Prosecutor: Neo-Nazi charged with murder was driven by hate
PHOENIX (AP) — A neo-Nazi motivated by hate killed a white woman during a drive-by shooting because her boyfriend was black, a prosecutor said at the start of a murder trial Wednesday.
“They left to go hunt down the black man who was with the white woman,” prosecutor Ryan Green told jurors during opening statements in the trial of Travis Ricci. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges and could face the death penalty if convicted.
He said Ricci harassed Kelly Ann Jaeger and her boyfriend in 2009 as the couple walked through a park in Phoenix and angrily yelled racial slurs at Jaeger’s boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker.
The prosecutor said Ricci left the scene to get a shotgun, returned in a sedan driven by an associate and fired two shots at the couple, missing Wellmaker — the intended target — and killing Jaeger.
The prosecutor said Jaeger’s killing was meant to further the interests of the Vinlanders Social Club, a neo-Nazi group with a reputation for violence that was later targeted in a law enforcement crackdown.
Lawyers for Ricci criticized former Ricci associates who are expected to testify against their client and raised questions about the ability of Wellmaker, who has acknowledged being under the influence of marijuana at the time, to identify Ricci as the triggerman.
“He couldn’t have possibly seen into the window” of the car, said Bruce Blumberg, one of Ricci’s attorneys.
Ricci, whose Nazi tattoos were covered up by a dress shirt, looked stoically at jurors while attorneys made opening statements.
Since prosecutors have called the attack a hate crime, they can seek as many as 11 additional years in prison — above the maximum penalty — if Ricci is convicted of other charges, such as attempted murder, drive-by shooting, aggravated assault and assisting a criminal gang.
Aaron Levi Schmidt, who authorities say was driving the car used in the shooting, pleaded guilty to murder in Jaeger’s death. He is already serving 11 years for assisting a criminal gang. It’s unclear if he’s been sentenced on the murder conviction.
Police reports say Ricci told associates before the attack that he saw black men hitting a white woman, though Green told jurors that that account was false.
The attack started brewing after Ricci left his friend’s home angry and drunk, making his way into the neighborhood where he eventually noticed Jaeger and Wellmaker, according to a police report.
Prosecutors say Ricci hurled a racial slur at Wellmaker and yelled, “What are you doing with a white girl?”
He also told Wellmaker he was going to get “something for him,” prosecutors have said.
Sometime later, Jaeger and Wellmaker were near a pay phone when the sedan pulled up. Ricci fired two shells, hitting Jaeger in the stomach from about 10 feet (3 meters) away, prosecutors have said.
Ricci’s attorneys have noted Wellmaker was unable to identify Ricci in a photo lineup after the shooting.
While working with a police artist after the shooting, Wellmaker described a unique tattoo across the attacker’s stomach, a judge wrote earlier in the case. Ricci has a large tattoo across his belly.
In an unrelated crime months after Jaeger’s shooting death, police say Ricci stabbed two men who tried to stop him from attacking his girlfriend. He is serving a 22-year sentence for assault and weapons misconduct convictions.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://bit.ly/2GGWEPO.