Change of pace: Attorney shifts gears with new career at state office

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

As a young assistant in the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office, Richmond M. Riggs had worked his way up to handling a docket for a circuit court judge, taking over the cases from a veteran prosecutor.

But the judge was not pleased to see his court being handled by a green prosecutor, and let Riggs know it.

"My first day there, the judge looked me up one side and down the other, and said 'So, you're the new one?'"

"Yes," Riggs said.

"Well, I can't say I'm glad to see you," the judge shot back.

But Riggs learned his job very well and earned respect from that judge and everyone else in the legal community over the next two decades, progressing through the Prosecutor's Office with jobs requiring more responsibility and becoming a mentor to younger assistants.

And recently, Riggs, 56, resigned from that job to take on another challenge as a prosecutor in the Michigan Attorney General's office in September.

"I was thrown for a loss," said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton when he learned he would be losing one of his top assistants. "He is a rock. Richmond is like the Cal Ripken Jr. of this office because he's so dependable, and he's going to be irreplaceable," he said.

Leyton said Riggs was his "go-to guy" when there were any questions when reviewing cases, issuing warrants, evidence, and trial issues.

"Richmond has left a real solid imprint on our office, and a breadth of knowledge that we're going to miss, and the entire Genesee County legal community will miss," Leyton said. "He's a gentleman, and a top-notch lawyer, and the Attorney General is getting an All-Star, like they're signing a major free agent."

That sentiment is echoed by Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Randall Petrides, whom Riggs called a "mentor" and a close friend.

"He's a tremendous lawyer," Petrides said of Riggs. "Richmond has been a rock as we've gone through these battles together."

Petrides said that Riggs leaves his own legacy at the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office.

"He's carried out justice here with a capital J," Petrides said.

Riggs is a low-key guy, not one to toot his own horn, according to Petrides. But his calmness should never be mistaken for weakness. In court, Riggs is a strong advocate for victims and has a relentless quest for justice. He views the job of prosecutor as the "greatest" in the world.

"You have the opportunity to stand up for the victims, and tell the defendants you're not going to let them hurt anyone anymore," Riggs said. "What more can you ask for? If a prosecutor does his or her job well, the community we live in is a better place to live."

Riggs has always looked ahead, rather than behind. He was born in Chicago, but adopted shortly after birth and raised in Cheboygan. His father, Myrton, worked his way up from janitor, to editor and finally, owner of the local newspaper there. His mother, Alta, was the paper's social editor. But they both stressed the importance of education to him.

"There was no question of if you were going to college, it was when you go," Riggs said. "There was no other choice."

Another adopted brother, Reg, owns a business in the Williamston area. Riggs said he never lamented the fact of being adopted.

"My real parents are the ones who were there when I skinned a knee, or had something great happen. I feel lucky I grew up with the family I did, and I appreciate them more every day, especially now that I have kids," he said.

After graduating from high school, Riggs went to Michigan State University with an eye on a job in the corporate world, but by his third year and learning that "the idea of being a faceless cog seemed boring as hell," Riggs wanted to try for something more difficult. His parents had a friend who was a lawyer, and Riggs was impressed by him and the rigors of being an attorney.

"It seemed to be the hardest thing to do that I could think of, really tough and a challenge," he said.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree from MSU in 1977, Riggs started at Cooley Law School.

"It was a great choice for me, because they emphasized a practical approach to law, not just the legal principals, but the nuts and bolts of how to practice law, and why you do what you do in the law," he said.

He worked as an intern at a Lansing law firm and got a feel for practicing, but after graduating in 1981, Riggs landed a job with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe in Mt. Pleasant, working several positions on the organizational chart, such as a magistrate, court clerk, juvenile referee, and assistant tribal attorney.

After spending nearly three years there, Riggs spent part of his time practicing with a senior attorney and tribal judge. He left there and spent about a year at a worker's compensation firm in Saginaw, but did not enjoy the work because there was very little, if any, courtroom work. But during that time, Riggs was able to pick up some appointed work representing children in Family Court, which cemented his desire to practice law in a courtroom.

