Woman Links Herself To Slaying

DETROIT - As a hidden video camera rolled in a Detroit office, Toni Cato Riggs talked convincingly to her potential employers about her qualifications for the drug-trafficking trade.

The dealers - actually two undercover federal agents - were skeptical and worried because Riggs was high-profile. Her face had been all over television and newspapers after her soldier husband's 1991 slaying in Detroit days after returning from the Persian Gulf War. How could she stay in the shadows?

During the Feb. 23 meeting, Toni Riggs told them. She had a passport and could be a "swallower" for them, hiding dope-filled balloons in her stomach while she flew back to the United States from South America.

Riggs needed the job because she needed the cash. Earlier, she had claimed she was being blackmailed by someone threatening to turn her over to police.

And perhaps to prove she had enough guts to peddle drugs, Riggs told the agents a crime story to which police have worked to connect her for more than two years.

In March 1991, she had paid two men - one her younger brother - to kill her husband, Anthony Riggs, for $150,000 in life-insurance money, she said.

The agents, one of whom described the above account in a federal-court affidavit, had recorded evidence that could finally connect her to her husband's death.

Yesterday, Riggs, 24, was arraigned in U.S. District Court on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and interstate travel

for illegal purposes.

The bigger story, police and prosecutors said, is that next week she will be charged in connection with the murder.

"Was I surprised? I don't know whether `surprise' is the word. Grateful," said Lessie Riggs, the dead soldier's mother, who unsuccessfully fought Toni Riggs in court for life-insurance payments.

The slaying of Anthony Riggs on a dark morning outside the family's northeast Detroit home attracted international attention as a brutal example of random crime in urban America. Detroit was portrayed as a place so violent that a soldier could survive the Persian Gulf War but not the city's streets.

Detectives believed a robber had shot Anthony Riggs as he was loading a car with belongings for a move. At the funeral, attended by celebrity Aretha Franklin and civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, Toni Riggs sobbed uncontrollably.

But within days, police suspected a plot between his wife and her brother and charged them with first-degree murder. Michael Cato confessed that his sister had persuaded him to kill her husband so they could split $150,000 in insurance money.

Michael Cato was convicted, but a judge said his confession could not be used against his sister. The decision is still being appealed, but police had to let Riggs go free.

She later collected the insurance money. But by April 1992, she needed more cash, agents said, and unwittingly placed herself in the middle of a drug investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

That operation has resulted in the arrests of dozens of people.