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Four years later, workers remember a vanished friend

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every morning when Nancy Lee Riggins came to work at the Giant Food store in Burtonsville, she called out to co-worker Terrie Borja.

"Hey, trouble!" she'd say.

"Hey, maker!" Borja would reply.

Like other colleagues, Borja came to expect Riggins' unflagging good humor and reliability at work. That's why she remembers so clearly July 1, 1996, the day Riggins disappeared: She was wearing a mustard-yellow top and matching culottes to work and looked distressed - an expression none of her many friends associated with Riggins.

On Friday, her husband, 43-year-old Paul Stephen Riggins Jr., pleaded not guilty to charges he killed his 37-year-old wife. His arrest was welcomed by Nancy Riggins' family and friends, who had cried and prayed and pushed for his capture for four years.

But it also summoned memories of a woman they suspect was unable to help herself, even as she doled out advice and support - including the number for a women's shelter - to others.

"She just sucked it up and did it all," says former co-worker Laura Lane. "If somebody was in trouble, Nancy was the first one there. ... She was a stoic woman."

Tina Leisher, another friend from Giant, is pained that she never thought to offer help. After Leisher split up with her husband, Riggins had comforted her in a way no one else seemed able to do. "It never occurred to me to say, 'Hey Nance, is everything OK?'" Leisher says. "Nancy never said anything about her own situation, right up until they were getting separated."

What she told a handful of friends in the days leading up to her disappearance shocked them: Her husband, she said, had been carrying on an affair with their 15-year-old baby sitter.

According to co-worker Margie Speake, on the evening of July 1, 1996, at the Columbia pool she often went to with girlfriends, Riggins told Speake that the marriage was over, that Stephen Riggins was harassing her about not leaving and that she was going to consult a lawyer.

'I can handle it'

Speake, like other friends, said Riggins could come live with her if she needed to. "I asked her if she was afraid of him," says Speake. "She said, 'No, I can handle it. I'll be OK.'"

The following morning, 5-year-old Amanda Riggins woke up in her neat suburban home on Adcock Lane in Elkridge to find her mother gone.

More than anything else, this convinced those who knew Nancy Riggins well that she had not simply run off; no matter how dire the circumstances, Riggins never could have left Amanda, they insisted.

Their campaign to find out what happened began almost at once. In her Elkridge neighborhood they planted a tree and put up a plaque: "Nancy Lee Riggins, Always in Our Minds, Forever in Our Hearts." They held annual vigils, initially attended by more than 100 friends, family members and customers.

Last year, a group that included her parents marched to Stephen Riggins' house and banged on the front door, daring him to face them. Co-workers distributed fliers, put up a billboard on U.S. 1, appeared on the "Geraldo Rivera Show," pinned purple ribbons on their red smocks and regularly called police detectives.

"We were almost consumed by it for the first six months - even for a year," says Lane. "And even after that, we never gave up. She deserves that. And her daughter deserves that."

Born about three months prematurely, Amanda weighed just over a pound at birth. During her pregnancy, Nancy Riggins developed toxemia and high blood pressure, and the ordeal nearly killed her, friends and family say. Their survival resulted in Riggins' fierce attachment to her daughter, the only child doctors told her she could ever have.

At work she wore a large lapel pin featuring Amanda's photograph, and when she wasn't working, she was usually with her daughter. She took pains to monitor her development, never missing an appointment with her daughter's doctor or teachers, her friends said.

At home and work

This meticulous attention spread to every aspect of Riggins' life. The family's principal breadwinner, she had planned and saved for years to buy her maroon, six-room house on a wooded cul-de-sac, and she took great pride in its upkeep. Friends say nothing was out of place in the house. She excitedly showed off the ivy stencils she had painted on the staircase.

At work, she was indispensable, say her colleagues. She had worked for Giant for about 17 years and helped open the store in Burtonsville in 1988. She had trained to be a manager and essentially ran the front end of the store; employees knew if they had a problem, Riggins would solve it before the bosses found out, said Speake.

She also was a favorite with customers, Speake and other co-workers said. If a child was being fussy while shopping, Riggins would take him or her to the flower department to play with the balloons. And she and Leisher would always make sure the woman with Alzheimer's found her way through the store and to her ride outside.

