Pettis Prosecutor Speaks Out on VA Killer's Release before Crime
SEDALIA - Pettis County Prosecutor Jeff Mittelhauser spoke with KOMU 8 News about his decision not to charge Rudy Perez, Jr. for an assault in Sedalia just days before Perez killed a VA hospital patient in Columbia.
On February 1, Perez beat and killed Robert Hill of Warsaw at the Truman VA Hospital in Columbia. But only a few days before killing Hill, Perez was able to walk out of the Pettis County jail after being arrested for assault and burglary there.
On January 29, Sedalia resident William Rickey said he was taking a nap on the couch of the living room of his Sedalia home. When he heard his doorbell ring over and over again, Rickey said he woke up and answered the door, finding Perez on his doorstep.
"I opened it up, was like 'What do you need?' I tilted my head and he didn't talk for nothing he just punched me in the forehead and then followed me inside the house and then when I tilted my head he finally hit me in the nose," Rickey said.
Rickey said he barely knew Perez from a brief stint where they were coworkers at the Sedalia Walmart, but had never had a conversation with Perez.
Sedalia police responded to the scene and took Perez into custody. In the police report, the responding officers recommended Pettis County Prosecutor Jeff Mittelhauser charge Perez with first degree burglary and second degree assault. While in custody at the jail, Perez allegedly assaulted a guard, punching him in the face and body. The probable cause statement says Perez had to be TASERed in order for the officer to control him.
Twenty-four hours went by, and no charges were filed against Perez, so, according to state law, Perez was released from the Pettis County jail.
On January 31, Pettis County Sheriff's deputies were called to a location on Highway 50. According to the probable cause statement, the responding officers found Perez naked, assaulting his parents. The report said Perez grabbed his mother by the neck and threw her onto Highway 50. The report goes on to say that Perez initially resisted arrest, but officers were able to handcuff him and bring him back to the Pettis County jail. The officers wrote that after handcuffing Perez, they found his father in the front seat, badly beaten.
"[redacted] right eye was severely swollen, cut and bruised. [redacted] had a horizontal cut across the center of his nose and was bleeding from his nostrils...He was later treated in the emergency room for his injuries," the report reads.
The younger Perez was transferred from the Pettis County jail to the Truman VA hospital in Columbia. Perez then beat and killed Hill in a common area of the hospital, a fact he does not dispute as he is basing his defense on an insanity plea.
Rickey said he was unsettled by the fact Perez was able to leave the Pettis County jail after the initial assault, starting a string of assaults ending in a death.
"They should have done something in Sedalia...and the man over there probably wouldn't have been dead," Rickey said.
Prosecutor Jeff Mittelhauser refused to talk to KOMU 8 News in person about his decision not to immediately charge Perez for the first assault, but did speak over the phone about the choice.
Mittelhauser said he had more questions about the incident and the history between Rickey and Perez, and wanted more information before he charged Perez.
"I thought there was something between the two...I wanted to know what caused Rickey to open the door to find Perez there angry," Mittelhauser said.
When asked if he know about Perez's mental history, Mittelhauser admitted he did not. But a search of Casenet, Missouri's online court records system, shows that in 2003, Perez's parents filed for guardianship because of Perez's mental health.
Mittelhauser told KOMU 8 News he never files charges against a suspect without proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a practice that isn't rare but is not required by Missouri law. Both state and U.S. law only requires that a majority of the evidence point to a suspect before he is charged.
University of Missouri law professor Ben Trachtenberg said waiting to charge until having proof beyond a reasonable doubt isn't uncommon, and it all comes down to the prosecutor's style.
"It's not an unusual idea for a prosecutor to say, 'Well why would i charge someone if I don't believe i can get the conviction?' That said, sometimes a prosecutor will say 'I know I've got probable cause. I've got an officer who wrote out a police report that I think is reasonable, and I'll need more before the trial, but the trial's not today.'"
Mittelhauser said he didn't plan on changing his style for future cases and will still wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt to charge suspects. He did say the string of assaults is bound to make him more careful in the future.
Attorney General Chris Koster's office refused to comment on the situation and whether Koster was comfortable with the way Mittelhauser handled the incident.
Both Trachtenberg and Mittelhauser said it was important to note both the Missouri and U.S. constitutions require states to provide reasonable bail for charged suspects, so even if Mittelhauser brought charges against Perez for the Rickey assault, there was no guarantee he would have remained in the jail.
Perez is currently charged with first degree murder for the VA hospital homicide, second degree assault from the incident with Rickey, third degree assaulting an officer from the altercation with the guard at the jail, two counts of domestic assault and one of resisting arrest from the incident on highway 50 and one count of third degree assaulting an officer.