Slaughter Of The Innocents

Far from the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait, an eruption of gunfire in Michigan and Nebraska adds some heartbreaking, home-front casualties to the body count of the gulf war

"Death is never fair."

The chaplain's words carried across the open-air theater outside Riyadh, where row on row of soldiers in desert camouflage, men and women from the Third Battalion of the 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, sat listening. To the side of the padre was a card table covered with a white cloth, and on it a new helmet and a pair of black combat boots represented the man they had come to mourn. First Sgt. William Kinnard of Delta Battery stood up. In a barrel-chested voice, he called roll before taps: "Pfc. Shipway!" he said. "Here, First Sergeant!" came the reply. "Sergeant Freese!" "Here, First Sergeant." "Pfc. Huneycutt!" "Here, First Sergeant." And then

"Specialist Riggs?"

"Specialist Riggs?"

"Specialist Riggs?"

About 7,000 miles to the west, the silent body of Army Specialist Anthony Riggs, 22, lay in a funeral parlor in Detroit - a young soldier who had risked his life in the gulf only to lose it in the ghetto when he returned home. A few days before leaving Saudi Arabia, Riggs had talked to an Army buddy about death. "One day," he said, "it just comes up in front of you, and then you are on the ground and you look up and think, 'Damn'." He might as well have been reading his own future. Two weeks later as he was packing a rental van in the crack-addled combat zone of Conant Gardens, someone shot at him five times. A neighbor said in the papers the next day that Riggs had gasped for air, coughed a couple of times. "And that was it."

The murder's concussion shook Delta Battery like an incoming Scud. Riggs had been one of the first dozen members of the battery ordered back to Fort Bliss, Texas. When the news of his death came over Armed Forces Radio, no one wanted to believe it. He was tall and thin, friendly and popular. Some called him Lightbulb "because he wasn't much bigger around than one," recalled Sgt. Kevin Walker. Others called him Slowpoke because he was a detail man, a perfectionist who broke every chore into its components before meticulously carrying them out. Whenever Sgt. Joseph Greene braced him on inspections he would just say, "Go ahead, Sergeant. You can't find nothing." And Greene never did. He loved the Army; he was bucking for sergeant. "He didn't want to be just another duffel bag," Walker says. "He wanted to wear the stripes."

Death promoted Riggs above the name, rank and serial-number anonymity that had been his life in the United States Army. To the Pentagon, he was one more "16-Tango," an air defenseman trained on the Patriot missile system. His job was to set up Patriot launchers, to do maintenance work on the batteries and to reload them. But he turned it into something more than that. As a kid, he had liked to take things apart and put them back together, and as a soldier he came to know the Patriot system inside and out. When desert conditions threw the missile into techno-troubles that by-the-manual types couldn't fix, officers consulted Riggs. He also provided Delta Battery with secondary defenses everything from M16-launched grenades to Stinger antiaircraft missiles. "Every time you saw Riggs," recalls Capt. Eddie T. Brenham, 32, his commander, "he's got all this ammo and grenades hung all over him and he's asking for more. He'd say, 'Better safe than sorry'."

When the air war began, Riggs got out Stingers, took up a position on high ground near the battery and spent four to six hours each day on top of his regular duties scanning the sky. He dreamed of bringing down Iraqi fighters. Saddam Hussein was so careful with his Air Force that Riggs didn't get his shot. But Delta Battery did wind up in the middle of the Scud wars. His battalion fired more Patriots than any other in the Saudi theater. It was credited with 20 kills. Under fire, some men yearned for cover; Riggs yearned for action. On the night of the heaviest Scud raids, Captain Brenham says, "I saw him on top of the damn launcher shouting 'Come on! Move!' to the guys who were helping him reload. You couldn't contain the guy." He wrote home saying that he felt no fear. "There's no way I'm going to die in this rotten country," he said in one of his letters. "With the Lord's grace and His guidance, I'll walk American soil again."

The Christian cadences came naturally to Riggs; they had protected him for most of his life. He was born in Las Vegas in 1968. After his mother, Lessie Riggs, moved to Los Angeles, she enrolled him in a Head Start program and saw to it that he and his sister Regina went to good schools. She also nudged him into going to church. On Sundays he sang in the choir. With Regina, he formed "The Gospel Family," a singing group. He stayed off the streets, joined the Army and did a tour in Germany. There he met and later married a young divorcee named Toni who had a baby girl named Amber. "He was warm, gentle, friendly," his pastor, Hillrie Murphy, recalls. "He was the kind of person who met his challenges and faced them happily."

