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 Westword with a copy of the signed contract.)
"Unfortunately, once we had that agreement in writing, we turned down a lot of other offers," Fiorno says. "I even called him as the first weekend was coming up and said, 'You know, John, we're turning down other jobs. Are you sure this is going to happen?' And he went, 'I'm going to uphold my end of the contract, and I expect you to uphold yours.' I said, 'John, that sounds good to me.'"
But when Voodoo Child showed up at 255 South Broadway with all of its equipment on November 16, the building was locked and dark. Fiorno hasn't heard from O'Brien since. "We feel pretty screwed," he says. "We lost income because of that asshole."
O'Brien failed to appear in court to answer Voodoo Child's claims, and a default judgment was issued in the band's favor on January 22. At that time, a warrant was out for O'Brien's arrest for failure to appear in the Ready Man labor service lawsuit. O'Brien was taken into custody on that warrant on February 21. He posted a $500 bond and was released the next day after agreeing to pay Ready Man $1,000 in $100 monthly installments, starting on April 1 (April Fool's Day).
That arrest wasn't O'Brien's first in the Denver area.
On March 4, 2000, at about 6:20 p.m., according to a police report, "O'Brien was yelling obscenities in Concourse A, gate 32 at Denver International Airport. Passengers boarding the aircraft told police they were frightened to get on the plane with Mr. O'Brien, who was intoxicated, swaying, and had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath." The report describes O'Brien as "belligerent with officers and combative when advised he was going to detox. His girlfriend tried to get Mr. O'Brien to stop, but he threatened to 'kick her ass.'"
O'Brien was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace and threatening to injure another person. He eventually pleaded guilty and paid a $75 fine.
Six months after the airport incident, O'Brien was arrested for drunk driving after an Aurora Police Department officer observed his black Geo Metro weaving across lanes on I-225 at 2:25 in the morning.
Several of O'Brien's ex-employees -- whose wish for revenge is motivated by the six weeks of back pay they say the burger baron owes them -- accuse him of regularly driving drunk. They say he would often pound six or seven drinks and then joyride through the warehouse district in Billy Bob's Big Ass Bus, an out-of-service RTD vehicle O'Brien purchased last year that is now painted black with side murals showing big asses drooping over bar stools.
Colorado records show that O'Brien does not have a valid commercial driver's license, which would be required to legally drive a bus, sober or not.
In the Aurora drunk-driving case, following more than a year of missed court dates that resulted in another warrant for his arrest, O'Brien finally showed up, pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a $434 fine and sentenced to 180 days in jail. That sentence was then suspended, meaning O'Brien won't have to go to jail as long as he successfully completes twelve months of supervised probation, which started last December 18.
For O'Brien, staying out of trouble for a year may prove to be an insurmountable challenge.
He is a wanted man in California, where he has four outstanding warrants in the County of Riverside, dating back to 1994, for probation violations related to convictions for writing bad checks, harassment and driving under the influence.
And on January 16, a Denver undercover cop arrested him for selling alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person at Billy Bob's. O'Brien is scheduled to go to trial on that charge on May 7.
O'Brien's ex-employees say serving booze to drunks was routine at Billy Bob's. They remember in particularly vivid detail the night of last November 19, when they say a regular named Sporter put his car in the Platte River.
"Sporter had been there for hours, and he was pretty hammered, and he started hitting on [one of the waitresses], and she turned him down. He got all pissed off and went out in the parking lot and backed up his car into a vat of grease," says one ex-employee. "Well, that grease sloshed over the edge and coated his rear axle. And Sporter either didn't see that or didn't care, because he punched the gas trying to burn rubber out of there, and instead he spun out and went across the road and slid down the hill into the river."
A police report from that night shows that a green 1993 Nissan registered to Sporter David Wray was found on the bike path adjacent to the Platte River. According to the witness reports: "after losing control of the vehicle and sliding down the slope, the driver fled, failing to give required information."
Billy Bob's Riverfront Saloon closed a few days later, and O'Brien has kept a low profile ever since. One hint of his whereabouts is a hand-lettered sign outside the Red Coach Inn on West Colfax Avenue, in Lakewood. It depicts a peace symbol, a flower and the words "Billy Bob's Big Burgers," with several slabs of duct tape placed over the "Ass."
"It used to say the whole thing, 'Big Ass Burgers,' but then someone complained to the city, and they made us tape over the 'Ass' part," explains Cookie, the Red Coach Inn's bartender.
Asked if she knows Big John, Cookie says, "Oh, yeah. We've been trying to get him to come into business with us since last October. He's supposed to be out here right now, but he said he had some personal problems he needed to clear up first. But it'll happen, because John's not a stand-still guy. He's got a real bubbly personality. You know the type: He's what you call a real go-getter."
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