eyes and a diminishing ring of blondish hair, he can't help it: When he gets emotional, he turns pink.

The lawyer clutches a sheaf of paper, computer printouts of the same stories that hang so proudly from the walls of Edwards & George. Baker's office is far more modest than George's plush suite; one assistant works in the kitchenette, beyond the industrial carpet and walls decked out in cheap wood paneling.

"This case was not a moneymaker for me," he says. Humphrey and her relatives paid his bill, in part, by hosting chicken dinners and selling raffle tickets. To help, he even sold the tickets out of his office. "People would ask, 'What is this raising money for?' And I'd be honest. I'd say, 'My fees!' "

The idea of Odis Briggs as a poor underdog angers Baker. He disgustedly reads excerpts from the stories: "Judge Zbranek is a 'tool of the devil'? Odis Briggs's 'constitutional rights'? Oh, come on. Come on! That is not what this is about!"

Over the years, Baker says, his efforts to provide reporters with legal opinions and depositions were virtually ignored. "Did they use them? Of course not! They wouldn't have had their story then!"

He proffers Briggs's deposition from the federal case last year. It is Briggs's most graphic explanation of what, exactly, he did with the Lewises' money.

Baker's clients had wondered about big new cars or record company investments, but Briggs's testimony is far more mundane. "I spent it," he said. "I used the money."

"Is it fair to say that you were living pretty high during those years when you had money?" George asked.

Briggs admitted he was. He opened an office in Beaumont. He bought office furniture and a photocopier. He said he'd walk around with $2,000 to $5,000 in his pocket. "I take the kids shopping. I take the wife shopping. I go to nightclubs."

He was a regular at a place called Club Tahiti. "If I see you sitting down having a drink, I send you a drink," he explained. "I never asked your name."

By the end of 1984, ten years before the family sued, he said, not a dime was left of the Lewis family's $120,000 investment.

As for the bank statements, "I never opened them. I just threw them away. I didn't want to be reminded."

He seemed to mourn the loss of cash more than his behavior. Five years after he first went to jail, Baker questioned him on the witness stand. First he asked if Briggs could see the people he'd taken money from in the courtroom. Yes, Briggs said.

"Have you ever once told them that you took their money away from them and they can never have it again?"

"No," Briggs answered.

"Have you ever told them you were sorry?" Baker asked.

"No," Briggs answered.

In April 2002, a federal magistrate agreed to allow Briggs out of jail until the matter could be resolved. Neither Baker nor Liberty County challenged the release. Briggs had to wear an ankle bracelet, and he wasn't allowed to leave Beaumont without the court's permission, even to see his daughter in Stafford.

After four years and eight months, Briggs was thrilled to be free. But it wasn't much of a victory. There was that ankle bracelet, after all, and he could be thrown back in jail at any point. So his lawyers took their case to the legislature.

Inspired by the media coverage of Briggs's plight, state Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, had drafted a bill to limit jail time for civil contempt to 18 months. When George and Skaddon realized it would apply only to new cases, they helped him redraft it.

The bill breezed through the House and Senate. Baker and his clients never even knew it was pending. Neither did Zbranek.

When Governor Rick Perry signed the bill in May 2003, George was relieved. The next day, he filed the motion to let Briggs out.

Zbranek was annoyed. "It's dumb-ass legislation," he says. By then, he'd retired, but his successor, Judge C.T. Hight, also was unimpressed. Hight thought the new law was unconstitutional because it usurped judges' powers, but he said he'd wait for a decision from federal court. (Hight did not return calls for comment.)

The federal court took a look, then kicked it back to Hight for his ruling. In November, Hight announced he would conduct a hearing.

George told Briggs to bring extra clothes. "We thought they were going to put him back in jail," George says.

Hight asked some basic questions. Did Briggs have the records? No, he said. What had he done with them? Destroyed them, he said.

Then the judge announced that Briggs was free to go. It was no reflection on the new law, just his belief, finally, that Briggs was telling the truth.

At first, no one understood. Briggs, in the witness chair, just stared at the judge. "I thought I was hearing something that wasn't true," he says.

George wondered if it was a trick. "You could have knocked me over with a feather," Skaddon said.

After four years and eight months in jail, then another 18 months of house arrest, Odis Briggs was free.

"It ended not with a bang, but a whisper," George admits.

Briggs is now 65 years old. He gets a small pension from social security. He keeps expenses low by living with his sister.

He doesn't look like the smooth talker who charmed the Lewis family out of their savings, or even someone who could push a judge over the edge. He's soft-spoken, almost reserved in his dark green suit. His only concession to panache is his shoes -- dark green wingtips that match the suit almost too perfectly.

He wears his victim status comfortably. He has a longtime prisoner's extensive legal vocabulary, and he tosses off catchphrases like "constitutional rights" and "due process" easily.

It's harder to get him talking about the Lewises.

He insists he never meant to hurt them. He agreed to work on their claim out of a sense of "community": They were black and he was black. It wasn't about the money -- "There was no money then," he protests. He says he worked on the claim two years, and made some progress. He found old tax records showing the family had once lived on the land, he says, and other documents that he couldn't understand, but that looked promising.

His only crime, he says, was spending the money designated for Craig Washington. "My intentions was good. I had integrity. It just didn't end up happening."

In the late '80s, he says, he found God. He has a hard time explaining why he kept stalling and stringing along the family for years after that. Or why he didn't apologize. "At the time we was all in litigation," he explains. "I had been advised not even to contact them."

Nor does he have a simple answer for why he doesn't apologize today. So he begins to apologize. "I don't know if this is the appropriate time to go into this now," he says a bit nervously, but then catches his stride. "To those whose lives were affected directly or indirectly, I admit and accept full responsibility for any improper behavior…I know that being sorry is not enough, but that's all I can offer. I deeply regret that I have filled you with so much hardship and grief."

For a moment, it's easy to understand how the descendants of Henry Lewis believed his protestations for so long. He says the right things, eloquently, and he sounds sincere.

Then he gets started on his legal case. He is angry at George W. Bush, because when Jackson's people called him, Bush did nothing. "I asked for help, but no one came to my aid," he says. "The only option I had was the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition."

He shrugs off the work of the ACLU. That came later, he says. He's talking about the months where his wife died. "I'd been married 37-plus years, and I couldn't even attend her funeral," he says. "I'm appealing to John Ashcroft. I want him to investigate the Liberty County courts. The corruption, law practice, conspiracy, malfeasance, practice of buddy-buddy kinfolk. Many other people have experienced this in Liberty County."

He's getting fired up. "I'm not angry with no one at this stage, but I was very mad when I was in jail…I lost my job, my health insurance, my life insurance, I lost my wife, I lost everything. It was a gross miscarriage of justice." He has more to say, but it all starts to sound the same. He even suggests a headline for this story: "Justice Denied." "Because my justice was denied," he says. He says nothing about justice for the Lewis family.

He calls back an hour later. He's been thinking about his apology, and he has a question. "My incarceration was illegal," he says. "Who's going to apologize to me?"


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