Still, the war separated him from Toni and Amber, and the gap drew him into a different kind of danger. His friends and relatives say that when he left he had $8,000 in the bank. According to them, Toni Riggs's tastes led her to run through the money along with his re-enlistment bonus and monthly paychecks. They also say she bought expensive clothes, ran up enormous phone bills and banged up his Nissan Sentra. When he phoned home, friends say, the calls broke down into shouting matches. "He was battling the war and his wife at the same time," says one of them. "Every time he got off the phone with her he was in tears." He talked to his NCO; a sympathetic chaplain counseled him - he soldiered on.

In early March, Sergeant Greene told him that he was going home. "You serious, Sarge?" Riggs said. Captain Brenham had seen to it that the good soldier with stateside problems got one of the first berths back to Fort Bliss. During the 18-hour flight to Fort Bliss, Riggs and his buddies sat in the back of a 747 talking up a common theme: we survived a war, we can survive anything. Then Riggs considered his marriage. Turning to a friend, he said, "I don't know why I'm going home."

He was among the last ones off the plane when it reached Fort Bliss. When he found his wife in the crowd, friends say, she told him she wanted a divorce and $500 a month in alimony. He spent his first night hitting the fast-food restaurants around El Paso. Then he drove out into the desert to think things through. "When he was done driving around with his buddies," says Sgt. Gary Welliver, one of his friends, "he went up to McKelligon Canyon and cried his eyes out all night.

With two weeks' leave coming to him, Riggs patched up the Sentra, got a new battery and packed Toni Riggs and Amber back to Conley Street in northeast Detroit. Little more than a decade ago Conant Gardens looked like heaven to the blacks who bought houses in the Polish neighborhood. Then drug dealers moved in, and whites moved out. By the time Riggs drove up there were at least two crack houses on the block, and anyone could buy crack on the corner near the hot-dog stand.

The returning veteran had passed through seven months of Desert Shield and Storm unscratched. He lasted less than 24 hours in Detroit. That Sunday he spent most of the day packing a rental van with Toni's belongings. His plan was to move his wife and stepdaughter to a better place in suburban Warren and then to consider his next move. That evening he played with Amber. Then he took a nap. A little after 2 a.m., he decided to wrestle one last load out to the van. Toni's grandmother thought it might be a good idea to turn on the porch light so no one would mistake him for a thief and shoot him. No sooner did the thought cross her mind than she heard five shots. Then there was the sound of car wheels burning rubber as someone screeched off in Riggs's Sentra. When Olla Hicks rushed out to see what had happened, she saw Riggs lying face down with his head to the curb. He died in the dark under the yellow ribbons that fluttered from the porches on Conley Street.

The killer got away. Joel Gilliam, commander of Detroit's 11th precinct, got every cop he could into the streets. He suspected that the killer was someone from the neighborhood out on foot and prowling for targets of opportunity. Gilliam's special-operations unit beat the bushes, raided crack houses, grilled drug dealers and users, but got nowhere. Stanley Knox, Detroit's new police chief, said the murder "kind of gnaws on your nerves," and he swore to keep up the heat.

But that did nothing for Riggs. At the Swanson Funeral Home he lay under an American flag in a black and silver casket of stainless steel. He was buried in his uniform, his campaign ribbons under his left lapel, a red and gold regimental crest pinned just above his nameplate. Calling Riggs "a war casualty," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a eulogy that Americans should think hard about what had happened to him: "We must free American streets. We must attack with the same intensity we fought Saddam Hussein." After his death, a letter Riggs had written from Saudi Arabia reached his mother. It said, "We did nice in the war, don't you think?" As the rain beat down on the roof of her small apartment in Las Vegas, she thought about it for a moment. "You just wish he had stayed," she said. "If only he had stayed."

"Who knows what happens when we send our soldiers over there?"

The sight prompting Don Morris's agonized question last week was an open casket in a mortuary in Cozad, Neb. On a soft pillow lay his daughter Connie Kast, her 2 1/2-year-old son Dallas II cradled in her arm. Beneath the burial clothes, mother and child had bullet wounds through the heart. When their funeral was over, Morris took one of the prettier flower arrangements to a local florist and asked to wire one like it to California for the funeral of Army Specialist Dallas Kast, 25, his son-in-law. Six days after returning from the gulf, Kast had shot his wife and son. Then, placing the muzzle of his 9-mm pistol against his forehead, he pulled the trigger and fell dead beside them.

