Slain officer’s widow looking for justice, answers
Bonnie Riggenbach, right, said she appreciates the St. Michael memorial to her husband, slain Chitimacha tribal police officer Sgt. Frederick “Rick” Riggenbach. The memorial is at the police department where her husband served when he died in a shootout on Jan. 26, 2013. The memorial was placed last year and dedicated on the anniversary of his killing on Flattown Road. She talked about coping with her husband’s death along with Chitimacha Police Chief Blaise Smith, who is with her in front of the memorial.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)
Chitimacha Police Sgt. Frederick “Rick” Riggenbach
CHARENTON — Struggling to control tears and words, and still grieving and searching for answers, the widow of a policeman killed in the line of duty more than a year ago said she wants the man accused of killing her husband convicted and executed.
Sitting in the office of Chitimacha Police Chief Blaise Smith, Bonnie Riggenbach said Wilbert Thibodeaux, accused of killing tribal officer Sgt. Frederick “Rick” Riggenbach, 52, deserves the death penalty.
“It was a conscious decision (Thibodeaux) made and he needs to pay for it,” she said of the Jan. 26, 2013, shooting. “The nature of the killing … I feel justifies the death penalty and I will be there to watch. … He took away my husband, a piece of my mind, a piece of my heart, my sense of security.”
Also killed that day was Eddie Lyons, 78, whose mobile home was burned.
Riggenbach was hailed as a hero after responding to reports of a mobile home fire and a man walking on Flattown Road in Charenton armed with a shotgun.
“I always told Rick I don’t want to be married to a dead hero,” the widow said. “I would remind him that he is not superman and bullets do not (bounce) off of him.”
Thibodeaux, 49, jailed on two murder charges and other offenses, was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation of his mental fitness for trial. His defense team has entered a plea of not-guilty by reason of insanity. Assistant district attorney Anthony Saleme is seeking the death penalty.
St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s deputies Jason Javier and Matthew Strickland were wounded while responding to the arson. They were released from the hospital several days after the shootings.
Riggenbach said she called the Chitimacha tribal police after their daughter, Mary Riggenbach Thompson, called her when the radio station reported three officers were shot.
“I asked where Rick was and (the dispatcher) said she could not answer me. … She said they are coming to talk to me,” Riggenbach said. In about five minutes, police from Chitimacha and St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office “pulled into my driveway. I ran out my door and said, ‘Tell me he is shot and not dead’ but (Chitimacha police Capt. Ellen Hebert) said ‘he has been shot and he is dead.’”
Civil suits were filed by the Riggenbach and Lyons families. Thibodeaux and Sheriff Mark Hebert are defendants in the suits.
Both suits claim Thibodeaux suffered from severe mental disorders. They claim Thibodeaux made threats against Riggenbach’s life after he arrested Thibodeaux four days before the shootings on a disorderly conduct charge at the Cypress Bayou Casino. Thibodeaux was released two days later from the St. Mary Parish Detention Center after posting bail.
With the cases pending, Riggenbach attempted to be selective in what she said. But, she is disappointed in the little information she was given by the sheriff’s office and the Louisiana State Police.
“I felt I deserved to know exactly what happened to my husband that day from everyone,” Riggenbach said. “The chief (Smith) should not have had to be the only one to tell me what happened. … I just wanted the truth about what happened that day. ... I don’t think that is asking too much.”
Sheriff spokeswoman Traci Landry emailed a response when asked to arrange an interview with the sheriff for this story and a comment on Riggenbach’s disappointment in not being able to speak with the sheriff or getting more information.
“While we as fellow law enforcement officers continue to experience the grief and sadness of loss that even more so affects Sgt. Rick Riggenbach’s family, we cannot comment on the investigation. … Any release of information would be at the discretion of prosecutors with the DA’s office,” she said.
State police, the investigating agency in the case, tries to consider victims’ families when releasing information, but must be conscious about not compromising the integrity of criminal cases, state police spokesman Tfc. Stephen Hammons said.
Riggenbach said she discovered the extent of her husband’s wounds after the funeral home “called me and told me they were going to have a closed coffin. ... When I got there ... I saw it was really bad.”
Later when she got the autopsy report she saw he had been shot perhaps as many as eight times, she said.
She said she has seen videos shot by citizens, which “helped me understand things that happened that day and where everyone was located. Just seeing where the cop cars were and where Rick was helped me.”
Riggenbach said for the first six months she went to the cemetery every day in Morgan City.
“I had to get up every day and remind myself he was dead,” she said. “But, you have to pick up the pieces somehow. You have to move forward.”
She hopes her husband’s death will prompt police officers to realize they are not invincible and take any threat very serious.
“They are trained to win but the good guy does not always win,” she said. “Every cop that gets in a car every day needs to realize they can be killed. … That’s why I did not want Rick to be a police officer. ... I tried to talk him out of it. I failed of course … I just prayed every day that God would keep him safe. He answered that prayer for 15 years.”
Riggenbach said she has a “very strong relationship with God. ... God is still on the throne. I have no answer as to why God chose to let Rick die but it wasn’t God’s fault.”
Smith said he has prayed about his friend’s death.
“I have asked God, ‘Why?’ I know everything is done for a reason although I don’t know the reason,” Smith said.
Riggenbach said she and her family choose to celebrate her husband’s life, not his death. There are small things she misses about him.
“I think the hardest thing was getting used to doing things he always did for me like charging my phone. My phone kept dying for a long time,” she said. “I just miss him. ... We have to learn to live without him,” she said as tears again brim in her eyes. “I enjoy talking about Rick. … I prefer talking about the good stuff, of course.”
Using $800 in donations, a memorial for the slain officer was set up shortly after his death. St. Michael, the patron saint of police, was chosen. It was dedicated on Jan. 16, the anniversary of his death.
Riggenbach is appreciative of the care she and her family experienced through the ordeal.
Gov. Bobby Jindal will posthumously award the purple heart to Riggenbach in a May 7 ceremony unveiling his name on a law enforcement memorial in Metairie, she said. The following week, she will travel to Washington, D.C., to accept the posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor to him as one of 74 police officers in the U.S. killed in line of duty last year, she said.