Despite pleading guilty in a car crash this summer that killed a priest, everything seemed set up for Jeffrey Higgins to avoid going to jail.
The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office, according to Higgins’ attorney, did not ask for a jail sentence.
His attorney, Alex Triantafilou, is a close friend of Prosecutor Joe Deters.
And Deters’ office had allowed Higgins, 51, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge – disregarding a grand jury indictment that charged him with aggravated vehicular homicide, a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence.
On Thursday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, Judge Ethna Cooper said Higgins should face consequences for the “horrible actions” that killed the Rev. Chris Coleman. He was a passenger in Higgins’ Ford Mustang Shelby convertible that day.
“You carelessly showed off your car and killed your friend,” Cooper said. “The senseless joyride, it was totally avoidable. And it changed the lives of countless people – family, friends, and all the people touched by the life of Father Chris.”
Under Cooper’s sentence, Higgins, the CEO of a Clermont County company that makes snack food seasonings, will spend three months in jail.
Once released, he will be on probation for three years. His driver’s license will be suspended for five years, although Cooper said she would allow exceptions so he could drive to work.
If Higgins violates the terms of probation, he would face another 90 days in jail.
During the sentencing, Coleman’s sister and only sibling, Dr. Paula Coleman Black, said for the first time publicly that the family did not support Deters' office's decision to allow a plea to a misdemeanor.
“It was said that Chris’s family was in agreement with the lesser charge,” Black said, referring to a statement from the prosecutor’s office after the plea. “I can assure you that settling for a lesser charge was never blessed by me.”
A spokeswoman for Deters' office said the assistant prosecutor on the case did speak with Black several times before Higgins pleaded guilty and reviewed the plea deal with her.
In court, Black said legitimate questions were raised about whether Higgins was receiving special treatment.
She laid out some of the facts of the crash, which happened the afternoon of July 9 after Higgins peeled out of the Wyoming Golf Club’s parking lot at more than 50 mph on to a residential street.
The 662-horsepower sports car’s throttle was at 99 percent, she said. It likely was still accelerating when Higgins lost control and flipped the car, which landed upside down, partially in a golf course sand trap.
“I don’t understand how it was never challenged that Jeff only had three beers,” Black said. "Why was there no breathalyzer test? Why were findings from the airbag computer not considered?”
Higgins pleaded guilty last month to misdemeanor vehicular homicide, for driving negligently. The maximum penalty is six months in jail.
“It saddens me to feel that because Chris’s family has no real connections in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and because Chris has no spouse and no children – some believe all this can be swept under the rug,” she said. “He is not disposable.”
Higgins and Coleman had been friends and golfing buddies for about four years. Higgins, who is Lutheran, was the DJ at Coleman’s 50th birthday party.
In a statement he read in court, Higgins said knowing that he was responsible for his friend’s death “torments my soul.”
He said the grief felt by Coleman’s family, friends and parishioners “torture(s) my thoughts.”
“I want them to know how sorry I am for their grief and that all this happened,” he said.
After the sentencing, Black said nothing that happened in the courtroom will bring back her brother.
"This is a travesty, it's sad and there are no winners," she said. "Everyone now has to find a new normal. I keep coming back to the fact that no one won."