A few weeks ago, Steven Rios was employed to protect and serve Columbia. On Thursday, he was led into police department headquarters as a murder suspect.
Investigators arrested Rios, a former officer, at 8:55 a.m. Thursday on charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the slaying of MU student Jesse Valencia.
Rios, who had been on the Columbia Police Department force for the better part of three years, was taken to the maximum security Biggs Forensic Center at Fulton State Hospital. Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler denied bond, citing the threat Rios poses to himself and the community. Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said the decision on where to hold Rios will be made by mental health officials.
Police Capt. Mike Martin, investigative commander for the Columbia Police Department, said police requested an arrest warrant Thursday morning. Detective John Short filed a probable cause statement in Boone County Circuit Court, citing witness accounts and DNA evidence found under Valencia’s fingernails. Oxenhandler issued a warrant for Rios’ arrest shortly after 8 a.m.
At a crowded news conference in the Columbia City Council chambers, Boehm and special prosecutor Morley Swingle addressed the case. Also in attendance — at Boehm’s invitation — were dozens of police officers, including top-ranking administrators, members of the detective unit and two Missouri State Highway Patrolmen who assisted in the investigation.
“This is a very sad day for the Columbia Police Department,” Boehm said. “None of us that wear this uniform ever thought that anyone who wears this uniform could be responsible for this terrible crime.”
Rios faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the murder charge. At the press briefing, Swingle said he had not decided whether to seek the former. Missouri law cites 17 circumstances that warrant the death penalty.
“I would have to go through them one by one, assess the facts and decide whether or not any are supported,” Swingle said.
Boehm recounted the timeline of the investigation and some challenges that the department faced.
“While we receive some satisfaction from solving this crime, because that is what we do, we certainly receive no pleasure in this particular resolution,” he said. “In many ways, this is a proud day for the Columbia Police Department. As the evidence began to lead in this ultimate direction, these dedicated officers carried out their duties with the utmost professionalism. Detectives continued to work this case exactly the way they would have worked any homicide investigation, which is exactly what we asked them to do.”
Valencia’s body was found about 2 p.m. on June 5 between two houses on Wilson Avenue. The 23-year-old’s throat had been cut. The following week, Boehm confirmed that Rios and Valencia had been involved in a personal relationship that began when Rios arrested Valencia for a peace disturbance on April 18.
In an affidavit filed in support of a June 11 search of Rios’ home, police said Rios admitted to a homosexual relationship with Valencia. The document stated that an acquaintance of Valencia’s told investigators that Valencia planned to reveal the relationship to Boehm. Valencia’s family has said that he was scared of Rios and that the officer wouldn’t leave him alone.
Following public disclosure of their relationship, Rios twice threatened suicide. On Thursday, Swingle addressed the issue of Rios’ mental health.
“In Missouri, a person can be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect if they suffer from a mental disease or defect that makes them incapable of understanding the nature or consequences of what they are doing,” Swingle said. “Whether that happens in this case, that’s up to the defense.”
Officers on Thursday brought Rios from Fulton State Hospital to Columbia police headquarters for processing, then returned him to the Biggs Forensic Center.
“It’s my understanding that Mr. Rios was cooperative at the time of his arrest and that it occurred without incident,” Boehm said.
Although Boehm said not all of the evidence has returned from the state crime lab, Swingle expressed confidence that Rios will be the only suspect.
“Only one person is charged, and I believe we charged the only person involved in this crime,” Swingle said.
The arraignment, an initial court appearance when formal charges are read, was set for July 9 before Associate Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter. Swingle said he will present evidence to support the charge in an open preliminary hearing rather than in a closed grand jury proceeding. He confirmed that he had spoken to Rusty Antel, a member of Rios’ defense team.
Antel’s office declined to comment.
On June 10, Rios, who has been a Columbia officer since November 2001, phoned the police department, saying he had obtained a shotgun with the intent of harming himself. Rios was taken into protective custody and committed to the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center. His status on the force was changed from personal leave to administrative leave, and police announced they considered him a “person of interest” in the investigation. He remained on the payroll.
The next day, Rios escaped from the center and ran to the top of a nearby parking garage, teetering on the upper ledge and threatening again to kill himself. Negotiators talked him down, and he was taken to Fulton State Hospital for the standard 96-hour commitment period. He resigned from the force on June 16. Although the 96 hours had expired, Rios remained in Fulton until his arrest.
The probable cause statement filed in support of an arrest warrant resembled the affidavit police filed to search Rios’ residence. Both documents cite witness accounts detailing Rios’ whereabouts the night of Valencia’s murder.
The two documents note a “social gathering” Rios attended the night of the homicide. During the course of the investigation, Boehm said the gathering occurred atop police headquarters and was not the first to be held there. Nor was he sure how many of these gatherings involved alcohol. On Thursday, Boehm said no officer would be reprimanded for past offenses.
The probable cause statement also contains details of DNA evidence collected from Valencia’s body.
“The last physical contact that Rios admitted to having with Jesse James Valencia was more than a week prior to June 5, 2004,” the document stated. “According to a DNA expert, it is unlikely that DNA from one person would remain under the fingernails of another person for over a week if the person showers and/or washes his hands frequently.”
Martin declined to comment on when the evidence arrived at the department.
Throughout the investigation, Rios has been classified as a “person of interest.” Swingle said classifying Rios as a “suspect” would have been improper.
“Whether he was labeled a suspect or not a suspect at the outset is a difficult spot for law enforcement because they are not supposed to ethically be talking about who their suspects are,” Swingle said.
Swingle has asked officers not to discuss the case. “I intend to try this case in the courtroom,” he said, “not in the media.”
Boehm said he hoped the community would take some comfort in his department’s performance.
“The fact is, this department has been faced with probably the most difficult set of circumstances that a police agency could find itself in, where they are investigating one of their own related to this type of horrible crime,” Boehm said. “And I think that our officers have stepped forward and done that job, and I would hope the community would have a lot of reassurance from that fact, the fact that they were able to successfully solve this crime.”
— Missourian reporter Kate Moser contributed to this report