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Jury selection starts in retrial of Rancho Mirage man who killed senior in racing crash

RSO / Courtesy

Jury selection got underway Tuesday for the retrial of a convicted felon involved in a street racing crash in Rancho Mirage that killed an 81-year-old woman.

Wade Klinton Wheeler, 41, of Rancho Mirage was driving the car that smashed into Barbara Schmitz's sedan, fatally injuring her and severely injuring her husband, Gerald Schmitz, over a decade ago.

Wheeler was convicted in 2016 of gross vehicular manslaughter, engaging in an illegal speed contest, reckless driving with great bodily injury and a sentence-enhancing allegation of inflicting bodily injury on a person over 70 years old.

However, an Indio jury deadlocked on a second-degree murder charge. The panel found Wheeler's co-defendant, 39-year-old Scott Daniel Bahls of Palm Springs, guilty of the same counts, and also hung 10-2 in favor of convicting him of second-degree murder.

Bahls ultimately admitted the murder charge and was sentenced to 16 years to life in state prison. But Superior Court Judge Anthony Villalobos -- at his own discretion and over prosecutors' objections -- suspended the sentence. Instead, he imposed lifetime felony probation on Bahls.

On Tuesday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Stephen Gallon summoned multiple panels of prospective jurors to the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta for screening as to their availability and qualifications.   

It was uncertain whether opening statements would go forward before the end of the week.

Wheeler is being held on $1 million bail at the Byrd Detention Center.   

On June 18, 2013, Bahls and Wheeler engaged in a four-mile race that began on Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City.   

Witnesses reported seeing the two drivers swerving through traffic and "communicating to each other through their windows,'' according to the prosecution's trial brief from 2016.

"Both vehicles were seen either side-by-side or within a car length apart,'' the brief stated.

Gerald Schmitz was at the wheel of his and his wife's Ford Focus, with her in the front passenger seat, and initiated a left turn onto Highway 111 from Dunes View Road in Rancho Mirage when the defendants' vehicle came barreling toward him in excess of 70 mph.   

The speed limit through the area was 45 mph.   

Wheeler's BMW plowed into the Ford midway through its turn, flipping the sedan into the air, after which it rolled several times before coming to rest in front of a gas station, according to witnesses.

Barbara Schmitz was taken to nearby Eisenhower Medical Center, where she died roughly two hours after the crash. Gerald Schmitz suffered numerous injuries, including a brain hemorrhage, broken ribs and vertebra, along with fractures to the pelvis. He spent months recovering.

Wheeler broke his right leg.

"These two grown men were behaving like children,'' Deputy District Attorney Dan Fox told jurors in 2016. "They didn't want to hurt anyone. But that doesn't mean they're not murderers.''

The defendants' attorneys argued that they weren't really trying to race and that Schmitz did not take appropriate precautions before initiating his turn at the busy intersection.

Article Topic Follows: Crime

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