Broken Trust

He was supposed to help fragile clients rebuild their lives. Instead, they claim, he inflicted fresh wounds.
Illustration by Joseph Daniel Fiedler

In the days leading up to the weekend of Feb. 2, 2007, a secretary at the University of Michigan’s Med Rehab Adult Day Treatment Program in Ann Arbor called up the center’s recycling contractor and asked for an extra bin for social worker Thomas Higgins, who, at age 67, had made a spontaneous decision to retire.

After 15 years of trying to help people rebuild lives shattered by debilitating brain injuries, Higgins had a lot of private files to clean out. Sometime over the weekend, he arrived at the rehab center near Briarwood Mall and began excising his clients, one life at a time. He deleted e-mail folders and other online files, but most of the patients’ records — and their secrets — were in two shoulder-high, four-door cabinets in Higgins’ unadorned office, which Higgins emptied into the blue recycling bin specially designed to secure private medical records until shredding. On Monday morning, recycling workers picked up the bin, fed the files through a portable shredder in the parking lot, and hauled away the ribbons.

It wasn’t until later that week that the full weight of Higgins’ seeming act of professional due-diligence became clear. The thrice-married father of five adult children hadn’t randomly picked February 2007 as the best time to retire and empty his office. Higgins, in fact, was feeling a noose tighten.

Over the previous three years, Higgins had been selecting from among his brain-damaged clients women who had also been victims of sexual abuse. Then, according to allegations contained in court filings, Higgins used his role as a therapist, his professions of Christian faith, and a knack for ferreting out vulnerable pressure points to manipulate at least three of the women into sexual liaisons, including re-enacting their past abuse, in his office, in a university van, in his car, and in the women’s homes.

So when Higgins put in for retirement that winter, he wasn’t planning to ride off gently into his golden years. He was running.

In the more than two years since Higgins shredded his files, much has changed in his life and in the lives of the women he targeted.

Higgins, now 69, is incarcerated in the West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon Heights after pleading guilty in Washtenaw County Circuit Court to 11 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mental-health professional, and one count of assault with intent of sexual penetration.

None of those charges include first-degree criminal sexual conduct (rape), which was the original charge and what at least three of the victims claim he did. Rape in Michigan carries a potential life sentence. Under the plea bargain, Higgins could be released as early as March 2010, or held until March of 2018.

When Higgins entered his guilty plea in January 2008, The Ann Arbor News reported that the deal brought “slight smiles and sighs of relief from some of the victims.” But they weren’t happy. In pleading guilty, Higgins admitted only to fondling three female patients, acts that his defenders sought to categorize as aberrations in a life devoted to serving others.

“Did I get justice? No. I don’t think two years [the minimum sentence] is enough,” Caryn O’Connor says. “I don’t think I should get longer than he does,” alluding to her ongoing emotional trauma.

O’Connor and three other women who say Higgins abused them (the fourth was not part of the criminal case) have filed civil lawsuits against Higgins, alleging, among other things, that he abused his position as a case worker, lied about his credentials as a sex therapist, and took advantage of his clients’ diminished mental capacity. They also have sued U-M Health System, arguing that Higgins’ bosses failed to properly monitor his behavior despite such red flags as his moving some sessions with the women off the system’s books, and let him maintain a hostile environment in violation of Michigan civil rights laws.

U-M Health System officials declined to be interviewed for this story; in court filings they say, in essence, that whatever Higgins did he did on his own, and the Traumatic Brain Injury Program in which the women were enrolled, and the rehab center where Higgins worked, weren’t responsible. One of the victims has reached an out-of-court settlement.

If it hadn’t been for O’Connor, Higgins might never have been caught.

O’Connor says she was first raped at age 13 when she became separated from friends at a downtown Detroit concert. All she remembers are blue eyes, a knife, the man pinning her against something. She was too shaken and confused to remember much more, or to tell anyone until she confided it a few years later to her first serious boyfriend.

Years later, when O’Connor was living at Detroit’s Riverfront apartments and working her way up the ladder at Ford Motor Co., a neighbor knocked on the door and she invited him in. That visit ended in rape, which she never reported, she says, adding that she carries a heavy sense of guilt because the man later raped another neighbor.

