Keeping Secrets: The Murder of Jesse Valencia
Updated: Feb 11
The University of Missouri campus is located in Springfield, Missouri. College students flocked to the area and enjoyed the nightlife scene of the college town. On the morning of June 5th, 2004, some students saw a male lying in the grass between two houses wearing only his boxer shorts. The students thought it was a college student who had passed out after drinking too much the night before. As they approached the man, however, they realized that this man was dead. The young man was quickly identified as University student Jesse Valencia.
Jesse James Wade Valencia was born and raised in Perryville, Missouri, on February 22nd, 1981. He was the son of Lupe Valencia and Linda Baugh Valencia. His parents divorced when Jesse was a baby, so he was primarily raised by his mother. As a young boy, Jesse spent a lot of time with his mother and grandparents on their rural Kentucky farm. He has two sisters, but if his mother’s only son. As a young teenager, Jesse told his mother he was gay. He also told her that he felt that he would die at a young age but couldn’t explain why. His mother loved and accepted her son without question, supporting Jesse as he grew into adulthood.
Jesse was a good-looking and charismatic young man. He worked as a male model after high school before moving to Columbia, Missouri to attend college. Jesse was a junior at the University of Missouri studying pre-law and journalism. He intended to become a lawyer. While in school, Jesse enjoyed the night life of a college student. He liked to party and have a good time. Jesse had many friends and sexual partners, not ready to settle down in a monogamous relationship.
Upon findings Jesse’s body, police quickly realized this was a murder and a brutal one. Jesse had been strangled, nearly to death, before having his throat slit with a serrated knife. Bruising on the body indicated that Jesse had fought to defend himself. No one could understand why Jesse had been killed or who committed this terrible crime. Some thought that perhaps this was a crime committed out of hate. They began to interview Jesse’s friends and sexual partners, looking for any clue as to why or how this happened.
One of Jesse’s friends told police that Jesse was having an affair with a Columbia police officer. He said that he had seen the officer once when he showed up unannounced at Jesse’s apartment while he and Jesse were having sexual relations. The friend told detectives that the officer made him nervous at first as he was unsure why the police were there. When the office walked in, he said something to the effect of, “is he okay with this”, before joining the two in bed. The friend went on to explain that the officer made both men vow to keep this a secret. He also said that Jesse was later upset with the officer and threatened to oust him to the police department.
Police asked the witness if he knew the officer’s name, to which he responded with the name Anderson. The two officers with the last name Anderson were investigated but did not meet the description given by the witness. One of the officers, however, did state his name badge had been stolen. They detectives asked the witness to look through a photo album of officers, to which the witness said something to the effect of “I don’t need to, we just passed him in the hall”. The officer identified was one of the first responding officers when Jesse’s body was found. His name was Steven Rios.
Steven Rios was a twenty-seven-year-old man who had worked for the Columbia Police Department for about two years at the time of Jesse’s murder. He was also married with a newborn son at home. Records showed that in April of 2004, Rios had arrested Jesse when he caused a disturbance as the officer was breaking up a loud party. According to Jesse’s friends, Jesse claimed that the officer asked him several personal questions in the police car and later offered to remove the arrest record if Jesse had sexual relations with him.
Jesse had also told his mother about the relationship. She believed Jesse was excited about the relationship, but that changed quickly. Friends told detectives that Jesse later said he felt the man was almost stalking him. Two different versions were suggested by Jesse’s family and friends. The first was that after engaging in multiple episodes of sexual intercourse with the officer, Jesse had become upset when his record wasn’t expunged. The second was that Jesse learned that the officer was married, devastating him. In both versions, Jesse was planning to confront the officer and threaten to oust him to his supervisors at the police department.
Detectives confronted their fellow officer, Steven Rios. Steven admitted to arresting him weeks earlier. He at first denied being involved in any way other than professional with Jesse. When detectives explained that there was a witness who identified him as the man having sexual relations with Jesse Valencia, Steven changed his story. He admitted to having had sexual intercourse with Jesse on at least six occasions, three of which were while on duty. He denied being involved in the murder, however.
Jesse’s neighbor said that he had heard Jesse fighting with someone late the night before, but admitted he was intoxicated and couldn’t provide a time. Steven Rios’ wife said she was preparing a bottle for the baby late on the night Jesse was likely killed. She said her husband came home that night, not remembering anything odd. She said Steven’s clothes were not disheveled or bloody. Steven said that on the night of the murder he worked, drank a few beers with fellow officers, and then went home. Steven’s alibi seemed to be substantiated by his colleagues and wife.
However, multiple officers described Steven Rios as carrying a knife with a serrated blade with him on a regular basis. However, Steven denied carrying a knife like that, a claim backed by his wife. A search warrant on Steven Rios’ home failed to find the blade or any incriminating evidence. There was other evidence collected from the scene that connected Steven Rios. First, Steven Rios’ DNA was found under Jesse Valencia’s nails. This may have been explained away as a result of sexual relations between the two. Steven claimed he hasn’t seen Jesse in six days, however. Jesse was known to shower regularly and was his hands frequently, reducing the possibility that the DNA was from a sexual encounter.
