David Riggs' cons lacked artistry but never daring 

click to enlarge Above: Riggs' jet buzzing the Santa Monica pier.

Above: Riggs' jet buzzing the Santa Monica pier.

David Glen Riggs' last lousy decision happened in China.

The Raytown prodigal's blithe globe-trotting had yielded consequences in the past — not least, a trail of scorned investors and furious business partners. But once he thought of his next risky stunt, executing it was generally a matter of when, not if.

Riggs was scarcely seen in the Kansas City area after his release from the Leavenworth penitentiary in 1993, having served time for scamming several area banks in the 1980s. The next stage of his bizarre life took him to South Africa, Hong Kong, Tampa Bay, Southern California and points between. Along the way, he reinvented himself. He was a musician, a rhino-tusk smuggler, a filmmaker, a stunt pilot.

On September 16, 2013, Riggs, in that daredevil role, took a single-engine Lancair 320 into the skies above Shenyang, China, to try a maneuver he aimed to carry out at an air show later that week. The idea was to descend close to the surface of a lake, until water kicked up would make the aircraft appear to be jet-skiing.

A pilot of limited ability, according to some who knew the 51-year-old, Riggs took off in the rain and left the landing gear down as he approached the water. The Lancair clipped the lake's surface and crashed.

Rescuers soon recovered the body of an 18-year-old Chinese woman who was strapped into the plane with Riggs to act as his interpreter. But when the search party didn't find Riggs, a question emerged: Had he once again cheated his way out of a disastrous choice?

Riggs first entered Ronald Roberts' life in 1977. Roberts, a local jazz enthusiast, ran a recording studio out of his Raytown home. His wife was a teacher at Raytown South High School. Riggs, then 15, was Margaret Roberts' student, and he was convincing enough about his musical talent that she introduced the teenager to her husband.

"He came in full of bluster, citing all the awards he had won as a jazz musician," Roberts says of the kid who arrived at his house carrying a trombone. "I heard him play four notes and knew he was a liar."

Roberts took Riggs' money anyway and recorded the kid's efforts in the studio.

"The axiom in the recording business is, you're not a critic," Roberts explains. "If you want to stay in business, you always avoid expressing a musical opinion. If they ask for it, you tell them."

Riggs later told people he had attended a prestigious musical school, but published reports suggest that the troublemaker never graduated Raytown South, after getting the boot for urinating in a classmate's tuba.

Riggs' first non-brass-section infraction may have been a 1980 theft that got the then 17-year-old busted. He tricked an Independence Ramada Inn desk clerk and stole a little more than $100 from the hotel's cash register. And Riggs was still a teenager when authorities caught him running an insurance scam, according to a 1990 Kansas City Business Journal story. The latter transgression earned him probation.

When Roberts started his own company, selling magnetic tape for musical recording, he and Riggs linked up again. Roberts enlisted the younger man as his salesman for Ron Roberts Media.

"He was an unbelievable salesman," Roberts tells The Pitch. "You had to see it to believe it. He was charming. He was a master manipulator."

Riggs helped Roberts make money selling tape, but the two parted company in the early 1980s. Roberts says he caught Riggs meeting with Kansas City club owners, who had traditionally booked Roberts' performances, and offering to undercut his mentor.

Today, Roberts lives in Lenexa, having made enough money selling tape to retire early. Far from forgetting his onetime protégé, he eventually self-published a book about Riggs, titled Hollywood Grifter.

After Roberts fired him, Riggs figured out another way to make money. He launched Mokan Productions Ltd., a company that purported to record jingles for commercials. According to the 1990 Business Journal article, Riggs convinced local banks that his clients included Budweiser, AT&T and Mitsubishi. He borrowed $3 million against that made-up roster — enough to build a studio at 3101 Broadway (today a Children's Mercy Hospital outpost) and fund some extravagant habits.

Presumably wanting more money, or needing to drum up cash to repay his lenders, Riggs tried to take Mokan Productions public in 1987. He almost succeeded. The accounting firm he hired, Arthur Young (known today as Ernst & Young), didn't initially catch that most of Riggs' client list was bogus. But Arthur Young eventually figured out Riggs' house of cards and withdrew the stock offering, catching the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Before federal authorities could nab him, Riggs transferred thousands of dollars to a Cayman Islands bank and took a private jet to the Caribbean with a forged passport.

