Just over 13 months have passed since Jason and Michelle Riggs watched in the 35th District Courtroom as their son, Ryan, then 22, pleaded guilty to the May 13, 2016 slaying and sexual assault of 25-year-old Chantay Blankinship.
Riggs took a deal in which the state waived seeking the death penalty in exchange for Riggs pleading guilty to capital murder. Riggs, now 23, was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole and is serving his sentence at the Alfred D. Hughes Unit in Gatesville.
Riggs and Blankinship were acquaintances but did not socialize with each other, sheriff’s investigators have said.
Jason — also known as J.D. — and Michelle Riggs told the Bulletin after leaving the courtroom that day they weren’t ready to comment to the media.
Now, they are.
Recently, the couple agreed to be interviewed at North Lake Community Church, where they have attended for several years and Michelle Riggs teaches children’s Sunday school.
Chantay Blankinship also attended the church, and Blankinship’s mother and stepfather, Michelle and Steven McDaniel, have also attended. Ryan Riggs had attended sporadically.
The church’s pastor, Ron Keener, facilitated the interview. Keener and his wife, Elaine — who’d navigated the tricky waters while ministering to both the Riggs and Blankinship families — participated in the interview, which took place in late February.
The Bulletin will publish several stories based on interviews with Jason and Michelle Riggs and others in its print editions and at www.brownwoodtx.com.
Jason, 48, and Michelle Riggs, 46, were kind and candid as they talked about their son, how his crime has impacted them and how they have been able to go on with their lives.
Jason Riggs is a substance abuse counselor at the T.R. Havins Unit in Brownwood, and Michelle Riggs works at a bank. They have a married daughter who is four years older than Ryan.
In the interview, the two expressed gratitude that their son’s life was spared. They honored the memory of Blankinship, a petite and mentally challenged young woman who lived with her grandfather not far from the Riggs family in the North Lake community. They also expressed their appreciation at kindness shown them by the Brown County Sheriff’s Office during and following the arrest of their son.
Ryan Riggs is allowed contact visits three Saturdays a month, and on those three Saturdays, Jason and Michelle Riggs make the round-trip drive to Gatesville to see their son.
Michelle Riggs said she and her husband thought and prayed about whether to be interviewed by the Bulletin.
“We decided to do it because, number one, we want God to be glorified through all of this,” she said. “We know lots of people who have kids who have been incarcerated, and we want them to see that God’s there for them, and there’s hope for them and they deserve to be loved. Any possible way that anybody could be helped, that’s what we want.”
Jason Riggs said, “I could sum it up basically in a word: understanding. I want people to understand, stuff happens in everyday life that’s not an ordinary event. But extraordinary stuff happens to ordinary people, and sometimes, ‘extraordinary’ is damaging and hurtful and painful.”
Jason said he’s worked at the Havins Unit for four-plus years. As a substance abuse counselor, he speaks with offenders.
“Everyone uses that word but I call them clients,” Jason said. “I call them men. I have a picture of me and Ryan on my bulletin board behind my desk, so when my clients see that, and they see me, they realize that I have a little bit of an understanding.”
In that photo, Ryan Riggs is wearing his prison whites.
“They can look at that picture and go ‘he gets it,’” Jason said. “He probably gets me a little bit better than maybe some might.’”
In many cases, Jason said, “it is the drugs that have caused so much damage. I know that Ryan did what he did, but I also know he was impaired, probably very heavily impaired, because that’s just not his character and he was definitely in a state. I don’t make excuses for him, I don’t make excuses for my clients. We’re all responsible and accountable for our actions.”
Mind-altering substances alter perceptions and judgment, Jason said.
As a substance abuse counselor, Jason said he teaches from a program that stresses daily acceptance, daily acknowledgement and daily prioritization.
“First thing you do is you prioritize your day, and in that world, the first priority is to remain sober,” Jason said. “So for me, it’s to remain sober-minded and remain positive, and be a role model. I use my story, I use Ryan’s story in some ways as a teaching experience.
“I can talk about Ryan and it’s sort of therapeutic, and they get something out of that. It’s not just, ‘oh, Mr. Riggs has a sad story.’ Yeah he does, but everybody has a story, and I can relate that to them. I let them know that I may not know how you feel because I’ve never been where you’re at. But I understand how your parents feel, how your spouse feels, because someone I care about, someone I love, is where you’re at.”
Jason said he tells his clients he knows how excited they are to receive visits. He knows because Ryan Riggs tells him “that’s what I look forward to from the minute you leave to the minute you come back,” Jason said.
Michelle Riggs described the impact of learning about her son’s crime.
“At first it was absolutely crushing, and I had a lot of days, especially at first, where I felt like, this is the way it’s going to be, and how are we going to survive this?” Michelle said.
“How do people survive this?”
She referred to a scripture passage.
“But this kept coming back up to me, in Luke 6, starting in verse 46, when it talks about the wise and foolish builders and talks about the man who built his house on the rock,” Michelle said. “And when the storms came and floods came, then his house stood. And then the foolish man built his house on the sand. When the same thing happened his house collapsed. That kept coming up to me.
“For me I clung to Jesus like nothing else. Sometimes it was all I could get through was a few seconds at a time. I learned from a man who goes to church here — he said ‘sometimes if you can’t think of what to pray, if it’s just too hard, say Jesus Jesus Jesus.’ And I’ve done that lots of times.”
Those in their church family, co-workers, people in the community and sometimes total strangers “still come up around us, when they find out who we are, tell us that they pray for us. It’s just been amazing,” Michelle said.
“I see people who are incarcerated in a whole different way than I did before. I don’t think I completely looked down on them but I see them a whole lot more as people, their humanity, a whole lot more than I ever did before.”
It’s given her a platform, Michelle said.
“Even people who aren’t going through the same thing as me, I’m able to tell them, I know that if you stick with Jesus and you have faith, then he will take care of you,” Michelle said. “He is there for you and he will hold you up. I may not know what they’re going through, but they know what we’ve been through.”
She said many have said they don’t know how Michelle and Jason have gotten through the experience.
“It’s been Jesus and it’s been everybody around us,” Michelle said.
In the next installment, Jason and Michelle Riggs talk more about their son and about the events leading up to May 13, 2016.