The Murder of Gulf War Veteran Tony Riggs Was a Mystery—then Detroit Police Arrested His Widow
When Army Spc. 4 Anthony Riggs flew home from the Persian Gulf to Fort Bliss, Texas, on March 8, his wife, Toni, and his 3-year-old stepdaughter, Ambere, were there to greet him. A week later the family packed their possessions into a rented van and drove straight through to the working-class Conant Gardens section of Detroit. Toni had been staying there with her grandmother for the seven months Riggs was away manning a Patriot missile launcher in Saudi Arabia.
Less than 24 hours after their arrival in the city, Riggs, 22, was found lying dead in a pool of blood. His in-laws said he had been moving his wife’s belongings at 2:15 A.M. when he apparently became the victim of a random street shooting by an unknown assailant.
The killing quickly drew national attention for its bitter irony: A career soldier had survived the war in the gulf only to be killed back home in the U.S. Adding to the drama was a letter Riggs sent from Saudi Arabia that arrived the day he died. “There’s no way I’m going to die in this rotten country,” he wrote to his wife’s aunt. “With the Lord’s grace and his guidance I’ll walk American soil once again.” One of the soldier’s favorite vocalists-Aretha Franklin—sang at his funeral in Detroit’s Little Rock Baptist Church. The Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. “We must take our streets back,” he exhorted the crowd of more than 700. “We must free America.”
Meanwhile police launched an all-out investigation to find Riggs’s killer. Using old-fashioned legwork, officers checked every garbage can within two blocks of the murder scene. The effort paid off. In one of the cans was the apparent murder weapon, a handgun that police traced to Riggs’s brother-in-law, Michael Cato, 19. This was not a case of random street violence, said Police Chief Stanley Knox. Instead, it seemed, the police had uncovered a murder conspiracy seamy enough to be worthy of Detroit’s own crime novelist Elmore Leonard.
Cato was arrested and reportedly implicated his sister, Toni, 22, Both were charged with first-degree murder—punishable in Michigan by life in prison—and pleaded not guilty. Authorities suspect their motive was money. Riggs carried two life insurance policies: one from the Army, for $50,000; another, for an undisclosed amount, that he took out around the time he left for Saudi Arabia last August.
For most of his life, Riggs had been able to stay out of harm’s way. He was born in Las Vegas, but his mother, Lessie, moved the family to Los Angeles when he was 2. Lessie, 42, now back in Las Vegas working with preschoolers, said the worst thing he did was to skip school 13 days in a row to play the machines in a video arcade. “He loved electronics,” she said. That enthusiasm came in handy in Saudi Arabia, where Riggs was known as a willing Mr. Fixit who helped maintain high-tech Patriot missile systems. “He was very intelligent,” his mother recalls. “There wasn’t anything at home that he couldn’t fix, from an iron to a television set.”
Unfortunately there was one thing that Riggs could not keep in good working order: his rocky two-year marriage to Toni Cato Riggs. “Toni has wrecked my car. She is now bouncing checks…. She is never home: 2:30 A.M., 4 A.M.,” Riggs wrote his mother from Saudi Arabia. “I would put my head through the neck of a hot sauce bottle to please her, but now I need happiness in return.”
He never got it. His wife asked for a divorce the moment he landed at Fort Bliss, he told friends later. He also complained bitterly that Toni had drained his $8,000 bank account while he was in the Middle East and had driven him into debt by spending his $1,000-a-month take-home pay faster than he could earn it. “He kept saying he didn’t know what was going on,” says one friend, Spc. 4 Nikki Akin, 23. “He said she never wrote him and he didn’t have any money.” He was also unhappy at the way she treated his 1989 Nissan Sentra. When he left, the car was in pristine shape. When he returned, it had acquired an assortment of dents, scratches and scrapes.
Lessie Riggs says her daughter-in-law was bad news from the start. Shortly after meeting Toni, Riggs asked his mother to put her up for a few months. “I went through a bank account with this girl,” Lessie recalls. “She would make telephone calls while I was at work. I had a bill for $165 and then the next month $154, and she said she wasn’t going to pay it.” It got worse: When Toni married Riggs in 1989, she reportedly had not yet obtained a divorce from her previous husband.
Given that they were about to break up, it might seem odd that Riggs was willing to spend part of his two-week leave taking Toni back to Detroit from Fort Bliss. But Riggs’s mother says such kindness was part of her son’s character. “Even if you were doing him wrong, Anthony would help you,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “Anthony would help you until the end.”
Joe Treen, Vicki Sheff in Las Vegas, Julie Greenwalt in Detroit, Anne Maier in Texas