The second piece of evidence came from the autopsy. Jesse Valencia was found lying face up in the grass with a pool of blood underneath him. The blood had run down Jesse’s neck horizontally, leaving his chest and body clean of any blood. This indicated to the medical examiner that Jesse was likely strangled into unconsciousness before having his throat cut while in a lying position. On his clean-shaven chest, the medical examiner collected a few hairs. These hairs were a DNA match to Steven Rios.
With Steven Rios being the prime suspect in a murder case, Steven was placed on a leave of absence. Steven confessed to having an affair with Jesse to his wife, but continually denied being involved in Jesse’s death. Just days after realizing he was a prime suspect, Steven Rios bought a shot gun and threatened to kill himself. He was taken into custody and placed in a mental health facility. While in the mental health facility, Steven escaped and climbed to the top of a parking garage, once again threatening suicide. The suicide attempts led authorities to be more convinced of his guilt, but Steven suggested that it was related to being ousted as a gay man and adulterer.
Steven was charged with first-degree murder. Detectives learned that Steven left the police station at about 4:45 am but did not arrive home until around 5:30 am per his wife’s statement. The prosecution theorized that Steven Rios went to Jesse’s apartment that night for sex. Jesse was not agreeable, however, and confronted Steven about being married and possibly his promise to expunge Jesse’s record. The evidence including the DNA evidence and Jesse’s written communications between a friend he frequently emailed. Jesse had expressed frustration with the officer, and stated he was going to confront the officer.
The prosecution also noted that the hairs found on Jesse’s chest were intact at the root, indicating they had been pulled out forcibly. The bruising patterns to Jesse’s chest and back were consistent with a lateral choke hold that police officers perform to restrain a person. The prosecution claimed that upon being confronted by Jesse, he attacked him, putting him in the chokehold. Jesse fought to get loose but was subdued. After Jesse was lying on the ground, Steven slit his throat with the knife he is known to carry.
Although Libby filed for divorce from Steven Rios, she believed in his innocence. She, to this day, claims that Steven was not upset, flustered, or bloody that morning. She said the story doesn’t make sense and she doesn’t believe her former husband committed the crime. She points to a lack of evidence found inside Steven’s vehicle and home. She testified in his defense at trial. Steven's defense team said that Steven never went to Jesse’s that late at night, usually meeting up during his shifts. There was also no evidence of text messages or phone calls between the two the week of Jesse’s death.
The jury found Steven Rios guilty and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Two years later, however, a judge ruled that the testimony of Jesse’s friends was mostly hearsay and should not have been admissible in his first trial. Steven’s conviction was overturned, and he was granted a new trial.
At the second trial, the defense team urged the jury not to confuse adultery with murder. He said Steven Rios was guilty of cheating on his wife with Jesse but was innocent of murder. At this trial, the jury was not allowed to hear the testimony regarding Jesse’s plan to oust Rios. They did get to hear the DNA evidence, but the defense argued that another man’s DNA was also found under Jesse’s nails. This man was an admitted sexual partner of Jesse’s shortly before his death who had been ruled out. The defense also said that Steven Rios’ hair was also found on Jesse’s bed, so perhaps they were on his chest from Jesse lying on dirty sheets.
The defense also poked holes in the alibi of the man whose DNA was also found under Jesse’s nails. His alibi was from a roommate, who the defense proved was not home at the time and unable to provide an accurate alibi. Another man that Jesse was allegedly having a relationship with was also pointed to as an alternate suspect. He had called Jesse twice that night, but adamantly denied being involved sexually with Jesse or killing him. This man lived with his parents, who confirmed his alibi. He was at home sleeping by two am. Jesse was believed to have been killed between 4:30-5:30 am. The defense put officers on the stand that said Steven Rios was drinking with them until dawn, suggesting that he did not have time to commit the murder. Libby once again testified for her ex-husband’s defense team.
In December of 2008, Steven Rios was once again found guilty, but this in the second degree, as well as armed criminal action. On January 16th, 2009, Steven Rios was sentenced to life in prison for the murder plus twenty-three years for armed criminal action. He has the possibility of parole staring in 2049. As of 2023, Steven Rios remains in prison. His son, who was just four months old at the time of the murder, visits him in prison. His ex-wife, son, and families firmly believe that Steven was wrongfully convicted. However, twenty-four jurors found him guilty after two separate trials. Was Steven Rios a man desperate to keep his secrets… desperate enough to murder his young lover?
Deadline Crime with Tamron Hall (2013) A Secret Affair. Season 1 Episode 2
Steven Rios Prison Visits (nbcnews.com)
Steven Arthur Rios | Photos | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
Steven A. Rios vs. State of Missouri :: 2012 :: Missouri Court of Appeals Decisions :: Missouri Case Law :: Missouri Law :: US Law :: Justia
Jesse James Wade Valencia (1981-2004) - Find a Grave Memorial
Murder of Jesse Valencia - Wikipedia
Charton, S. (2004). Ex-officer charged in student’s death. The Springfield News-Leader. 02 Jul 2004
Charton, S. (2004). New details emerge in Valencia investigation. The Springfield News-Leader. 17 Jun 2004
Obituary for Jesse Valencia (2004) The Advocate-Messenger. 08 June 2004
Wells, M. (2005). Police officer confesses to affair, denies murder. Lexington Herald-Leader. 21 May 2005