UPDATE: County Will Retry Neo-Nazi Travis Ricci for Murder After Gaffe Led to Mistrial

The sketch a police artist made from Jeffery Wellmaker's description of Travis Ricci and an actual photo of Ricci.
The sketch a police artist made from Jeffery Wellmaker's description of Travis Ricci and an actual photo of Ricci. Phoenix Police Department/Arizona Department of Corrections

UPDATE: July 18 — At a hearing Wednesday afternoon in Maricopa County Superior Court, Judge Dean Fink scheduled jury selection to begin September 11 in the retrial of neo-Nazi Travis Ricci for the 2009 drive-by killing of Kelley Ann Jaeger. Fink set opening statements to begin as early as October 29, with the last day of trial tentatively set for March 28, 2019.  Ricci's defense attorney Jennifer Willmott told the judge that she had requested that the state reconsider seeking the death penalty in Ricci's case. Prosecutors gave no indication  that they will do so. The next hearing in the case is set for Friday, September 7. 

The original story begins here:

Justice for the 2009 murder of Kelley Ann Jaeger was further delayed after a fumble by Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Ryan Green handed her accused killer, neo-Nazi Travis Ricci, a mistrial on Wednesday, July 11.

Green was in the middle of questioning one of Ricci’s former fellow skinheads, ex-con William Sherill, during day 24 of Ricci’s trial, when Green asked how Sherill and Ricci ended up rooming together.

“When he gets out, does he end up living with you?” Green inquired, referring to Ricci.

In his reply, Sherill stated that he thought Ricci “was out of prison before me.” The remark passed unnoticed by most in the courtroom, save for Ricci’s attorney, Bruce Blumberg, who quickly asked Superior Court Judge Dean Fink if he could approach the bench.

After a while, Fink sent the jury on its lunch break, and Blumberg moved for a mistrial as Green’s line of questioning exposed a fact that must be kept secret from the jury: Ricci, a former member of the vicious white supremacist street gang, the Vinlanders Social Club, is a convicted felon and has done prison time.

click to enlarge Kelley Ann Jaeger - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Kelley Ann Jaeger
Arizona Department of Corrections
Indeed, Ricci is currently serving a 22-year sentence for an incident in 2010 where he pushed his girlfriend’s head into a wall and stabbed two male friends who tried to defend her – one in the neck, the other in the hand. Previously, Ricci had done time in prison as the result of a convenience store robbery where he tied up an elderly clerk and threatened to kill her.

During the trial, the jury had already heard of witnesses encountering Ricci in jail. The jury was also aware that many of Ricci’s onetime associates, fellow skinheads and Vinlanders, are felons and have done prison time.

And the jury knew that Ricci’s accomplice in the killing of Jaeger, Aaron Levi Schmidt, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for being the driver in the October 2009 drive-by shooting in Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood that targeted Jaeger, a white woman, and her African-American boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker.

According to Phoenix police reports and court records, Ricci apparently was aiming for Wellmaker, but instead hit Jaeger. The homicide occurred following a random, late-night verbal confrontation between Ricci and Wellmaker, with Ricci calling out, “Hey, nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?”

Schmidt is currently doing prison time for weapons misconduct and assisting a criminal street gang; i.e., the Vinlanders Social Club, of which he was a member. While handcuffed and dressed in prison orange, Schmidt testified that Ricci fired a short-handle 12-gauge shotgun at the interracial couple, killing Jaeger.

In other words, it would come as no surprise to the jury that Ricci had a prison record. Green told the judge that he had misspoken in questioning Sherill, and had meant to ask him, “When you get out, does he [Ricci] end up living with you?”

But defense attorney Blumberg argued that the “bell cannot be un-rung,” and that the jury’s knowledge of a prison record was different than jail time, which in itself does not indicate a conviction.

Green, however, wanted the judge to remedy the situation by striking his question and Sherill’s answer from the record, and admonishing jury members not to consider the information.

After deliberating for more than 90 minutes, Fink ruled in favor of a mistrial. He said the mention of Ricci’s prison record was “prejudicial,” and he quoted from court precedent, comparing knowledge of past crimes to “a drop of ink” in a glass of milk. Once introduced, the ink cannot be removed.

Fink said he took Green at his word that the prosecutor’s mistake was an honest one. Nevertheless, he “did not feel comfortable going forward,” particularly since the county attorney’s office was seeking the death penalty for Ricci.

The jury was called in and dismissed. Fink then scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, July 18, to discuss the possibility of a retrial.

Green declined comment while leaving the courtroom. A phone call and an email to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office seeking comment were not immediately returned.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons