Trial and Tribulations, Part Two
Amy Johnson and her fiance, Jason Sosebe, left their home shortly after six on the morning of May 17, 1997, heading down Old Hughesville Road toward Highway 119. As their truck rounded a corner, they saw a blue minivan with Wyoming plates parked on the wrong side of the road, at a pulloff in front of an old miner's cabin that stood at the Missouri Falls trailhead.
Johnson spotted a man dragging a red sleeping bag past the vehicle and up the path that ran beside the cabin. Odd. It looked like a person was lying on the bag. A person with bare legs, which was really odd, because it was still cold outside.
"Jason, stop!" she yelled.
She told her fiance what she'd seen. At first he didn't believe her. But when Johnson insisted, Sosebe turned the truck around.
They'd only passed the cabin a minute before, but as they drove back up the hill, the minivan came roaring toward them. "There's no way he could have put that person back in the van that fast," Johnson said. She tried to get a good look at the driver but saw only a dark figure through the tinted windows.
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
Sosebe concentrated on the license plate and got a partial number as the van swept past. Then he backed up to see which way the van turned when it reached the highway: It ran the stop sign at the bottom of the hill and headed north on 119.
The couple drove back to the cabin. From the turnoff, they could see part of the red sleeping bag poking out from behind a tree partway up the trail. Johnson jumped out of the truck and hurried up the path.
A young woman lay face-down on the bag, her head toward the stream and her feet toward the trail. She was wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of white socks but otherwise was nude from the waist down. Wet, bright blood showed around her head and between her legs, but she was still alive. Her breath gurgled.
Sosebe tried to call out on his cell phone but couldn't get a signal. He ran back to the truck so he could drive to a neighbor's and call for help.
Johnson stayed behind. She placed her own jacket over the young woman's exposed body. "It's going to be okay," she told her. "Help is on the way." The woman's only response was a moan.
Gilpin County sheriff Bruce Hartman lived just fifteen minutes from the cabin; he was the first to arrive, and he put out the call for medical assistance. A BOLO--police parlance for "Be on the lookout"--was also issued for a dark-blue minivan with Wyoming license plates.
Paramedics arrived and carefully examined the woman. They had no idea who she was; she had no identification on her. But they could see that she was bleeding extensively from a head wound on the back left side of her skull, above and behind her ear. She was also bleeding from her vagina.
There was so much blood that it had completely soaked through the sleeping bag and into the ground. When they lifted the woman from the bag, one paramedic spotted several coins in the pool of blood beneath her pelvis. Strange, because she had no pockets from which the coins could have fallen.
The woman was airlifted to St. Anthony's Hospital, where she was handed over to the hospital's trauma team. A CAT scan revealed that the blow to her head had been so severe that it had fractured her skull in a line that went almost straight down from the point of impact and then back through the base. Massive bleeding was putting an enormous amount of pressure on her brain.
Two top trauma surgeons were called to deal with Jane Doe's wounds. Neurosurgeon Stuart Levy and OB/GYN specialist Harvey Cohen operated simultaneously, at opposite ends of the woman.
The first thing Levy noted was a three-inch "stellate," or starlike, laceration on her head. A stellate cut has several branches that run from a central point and usually results from blunt trauma that splits the skin, as opposed to the single, straight line that a weapon like a knife causes. But the laceration was the least of Jane Doe's problems.
After Levy removed a triangular section of bone from her skull and cut the dura, the tough elastic membrane that covers the brain, blood squirted out and down his gown. The brain itself swelled out of the hole, like a mushroom, protruding several inches beyond the skull.
Levy knew then that it was probably hopeless, but he kept working to stop the bleeding and relieve the pressure. Besides the injury directly under the laceration, the so-called coup, he found a contra-coup injury on the opposite side of her head, caused when the brain bounced off the skull.
Although Cohen had an easier job, he was greatly disturbed by what he found. A three-inch cut--an "incision," he would call it, as straight and clean as if made by a surgeon's scalpel--had been made in a lateral wall of the woman's vagina. The cut had gone deep into the muscle and sliced an artery, which accounted for much of the woman's blood loss.
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.
Officer Bresnahan ordered Riggan to place his hands on top of his head while she checked him for weapons. He was cooperative. He didn't have any identification on him, but he said his name was "Donald Benjamin Douglas" and that he'd come from California two months earlier because he liked to rock-climb. Now he was on his way to meet his gay lover at a restaurant.
At that morning's briefing on the case, there had been mention of two tattoos. Bresnahan asked Douglas if he had any. He said he had one on his leg and showed her the "7." But only when she pressed further did he pull down the collar of his shirt to reveal the "Sandy" and a rose on his shoulder.
Riggan was arrested and placed in Bresnahan's cruiser. On the way to Boulder County Jail, he denied that he was Robert Riggan or that he'd been driving the van. "I didn't do it," he told Bresnahan. "It was her pimp. I know I'm in trouble, but I didn't hit her...I didn't push her from the van."
At the jail, Riggan finally admitted who he was and waived his right to remain silent and allowed Bresnahan to record her interview with him. Only now it wasn't a pimp who pushed the young woman he referred to as Buffy. "She jumped," Riggan said.