"She was so competent. Her goal was keeping a perfect family," says Speake. "Nancy wasn't perfect; she was just a regular woman trying to keep her family together, even when her husband was unemployed half the time."

Her mother says she believes Riggins was too preoccupied to see her husband's character clearly. "I think Nancy was so overworked and so busy taking care of her child that she overlooked some of his antics," says Delia Cunningham.

"She was constantly thinking of Steve. She'd say, 'I have to plug in the crockpot so he'll have a good balanced meal when he gets home.' Meanwhile he was seducing the babysitter."

After his wife vanished, Stephen Riggins was investigated by Howard County police, who uncovered the affair. Riggins eventually pleaded guilty to child abuse.

A marriage in trouble

Despite the veneer of domestic order, friends say they knew the marriage was troubled. Speake and Leeann Kotler remember the time he chastised her in front of them for leaving one pan in the sink after she had made an elaborate dinner for everyone.

They observed him smack 5-year-old Amanda on the head for being whiny as her mother was leaving for a night out with her girlfriends. He was also sullen at social events, her friends said.

She helped support an illegitimate child Stephen Riggins refused to acknowledge until a paternity lawsuit proved he was the father. Court records show he also fought with his first wife over child support for their daughter.

"I think she didn't understand it herself," Kotler says of Stephen Riggins' behavior. "She was embarrassed by it. She just would say, 'I don't know why he does these things.'"

Close friends and relatives say they never doubted that Riggins loved her husband, whom they described as handsome, charming and manipulative.

Although Riggins did not discuss her home life in detail, Lane says she knows she suffered. Lane, too, was in a troubled marriage, and the women quietly bonded over their common situations.

"I'd be there five minutes, and she'd get this sense, even though I got good at hiding it. She'd say, 'Are you OK?' And I'd say yes. And she'd say, 'I know you're not, but hey, don't worry about it. It's going to get better.'"

In retrospect, Lane says, "We never saw signs that she was physically abused, but I believe she was very, very emotionally and verbally abused. He was smart, he was not going to leave obvious marks on her."

Two black eyes

But in September 1988, about three months before they were married, Riggins showed up at work with two black eyes, Kotler says. Riggins pressed battery charges against Stephen Riggins but later dropped them, court records show.

Cunningham never knew about the incident but distrusted Riggins from the start, she said last week.

Nancy Riggins grew up in New Castle, Pa., the third of Delia and Robert Cunningham's four daughters. After finishing middle school in New Castle, Nancy decided to go to the local technical high school, where she learned how large food distributors function. After graduation she worked at a New Castle Shop 'N Save for about five years.

There she met her first husband, whom she married in 1980, and they moved to his hometown in Virginia. She got a job at a Giant there. But the marriage didn't last, in large part because Nancy wanted children and her husband did not, Cunningham said.

A couple of years later, she began dating Stephen Riggins, who was a driver at the Virginia Giant. "She called me and told me how excited she was, how she loved this man," says Delia Cunningham, who advised her not to rush into marriage.

Nevertheless, after several months the couple married, in December 1988. Cunningham remembers her daughter describing how she was going to save this man, who had had a troubled childhood and lived in a squalid apartment he shared with other men.

Ten days before she vanished in 1996, Nancy Riggins visited her parents and told them her husband wanted to separate. They agreed her parents would come help her with arrangements after the Fourth of July weekend, which she planned to spend with Speake.

Nothing left

Amanda, now 9, lives with an aunt in San Francisco. She has had continuous therapy, but Cunningham says she still does not entirely understand that she will never see her mother again.

And she has nothing tangible to remind her of her mother, or of their life in Elkridge. Cunningham says she does not know what Stephen Riggins did with Amanda's or Nancy's belongings.- her toys, the videos of her birth, Nancy's first guitar.

Even four years later, the people who knew Nancy Riggins speak with equal measures of tenderness and outrage about their friend. James Turner, who works at the Burtonsville Giant, still gets teary at the mention of her name. To remember the woman for whom he had a fatherly regard, he has kept the store-issued magnetic card she gave him for clocking his work hours.

"I never in my life saw her mad or say anything out of line to anybody. She was my angel. I miss her something terrible," he said.

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