BOLYE COUNTY, Ky. — For the 800 residents of Perryville, Ky., life goes on.
The stoplight on Highway 68 — one of two in town — still switches from red to green to yellow and back to red again.
Life goes on.
Tobacco fields still patch the Kentucky hills.
Life goes on.
Children are done with summer break and back in the classroom, and the Boyle County High School football team is preparing for its first game, in which it will take on nearby Henry Clay High School.
Life in the tiny town goes on.
But for Linda Valencia, the mother of Columbia homicide victim Jesse Valencia, time stands still.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have anything on my mind besides him,” she said.
Most nights, she said, sleep does not come. Instead, she spends the overnight hours visiting Jesse, who is buried about 75 feet from her front door. She visits his grave in the middle of the night, around the time he is suspected to have been murdered, she said.
“I just can’t deal with it,” Valencia said.
Jesse, she said, had recently developed an appreciation for his Southern roots and began to appreciate the music of artists such as Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. So, it seems fitting that she walks these Kentucky hills and visits his grave when the night wind wails.
The proximity of the grave to her house disturbs one of her daughters, 15-year-old Maria, who has taken to sleeping at the home of Valencia’s ex-husband instead.
“She said it bothers her that he is out there so close,” Valencia said. “She has had a hard time spending the night here.”
Jesse Valencia’s body was found on the afternoon of June 5, about half a block from his East Campus apartment. The 23-year-old MU student’s throat had been cut. In the following weeks, Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm disclosed a personal relationship involving Jesse Valencia and one of his officers, Steven Rios. Rios, a married 27-year-old, twice attempted suicide and was later arrested and charged with his murder.
Rios’ Aug. 27 preliminary hearing is approaching, and Linda Valencia said that doesn’t make things any easier.
“The closer it gets to the hearing, the worse I feel,” she said in a hollow voice.
For some time, Valencia said she feared she would be unable to travel to Columbia for Rios’ hearings and trial. Now, however, because Special Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle’s office has offered to pay for her mileage and hotel fares, Valencia said she can make the 470-mile journey. Her vehicle has broken down, she said, but she believes it will be running in time.
Valencia held a job for about two weeks at the Best Western Inn in Harrodsburg but said she was fired for talking on her cell phone too much with reporters. But her former employer, inn manager Amanda Tyler, said the cell phone conversations were not the reason she was let go.
“She just couldn’t do the work,” Tyler said. “But she had a lot of problems, you know, with her son being killed, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with.”
Tyler said Valencia struggled to learn her duties at the hotel’s front desk. “I know she’s had problems with the son being killed, and I would have, too. But that was it; it wasn’t on the cell phone,” she said. “It was just (that) she couldn’t catch onto the machines.”
Valencia said money has been tight since she lost her job. The roughly $250 collected through a memorial fund that was created in Jesse’s honor covered only the cost of her first visit to Columbia, during which she collected her son’s belongings.
Lisa Bottom of Farmers National Bank said people from across the country, not just Boyle County, donated to the fund. “There was a lot of people that called and asked about it,” she said.
Jesse’s death was the fourth in his family in five years, Bottom said, and community members struggled to understand.
“I mean, people were just shocked that it happened,” Bottom said.
Jesse’s high school art teacher, Mike Camic, said he doesn’t really remember the names of the thousands of students he has taught through the years. But he does remember faces. So, when he saw the face of Jesse Valencia in an old snapshot Wednesday afternoon, he said he finally felt the impact of the homicide.
“I can’t believe it now,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Camic described Jesse as “aggressively flamboyant” and “outspoken.” His murder, Camic said, stirred up the small town during the summer months. Everybody wanted to know the details, Camic said.
Jesse’s high school friend Erin Bailey said local media carried the story, but she described the coverage as overly graphic and disappointing. The community support for family and friends, however, has been positive, she said. “People in general have been great.”
Bailey starts therapy this week. The community as a whole has shown a great deal of support, she said, but it wasn’t enough. The homicide, she said, was “a pretty big deal in a small town” and so rough on her that now she finds she cannot complete ordinary tasks.
Jesse and Bailey met at a high school Christmas dance and became fast friends, she said. They competed to see who could see the movie “Titanic” the most times. She finished the competition with 22 viewings, but Jesse won, with 23. Since his death, she said, simple tasks remind her of her friend. She can’t listen to music that the two often played. She was eating Rice Krispies shortly before she learned of Jesse’s death. Now, she said, cereal makes her ill.
“It’s hard for me to drink Diet Coke,” she said. “I know. That sounds ridiculous.”
Bailey said she will be unable to attend Rios’ preliminary hearing because she is still in training at her new job at the local police department. She plans to attend Rios’ trial, though, and she said she will continue to follow both Columbia and Kentucky news reports about the case.
Her friend was happy in Perryville, Bailey said, although he didn’t quite fit in. The death has hurt many residents of Boyle County, people that have been forgotten in Columbia, she said.
“He loved it there,” Bailey said, “But I think that people need to understand that he grew up here.”