The aggregate effect of those experiences was crushing. O’Connor continued to function. She took a leave from Ford to complete an MBA at Columbia University, started her own online company that never really took off, then landed a job as vice president for finance at the Ann Arbor-based Busch’s grocery chain. But in June 2005, a few weeks after she started work there, O’Connor was involved in a bizarre freeway incident that left her brain-damaged and without memory of what happened.

The best O’Connor and her doctors can reconstruct is that something — maybe a truck tire — flew at her car as she was driving to Busch’s Ann Arbor office from her Whitmore Lake home. O’Connor slammed on the brakes, missing the object but snapping her head around violently inside the car and against the steering wheel. The next detail O’Connor remembers is being confused and at work. It would be days before the internal bruising seeped to the skin, and before doctors realized that she had suffered a serious brain injury.

 

As part of her recovery, O’Connor landed at U-M’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program, and in February 2006 was assigned a case worker — Higgins, blue-eyed with graying sand-colored hair and a thin build, about 185 pounds stretched over a 6-foot, 2-inch frame.

Higgins grew up in Kansas City, the oldest of three children born to a lawyer. As an adult, he worked a series of jobs, including real-estate development and retail-sales management, before settling on social work. He earned a master’s in psychology from U-M in 1973, then returned for another master’s in social work in 1991, after which he joined U-M Health System.

According to a pre-sentence report prepared by his defense team, Higgins has had little contact with his own children from his first two marriages, but had a strong relationship with his stepchildren by his third — and current — marriage to Jane Hope, a high-school art teacher and mother of two, whom he married in 1977. Higgins had the usual father’s involvement in coaching youth sports, considered himself a deeply faithful and practicing Christian, and was active in the Community Bible Church, including co-teaching a marriage course with his wife.

Since his arrest, Higgins has remained tight-lipped. “I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done,” he said softly at his sentencing in March 2008. “And I’m ready to accept my punishment.”

The sentencing judge, Melinda Morris, honored the deal between the prosecutor and Higgins’ lawyer, but she didn’t seem happy.

“What’s particularly troubling to this court is all those qualities that you had, that made you supposedly an upstanding citizen, gave you the ammunition and the tools to commit these crimes,” Morris said. “You used all the qualities that you had, and all the advantages you had, and all the tools you had, and made the decision to exploit three brain-injured, vulnerable victims.”

Bringing Higgins to justice was no easy matter.

Two of his victims — O’Connor and Lisa Ghigliazza of Flat Rock, who has settled her claim — agreed to be identified, believing that talking about the ordeal publicly might encourage other possible victims to come forward (a fifth woman has contacted attorney Steve Goethel, and at deadline he was still verifying her allegations). All four women have endured deep personal traumas, from incest to rape to debilitating brain injuries, and have suffered from depression — including suicide attempts.

Ghigliazza, an observant Christian, says she lost her faith when she realized the man she thought God had sent to love and protect her was just another in a series of abusive men, beginning when she was 8.

“It’s been a very slow climb back to my faith,” Ghigliazza says. “This is a trauma that you just don’t get over … I see a therapist, which is difficult to do because I don’t trust the therapist, so I don’t make much progress.”

Higgins maintained overlapping relationships with O’Connor and Ghigliazza, but broke off with Ghigliazza in late 2006, after he had convinced her that he was going to divorce his wife and move with her to the desert Southwest. He told Ghigliazza that maybe he had “made a mistake and that maybe God did not want us to be together.”

In reality, O’Connor was piecing together the pieces of Higgins’ behavior, and Higgins was trying to distance himself from his victims, all of whom he had lured using the same pattern, court allegations say.

O’Connor and Ghigliazza, in interviews and legal depositions, said that in the first month of their sessions Higgins asked them repeatedly about past abuse, saying that he had to know their entire personal histories to help them regain basic life-organizing skills. Both women slowly opened up to him.

O’Connor told Higgins about the Detroit concert and the man with the knife. She told him about the neighbor. Good news, he told her. He was a trained sex therapist, and he could help her.

By late March, O’Connor was deeply depressed, overwhelmed by the present and memories of the past. She was still disoriented from the brain injury, which had cost her the job with Busch, was on the verge of losing her house, and now was flooded with memories of rape. One day, she blew off her appointment with Higgins, but spoke to him four or five times that day by phone, telling him that she had pills and wine and was feeling suicidal. “I don’t think he believed me,” O’Connor said in the deposition. She took the pills and drank two bottles of wine and called her father, who called an ambulance.

