SPECIAL REPORT, Part One: Steven Rios and Family Break Silence
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - There are no cameras allowed in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
No tape recorders. No cell phones. No coats. Nothing in your pockets. Everything you own stays in a locker, except for your photo identification. Alongside mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and fathers of convicted criminals, you wait for a correctional officer to call your name. Then, you trudge down a flight of creaky stairs, walk through a long, winding corridor and eventually reach the entrance to the visitor's room, where an officer behind a barred window greets you.
Flash your ID, please. He graciously provides you with a pencil and yellow legal pad of paper. It's the least he can do. He's been waiting for your arrival.
You're in. Your head perks up. He's not at the first table. Not at the second table. Not at the third table. He's not the inmate with the long ponytail. He's not the one with the tattoos. Suddenly, the one you're looking for emerges. You lock eyes. A slender man, towering over you and appearing much taller than he does in photographs, walks toward you, sporting glasses, white shoes and a jumpsuit with the words "MAXIMUM CUSTODY" printed on the front.
Steven Rios stretches out his right hand.
"I'm Steve," he says. "Nice to meet you."
There's no separating glass as you find a table in the back of the room where you can talk quietly. Wearing formal work attire, you apologize for over-dressing for the occasion. "Nah, you guys are fine," Rios says warmly. "Where should we start?"
At the table to your left, there's another man in a jumpsuit playing a card game with his children. Behind you, two guards sit comfortably and observe the room. In front of you, officers escort various prisoners in and out of the room in handcuffs.
You don't know where to start. Neither does he. So instead of conducting a formal interview, you just talk. For two hours, you sit face-to-face with a former officer of the Columbia Police Department, a man prosecutors said slit a victim's throat so violently it severed his jugular vein. They said Steven Rios drove to Jesse Valencia's house on East Campus in the early hours of June 5, 2004, chased him down Wilson Avenue, strangled him unconscious and then cut his throat with a serrated knife. They said Rios killed this fun-loving, 23-year-old University of Missouri student because the two had been having a homosexual affair, and murder was the only option to keep his wife and police chief from finding out. In 2005, jurors voted 12 to zero that Rios was the murderer. After a retrial in 2008 -- called because of hearsay testimony in the first trial -- 12 more jurors listened to the evidence and reached the same conclusion.
So for the majority of his adult life, Steven Rios will likely remain in this state prison in Sioux Falls, kept an eight-hour drive from his home in Columbia because a former police officer might not be safe in a Missouri prison with the chance of meeting someone he once arrested. This building, located on North Drive, overlooks the skyline of the largest city in South Dakota, but Rios cannot see the beautiful sunrise or scenic Falls Park from his prison cell.
He has not spoken publicly since the second conviction, but his story hasn't changed since the day of his arrest.
"The people who really matter," Rios said, "know that I am innocent."
Like his ex-wife, Libby, who divorced him and remarried after the affair, but still claims he's not a killer. Her interview with KOMU 8 News breaks almost a decade of silence.
"There's an awful lot of people who cheat on their spouse every day," the former Libby Rios said. "That doesn't mean they're capable of committing a murder. It doesn't mean they should have their lives taken away from them."
Libby's parents are on board, too. John and Suzanne Sullivan, who still frequently correspond with Rios in prison, have forgiven him for destroying their daughter's marriage.
"He hurt our daughter. He hurt our family," John Sullivan said. "There have been some serious rifts in our family, perhaps some of which are still there. But as we went through the trial, with the evidence presented..."
"He didn't do it."
Problem is, two juries said he did.
Jesse Valencia wanted to be a lawyer. He was politically active, a frequent publisher of editorial work in local newspapers and the kind of kid who surely would have excelled in law school. He was gay-- and darned proud of that fact. His shaggy hair was his trademark. So was his friendly, effeminate voice, razor-thin build and, best of all, his infectious personality.
