Clayton News-Star

A lasting legacy and lingering questions after town leader’s untimely death

Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs in a May 2016 photograph during a town meeting.
Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs in a May 2016 photograph during a town meeting. News & Observer file photo

Michael Barber, the mayor of Christiansburg, Va., remembers getting the call around 2:30 in the morning on April 11 – his town manager of 10 months was threatening to kill himself.

By that time, police from two local agencies were at the end of hour three outside the apartment of Steve Biggs, more siege than standoff as they tried to make contact. An hour later they rushed into the apartment after hearing a single gunshot, breaking down the door and finding Biggs, 53, with a self-inflicted wound.

He died the next day.

The death surprised and saddened those in Biggs’ short-lived home in Virginia. But it devastated those in Clayton, the small town on the outskirts of Raleigh that, for more than 19 years, Biggs had led from near-bankruptcy and recession to resurgence. The reports filtering out of Christiansburg sounded nothing like the Biggs they had known – as if, 230 miles from Clayton, he had changed or perhaps, however briefly, become lost and couldn’t find his way back home.

Clayton Town Councilman Butch Lawter took a walk last month through downtown, past the angular, modern police department, the buildings with new awnings and facades, and the town hall converted from two boarded-up school houses. Biggs is credited with much of it, of bringing the town’s focus back to its downtown and molding a vision into an identity.

“You don’t have to go far around Clayton to see Steve’s impact; he’s had a hand in everything,” Lawter said. “It’ll be awhile before people forget the things he’s done to improve this town.”

Biggs grew up in Fayetteville and came up to Raleigh for school, getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at N.C. State. He met his wife, Elissa, at State. After graduation, he went directly into local government work, first in the planning department of Wendell in Wake County and then as the town manager of Aberdeen in Moore County, while he was still in his late 20s.

In 1997, Clayton hired him away to be its new town manager. Then, Clayton was under threat of a takeover by the North Carolina Local Government Commission. Its finances were a mess and its reserves depleted – not from any malfeasance, former councilman Bob Ahlert said, but from a council unwilling at the time to consider tax increases while the first pangs of growth stressed Clayton’s services.

A then 33-year-old Biggs, tall and skinny and without the beard he’d later wear for years, led lean budgets in the beginning to get the town back in the black. He cleaned house in town hall, hiring new heads for nearly every department over two years, many who still hold those top positions. Ahlert, who Biggs once called one of his more demanding elected bosses, said Biggs was gifted at hiring and keeping the wheels of town hall moving.

“Over 18 years working in elected office or appointed positions, I’ve become acquainted with or know a fair number of town managers, and he’s right at the top,” Ahlert said.

A town leader and friend

Raleigh engineer Jamie Guerrero met Biggs as their daughters started playing soccer together more than a decade ago and today calls him his best friend. The two bonded over training for triathlons, something Guerrero said an athletic and competitive Biggs challenged him to do, meeting in the dark early mornings to run around the Clayton High School track and sometimes in the evenings at a neighborhood pool to swim laps.

“Steve could see something in you and bring out something even greater,” Guerrero said. “That’s a rare bird to have someone that’s like that, telling you to face your challenges instead of running away.”

To stamp out an identity, Clayton started thinking of itself as an arts town and set up a public sculpture trail and turned half of the Clayton Center into a theater, putting on concerts and shows. The town bought downtown property to keep buildings from being torn down and paid thousands in grants for businesses and landowners to spruce things up. Today, a wine bar and a brewery bookend a downtown dotted with small shops and restaurants, and a cocktail lounge opened earlier this spring in a space that used to sell insurance.

Under Biggs, the town also built a modern, glassy community center and put trails along the Neuse River. During the recession Clayton bought up several sprawling tracts in the down real estate market, eying them for future parks. For one of those properties, Biggs planned a multimillion-dollar park for 80 acres on the river, with trails and zip lines and a sizable amphitheater, something that might be a signature piece for the town one day.

Things were going well for Clayton in 2016. It had landed a $1.8 billion Novo Nordisk expansion and approved hundreds of new homes around town. But to the surprise of some town officials, Biggs was restless to move on.

A new challenge

Biggs announced his departure from Clayton rather suddenly around this time last year.

