St. Louis firefighter killed by carjacker, who cops kill in shootout
THURSDAY NOV 6 2008: St. Louis Fire Department communication supervisor Deborah Berg-Gash prepare a tribute to firefighter Leonard Riggins at fire department headquarters Thursday morning. Riggins was shot Wednesday night in Glasgow Village when he stopped to help a carjacker who had crashed a stolen car.
Robert Cohen | Post-Dispatch (P-D)By Greg Jonsson and Leah Thorsen
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
UPDATED, 2:15 P.M.
A St. Louis firefighter who thought he was helping a motorist after a wreck Wednesday evening instead found himself confronted by an armed carjacker who shot the firefighter and left him dying in the street.
Minutes later and a few blocks away at the northern tip of St. Louis on Riverview Drive, the carjacker fired at St. Louis County officers, who shot back and killed the man, ending a carjacking spree that authorities called "chaotic" and pieced together based on witness accounts. The suspect was identified as Christopher Brandon, 19, of St. Louis. (At right) >>
The firefighter, Leonard Riggins, died later at a hospital from a gunshot wound to the chest. Riggins, 52, was a 15-year veteran of the St. Louis Fire Department and left behind a wife and two sons.
"He stopped, he tried to help, and he was shot for no reason at all," said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson, speaking at Christian Northeast Hospital on Wednesday night.
Authorities were still trying to reconstruct the chain of events Wednesday night but said it appeared Brandon killed the firefighter carjacked or attempted to carjack four cars within a span of minutes. They had no motive for the crimes by Thursday afternoon.
Moszell and Nicara Kent were two of the suspect's victims. They pulled into their driveway on Perthshire Drive off Spring Garden Drive about 5 p.m. In the car were two of their children, ages 4 and 11.
Moszell Kent, 31, confronted a man who he thought was trying to jump their fence, and the man reached under his black, zip-up sweater and pulled a gun. The family was able to get out of the car before the gunman took it and drove up Perthshire toward Spring Garden.
Moszell Kent called 911 for help and chased after the car so he could tell police where the man went. When he reached the intersection of Spring Garden and Perthshire, he saw a wrecked car — apparently previously crashed by the carjacker. That car, too, may have been taken from someone.
The carjacker crashed the Kents' car a few blocks away at Spring Garden and Dudley Drive. That's where Riggins, in his uniform and driving a Fire Department vehicle, approached the wrecked car thinking he was coming to the aid of a motorist.
"He thought he came upon an accident scene," said St. Louis County Police Chief Jerry Lee. "He was trying to help."
Lee said the carjacker may have thought Riggins was a police officer. He struggled with Riggins, shot him and took his car, Lee said.
"He drove off, leaving the firefighter on the asphalt," Lee said.
St. Louis County police officers responding to a 911 call reporting an accident came upon the carjacker just a few minutes later. At Spring Garden and Riverview, the gunman was trying to switch the firefighter's car for yet another carjacked vehicle when the officers confronted him.
Brandon fired at them, and the officers fired back, killing him, Lee said.
The violent string of events took less than 15 minutes.
Jenkerson called Riggins "a super gentleman at all times" who died doing "what St. Louis City firefighters do best: helping people."
"He was always there to help anybody," Jenkerson said.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay called Riggins' death a terrible tragedy, and compared it to other recent deaths of those who serve society.
"We couldn't live our lives without them," said Slay.
At a news conference Thursday morning at the St. Louis Fire Department headquarters, 1421 N. Jefferson Ave., Jenkerson said Riggins was a veteran of the U.S. armed services, though the chief didn't know which branch of the military. Riggins began working for the St. Louis city parks department in 1977, then was appointed to the Fire Department on June 1, 1993. He is survived by his wife, Donita Riggins; and two sons, Antwan Banks, 35, and Leonard Riggins Jr., 19.
Riggins is at least the fifth local emergency responder killed by gunfire this year.
On Friday, University City police Sgt. Michael King was slain by a gunman as he sat in his parked patrol car.
Maplewood firefighter Ryan Hummert, 22, was killed in a July 21 ambush, a shooting that also left two Maplewood police officers injured.
Two police officers — Sgt. William Biggs and Officer Tom Ballman — were among the six public officials and employees who died after an attack by Charles "Cookie" Thornton on Feb. 7 at Kirkwood City Hall.
Jenkerson, at Thursday's news conference, noted the recent rash of public-safety officials to die and said, "This has got to stop. There has got to be respect for the men and women in uniform."
Riggins worked at the headquarters as a member of the administrative staff. He was always smiling and always wore his uniform starched and pressed, the chief said. After some renovations at headquarters, Riggins had just gotten his own office. On Wednesday, Riggins had been looking forward to moving his belongings into it, Jenkerson said. That's the last conversation Riggins and Jenkerson had.
When he was shot, Riggins had left headquarters Wednesday evening and was wearing his department uniform -- a dark blue uniform with his name plate and badge. He was driving a department vehicle, a white Grand Marquis with the words "St. Louis Fire Department" on the side, Jenkerson said.
Jenkerson said the killing is being classified as an death in the line of duty because Jenkerson said Riggins' job meant he was never off-duty.
"Leonard was on call at all times, he carried a pager," Jenkerson said.
The Fire Department has what's called "a duty to act," meaning that if a firefighter is in or out of uniform, they have a responsibility to help if they come across a situation from a car wreck to a heart attack of a restaurant patron.
Riggins stopped to help, doing "what he'd been trained to do, what he was best at," the fire chief said.
"Leonard was a guy who would help anybody, at anytime, anywhere and never ask a question," Jenkerson added Thursday. "Anything you needed done .... call Leonard, he'll get it done. He was the go-to guy. He was always there. Leonard was the perfect image of our fire department."