He'd met Buffy through another prostitute. "Jo...Joanne...maybe it's Cordova. Maybe it's Jo Jo Cordova...She had me hold on to her stuff, 'cause she didn't have a place to put it...She's an older woman, really nice. Her ID's in the van somewhere."
He liked Buffy, he said, and took her shopping and bought her crack. "She had nothing...She told me, 'Look, you've got to give me some underwear'...We were together all day. I mean, she told me that I was the nicest guy that she'd ever met. I mean, um, she was a prostitute, and all she wanted was 25 bucks...I spent $64 just on her tennies."
"That's pretty generous," Bresnahan replied.
"Well, no," Riggan demurred. "I liked her, and I liked Joanne, Jo Jo. I bought Jo Jo clothes, too. She stayed with me in the van for quite a while. Four or five days...But she wanted out."
The other girl had enjoyed her time with him, he said.
"And her name was Buffy?" Bresnahan asked.
"Buffy Davis," he responded. "She told them... she was my wife."
He and "Buffy" had checked into a Colfax Avenue motel the day before the "accident," he said. "I paid for the room...I checked in under Donna and Robert Davis."
After that, they'd gone to the house where Shane Delray lived, and Riggan had parked the car at a car wash while Buffy went inside. "These girls were fucking crackheads," Riggan told Bresnahan. "Prostitutes. The guys that took them there, the pimp didn't want them knowing where he lived...where they were getting crack.
"I called him pimp, she called him her boyfriend," he added.
As he sat in the van, Riggan said he could hear an argument. Apparently, Buffy wasn't bringing home enough money. "He called her a bitch and told her she'd better be fucking taking care of business, and, um...called her a crackhead."
When she returned to the van, Buffy was bleeding "a little bit" in her crotch area. "She said, 'That son of a bitch just kicked me.'" She got in the back of the van and wiped herself off with a towel. They drove back to the motel. But later, Riggan said, Buffy wanted to go out.
"She wanted to go to the mountains?" Bresnahan asked.
"Yeah," Riggan agreed. "She said that she just wanted to go sit out in the mountains. She was talkin' really crazy, you know, I mean weird. Weird. Weird." He complained that his only friends were "weird people...prostitutes and bums and winos. I've been alone for a long time."
Over the next hour, Riggan offered several variations on the story that "Buffy," who was wearing shorts, her new shoes, socks and a T-shirt, had jumped out of the van on 119 before they reached the turnoff to the cabin. In one version, she opened the passenger door of the van and stood on the running board for "several minutes" holding her crack pipe in her left hand, threatening to jump before she finally did so.
In another version, she got high in the back of the van and was talking about suicide. When she returned to the front seat, she was "real quiet for a little while...and all of a sudden, she just opened the front door and got on the outside of the van. And she said, 'I'm going to kill myself.' And I said, 'No, no, no.' And you know, I looked down then, I was doing 45. I looked back up and she was gone."
A few minutes later the story changed again. "I did nothing. This girl got on my door, and I begged her not to fucking jump. I told her, 'Look, don't jump. Don't jump.' And I'm slowing down all the time, trying to get her back in the van...and she went."
After Buffy jumped, Riggan said he could see her lying on the highway. "So I backed up, and...when I got there, there's a pool of blood and she was hurt. She got blood all over me. I picked her up. What I was going to do was turn around and go right to Denver. I couldn't find the turnoff...and then I pulled off in that camping area. I was going to clean her up."
But then, he said, "somebody in a black truck pulled on side, so I just left her. I figured they'd help her out."
There were variations on that part of the story, too. "I got my first-aid kit out and, uh, she was conscious. I told her I had to get her to the hospital. And...and she told me no. She said that she had warrants on her in New York...something serious."
A few minutes later he said, "I told her, 'Look, I don't know what to do. I got warrants on me, too.' And I said, 'We're at this campsite where Jo Jo and me spent time.' And I said, 'You've got to get to the fucking doctor.' She was breathing real raggedy."
In yet another version, he told Buffy he was going to put her back in the van and take her to the hospital. "She said, 'No, just clean me up. Help me get cleaned up.'" And that's why he was dragging her to the stream.
Riggan noted that he could have left Buffy on the highway after she jumped and just driven away. But no, his conscience made him go back and pick her up.
Riggan complained that he hadn't slept in two days. He knew he was in trouble, he said. "I'm looking at murder here, right?" he asked, then pointed out that the girl had been with him all day of her own free will.
"I didn't rape the girl. For $25, I could have had her right there that morning," he said. "All I had to do was give her the $25, and I should have done it. Just thank you--wham, bam, thank you ma'am...get the fuck out of this deal. I got a girl. She jumps out of my fucking van."
That evening, Boulder police officers Curtis Johnson and Ruth Christopher transported Riggan to the Gilpin County Jail. On the way, he began talking again--a rambling diatribe that Christopher recorded.
"You know what? I don't even want to talk to you," he said. "Could care less. I really don't care...Well, I do care, in fact it should have been me who jumped out of the truck. It shouldn't have been her.
"I'm feeling tired...I couldn't do right if I tried to, you know. Couldn't do right if I tried. One minute she's telling me I'm the best guy she'd ever met, the next minute she went stupid on me and jumped the fuck out of my vehicle. And leave me with what?"
