PAIR FACE MURDER CHARGES IN DEATH OF GIRL WHO ATE SALT

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Date: 1988-08-16

PAIR FACE MURDER CHARGES IN DEATH OF GIRL WHO ATE SALT
Author: The Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A Roanoke County couple showed no emotion as doctors and police described their 4-year-old daughter's death caused by spoons of salt she allegedly was force-fed as punishment for stealing sugar.

Judge John Quigley ordered murder charges against Jack Francis Riggs, 39, and Beth Michelle Riggs, 35, sent to next month's grand jury after hearing evidence at a preliminary hearing in Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

The Riggses could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of second- degree murder in the May 17 death of their adopted daughter, Heather.

"What caused her to die?" Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart asked Dr. William Dockery of Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

"I think salt poisoning," Dr. Dockery answered.

Police testified yesterday that as they investigated the death, the couple made statements indicating that Mrs. Riggs forced her daughter to eat up to six spoonfuls of salt May 16 as punishment for stealing sugar earlier in the day. Defense attorney Tom Blaylock said Riggs should never have been charged because he had nothing to do with the fatal punishment and, in fact, had called 911 when he realized the girl was ill.

"He stood there and observed her," Quigley said. "I think he had a chance to do something."

The attorney for his wife, Jim Swanson, would not indicate what her defense will be. The murder charges go before a grand jury Sept. 2, and pre- trial motions were tentatively set for Sept. 22.

The Riggses' young adopted daughter died of heart failure May 17 after doctors watched X-rays of a large lump of salt that was shrinking in her stomach as it dissolved and spread through her body, testimony on Monday indicated.

"It was the same density as bone on the X-ray," Dr. Dockery said. "The size was roughly three inches by one and one-half to two inches."

After the girl died, all that was left in her stomach was tissue bloodied by the salt and a few grains of rice, doctors said.

Although an initial autopsy by a hospital coroner was unable to pinpoint the cause of death, the state medical examiner's office found that salt poisoning had killed the girl, said Dr. David Oxley, a forensic pathologist.

Mrs. Riggs had first told doctors that she found her daughter eating a mixture of sugar and salt.

"I couldn't imagine someone eating, voluntarily, enough salt to raise her level to the level it was and make her ill," Dr. Dockery said.

Police later got more information from one of the Riggses' four natural sons, who have been in the custody of their grandparents. The Riggses then acknowledged the force-feeding of the salt in statements made before they were arrested.

Although Riggs told police his wife made the child eat five to six spoonfuls of salt, Mrs. Riggs put the number at two to three spoonfuls.

"She gave her a mixture of sugar and salt to leave a bad taste in her mouth and to punish her for stealing food," said Roanoke County sheriff's Detective Gary Roche. "He (Riggs) said he didn't think a little salt would hurt anybody."

A statement Mrs. Riggs gave to Detective L.G. Hudson indicated that the girl kept asking if she had to eat the salt and was told she did.

The girl then said her head hurt, and when she threw up, her mother tried to make her clean up the mess, the statement indicated. The girl then threw up some more and passed out, according to the statement.

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