Missing woman's spouse to go free Still a suspect in case, husband was jailed for affair with teen sitter

December 08, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Robert Cunningham becomes speechless when he thinks about the emotions he will have to confront today.

The day before the 40th birthday of his missing daughter, Nancy Riggins, her husband, Paul Stephen Riggins Jr. -- the only suspect in her mysterious disappearance -- will be released from jail after serving a year for sexually abusing the couple's teen-age baby sitter.

"It's a chilling irony," said Cunningham of New Castle, Pa. "I can't even put into English the words of hurt."

Accompanied by dozens of Nancy Riggins' co-workers and friends, Cunningham and his wife, Delia, plan to visit a memorial park near the Rigginses' Elkridge home to honor her tomorrow evening.

The Cunninghams had hoped to be at the Howard County Detention Center today for Riggins' release -- "I want to be the first face he sees when he comes out," Robert Cunningham said in a recent telephone interview.

But the couple, who learned late yesterday of the release -- originally expected tomorrow -- said they didn't feel comfortable making the long drive at night.

"We just can't believe he's getting out the day [before] our daughter was supposed to be celebrating," Delia Cunningham said. "We keep hoping and praying and thinking that every time the phone rings, maybe they found her. We try to keep ourselves focused on Nancy."

Nancy Riggins, a cashier for 10 years at the Giant Food store in the Burtonsville Shopping Center, off Route 198, was last seen at a Columbia swimming pool the evening of July 1, 1996.

Stephen Riggins told police that when he arrived at the couple's 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.

Affair uncovered

While investigating his wife's disappearance, police uncovered an illicit, four-year sexual affair between Stephen Riggins, 41, and the family's baby sitter, who was 15 when the affair began. In November 1997, he was sentenced to 18 months at the Howard County Detention Center after being convicted of sexual child abuse.

Stephen Riggins refused repeated requests to be interviewed through jail officials. In a July 1996 interview with The Sun, he said, "I'm like everybody else. I just want to know where my wife is."

Pressure on the state's attorney's office to charge Riggins in his wife's disappearance has mounted as her friends and family have tried to find her. Their efforts have included hiring a $100-an-hour psychic, distributing thousands of fliers bearing Nancy Riggins' picture and searching the woods in state parks.

Six months after her disappearance, her friends and co-workers erected a 12-foot-high billboard off heavily traveled U.S. 1, north of Route 100 -- in hopes of unsettling her husband as he drove to his job at Viking Freight trucking company. Some of her closest ** friends have appeared on national television talk shows and raised money to pay for therapy for the Rigginses' daughter, Amanda, now 8. Amanda was born prematurely and was the only child doctors said Nancy Riggins could ever have, friends and family say.

Friends, family frustrated

They say they have become frustrated that a lengthy police investigation has not solved the case. They say they want police to question Stephen Riggins and members of his family in more detail on his whereabouts when Nancy Riggins disappeared. In an October 1997 deposition, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on dozens of questions about his wife's disappearance.

"My heart wants to believe she's alive, but my head says she's dead," said Tina Leisher, a close friend of Nancy Riggins' and a co-worker.

Howard County police say they are investigating the case, but they seem to have little additional evidence. One detective, Chuck Jacobs, has been assigned exclusively to the case, and has refused repeated requests for interviews. Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon has also declined to comment on the case.

Prosecution problems

Legal experts say that without a body, prosecuting the case would be difficult, although there have been some successful prosecutions of such cases in Maryland.

"As a matter of law, a body is not essential. But as a practical matter, it is much harder to prosecute [without one]," said Andrew D. Levy, an attorney and adjunct law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

"You can't convict people based on their reputation; you can only convict them based on the evidence."

The problem of prosecuting without a body, Levy said, is that if the defendant is tried and found not guilty, but the body is found later, the defendant can't be retried. "A prosecutor gets one shot at it," Levy said.

The Cunninghams say they want prosecutors to go forward without a body.

"We've been in a frustrating bind," Robert Cunningham said.

"We want to know when will we get justice. Do we have to wait for her body to turn up?" Delia Cunningham said.

"It could take 10 to 20 years for a body to turn up. We may be in the grave ourselves," Robert Cunningham said.

The couple, both in their early 70s, say their sense of loss has been compounded by having to send their granddaughter to live temporarily with their other daughter in San Francisco. The Cunninghams say they have faced numerous serious health conditions since Nancy Riggins' disappearance.

For two years, they have gone to support groups, but they say few people can relate to their situation.

"Most people have a body, and they are dealing with a funeral or they have a pending case," said Delia Cunningham. "We have nothing. They just look at us and say, 'Gee, I don't know how to help you.' "

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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