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Defense to begin testimony in retrial of Rancho Mirage man who killed senior during race

RSO / Courtesy

The defense will begin its case next week in 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.

Riverside County prosecutors rested on Thursday, and Superior Court Judge Stephen Gallon gave jurors this week off as part of a previously planned dark period. He ordered them to return on March 13 for defense testimony at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta.

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

He 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, the 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 murder.

Bahls ultimately admitted the 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 and instead imposed lifetime felony probation on Bahls.
   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 motorists swerving through traffic and ``communicating to each other through their windows,'' according to the prosecution's trial brief.

``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 came barreling toward him in excess of 70 mph.

The speed limit through the area was 45.   

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.

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.

Wheeler has prior convictions for armed robbery and receiving stolen property.

Article Topic Follows: Crime

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