Relates to:
Date: 1988-09-03

Author: The Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A couple whose adoptive 4-year-old daughter died after being forced to eat salt have been indicted on murder charges.

A Roanoke County grand jury yesterday charged Beth Michelle Riggs and her husband, Jack Riggs, in the May 16 death of Heather Riggs.

Mrs. Riggs, 35, was accused of force-feeding her daughter five or six spoonfuls of a mixture of salt and sugar as punishment for stealing sugar. Her husband, 39, was charged because he allegedly did nothing to stop the punishment.

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkhart said he felt the maximum punishment for Jack Riggs would be second-degree murder, which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

He said jurors possibly could find Mrs. Riggs guilty of first-degree murder, which could carry a life prison sentence.

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

The Riggses also were indicted on one count each of child neglect, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

The case against Jack Riggs should not have gone before the grand jury because Riggs did nothing to harm the child and took her to an emergency room when she became ill, said defense attorney Tom Blaylock.

Jack 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 grand jury, said, "I think he had a duty to stop her."

The parents, who have been free on $75,000 bond each, showed no emotion in court on Aug. 15 when police and doctors described Heather's death.

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

Doctors said they noticed on an X-ray of the girl's stomach a large lump that they later concluded was salt dissolving into her system. The lump kept shrinking as her sodium levels kept rising.

During an autopsy, coroners found the lining of the girl's stomach was ravaged by a caustic substance.

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


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