Steven Rios Series: Part Three
COLUMBIA - Twenty-nine hours after college students found Jesse Valencia strangled and bloodied in a lawn on Wilson Avenue, Officer Latisha Stroer escorted Andy Schermerhorn into the interview room at the Columbia Police Department and demanded answers.
Stroer heard Schermerhorn had information that could help figure out who killed this 23-year-old University of Missouri student on June 5, 2004. She heard that Schermerhorn knew which police officer had a homosexual affair with Valencia, and she wanted him to tell her who it was. Stroer opened a history book of the department, complete with a picture of every officer on staff, and she told Schermerhorn to identify the man he saw have sex with Jesse Valencia.
In her investigation report, Stroer noted that Schermerhorn seemed "very nervous" and "very scared of the police officer." Stroer reassured him that if he told the truth, the officer would never know his name and would "never be able to read this report." Those were the magic words. Schermerhorn was ready to spill. He knew exactly who had sex with Valencia, because he saw it with his own eyes. A month earlier, he was at Valencia's apartment when a police officer showed up to the door in uniform. He watched it happen. He remembered the officer's face.
"Schermerhorn stated the police officer who he saw at Valencia's house," the report reads, "was walking down the hallway when we put him in the interview room."
That officer, Stroer suddenly realized, was Steven Rios.
Depending on your obedience of the speed limit, it takes fewer than eight hours to drive from Columbia to Sioux Falls, S.D. Seven-and-a-half, maybe, if you take Interstate 70 west to Kansas City and hop on I-29 north.
Sioux Falls has a charm to it. It's cold. The people have funny accents. They root for a college team called the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. The downtown area is filled with diners, restaurants and shopping centers. More than 200,000 people live in the metropolitan area, which means this city accounts for close to one-third of the entire population of South Dakota.
There are a lot of reasons to visit Sioux Falls. The state penitentiary is not normally one of them. It sits high atop the city on a giant hill, located on North Drive above the scenic Falls Park. The building, made of beautiful red bricks, looks less like a prison and more like a sanctuary. On the inside, however, the sanctuary turns gloomy. The place looks like it's falling apart, like you've stepped into a time machine and entered the 1970s.
You are here to visit Steven Rios, the former Columbia Police officer who has decided to speak publicly in this interview for the first time since a second jury convicted him in 2008 of killing Jesse Valencia. After his first conviction in 2005, Valencia told KOMU 8 News on-camera he "didn't have any involvement" in the murder. A judge threw out that verdict because of hearsay, but in the retrial, the jury found him guilty again. He's been silent ever since.
Until now. Rios has decided it's time to speak up again. The Sioux Falls Correctional Facility only permits this interview to take place with a pencil and yellow legal pad-- no cameras or microphones. A separate phone interview is also arranged.
"The stuff that was filtered down to or reported in the newspapers or on TV, those sound like a dinosaur novel or a made-for-TV movie," Rios said. "Justice is supposed to be blind. I'm trying to ask the courts to take a look at this, not with any of the emotion involved or anything."
"I just want somebody to take a clear picture of the investigation."
Rios said he understands why jurors jumped to the conclusion of guilt. Prosecutor Morley Swingle painted him as a lying, cheating husband who needed to silence Valencia in order to save his career and marriage. He presented DNA evidence - on Valencia's chest, fingernails and bed sheets -- and a timeline of the murder. Officers on the stand testified seeing Rios wearing the same kind of knife used in the murder, and Rios' two suicide attempts in the middle of the investigation altered public perception. The medical examiner told Swingle the victim could have potentially died from the unilateral vascular neck restraint, a law enforcement maneuver which officers testified had been taught to Rios. Records also showed he'd checked the police dispatch the day after the murder, which Swingle said was evidence he wanted to see whether somebody found Valencia's body.
Add it all up, and two juries agreed that Steven Rios murdered Valencia.
"This is not a whodunit," Swingle said. "Twenty-four jurors. 24 to zero have said beyond a reasonable doubt, ‘murder.' Not just maybe. Beyond a reasonable doubt."
As you sit with Rios at a cafeteria table in the visiting room of the prison, he regurgitates almost a decade's worth of arguments against Swingle and the prosecution.
"It's just getting through the next day and the next day, until I can get this back in the courts and get another opportunity," Rios said.
A judge denied Rios' appeal for a third trial in June 2012, but he still maintains the same story he told when police arrested him back in 2004. He says he didn't kill Jesse Valencia, and he says there's a whole lot of information in his defense that failed to reach the public light.
Take the DNA, for instance. Police made the arrest almost immediately following lab results that showed the presence of Rios' DNA under Valencia's fingernails, but the DNA mixture also matched another person's. The timeline allotted about a half-hour to forty-five minutes for him to drive from the police department garage to Wilson Avenue and back home - timed by officers as about ten minutes round trip - and get rid of the blood, clothes and murder weapon before returning home to his wife. Now his ex-wife, the former Libby Rios Sullivan, who also spoke publicly to KOMU 8 News for the first time, said he came home without a scratch. Police documents show search warrants did not recover any evidence at Rios' house or car, and investigators found no blood in his drains.
Rios said a trace metal test showed he never carried a clip knife- police never did find the murder weapon (Swingle used that to his advantage to assert that Rios ditched it after killing Valencia). And he also said records should show that he often checked dispatch records on his days off, since he participated in various charities.
"The people who really matter know that I am innocent," Rios said.