The feds and Riggs' Kansas City bankers weren't sure where Riggs spent much of the next three years. Had they been reading the South African Sunday Times, they would have realized that Riggs was now calling himself Dave Rogers. In that guise, the fugitive was now involved in an elaborate scheme to smuggle rhino horns to Asia.

A May 14, 1989, story in the South African tabloid, "The Fall of the Rhino Cowboy," describes how Riggs and his accomplices planned a military-style operation, a bombing, to distract authorities and break into government offices to steal millions of dollars' worth of rhino horns (valuable for their ivory) to be fenced in Hong Kong.

One of Riggs' accomplices was actually a South African investigator working undercover. That agent was in Hong Kong with Riggs and another of his associates as they explored the Far East ivory market. The plan was to smuggle the animal parts inside suitcases full of lingerie, according to the newspaper account.

The scheme crumbled when Riggs was arrested for traveling under stolen passports. (Though he had managed to sell a Ferrari first to singer Rod Stewart.)

Riggs spent about a year in a Hong Kong prison before U.S. authorities were able to extradite him to Kansas City in 1990 to answer the bank-swindling charges. Riggs was sentenced to 10 years in prison but spent just three behind bars, at Leavenworth and at another prison in Texas.

He went free in 1993 and soon headed for Atlanta. Years later, he moved to Tampa, Florida, to start a video post-production company called Digital Majik Productions Inc. But his past cast a long shadow in the Sunshine State. The Tampa Bay Business Journal investigated Riggs in 1997 and found that he had conned suppliers and investors. That report also brought Floridians up to speed on Riggs' fraud conviction and his tall tale about having worked on the "This Bud's for You" jingle.

The article was damaging enough to Riggs that he left Florida for California at the turn of the century. But his time in the film business would set the stage for the next chapter in Riggs' life: wannabe Hollywood hotshot.

In October 2001, Bob Zimmerman indulged himself. The 62-year-old Air Force veteran, retiring after a decades-long sales career with AT&T, bought himself a small Cirrus single-engine prop, worth about $300,000.

But Zimmerman had trouble finding a hangar, and Pennsylvania's climate wasn't conducive to parking a plane on the tarmac. Eventually he posted the plane for sale and made a deal with a Tallahassee, Florida, real-estate developer named Terry Fregley. After the transaction, the men struck up a friendship.

Some time later, Fregley made an offer of his own to Zimmerman: What if they went in together on an L-39 training fighter?

The L-39, a jet developed by Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, found its niche among aviation enthusiasts for speed and maneuverability that far exceeded what hobby fliers could typically afford. It didn't perform as well as a Learjet, but it also didn't come with that aircraft's sticker shock.

Zimmerman was reluctant but agreed. He would travel to Florida every so often to visit Fregley and take the L-39 up.

In 2005, Fregley went to the Reno, Nevada, Air Races and spotted another L-39, one with a slick paint job that included images of large-breasted, lingerie-clad women on the plane's tail. According to Zimmerman, Fregley scouted the plane's owner: David Riggs.

"He calls me from there and says, 'Hey, Zimmerman, what do you think about us getting into the movie business?'" Zimmerman recalls of what followed Fregley's casual chat with Riggs.

Fregley told his skeptical friend that Riggs was a Hollywood producer who wanted to make the first big aviation flick since Tom Cruise suited up as Maverick. Riggs had made it sound like a no-brainer: What if two L-39 owners put their wings together to make the next Top Gun on the cheap?

Zimmerman and his son, Jon, and Fregley invested $100,000 in Riggs' idea. Fregley visited Riggs in Los Angeles and toured his Universal City office, where he had Emmys on display in an office showcase. (Riggs had, in fact, never won an Emmy.)

Riggs could make only a low-budget picture, but his pitch hinged on one-upping Top Gun in at least one respect: He wanted his actors to be up in the air for real.

Among Riggs' collaborators was Kim Bass, a writer who had worked on the early 1990s Fox show In Living Color and later helped create the ABC sitcom Sister, Sister. He and Bass refashioned the aviation flick into a movie about a horny rich kid who flies to Cancún for spring break. The kid hooks up with a beautiful woman who won't settle for a one-night stand. The project was now called Succubus: Hell-Bent.

