MOTHER IN SALT-POISONING CASE REPROACHED FOR CRUEL DISCIPLINE

Relates to:
Date: 1989-02-15

Author: The Associated Press
Dateline: SALEM

A judge was disturbed by the types of discipline imposed by a mother who force-fed her daughter a fatal dose of salt as punishment for stealing sugar, but he declined to impose the maximum sentence.

"Children should not be force-fed things. They should not have their heads beaten together. They should not be led around by their hair. They should not be beaten until they bruise," Roanoke County Circuit Judge Kenneth Trabue told Beth Michelle Riggs at her sentencing yesterday for second-degree murder.

Mrs. Riggs, 36, was given a 12-year prison term, eight years less than the maximum, for the salt-poisoning death last May of 4-year-old Heather Riggs. Mrs. Riggs took the stand and tearfully said she never planned to harm the child.

"I would never do anything to hurt any of my children," Mrs. Riggs said. "Heather was a very special little girl, and when Heather died, part of me died with her, and that's something I will have to live with all my life."

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart asked for the maximum sentence and accused Mrs. Riggs of faking her remorse by weeping while defense attorney James Swanson questioned her but coolly and carefully answering the commonwealth's questions posed in cross-examination.

Mrs. Riggs explained that after Heather was caught stealing sugar from the kitchen on May 16, the girl refused to discuss her voracious appetite for sweets she had not gotten permission to eat.

"I was disgusted," Mrs. Riggs testified. "I said to her, `How about I mix a little salt with this sugar and see how you like it? Because everything you get doesn't taste good.' She said nothing, so I mixed the salt with the sugar. I said, `Here, try this. See how you like this.' "

The girl was sent to stand in the corner and soon began vomiting. Mrs. Riggs tried to make Heather clean up her mess, but the girl's eyes soon rolled back in her head and she was taken to the hospital, where she died a day later of heart failure, testimony indicated.

Mrs. Riggs entered a no contest plea in December in an arrangement that called for her to be convicted of second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. The judge chose the more serious offense.

On the stand yesterday, Mrs. Riggs talked about other punishments she had imposed on Heather, who was adopted from the nation of Colombia, and four natural sons.

Trabue asked her about paddling her children, banging her sons' heads together, pulling Heather around by the hair and putting pepper on Heather's tongue as punishment for lying. Mrs. Riggs acknowledged each of the punishments but said they were not common.

Her children and family were the central point of her life, she said.

"I used the paddle on rare occasions on my children, but I did not hit them hard enough to hurt," Mrs. Riggs said. "I banged the boys' heads together years ago -- one time -- years ago, and that was it."

Asked about pulling Heather's hair and dragging her around by it, Mrs. Riggs said, "Very rarely."

Asked about the pepper placed on Heather's tongue, Mrs. Riggs said, "She had lied continuously, and I put a taste of pepper on her tongue and that's it."

Her attorney had asked for a 12-year prison sentence with six years suspended, but the judge ordered Mrs. Riggs to serve all 12 years. Still, she could be eligible for parole after serving a fourth of the sentence, Swanson said.

Her husband, Jack Francis Riggs, 39, had been charged with murder but the charge was thrown out because he was not connected to the force-feeding. Asked whether he thought his wife's sentence was fair, Jack Riggs told a reporter to "buzz off."

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