Paul Stephen Riggins Jr. -- the man Howard County police say is their only suspect in the disappearance of his wife -- admitted in court yesterday that he had a four-year sexual relationship with the family's teen-age baby sitter.
The baby sitter was a key figure in the initial police investigation -- of the disappearance in July 1996 of Nancy Lee Riggins, a supermarket cashier who lived in Elkridge with her husband and daughter.
Four days after she vanished, police persuaded the baby sitter to tape conversations she had with Paul Stephen Riggins, one time using a recorder hidden in her book bag.
The contents of those tapes remained a public mystery yesterday after Riggins pleaded guilty, heading off a trial where the tapes might have been played as evidence of his relationship with the baby sitter.
But the biggest question is what happened to Nancy Riggins, 37.
Police said yesterday that Stephen Riggins, as he is known to friends, is the only suspect in the investigation. This month, for the first time, police labeled the disappearance a "possible homicide."
Howard Goldman, Riggins' attorney, said after court yesterday that his client had nothing to do with Nancy Riggins' disappearance.
The police "have investigated for over a year and turned up nothing," Goldman said.
While investigating the disappearance, police discovered an illicit relationship dating to 1992 between Riggins, 40, and the baby sitter, now 19. He was charged in February.
Guilty plea entered
Yesterday, Riggins nervously tapped his fingers against the defense table in Howard County Circuit Court as he pleaded guilty, in a barely audible voice, before Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. to one count of sexual child abuse.
Prosecutors are recommending he serve 18 months in the local jail and five years of supervised probation.
Riggins, who now lives in Glen Burnie, will be sentenced in November.
Behind him, packed in the court's pews, family and friends of Nancy Riggins fixed their eyes on Riggins during the brief hearing.
Some cried. Others took notes. One embraced the baby sitter, who wept openly when she heard the prosecutor mention her name while reading a statement of facts. The Sun does not disclose the names of victims of sex offenses.
Nancy Riggins' family and her husband have clashed since her disappearance.
Her parents, Robert and Delia Cunningham of Pennsylvania, are engaged in a contentious custody battle over the Riggins' daughter, Amanda, 6.
Before court proceedings began yesterday, Denise Keenan, Nancy Riggins' sister, looked to the back of the courtroom where Stephen Riggins sat, alone, his eyes trained on the floor.
"He won't look at me at all," said Keenan, who traveled from Ohio for the hearing. Then she suddenly yelled "Chicken!" across the courtroom.
Stephen Riggins did not respond.
After the hearing, Riggins and his daughter from a previous marriage stood outside the courtroom.
Nancy Riggins' family, friends and police filed by.
Howard County Police Sgt. Greg Marshall, his arm wrapped around the shoulders of the distraught baby sitter, glared at Stephen Riggins as he walked past him, then looked back at him with a steady gaze.
Riggins' 21-year-old daughter returned a nasty look.
"It's all lies," Riggins was overheard saying outside the courtroom, apparently referring to the sex offense case.
Last seen in July 1996
Nancy Riggins, a cashier at the Burtonsville Giant, was last seen at a Columbia swimming pool the evening of July 1, 1996.
Stephen Riggins told police that when he arrived home about 6 a.m. July 2 from his job as a driver for a trucking company working at Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant in Southwest Baltimore, he found his daughter sleeping and his wife missing, police said.
He did not tell police of her disappearance until July 3.
Almost immediately, police began working with the baby sitter to help solve the riddle of Nancy Riggins' disappearance, having her tape record conversations.
At an earlier hearing, Riggins tried to suppress the tapes, claiming police coerced the teen-ager into helping them with the investigation.
The request was denied.
Yesterday in court, Assistant State's Attorney Eileen McInerney outlined how the relationship between Stephen Riggins and the baby sitter began.
A resident of the Riggins' Elkridge neighborhood, the baby sitter started work for the family in 1992.
Nancy Riggins paid her $1 an hour to watch Amanda. Stephen Riggins paid her $20 each time she baby-sat, regardless of how long she worked, McInerney said.
In September 1992, Stephen Riggins asked the baby sitter to spend the night because he and his wife were going to be out late.
The couple returned home at 10 p.m., so Stephen Riggins and the baby sitter began to watch television while Nancy Riggins slept. They drank beer, and he kissed her, McInerney said.
The baby sitter slept in the guest bedroom.
But Stephen Riggins arranged for her to go into his bedroom after his wife had gone to work. For more than an hour, he tried to talk her into getting into bed with him, said McInerney.
She finally complied, and a relationship started in which the two would have sex one to five times a week, in locations around Howard and Anne Arundel counties, according to court records.
Delia Cunningham, who was wearing a locket with a picture of her daughter "on my heart," and her husband, Robert, criticized the state's recommended sentence.
Said Robert Cunningham: "We want him in jail for life."
Pub Date: 8/26/97