Trial and Tribulations, Part Two

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

A former police officer came forward. When he'd driven through Black Hawk early in the morning, about 5:30 a.m., on May 17, he'd seen a dark-blue van with Wyoming plates parked in a casino parking lot. He'd noted it at the time, he said, because the casino was closed.

Combined with other information, this gave investigators a theory about what might have happened. Cordova had told them that Riggan was the sort to pull the van into the first available space and demand sex; she and Shane Delray also said that Riggan had already raped Anita Paley once.

Maybe he'd pulled into the casino parking lot and demanded sex. Paley refused and there was a struggle, but she escaped, jumping or falling from the van--which would have accounted for some of the small scrapes and bruises on her body. She was then caught by Riggan, who smashed her skull and dragged her back to the van.

From there, Riggan had taken his unconscious victim to the cabin, where he placed her on the sleeping bag. Then he pulled off her shorts and panties--which had no blood in them--and, for reasons known only to him, cut her vagina with a sharp knife. Were the coins found in her blood on the bag some sort of sick message?

Their theory made more sense than Riggan's assorted stories about Anita jumping from a van going 45 miles an hour. And Riggan had no plausible explanation for the cut in her vagina, except the alleged kick. But neither Harvey Cohen nor Dr. Ben Galloway, the pathologist who'd performed the autopsy, had seen the sort of damage such a kick would have caused. In fact, Galloway had concluded that Anita had died of multiple blows to the head and that the cut to her vagina had been made deliberately with an extremely sharp blade.

In on all of the discussions was Jefferson County senior deputy district attorney Dennis Hall. It was his first murder case since the 1996 conviction of Thomas Luther for the 1993 murder of Cher Elder.

Luther was a suspected serial killer. Now Hall, who'd been only half-joking after the Luther trial when he told his colleagues that he was removing anything with "blood or semen" from his caseload, wondered if he had another sexual predator on his hands.

It would have been one thing if Riggan had simply gone into a rage and hit Anita hard enough to kill her. But there was that cut: He didn't believe such a man waited until he was 37 years old to start sexually mutilating prostitutes.

The investigators searched through Riggan's past, looking for prostitutes who'd disappeared or been murdered in the cities where he'd been. They found Sandy Wilson and Pamela Kay Hart and noted that he'd taken them to isolated areas--in one case an abandoned cabin--and threatened them with a knife before raping them. But nothing tied their man to another murder.

Nothing except Riggan's odd statements to Hall. Riggan had fired his public defenders, who had been working toward a plea bargain, and decided to be his own lawyer. As a result, he began talking to Hall directly.

"Why do you want to kill me, Dennis?" he whined when the district attorney's office announced it would seek the death penalty.

Riggan was obsessed with Sandy Wilson. He demanded that investigators be sent to Iowa to put an end to her promiscuity. "She's a whore," he told Hall over and over. "She's a whore!" Hall got tired of hearing that particular complaint. "What's that got to do with this case, Bob?" he asked, exasperated.

"It has everything to do with this case," Riggan shrieked over the telephone. "It has everything to do with it."

Riggan was sticking to his story that Anita Paley had jumped from his van. Still, there was always one detail he could not, or would not, explain away when Hall repeatedly asked him: "If she jumped out of the van, how do you explain the vaginal wound?"

Riggan said he would explain it all some day. Finally, during one conversation, he said the wound was caused "by my big dick. When I get excited, I can really rip a woman."

But Riggan knew he was in trouble. "You've got me by the balls, Dennis," he conceded to Hall. "The jury isn't going to believe my story." As the weeks went by, he seemed to give up. If convicted, he said, he wanted the death penalty "if I can get it quickly...I'm tired of livin'. I don't wanna appeal."

But Hall was becoming concerned that an appeal would be inevitable, since Riggan was making no attempt to work on his defense. In September 1997, the deputy DA expressed his concern to District Court Judge Frank Plaut, who had been appointed to the case. Hall told Plaut he thought Riggan should be examined to determine if he was competent to even stand trial, much less act as his own attorney.

A month later, Plaut determined that while Riggan was mentally competent to stand trial, he was not competent to act as his own lawyer. He appointed Dennis Hartley and Nathan Chambers, two tough trial attorneys with several dozen murder trials between them, as co-counsels.

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