The public calls on them for protection. They are the enforcers of the law. They are the police. According to the Columbia Police Department’s motto, the goal of police officers is to “demonstrate integrity in all actions because freedom and justice” depend on it.
On July 1, Columbia residents were met with startling news. The almost four-week investigation of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia’s murder led to the arrest of former police officer Steven Rios, who had been with the department since November 2001. Cape Girardeau Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle filed charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action against 27-year-old Rios. A statement filed with the court reported that traces of Rios’ DNA were found under Valencia’s fingernails.
Rios is being held without bond at Briggs Forensic Center at Fulton State Hospital. Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said doctors will decide when to release Rios to jail administrators.
In a press conference on July 1, Boehm said that though it was a difficult day for the police department, he was proud of the way the officers had handled the sensitive nature of Rios’ investigation.
Boehm added that he hopes Rios’ arrest offers some sort of closure for the Valencia family, but Jesse’s stepfather, Lupe Valencia, said in a Columbia Missourian story that he would not be satisfied until a guilty verdict is reached.
A trial date has not yet been determined, and until the trial, Swingle has advised members of the police department not to discuss the case, citing rulings from the Missouri Supreme Court about information that can be disclosed regarding criminal charges. However, speculation still surrounds the murder and envelops the police department, which hasn’t seen an arrest of a Columbia police officer since a 1991 arrest for drunk driving.
Amidst allegations from Valencia’s family that Valencia was scared of Rios and wanted to file a harassment complaint against the officer, some Columbia residents say there is a need for a citizens’ review board, which would address citizens’ complaints about police conduct and hold officers accountable to the public. Boehm said he supports the idea for a review board, but added that it would not have input on criminal investigations, such as this case.
Jesse Valencia’s body was discovered on Sat., June 5; he died of a neck laceration. According to witness accounts filed with the court, on the night of Valencia’s murder, Rios attended a social gathering on the roof of the Columbia Police Department. Boehm said in a Columbia Missourian article that this was not the first of these gatherings.
The following week, Rios attempted suicide twice, first saying he was going to shoot himself, then the next day threatening to jump from the top of MU’s Maryland Avenue parking garage.
Police opened an internal investigation of Rios on June 14 after discovering that the married officer had had an affair with Valencia, who was openly gay. On June 16, Rios resigned from the department. Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton appointed Morley Swingle two days later to serve as a special prosecutor in the case to avoid any conflict of interest with Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane.
Swingle has not said if he will pursue the death penalty for Rios. State law dictates that first-degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Swingle said Rios’ suicide attempts could be used by the defense to obtain a not-guilty verdict by reason of mental disease or defect. Rios’ defense attorney, Rusty Antel, has not commented on the charges.
Swingle announced at the press conference that there may be a public preliminary hearing rather than a grand jury indictment, in which testimony and evidence would remain secret. Rios will appear in court before Boone County Associate Circuit Court Judge Christine Carpenter, the circuit’s mental health court judge, on Friday.
— Katy Ryan