Dorsey man held in death of missing wife

Husband suspected since disappearance over 4 years ago

`It's overdue,' family says

September 22, 2000|By Lisa Goldberg, Sarah Koenig and Del Quentin Wilber | Lisa Goldberg, Sarah Koenig and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Four years after his wife disappeared without a trace, Paul Stephen Riggins Jr. was arrested and charged in her death yesterday after running from the officers who came to take him into custody at his Dorsey home.

A Howard County grand jury had returned an indictment against Riggins, 43, for first-degree murder earlier in the day despite the fact that Nancy Lee Riggins' body has never been found.

The grand jury heard from more than 30 witnesses during three months of testimony.

Nancy Riggins' family and friends, who held annual vigils, erected a billboard and appeared on "The Geraldo Rivera Show" to spotlight her disappearance, whooped at the news.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," said Tina Leisher during a break from the cash register at the Burtonsville Giant Food store in Montgomery County, where she worked with Riggins. "It's four years, two months and 20 days overdue."

The arrest comes four years after Nancy Riggins, 37, was reported missing by her husband on July 3, 1996 - a day after he said he returned to their Adcock Lane house to find her gone and their 5-year-old daughter, Amanda, home alone.

The arrest comes 10 months after the death of her father, Robert Cunningham, who, with wife, Delia, pressed court officials for action and grew increasingly frustrated by the wait.

"He was practically begging for some kind of answer, because he knew he wasn't going to make it," Delia Cunningham said yesterday.

The grand jury began looking into the case in June, said Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon. Throughout the past four years, investigators have been building a case, uncovering witnesses and evidence, she said.

"There was a time when we couldn't even comment on the case because we didn't want to jeopardize it in any way, but there was never a time when the case was dormant," McLendon said.

She and other Howard County law enforcement officials flew to Pennsylvania to meet with family members during the investigation to ask them to be patient.

"There's obviously emotional frustration on the part of the family," she said. "We understand that. For them, it didn't move fast enough."

Prosecutors said yesterday that they could not comment on the specifics of the grand jury investigation.

But sources familiar with the case said investigators are going to rely in part on the testimony of several Riggins jail mates. Riggins spent a year in the Howard County Detention Center on unrelated charges until late 1998. Riggins, known as Stephen, was convicted on charges stemming from a sexual relationship with his teen-age baby sitter over four years.

It is unclear what those men testified about before the grand jury, though sources said Riggins allegedly told them what happened to his wife.

Among the others called to testify before the grand jury were a former Riggins co-worker and boss at P&D Trucking in Elkridge. Riggins worked as a driver for P&D and was contracted out to the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant in Southwest Baltimore, where he drove trailers filled with sludge on the site.

The former co-worker, who has a prison record, asked not to be identified for fear that he might be harmed. But he said in an interview yesterday that he told grand jurors that Riggins approached him a few weeks before his wife disappeared and asked how "a friend of his" could get rid of his wife's body.

He said he told Riggins that the friend should "just get a divorce," because he was sure to get caught. Riggins seemed to be acting "normal" in the days before and after his wife's disappearance, the co-worker said.

Riggins' boss, Donna Vonella, said she told grand jurors that Riggins worked a 12-hour shift the night his wife disappeared and seemed "nervous and edgy" in the days leading to the disappearance.

Nancy Riggins' eldest sister, Denise Keenan of Ohio, said yesterday that she talked to the grand jury of her brother-in-law's character.

"There were a couple of instances where he had fooled around with other women," she said. "She forgave him for things. I don't know why. I think she was afraid of failure. This was her second marriage."

From the start, investigators looking into Nancy Riggins' disappearance focused on her husband. The two were married in December 1988 after meeting at a Giant store in Virginia.

She was last seen on July 1, 1996. She picked up Amanda after work, and met a friend and co-worker at a pool in Columbia, leaving about 8:45 p.m.

Stephen Riggins told investigators that when he arrived home from work on the morning of July 2, Amanda was home alone and asleep. He said his wife was gone.

He reported her missing the next day.

Her purse and keys were still in the house, and police said then that there were no signs of forced entry. Friends said she would never have left her little girl.

During the investigation, police found evidence of a long-running affair between Stephen Riggins and the family's baby sitter.

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