Two men caused the death of an 81-year-old woman in Rancho Mirage by engaging in dangerous street racing, a prosecutor said Monday, but a defense attorney said the victim’s husband was at fault for making an ill- advised left turn.
Scott Daniel Bahls, 31, of Palm Springs, and Wade Klinton Wheeler, 34, of Rancho Mirage, are charged with murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, unlawfully engaging in a speed contest on a highway, reckless driving and numerous other vehicle-related felonies stemming from the June 18, 2013, crash that killed Barbara Schmitz and seriously injured her husband, Gerald.
According to Deputy District Attorney Daniel M. Fox, Bahls and Wheeler raced about four miles from Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City to the crash site in Rancho Mirage at high speed while weaving through traffic.
Wheeler was eastbound on Highway 111 when his BMW crashed into the side of Gerald Schmitz’s Ford Focus as Schmitz was turning left onto Highway 111 from Dunes View Road. The car launched into the air and rolled several times before coming to rest at a Union 76 gas station near the intersection.
Barbara Schmitz died at Eisenhower Medical Center about two hours after the crash. Her husband suffered numerous injuries, including a brain hemorrhage, respiratory failure, onset of atrial fibrillation, broken ribs and a fractured vertebra, left ankle, left tibia, left fibula and pelvis, according to a trial brief prepared by Fox.
Bahls’ attorney, Stephanie M. Arrache, told jurors in his opening statement that there was no evidence the defendants were engaged in a street race. She said no bystanders or motorists along the four-mile stretch where the race allegedly occurred notified police of any reckless drivers.
Arrache said witnesses would testify that Gerald Schmitz, now 83, was driving fast and cut off several drivers to get into the left-hand turn lane, before making an “ill-timed” turn in front of Wheeler’s car.
“Gerald Schmitz made an unfortunate decision,” Arrached told the jury. “A reasonable driver would have paused in front of oncoming traffic.”
Wheeler’s attorney, Rodney Soda, said jurors had a “gut-wrenching and difficult task” ahead of them, but “Wade Wheeler was not the cause of that collision.”
The trial will feature witnesses who were present on the day of the crash, as well as sheriff’s deputies who responded and expert witnesses in crash reconstruction.
Fox alleged that Wheeler, who suffered a broken right leg, was driving 74 mph before the crash. According to the prosecutor, the first thing Wheeler told a witness who pulled him from the wreckage was: “I wasn’t racing.”
According to the prosecution, Bahls helped Wheeler get out of the wrecked BMW, then left the scene, driving eastbound on Highway 111. He was later found near the Westfield Palm Desert mall, according to the prosecutor’s trial brief.
But Arrache said Bahls only left because had a job interview scheduled that day at the mall and that he was far from the only witness who didn’t remain at the scene or talk with law enforcement.
“There was no criminal activity here. There was just a really, really sad accident,” Arrache said.
According to a declaration in support of an arrest warrant, Wheeler was seen on Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage on June 18 “revving his vehicle’s engine to gain the attention of the driver of another BMW, Scott Bahls.”
“Witnesses said the two BMWs had been traveling in excess of 70-80 mph at times,” the declaration states.
According to another court document, witnesses reported seeing both drivers swerving through traffic and “communicating to each other through their windows. Both vehicles were seen either side by side or within a car length apart.”