“Here we are 18 months later, with one of our church members who's standing right in front of me, sobbing and confessing that he did it. Now that's a range of emotions that I had never experienced.” — North Lake Community Church Pastor Ron Keener
North Lake Community Church pastor Ron Keener and his wife, Elaine, have searing memories of the terrible Sunday night 18 months ago. Word reached the church on May 15, 2016 that their beloved parishioner — 25-year-old Chantay Blankenship — had been found murdered.
They remember her funeral, held at the church a few days later, attended by more than 400, which Ron Keener preached.
Emotion poured from the Keeners Thursday afternoon as they described the stunning events that occurred at the church Wednesday night: a church member with sporadic attendance — 21-year-old Ryan Riggs — told Keener, and later the entire congregation, that he committed the murder.
“It’s numbing,” Ron Keener said as he and his wife were interviewed at the Bulletin. “I’ve been that way since (Wednesday) night … to the depth of my very being. We’ve invested in his life since 2012.
“Eighteen months to the day … we were in our church building that Sunday night. After that search, we had received word that her body had been found, this young lady that would be 27 on (this coming) Sunday.
“We’ve dealt with that since then. Now here we are 18 months later, with one of our church members who’s standing right in front of me, sobbing and confessing that he did it. Now that’s a range of emotions that I had never experienced.”
Riggs came to the 6 p.m. service with his parents, J.D. and Michelle Riggs, the Keeners said. A few minutes before 6, Riggs told Keener in the parking lot that he killed Blankinship, and asked permission to confess to the church. Keener granted Riggs permission and told him he would be calling Sheriff Vance Hill after the service. The Keeners and another couple from the church caravanned with J.D. and Michelle Riggs as they drove their son to the Law Enforcement Center.
Hill, alerted by Keener, met up with the caravan and followed the vehicles to the Law Enforcement Center. In the parking lot, Keener said, Hill introduced himself to Ryan Riggs and treated him with respect. “It made me very proud of Vance Hill,” Keener said. “It was a picture of class.”
The Keeners said they met Riggs five years ago, just before his 16th birthday. Riggs graduated from May High School, and Ron Keener baptized J.D. and Ryan on Father’s Day in 2013.
“He has gone through struggles,” Elaine Keener said. She said he was “seeking and searching as a young man,” quiet and a deep thinker. He participated in the church’s Helping Hands ministry doing yard work and was a hard worker, the Keeners said.
Before Wednesday, Riggs had last attended church four weeks earlier, the Keeners said.
They had known about the DNA profile and composite drawing released last week by sheriff’s officials, and they learned Riggs had disappeared briefly from the home he shared with his parents. The Keeners knew sheriff’s officials wanted to talk to Riggs about a trash dumping violation, and began to suspect there was more to it than trash.
Most of Wednesday was “a typical Keener day” involving hospital and nursing home visits — “a normal day in our lives, being out there with people,” Ron Keener said.
Standing outside the church Wednesday evening, Keener greeted church members as they arrived. J.D. Riggs approached Keener and asked him to follow him to the side of the church.
“I sensed the urgency of the moment,” Keener said. He saw Ryan Riggs standing with his mother.
“When Ryan saw me coming, I knew something … he was facing me and began to cry,” Keener recalled. “He grabbed me and hugged me and embraced me and didn’t want to let go. He was sobbing. He said ‘I came to church tonight to take care of something. I need to make something right …’
“I knew what was coming. I knew it was not about the trash incident. The first thing he said was, ‘I am a murderer … I need to confess that.’”
Keener prayed with Riggs in the parking lot and told him, “what you’ve done is a horrible, horrible thing and there will be tremendous consequences … a lot of lives have been hurt by this. … Elaine and I and your church family are not going to throw you under the bus.”
Inside the church, Keener began the service and quickly called Riggs — who was sitting in the front row with his parents — to the platform. “He began to share, and it was a heavy, heavy moment. He cried out ‘I am a murderer …’”
Keener heard the gasps from the congregation. Riggs did not go into detail about the murder, Keener said.
Church members spoke spontaneous, “very grace-filled words,” Keener said.
Keener went outside, reached Hill on his cell phone and told the sheriff what had happened. “We’re going to bring him to your office,” Keener told Hill.
At the Law Enforcement Center, J.D. and Michelle hugged their son as Hill, sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Bird and Texas Ranger Jason Shea escorted him down a hall and into an interview room.
Keener said he knows all about sin and grace. He said God is using a dark time in his life many years ago “for such a time as this, to lead a group of people into reflecting the awesome goodness and grace of almighty God to a fallen man, Ryan Riggs.”
The Keeners said while they’re extending grace, they do not overlook the crime or give it a stamp of approval. The crime was “deplorable — absolutely deplorable,” Ron Keener said. “We are reeling with the emotions of this.”
Keener said he spent time with Blankinship’s mother and stepfather, Michelle and Steven McDaniel, earlier Thursday. “They are processing their grief, which is normal and necessary,” Keener said. “They are working through forgiveness.”