Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Does Being Gay Make A Murderer?

by Stacy Dittrich

Rarely, you will come across a post where I question the guilt of someone; specifically, one who commits murder. On that note, I have been hacking away at my true-crime book that debuts next year, tentatively titled Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill. While researching the fifteen or so cases of police officers who have committed murder, I came across one in particular that made me sit back and say, "huh?" It's the case of convicted murderer, and former Columbia, Missouri police officer, Steven Rios.

On May 23, 2005, Rios was convicted in the murder of 23-year-old college student, Jesse Valencia (pictured left). Valencia was Rios' secret gay lover. Rios, married, with a six-month old baby, was an upstanding and well-liked police officer at the Columbia Police Department. In the early days of the case, the bizarre turn of events continued to bewilder the residents of Columbia, along with the friends and family of Steven Rios.

Jesse Valencia's body was found in a yard less than a block from his campus apartment, on June 5, 2004. With his throat slashed to the brink of decapitation, and his body severely beaten, rumors began to run rampant throughout Columbia's gay community that Jesse was secretly involved in an intimate relationship with a local police officer. Steven Rios, on his scheduled days off, drives to a police substation where he logs on to the dispatcher's computer, before arriving at the crime scene. There, he offers his assistance in identifying the body.

Rios had previously arrested Jesse the prior April for interfering with police officers at a bust-up of a college party. This was Rios' excuse for knowing Jesse and, of course, failed to add that the arrest led to an immediate sexual relationship between the two. Several days later, when the rumors of the cop relationship hit the 144 manned department, Rios went to detectives to tell them that "I'm not the gay cop." He also proceeded to provide two other officer's names as suspects. By then, it was too late. Investigators already had several witness statements providing detailed and intimate, information regarding the relationship between Rios and Jesse.

After being confronted by investigators and admitting to the relationship, Rios took a leave of absence from the department. It was only two days later that Rios' name was exposed by the media, labeling him as the gay lover of the murder victim. Humiliated over being exposed to his family, friends, and the community he worked in, Rios drove to nearby Kansas City with a shotgun in his car, threatening suicide. After detectives coerced him back to Columbia, Rios was placed in protective custody at a local mental health facility. All the while, the Columbia Police Department continued to deny that he was a suspect in the murder.

The day after the first suicide incident, Rios escaped the mental health facility and threatened to jump off a fifth floor parking garage, which resulted in a two-hour stand-off between him and the police. Taken into custody again, Rios was placed in a more secure mental health facility.

Now, the question poses itself: Are the actions of Steven Rios a silent confession to murder, or are they merely the fallout of being exposed as a homosexual male? Most importantly, is it enough to convict him of murder?

Of course, there's more-the DNA. On July 1, 2004, formal murder charges were filed against Steven Rios after DNA confirmed that 3 hairs found on the victim's chest, and DNA under the fingernails belonged to Steven. However, Steven's DNA was not the only one found. There was massive DNA all over Jesse, and inside his apartment, that matched a male named Edward McDevitt.

Jesse had met McDevitt two days prior to the murder at a local gay nightclub. The two had engaged in sexual relations and McDevitt was the last person to see Jesse alive. A DNA expert who was put on the witness stand by the prosecution during Rios' trial, acknowledged that Rios' DNA could have easily come from Jesse's bedsheets. Rios had been intimate with Jesse five days before the murder. So, what exactly was the motive presented by the prosecution? A conversation between Jesse and his best friend, Joan Sheridan. Joan testified that Jesse told her that if Rios didn't throw out the criminal charge filed when he arrested him, Jesse was going to tell the police chief that Rios was gay.

Here are the facts:

1. After his shift ended at 3am on June 5th, Rios went to the roof of the police department and drank beer with other officers--a common practice. Rios contends he left the party at approximately 4:45am, and arrived home between 5:15-5:30am where his wife, Libby, was awake feeding the baby. This timetable was not disputed.

2. Between 3:00-3:30am on June 5th, Jesse Valencia's neighbor reported hearing a loud commotion in Jesse's apartment. He heard someone yelling, "stop!"

3. Five officers testified that Steven Rios owned a 4-inch serrated knife. Steven denies this, saying that any knife he was seen with was another officers or a knife he had confiscated from a suspect. Libby Rios testified that Steven asked for a knife the prior Christmas, but she didn't get him one because they couldn't afford it. The murder weapon was never found, but the coroner determined the wound was caused by a serrated-edged knife.

4. Prosecutors affirmed that Steven could have driven to Jesse's apartment within half an hour to forty-five minutes, killed Jesse, and made it home. However, the defense asked if they took into account stop lights, stop signs, and a shorter/longer route-the prosecution said no.

5. Steven Rios had no bruising/injuries to his hands or body. Rios, a wiry, gawky, man would have surely had some considering the beating Jesse took, which included a large hemorrage to his chest.

6. Jesse's new lover, Edward McDevitt lived with a man named Eric Thurmont--a known criminal. Thurmont testified he left his apartment at 3:30am with a male friend, and stayed at the friend's apartment until 10:30am. The friend concurred this story. McDevitt claimed to be at home alone.

7. Rios testified that his bizarre actions following the murder were a direct result of the fear of being exposed as a homosexual. He stated he was going to immediately inform investigators of the relationship until he heard "horribly brutal" gay jokes by other officers at the murder scene.

The jury ignored the fact that the DNA could have come from the bedsheets, they never questioned testimony from a known criminal or the man that gave him an alibi, and they never questioned the whereabouts of Ed McDevitt at the time of the murder-a man whose DNA was all over the victim and his apartment. They also ignored the descrepancy between the testimony of the neighbor who heard the commotion between 3-3:30am, while Steven Rios didn't leave the party until 4:45am. While deliberating, some jurors claimed to have doubts. The alleged ringleader of the jury, Jared Buchan, admittedly told them, "He's a cop, he can get away with anything," until they were ultimately convinced. They also didn't like Rios' own testimony and deemed him "unbelievable."Additionally, Joan Sheridan gave them the perfect motive.

Rios was handed a life sentence with no parole.

Astonishingly, on April 27, 2008, the Missouri Court of Appeals overturned and threw out Rios' conviction, based on the fact that Joan Sheridan's testimony was hearsay. There was no proof that Jesse ever confronted Rios about exposing him, and Sheridan's testimony should have never been admitted.

Steven Rios' retrial begins August 18, 2008. Is this a case of a man being persecuted based on the humiliation he felt after being exposed as a homosexual, or is he truly a heartless murderer?At this point, I'm not convinced of either. There are still a lot of unanswered questions that weren't asked of Rios, and further investigating to be done.
I do know one thing. If Rios is found not guilty . . . I'm out of a chapter.

1 comment:

Leah said...

This is why I believe we need to go to a professional jury system. They don't know how to properly weigh evidence and they aren't qualified to judge a person's guilt or innocence.

I am interested in how this second trial comes out.