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Dorsey man held in death of missing wife

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The sitter cooperated with the police investigation and recorded conversations with Riggins a few days after Nancy Riggins disappeared.

The content of the tapes has never been disclosed because Stephen Riggins pleaded guilty to one count of sexual child abuse in 1997, avoiding a trial.

Whether the tapes will play a role in the prosecution's murder case against Stephen Riggins was unclear yesterday.

For four years, the case has followed a winding path.

Stephen Riggins' in-laws took Amanda for a visit days after her mother disappeared and refused to return her. Riggins sued to get her back, but Nancy Riggins' family retained custody of the girl. Amanda, now 9, lives with one of her mother's three sisters in San Francisco.

Nancy Riggins' friends posted her picture on a billboard on U.S. 1, along Stephen Riggins' commute to work. They erected a memorial plaque near her Elkridge home and gathered there on every anniversary of her disappearance. They went to New York to talk about her on "Geraldo."

Even Riggins' arrest yesterday featured a bit of drama.

He ran from the officers dispatched to arrest him at his rented room in a house along Kit Kat Road off U.S. 1.

A police helicopter hovered above, and officers searched for 45 minutes near his home in a mostly industrial area, finding him about 3:50 p.m., seemingly asleep, in the sleeper compartment of a parked tractor-trailer rig. Riggins did not resist again, police said.

Sgt. Charles Jacobs, who has worked on the case since Nancy Riggins disappeared four years ago, made the arrest.

"Three-plus years, and I'll tell you, this is a long time coming," he said. "He gave us a little chase, but we got him. Right now, we feel real good."

Riggins will be arraigned this morning in Howard County Circuit Court. Prosecutors said they would ask that he be held without bail.

Facing television cameras and reporters as he was led out of the Southern District police station about 6:30 p.m. yesterday, Riggins, bound in leg irons and handcuffs, would not answer when asked repeatedly if he had killed his wife.

Prosecutors said not having found Nancy Riggins' remains will present a challenge, but that such cases have been proven in the past.

Howard County Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell supervised the Montgomery County prosecution team that went after William F. Hurley for the death of his wife, Catherine, in the 1980s. Her body was eventually found - after he was convicted of manslaughter.

For the Riggins family, the long wait for an arrest has been excruciating.

"Without a body, we never had any kind of closure," Delia Cunningham said. The next challenge will be how to break the news of her father's arrest to Amanda, she said.

"She says, 'I'm going to have a good life in San Francisco. I'll have to tell Mommy,'" Cunningham said.

"I don't think she really gets it yet."

Sun staff writers Larry Carson, Lisa Respers and Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.

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