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Fleeing driver found guilty of murder in fatal Wichita crash

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 14, 2014, at 3:26 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 15, 2014, at 6:55 a.m.

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A jury found Keith Ritz guilty of first-degree murder Wednesday for fleeing from police in a stolen pickup that struck and killed 38-year-old Venancio Perez.

Evidence showed that Perez was going the speed limit on Harry, two blocks from his home, when the stolen pickup blew through a stop sign at Wichita and struck Perez’s truck on the driver’s side at around 10 a.m. on March 5, 2013.

It took the jury 50 minutes of deliberation to find Ritz guilty of all seven remaining counts he faced, including the murder charge and fleeing from police. He had previously pleaded guilty to driving while a habitual violator. The charges involved the March 2013 chase and a December 2012 chase in which he crashed in a stolen Corvette.

Judge David Kaufman ruled after the verdict that Ritz be held without bond. No sentencing date has been set.

Ritz’s defense attorney, Brad Sylvester, contended that the evidence showed that Ritz was trying to slow down before the crash, but that something, apparently a loose pill bottle on the floorboard, was blocking his effort to push down the brake.

Sylvester argued that Ritz stopped having the intent to flee from police.

The fact is, prosecutor Aaron Breitenbach said in his closing argument, Ritz had been driving at speeds of up to 75 mph on residential streets in south Wichita, going through one stop sign after another during a chase estimated to have lasted one to one-and-a-half minutes. And even though he was slowing down some – to 64 mph – by the time the stolen truck smashed into Perez’s truck at Harry and Wichita, “it’s too late,” Breitenbach said.

“You’re past the point of no return,” he said. “His vehicle’s a missile.”

“It wasn’t a jammed brake pedal that killed Venancio Perez,” Breitenbach said. “It was a floored accelerator.”

Tim Russell, Perez’s partner, said in an e-mail statement after the verdict: “The Russell and Perez families thank the district attorney and the jury for the quick verdict. Though the guilty verdicts will not bring Venancio back, it is comforting to know that this person will not be on the streets to harm anyone else or himself any longer.”

The statement described Perez as a “kind-hearted and gentle person, and we are sure he would not seek vengeance, only justice. Today justice was handed out. We pray for the Ritz family and hope that Mr. Ritz will get the counseling he needs and that his family will be strong through this time.”

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

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