Zimmerman had sunk only money into Riggs' plane movie; Fregley's investment included something else: taking part in a flight scene with the two L-39s.

On February 26, 2006, Fregley and Skip Robertson took to the skies in Riggs' L-39, which he called Wild Child. Riggs flew ahead of them in a small Cessna twin-prop. A video camera was mounted to the Cessna to shoot a scene early that morning, in a canyon north of Mojave, California.

Riggs got the shot he wanted and told Fregley to roll out of the frame. The maneuver failed. The plane struck the canyon and exploded, killing Fregley and Robertson.

Later that day, Zimmerman got a call from his son, who explained what had happened. He called Fregley's wife, who was visiting her son at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs at the time, to tell her that Fregley was dead.

"That wasn't a pleasant thing," Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman had never really spoken to Riggs before, leaving that job to Fregley.

Shortly after the crash, Zimmerman says, Riggs called him. Riggs told him that Fregley had signed a document accepting responsibility for any plane he was piloting. Riggs had lost his own L-39 in the crash, and he was considering a lawsuit against Fregley's wife.

"Terry was a good businessman," Zimmerman says. "Terry would have never signed anything like that."

Zimmerman conveyed his doubts to Fregley's wife, but Zimmerman says she didn't want to fight. She sent the family lawyer to work things out with Riggs, who got Fregley's L-39 as a settlement.

The show went on. Succubus: Hell-Bent wrapped, and Riggs' marquee player, Gary Busey, attended the movie's 2007 premiere.

Zimmerman, invited to Southern California for a Succubus screening, met with Riggs, who had a new offer. Riggs said he would direct three more movies himself, with Bass under contract to write the scripts, if Zimmerman and others could raise $3 million.

Succubus: Hell-Bent had claimed two lives, and it wasn't a movie for the ages. Still, Zimmerman threw in with Riggs.

"He was just a typical Midwestern good ol' boy, and I guess I was somewhat taken in by that," Zimmerman says. "I spent my life in corporate America, and so I guess I wasn't very street-smart. As I look back on it now, there were signs that this guy wasn't on the up-and-up."

Zimmerman and 32 other investors raised $2.4 million to back Riggs' movies, believing that Bass was locked in on all three. They'd seen prospectuses from Riggs that identified Bass as the managing director of Afterburner Films, the company set up to do the three movies.

"I was never part of that company," Bass tells The Pitch. "He [Riggs] basically used the fact that I had a track record in Hollywood to entice these people."

Bass, an amateur pilot himself, had met Riggs at the Burbank, California, airport in 2000. The two remained acquaintances for years afterward, running into each other occasionally at general aviation airports, and Riggs knew that Bass was in the film and TV business. Riggs told Bass that he was the top executive at Panoply Pictures, which produced ads for releases such as American Pie Presents Band Camp and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Riggs also told Bass that Kathryn Peaslee was his wife and business partner. (The two never married.)

Over time, Riggs picked Bass' brain about independent film production. And the two did work together on Succubus: Hell-Bent.

But the relationship was never a great one. Bass, believing that Riggs and Peaslee were married, had misgivings about the way Riggs ran his business. He recalls a dinner put on by Riggs at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills the night after the Succubus: Hell-Bent premiere. Riggs told Bass that he had a bunch of East Coast friends willing to invest in a three-movie deal and asked if Bass would become his business partner. Bass agreed to work on at least the first film; Bass' company would co-venture on the three films, but Bass would own 100 percent of them until they were edited and ready for distribution and sale. The 33 investors Riggs had recruited hadn't heard those terms, according to Bass.

With $2.4 million in hand, Riggs and Bass started work on a concept that they called Fast Glass. Bass remembers seeing Riggs driving around in a new Mercedes but didn't think much about it. Riggs had said he needed a flashy car to shuttle investors around.

In the middle of Fast Glass's production, Bass got a call from Zimmerman, wanting to know why Fast Glass was overbudget, how far behind schedule the production was and where all the money had gone.

"I said, 'We're not overbudget. I just talked to my producer, and we are still under budget at this point,'" Bass recalls. The film was only a week behind because of a union strike that affected production. "They told me that Riggs told them all the money they had invested was gone and the production was another $500,000 in the hole."