Valencia seemed to attract everybody he met. On April 18, 2004, he met officer Steven Rios under the most unfriendly of circumstances. Responding to a peace disturbance call at an East Campus party, Rios encountered an uncooperative college kid and immediately arrested him. Valencia wasn't in big trouble, no, but it gave Rios a reason to keep seeing him.
The officer-civilian relationship turned into a sexual relationship. Nobody knew about it except for a few of Valencia's friends. When somebody found Valencia's dead body just off the MU campus on the afternoon of June 5, 2004, Rios admitted he knew the victim, but nothing more. He then reported on duty to the very murder scene two juries eventually convicted him of creating, using his poker face to hide any emotion. Over the course of the next few days, tips from the Crimestoppers hotline began to cause suspicion. There was a cop who'd been having sex with the victim, the witnesses said. When Rios learned of these vague accusations about an officer, he set up a voluntary interview with investigators. He knew the storm was coming in his direction, and he wanted to clear the air.
He tried to protect his clean image by lying about the affair to investigators at first, but the police were a step ahead. They had witnesses who could identify Rios. They knew the truth about the affair. When the media released Rios' name and reported that he'd been the officer sleeping with Valencia, his world began to crash down. On June 10, he bought a shotgun and threatened to kill himself, which landed him in the former Mid-Mo Mental Health Center in Columbia. On June 11, he escaped from the center and climbed the roof of the Maryland Avenue parking garage, where he threatened to jump in front of hundreds of dazed spectators.
That was an admission of guilt, according to former police chief Randy Boehm.
"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."
Police still claimed Rios wasn't a suspect. Then, the lab results came back: DNA under a fingernail matching Steven Arthur Rios. The mixture matched another suspect -- a sexual partner of Valencia's - but the Columbia Police Department wasn't pursuing him anymore. That DNA didn't matter. Rios' did. On July 1, 2004, they arrested him. In a probable cause statement, Detective John Short cited an expert opinion that stated Rios' DNA wouldn't have lasted under Valencia's fingernail for more than a week, thus proving the evidence must have meant he had some contact with the victim besides just sex. However, in CPD's investigative report, which KOMU 8 News obtained upon the denial of Rios' appeal in June 2012, Kim Gorman of the Paternity Testing Corporation told investigators "it would be impossible for her to speculate" how long the DNA would stay under the fingernail. In trial, one of the defense's witnesses testified the same opinion.
To understand why Rios maintains his innocence, it is first important to understand why the juries convicted him in the first place. There was motive for a police officer to silence the young man who could have revealed their relationship to his wife and his police chief. There was DNA, not only under his fingernail, but also on his chest and on Valencia's sheets. The probability of the hair on Valencia's chest belonging to anybody but Rios was 1 in 757.6 trillion. There were two bizarre suicide attempts, a whole lot of lies to investigators and an unflattering story about an officer of the law abusing his power. And the timeline of the murder, presented by prosecutor Morley Swingle, resonated with the jurors as a plausible scenario, even though it would have needed to allow time for Rios to discard of his clothes and blood. According to search warrant documents, investigators did not recover any blood from his house, drains or car.
Valencia also fell unconscious after strangulation, which could have been caused by something called the unilateral vascular neck restraint. An officer testified in court to having taught the technique in a class Rios attended years earlier. Rios' appeal disputed this fact. Plus, officers testified to having seen Rios wear a clip knife with a serrated edge on occasion, even though police never recovered the murder weapon and Rios claims a trace metal test shows he never wore that kind of knife. Swingle argued in court that the missing clip knife was evidence that Rios threw it away after the killing.
The jurors heard all of this evidence, and they decided to convict Steven Arthur Rios on two different occasions.
"Perry Mason and Clarence Darrow could not have gotten him off," Swingle said.
But Rios and his family say there's more to the trial and case than what media outlets originally reported.
"I think Steve has actually said, ‘If I watched the news, I would think I did it,'" Libby Sullivan said. "I hope [people] do understand there's an awful lot of things they don't know."
Libby and her ex-husband haven't spoken to each other in years, but they're on the same wavelength.
"I just ask people to learn more before they form an opinion on the case," Rios said. "I think hopefully, one day, if someone knows something out there, there may be a small piece of the puzzle that could break the whole thing open."
Christopher Ryan Kepner arrived home in the middle of the night on June 5, 2004, woozy and intoxicated from a night of drinking. All he wanted to do was sleep.
But he couldn't. Next door, in the apartment rented by Jesse Valencia, a frustrating commotion kept his eyes wide open. No, I don't want to sleep in the car, he told police he heard from a voice.
Stop it, he heard. No, I'm not sleeping in the car.
Kepner told investigators he heard bumps on the wall. In 2004, he described the scene for KOMU 8 News.
"Heard the bumping on the wall, like all across the wall, from here to here, in the frame of about two to five minutes," Kepner said, demonstrating with his hands. "Just bumping, just like somebody stumbling and kind of bumping into the wall like ‘Oh, stop it.'"
According to police documents, Kepner recalled hearing this dispute sometime between 3 and 4:30 a.m. In an interview with the Columbia Tribune's Mike Wells, he stated the same time frame. Kepner, who had moved into his apartment the previous month, hardly knew Valencia. He certainly didn't know his life well enough to predict what may have started an argument in his apartment, but he told police "it seemed like someone was ‘booting' another subject out of the apartment." In trial, Kepner told the jury he awoke around the next day to find Valencia's apartment door partly ajar.
On June 5, 2004, Steven Rios worked the overnight shift at the Columbia Police Department. At 3 a.m., his shift ended. Rios then joined officers Jerry Greene, Scott Young, Leah Wooden and Jason Jones at the top of the CPD garage for a customary post-work routine: drinking beer and making small talk after a long night on the job. During the time Kepner told police he heard a disturbance, Rios was miles away from Valencia's apartment, on the top of the garage with four alibis. Jones told police that Young was the final officer to arrive- around 4:15 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. He remembered "the sky began to lighten up," and at that point, the crowd began to disperse.
Police computer records show that Rios used the entry key at the Columbia Police Department at 4:37 a.m. That fact cannot be denied-- he can be accounted for until then. Wooden and other officers estimated in trial that Rios left the garage sometime around 4:47.
The next half-hour to forty-five minute time frame are under dispute. Rios said he left the garage and drove straight home to his wife and infant son. The jurors thought he made a pit stop on Wilson.
At 5:15 a.m., Libby Rios Sullivan awoke to the sound of her son squealing on the baby monitor. For two or three minutes, she told police she sat in her bed, praying her son would quiet down so she could get some much-needed sleep. That didn't happen. A few minutes later, she said her husband walked into the house. No bruises, no scratches, no bloody clothes, she recalled. The police reports show Rios did not suffer any injuries or have any significant scratches. Libby said her ex-husband then washed himself and went to sleep.
Officer Timothy Giger timed the route from the Columbia Police Department garage to 1414 Wilson, the address of Jesse Valencia. Two minutes and 42 seconds. From 1414 Wilson to the Affirmed Drive address of Steven and Libby Rios, the route takes seven minutes and seventeen seconds.
That's nine minutes and 59 seconds combined. In the rough time frame from 4:47 or so to 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. on June 5, 2004, Steven Rios would have had to drive a ten-minute route and stop in between to chase Jesse Valencia down Wilson Avenue, strangle him, slit his throat with a knife and then discard his clothes, the murder weapon and any blood.
"You're talking about four o'clock in the morning when there's no traffic, and he's a police officer, so he doesn't have to obey the speed," said prosecutor Morley Swingle, recalling his victory in court. "Twenty-four jurors have heard this evidence and 24 to zero have said, ‘Yeah, the timeline works.'"