“It was one of those jaw-dropping moments, everyone kind of dumbfounded,” Lawter said. “There was no negotiating we could do, no upping his salary. ... His mind was made up.”

The word among some in town hall was that Biggs was out of challenges in Clayton. He said as much in an interview before he left – that during 20 years he had dealt with just about every problem the town was likely to have. He said he was looking for a college town or one that felt the impact of a major hospital.

Christiansburg, with about the same population as Clayton and a hospital larger than Johnston Health, didn’t seem to be a perfect fit for those conditions. But it was close to colleges Virginia Tech and Radford and a similar distance to Roanoke that Clayton is to Raleigh. It lies in the mountainous New River Valley, named for an ancient river that runs backward through hills that from certain heights appear to never end. It’s an outdoorsy region with dense forests that would suit Biggs, who enjoyed hunting and mountain biking.

Barber, the Christiansburg mayor, said Biggs described it as his perfect job – just two years too early from a family standpoint. By this time, he and Elissa had raised three children. Two were out of the house – his son is in the Navy and stationed in the Norfolk area of Virginia and his eldest daughter completed her first year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, about two hours from Christiansburg.

But his youngest daughter, a talented soccer player already committed to Marshall University, had two years left of high school. She and her mom stayed behind while Biggs began his new job in Christiansburg last July.

One reason he was hired was to remake its downtown. The town had suffered the department store exodus that emptied many Main Streets of a certain size a few decades ago. Now it wanted to win some of that back in the era of shop local.

“We wanted to be able to take Christiansburg back to the way it was with independent shops and restaurants downtown. We saw him as a way to start back,” Barber said of Biggs. “Steve left us, in the short period of time he was here, a plan that we can stick to for probably the next five years.”

Biggs had started meeting with landowners and businesses downtown, Barber said, and planned to encourage a trend of renovating the second stories of buildings into apartments and leaving the ground floors for places to shop, eat and drink. There was also a desire to see a brewery downtown, much in the way of Clayton.

Professionally, things were going well for Biggs in Christiansburg. But personally, a concern was developing.

Protective order

Barber knew his incoming town manager needed a place to stay, so he inquired with the son of a landlord friend who had a property downtown, arranging a viewing of one of the first-floor apartments in a four-apartment house just a few blocks from town hall.

Biggs cut a check for the security deposit that same day.

Christiansburg’s Montague Street is an enclave off the town’s Main Street that is close-knit, neighbors said, except for the house where Biggs lived. The four apartments tend to attract short-term renters, neighbors said, with more police calls than the other homes on the otherwise sleepy street. In the past two years, Christiansburg police responded to nine calls concerning the house.

Biggs moved in last summer. Rachel Waltz, 23, who lived in one of the other apartments, said the building tenants welcomed him with a dinner. Over the course of the next few months, though, the living quarters became a point of tension.

In early March, Biggs was served with a five-day emergency protective order by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of Waltz. In her order, signed by a local magistrate, she accused Biggs of inundating her with texts – some demeaning and some affectionate. Sometimes, she wrote, Biggs would text that he loved her, then follow up with a text saying that “no one will love her and that she’s just using him.”

Waltz wrote in the order that she felt Biggs had acted “obsessive” toward her since shortly after they met at the apartments. Things had escalated in February and March, she said.

“The last two weeks he’s been texting me paragraph after paragraph being hateful at all times, including 2, 3, 4 in the morning,” Waltz wrote in her order. “I’m really scared just because of how obsessive he is and I know he owns firearms and might still have a key to my apartment.”

Waltz referenced an incident earlier this year when Biggs changed a broken lock in her apartment. Landlord Rocco Capozzi confirmed that the lock had been changed and that he had authorized it.

Before the five-day emergency order expired, Biggs made a motion to have it dissolved, writing that it had been obtained to discredit him and undermine his professional standing in the community. He said Waltz’s statements were false and misleading, and that she had no reason to believe he had a key.

Two checks

Biggs’ motion was ultimately denied, but it was a moot point because a separate 15-day preliminary protective order sought by Waltz was also denied. A judge found no apparent threat to her safety.

Biggs moved out of the apartment. Capozzi said the reason he gave for leaving was drug activity in the area.

In an interview, Waltz’s portrayal of Biggs softened from the picture painted in her protective order. She called him a “great guy” and said that he seemed to be someone who would do anything for anyone.