Riggan kept babbling: "Spent all day boosting to give her clothes, 'cause she didn't have nothin'...I should have realized that this girl was getting tweaked and getting weird...She looked back and told me she was jumping...I should have yelled at her, 'Look, you know, you tell me I'm the best guy in the world--don't do this to me. Not me. Find six or seven of these other guys that you do. But please don't do this to me, 'cause I'm just a small, petty, ass-fucking criminal, and I don't need this.
"I feel fucking really rotten about not taking her to the hospital," he continued. "You know, if I have to pay for that, I got to pay for that. But I didn't touch the girl.
"She asked me earlier what I felt about guys that had been with her. I said, Look...I been through a relationship where I had a wife that was violent...really sadistically violent. Jealous. You couldn't even look at somebody, and she'd start throwing pots and pans."
He'd bought his van to get away from all his troubles. But now, Riggan said, "I think they oughta just lock me away and leave me be...I don't want no one around me...I don't want no responsibilities, and that goes for my two kids...'cause that's just bad news all the way around.
"Every time I get close to somebody, it's just bad news. Bad luck. Bad luck for me. Bad luck for them. The only way I can really survive is to be alone."
Robert Riggan Jr. was born March 22, 1960, in Iowa. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried. Riggan claimed his stepmother used to beat him with a willow switch. But he wasn't the only target of her wrath: If his father so much as looked at another woman, she beat up her rival, calling her a whore.
His family described him as a "problem child." He ran away from home when he was thirteen and the next year was admitted to the Iowa Mental Health Institute, where counselors noted that he was "somewhat paralyzed at times by his overwhelming anxiety," as well as preoccupied with "failure, anxiety, insecurity and basic immaturity." He was diagnosed as suffering from an "overanxious reaction to adolescence." It would get worse.
Riggan dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. His grades were below average, and he'd had 32 unexcused absences. In 1977, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Navy.
Three years later he fell down a set of steps on a ship and suffered a head injury that seemed to set off a new rash of psychiatric problems. He complained of suffering from paranoia and auditory hallucinations, some of which encouraged him to hurt himself.
Over the next eight years, Riggan was in and out of mental institutions in California, Wyoming and Iowa. He suffered from depression, sleeplessness, crying spells and suicidal ideation. He became threatening to physicians and counselors and was diagnosed as having a schizophrenic personality disorder.
In 1989, back on the outside in Des Moines, he met Sandy Wilson. Eleven years younger, she soon was pregnant with their first child. That same year, Riggan was indicted by federal authorities on gun charges after he was seen trying to sell submachine guns to gang members in Omaha.
The couple fled to Denver, where Riggan was a suspect in a sexual assault and car theft. But after Riggan was caught on the gun warrant, the Denver case was apparently dropped.
With Riggan convicted and serving time in a federal pen, Sandy Wilson tried to distance herself from him. He'd been increasingly jealous and kept accusing her of "being a whore." But unable to support herself back in Iowa, Wilson took a job in a nude massage parlor, where, on several occasions, she accepted money for sex.
Riggan tracked her down after his release from prison in 1992. He burst into her house, tied her hands behind her back and, using a knife, forced her to leave with him. He took Wilson out to an old abandoned shack off a dirt road and raped her.
After Wilson convinced him that they would get back together, she managed to escape. Riggan was charged with sexual assault and kidnapping, but the counts were dropped after a witness who saw him abduct Wilson disappeared and Wilson refused to testify. ("I didn't want his defense attorney to call me a prostitute in front of my family," she says.)
In January 1997, Riggan was again accused of sexually assaulting a woman. A prostitute named Pamela Kay Hart told police that he'd driven her down a dead-end street, parked, and then, threatening her with a knife, tied her up and raped her. When she screamed, she told police, Riggan said, "Shut up, mother," and gagged her.
Hart escaped but later refused to press charges. Who was going to believe a prostitute who cried rape? After police discovered the truck Riggan was driving was stolen, though, he was charged with vehicle theft.
But by then Riggan was on the run again. Fleeing warrants for the car theft and another forgery charge, he arrived in Denver in the spring of 1997 driving a dark-blue minivan with Wyoming plates. He immediately began haunting the Capitol Hill area, picking up prostitutes with offers of clothing and crack cocaine.
He met Debbie Johnson in a bar and asked her to pretend to be his wife. It was while driving "Debbie Davis" around to find cocaine that he first came across Joanne Cordova. And it was through Cordova that he met Anita Paley.
Robert Lee Riggan Jr. was charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the death of Anita Paley. Count One contended that he killed her after deliberation. Count Two contended that he killed her to hide a felony, sexual assault.
Jefferson County investigators Jim Burkhalter and John Lauck had led the hunt for evidence, working with Gilpin County officers. They'd found no crack pipe by the road, no blood on the highway south of the turnoff for the Old Hughesville Road.
But there was plenty of blood in the cabin, where it had soaked deeply into the plywood floor. Also found in the cabin was a pair of gray sweat shorts intertwined with a pair of lacy maroon panties.
There was blood leading from the door up the path. If Riggan was taking Anita to the stream to clean her up, as he'd claimed, he'd passed the easiest spot to access the water and continued dragging her further along the trail.
The van also had several spots of blood, although no "blood splatter pattern" that indicated she'd been beaten in the vehicle. The largest concentration of blood lay just behind and between the seats; Riggan had said he'd placed her head there after picking her up off the highway. But there was no blood where her pelvis would have been, and the investigators concluded that she was not bleeding from her vagina when she was in the van.
