By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Six-foot-four, 300-pound "Big John" O'Brien cooks up "big ass" burgers. He drives a "big ass" bus. And that's fitting, say his ex-employees, business partners and landlords, because O'Brien -- a legally besieged Denver restaurateur and fugitive from justice -- is truly a big ass.
O'Brien, 49, first began making a name for himself in Denver in June 2000, when he and a partner, William Billings, opened Billy Bob's Riverfront Saloon, a burger shack and bar at the corner of Brighton Boulevard and Artis Court. The place was in a warehouse district north of downtown, just across the street from the Platte River. The following summer, his "Billy Bob's Big Ass Burgers" got a couple of favorable reviews around town, and O'Brien announced expansion plans that included a volleyball court, fire rings and a stage for live bands.
Not even O'Brien's detractors disrespect those quarter-pound Big Ass Burgers.
"What I can't stand is the ton of bullshit he serves on the side," says Billings.
A local auto wholesaler, Billings says he first met O'Brien in early 2000 when O'Brien bought two cars from him on credit. "He never paid me, and after several months of going after him on it, I somehow let him talk me into rolling over his debt on the car into this restaurant he was opening up there. Then I was stupid enough to give him $3,000 in hard cash for the place. I don't know how I let him talk me into it. He's a real sell-ice-to-the-Eskimos kinda guy, I guess."
Billings says his relationship with O'Brien soured beyond redemption after he discovered that O'Brien was lying to him about the restaurant's lease. "He told me we were paying $3,000 a month, and I come to find out it was only $715. Anytime his lips move, you know he's lying. He can't even tell the truth about how he got the name for his burgers."
Last year, O'Brien publicly claimed that he "saw a furniture ad one day, something about a 'Big Ass Furniture Sale,' and I thought it would be the perfect name for a burger" ("The Next Big Thing," August 2, 2001).
"That's a goddamn lie!" fumes Billings. "I'm Billy Bob, and those are my burgers. His name's not Bill; I'm Bill. That piece of puke stole my idea."
O'Brien couldn't be reached for comment for this article. The four most recent telephone numbers he has provided to police and court officials have all been disconnected. Letters mailed to the fifteen addresses he has used since 1997 were all either returned "address unknown" or went unanswered, as did a note left for O'Brien at a Lakewood restaurant that recently began advertising "the grand return of Billy Bob's Big Ass Burgers."
Billy Bob's Riverfront Saloon was shuttered in late January, shortly after the owners of the building and property filed a lawsuit against O'Brien for non-payment of rent and posted an eviction notice on the door.
That suit was one of six filed against O'Brien last year.
In January of 2001, the owner of a three-bedroom townhome that O'Brien had rented in Denver sued him for unpaid rent, eventually collecting $1,800. Three months later, a man who said he'd sold O'Brien a 1992 Toyota Tercel on a handshake sued for $2,100, claiming O'Brien had shorted him. O'Brien promptly paid up. Then last September, Ready Men Labor Inc., a Denver temporary labor service, filed suit against O'Brien for $1,027, claiming he never paid for laborers the service had supplied him.
"I remember him saying he was going to stop paying for labor because he could just get homeless guys to work all day for him for a bucket of cheap beer," says one ex-Billy Bob's employee, who asked not to be identified. "He had these two homeless guys, Bones and Ernie, living in a storage shed in the parking lot, and all day they'd be sittin' there peeling potatoes."
Billings confirms this. "Every day he'd go a couple of streets over to the homeless shelter and round up a bunch of guys, bring 'em back, get 'em drunk and set 'em working in the kitchen, no gloves or anything. I was like, 'Uh, John, have any of these people been tested for hepatitis?' He'd just laugh."
O'Brien also was sued last year by Billings and the local blues band Voodoo Child. Billings was recently issued a judgment in his favor for $5,000 after O'Brien failed to appear in court. "I totally expect never to get paid," he says.
Voodoo Child drummer Robert Fiorno is equally pessimistic about his band's chances of recovering the $3,600 O'Brien allegedly owes them for unpaid bookings.
O'Brien first hired the band to play at Billy Bob's on October 12 and 13 of last year, Fiorno says. They played, and he paid them $300 per night. But when they played again the next weekend, O'Brien wasn't around at the end of the evening to pay up. Fiorno went back to the saloon on Sunday morning, and O'Brien said he'd pay the band as soon as a big check he was expecting arrived; he said it must have been delayed because of the anthrax scare. He also said he liked the band so much he wanted it to be the house band at a new joint he was opening up -- Billy's on Broadway. Fiorno drew up a contract, and O'Brien signed it, agreeing to pay Voodoo Child $600 per weekend for five weekends, plus the $600 already owed them. (Fiorno provided Westwordwith a copy of the signed contract.)