She said, though, that over the 10 months she had known him, Biggs had changed. The major change came around Christmas of last year, she said, when she was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. She said Biggs had hired an attorney for her and had given her two $1,000 checks to help her out. She cashed one, but not the other.

Waltz said the two never had a romantic relationship. She said she sought the protective order because she didn’t feel safe and that she thinks the threat wasn’t taken seriously by authorities.

“When I went to court, I told the judge (Steve’s) mental state was not where it needed to be, that I did not think Steve was OK,” Waltz said.

Initially, the situation seemed to resolve itself, Waltz said. She and Biggs hadn’t been in contact for a month and a half until the night of April 10, when she said he texted her roommate that he was going to kill himself.

Her roommate was the one who placed a 911 call to tell police, Waltz said.

In the week before, the Roanoke Times had been looking into a tip about the protective order and had interviewed both Waltz and Biggs. The town manager was interviewed twice the week before and a final time Monday, April 10, according to stories in the Roanoke Times.

‘Dazzled everyone’

Barber, the mayor, said he and the town council were aware of the protective order and had met about it. The matter hadn’t been settled, Barber said, but he said an investigation had been turned over to the Virginia State Police.

“I’m not sure we had gotten to any point, as to I’m aware, that we would have ended his job,” Barber said.

Montgomery County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said her office received the findings of the state police investigation and concluded no charges were appropriate.

“After review of their report I concluded that there was not probable cause to charge Biggs with stalking or any other criminal offense,” Pettitt, the county’s chief prosecutor, said in an email. “The behavior simply did not constitute a crime under Virginia law.”

Barber said that he usually met with Biggs for a few minutes each day. The mayor said that if Biggs was suffering from any personal turmoil, it wasn’t apparent. “In the 10 months he was here, Steve dazzled everyone in town hall,” Barber said. “He was locked on to everything.”

Back in Clayton, those who knew him said Biggs had appeared excited about his job in Christiansburg and its downtown efforts. Lawter, the town council member, said the two would text now and then and catch up by phone once a month.

“We’d talk about family and kids and both starting new jobs,” said Lawter, who himself changed engineering firms last year. He said the last time he spoke to Biggs was at the end of March.

Biggs was active on Twitter, mostly sharing quotes about leadership, talking about the accomplishments of his towns or his daughters, or retweeting goofy animal videos.

But over the past few months, many of his personal posts took on a darker, lonelier tone. In January he appeared upbeat, writing, “Sometimes my stomach rumbles so loud I think my cell phone is vibrating.”

But a month later, he tweeted, “Ya know your circle is too small when the only person you can talk to is the person you need to talk about.” Three days before his death, Biggs retweeted an account called Quotes and Sayings that read, “Its (sic) sad nobody ever knows how much someone is actually hurting. ... Someone right next to you could be completely broken and you wouldn’t know.”

The Biggs family declined to comment for this story.

‘Completely out of character’

Guerrero called the morning of April 11 the worst moment of his life. As reports started coming out of Christiansburg of the circumstances of Biggs’ death, of the protective order and text messages, Guerrero said it was all the more confusing.

“All of this is completely out of character, that’s what we can’t wrap our heads around,” Guerrero said. “It’s totally out of whack and doesn’t make sense. What you read and what you hear is not who he is and is not who he was.”

Guerrero said Biggs was a private person, even among friends, often willing to listen and weigh in on those who asked for his help, but would rarely open up about himself.

“He didn’t wear his problems on his shoulders like some of us do,” Guerrero said. “I really, really wish he would have. Any one of us would have dropped whatever was going on in our lives to help him.”

Biggs was honored in a public memorial service in Clayton last month that drew a few hundred mourners and the entire councils of both grieving towns.

Mayor Jody McLeod spoke about Biggs’ legacy as something greater than wealth or fortune, his vision built with bricks in a surging Southern town with a bright future. McLeod said Biggs gave the town his best years and that what he put in motion will lead to generations happy to claim Clayton as their hometown.

At the memorial, a single white rose sat illuminated by a spotlight in one of the rows. It marked the spot were Biggs kept season tickets in an auditorium he saved from rubble, in a town he brought back from the brink.

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson