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Police officer convicted of killing gay lover

By Harriet Ryan
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Steven Rios breaks down in tears after he was was convicted of first-degree murder.
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COLUMBIA, Missouri (Court TV) -- A jury found a Missouri patrolman guilty Saturday of killing a gay college student who had talked about revealing their sexual affair to the police chief.

Steven Rios, a married junior officer in this university town's police force, was convicted of the first-degree murder of his lover, Jesse Valencia, 23.

The finding by the nine-woman, three-man panel carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole for Rios, 28.

Jurors also recommended an additional, largely symbolic sentence of 10 years for the charge of armed criminal action related to Rios' use of a knife in the crime.

The prosecutor had asked for a second life sentence to send a message to other law enforcement officers that "that there will be a ton of bricks dropped" if they break the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Valencia, a University of Missouri junior who was open about his homosexuality, was found dead on a lawn near campus with his throat slit June 5, 2004. The wound was so deep, the medical examiner said, there were knife marks on the spine.

As Boone County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper announced the verdict, reached after nine hours of deliberation over two days, Rios looked down at the defense table and shook his head ruefully. Later, as a defense lawyer tried to persuade the jury against imposing a second life sentence, Rios began crying and stared longingly toward his wife, who was weeping in the spectator's gallery.

Libby Rios, who took the witness stand and steadfastly maintained her husband's innocence, cried out "I love you" as marshals escorted her husband from the courtroom.

"I love you," he whispered back.

The verdict was an endorsement of the prosecution theory that Rios killed Valencia because the student had threatened to expose their relationship. The two began an affair seven weeks before the murder, when Rios arrested Valencia for mouthing off to police breaking up a wild off-campus party. Their relationship included trysts at Valencia's apartment when Rios was in uniform and supposed to be patrolling the neighborhood.

The history and political science major told classmates he suspected his new lover was married and planned to confront him. He also wanted Rios to fix the ticket from the party and suggested to his best friend he would tell the chief of his "little secret" if the ticket didn't go away.

"He had given this boy the power to ruin his police career, his political aspirations and his marriage," special prosecutor Morley Swingle told jurors in his closing argument Friday.

Swingle, who was brought in from Cape Girardeau County because of Rios ties to the prosecutor's office in Columbia, charged that Rios "used his badge for sex and then used his knife to forever close the mouth of his secret lover."

Rios' DNA was found under the victim's fingernails and three of his hairs on the young man's chest.

The officer acknowledged the affair but, when testifying in his own defense, insisted to jurors that he was miles away at a party on the police station roof when the killing occurred.

Andrew Schermerhorn, left, a friend of Jesse Valencia is hugged by Jesse's mother, Linda Valencia.

Jurors rejected arguments by Rios' defense lawyer that the forensic evidence could be explained by the intimate relationship between the men and Valencia's inattention to hygiene and housekeeping. During four days of testimony, the lawyer, Valerie Leftwich, painted Valencia as promiscuous and loud-mouthed and said his many lovers and volatile personality made for a deep pool of better suspects.

More than 20 of Valencia's classmates, friends and relatives were in court for the verdict and greeted it with gasps of relief. His mother, Linda Valencia, fell forward in her seat and broke down in tears, as did a former boyfriend and several female friends.

In addition to his wife, Rios' brother, father and in-laws were on hand for the verdict. Afterward, they gathered around Libby Rios, who was holding a blond toddler. The couple has a 16-month old son, Grayson. An attorney for Rios' family, Geoffrey Preckshot, said his relatives had no comment, but wanted the public to know they still firmly supported him.

"Today's jury verdict has not changed that core belief in his innocence," he said.

Outside the courthouse, Swingle called Rios "an arrogant, conceited sociopath" and revealed several pieces of evidence against him ruled inadmissible at trial. He said Rios had lied to Valencia about his name throughout their relationship. He said the victim told his friends he was dating an officer named Ted Anderson and even called the Columbia Police Department in search of officer Anderson. Swingle noted that the breast-pocket nametag of the real officer Ted Anderson had been stolen.

Swingle also said several women had come forward to police after the murder and said Rios had hit them up for sex after arresting them.

"We had three women sitting in the witness waiting room [Friday] and each of them had been propositioned by him for sexual-type acts," Swingle said. If Rios or any other defense witnesses had referred to his good character, the prosecutor said, he was prepared to put the women on the stand to rebut the testimony.

He also said Rios was fired from a job at the Boone County jail for renting a storage space under another officer's name.

"Basically forgery," Swingle said.

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