After O’Connor recovered, she asked Higgins why he hadn’t helped her, and why he hadn’t visited her in the hospital. He told her about an ex-wife who had tried to commit suicide as a ruse, and apologized for not believing O’Connor.

Higgins used the episode to move closer to O’Connor. He told her that he was the only one she could trust. He urged her to tell no one about their therapy sessions, neither to confide in her family, nor to trust his colleague, Dr. Ned Kirsch, who was also treating her for the effects of the brain trauma.

As Higgins led O’Connor to seal off the other parts of her life, she warmed to the social worker and, in June, confessed in a therapy session that she was developing a crush on him — a not-uncommon development for counselors. Instead of maintaining professional distance, O’Connor says Higgins told her “I was the love of his life.” A little while later, as she was leaving the Med Rehab center, she noticed his car behind her. “He was honking, pull over, pull over.” She turned into an apartment complex parking lot. “I got in his car, and then he kind of leaned in and kissed me.”

 

Within weeks, the relationship turned sexual with liaisons in his office, their cars, and her home. Higgins professed his love, said he was leaving his wife, they would be together, and, as her sex therapist, he was helping her to enjoy intimacy, and sex, again. He didn’t mention that he was telling Ghigliazza the same thing.

In October, court papers say, while at her home, Higgins re-enacted the details she’d told him of her alleged neighbor rape, although they never had intercourse. “He said that I would learn to like it, that it could be good with someone you trust.”

Her fear blossomed. “He was never allowed in my house again,” she said. And her doubts grew.

O’Connor confided in a couple of friends and, by November, realized that Higgins had been manipulating her, and was abusing her. She made an anonymous phone call to U-M’s psychiatric hotline, and then to the U-M risk management office, telling them that she had reason to believe that Higgins was having a sexual relationship with one of his clients.

Nothing happened. (She later learned that she had called the wrong risk-management office.) On Jan. 19, 2007, she contacted Ann Arbor police, who listened to her story and referred her to police in Northfield, where she was then living and where the rape re-enactments had taken place. But Ann Arbor police also got in touch with Higgins, calling him on Jan. 24 to tell him they were investigating her complaint.

In a court filing, Goethel says that was when Higgins decided to retire. By then, O’Connor’s life was spiraling out of control. She was binge-drinking, was prosecuted for a past driving-under-the-influence violation, and wound up in the hospital again.

Higgins’ life was also slipping out of control. He had stopped returning Ghigliazza’s calls and e-mails. When she made contact, he told her he was having spiritual doubts about their relationship. He called her in late January to say he was retiring, that another client had accused him of improperly touching her.

Ghigliazza tried to call Higgins a day or two later, but he didn’t return the call. On Feb. 3, she wrote him a letter, a plea for an explanation of why he was ending their relationship, and an apology for leading him “into sin.” By then, U-M officials were investigating O’Connor’s complaint (how they handled that investigation is part of the lawsuit Goethel has filed on the women’s behalf). Higgins’ bosses rejected his retirement request and fired him as investigators sought to recover deleted files from his computer and monitored his incoming mail.

So it wasn’t Higgins who answered Ghigliazza’s despondent letter but a U-M investigator. Still, Ghigliazza believed Higgins’ account that clients and bosses were out to get him. In June, she finally agreed to talk with police investigators and learned that Higgins had had a simultaneous relationship with O’Connor.

“I was very angry,” Ghigliazza said. “I was just very hurt and I became very, very depressed.” But not too depressed to give police a statement and file charges.
Higgins was arrested in June 2007, pleaded guilty the following January, and was sentenced in March 2008. O’Connor, Ghigliazza, and a third victim spoke in open court before Judge Morris sentenced Higgins under the plea deal.

“Before I begin my impact statement, I respectfully submit to this court for official record in this case that the plea bargain to which [Higgins] has agreed to in no way accurately reflects the true nature of the crimes,” Ghigliazza said that afternoon in Washtenaw Circuit Court.

The sharpest measure of Higgins’ role in the women’s lives can be found in O’Connor’s deposition, three months after Higgins was sentenced. U-M’s lawyer asked O’Connor about Higgins’ impact on her.

“He shattered my life,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t leave my house. I don’t like it when people look at me. I feel like I’m a burden because I’m always so sad, who would want to be around me? I don’t smile much anymore. I don’t do anything anymore. I just — I don’t dream. I don’t — I’m not — I’m the living dead.

This isn’t life. It’s just pain.”

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