By JACQUES BILLEAUD
PHOENIX (AP) - An interracial couple was walking near a Phoenix park when authorities say a shirtless neo-Nazi began angrily yelling a racial slur and harassing the black man in the couple over dating a white woman.
Authorities say the men exchanged tense words before Travis Ricci rushed back to a home where other white supremacists were partying, grabbed a shotgun and returned in a sedan driven by an associate. Ricci leaned out the car and fired two buckshot blasts, missing the black man - the intended target - and killing his girlfriend, investigators said.
Lawyers are now picking a jury to decide whether Ricci should be convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the 2009 attack, which prosecutors say was a hate crime. Opening statements are tentatively scheduled for June 6.
The case has offered several unexpected turns.
Ricci, whose defense is expected to include an argument that he's not the man he used to be, claims his great-grandfather was a member of the French Resistance killed by Nazis during World War II.
Authorities are seeking the death penalty, saying 39-year-old Kelly Ann 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.
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.
Ricci pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have raised questions about the ability of Jaeger's boyfriend, Jeffery Wellmaker, to identify him as the triggerman. They note that nearly two years after the attack, Wellmaker was jailed in an unrelated case and played chess with Ricci behind bars without recognizing him.
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.
Lawyers for Ricci and Schmidt, both now 36, have said their clients weren't members of the Vinlanders.
Police reports say Ricci told associates before the attack that he saw black men hitting a white woman, though it's unclear if that claim was accurate.
Rebecca Wilder, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Ricci, declined to comment on the case. The Phoenix Police Department, which investigated the attack, also declined to comment.
Prosecutors said in court records that Wellmaker, who was unarmed, was extremely distraught over the attack and tried to help his girlfriend after she was shot. They say Wellmaker didn't provoke the attack and tried unsuccessfully to push Jaeger out of the path of the shotgun blast, according to court records.
Ricci's attorneys declined to answer questions about the allegations against their client.
"He is a very sensitive person who cares about people in general," said Jennifer Willmott, one of his lawyers. "He has had a very difficult life."
Bruce Blumberg, another attorney for Ricci, said his client's team has gotten records that document the arrest and execution of Ricci's great-grandfather during his involvement with the French Resistance. Blumberg said the great-grandfather's experience may be brought up during the trial, though it's unclear what it will be used to demonstrate.
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 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 said.
Ricci's attorneys have noted Wellmaker was unable to identify Ricci in a photo lineup after the shooting, and he failed to recognize their client in 2011 when the two served time in the same Maricopa County jail pod. Court records filed in Ricci's case didn't specify the charge on which Wellmaker was jailed, and a records check didn't provide a definitive answer to the question.
Ricci ended up telling Wellmaker he was the person accused of killing his girlfriend, a judge wrote in a pretrial ruling.
The judge said Wellmaker's identification of the shooter was reliable because he would have been able to identify Ricci independent of the jail encounter. While working with a police artist after the shooting, Wellmaker described a unique tattoo across the attacker's stomach, the judge wrote.
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 .
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