When police officers were trying to determine the identity of slaying victim Jesse Valencia, in the hours after the MU student’s body was found in an East Campus neighborhood, one person they turned to for help was Officer Steven Rios.
Capt. Mike Martin, the department’s investigative commander, said Rios — who was involved in a personal relationship with Valencia and is on administrative leave from the force — was called to the scene of the crime to aid investigators.
“He was present at the scene on Saturday,” Martin said. “He was there while we were there.”
Martin said he requested Rios’ presence because investigators had reason to believe the victim was the 23-year-old Valencia. The department knew Rios had arrested Valencia on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a government operation in April.
By the time Rios made it to the crime scene, Martin said, officers had confirmed that Valencia was the victim. Rios remained at the scene and “provided perimeter security,” Martin said.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said the department would look into Rios’ role at the crime scene and what it might mean for the investigation into Valencia’s death.
“I don’t think that necessarily him just being present at the scene means that the crime scene has been tainted,” Boehm said. “We will have to look more closely at what type of access that he had.”
Boehm said Rios, who worked until 3 a.m. the night of Valencia’s slaying, was at police headquarters when Martin’s call came in.
“They were asking for additional personnel, and he happened to be here in the building,” Boehm said.
Police think Valencia, whose throat had been cut, was killed sometime after 3:30 a.m. June 5. Witnesses reported finding a body in the yard at 1517 Wilson Ave. about 2 p.m. that day. The department issued a press release at 5:25 p.m. indicating officers did not yet know the victim’s identity. Martin said that investigators had actually determined that the body was Valencia’s around 4:30 p.m. but withheld that information pending notification of next of kin.
Rios was granted a personal leave on Wednesday when investigators became aware that the officer knew Valencia on a “personal level.” The 27-year-old Rios, a married, five-year veteran of the Columbia Police Department, was taken into protective custody late Thursday night after threatening to shoot himself. Boehm then placed Rios, who was admitted to the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, on administrative leave and called in the Missouri State Highway Patrol to assist in the investigation.
Rios bolted from the center’s grounds Friday and threatened to jump from the roof of a nearby parking garage. Boehm said he thinks Rios has been moved to a mental health center in Fulton.
Steve Easton, an MU associate professor of law, said it’s impossible to know whether Rios’ presence at the crime scene would affect the investigation without knowing what evidence had been collected.
“When any individual is at the scene of a crime who has a relationship with the victim of the crime there is at least the possibility that evidence could be compromised,” Easton said. “But for that matter, when anybody is at the scene of the crime, evidence could be compromised. All I’m saying is that it’s possible.”