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Suspect in fatal Wichita crash remained fugitive despite December encounter with police

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 5:06 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at 7 a.m.

About two months before Keith Ritz was accused of fleeing from officers last week in a stolen pickup that crashed into another truck, killing its driver, Wichita police had Ritz in custody. But only for a while. He was able to go free even though he was a known fugitive.

On Dec. 26, Wichita officers captured Ritz after he allegedly crashed into a light pole while fleeing from police in a stolen Corvette at Harry and Rock Road after an attempted traffic stop. Because he had potentially serious injuries in the crash, he went to Wesley Medical Center instead of jail, said Lt. Doug Nolte, Police Department spokesman.

At the point Ritz went to the hospital, police knew he was wanted on a warrant in a felony drug case, but it wasn’t practical to put a police guard on Ritz while he was in the hospital, Nolte said. Police don’t have the resources to put guards on all suspects who go to a hospital; those decisions are made case by case, Nolte said.

Having an officer return to the hospital to arrest him on the warrant after the December crash also wasn’t a practical option, Nolte said, partly because police didn’t have access to information about when he was being released from the hospital.

Jim Carney, Wesley’s director of security and transportation, said if a police agency asks when a suspect will be released, the hospital will provide the information. Release time is not blocked by privacy laws. “If it’s legitimate police information, we’ll supply it to them,” Carney said.

As it turned out, Ritz left the hospital on his own, still a fugitive.

He was a wanted man because a warrant had been issued for him on Dec. 12, two weeks before the Corvette crash. The warrant came after he failed to report to his pre-trial services program; he was awaiting a trial set for Feb. 25 on a charge of felony marijuana possession.

In early January, the Sedgwick County sheriff’s warrant section tried to find Ritz by checking at his last known addresses but couldn’t locate him, said Lt. David Mattingly, sheriff’s office spokesman.

The sheriff’s office had scheduled Ritz to be featured as “Felon of the Day” for March 8, Mattingly said.

Now Ritz, 34, is being held in the Sedgwick County Jail on a $250,000 bond on suspicion of first-degree murder and other crimes in Tuesday’s crash at Harry and Wichita, where 38-year-old Venancio Perez died at the scene, two blocks from his home. According to witnesses, the stolen truck allegedly driven by Ritz zoomed north on Wichita at a high speed, ran a stop sign at Harry and broadsided Perez’s pickup, which was knocked into a tree.

Ritz also went to the hospital this time, but unlike in December, he was then transferred to the jail.

On Friday, investigators presented information to prosecutors who will decide what charges Ritz could face in the latest crash. Investigators also presented information about the Dec. 26 crash to prosecutors on Friday to determine if charges would be filed in that incident. According to a police report, a blood sample was taken from Ritz after the December crash.

Ritz had been in trouble with the law for years before the two crashes occurred, according to Wichita Municipal Court records, which show 14 convictions in 11 incidents from 1998 to 2012 for drug crimes, traffic violations, theft and domestic violence.

Then in late September, he was charged with felony marijuana possession and spent about a month in jail. On Nov. 14, his public defender filed a motion to reduce his bond. The motion said that his $5,000 bond was excessive because he “lacks the funds or means,” that Ritz “has ties to the community” and would live with his brother, that he had talked with the manager of a store at Harry and Broadway and thought he would get a job there or could work as a house painter, and that he had three young children who needed his financial and emotional support.

The public defender also argued: “Defendant needs drug treatment. His needs and those of the community are not served by him remaining in custody.”

Two days later, a judge, prosecutor and public defender signed an order modifying conditions of Ritz’s bond and allowing him to be released on his “own recognizance,” meaning he would be responsible for paying the $5,000 bond if he failed to appear as required.

Among his bond conditions were that he be supervised by a pre-trial services program, that he obtain a new drug and alcohol evaluation within 10 days and follow the recommendations, and that he remain in Sedgwick County and not consume alcohol or drugs without prescription. He also had to submit to random breath or urine tests.

For a while, court documents indicate, he kept his court-ordered appointments.

On Nov. 26, he entered a not-guilty plea in the drug case and was facing a Feb. 25 trial.

But by Dec. 7, he was in trouble again. An affidavit filed in court said that he failed to report to the pre-trial services program and that attempts had been made to find him, “and his whereabouts are unknown at this time.”

Five days later, on Dec. 12, his bond was revoked because he had violated bond conditions, and a warrant was issued.

Had he been arrested after the Dec. 26 crash, according to court documents, his bond would have been $10,000 – double the amount his public defender said he couldn’t afford earlier.

If he had been arrested, it’s not clear whether he still would have been in jail at the time of Tuesday’s fatal crash.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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