Jesse Valencia spent the night of Friday, June 4 at SoCo, a Columbia nightclub. The next day, Valencia was in a Wilson Avenue yard, sprawled between two apartment buildings and clad only in a pair of athletic shorts — dead of a neck laceration.
In the days following the murder, police began chasing hundreds of leads, and police officer Steven Rios became an important figure in the homicide investigation.
Valencia was killed in the East Campus neighborhood, home to students living in tenement houses and apartments because of the area’s proximity to Columbia’s three college campuses. Valencia was an MU student, and many East Campus residents were shocked by his violent death.
“I’m kind of floored by the fact that it happened,” says Nasser Asif, 20. Asif and his three roommates live on William Street, less than two blocks from where Valencia’s body was discovered. The experience was surreal for Asif, who stayed up until 4 a.m. on the night of the murder. He heard nothing from his location, but a resident of Valencia’s apartment building reported hearing a scuffle around 3:30 a.m. the morning of the murder, according to the Columbia Missourian.
“You think of fights and petty vandalism as a result of a party in the neighborhood,” Asif says, describing events that are commonplace in the East Campus neighborhood. “But a murder — that’s heavy.”
It gets heavier. Some residents wonder if someone targeted Valencia because he was openly gay. However, in an interview with the Missourian, Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said that the murder was not being investigated as a hate crime.
East Campus resident and MU student Kelley Hewitt doesn’t agree with Boehm’s rationale. “How can they rule out a hate crime if they don’t know who did it?”
Looming beyond the shock of the murder are the growing suspicions surrounding Columbia police officer Steven Rios’ relationship with Valencia. According to the Missourian, police have reevaluated Rios’ role in the case because of his two suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalization. On Tuesday, June 15, the Missourian reported that police officers requested Rios’ presence at the crime scene to identify Valencia’s body. Rios had arrested Valencia on a misdemeanor charge in April. By the time Rios arrived at the scene of the murder, officers had positively identified Valencia’s body.
As a tribute to Valencia, concerned community members have left flowers and candles as an impromptu shrine on the corner of Wilson Avenue and William Street. Friends trade anecdotes about Valencia on the sidewalks of Ninth Street and Broadway.
More than 1,000 work hours have gone into the investigation, and police are still working to verify the more than 200 leads they have received. Chief Randy Boehm says he will not name a suspect until they are prepared to ask for an arrest warrant.