SPECIAL REPORT, Part Two: Ex-Wife, Former In-Laws Stand by Convicted Murderer
COLUMBIA - Twenty-four jurors may have found former Columbia Police Officer Steven Rios guilty of murder, but his ex-wife and former in-laws still support him 100 percent.
In 2005, and again at a retrial in 2008, Rios was found guilty of murdering 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia outside his East Campus apartment in Columbia on June 5, 2004. The motive for the crime is believed to be the homosexual affair Rios was having with Valencia at the time. Prosecutors said Rios feared losing his job and family if anyone were to find out about the affair.
Rios admitted to the affair in court, but not the murder.
Rios was sentenced to life in prison for the second-degree murder of Valencia. He is currently serving that sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, SD.
For the first time ever, Rios's ex-wife is speaking publicly about the murder, the trials, and what life has been like since then. Libby Sullivan said Rios turned her world upside down and caused her to go through a world of pain. But she says she has yet to see any evidence of his guilt.
"I told myself, until I see something that is proof, until I see something that shows me that he did this I've got to be supportive," Libby Sullivan said.
She said Rios's behavior wasn't unusual following the murder. She also said she never saw any scratches, bruises or blood on him.
Libby Sullivan's parents, John and Suzanne Sullivan, also said they never saw any evidence that would prove Rios guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. The couple said they didn't believe Rios was innocent from the start. But as they watched the evidence presented in court, the couple said they believed it was circumstantial.
Prosecutors argued hairs found on the victim's body showed Rios was the killer.
"His DNA was on the sheets," prosecuting attorney Morley Swingle said. "His DNA is on three places. It's on the hairs on the victim's chest, it's under the victim's finger nails, it's on the victim's sheets. That's killer's DNA in three different places. That's not a defense. It's more evidence of his guilt."
But the defense claimed the DNA was evidence of sex, not murder.
The Sullivans agreed. "It's not a matter of trying to defend him because he was our son-in-law," John said. "It's because we truly believe he is innocent and it's wrong for someone who's innocent to be in jail for the rest of their lives. It's just wrong. And that means there is someone out there who did commit the murder."
The couple has dedicated their life to freeing Rios from prison - not only for Rios's sake, but for someone else as well.
"We want to be able to look at our grandson and say we believed your father was innocent and we did everything we could," Suzanne Sullivan said.
Libby Sullivan and Rios had a son who was only months old at the time of the murder.
Their son is 8 years old now and the Sullivans say he is starting to ask questions about why his father is in prison. The family said it has decided to give him age-appropriate answers.
Libby Sullivan refuses to visit Rios in prison, but John and Suzanne Sullivan take their grandson to the South Dakota State Penitentiary to visit his father as often as possible. The couple said watching the pair interact has been a very moving experience.
Rios said, "It's a double-edged sword knowing my family is out there and my son's growing older. But on the flip side, they keep me going. That love keeps me going."
Although she still proclaims her ex-husband's innocence, Libby Sullivan said she has moved on emotionally. She is remarried now and has children with her new husband. She said she's taken her life one day since that painful day in June 2004.
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