EMIRE House Founder Brian Brigham says he is doing nothing illegal, shouldn't be judged by his past
Update (Feb. 6, 2013): A follow-up to this story was published on Feb. 6: Gaps revealed in sex offender info, youth safety policies
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A new organization and its leader, a registered sex offender and felon convicted on three fraud charges, are raising notes of concern for one local organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
Brian Brigham, president, founder and COO of “Envy My Illumination and Realize Excellence” House (EMIRE House) said he wants to help young adults without support systems successfully create and navigate lives free from drugs, alcohol and crime. He has already helped two young people, though he declined to identify them.
“Those two [young people] there in combination with my beliefs about helping people and paying my tithes and paying back…I couldn’t stop what I was doing,” Brigham said. “It was time. It was time to start [EMIRE House].”
Rodney Tucker, executive director of Time Out Youth, an organization established in 1991 that provides support and other services to LGBT youth ages 11-20, said he spoke with Brigham on the phone on Jan. 17 and that Brigham visited Tucker’s offices without invitation on Jan. 18.
Tucker said his conversations with Brigham were “awkward” and noted that Brigham’s “tone and word choices raised flags” with him.
“He didn’t really have a solid plan about how his non-profit was working but he was already working with several clients,” Tucker said. “He had two kids [and] he liked to tell their stories; one he had already given a house. He said he helped get them off the streets, get them medication and get them jobs.”
Time Out Youth Programs Director Laurie Pitts also said she was concerned about Brigham’s outreach efforts via online classifieds websites like Craiglist.com and Backpage.com, sometimes used by those seeking sexual encounters. She said Brigham told her and other staff that “he tried to get guys to talk to him and let him help them just by talking to them, but that didn’t work and so he figured if what they wanted was to get paid, he would solicit them and pay them.”
Brigham shared his online outreach strategy with qnotes during an interview on Jan. 21.
“Craigslist and Backpage has been the best help in the world,” Brigham said. “I’ll go on there and find some cute young boys advertising for massages with a happy ending for a little help, as if you don’t know what a happy ending is. I will go, I will rent them, take them to dinner and talk to them for two hours and that’s it. Some of them I end up helping, some of them don’t want to hear it.”
Tucker’s and Pitts’ initial doubts about Brigham might be well-founded.
Federal court documents obtained through PACER show that Brigham was indicted for and pleaded guilty in a Charleston, S.C., U.S. District Court in April 1999 to two counts of interstate communications enticing a 13-year-old male and 16-year-old male into an illegal sexual act. He also pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography. He was sentenced to 108 months in prison for the first two charges and 60 months for the third. He was released from prison in 2006 and placed on three years of supervised federal parole, which he violated in 2008, serving an additional 11 months in jail.
Additionally, Brigham pleaded guilty in May 2010 in Union County, N.C., to three counts of felony obtaining property by false pretenses and was sentenced to supervised state probation for 60 months.
Brigham said he shouldn’t be judged by his past.
“My past is my past,” he said. “I’m not proud of my past. I’m not proud of what has happened and what hasn’t happened. We are not the sum total of our past. We are what our present is, period.”
Other individuals who have found themselves in the same circumstances have been given second chances; EMIRE House, he said, is his.
“You have doctors and attorneys who have done this or that, you have priests who have done some horrible things, but again are given more chances and given more opportunities,” he said. “This was one indiscretion in my life. I was 26 at the time when it happened. I’m 44 now.”
Brigham explains past convictions
During his interview on Jan. 21, Brigham did not voluntarily mention his status as a registered sex offender until asked directly. When this writer broached the topic, Brigham did not deny his status but was less than forthcoming on several past legal problems until directly asked about them as well.
Brigham said the sex crime happened during his 20s while he was addicted to cocaine and said he met an underage male youth at a bar where Brigham worked. The youth lied about his age, Brigham said. Though he did not have sex with the minor, Brigham said he and the teenage boy, who Brigham said was 16 years old, and the boy’s friend, 15 years old, did communicate through email.
The federal indictment to which Brigham pleaded guilty documents two victims, a 13-year-old male and 16-year-old male. The federal indictment also shows Brigham was convicted for possessing child pornography. When asked about that conviction, Brigham explained that he mistakenly downloaded the illegal images from file-transfer services while he was seeking legal pornography.
“We didn’t have what you have nowadays on computers; we had FTP sites,” Brigham said of the file-sharing services. “You could trade pictures. I must have had, honestly, probably a hundred thousand pictures on my computer and they found four or six that were underage.”
The indictment notes that illegal images were found on sets of two ZIP discs and 12 floppy discs in Brigham’s possession, not on the hard drive of Brigham’s computer.
Other federal court documents and a criminal background check show Brigham had other run-ins with the law after his 2006 release from federal prison.
In 2008, Brigham was arrested on a parole violation after he faced several charges, including hit and run, property damage, driving while impaired and reckless driving. The federal court said he also traveled out of jurisdiction without authorization.
At the time, an order for his detention, which resulted in Brigham spending an additional 11 months in jail from September 2008 through August 2009, noted that when Brigham was arrested he “possessed a gun, and possessed a computer — used to commit underlying child sex offenses” and that he was “arrested with young teenage boys.”
