PHOENIX (AP) — A jury sentenced a neo-Nazi to life in prison Thursday for his murder conviction in the 2009 killing of a white woman during a dispute with her black boyfriend at a Phoenix park.
The jury denied the prosecution’s push for a death sentence for the white supremacist. Prosecutors say 37-year-old Travis Ricci attacked Kelly Ann Jaeger and her boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker, after yelling racial slurs at Wellmaker and harassing him about dating a white woman.
They said Ricci left to get a shotgun, returned to the area and fired from a car as the couple stood near a pay phone. Investigators say Ricci intended to shoot Wellmaker but instead struck Jaeger.
Ricci, whose dress shirt and jacket covered up his Nazi and white-power tattoos, stood stoically with his hands in his pockets as the sentence was read in court. He was previously convicted of murder, attempted murder, drive-by shooting and other charges stemming from the October 2009 attack.
In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors have said the killing was meant to further the interests of the Vinlanders Social Club, a neo-Nazi group with a reputation for violence. Lawyers for Ricci have said his client wasn’t a member of the Vinlanders.
The attack occurred after Ricci left a friend’s home angry and drunk and made his way into the neighborhood where he noticed Jaeger and Wellmaker, according to a police report.
Prosecutors say a shirtless Ricci directed 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.
They said Ricci left to get a shotgun from his home, falsely told people there that he saw a black man hitting a white woman and returned to the area in a sedan driven by another man.
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.
Defense lawyers have noted that nearly two years after the attack, Wellmaker was jailed in an unrelated case and played chess with Ricci behind bars without recognizing him. Wellmaker has also acknowledged smoking marijuana earlier on the morning of the shooting.
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.
Aaron Levi Schmidt, who authorities say was driving the car used in the attack on Jaeger and Wellmaker, has pleaded guilty to murder in Jaeger’s death.
By JACQUES BILLEAUD
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