Retrial begins for neo-Nazi charged in 2009 Phoenix killing

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows Travis Ricci. Ricci, who was arrested in Phoenix on a murder a charge in a woman's 2009 shooting death. Lawyers are scheduled to make opening statements Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, at the retrial of Ricci, a neo-Nazi charged with trying to kill a black man and fatally shooting the man's white girlfriend in 2009 at a Phoenix park. (Arizona Department of Corrections via AP, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — A neo-Nazi charged with trying to kill a black man and fatally shooting the man’s white girlfriend was driven by hate, a prosecutor said Monday at the start of a retrial in the 9-year-old case.

Prosecutor Ryan Green told jurors that Travis Ricci embraced the lifestyle of white supremacy, had Nazi and white-power tattoos across his body, and used racial slurs toward Kelly Ann Jaeger’s boyfriend during a 2009 dispute at a Phoenix park.

“He was angry about a black man (being) with a white woman,” Green told jurors in opening statements.

Ricci is being retried after his first trial this summer ended in a mistrial because a witness, in response to a prosecutor’s question, revealed that Ricci had spent time in prison.

Jurors weren’t supposed to hear about Ricci’s criminal history.

Authorities say a shirtless Ricci confronted Jaeger and her boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker, at the park and harassed Wellmaker. They said Ricci left to get a shotgun from his home and falsely told people there that he saw a black man hitting a white woman.

Authorities say Ricci returned to the area and fired two shotgun blasts from a car as Jaeger and Ricci stood near a pay phone. They said Ricci intended to shoot Wellmaker but instead struck Jaeger.

Before the trial began, Superior Court Judge Dean Fink asked jurors whether the mass shooting Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 people were killed would affect their ability to be impartial at Ricci’s trial. All jurors answered no.

Authorities are seeking the death penalty against Ricci, saying Jaeger’s killing was meant to further the interests of the Vinlanders Social Club, a neo-Nazi group with a reputation for violence.

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.

Bruce Blumberg, one of Ricci’s attorneys, maintains his client didn’t shoot Jaeger. He said Wellmaker can’t reliably identify the person who fired the gunshots and questioned the credibility of white supremacists who are expected to testify against Ricci.

“These are people who will actually lie to your face, and the state will ask you to rely on these people for the truth,” Blumberg said.

Ricci, whose Nazi tattoos were covered up by a dress shirt, often looked downward as he scratched out notes on papers during opening statements. He has pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys 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 also has acknowledged smoking marijuana earlier on the morning of the shooting.

One of the state’s expected witnesses is Aaron Levi Schmidt, who authorities say was driving the car used in the shooting.

Schmidt has pleaded guilty to murder in Jaeger’s death and is already serving 11 years for assisting a criminal gang. It’s unclear if he’s been sentenced on the murder conviction.

Lawyers for Ricci and Schmidt, both 36, have said their clients weren’t members of the Vinlanders.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud

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