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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske