COLUMBIA — In the days immediately following the June 2004 death of Jesse Valencia, former Columbia police officer Steven Rios behaved in an increasingly erratic manner, even threatening suicide twice, Columbia police officers testified Wednesday in the second day of Rios’ murder retrial.
Capt. Stephen Monticelli testified that less than a week after the body of Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student, was found with a slashed throat, Rios called the Columbia Police Department from Kansas City and said, “I did something really stupid." Rios said he had bought a shotgun and was thinking about committing suicide, Monticelli testified.
Just a few days later, officers responded to a call that Rios was standing on a ledge at the top of a parking garage near the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, from which he had escaped the same day, Detective John Short testified. Rios had agreed to enter the facility earlier in the day.
Detective Jeff Westbrook said that when he talked to Rios after the incidents, he told Rios he had to be honest with detectives. “If I had killed Jesse Valencia, I would have killed myself,” Rios replied, according to Westbrook’s testimony.
“Steven, you almost did kill yourself,” Westbrook told him, to which Rios responded, “I couldn’t go through with it,” Westbrook testified. Rios had already admitted to detectives in an interview three days after Valencia’s death that he had an affair with Valencia that started after Rios issued him a summons at a party he broke up in April. Rios was married with one son at the time of Valencia’s death.
Valencia’s friends were aware of his relationship with Rios, with two friends testifying that they witnessed Rios visit Valencia’s apartment on separate occasions in the weeks leading up to his death. Andrew Schermerhorn, a friend and former sexual partner of Valencia, testified that at about 3 or 3:30 a.m. on May 14, 2004, he was at Valencia’s apartment when Rios entered in his police uniform and then had sex with Valencia. Schermerhorn did not know Rios’ name at the time, but he said he recognized him from the party in April.
Rios, now 31, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005 for the murder. His retrial was granted in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals, which ruled that two statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and inadmissible.
Wednesday was another long day in Boone County Circuit Court, where a Clay County jury heard 13 hours of testimony from more than 20 witnesses. The prosecution is scheduled to continue calling witnesses Thursday.
Through the first two days of testimony, Rios rarely displayed emotion, only occasionally cracking a smile at rare moments of levity. He did, however, appear to be very active in his defense. He took notes and frequently consulted with Gillis Leonard, his outgoing attorney from Moberly, who offers a stark contrast in style to special prosecutor Morley Swingle.
Sgt. Lloyd Simons, who supervised Rios in 2003, testified Wednesday that Rios was a politically ambitious young man interested in one day running for office as a Democrat. As an example of Rios’ political interests, Simons said that in 2003 or 2004, Rios was the first person to mention Barack Obama to him.
In an ironic twist to the trial, several officers testified that it was Rios who actually identified Valencia’s body and then was one of the officers who guarded the crime scene on the day of Valencia’s death. Rios was not a suspect at the time, but he had mentioned to other officers that he either knew or had arrested Valencia, according to slightly conflicting testimony from the officers.
Earlier in the day, DNA criminalist Jason Wyckoff testified that Rios’ DNA was found on hair and nail clippings taken from Valencia’s body, corroborating earlier testimony from DNA analyst Kim Gorman. Wyckoff, who works in the Missouri State Highway Patrol crime lab, said he was confident the DNA belonged to Rios because of its unique pattern; he said there is a 1 in 757 trillion chance it could belong to someone else.
But on cross-examination, Wyckoff acknowledged that he did not test DNA samples from a comforter taken from Valencia’s apartment, even though Leonard had requested the tests. Wyckoff said the crime lab determines how it allocates resources and did not think a test of the comforter would have contributed to the investigation.