Neo-Nazi sentenced to life in prison for killing Phoenix woman after seeing interracial couple

The Arizona Republic/March 7, 2019

By Lauren Castle

A jury voted to send  a Phoenix man, described by authorities as a neo-Nazi, to prison for life for killing a woman when he shot at an interracial couple as they walked.

Travis Ricci, 37, was sentenced in the October 2009 shooting death of Kelly Ann Jaeger, who was walkingnear a north Phoenix park with her boyfriend. 

Prosecutors said Ricci was a member of the Vinlanders Social Club, a neo-Nazi group. They contended he was angry that Jaeger, who was white, was with a black man and began to shout racial slurs at the couple before he shot at them.

This was the second time Ricci has been tried for Jaeger's death; the first ended in a mistrial.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty, Ricci's defense lawyers contended his actions could be traced to an abusive childhood.

On Jan. 9, the jury had found him guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, attempt to commit first-degree murder, drive-by shooting, assisting a street gang and misconduct involving weapons. 

They voted against the death penalty.

Maricopa County Superior Judge Dean Fink sentenced Ricci for the first-degree murder charge. Sentencing still is pending on the remaining charges. 

The shooting

On the night of the shooting, Ricci was drinking at the home of another skinhead and wandered into the streets, Maricopa County prosecutor Ryan Green said during opening statements.

After seeing Jaeger and her boyfriend, Jeffrey Wellmaker, near Palma Park, near 12th Street and Dunlap Avenue, he began yelling racial slurs because he was angry at seeing the interracial couple, the prosecutor said. 

Ricci returned to the house and returned in a car with co-defendant Aaron Schmidt and a loaded shotgun.

Green said Ricci fired two shots that were meant for Wellmaker but hit Jaeger instead. 

Wellmaker was the shooting's only witness. 

Is he a victim of abuse?

In his defense, Ricci's lawyers explained how he was abused as a child.

Ricci lived with his mother for nearly the first six years of his life in Ohio before moving to Arizona to live with his father. He later was placed in foster care before going to juvenile detention. 

His lawyer, Jennifer Willmott, said every time prosecutors tried to "minimize" Ricci's abuse, the path that led to what happened was also minimized. 

She said when he went to prison for the first time at 20 years old, he was looking for a family in hopes of surviving and found one. 

"When you are challenged on the yard to a fight and you don't win, you are not going to survive," she said. 

Willmott said he wasn't looking for trouble once he left prison but his friends from that time came back into his life. 

Ricci's lawyer Bruce Blumbergargued Ricci had opportunities to join the Aryan Brotherhood but decided against it. Ricci was a member of a neo-Nazi group called the Vinlanders Social Club, according to prosecutors.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, which works to stop discrimination, it is a skinhead group that is known for violence. 

Willmott argued that if Ricci knew his great-grandfather was killed by Nazis while fighting in World War II, he never would have placed a swastika on himself. She said Ricci gave Hanukkah cards to people he knew were Jewish and read books on the Holocaust, like "Schindler’s List."

Blumberg told the court about Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged for his role in the Holocaust. 

“That’s a real Nazi, not somebody who wears tattoos on their skin,” Blumberg argued.

Willmott gave insight into some of Ricci’s relationships.

Ricci’s ex-girlfriend is Hispanic and one of his friends who is black is married to a white woman, Willmott said. Also, she said one of his sisters is dating a transgender man. 

Some of them testified during the trial.

“That is not a man with hate in his heart,” Willmott told the court. 

Is he a violent, white supremacist?

Green, the prosecutor, said despite her mother's death, Kelly's daughter was able to graduate from high school and go to college. 

Green told the jury despite Ricci's rough childhood, he chose his friendships as an adult. 

"She was murdered by the confident 28-year-old man who chose his own path," he said. 

Green said it was important to remember there were victims of Ricci's actions. In court, he read some of Ricci's juvenile records. 

Ricci used racial slurs and was disrespectful to women, according to records cited by Green. 

Records stated he was involved with a white supremacy gang in juvenile detention and that he hit another juvenile on the back of the head with a cutting board he had made in woodworking shop. 

 Ricci hit a staff member who initially pressed charges before dropping them and punched a physical education teacher, Green said. 

The state replayed a prison video of Ricci entering a cell of another inmate, knocking the man to the ground and beating the inmate’s head into a bed several times. 

“Is that about survival?” Green asked. “Was Travis Ricci trying to survive, or was the other man trying to survive?” 

Reporter Bree Burkitt contributed to this report.

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