Inside the van they found a sharp, fish-filleting knife. But while there were two blood spots on the sheath, none were found inside on the blade. That meant the knife probably wasn't the weapon used to cut Anita Paley. Nor could they find a weapon that might have crushed her skull. (Another prostitute who'd been with Riggan, Charlene Snow, told them she'd seen a hatchet with a blunt end in the van. That hatchet had disappeared--but then so did Snow, who didn't want to testify.)
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.
The trial of Robert Lee Riggan Jr. for the murder of Anita Paley began October 13, 1998. Jefferson County Courtroom 5-C was nearly empty of spectators--a couple of reporters, a few curious court personnel, a private investigator who worked for the defense team. Other than those paid by the state to be at his side, Riggan had no supporters in the gallery. Nor was there a grieving family member weeping behind the prosecution table for Paley; her folks back East had said they couldn't afford to come.
A jury of fourteen, two of them alternates, had been selected to hear the case: four women and ten men. The jurors included a middle-aged homemaker, a young college student, a man who had just retired from the Marine Corps, a systems analyst, a statuesque blonde flight attendant. Although this was a death-penalty case, the jurors were told they would not have to decide Riggan's future if they found him guilty. Instead, a three-judge panel would pass judgment.
(A twist of fate dictated that Riggan might be the first person to go before such a panel. Another Jeffco murder trial that had ended in a conviction a month earlier would have been first, but the Colorado Supreme Court had put that panel on hold.)
Deputy District Attorney Dana Easter opened for the prosecution. A former registered nurse, she'd been selected because of the large amount of expected medical testimony. Tall, soft-spoken, Easter began by noting the "fortuitous" timing of the couple on their way to work spotting Riggan. A few minutes either way, and the murder of Anita Paley would have gone unsolved.
After he was caught, she told the jury, Riggan had come up with "a strange tale" of the young woman jumping from his van, then begging not to be taken to a hospital. But the evidence would show that Paley's death was not accidental, she promised.
Hartley, a short, pugnacious attorney in cowboy boots, began his opening argument: "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to represent Robert Riggan." He swept a hand back to indicate his client, dressed in a sweater and slacks, sitting at the defense table. "And it is my pleasure because"--he paused, then lowered his voice almost to a whisper--"he is not guilty."
Riggan had run from the cabin that morning because he had outstanding warrants for theft and forgery back in Iowa, Hartley said, and didn't want to return to prison. He'd developed friendships with prostitutes "because they don't say a lot or ask a lot of questions." Among the prostitutes was Joanne Cordova, "a former Denver police officer who in May 1997 was a hooker addicted to crack cocaine," and Anita Paley, who in the days before her death had become suicidal and "obsessed with religion."
The evidence would show, Hartley told the jury, that Paley's brain showed damage to both sides, which indicated that her moving head had struck an immovable object: the road. And Harley even had an explanation for the cut in her vagina. "These street ladies have an odd habit," he explained. "Gross as it sounds," they carried their extra drugs and money in metal, plastic and glass containers "where if stopped by police it cannot be found"--in their "vaginal vaults."
Paley's death, he concluded, was nothing more than "an unfortunate suicide."
The prosecution's case began with Johnson and Sosebe, moving swiftly through the police officers, trauma surgeons and Galloway. Shane Delray made a brief appearance. He hadn't kicked Anita, he said, and had never known her to use a "vaginal vault."
Then came the witness that court-watchers had been waiting for. The cop-turned-hooker.
"The people call Joanne Cordova," Easter announced.
The girls who worked Colfax Avenue rarely stayed around long. They were always talking about going somewhere better...another city...back home. Even though she knew what had happened to Anita Paley, for Joanne it was as though she had simply gone out the door one day and not come back. She knew Anita was dead but didn't feel it.
Not until the day she was taken to the cabin by Jeffco investigators.
They'd gone up the path to the place where Riggan had left Joanne alone that day and were walking back down along the stream when Joanne noticed a white cross with a bouquet of flowers next to a tree. She thought it was the sort of thing a child might have erected over the grave of a pet.
She was surprised when an investigator suddenly knelt before the cross and bowed his head. "What is that?" she asked.
"Didn't you know?" he replied. "This is where we found her."
That's when it hit. Anita's not gone...she's dead. Joanne burst into tears. She was crying for Anita, but she was also crying because she knew that she could have easily been that body by the tree. Who'd care if a crack-addicted prostitute died--except another hooker?
Joanne had told Anita she'd owe her forever if she retrieved her clothes. Now she figured she owed it to Anita to clean up her life.
Joanne moved into a shelter that offered counseling as well as three square meals a day and a safe place to sleep. In exchange, she had to quit drugs and prostitution. The prostitution was easy, but crack was another matter.
Some days she'd break down and get high. It wasn't enough to just "change playgrounds and change playmates." She'd hidden her fears behind the mask of drugs so long that she didn't know how to look at the world without it. But then she'd think of Anita and the people at the DA's office who treated her with respect, and little by little, she weaned herself from the drug.
Through the shelter, Cordova got a job with a temporary-services agency. Her life was coming together.
