Relates to:
Date: 1988-09-03

Author: Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A Roanoke County grand jury indicted a couple on murder charges yesterday in the death of their 4-year-old adopted daughter who was force-fed a fatal dose of salt as punishment for stealing sugar.

Beth Michelle Riggs, 35, was accused of killing Heather Riggs by force- feeding her five or six spoonfuls of a salt-and-sugar mixture. Jack Riggs, 39, was charged because authorities alleged he did nothing to stop her.

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart said jurors could possibly find Mrs. Riggs guilty of first-degree murder, which could carry a life sentence.

"On the woman, I will leave that option open," Burkart said. "On the husband, I felt the most would be second-degree murder."

Second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The Riggses were also indicted on one count each of child neglect, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years.

Lawyers are to argue motions in a Roanoke County Circuit Court hearing on Sept. 22, but a trial date has not been set.

The child died May 16 of heart failure caused by salt poisoning, said doctors who tried to save her life.

Tom Blaylock, the lawyer for Riggs, said the case against his client should never have gone before the grand jury because he did nothing to harm the child. Blaylock said once the child became ill, Riggs took her to an emergency room.

Riggs "didn't share in his wife's criminal intent, if there was criminal intent," Blaylock said in a hearing last month.

But Judge John Quigley, who sent the case to the jury, said, "I think he had a duty to stop her."

Authorities said their investigation found that when the child was force- fed the salt, she said, "Mommy, my head hurts."

The child then vomited, and the mother tried to force her to clean up the mess, but she passed out.

Doctors said that as they tried to save the girl's life, they noticed on an X-ray a large lump in her stomach that shrank as her sodium level rose. They later concluded the 3-inch lump must have been salt that was dissolving into the girl's system as her health failed.

The lining of her stomach was ravaged by a caustic substance, coroners found.

The parents, who have been free on $75,000 bond each, showed no emotion in court Aug. 15 as police and doctors described the details of their daughter's death.


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