Guilty verdict ends ordeal

Family and friends of Nancy Riggins now seek to move on

July 22, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

As the jury in the Paul Stephen Riggins murder trial filed into Howard County Circuit Court's ceremonial courtroom Friday afternoon, Lt. Greg Marshall sat on the hard bench, his wife by his side and his grandfather's rosary - a personal touch that might bring good luck to a very personal case - in his pants pocket.

Sgt. Chuck Jacobs, a photo of Nancy Lee Riggins and her daughter, Amanda, tucked in his left shirt pocket, ran through the investigation into the Elkridge woman's disappearance in his mind and wondered what the jury was thinking.

With the verdict - guilty of first-degree murder - both men looked at the nine men and three women who had just spent five hours deliberating Stephen Riggins' role in his wife's disappearance. Nancy Riggins' body has never been found.

"I wanted to hear the conviction in each juror's voice as they were polled," Marshall recalled yesterday.

In an instant, five years of searching and interviewing, of worrying and digging, came to an end. For five years, both men had worked the case, Marshall as supervisor, Jacobs, first as an assistant, later as lead investigator.

For five years, too, Nancy Riggins' friends had kept her memory alive, peppering investigators with questions, holding candlelight vigils, and wondering when, if ever, the man they were certain had killed their friend - her husband, Stephen - would ever be tried for murder.

"We've been so focused and so on it and all of the sudden, we have to come back down to reality," said Leeann Kotler, one of Nancy Riggins' friends and co-workers at the Burtonsville Giant grocery store. "It's going to be hard to get back to normal but it's going to be a good back to normal."

People are reported missing every day. Rarely, though, is their absence front-page news. But from the start, this case was different.

From the minute they learned that Nancy Riggins was not only missing, but had left her 5-year-old daughter Amanda behind, her friends and family were suspicious. From the moment, too, that investigators learned that fact - and that Nancy Riggins' had taken no car, no money, no purse or checkbook - they began to suspect foul play.

"There's nothing unusual about one spouse leaving another spouse after a domestic argument," Marshall said. "You factor in the affair with the baby sitter - a potential crime - and the fact she had such a responsible position at Giant Food, when you look at the totality of it, that's when warning bells go off."

Paul Riggins was convicted of child sexual abuse in connection with his affair with the family's teen-age baby sitter.

It took more than four years for a grand jury to hand down an indictment and another 9 1/2 months to get the case before a trial jury.

That amounts to five years of life on hold.

"I know that, in my heart we never would have let it go," even if the case took 10 years to come to trial, said Tina Leisher, another co-worker of Nancy Riggins'.

Now comes the next stage - moving on.

Her family still has no death certificate, although a murder conviction will likely speed that process.

Her family and friends have no grave to visit, although there's been scattered talk of a memorial service.

And then there's Amanda.

The little girl, now 10, was 5 when her mother disappeared. By all accounts in testimony, the mother was devoted to the daughter, a child born prematurely, so tiny she fit in a man's hand.

Amanda, who lives in San Francisco with her aunt, Micki Cunningham, one of Nancy Riggins' sisters, will have to be told the news of her father's conviction gently, her family said.

When Amanda first arrived in California three years ago - she spent two years before that with her grandparents in Pennsylvania - she would still cry for "whole weekends." Therapy, first twice weekly, now once a week, has brought her a long way, Cunningham said.

There's a lot about Amanda that reminds Cunningham of her sister - her ears, the way she looks out for others.

Cunningham and her husband, Martin Domenici, who have permanent custody of their niece, planned to sit Amanda down this weekend to tell her of her father's conviction.

"It's going to be hard for her to absorb. She's finally moving on," Micki Cunningham said yesterday.

As for Cunningham, she called her brother-in-law's conviction "a miracle."

"I feel like a weight's been lifted off me," she said.

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