Still, as the trial approached, Joanne began having second thoughts about testifying. Her friend Jimmy was on her about it being her "civic duty," and while she wanted to, she told him, she was worried about the reaction on the streets. Street people simply didn't work with cops, and that was that. Someone who got labeled a snitch didn't live long.
She decided she needed to ask that street world for permission. "If he killed your sister, I'd testify for her," she pleaded to drug dealers and pimps and gangsters. "He killed my friend, and I need to be there."
Hard men, who wouldn't hesitate to kill to protect their turf or themselves, replied, "Do what you need to do." So long as that was all she did, they warned.
Joanne had told those men that she needed to testify for Anita Paley. But when it came right down to it, she took a taxi to the Jefferson County courthouse on October 15 for one person. Joanne.
Joanne Cordova took her seat on the witness stand, smiled briefly at the jury and turned expectantly to Easter, who would be asking the questions for the prosecution.
"Did you know Anita Paley?" Easter asked.
"Yes, I did."
"I would say not more than a couple of months."
"Could you describe her?"
"She was a petite white woman with blonde hair, approximately shoulder length, and she had light-colored eyes," Cordova replied. "She was about 5-2, muscular but still petite."
As she answered each question, Cordova remembered to turn and address the jury, making eye contact. Just like I was taught at the academy.
"In the week that ended with her death, did you meet a man that you spent some period of time with?" Easter asked.
"Yes, I did. His name was Bob."
"Can you describe him, please?"
"He's in the courtroom."
"All right, if you would just point him out."
Cordova turned and looked at Riggan for the first time that day. He sat with his head down, staring at his feet. "He's the gentleman sitting at the defense table," she said, pointing.
Cordova described meeting Bob and his "wife" Debbie, and how he'd gotten her attention the next day by honking. "He said he was looking for me. I was kind of taken aback. I didn't realize that anybody had an interest in me like that. So when I asked him why he had been looking for me, he said that he had bought me some clothes. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him that I wanted...that I wanted to do some drugs."
"And what kind of drugs did you want to do?" Easter asked.
"I wanted to do crack cocaine."
"Okay," Easter nodded. "And how would you describe your relationship with cocaine in May of 1997?"
"I was an addict."
"Do you remember the next day?"
"I believe we went to the mountains...to Bob's favorite place in the whole world."
"How do you know that?"
"He told me. We went to a place, it was an old abandoned cabin...When we got there, Bob opened a Corona. I sipped on that and fell asleep."
"Did he stay with you?" Easter asked.
"No he did not," Cordova answered. "I don't know at what point he left, but I woke up and I was alone."
"Did you stay and wait?"
"No, I got scared being up there in the mountains alone, not even knowing where I was. So I walked back to see if the van was there."
When Riggan reappeared, she testified, she asked him, "Why did you leave me? And he became angry that I had asked him...that I had questioned his whereabouts...I felt uncomfortable, so I told him that I needed drugs, and then we left."
"And was it ever your plan that you would have sexual intercourse in that clearing?" Easter asked.
Cordova felt herself blushing. She forced herself to look at the jury. "I never discussed it and I wouldn't," Cordova replied evenly. "He said, 'Before we go back, can we do this?' I just wanted to get it over with. I just wanted to get back to Denver. I did have sexual intercourse with him in the van."
She wanted to explain the fear she'd felt, that she'd thought Riggan had watched her from the woods. But Easter didn't ask about that. Instead, she asked, "Did he remove his clothing?"
Cordova knew that Easter wasn't trying to humiliate her, but she felt shame just the same. "No, he did not...He was on his knees, and he said that he just wanted to have sex doggie-style, and he just kind of pulled his pants down...I turned over, and that was it. He didn't take off any other clothes."
The next time they had sex was after he bought more crack for her. "You got your rocks--now I want to get my rocks off," he'd said.
She described how she'd suggested they go back to the cabin, but he turned off the road long before and demanded sex. "I was not appreciative of that at all," Cordova testified. "However, I knew that the situation was that he wasn't just going to give me free crack. And I knew at some point that I would have to do something and that was, you know, the sex, so I knew I was just going to do it anyway."
Cordova was glad when Easter steered the questioning from sex to running out of gas on the way back to Denver. "I stayed in the van because he demanded that I have these tuna fish sandwiches ready when he came back."
"What did he give you in order to make these sandwiches?"
"He gave me this long, skinny knife...what I would consider a knife to, like, gut fish with...and tuna fish and bread and mayonnaise."
Easter showed her People's Exhibit 48, a fish fillet knife.
"Let me ask you if you remember seeing the defendant in ownership of this knife?"
Cordova shook her head. She hoped she wasn't messing something up for the prosecution, but she had to tell the truth. "I don't."
Easter pulled the knife from the sheath. "Now does it look familiar to you?"
Again Cordova shook her head. "No, that one does not. There's definitely a different knife that I used for tuna fish that was a lot thinner and a little more curved."
Easter moved on to People's Exhibit 35, the lacy maroon panties that had been found intertwined with gray shorts in the cabin. "Do you recognize these?"
This time Cordova nodded. "That's the style of panties bought for me by Bob."
"So they appear similar?"
"Yes, but the ones I had were still on the hanger and still had tags on. I didn't take any of the tags off."
