PHOENIX, AZ (July 30, 2013) – Twenty-five years after the brutal murder of Eric Rice, his killer has been brought to justice. Steven Michael Humelhans (D.O.B. 8/14/1970) was sentenced to a term of life in prison with the possibility of release after twenty-five years for robbing and fatally shooting Eric Rice in 1988. The sentence, imposed by the Honorable Bruce R. Cohen, is the only allowable punishment for a non-capital first degree murder conviction under laws in place at the time of the crime.
“Today’s result is a testament to the dedicated detective work and persistence in prosecution that overcame the multiple challenges of this case,” remarked Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. “Although no sentence can replace the innocent life of Eric Rice, his senseless killing has been answered with justice that has been a long time in coming,” he added.
At approximately 11:45 a.m. on March 11, 1988, a young couple found Eric Rice while they were driving an off-road vehicle in the desert area northeast of I-17 and Happy Valley Road. Mr. Rice was in a Domino’s Pizza uniform and was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds when he was discovered. The couple immediately summoned help from a nearby establishment and emergency personnel soon arrived and attempted life-saving measures. Mr. Rice was responsive to some questions but repeatedly faded in and out of consciousness, unable to inform authorities who his attackers were. He was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. A medical examination of his body revealed ten separate gunshot wounds, a right temporal skull fracture and numerous lacerations.
Phoenix Police investigators discovered that Mr. Rice was the Night Manager of a Domino’s Pizza located at 35th Avenue and Peoria. He was last seen by a passer-by outside his store at approximately 3:15 a.m. that same morning, presumably on the way to a bank to make a late night deposit. Investigators learned that Mr. Rice’s responsibilities included completing the store’s daily paperwork and depositing the funds from the store. No deposit was made on the night of March 10, 1988 and approximately $2,250.00 in cash and numerous checks were discovered missing from the store late in the morning on March 11.
About two hours after the fatally injured body of Mr. Rice was discovered, an off-duty officer with the Department of Public Safety was present when a check written to the Domino’s store at 35th Avenue and Peoria was discovered by individuals working in the area of the I-17 and Indian School Road. The officer turned the check over to the Phoenix Police Department, which was able to obtain a fingerprint off of it. But with no fingerprint database available at the time with which to compare the print, the case went cold.
More than seven years later, in October, 1995, after the creation of Arizona’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the print on the check produced a match with a fingerprint provided by Steven Humelhans during a previous contact with law enforcement. The following August, Domino’s Pizza security received an anonymous telephone tip that Humelhans and his friend, Troy Pratton, were responsible for the robbery and murder of Eric Rice. The caller indicated that Humelhans had admitted his role in the crime to his wife Heather in 1989 or 1990, prior to their divorce. Police then located and interviewed Heather Humelhans who confirmed this information and stated that Steven had told her that after the robbery he and Troy put Rice in the trunk of their car, drove into the desert, where they shot him repeatedly and left him to die.
Based on this information, Steven Humelhans was arrested in August, 1996 and the case was forwarded to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for review. However, under the anti-marital fact privilege contained in A.R.S. § 13-4602, a married or former spouse was prohibited from testifying against a defendant spouse about information discussed during the course of their marriage. Without the critical testimony of Heather Humelhans, prosecutors were unable to file charges, and Steven Humelhans was released.
Thirteen years later, in 2009, the Arizona legislature amended the marital privilege statute to allow current and former spouses to testify against another spouse. In 2011, Arizona courts ruled the amendment could be applied retroactively to cases tried after the enactment of the original law. The County Attorney’s Office reopened the case and succeeded in securing an indictment for First Degree Murder against Steven Humelhans on April 4, 2012. He was subsequently arrested in Roscoe, Illinois and extradited to Arizona.
Troy Pratton was also questioned by police 2012, but denied any involvement in the Rice’s murder. With no additional evidence linking him to the crime, he was not charged.
After a 14-day trial, the jury deliberated for three hours before finding Humelhans guilty.