Trial opens with theory of body's fate

Prosecutors speculate on death of Elkridge woman

No evidence, defense says

State argues Riggins killed wife, then put her in trash bin

July 06, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

On July 1, 1996, Paul Stephen Riggins ducked out of his work at the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant, killed his wife in their Elkridge home and threw her body into a nearby trash bin he knew would be emptied that night, its load carted off to a Baltimore incinerator, prosecutors theorized yesterday.

"She's dead, and she's been dead since that night," said Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, as he set the scene for the murder trial of Stephen Riggins, 43.

In 90 minutes yesterday, Campbell laid out a complex circumstantial theory to explain what has, for five years, remained a mystery: what happened to Nancy Riggins, a 37-year-old mother of one who hasn't been seen or heard from since the late evening of July 1, 1996.

The answer, the prosecutor said, is clear: Despite the fact that Nancy Riggins' body has never been found and no blood spatters were left behind, she had to have been killed.

Nancy Riggins wouldn't have walked away from her life -- from a 5-year-old daughter she struggled to bring into the world or the family and friends she relied upon, he explained. And Stephen Riggins had every reason to want her gone, Campbell said. He had even picked her replacement -- a teen-age baby sitter he'd been having an affair with for four years, he said.

Riggins had the motive, the means and the know-how to dispose of a body and never be discovered, he said.

In the opening statement by the defense, attorney Joseph Murtha dismissed as mere speculation the "nearly ... perfect crime" portrayed by prosecutors.

No evidence exists that Nancy Riggins is dead, Murtha said -- no autopsy, no eyewitness, no crime scene, no statements made by Stephen Riggins to credible witnesses confessing to killing his wife.

What the prosecution is left with is "a cast of characters": inmates incarcerated at the Howard County Detention Center while Riggins was serving a sentence for sexual child abuse involving the sitter, Murtha said.

Campbell said yesterday that Riggins told one inmate that he choked his wife and told another that investigators would never find Nancy Riggins' body.

This spring, after his arrest on the first-degree murder charge, Riggins asked a third inmate to help him create an alibi, the prosecutor added.

Each of these men has something to gain by testifying, Murtha said. Also, Riggins was never caught on tape confessing, though investigators taped his conversations with the baby sitter and his best friend, Murtha said.

"There will be no proof that you can hold onto that you can review ... [that] shows, in fact, that Nancy Riggins is dead," Murtha said.

Yesterday's opening statements offered an extensive preview of what is expected to be a three-week trial featuring more than 60 witnesses in Howard County's first "no body" murder trial.

The trial is expected to offer testimony of a long-running affair discovered through the love notes Riggins and the baby sitter wrote in the margins of a book of crossword puzzles.

The day before she disappeared, Nancy Riggins confronted the sitter and threatened to tell her mother. In the hours that followed, she told friends and family members that she was considering contacting a lawyer and turning her husband into investigators, Campbell said.

Prosecutors promised technical explanations to show how Riggins could sneak away from his work at the Patapsco plant without being missed and how a body, wrapped in a tarp, could be dumped and incinerated without anyone knowing. Riggins, who worked for trucking companies that routinely hauled trash to an incinerator, knew when trash bins would be emptied and that the trash would be reduced to ash, Campbell said.

In the weeks before Nancy Riggins' disappearance, Stephen Riggins asked a co-worker how "a friend" might get rid of his wife and talked to others about whether a .22-caliber rifle could kill someone, Campbell said.

On July 1, 1996, Riggins left work while supposedly overseeing the filling of a trailer with sludge, met the baby sitter at the Super Fresh store near his Adcock Lane home and asked her if she would move in with him if his wife left, Campbell said.

Then the baby sitter drove to her home near the Riggins' place and watched Stephen Riggins back up into his driveway, the prosecutor added.

"After that time, nobody spoke to Nancy Riggins. Nobody has seen Nancy Riggins since," he said.

The next day, July 2, 1996, Riggins told the baby sitter that he had arrived home that morning to find his wife gone and their daughter alone and asleep, said Campbell, who noted that Nancy Riggins' keys, purse and clothes remained in the house.

Riggins suggested that the sitter should move in that day, Campbell said.

The web of circumstance and accusation woven by the prosecutor falls short of the standard needed to convict a man of murder, said defense attorney Murtha.

"Suspicion may swirl. Moral judgment may be cast upon Stephen Riggins," but the state cannot prove that Nancy Riggins is dead "beyond a reasonable doubt," Murtha said.

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