In 1985, Riggs was hired by the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office. For the next 26 years, Riggs worked his way up, from district court cases to circuit court trials.

"I enjoyed the courtroom work," he said, noting that he never considered defense work. "I was working the right side of the law," Riggs said. "I enjoyed representing the victims and the people much more."

Riggs looked up to a few valuable mentors in his progression through the prosecutor's office. In district court, he looked up to the late Jim Yuille, who "wasn't afraid to give you enough rope to get yourself in trouble." In circuit court, Riggs considered Daniel Stamos, a retired assistant prosecutor known for his flamboyance and street-fighter demeanor, a mentor and learned from him "to trust your instincts."

After being raised in the small town of Cheboygan, Riggs said seeing the big-city crimes in Flint was "an eye-opening experience," with the violent murders, robberies and drug-crimes associated with the rise in crack cocaine use.

Riggs also did stints in family support, and worked dockets for several judges, always earning the respect of local law enforcement, defense attorneys and each of the three county Prosecutors he worked under. At various times, Riggs supervised assistant prosecutors in circuit, district and family court, was a trial attorney assigned to the violent crimes unit, and served as a special assistant U.S. attorney assigned to prosecuting gun crimes in federal court.

But when the opportunity came recently to join the state Attorney General's Office Criminal Division in Detroit, investigating gaming fraud and white-collar crime, Riggs knew the timing for a change was right. The Genesee County Prosecutor's Office, like many through the state, has lost staff and had budget constraints.

"This opportunity presented itself, and I thought this might be the time for me to try something new, and take my skills to a different arena," he said.

Through the years, Riggs has handled many cases, some of which drew intense media scrutiny, and others that drew nary a blip on the media radar. Many cases were heart-wrenching, others were weird, and some were "incomprehensibly stupid," he said.

"Some may get more attention than others, but every case was important," he said.

The joy is knowing you did good, and touched someone, Riggs said. He often runs into victims who remember he brought them justice, or jurors who recall cases with stunning clarity, "and you realize what a big part of their lives you've become."

There have been many more wins than losses on his ledger, but that's the risk of going to trial.

"The system imposes a very high standard on us to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and it should impose a high standard. It's that burden that makes our system the best in the world," he said.

One of his pet peeves is hearing people dump on public employees as being greedy or lazy. But Riggs recalls leaving his office after 12-hour days and seeing a number of cars in the parking lot, and all of them belonged to assistant prosecutors. They do not get paid for working overtime. They were there because the job required extra time as workloads increase and additional hours are needed to seek justice.

"You keep going because it's your job, the people depend on you," he said. "Those men and women were working late, working hard because that's what the job requires. It makes me proud to be a prosecutor."

Riggs said he will miss the people he works with the most, because over the years, it becomes like family. You know the spouses, the kids and what they did over the weekend. Riggs has also become good friends with some of the defense attorneys he's faced in court, and enjoys hunting and other outdoor activities with them.

Riggs, who is married to Lori--the two met years earlier when she was a secretary in the prosecutor's office--have twins, Richmond II and Carly McKay, 12, and will continue to live in Fenton. For fun, Riggs enjoys reading, hunting, downhill skiing, and riding his Harley. He has given back to the community by being on the boards of several local organizations, like the YMCA and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and he and his wife have helped a Flint public school by donating laundry detergent to teachers who took it upon themselves to wash the student's dirty clothes because parents were too poor.

If he had a choice, Riggs said his legacy at the prosecutor's office would be as "having the courage to do the right thing even when that wasn't the easiest thing to do." He said the new job at the state AG's office will be a challenge, "and I'm looking forward to that," he said. But seeking the difficult path is nothing new to him. It started in college, and stays with him still.

And soon, others can say they are glad to see him.

Published: Mon, Dec 19, 2011