The retrial of neo-Nazi Travis Ricci for the 2009 murder of a white woman walking with her black boyfriend in a Phoenix park begins Monday amid reverberations of a nation reeling from the tragedy of 11 alleged hate-motivated murders in Pittsburgh.
Ricci could face the death penalty if found guilty of the drive-by slaying of Kelley Jaeger in the early morning hours of October 3, 2009, two days shy of Jaeger’s 40th birthday.
The mother of two had been walking near Palma Park in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope neighborhood with Jeffery Wellmaker, an African-American man, when Ricci allegedly emerged, shirtless from the darkness, challenging Wellmaker with curses and racial slurs.
“Hey, nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?” Ricci shouted, according to Wellmaker’s account.
Ricci, now 37, is a probate member of the Vinlanders Social Club, a deadly racist skinhead gang. He, followed the couple for blocks, taunting the pair with racial epithets such as “spear chucker,” before abandoning them, only to return later in a white sedan driven by Ricci’s accomplice and fellow Vinlander, Aaron Levi Schmidt.
On a lonesome stretch of East Puget Avenue just west of Seventh Street, the car slowed near the couple, and Ricci emptied two rounds from a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun belonging to Schmidt.
Though Wellmaker, now 57, was the intended target, the blasts instead hit Jaeger in the stomach. Emergency personnel transported Jaeger to nearby John C. Lincoln Hospital, where she was dead on arrival.
Prosecutors’ first stab at convicting Ricci ended in mistrial on July 11, after a witness inadvertently revealed that Ricci had served time in prison for another offense, prior to the killing.
Defense attorneys objected on the grounds that the slip of the tongue would taint the jury’s view of their client. Judge Dean Fink agreed, dismissed the jury panel, and restarted the meticulous process of picking another jury.
But the new start date is hardly propitious for the defense.
As opening arguments begin, the U.S. remains in mourning over Saturday’s massacre of 11 men and women by an anti-Semitic gunman who reportedly stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue looking to murder as many Jews as possible.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, surrendered to authorities after the bloodbath, and the U.S. Department of Justice has since charged him with dozens of crimes, many punishable by death.
Also on Monday, alleged “MAGA bomber” Cesar Sayoc will be arraigned in a Florida courtroom on multiple counts related to sending pipe bombs to 14 top Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Add to these factors, the recent news that hate crimes are up in Phoenix and other cities across the country, and the timing could not be worse for Ricci’s defense.
Not that Ricci’s first trial was going well for him when the judge halted it. And little is likely to change in the second go-around.
During Wellmaker’s emotional testimony, he pointed out Ricci as the man who threatened him in the streets of Sunnyslope nine years ago and pulled the trigger on Jaeger.
Lead prosecutor Ryan Green entered a police sketch into evidence that was based on Wellmaker’s description of the person he encountered, and it is a dead ringer for the neo-Nazi. Green also showed the jury numerous photos of Ricci flipping sieg heils, hanging out with his Vinlander pals, and showing off his many racist tattoos.
A survey of Ricci’s supremacist ink includes: a Nazi swastika and SS lightning bolts on either side of his neck; on his forearms, the German words, Meine Ehre Heisst Treue, or “My Honor Is Loyalty,” the motto of Adolf Hitler’s dreaded Schutzstaffel; and on the back of left and right upper arms, the words “White” and “Power,” respectively.
More devastating was the testimony of prosecution witnesses who placed Ricci or someone matching Ricci’s description near scene of the crime.
Former fellow racist skinheads told how Ricci partied with them at a friend’s house a few blocks from Palma Park. Ricci stumbled away at one point, drunk, they testified, only to return, enraged by the sight of an interracial couple.
Other than Wellmaker’s, the most damning account of that night came from Ricci’s cohort Schmidt, who drove the car on their hunt for Wellmaker and Jaeger.
Schmidt already has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors. On the stand, he testified that Ricci shot at Wellmaker and Jaeger, then returned to the party house. There, everyone hid out with the lights off as a police helicopter circled above.
Unlike Ricci, who was dressed to impress in a dress shirt and tie for the trial, Schmidt was wearing prison orange during his testimony.
That’s also Ricci’s non-trial garb, since he was sentenced in 2011 to 22 years in the slammer for pushing his girlfriend’s head into a wall and knifing two friends who came to her aid.
Offering some perspective on the racist skinhead world, Schmidt explained how he embraced it during prior prison stints. It offered him “camaraderie” and protection, as prison was a “hostile environment” and race-based.
The supremacist philosophy, which he claimed to no longer follow, also encouraged the art of the beat-down and the shedding of blood in defense of the white race.
At one point during his questioning, Schmidt offered a succinct analysis of the racist life that he says he’s abandoned.
“The skinhead culture is based on violence,” he said, adding, “It’s a culture of violence, learned in prison.”