Brigham challenged the accuracy of the order and said said he hadn’t owned a registered gun since 1998. At the time of his arrest, he said he was in the company of a 19-year-old man and the late-teenager’s girlfriend.
“They stopped by to see me because I was working on their computer,” he said. “I had no gun. If that would have been true they would have immediately locked me up and kept me there for a long time because I was a convicted felon with a gun. So, there can’t possibly by any truth there.”
In addition to the 11 months he served in county jail, Brigham’s 2008 parole violation resulted in 24 months of federal probation, 18 months of which included electronically- and GPS-monitored supervision.
Court records obtained from the Union County Courthouse on Jan. 30 also show Brigham pleaded guilty in May 2010 to three counts of felony obtaining property by false pretenses after Brigham received payment in June 2007 and August 2007 to build fences for three clients. The fences were never completed. Brigham was placed on supervised state probation for 60 months, ordered to repay $10,180 in restitution and court fees and prohibited from engaging in a home repair or carpentry business until all restitution is repaid. Brigham told qnotes he is currently making final payments on the restitution.
On March 12, 2011, just five months until his federal probation was to end, Brigham was arrested in Mecklenburg County for failing to register as a sex offender. He said he never received the certified letter where he had been living informing him that he was required to update his registration information.
qnotes has been investigating this story since Jan. 17 and on Feb. 1 filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., for access to other court documents including an original affidavit filed by an FBI investigator in March 1998.
Not aware of offender restrictions
Brigham’s organizing efforts and the discovery of his status as a registered sex offender have raised several questions. In particular, Brigham’s recent presence at Time Out Youth’s offices might violate state law, which prohibits some registered sex offenders to visit some locations frequented by minors. Specifically, offenders convicted of rape or other sexual contact with minors or any offense where a victim was under the age of 16 years old, are prohibited from being on the premises of any place where social, recreational or educational activities for minors are regularly scheduled.
Brigham said he wasn’t aware certain sex offender restrictions applied to him after being released from parole.
“I didn’t know,” Brigham said. “From what I understand…[and] everything I was taught was while you are on probation. I don’t go to places like that except that one time to meet [Time Out Youth Executive Director Rodney Tucker].”
He added, “I went there to meet Rodney during the day and I deliberately went during the day because most people are in school. I honestly had no idea. I went there to meet Rodney because he called me. It was my first time there.”
The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, which maintains the local sex offender registry on behalf of the state, said it didn’t have access to court documents in order to determine if Brigham was necessarily barred from being at Time Out Youth’s offices and was requesting more information about Brigham from the court.
Brigham’s presence on Facebook using a pseudonym, “Christopher Marx,” might also violate state law, which prohibits all registered sex offenders from creating or maintaining accounts on social networking websites.
Brigham initially said he understood the state law on social networking profiles and said he didn’t have a Facebook account. When asked specifically about the “Christopher Marx” profile, Brigham said it was a pseudonymous account named after a pen name he once used. Marx is Brigham’s middle name.
“That is a pseudonym that was used to create the page just for the GoFundMe thing,” Brigham explained, noting a separate online service with which he is raising funds for EMIRE House. “If you go to GoFundMe, it goes to there and whole bunch of others ones I don’t understand. I just signed up for Twitter.”
He later said he thought such restrictions on online social networking, like his presence at certain youth-oriented places, applied only during probation or parole.
“I’ve never had a need for a Facebook page as far as I have been concerned,” Brigham said. “I don’t even know how to go in and check it. … I have no idea [who created it]. I’m trying to remember.”
According to the timeline on the “Christopher Marx” Facebook profile, the account was created in September 2011, just one month after Brigham was released from federal probation after his 2008 parole violation.
The “Christopher Marx” profile had been deleted from Facebook several hours after Brigham’s Jan. 21 interview withqnotes.
Brigham: I am different
Brigham said he is different than many of the other sex offenders he met in rehabilitative programs.
“I wasn’t hiding behind a door and I didn’t want to hide behind a door,” he said. “…I also won’t entertain the thought that that is who I am. I don’t hide…The ones that stay in and hide…those are the ones you have to worry about because those are the ones who truly have something to hide.”
Brigham is also adamant that he is doing nothing illegal, stressing that his organization seeks to work with legal adults ages 18 and over. He said the the public has no need to worry about his behavior.
“I did my time and I excelled in there,” he said. “I have been out and not had another infraction even leaning towards that.”
Regardless, Time Out Youth staffer Laurie Pitts called Brigham’s actions “brazen” and said she felt it was important for the community to know.
The young adults with whom Brigham wants to work might be legal, she said, but, “a lot of times are still really vulnerable, particularly to members of the community who are older and more experienced.”
Brigham’s EMIRE House is in its early stages of growth. It is registered as a non-profit corporation with the North Carolina Secretary of State, but Brigham said he is still in the process of applying for 501(c)3 non-profit status through the IRS. Brigham also said he has had problems raising awareness and funds. Though he is working full-time on the project, he said he has raised only $300 so far. He said he has placed donation boxes in several businesses in the Plaza Midwood area and that 25 percent of funds raised from a tattoo art contest during the upcoming Ink Fest Tattoo Expo in March will support EMIRE House.