Easter moved on to a plastic bag filled with personal effects. Cordova identified the contents as her check-cashing card, her driver's license and her Social Security card.
Then she paused and for the first time fought back tears. She looked up and smiled at the jury. "And I can see my picture...a little picture under there which I know is a picture of my daughter."
The next morning, the defense got its turn.
"Good morning," Chambers began.
Cordova nodded. "Good morning."
"Yesterday afternoon you testified for close to an hour, I would guess, about events that happened in May of 1997, correct?"
"Yes sir," she answered, turning her head to the jury. "That's correct."
"And so your testimony is about events that are a year and a half ago, almost?"
"And because of the passage of time, your memory is, in some respect, foggy?"
"No, it's not foggy," she replied, shaking her head.
"You're absolutely clear on all details?" Chambers asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I'm clear on details. However, I'm not...I'm not clear on the chronological order of things."
"And during this period of time in May of 1997, you were addicted to crack cocaine?"
"And you were using quite a bit of the crack cocaine during that period of time, using it regularly?"
Cordova smiled and nodded to the jury. "Yes, I was using it regularly."
"How were you supporting yourself in May of 1997?"
Cordova smiled again, although she felt sick inside. Just tell the truth. "I was working on the street in prostitution and also off the street in what you might call a call-girl status." There, it's out. She noticed the blond juror had nodded and written something on her pad. She hoped it wasn't something bad; she wanted to hide.
"Okay," Chambers said. "And how long had you been doing that in May 8 of 1997?"
"One month?" Chambers repeated. He made a face like he didn't believe her.
"So April of 1997 is when you began...prostitution?"
"Probably close to the end of April," Cordova said, pausing a moment. "Yes, that's correct."
"And you spent several days with Bob in May of 1997, correct?"
"That is correct."
"And you were with him voluntarily?"
"Yes, I was."
"He didn't force you to be with him?"
"No, he did not."
"And Bob gave you the money to buy crack cocaine?"
"That is correct."
Chambers asked several questions about Cordova's first days with Bob, including the shopping trip. "And he got you several pairs of panties?"
"And you were shown People's Exhibit 35, and you said that these panties were at least of the same design as the kind he bought for you?"
"These panties, however, were actually too big for you?"
"Yes, as were the rest of the panties that he purchased."
"Now, you knew Ms. Paley, also. Is that correct?"
"Yes, that is correct."
"She was a smaller woman than you?"
"In stature, yes."
"So clothes that were too big for you were way too big for her?"
"She had a much more muscular build, and she had more of a buttocks. But I'm not..."
Chambers interrupted. "So you wear the same pants as her?"
"I wouldn't be able to fit into anything that would fit her around the waist."
"Because she was smaller than you?"
Chambers asked her about the clothes and watches Riggan had purchased for her. "So he got items for you that were worth several hundred dollars, accurate?"
"And that was something he did for you not in exchange for sexual favors? Just did it?"
Cordova nodded to the jury. "That's correct."
"In fact," Chambers said, turning his back on her to face the jury, "if he had wanted to purchase sexual favors from you, he could have done it for a much cheaper price, correct?"
The attack caught her off-guard. "I wouldn't say a much cheaper price by the amount of time I spent with him. However, I didn't look at that as such when I got in his van. I looked at the crack cocaine."
"Right," Chambers said. "You wanted the crack cocaine?"
Cordova agreed, wondering where this was leading.
"Ms. Cordova, I don't mean to be indelicate here..." Chambers said. "Since you were working as a prostitute, what did you charge for your services?"
"A hundred dollars per half-hour of my time," she said, trying to smile. She couldn't face the jury but felt their eyes watching her.
"That's pretty pricey, correct?" Chambers asked. "More than other people were charging?"
"I'm not familiar...I'm not accustomed to asking other women what their prices are," she answered.
Chambers didn't let up. "You were certainly familiar with other prostitutes working in the area?" he asked.
"I don't know what they charged."
"You were familiar with their habits?"
"I was familiar with a lot of their habits because I lived with them. But, I mean..."
By now, the exchange was so fast-paced that the lawyer and witness were talking on top of each other. Judge Plaut held up his hand. "If each of you would allow each other to finish your statement, I think it would be easier on the reporter."
"Okay," Chambers continued. "Anita Paley, you were familiar with her habits?"
"A lot of her habits, just from being around her."
"So if Bob had simply wanted sex, he could have got it for less than the amount of goods that he gave you?"
Joanne felt the lawyer was mocking her, and that made her angry. "As I stated before, no," she retorted. "Actually, I don't believe he would have been able to get it for less than the amount of the goods he gave me simply because of the amount of time I spent with him, several days multiplied..."
Chambers jumped in. "That wasn't my question. Please just answer my question."
Cordova willed herself to calm down. "No, he would not."
"How much time do you continually spend with a john?" Chambers asked. "Do you typically spend five days with a john?"
"No," she answered. "Typically I haven't..."
Again Chambers didn't let her finish. "Typically very short? Half an hour or an hour, right?"
"There's no typical. It's just, you know..." He made her sound so cheap and dirty; she groped for a way to explain. "I mean, I can remember charging $500 for a night..."
"You can remember charging 20 bucks for fifteen minutes, too, right?" he asked sarcastically, making a half-smile for the jury's benefit.
That hurt. "No, I cannot."
