A jury in downtown Phoenix delivered a guilty verdict to neo-Nazi Travis Ricci today for the racially motivated, 2009 drive-by slaying of Kelley Ann Jaeger.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for about one day after returning on Wednesday, January 9, from a two-week holiday break that began just before Christmas, shortly after closing arguments concluded. They found Ricci, 37, guilty on seven counts, including first-degree murder and assisting a criminal street gang — in this case, the notorious Vinlanders Social Club (VSC), a violent white-supremacist group linked to several murders in Arizona and other states.
Ricci, sporting the beginnings of a dark beard, smiled and joked with his attorneys before the jury entered the courtroom. He turned serious as the jury handed the verdicts to the clerk on the seven counts he faced in connection with the killing — drive-by shooting, aggravated assault, and conspiracy, to name a few. As the clerk read seven guilty verdicts, he cocked his head in confusion at times, as several armed uniformed and plainclothes law enforcement officers looked on.
Ricci faces a possible death penalty for his crimes, which involved firing a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun at Jaeger, a Caucasian, and her African-American boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker in the early-morning hours of October 3, 2009.
Shirtless and inebriated, an enraged Ricci challenged the interracial couple prior to the shooting by approaching them in Sunnyslope’s Palma Park, near 12th Street and Dunlap Avenue, shouting, “Nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?” and, “This is white power.”
Wellmaker, 57, testified that Ricci menaced the pair for nearly a half mile before abandoning them near Seventh Street and Puget Avenue. Ricci, a probate member of the VSC, later returned in a white four-door sedan driven by his accomplice, fellow neo-Nazi Aaron Levi Schmidt.
Gunning for Wellmaker, Ricci unloaded two rounds, one hitting Jaeger in the stomach, the other going wild. Police and emergency personnel were on the scene within a few minutes; Jaeger was transported to John C. Lincoln hospital just blocks away, where she succumbed to her wounds.
The mother of two children had died two days shy of her 40th birthday.
Ricci’s conviction comes during his second trial for the same charges. The first trial began at the beginning of June, but ended abruptly on July 11 when Judge Dean M. Fink declared a mistrial because a witness inadvertently revealed that Ricci had a prison record while being questioned by Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Ryan Green. The second trial began on October 29.
Past felony convictions for Ricci include a 2001 incident in which he robbed a Circle K, tying up an elderly, female clerk in the process. Currently, he’s serving 22 years for shoving his girlfriend’s head into a wall in 2010 and viciously stabbing two friends who came to her aid.
Fink ruled that even scant knowledge of Ricci’s criminal history would be prejudicial to the jury. The process of picking a new jury began in September.
The trial featured a parade of Nazi skinheads, all of whom testified for the prosecution. Chief among these was Schmidt, who took the stand as part of a deal with the state in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Schmidt explained to the jury that on the evening of the murder, he and Ricci were partying with other racist skinheads at a house three blocks away from Palma Park. At some point, Schmidt noticed that Ricci had wandered away from the party.
When Ricci returned, he told his fellow neo-Nazis about a confrontation with a black man harassing a white woman. Ricci grabbed Schmidt’s shotgun, which had been left in a room in the house, and he and Schmidt set out on the hunt for Wellmaker.
Ricci’s counsel, Bruce Blumberg, made much of the fact that Schmidt and many of the others testifying against the accused had been cut plea deals and were minimizing their own involvement. He pointed to the witnesses' criminal pasts, and the fact that some had been paid by police for information and to relocate out of Arizona.
“Not one of these people you could rely on to tell you the truth,” Blumberg told the jury in his closing argument.
Blumberg also discounted the eyewitness testimony of Wellmaker, whom he characterized as a drug-dealer, who had smoked crack more than once that evening.
However, the attorney conceded that his client had tried to start a fight in Palma Park with Wellmaker, and that he had followed Wellmaker and Jaeger, taunting them. He even seemed to allow that Ricci may have been in the car, but he insisted that Wellmaker was mistaken about Ricci being the trigger man.
“All we really know is that Travis has a big mouth and started a fight at Palma Park,” he said.
Blumberg offered only one witness as part of Ricci’s defense, an expert in the problems people have identifying perpetrators of a crime.
During his closing remarks, prosecutor Green contended that Blumberg’s concession on the initial confrontation at the park confirmed Wellmaker’s accuracy as a witness.
A police sketch based on Wellmaker’s initial description was the spitting image of Ricci, and other witnesses confirmed Wellmaker’s account of what happened, including a security guard who just happened to be on his way to work when he spotted a man matching Ricci’s description trailing a man and woman near the park.
Other witnesses placed Ricci in the front passenger side of the vehicle with the gun. Were some of those witnesses ex-cons and former Nazi skinheads? Yes, but the prosecution didn’t choose Ricci’s associates. Ricci did.
As for Blumberg’s conjecture that a third party had been in the car and fired from the back seat, Green pointed out that only Ricci, among the neo-Nazis present at the party, knew what Wellmaker looked like, and that it was “Ricci’s fight to finish.”
He added, “This crime cannot happen without Travis Ricci.”
Jaeger’s father, Charles Jaeger, was present for much of the trial, and was visibly upset at times. He was not in court for the verdict, but he has previously declined comment to New Times.
Her ex-husband and the father of one of her children, Steve Shlee, now lives in California. In an interview with New Times prior to the trial’s conclusion, Shlee described Kelley Jaeger as “a good soul, with a light heart,” who was “very loving, very caring … to a fault.”
Indeed, prosecutor Green credited Jaeger with pulling Wellmaker away from a fight with Ricci, as Ricci pursued them through the streets of Sunnyslope.
Shlee said he and Kelley divorced in 1995. Their daughter is now a grown woman, a college graduate.
“To her dying day, she was a giving person,” Shlee said of Kelley. “She would never do what was done to her. To anybody, anything.”
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Ricci was brought to justice by a unique partnership between the Southwest investigator for Arizona ADL and detectives in a special unit within the Phoenix Police Department, the now-defunct Career Criminal Squad (CCS).
The case initially went cold, but was reactivated as the Vinlanders came under scrutiny for a string of murders, stretching from Mesa to Las Vegas.
As the result of that partnership, and specifically CCS detectives John Justus and his partner Ray Egea, the Vinlander organization in Arizona was effectively dismantled. The ADL honored the pair in 2011 for their work.
Next, Ricci faces a misconduct involving weapons charge that was severed from the other seven charges. After that, the penalty phase of the trial should begin, and could last a month or more.