Trial and Tribulations, Part Two

This is the conclusion of Joanne Cordova's story. For part one, see www. westword.com.

Experienced trauma surgeons, Levy and Cohen had seen thousands of horrible injuries. But they would take away troubling memories of this case.

Both remember that as they were operating, the mother of a missing girl was brought into the room to look at their patient. Jane Doe's head had swollen nearly to the size of a basketball, and it took the woman a moment to realize that the patient was not her daughter. Whose daughter would she turn out to be?

Cohen was particularly struck by the reaction of the nurses. Emergency-room nurses are as tough as they come and generally go about their jobs showing little outward emotion. Yet as they all worked together to help this young woman, Cohen noticed that the nurses were crying. Later he would write a letter to the chief of nursing, complimenting the nurses he'd worked with that day for their humanity.

But all of their work and all of their caring couldn't save Jane Doe. Twelve hours after arriving at the hospital, she was pronounced dead.

Even as the doctors and nurses fought for Jane Doe's life, the hunt was on for the driver of the dark-blue van. A state trooper had chased him down Highway 119 but dropped back when the van picked up speed and started passing other motorists around blind curves.

Less than an hour later, Boulder County sheriff's deputies located the van on the outskirts of Boulder, parked in a motel lot. The back of the van was in disarray, as if there'd been a struggle. A first-aid kit was out but unopened. And there was blood.

In the van, deputies located a driver's license for one Bob Davis and an address book with phone numbers. None of the phone numbers had area codes, but the van also held a number of documents pertaining to Iowa. In an inspired bit of detective work, one officer dialed the Iowa area code before a phone number marked "Dad."

A man answered and identified himself as Robert Lee Riggan Sr. From the description on the license, the older man thought they were probably looking for his son, Robert Lee Riggan Jr. It didn't surprise him. "My son's a criminal," he said, adding that Robert Jr. had two identifying tattoos--the number "7" on his leg and the name "Sandy" with a multi-colored rose on his right shoulder.

In the van, deputies had also found a driver's license belonging to a Joanne Cordova. While it was obvious that Cordova was not Jane Doe--the license described a taller, older woman with dark hair--they wondered if they should be looking for another body.

The police went to the media with the photo from the man's license and a physical description of the injured woman, including the tattoo on her left ankle: an ankh, the ancient Eygptian symbol for life.

Joanne Cordova was at her friend Jimmy's house that evening when the news came on. The lead story was about a man seen dragging a body near a cabin in the mountains; the suspect had been driving a blue van.

A moment later, the face of the man she knew as Bob Davis appeared on the screen. "Jimmy!" Cordova yelled for her friend, pointing at the TV. "That's the guy who didn't pick me back up that day...the guy with my clothes. And...oh my, God...," she groaned as she realized who the victim was. "Poor Anita."

Bob Davis was still on the loose. What if he came looking for her? Frightened, Joanne Cordova called her sister.

Jeannie Cordova was frantic. The police had called and said they'd found Joanne's identification in the van. They wanted to know if Jeannie had heard from her sister lately. What with all the women's clothing in the van, the police were concerned that Joanne might have been another victim. "They want you to contact them," Jeannie said.

Cordova hung up, thinking about Anita, the young prostitute who'd run out of the house the day before, happy to go to a man who'd raped her, just for the promise of crack cocaine. I'll owe you forever, she'd told Anita.

She knew what she had to do.
Joanne called one of her former partners at the Denver Police Department and explained the situation. "I think I know who the girl is," she said. "And I think I was with the guy in the blue van before this happened."

Her ex-partner knew one of the lead investigators on the case for the Jefferson County district attorney, Jim Burkhalter, himself a former Denver cop. Jeffco had been asked to assist the Gilpin County sheriff, whose tiny force didn't have the resources to handle major cases.

And that's how the police learned that the Jane Doe in the morgue was Anita Paley, a 22-year-old crack addict and prostitute. The mother of two little girls who would never see her again.

And that's how, like it or not, cop-turned-hooker Joanne Cordova finally became a key prosecution witness in a murder trial.

The police found Robert Riggan Jr. the next day, walking down a residential street in Boulder. A resident had called to say he'd seen a man who fit the description of the suspect on TV the night before; Boulder officers Vicki Bresnahan and Curtis Johnson responded.

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