Nonchalant menace. That's the aura that oozed from neo-Nazi Travis Ricci as he was led into Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Connie Contes' courtroom for a recent sentencing hearing.
Powerfully built, with wide shoulders and a reputation for explosive violence, the 29-year-old racist skinhead seemed oblivious to his leg irons and the handcuffs shackling his hands to his waist.
Gray jailhouse stripes covered most of his tattoos, particularly the swastikas and Nazi lightning bolts on his shoulders.
But plain on his forearms could be seen Gothic script referring to the SS motto: "Meine Ehre Heisst Treue," or "My Honor Is Loyalty," often found inscribed on vintage Nazi daggers.
Only those in the know would notice the mustache inked on the middle finger of his left hand, a tattoo common among those in the white supremacist Vinlanders Social Club gang, of which he is a member. When raised to the lips, it approximates the facial hair of Ricci's führer, Adolf Hitler.
In one photo presented to the court, Ricci, wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, gives a sieg heil with his finger-stache in place. Moronic? Sure. The Vinlanders may be known as one of the most vicious racist gangs in America. But no one's ever accused them of having triple-digit IQs.
On this day, Ricci will be sentenced to 22 years in the state pen for putting his girlfriend's head into a wall at a party and stabbing the two men who came to her aid. One caught a knife in the hand, the other in the neck.
Actually, the jury deadlocked on the count involving the knife in the neck, and Ricci eventually will be retried on that charge. But that's the least of his worries, as Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Vince Goddard will be shooting for the death penalty against Ricci for the heinous 2009 murder of Kelly Ann Jaeger.
Jaeger, a Caucasian, was walking late one October night with Jeffrey Wellmaker, her African-American boyfriend, near Palma Park, in the Sunnyslope area of Phoenix, when they were approached by a muscular, tattooed thug who challenged Wellmaker.
"Hey, nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?" the man asked.
Words were exchanged, according to Phoenix Police Department reports, but it did not escalate to a fight. The man left, and Wellmaker and Jaeger kept walking.
Later, the hooligan caught up with them near Fourth Street and Puget Avenue. He was the passenger in a white four-door sedan. Shotgun blasts rang out, and Jaeger, a mother of two, was hit in the stomach.
Phoenix cops investigating a suicide nearby responded quickly. They found Wellmaker tearful and distraught, imploring his girlfriend to "wake up." An ambulance rushed Jaeger to nearby John C. Lincoln Hospital, where she was declared dead on arrival.
Police wavered at calling the murder a hate crime, despite the obvious racial overtones. Initially, PPD investigators thought the shooting was a drug deal gone bad, and the case quickly went cold.
Prodded by the Anti-Defamation League of Arizona, the PPD's famed Career Criminal Squad took up the case.
Tasked, in part, with targeting violent street gangs such as the Vinlanders, CCS detectives uncovered a web of neo-Nazi activity surrounding Jaeger's slaying. By September, CCS detectives had arrested more than a dozen Vinlanders and Vinlander associates on various charges, crushing the national organization's Arizona contingent ("Skinheads in Stir," September 30).
Two of those collared were Travis Ricci and suspected accomplice Aaron Levi Schmidt, an anti-Semite despite the Jewish origins of his first and middle names. Prosecutors allege Ricci pulled the trigger and Schmidt was at the wheel during the drive-by.
According to court documents, Ricci boasted about the killing and Schmidt and his girlfriend buried the murder weapon in the desert near Tucson. Other Vinlanders visited the homes of those who knew of the incident, which occurred as the skinheads partied at someone's house in Sunnyslope, and warned them not to talk.
The cops' confidential informants feared for their lives.
"All of my sources . . . are terrified of the Vinlanders Social Club finding out whom they are or where they are at," one CCS detective wrote in his report.
They have been terrified for good reason. The VSC, which mostly operates out of the Midwest and Arizona, is one of those racist skinhead groups that other white supremacists regard with dread.
Savage beatings have been meted out to white-power knuckleheads who offered Vinlanders the smallest slight. One such beat-down occurred because a neo-Nazi did not promptly flip the Hitler salute with his peers.
But true to their ideology, their natural targets are minorities. The County Attorney's Office claims Ricci and Schmidt were after Wellmaker but ended up killing Jaeger.
As one CCS detective pointed out to Judge Contes at Ricci's sentencing for aggravated assault, Jaeger's homicide is justified in Ricci's eyes because Jaeger was a "race traitor" for being with a black man.
Incredibly, prosecutor Goddard has revealed in one of his legal filings that while in county awaiting trial, Schmidt practically confessed to involvement in the Jaeger homicide.
"Schmidt has since admitted his participation in the murder in a letter to his wife," Goddard writes. "Schmidt attempts to further the third-party defense idea that Ricci and Schmidt had retrieved the shotgun and looked for the victim couple because unidentified black men were hitting a white woman."
Schmidt's lame fantasy of coming to the aid of a distressed (white) damsel sounds like something right out of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Although Schmidt, like Ricci, is charged with first-degree murder, Goddard has not filed a notice seeking the death penalty against him.
Let's hope that changes.
People often ask me whether I'm opposed to the death penalty, assuming that I will answer in the affirmative. And there are plenty of valid arguments against it, usually from do-gooders on the left or the religiously inclined.
But in the case of someone like Ricci, who has committed one of the most sinister and cowardly acts of hate in this state in recent memory, I'd have no problem with an exterminating angel paying this Nazi scum a visit.
Assuming he's justly convicted by a jury of his peers, of course.
Ditto Schmidt, should the death penalty be pursued in his case, and he's likewise found guilty.
At the sentencing, Goddard sought a maximum sentence of 55 years, telling the court that Ricci could not be rehabilitated, mentioning priors such as a robbery in which Ricci tied up an elderly convenience store clerk and threatened to kill her.
Goddard also discussed Ricci's National Socialist skin work and how it paralleled his worldview.
"It's almost an anachronism that we have to [talk] about this now, 60 years after we fought the Nazis," Goddard observed.
Bill Straus, regional director of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, also spoke to the court, praising the CCS and the County Attorney's Office's work in going after groups such as the Vinlanders. He pointed out that the Vinlanders are in a different league, that they terrorize the entire community, not only minorities.
No family or friends addressed the court on Ricci's behalf. Ricci asked Contes for mercy, hanging his head in mock shame as the judge handed him 22 years.
Life imprisonment would be a sweet deal for Ricci. In a prison system effectively run by race-based gangs, his horrific deeds will make him a hero to his fellow racist peckerwoods.
All the more reason Ricci should be offered the needle, if and when his day comes.
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