Ryan Riggs pleaded guilty to capital murder Friday afternoon in 35th District Court in the May 13, 2016 slaying and sexual assault of Chantay Blankinship of North Lake Brownwood and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Riggs, 22, took a deal for the mandatory life with no parole sentence in exchange for prosecutors declining to seek the death penalty. District Judge Steve Ellis accepted Riggs’ plea and sentenced Riggs. Life without parole is the only option in a capital murder case when the death penalty is not imposed, prosecutors have said.

Riggs was accompanied in court by two attorneys from the Lubbock-based Regional Public Defender’s Office. Ellis had appointed them as Riggs’ attorneys when Ellis anticipated the possibility of the state seeking the death penalty. District Attorney Micheal Murray had not said previously whether his office planned to seek the death penalty. 

“She got her justice,” Blankinship’s stepfather, Steven McDaniel, said after Riggs was sentenced. “I believe she got her justice.”

McDaniel said while he believes Riggs deserved to be executed, his family supported the plea bargain and life in prison for Riggs. The family was ready for the case to be over, McDaniel said. 

“We’re just tired,” McDaniel said.

Victim’s mother speaks

Blankinship, 25, was last seen alive the night of May 13, 2016, a Friday. Searchers found her body two days later in an abandoned cellar on isolated property in northern Brown County. 

“You took somebody very precious from us — for what reason, we don’t understand,” Blankinship’s mother, Michelle McDaniel, said through tears as she addressed Riggs, speaking in a courtroom crowded with court and law enforcement personnel, as well as family members of Blankinship and Riggs.

“That little girl never did anything to anybody. We deal with the pain every day. I don’t understand why. I want to know why. We’re not bad people. We could’ve fought for you to have the death penalty and we did not.”

Riggs was accused by indictment of causing Blankinship’s death by  “by choking her, stomping her, striking her with a lawnmower blade or other blunt force ... and was in the course of committing or attempting to commit the offense of kidnapping or aggravated sexual assault.”

Murray told Ellis his office went forward with the plea bargain after extensive communication with law enforcement and Blankinship’s family members. Blankenship’s family supported the plea bargain, Murray told Ellis.

“I wish this was all a dream,” McDaniel told Riggs. “You will never get married. You will never have grandkids for your mom and dad. My daughter would forgive you because that’s the way she was. I hope one day you’ll realize everything you have ever done, not only to us but to your family.”

 

‘We don’t hold them accountable’

After deputies escorted Riggs out of the courtroom, Riggs’ parents, J.D. and Michelle Riggs, and the McDaniels embraced and spoke quietly. Members of North Lake Community Church — where Blankinship and Riggs both attended, and where J.D. and Michelle Riggs continue to attend — prayed together.

Steven McDaniel said he and his wife had not previously spoken with Riggs’ parents. He said his wife was the one wanted to speak with them and he joined in. Facing J.D. and Michelle Riggs for the first time was awkward for him, Steven said.

But the McDaniels know what Ryan Riggs did is not his parents’ fault, Steven said.

“We’re not only losing a child, they’re losing a child,” McDaniel said. “We don’t hold them accountable. It touched me. I feel for that family. I really do.”

J.D. and Michelle Riggs said they were not yet ready to comment to the Bulletin.

 

Case history

Blankenship’s murder went unsolved for 18 months.

In November 2017, sheriff’s investigators learned about a new technology known as DNA phenotyping. The technology provided investigators with a digital profile of the suspect’s facial and skin tone characteristics — a big break that jumpstarted a stalled investigation.

While not able to provide a name, the technology provided a profile of  a white male with brown or light brown hair, blue or green eyes, a light complexion and possibly some freckles.

The profile could not determine the suspect’s age, but an image from the company that performed the analysis suggested what the suspect might look like at age 25.

Investigators released the image to the public, and tips came in that the image bore a strong resemblance to Riggs, an acquaintance of Blankenship’s family and a resident of their North Lake Brownwood neighborhood.

A week later, Riggs confessed to his church congregation that he had killed Blankinship and then gave a confession to sheriff’s investigators and Texas Ranger Jason Shea, Sheriff Vance Hill has said.

 

‘Guilty of capital murder’

As Ellis convened court Friday, he dealt with formalities and asked Riggs how he pled.

“Guilty,” Riggs replied quietly.”

After verifying the conditions of the plea bargain with Murray and the defense attorneys, Ellis announced, “I find Mr. Riggs guilty as charged with capital murder.”

A few minutes later, Ellis said, “I now sentence you to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”