It's a moot point after two trials, but upon the denial of Rios' appeal, the 1,200-page investigative report from the Columbia Police Department became public record. The documents shed new light on how the department handled the investigation of their own officer, a process former police chief Randy Boehm said resulted in outright anger.
"If I'm being perfectly honest, I'm still a little bit angry with him," Boehm said. "What he did to the reputation of our agency and to law enforcement in general is just not something we accept."
When Crimestoppers tips first rolled in after the murder and claimed a police officer had been having a sexual affair with the victim, Boehm said he shrugged off the accusations.
"My very initial thought is, ‘There's probably no truth to that,'" Boehm said.
His opinion quickly changed. Rios voluntarily set up an interview with detectives shortly after the accusations surfaced, knowing they may lead the investigation toward him. In police interviews, he continuously denied his affair with Valencia. On June 8, 2004, he told detectives John Short and Stephen Monticelli he never had sex with Valencia but only knew him after he arrested him at an East Campus party in April. The detectives called his bluff, telling Rios they'd "heard from several individuals that Valencia had been telling individuals he had been having sex with the arresting officer."
"What? Sex?" Rios said, according to the reports. "Yes", the detectives tell him. He's been identified. At that point, "Rios became visibly upset, his eyes began to water, and he started to cry."
Once Rios couldn't hide from the affair anymore, he still denied the murder. Within two days, though, his world had crashed. On June 10, he decided to fly to see his father on the East Coast, with prior approval from the detectives to make sure it didn't hinder the investigation. He made it as far as Kansas City before he missed his plane, bought a shotgun and called his ex-mother-in-law, Suzanne Sullivan, threatening to kill himself. He wound up talking to Monticelli, and according to documents, he told him he "did something really stupid."
"Did you see the papers, I cannot work here, I have to leave the city, I hope the media all burn in hell," the document claims he told the detective.
Officers transported him to a mental hospital. On June 11, he escaped and then threatened to jump from the roof of the Maryland Avenue parking garage. It led KOMU 8's newscast that night. Spectators watched from below.
It's what led Boehm to believe Rios might be more than just a sexual partner of Valencia's.
"We're saying, ‘If you're not guilty of this, why are you reacting that way?' It actually caused us to re-evaluate his involvement in it," Boehm said."We began to feel like that he was reacting that way because he knew that he had done something he could not undo."
Rios said the suicide attempts had nothing to do with a "consciousness of guilt." His ex-in-laws, John and Suzanne Sullivan, agreed wholeheartedly.
"I think it's important to point out why he got to that point," John Sullivan said. "He realized all his aspirations were being dashed."
His wife might have left him. His career as a police officer might have been over. He'd been embarrassed in the public eye. These things were all true then, and they are still true now. Steven Rios might have threatened to kill himself because of those reasons. But the million-dollar question is whether he also wanted to end his life to save himself from an inevitable conviction.
"Him going to Kansas City, it certainly appeared to us that everything changed," Suzanne Sullivan said. "It went from being, ‘No, you're not a suspect,' to 'You're our one prime suspect.'"
Sullivan's statement assumes there were other suspects police pursued.
According to the investigative report, there were.
Gillis Leonard knows trials.
"There's only a handful of ways you defend your client," said Leonard, Rios' defense attorney in the second trial said. "One of the ways is: ‘Some other dude did it.'"
Leonard gave the jury options. He presented one person of interest whom witnesses said had been dating Valencia just before the murder (although he denied a sexual relationship). There was also a chef who spoke to Valencia on the morning of the murder and had sex with him fewer than 48 hours earlier. Police searched his house but did not seize any evidence. His DNA showed up in the mixture with Rios' under Valencia's fingernail. The chef's roommate was also volatile and violent, and he told police "I don't care if he is dead."
The jury heard about some of these suspects, as well as others.
"I thought we had done a good enough job pointing out the tunnel vision of the police department," Leonard said.
The verdict proved otherwise. Rios and his team have long argued that his suicide attempts simply made him look guilty and made the Columbia Police Department focus its investigation on him.
"I kind of forced their hand," Rios said.
Even Boehm admits the investigation zeroed in on Rios, to an extent at least.
"I do think that once it started to become clear that there was some involvement with our officer and he might actually be responsible, if anything, we became more aggressive toward him," Boehm said.
Boehm said his detectives "certainly investigated" other suspects thoroughly, and there was "specific information that started to eliminate our other suspects."
"We think there was a rush to judgment by the police to get it off the front page because he was an embarrassment to the department," Suzanne Sullivan said.
He may have been, but Boehm said he considers the Rios investigation a success for the Columbia Police Department.
"When we found someone within our own ranks, we aggressively took action to get rid of that person and get that person convicted," Boehm said.
Still, the Steven Rios case isn't exactly a water cooler topic at the police station. Instead, it's a black stain.
"There's nothing we can do about that other than continue to show that that's not us," Boehm said.
Meanwhile, the Columbia Police Department has moved on. Ever since Steven Rios reported on duty to the crime scene two juries say he created, the department has slowly tried to recover. Boehm, who now works as the manager of hospital security at MU, said the Rios' scandal was one of the harder things he'd ever had to deal with in his career in law enforcement.
"There are wounds there that will never completely heal," Boehm said. "At the end of the day, all you can do is do your job properly. And I certainly feel like we did that."
During a two-hour visit in the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Steven Rios did not once utter a bad word about his former officers. He said he understood they were doing their jobs. No hard feelings.
Maybe that's the one thing he and Randy Boehm can agree on.