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Steve Rios wanted to be a cop so badly he was willing to sue for it.
The former Columbia Police Officer began working at the Dixon Police Department at age 20. But in Missouri, a person must be 21 to carry a handgun. So Rios sued Pulaski County Sheriff J.T. Roberts to be able to carry a gun while on duty.
And he won.
But by the time Rios was arrested Thursday, the career he wanted so badly was over. After investigators learned that he had an intimate relationship with homicide victim Jesse Valencia, Rios, 27, resigned from the department. He is being held at the Fulton State Hospital-Biggs Unit, charged with first-degree murder.
In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Rios’ friends and former colleagues from Pulaski County defended his character and professionalism. They described him as an energetic, ambitious and humorous man who was committed to a career in law enforcement.
Rios went to high school in Waynesville, a town of about 3,200 people, located 50 miles south of Jefferson City. Before moving to Columbia in mid-1999, Rios worked at the Dixon and Waynesville police departments. Rhonda Maddox, a former dispatcher at the Dixon Police Department, described Rios as “like a brother to me.”
“He would never do anything that put his family in danger or embarrassment,” Maddox said. “I think there must be two sides to every story and everybody needs to find out the second side.”
Rios began his career in Dixon, a town of more than 1,500, about 10 miles northeast of Waynesville, in June 1997. Cliffty Yoakum, Dixon City Marshal, said Rios often spoke to school groups and participated in the community watch program.
“He was good help, always dependable,” Yoakum said.
Rios quit his job at Dixon to take a position with the Waynesville police in February 1998. A month later, he was rehired by Dixon on a part-time basis. Waynesville city records show Rios left the department in April 1999. The circumstances of his departure are unclear; Waynesville Police Chief Don McCulloch declined to comment.
Roberts said he has known Rios “for a lot of years,” and he kept tabs on his career in Dixon and Waynesville. But when Rios lobbied Roberts to become a Pulaski County deputy, the sheriff declined to grant him a commission.
“I thought he’d make a good police officer when he got a little age,” Roberts said. “He had a tendency to be aggressive in his enforcement activities.”
Roy King, Rios’ friend from high school and former colleague with the Dixon police, said Rios was determined to work in law enforcement. At Dixon, Rios often found himself at odds with Yoakum, King said, but “if something went wrong, he always had a plan to get back in it.
“He wanted to be the uniformed cop, the person out there directing traffic,” King said. “He was always eager to get into something.”
Mike Weber, now with the St. Robert Police Department, was another friend and colleague of Rios’ at Dixon. Weber comes from a family of police officers and shared Rios’ drive to work in law enforcement. Along with Rios, Weber sued Pulaski County for the right to carry a gun.
“We spent many hours researching it, and we found the laws in the books,” Weber said. “Once we discovered that, we took it from there, and the judge believed we were right and ruled in our favor. It wasn’t anything that was really contested or caused any problems.”
Weber described Rios as someone who would “eat, sleep, breathe” police work.
“We’d go over to his house and he’d have law enforcement paraphernalia all over,” Weber said. “He dedicated everything in his life to that.”
King said Rios stood out for his sense of humor and desire to help people, especially kids.
“He would make it a point that, ‘I’m a cop, and we’re friendly. You should do this when you get older,’” King said.
King said Rios never lost his temper or seemed to have a bad word to say about anyone. But he and Weber both acknowledge that Rios made mistakes as a police officer, although neither would offer details.
“His mistakes are his mistakes, mine are mine,” King said. “Nothing major, just job-related. Nothing between anybody else, just him and the chief.”
Weber said Rios made the kind of mistakes that are common among young officers. “I wouldn’t consider it in any way, shape or form an action that would cause any problems further in his career,” he said.
After leaving Waynesville, Rios was hired by the Boone County Sheriff’s Department in June 1999. He resigned justa month later, however, while still in training to become a corrections officer, Sheriff Ted Boehm said. Later that summer, Rios worked as a security officer for Target at the Columbia Mall, then was hired by the city in October 1999 as an airport safety officer. He was promoted to police officer by the city on Nov. 26, 2001.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said there were no complaints filed against Rios during his time with the force, nor was he disciplined for any reason. “He performed his job very well,” Boehm said.
Rios married Elizabeth Sullivan on May 18, 2002.
“He was a proud husband,” said Maddox, the former Dixon dispatcher. “Before he was married, that’s all he spoke about, how he was going to be a family man, he was going to be the good husband, and he had the potential to do so. He was like everyone’s brother.”
“He’s always wanted a family, to be the cop coming home to his wife,” King said.
Rios was involved with several professional and community groups in Columbia. He served as administrator of the Columbia Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to raise money for the police department. Rios was also a member of the Substance Abuse Advisory Commission.
He participated in the Partners in Education program, visiting a West Boulevard Elementary kindergarten class on a weekly basis. According to a Columbia College spokesman, Rios is a part-time senior enrolled in one online course.
Rios met Valencia on April 18 when he issued him a ticket at an East Campus party. Soon after, according to friends of Valencia’s, Rios began coming to Valencia’s apartment after his shift ended at 3 a.m.
According to an affidavit submitted by Detective Jeff Nichols, an acquaintance of Valencia’s told investigators that Valencia threatened to tell Chief Boehm about his relationship with Rios. Weber said that a police officer who was gay would probably want to hide it. Rios’ behavior — his relationship with Valencia and his two suicide attempts — has hurt the larger law enforcement community, which is often held to a higher standard by the public, Roberts said.
“Police are supposed to set an example — that’s why they are police. They’re a notch above the rest of the community, and they’re to be respected,” Roberts said. “When someone destroys the respect, it affects all police officers everywhere.”
—Missourian reporter Sarah Larimer contributed to this report