Two men facing second-degree murder charges for causing a fatal Rancho Mirage crash that killed an 81-year-old woman will be tried separately, a judge ruled Friday.
Scott Daniel Bahls, 33, of Palm Springs, and Wade Klinton Wheeler, 36, of Rancho Mirage, were convicted nearly two years ago of vehicular manslaughter, engaging in a speed contest and reckless driving for the June 18, 2013, crash that killed Barbara Schmitz and seriously injured her husband, Gerald.
The crash was the culmination of a four-mile street race that began on Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City and ended when Wheeler’s BMW crashed into the side of the victims’ Ford Focus as Gerald 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.
According to a 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.”
Barbara Schmitz died at Eisenhower Medical Center about two hours after the crash. Her husband suffered numerous injuries, including a brain hemorrhage, broken ribs and vertebra, ankle, tibia, fibula and pelvis fractures. Wheeler suffered a broken right leg.
Following a monthlong trial and a week of deliberations, a jury convicted the men on those counts, but deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting the men of second-degree murder.
Riverside County prosecutors announced shortly after the verdict that they would be seeking to try the men on the murder counts, but following numerous delays, filed a motion this summer to split the proceedings into two separate trials for the sake of expediency and with respect to the victims.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos, who presided over the trial in the fall of 2016, approved the motion to sever on Friday. Though it’s unclear when the first defendant’s trial will start, the men are not due back in court until Jan. 11, according to Riverside County Superior Court records.
Deputy District Attorney Daniel M. Fox told jurors the defendants were driving in excess of 70 mph along Highway 111 just prior to the crash.
In his closing argument, Fox said the defendants were cognizant of the risk they were taking — an element necessary to prove implied malice needed for a second-degree murder conviction.
“These were two grown men behaving like children,” Fox said. “They didn’t want to hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean they’re not murderers.”
Bahls’ trial attorney, Stephanie Arrache, told jurors there was no evidence the men were involved in a street race. Arrache and Wheeler’s attorney, Rodney Soda, said the evidence only showed that Gerald Schmitz was at fault and had more than enough time to gauge oncoming traffic before turning, but didn’t.
“He could have seen oncoming traffic had he been paying attention,” Arrache said.
Fox, however, said Schmitz properly gauged the distance between him and the defendants’ cars, but could not have anticipated the speed at which they were approaching, as he alleged they were driving in excess of 70 mph in a 45 mph zone.
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