After deliberating for less than a day, a jury of six men and six women spared neo-Nazi Travis Ricci from the death sentence in the vicious, 2009 drive-by slaying of Kelley Ann Jaeger
Ricci, 37, will serve life in prison instead.
Dressed in a dark suit, Ricci smiled at the jury’s verdict as he stood next to his lawyers, Jennifer Willmott and Bruce Blumberg. He was later escorted from the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies.
The same jury found Ricci guilty on seven counts, including first-degree murder and assisting a criminal street gang, in early January.
The penalty phase of the trial began January 17, with the closing arguments in the case on March 6.
Willmott, who also helped murderess Jodi Arias escape the death penalty, argued passionately that her client was not an evil man and that the state of Arizona was to blame for not protecting Ricci from his allegedly abusive father, Jean-Luc Ricci.
Though Ricci boasted a felony record that included armed robbery, kidnapping and aggravated assault, Willmott and Blumberg told the jury that the violence that Ricci faced as a child was so severe, the script of his life was written for him in advance.
Ricci’s mom abandoned Ricci in favor of drugs and alcohol, Wilmott explained at the outset of the penalty phase. During the time Ricci lived with his father, he was beaten black-and-blue daily and exposed to drug-use and sexual abuse.
Ricci’s life could have been turned around while he stayed in an Ohio group home, having followed his mother to the state after she left Ricci’s father. But the state of Arizona ultimately decided to return Ricci to his mother’s custody, which set him on the wrong path.
“The people who were supposed to nurture him, neglected him,” said Willmott. “The people who should have protected him, rejected him. And the people who were supposed to love him, tortured him.”
Ricci has for many years been a violent skinhead, his body inked over with Nazi and white-supremacist symbols, but Willmott claimed that did not define her client, whom she portrayed as sensitive and bookish. She said he read books about the Holocaust in prison like "Schindler’s List" and Viktor Frankl's "Man’s Search for Meaning."
He only become a skinhead, Willmott said, because he longed for a family, and in prison for the first time as a young man, he finally found one in a gang of racist skinheads.
Indeed, it was as a member of the Vinlanders Social Club, a violent, white supremacist gang linked to several murders in the Phoenix area, that Ricci slew Kelley Jaeger.
In the early morning hours of October 3, 2009, Jaeger, who is Caucasian, was walking with her black boyfriend, Jefferey Wellmaker, in a park in the Sunnyslope area of Phoenix, when they encountered an inebriated and shirtless Ricci, who had just walked out of a home where a skinhead party had been taking place.
Ricci reportedly exclaimed to Wellmaker, “Nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?”
He stalked the couple, shouting racial epithets at them, and at some point left, only to return later in a car driven by fellow neo-Nazi, Aaron Levi Schmidt. As the car slowed down before the couple, Ricci took aim at Wellmaker with a 12-gauge shotgun, but hit Jaeger instead, killing her.
Ricci, Schmidt and several other Vinlanders were brought to justice through a unique collaboration between the Phoenix Police Department’s now-defunct Career Criminal Squad and the Southwest Regional Investigator for the ADL of Arizona.
But despite the nature of Ricci’s crime and the fact that he is now a suspected member of the Aryan Brotherhood in prison, the jury was apparently not convinced that the killing was a hate crime.
Two members of the nearly all-white jury told me following Thursday’s verdict that they believed that Ricci had been egged on by other skinheads to do the slaying.
The two men, who included the jury foreman, declined to give their names, but they said they believed Ricci became a skinhead to survive in prison, and that his life had been predetermined to be a violent and criminal one by his abusive upbringing.
“That was just the hand he was dealt,” one man told me.
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Ricci has at least one more court date to go, on March 22, when he formally will be sentenced for his crimes by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dean Fink.
Jaeger’s daughter, Lauren Shlee, was present on Wednesday for the closing statements, but could not be there today for the sentencing decision. She has childhood memories of her mother, but was denied her presence growing up due to Ricci’s actions.
Contacted for this story, Shlee, 23, expressed disappointment with the jury’s decision. She was incredulous that some jury members didn’t see her mother’s murder as a hate crime.
“If they were in my shoes,” she stated tearfully, “I’m sure they would feel differently.”