St. Louis sees fifth emergency worker gunned down this year

Thursday, November 6, 2008 | 6:47 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — For the fifth time this year, the St. Louis area is mourning the death of an emergency responder gunned down while doing his job.

On Wednesday, 52-year-old Leonard Riggins, dressed in his St. Louis firefighter's uniform and driving a department car, stopped to help at a crash scene in north St. Louis County. Inside the crashed car was 19-year-old Christopher Brandon of St. Louis, who police say had carjacked the vehicle before wrecking it.

Riggins was shot and left bleeding in the street as Brandon then stole the firefighter's car, police said. County police spotted the suspect minutes later in yet another car — allegedly the fourth he had stolen that night.

Police said Brandon took off on foot and pointed a handgun at officers, who fired back, killing the suspect.

Though he was off duty, fire department officials ruled Riggins' death as in the line of duty: He was in uniform, in a department car and was providing assistance.

Fire Capt. Bob Keuss said it was in keeping with Riggins' nature that he had offered help to someone in need. The 15-year veteran of the department was part of the headquarters staff, responding to multiple-alarm fires as part of the command. He also oversaw the department's firefighting gear and honor guards.

Ask Riggins for help, and his response was always "I'll take care of it," Keuss said.

It marked the second time this year a firefighter in St. Louis County was gunned down. Three police officers in the county have also been shot to death this year.

In July, a gunman opened fire on emergency responders who were called to a pickup truck fire in Maplewood that turned out to be a ruse for an ambush. Maplewood firefighter Ryan Hummert, 22, died at the scene. Police Sgt. Mike Martin and officer Adam Fite were injured but survived.

The suspect died in a nearby burning house that eventually collapsed.

"This is exactly like the Ryan Hummert thing. He was responding, doing his job," Keuss noted.

On Halloween night, University City Sgt. Michael King was shot in the head while in his patrol car. Police were questioning a man, but no charges have been filed.

In February, Kirkwood officers Tom Ballman and William Biggs were among five people killed when a disgruntled resident, Charles "Cookie" Thornton, went on a shooting rampage at a city council meeting. Officers then killed Thornton.

Experts can cite no underlying reason for the number of attacks on emergency responders in the area.

"We have a desire to make sense of these situations. That's how we're wired," said David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "There are times and places where you can't do anything about it."

Klinger, a former California and Washington police officer himself, said procedures are in place to protect police and firefighters. But particularly for firefighters, "How often does it turn out that it's not a standard accident, but a scene where there's someone with a gun?"

"When we take losses in fire service or in law enforcement, we analyze it and see what we can do. If there's something, we fix it," he said.

For instance, after the Kirkwood shootings, many communities examined how they could step up their security or better identify potential threats. Just the same, "These are the types of things you can't predict," Klinger said.

Police said Brandon began the night driving a car stolen in St. Louis, then carjacked a second vehicle from a family in the county. When he crashed that vehicle into trees along the side of the road, Riggins came to his aid, only to be gunned down.

Brandon eventually abandoned Riggins' fire department car before stealing a fourth vehicle. He was in that vehicle when police spotted him and gave chase.

A few residents on Thursday said the Glasgow Village neighborhood where Riggins was shot isn't safe and told of other cars being stolen and an instance of a house being shot up.

Adena Lynch, a licensed practical nurse who moved to the area this summer from Illinois, said she often stops to help people because of her training and because she thinks it's the right thing to do. But the shooting gave her pause.

"Now you have to ask yourself, 'Should I stop and help if someone could gun you down too?'" she said.

At St. Louis city buildings, flags were at half-staff in honor of Riggins. Gov. Matt Blunt called him a hero.

Riggins is survived by a wife and two sons, ages 35 and 19. Funeral arrangements were pending.

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