At last Chambers changed the subject. "You're familiar with the effects of crack cocaine?"
"Yes, I am."
"Tell the jury how you smoke crack cocaine. How is it ingested?"
"Crack cocaine is put on either a metal pipe, glass pipe or aluminum pipe with some type of screen which may be a Chore Boy or Brillo," she explained as if talking about a science experiment. "It's then melted. It's ingested into the lungs, absorbed by the cilia of the lungs, goes to the bloodstream, then to the brain, and you get high."
"And what's the effect?" Chambers asked.
"Its effect," she said, turning to the jury, "is that it releases dopamine, which is an endorphin, into your brain so that you get that good feeling immediately."
Jaws dropped at Cordova's clinical, studied response. At the prosecution table, Burkhalter and Lauck smiled; they knew Cordova was no dummy. Even Chambers took a moment to recover. "And when you come down from your high, what's the effect?"
"I've never had physical withdrawals."
"There's a craving for more cocaine, though?"
"There's absolutely a craving for crack. That's the market's intention."
"And there is frequently, when you're using crack, intense paranoia?"
"That's one of the psychoses of cocaine usage."
"And that's something you've experienced?"
"I have experienced paranoia on occasion," Cordova agreed. "I've been using it long enough to differentiate between paranoia and reality at this point."
Now Chambers jumped into Cordova's criminal history, and they were soon in another heated exchange.
"Would it be fair to say that crack cocaine has had a dramatic impact on your life?" Chambers asked.
"Absolutely," Cordova said, this time without smiling. "Without a doubt."
"The felony convictions is one aspect?"
Cordova nodded. "Anything having to do with anything criminal is absolutely one effect..."
"You used to be a police officer--is that correct?"
Cordova nodded again. She was beginning to feel beaten down; she wanted it to be over. "That is correct."
"And you lost that job?"
"No, I did not," she answered.
"No, sir, I did not."
"Weren't you fired when you obtained that first forgery conviction?"
Chambers rolled his eyes. "You weren't fired when you obtained that first forgery conviction?"
"No, sir, I was not fired."
"You were allowed to resign?" Chambers asked.
"No. I chose to resign on August 1, 1985. That's correct."
Chambers took a parting shot: "The Denver Police Department was anxious to have a forger on their force?"
Before Cordova could answer, the judge intervened. "All right," he scowled. "That's argumentative. Please move on."
Chambers dropped that subject and started asking questions about how prostitutes stored drugs.
"Women frequently store their crack cocaine and other valuables in their vaginal cavities, correct?"
"Occasionally." Cordova, who didn't know about the injury to Paley's vagina, didn't understand where this line of questioning was going. Chambers changed topics again. He asked about Riggan wanting sex in the clearing that day. "And you did not want to do that?"
"No, I didn't."
"And you told him you didn't want to do that?"
"And so he complied with your wishes?"
"He respected that."
"He backed down from his desires and went to the van?"
"Yes, he did."
Later, Riggan had wanted sex again. "So you didn't want to do it right there?" Chambers repeated.
"I didn't want to do it at all or right there."
"And Mr. Riggan honored your wish?"
"He became very angry," Cordova replied.
"He honored your wish?" Chambers repeated.
"Yes, he did."
"Didn't force you to do anything?"
"No, he did not."
Chambers kept hammering at Joanne. But he got so flustered that the judge admonished him for his outbursts, and he soon gave up his cross-examination.
Easter stood to ask a few more questions. "Ms. Cordova, you were asked a number of questions about the type of container that is used in order to hide crack in a woman's vagina?"
Still puzzled about this sudden interest, Cordova nodded.
She was familiar with the habits of the other women, "including Anita Paley, is that right?"
"Did you ever see Anita Paley save or hide her crack cocaine or anything else, for that matter, inside her vagina?"
"No, I didn't," said Cordova, shaking her head. "It would be highly unlikely, because she didn't have enough money to guard or to save."
"Ms. Cordova, did you show Bob the cabin, or did he show it to you?"
"Oh, he absolutely showed it to me," she said. "It was his favorite place in the whole world."
And suddenly, it was all over.
As Joanne stood to leave, she looked at Riggan. He was staring at her, mouthing something. She couldn't be sure, but she thought he'd said, "I'm sorry."
For a moment, she felt pity for him--he looked as alone as she often felt. She wondered what forces had been at work to make him commit such a horrible act. Better than most, she knew that the seeds of self-destruction are often planted early in life.
But then she remembered Anita. We all make choices and have to live with them.
She had. So would Robert Riggan.
The jury's first vote, taken just minutes after the jurors had been sent to deliberate, was hardly a victory for either side. Two guilty, two innocent and eight undecided on Count One: first-degree murder with deliberation. Three guilty, three innocent and eight undecided on Count Two: felony murder/sexual assault.
They jumped into the deliberations, reviewing the testimony of both sides and comparing notes. Most believed Dr. Galloway, especially his testimony that it was not possible for some broken container to have caused the cut in Paley's vagina. Then there was Dr. Cohen, whose compassion for the victim made a big impact on the jurors. And he had been firm in saying he didn't believe a fall could have caused the vaginal injury to Paley. The jurors didn't know what to think about the coins found under her body.