The body count of three will not go down on the lists of those killed in action against Saddam Hussein; but the war took these lives all the same. Acquaintances say Kast was unstable, a man who had abused Connie Kast at least twice before he set off for the gulf. Overseas, no matter how he tried to control his impulses, the war only sharpened them. Early last January, friends say, he began to act strangely after a phone conversation with his wife. She wanted a divorce, a topic they had danced around before. First Kast gave away his belongings, small souvenirs he had picked up, a few trinkets from home. That night he wandered off into the desert. After 20 minutes his buddies realized he was missing and organized two search parties. When they found him, he was distraught. They brought him back, and he spent several hours talking with a chaplain.

The padre recommended a psychiatric review; the Army took away the soldier's weapon and sent him off to Fleet Hospital Five in Jubail. While he was waiting to talk to a psychiatrist, his friends say, medics brought in the body of a Marine who had committed suicide. The glimpse of the corpse shook him. Mistakenly, his friends thought the experience helped his condition. And for a time he did seem to improve. He wrote frequently to his wife and to her parents. "They were nice, friendly letters," says Cozad's Police Chief Billy Stevenson. "He said he'd been reading the Bible. He kept telling her he loved her and the baby. He never made any threats. " But one of the notes startled Don and Lou Ann Morris. Two weeks before returning home, Kast wrote, "Please tell Connie I would never kill her." Don says, "Our eyebrows about fell off." When they asked their daughter what the letter meant, she told them that after her marriage, Kast had tried twice to strangle her. The letter was ambiguous: was it a loving promise, or a scrambled threat?

Connie Kast, 22, had organized a new life as a buffer against her husband and his violent whims. In early January she moved from El Paso to Cozad, rented a trailer home near the Union Pacific tracks, took a job in a meatpacking plant and enrolled her son D.J. in a day-care center. She wanted a divorce; but she followed the gulf news on TV, telling D.J., "That's where Daddy is." Noticing a few recurring words at home and at his grandparents' house - Saudi Arabia. Dallas. Daddy - the little boy began to put everything together. "Call me Dallas," he said one day. And on March 10, his daddy came home.

Kast returned from the gulf to Fort Bliss on a Sunday. The same afternoon he left to visit his mother, Beverly Ann Isaacson, in Ruidoso, N.M. He had a few beers, told a few war stories, nothing unusual. "He seemed normal to me, but he wasn't," his mother recalls. The next day she took him shopping and helped him buy some civilian clothes. She also gave him the money to buy a bus ticket to Nebraska. "He wanted to make a go of his marriage," she says. "He said, 'If it doesn't work out, I'll be home in a couple of days'."

The signs at first seemed encouraging. Morris picked his son-in-law up at the bus station and took him to a revival meeting at the First Church of the Nazarene. Afterward some of the kids from the church came home with them for root-beer floats. "Here's the hero coming back from Iraq," Morris recalls. "You can imagine how excited those high-school and junior-high kids were." Later, Connie Kast arrived with D.J. For a while the little boy clung to her. Kast talked to him gently, letting him get used to his voice; then the two of them were down on the floor playing with a toy. "Pretty soon D.J. recognized him," Morris says. "The two of them hugged, and Dallas bawled." Two days later Kast told Morris he was sorry for the hurt he had caused his daughter and asked what he could do to let her know "I'm not the same man I was." Morris said it would take time, a softening of the heart: "I cannot tell you she's going to change her mind. But patience and love will usually succeed." Kast seemed to accept the advice.

Morris felt a twinge of optimism; but Connie Kast said to her mother, "Mom, don't get your hopes up." That afternoon Kast went to the Morris home to pick up a bundle of letters that he and his wife had exchanged while he was off at the war. He took them to her trailer to read, saying he wanted to be alone to think. The next afternoon, Kast shot Connie and D.J., then killed himself, planning things so he fell in his dead wife's lap. When the police arrived, they found near the three bodies Kast's boots, a small Bible and the letters from the gulf.

The triple murder-suicide left two families in agony searching for comfort and answers. "I hate the act that was committed, I do not hate Dallas," said Morris. "As long as you've invited Jesus Christ into your life, he will take care of you." Kast's mother accused the Army of shipping her son home without telling his stateside commanders about his psychiatric breakdown in the gulf. "If I'd known all he had seen over there," she says, "I never would have put him on the bus. I'd have stopped it right there." The Army planned a "psychological autopsy," but said Kast had seen no unusual action. The presumption was that he was fit to travel and go home. Why then did he snap? "He's the only one who could tell us," says Michael Maloney, a Dawson County prosecutor. "And he's gone."