The prosecutor believed Rios had enough time to commit the murder. So did the police chief and the investigators. The juries did, too, or else they wouldn't have convicted him.
Rios' ex-wife isn't so sure.
"I was there," Libby said. "At our house. Saw him come home... I saw his demeanor. He wasn't covered in blood, he didn't have scrapes, he didn't have bruises."
That's what defense attorney Gillis Leonard tried to argue in the second trial.
"It's sort of like the O.J. thing," Leonard said. "Where did the bloody clothes go?"
Police documents show investigators raided Rios' house and car for evidence. At his home, they "screened the drain trap water for trace blood with negative results," and they also found negative results when screening the hall bathroom.
"He would have had to change clothes, clean up very quickly - very quickly - and get home," Libby Sullivan said. "Where did he clean up? Those things don't make sense to me. Even if you think I have some ulterior motive and am lying [about the time], look at everything else."
The timeline happened well after the period between 3 and 4:30 a.m., when Kepner told investigators he heard the disturbance next door. Except that's not exactly what Kepner said in court. When the trial began, Swingle poked holes in his story. Kepner said he was fairly certain it was still dark outside when he heard the commotion, but he told Swingle he couldn't say with 100 percent certainty that it happened before 4:30 a.m. After all, he'd spent a night out at Flat Branch Pub, a popular Columbia brewery famous for chili-flavored beer, brown ale and other assortments of alcohol.
"Are you going to let this man get away with murder," Swingle told the jury during the 2008 trial, "because a man who'd had three vodka tonics and two pints of beer isn't sure what time he heard thumping in the middle of the night?"
Under oath, Kepner couldn't tell the jury what he told the police or the Columbia Tribune in 2004, not with the risk of perjury in a testimony filled with drunk memories. In court - where it mattered -- he told Swingle the commotion technically could have happened any time between 3 and 10 a.m. This summer, part of Rios' appeal claimed that Leonard should have called reporter Mike Wells to testify about Kepner's original time frame. A judge overruled it.
But this isn't the court of law anymore. Rios argues that at one point, Kepner did say he heard a disturbance when Rios was still on the roof of the Columbia Police Department's parking garage. And when he awoke the next morning, Kepner said he noticed Valencia's door open, which the defense team argued could have been a result of the real murderer chasing him out of his apartment.
There could have been a separate dispute that did not result in murder. That's a possibility, but the defense used Kepner as a way to shed doubt on Rios' involvement.
"[Kepner's] testimony was not as well-received as it should have been," Leonard said. "I thought he made a clear case for a commotion Steve had nothing to do with. But apparently the jury just kind of dismissed him."
Kepner's original statements to police also raised the possibility that another suspect had an altercation with Valencia on June 5, 2004. According to the Columbia Police Department's 1,200-page investigative report, detectives pursued multiple persons of interest besides Rios. They arrested Rios following the discovery of his DNA under Valencia's fingernail, but that same lab test also revealed the DNA of another person of interest in that same DNA mixture. The sexual partner, who had sex with Valencia fewer than 48 hours before the murder, was one of the last people to speak to Valencia alive.
An expert told police that "the bottom line" was that "DNA minor components are from Rios and [suspect's name]," but Rios claimed this fact was underreported publicly at the time of the arrest.
"We never ran from the DNA evidence," Rios said. "When they first disclosed it, they didn't say that it was a mixture with another suspect."
That was a focal point of Leonard's defense--that DNA evidence proved only sex, not murder.
"They had other DNA on his body," Leonard said. "He was an active, gay young man."
Leonard also said not all the hairs found on Valencia's body were testable. DNA evidence did not tie any other suspects to Valencia, but investigators pursued several suspects aggressively. One person of interest failed a voice stress test and requested to take the test again, according to police documents. Rios passed his voice stress test, even though Boehm said they are unreliable and inadmissible in court. Friends told investigators that this same person of interest had a romantic relationship with Valencia, but the man himself denied any sexual involvement during police interviews. Detectives also tried to get a positive identification on him from a witness early in the process, and they collected his DNA sample to enter into the database. Public records from the Boone County probate division also show that he became mentally unstable shortly after the first trial. Starting in July 2005, he began to check in and out of hospitals and "on two occasions his father had to wrestle a knife from his hands because his parents feared he would stab and cut himself."
