In 2005, a jury found patrolman Steven Rios guilty of killing 23-year-old University of Missouri student Jesse Valencia in June of 2004. The story of the murder will be told tonight on NBC’s Dateline, which airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Reports suggest that Rios is currently serving time at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and he will be eligible for parole in 2035. He is part of the pen pal program and has described himself as being family-oriented.
The Dateline special features interviews with Jesse’s mother, Linda Valencia, Officer Steven Rios himself, Jesse’s friends, Detective John Short and more. It was filmed primarily in Columbia, Missouri.
Here’s what you should know about patrolman Steven Rios:
1. Rios Was a 27-Year-Old Married Father
At the time of the murder, Rios was 27 years old and had a family of his own. He was married to his now ex-wife Libby, who divorced him and remarried, but is adamant that he’s not a killer.
“There’s an awful lot of people who cheat on their spouse every day,” she told KOMU news. “That doesn’t mean they’re capable of murder. It doesn’t mean they should have their lives taken away from them.”
Libby’s parents, John and Suzanne Sullivan, also claim that Rios is innocent and have forgiven him for destroying his marriage to their daughter.
“He hurt out 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.”
2. Rios and Valencia Met When the Police Arrested Valencia at a Party
According to Boone County Special Prosecutor Morley Swingle, Rios and Valencia met when Valencia was arrested at the home of a friend after the police officers broke up a party. Valencia reportedly asked for probable cause, which led to his arrest.
Valencia’s mother added that Rios was asking Valencia personal questions on the way down to the police station and then showed up at his home again the next day, claiming that he had more questions that needed to be answered. She said, “they went out a few times after that, and he would come back to Jesse’s apartment… even when he was in uniform.”
According to a close friend of Valencia’s, Joan Sheridan, he believed the charges against him would be dismissed when he went into court because of his relationship with Rios, but that wasn’t the case.
“It had not been dismissed, and that had angered Jesse,” Swingle said. “So Jesse had told Joan that the next time the police officer comes over, I’m going to tell him that I have a little secret the chief of police might want to know.”
3. He and Valencia Were Allegedly Having an Affair
Valencia had many friends, according to the Oxygen documentary about the case, and the friends came forward after his death to tell investigators about Valencia’s life. They said that Jesse had told them he was having sex with a Columbia police officer.
Someone soon called into the Columbia police Crime Stopper line, which is an anonymous way for people to leave a tip on an active case, to say that a Columbia police officer had killed Valencia and that the officer was married.
Andrew Schermerhorn, who was Valencia’s “friend with benefits,” came forward to confirm the story, adding that the three of them had a sexual encounter at Valencia’s apartment just a few weeks prior to the murder. He was able to look through the Columbia Police Department’s yearbook and identified the man in his story as Rios.
4. Rios Was Sentenced to Life in Prison
A jury found Rios guilty of the murder of Valencia in 2005, though that trial was later overturned by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District because of the admission of hearsay evidence and a retrial was necessary.
After the retrial, Rios was convicted of second-degree murder in 2008, and the court upheld that verdict. Rios was ultimately sentenced to life plus 23 years for armed criminal action. Rios is eligible for parole in 2035.
The strongest evidence against Rios was the match of his DNA to the DNA found under Valencia’s fingernails and on his chest at the time of his death. This was the first case where the Columbia Police Department was able to match trace evidence to the DNA of a killer.
5. He Maintains That He Is Innocent
“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.” Rios and Libby have not been in contact for some time now, according to the report.
Rios said he hopes people learn more about the case before they form an opinion. “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.”
Rios’ lawyer, Cinda Eichler, filed a motion after the 2008 trial claiming Rios had ineffective counsel at that time.