The prosecution had wrapped up its case with the testimony of a former jailmate, who said Riggan had told him: "The last person I killed, I beat her fucking brains out." But the jurors pretty much dismissed him as just another convict looking for a deal. (They were unaware that another inmate had told authorities that Riggan had confessed to cutting Paley "to the bone" after Paley refused to have sex with him and that he'd hit her with a hammer he later ditched. That inmate refused to cooperate at the trial after fellow prisoners discovered he was a snitch.)
Testifying for the defense, Dr. Chris Sperry, chief medical examiner for the State of Georgia and a forensic pathologist for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, had made a case for the theory that Paley had struck her head on the road. But under cross-examination by Easter, he didn't seem to have a viable explanation for the vaginal wound.
Still, Sperry had his defenders, particularly the blond juror who felt he was more credible than Galloway. And she reiterated a defense line: Why would a man with Sperry's credentials come all the way to Colorado to testify for the defense if he wasn't sure of the theory that Paley had fallen from the van?
Money, the other jurors said. How many pathologists did the defense have to try their theory out on before they found someone who would agree?
Certainly, the most intriguing of the witnesses had been Joanne Cordova. As they discussed her testimony, they wondered how she had gone from cop to prostitute. She was as articulate as any lawyer in the courtroom. It must have been the drugs, they theorized.
Although the blond juror dismissed Cordova as not being credible, most of the other jurors thought just the opposite. She had come across as trying to be as honest and forthright as she could under very difficult circumstances. When Chambers had hammered at her and tried to humiliate her, she had gained their sympathy--and he'd lost their patience with his eye-rolling and smirks.
Cordova's testimony had been important for several reasons. For starters, it had given the jurors the knife that could have cut Paley--the knife she'd used to make the sandwiches, the knife that wasn't shown at trial because it hadn't been found in Riggan's van.
And she had proved Riggan to be a liar in his statements to the Boulder deputies. For one thing, he'd said he didn't have sex with Joanne. Yet, to her obvious embarrassment, she'd testified that he had.
Paley couldn't testify about Riggan's attitude about sex. But Cordova could talk about how he'd demanded sex and pulled into the first available parking spot. And the jurors recalled the testimony of the former police officer, who'd seen the van in a casino parking lot on the morning Paley was injured. That, most of the jurors thought, was where Paley had tried to escape--and had her skull crushed.
Finally, there were the panties. Cordova had said she'd never worn them or even taken the tags off. The defense had contended that Paley had never worn them, either, because they were too big.
And in the end, that's what did it for Robert Riggan. One of the male jurors had noticed that the panties were frayed on the left side, matching one of the abrasion marks on Anita Paley's legs, and that they were stained. With that, the three jurors who had been holding out for an innocent verdict swung over to guilty.
But only on Count Two, which contended that Riggan killed Paley as part of a sexual assault--cutting her vagina. The three holdouts still would not agree to find him guilty on Count One. For some reason--but not a legally correct one--the blond juror had decided that one count was for the head wound and one was for the vaginal cut, and two of the jurors stuck with her.
As deliberations began, Riggan had insisted to his lawyers that he didn't want the jurors to consider a lesser charge, such as second-degree murder. "Make 'em kill me or nothing," he said as he was led away.
The jury granted his wish.
Although Count One was declared a mistrial, Robert Lee Riggan Jr. will still face a three-judge panel to determine if he will get the death penalty for his conviction on Count Two.
It's Friday, a few days after the verdict, and Joanne Cordova is disappointed that she'll have to go through the weekend without her paycheck. "It wasn't ready," she says. "I wanted to go to a movie. I haven't been to a movie in a long time...sit there with a big box of popcorn..."
Her voice trails off but quickly picks up again. "At least I have a real job, which is a milestone for me," she says. "I haven't had a real job in years."
Trying to make a new life has been like waking from a coma, she says. The trial didn't automatically make everything better, make everything easier. Just as she'd dreamed so many years ago, back when she was a rookie cop, before she was a hooker, she'd testified in a court and helped to convict a killer.
Although justice was served, she doesn't feel like much of a hero. But testifying brought a small amount of redemption for a woman who made a lot of bad decisions.
Some days she's too depressed to get out of bed. She wonders if there was something more she could have done for Anita Paley. Much of what happened to the younger woman she learned only after the trial, like the wound to her vagina, and that still gives her horrors. "I wondered why the defense attorney kept asking me about 'containers,'" she says. "Now I just wish I could have been there for Anita and somehow taken away the pain for her."
Joanne tries to picture herself climbing up a ladder, the same ladder she took to the bottom. If she sometimes needs to stop on a rung and rest for a bit, she figures that's okay...she's got a long way to go.
It isn't easy looking at the world without the mask of drugs. It's awfully bright out there, and the brightness illuminates all those mistakes she made. Her lost children...her lost love...her lost career. Most of all, lost time.
She had a dream the other night. "I was living in a glass house," she recalls. "And everybody who walked by could look inside and see what I was doing...I was ashamed and embarrassed."
And now, after she's testified, after her story is known, her parents and many others from her past will know everything she's done. "But it's okay," she says. "I'm tired of hiding. I want back in the fold of my family. I want my dreams back. I can't do that if I'm not honest with myself and everyone else.
"If someone wants to throw stones, they can...But I know I'm a worthwhile person, and the only one I have to prove that to now is me."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.