Men Convicted in Rancho Mirage Fatal Racing Crash Slated To Be Sentenced

Men Convicted in Rancho Mirage Fatal Racing Crash Slated To Be Sentenced

Martín Di Felice

Sentencing is scheduled Tuesday for one of two men found guilty of causing a crash while street racing that resulted in the death of an 81-year-old woman seven years ago in Rancho Mirage.

Scott Daniel Bahls, 34, of Palm Springs, and Wade Klinton Wheeler, 37, of Rancho Mirage, were found guilty of vehicular manslaughter, engaging in a speed contest and reckless driving in 2016, but jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting them of second-degree murder following a monthlong trial and a week of deliberations.

Bahls is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday morning at the Larson Justice Center. A trial-readiness conference is also scheduled related to the district attorney’s renewed attempt to retry him and Wheeler on the second-degree murder count stemming from 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 court documents, 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, and ankle, tibia, fibula and pelvis fractures. Wheeler broke his right leg.

Riverside County prosecutors announced shortly after the jury’s verdict that they would be seeking to try the men on the murder count, but following numerous delays, filed a motion to split the proceedings into two separate trials for the sake of expediency and with respect to the victim.

Deputy District Attorney Daniel Fox told jurors the defendants were driving in excess of 70 mph in a 45 mph zone on Highway 111 just prior to the crash and 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 in his closing argument. “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 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.