Zimmerman says Riggs was pulling investor money to keep Panoply Pictures afloat, while underwriting personal vacations in tropical hot spots.

"He was using our investor funds to fund his flying habits," Zimmerman says. "That's about the time we shut the thing down and found out he was a scoundrel."

Zimmerman knew nothing of Riggs' criminal history until a European contact relayed a story about Riggs' pitch for another film idea.

Zimmerman says he's the one who told Bass that Riggs had described Bass as a managing partner in Panoply.

Bass also found himself entangled with a Northern Californian named Tony Tiscareno, who sued Bass over a claim that the writer had plagiarized the Fast Glass concept from Tiscareno's 1996 screenplay with the same name. (That lawsuit was resolved this month, after years of litigation.)

Bass says his relationship with Riggs may have cost him up to $3 million. Zimmerman says he's out about $1.3 million, counting his own seven years of litigation.

"What do I have to show for it?" Zimmerman says.

Kevin Sullivan was a provisional inspector working for the Federal Aviation Administration out of Los Angeles International Airport when police officers from Santa Monica dropped by in late 2008.

They showed him a video and a written complaint about a pilot who had buzzed the Santa Monica Pier with a high-speed jet on November 6, 2008. The plane, traveling at 280 miles per hour, had come within 500 feet of people standing on the pier. Witnesses reported being able to see the pilot's face and feel the heat from the plane's engine.

The officers wondered if the FAA could help identify the pilot. Sullivan says it took just 20 minutes to figure out that it was Riggs, who kept an L-39 at the airport at Van Nuys, California. A quick check of the FAA database showed Sullivan that Riggs had an extensive record, including the fatal Mojave crash.

Sullivan started making calls.

"Every single time I picked up the phone to make an inquiry, five other doors opened," Sullivan says. He learned that Riggs was selling illegal airplane joy rides to the general public with experimental airplanes, and without a commercial license.

"It's kind of like if a driver with a driver's license goes out and drives a tractor-trailer semi — you're out of class," Sullivan says. "The point is, you can't, as a private pilot, fly an airplane and get commercial compensation."

Sullivan figured out that Riggs buzzed the Santa Monica Pier to drum up publicity and impress investors for yet another film he hoped to produce. This one was called Kerosene Cowboys. The FAA hadn't approved the stunt, which turned out to be one of more than 25 violations that Sullivan uncovered.

Sullivan told the FAA that he feared Riggs might kill someone. He sought an emergency permanent revocation of Riggs' pilot certification.

Riggs accused Sullivan of having a conflict of interest and filed a $50 million lawsuit against another FAA employee who was exploring Riggs' shadowy aviation practices.

Eventually, Santa Monica authorities charged Riggs in connection with the buzzing. He was ordered to spend 60 hours picking up trash at the Santa Monica beach. The National Transportation Safety Board suspended Riggs' license.

Still, Sullivan says he had a hard time convincing the FAA to take his concerns about Riggs seriously. He suspects that Riggs had influence over FAA administrators. Roberts, the Lenexa writer who tracked Riggs' misdeeds, believes that Riggs may have been a federal informant.

By 2012, Riggs was doing aviation business again. One of his companies was selling L-39 rides to Nevada consumers. On May 18, 2012, one of those flights left California's Van Nuys Airport without filing a flight plan and without insurance. It crashed near the Boulder City, Nevada, Municipal Airport, killing two people. The NTSB revoked Riggs' license.

With his U.S. flying privileges in limbo, Riggs went to China.

Searchers found Riggs' body at the bottom of Lake Caihu days after the crash last September. He was cremated in China, ahead of a September 28 memorial service at One Spirit United Methodist Church in Kansas City. (The Raytown native's adoptive father, James Riggs, didn't return a phone call seeking comment for this story.) Aside from a couple of Kansas City Business Journal articles, his death received little attention here.

Roberts noticed. He had long wanted to write a book about Riggs, but until last fall, he lacked a suitably dramatic conclusion. What he got was the kind of thing Riggs might have wanted Bass to write into one of their movie scripts.

"David Riggs was a lying, cheating waste of human DNA — you can quote me on that," Bass says. "A liar, a cheat and an absolutely evil person. And though I wish no human being any harm, my assessment is, the planet is better that he no longer walks it."

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