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One year later, Odessa millionaire's killing remains an unsolved mystery

ODESSA — An orange car sped out of a wealthy Odessa neighborhood, its muffler growling, the scruffy driver staring straight ahead.

It didn't look right to Lori Dorman, who knows every construction worker, every lawn worker, every delivery person in the neighborhood.

She'd never seen this car before, or its burly, shirtless driver. She had a strange feeling but thought little of it.

Until a couple of days later, when millionaire horse racer Lawrence Higgins was found killed in his garage.

Now Dorman wishes she had chased that car.

With no arrests, no known suspects and no motive, the orange car is one of the few clues authorities have to go on.

Did anyone else see anything?

• • •

For two days, Lawrence Higgins seemed to have vanished.

He wasn't seen at the racetrack wagering or checking his horses. He hadn't visited his blimp business, put in calls to clients or answered the phone. No waves to neighbors, no cruising in his red 2004 Thunderbird convertible.

His garage, almost always open when he was home, was shut tight.

Homicide detectives won't say how he died, other than from trauma to the upper body sometime between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Oct. 8, 2008.

That's about the time Dorman, who cleans horse stalls in the neighborhood, said she saw the suspicious car.

Higgins' body wasn't found until Oct. 10, when an employee from the blimp business went to check on him.

Much of the evidence is still being processed, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Mitch Messer. But based on items left in the home, including cash, the crime doesn't appear to be a robbery gone bad, he said.

Someone did this on purpose.

Detectives released descriptions of the orange car, perhaps a Datsun or Nissan, and a champagne-colored dual-wheel pickup truck with an extended cab another neighbor saw. They now say the orange car could have been green, and they're hoping to find someone who can tell them more.

Higgins' family is offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.

Still, nothing.

• • •

Here's what is known.

A former life insurance lobbyist and Washington lawyer who owned a blimp advertising business, Higgins bought his five-bedroom, 3,574-square-foot Odessa home in 2002. It's about 8 miles from Tampa Bay Downs.

Until his June 2008 divorce, Higgins lived there with his second wife, Susan, and adopted son, Wesley.

Records show Higgins also owned property in Pennsylvania, a 21-foot Boston Whaler, a pickup truck, his Thunderbird and eight or nine horses. His last tax return, filed after his death by his daughter, lists the gross value of his estate at more than $4.5 million.

Higgins' estate was divided among his three grown daughters and his son.

He had business and personal contacts across the country. Detectives have interviewed about 200 people in at least 14 states.

• • •

Jumping to conclusions about a motive is easy, detectives say.

First, there's the gambling, which Higgins wasn't shy about. He boasted of making $1 million one year.

And it wasn't just horses. A neighbor recalled Higgins stepping out of his Super Bowl party once to discuss bets with a bookie.

But he was smart with his cash, and he had plenty of it, said his daughter, Kim Higgins.

And if someone was indebted to him, Kim said she can't imagine it would be serious enough to kill him. Her dad didn't get involved in things like that, she said.

Joe Waunsch, one of Higgins's former horse trainers, spoke to Higgins on the phone the night before he died. Higgins was considering buying a new horse, and there was nothing unusual about the conversation, Waunsch said.

"The one thing that really surprised me was that he said, 'Lemme get back to you,' and it was never more than three hours that he took to get back to me," Waunsch said. "I never heard from him again."

• • •

When he wasn't with his horses or in his private box at the track, Higgins was immersed in his blimp business, Icarus Aircraft.

He started the company in the early 1990s with two of his Washington lobbyist colleagues and law partners, John McGovern and Bill Diefenderfer.

Higgins represented MetLife when the insurance company was unhappy with the company it used for its famous blimp, Diefenderfer said. The three men decided they could do better.

Diefenderfer said Icarus eventually landed big clients like Outback Steakhouse and Liberty Mutual. "Blimp business was good," he said.

As for clues to the killing, Diefenderfer says what everybody says: "I don't know anybody who didn't like him."

Kim Higgins thinks a link between the killing and the blimp business is improbable because nothing had changed in the decades Higgins headed the company. The company was in order, and there were no problems, other than the sluggish economy.

Before Higgins died, Outback officials told him they couldn't renew their contract, Kim said. When she took over the company after her father's death, employees volunteered to stay on with pay cuts.

Icarus' blimps are grounded, she said. She's had to reluctantly let most of the staff go.

"Everybody at the blimp company loved working with him," she said

• • •

Higgins wasn't without personal conflicts. He and his wife of almost 15 years divorced four months before his death. Higgins told his daughter that his wife, Susan, wanted to leave him and move back north. The divorce papers call it irreconcilable.

The divorce settlement gave Susan, 55, more than $900,000 in cash and other assets, including stocks and bonds, some of Higgins's property, a 2007 Dodge Nitro and a house in Schellsburg, Pa.

With Wesley headed for college in Orlando, Higgins was alone.

Kim said her dad told her he tried to work things out with Susan, but wanted a clean break after the divorce was final. Susan continued e-mailing him, telling him she still loved him, his daughter said.

Susan, now Susan Courter, did not return messages. Her divorce attorney, Susan Zwiesler, declined comment.

After the split, Higgins' next-door neighbor Karen Duffey said Higgins seemed sad and withdrawn. He looked like he'd lost 50 pounds.

Duffey and her husband, Phil, didn't see much of Higgins that summer, but remember things slowly began improving for their friendly neighbor.

He'd reconnected with an old girlfriend and was in good spirits. He walked Kim Higgins down the aisle at her Washington wedding the first Saturday of October.

• • •

Although no one has been arrested in the year since the killing, detectives say the case is very active, along with 10 other unsolved homicides from 2008.

Detective Messer, who heads the Higgins case, carefully treads around questions of potential suspects. He's still vague about Higgins' manner of death, saying that only the killer knows certain details. He hopes for more information about the day Higgins was killed and the strange cars.

Is there anyone or anything that can be ruled out?

Messer leans forward in his chair and shakes his head. "I'm not taking anything off the table."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

CORRECTION: This story was changed to reflect the following correction: Wesley Higgins is the adopted son of the late Lawrence Higgins. A story published Sunday incorrectly reported their relationship.

Tips wanted

If you know anything about Lawrence Higgins' death, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office would like to talk to you: (813) 247-8200, or CrimeStoppers at 1-800-873-8477.

One year later, Odessa millionaire's killing remains an unsolved mystery 10/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 11:58am]
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