Police gatherings on HQ roof concern chief

Steven Rios’ “social gathering” was atop the police station
on East Walnut.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:44 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Former Columbia police officer Steven Rios attended a “social gathering” the night Jesse Valencia was killed, according to an affidavit used to search his home, and some of those in attendance were later questioned by a homicide detective.

What the document doesn’t say is that the gathering occurred on the roof of police headquarters at 600 E. Walnut St.

Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said Monday that he learned about the gathering during the course of the Valencia investigation. Boehm said he subsequently discovered that officers met socially on top of the building on other occasions as well.

“I had no prior knowledge of this or else I would have addressed it previously,” Boehm said.

The revelation comes just days after Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane requested the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle any matters involving Rios “if a filing decision needs to be made” in the Valencia case. Crane said he wanted to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Valencia’s body was found in his East Campus neighborhood on June 5. The 23-year-old MU student’s throat had been cut. Detectives think Valencia was slain after 3:30 a.m. that day.

According to the affidavit, witnesses told homicide detective Jeff Nichols that after finishing his shift at 3 a.m., Rios “met with a few friends” until about 4:40 a.m. Rios initially told Nichols that he left at 5 a.m. In a second interview, Rios said he stayed until 5:15 a.m., then drove home and showered.

Officers searched Rios’ home on June 11, looking for a clip-on-style, folding-blade knife, trace materials and clothing, according to the affidavit. An inventory of the search states officers collected several articles of clothing, as well as materials from Rios’ shower drains. No knife was found.

Boehm confirmed that some of the gatherings atop police headquarters involved alcohol, but he declined to say whether officers were drinking June 5.

“I don’t believe it to be a frequent occurrence, but as I said, it does concern me,” Boehm said. “And, we are addressing that issue to make sure that it doesn’t reoccur.”

Boehm said he met with district commanders Monday afternoon to discuss the rooftop gatherings.

“After that meeting, the district commanders did send an e-mail, basically, that (said) that’s inappropriate and it’s not to recur,” Boehm said.

Boehm said he thought Rios was still at Fulton State Hospital, where he has been held since his second threat to commit suicide on June 11. Rios resigned from the department June 16.

While Rios is in the care of mental health officials, police will not interview him, said Capt. Mike Martin, investigative commander for the Columbia Police Department. Detectives are calling Rios “a person of interest” in the investigation, a category that includes others, Martin said. “I don’t know how many names are involved in that,” Martin said. “I can think of several, several people that we have in the same status.”

Police are following up on more than 200 leads, according to Martin, and Boehm said investigations into possible policy infractions related to the rooftop gatherings will take a back seat to the ongoing homicide investigation.

If alcohol was involved in the June 5 gathering, it would be in violation of Columbia’s open container law, which prohibits possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages “on any street, sidewalk or city parking facility unless the seal is unbroken.” The violations carry a maximum $500 fine.

Jim Harmon, President of the Columbia Police Officers Association, said that Boehm is responsible for looking into the gatherings.

“That’s a department discipline issue, and that would be entirely up to the chief of police,” Harmon said. “That’s not something the Columbia Police Officers Association sponsors or anything else. We don’t control what officers do away from employment or anything like that.”

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