After Rios entered the picture, investigators did not re-interview the man again, though they did interview the person with the matching DNA again. During the course of the investigation, police also took DNA swabs from a man named William Clinch. He admitted to having sex with Valencia after meeting him online. In 2009, Clinch was convicted of murdering his brother-in-law in the so-called "McDonald's Murder."
Despite a list of other suspects who would be inviting to any investigator, once Rios became involved, Boehm said the investigation took a turn.
"I do think that once it started to become clear that there was some involvement with our officer and he might actually be responsible, we became more aggressive toward him," Boehm said.
Rios said the suicide attempts might have sealed his fate.
"I kind of forced their hand," Rios said. "It was not tied to Jesse's murder. It was not, on my part, a consciousness of guilt in any part. It was just something that I dealt with personally. It was my whole life as I knew it, it was crumbling because of my wife and my whole life."
In a two-hour session in the Sioux Falls correctional facility, Rios did not blame the Columbia Police Department for its investigation. He said he harbors no hard feelings toward detectives who simply did their jobs.
Rios ex-in-laws are a little more skeptical.
"We think there was a rush to judgment by the police to get it off the front page," Suzanne Sullivan said, "because he was an embarrassment to the department."
Not true, said Boehm.
"We certainly didn't rush to judgment that he was responsible," Boehm said. "It's been long enough and I don't want to get into specific details, but there was specific information that started to eliminate our other suspects."
Still, John and Suzanne Sullivan aren't buying that theory. They declined to say publicly whom they think committed the crime, but they're adamant it wasn't their ex-son-in-law. They also believe Rios would be a free man if he simply hadn't threatened suicide.
"[After that], it certainly appeared to us that everything changed. It went from being, no, you're not a suspect, to, you are our one prime suspect."
Police arrested Rios less than a month after his two suicide attempts.
He's been behind bars ever since.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Steven Rios says he's innocent.
"If I'm sitting in prison, and I've been found guilty of a crime, certainly what I'm going to say is, ‘I didn't do it,'" Boehm said. "It's very rare that somebody says, ‘You got me!' You just don't. Denial is a part of their life."
A few hours after your talk with Rios begins, a voice over the intercom begins to bark orders.
All inmates who want to eat lunch, please exit the visiting room now.
Rios doesn't flinch. Five years of silence has left him desperate, especially now that a judge denied his latest appeal for a new trial. In that appeal, he attacked Leonard for not calling the Tribune reporter to the stand, among other witnesses. Rios said he should have been able to testify himself -- as he did in the first trial -- and he also said a fellow officer could have testified that he was not taught the unilateral vascular neck restraint.
None of these defenses worked. They rarely do. Murder convictions are nearly impossible to overturn, but Rios says he's still waiting for the day somebody comes forward with new evidence.
"We're hoping the third time's the charm," Rios said.
When the interview ends, you shake Steven Rios' right hand a second time. He thanks you for making the eight-hour drive to visit him. You thank him for his time. You grab your pencil and yellow legal pad, turn your back and walk through that quiet, white-walled corridor once again. You get to leave, but Rios stays in captivity.
"He did a horrible crime and he deserved to be punished," Swingle said. "It's so tragic that he chose to kill Jesse Valencia instead of just taking his lumps for having had an affair."
"He deprived Linda Valencia of having a son, deprived Jesse Valencia of his life."
Caught up in the whodunit, that's the sentiment all parties seem to forget in murder trials.
"Jesse was a victim," Suzanne Sullivan said. "Nobody should die the way he died."
No matter who killed him.