An investigation found that Keith Ritz was driving a stolen truck at 64 mph when he ran a stop sign and struck another pickup on a Wichita street, instantly killing the other driver, a prosecutor told a jury Tuesday.
After the mid-morning collision on March 5, 2013, a police detective asked Ritz why he was fleeing from police.
He told the detective: “I saw cops. I freaked out, and I punched the gas,” prosecutor Kari Burks said in her opening statement to the jury.
Burks said she would ask jurors to find Ritz guilty of felony murder.
In his brief opening statement, defense attorney Brad Sylvester told the jury that right before the collision, Ritz tried to brake, but something didn’t allow him to push the pedal down.
Before the crash, Ritz stopped having the intent to flee and should not be found guilty of felony murder, Sylvester said.
The first-degree murder charge accuses Ritz of unlawfully killing Venancio Perez during an “inherently dangerous” felony – fleeing from police.
Ritz allegedly stole a pickup and was fleeing when he ran a stop sign at Harry and Wichita and collided with a pickup driven by Perez, 38, according to police reports.
Perez was two blocks from his home.
The police chase had been called off at the time of the collision, Police Chief Norman Williams said at the time.
In her opening statement on the prosecution’s case, Burks said that after two police cars pulled up to Ritz as he sat in a stolen pickup in a south Wichita neighborhood, he sped away, running one stop sign after another, at speeds up to 75 mph. After running a stop sign at Harry and Wichita, the pickup hit the driver’s side of the vehicle driven by Perez, Burks said.
Burks gave this account: Ritz took off at speeds of 40 to 50 mph on Exchange, then Funston. He reached 60 to 70 mph on Funston, with an officer chasing. The pickup became a blur as it zoomed past three stop signs on Funston. The pursuing officer didn’t see any brake lights come on. The truck then turned and roared north on Wichita, and the officer lost sight of it.
Then, the officer saw smoke and realized there had been a crash. One witness, a resident a couple of houses from the crash scene, heard a “boom.”
An autopsy found that Perez died of multiple blunt-force injuries.
The investigation, including a “black-box” data recorder, determined that at 3 seconds before the impact, the truck was going 75 mph at 100 percent throttle, then 70 mph and zero throttle at 2 seconds, then 64 mph at the time of the collision, Burks said.
Burks told the jury that the prosecutors also would present evidence from another chase involving Ritz on Dec. 26, 2012, about two months before the fatal crash.
In that high-speed chase, Ritz allegedly led a police officer on a late-night pursuit through south and east Wichita that ended when a stolen Corvette reportedly driven by Ritz lost a tire and crashed into a pole at Rock and Harry.
In the fatal crash, Ritz is facing charges of first-degree murder, two counts of fleeing or attempting to elude an officer, theft and driving while a habitual violator.
In the one-vehicle crash on Rock, Ritz is charged with two counts of fleeing or attempting to elude an officer, theft and driving while a habitual violator.
In the fatal crash, Wichita police Officer Jason Emery testified that Ritz sped away from him as he pursued him with sirens and emergency lights activated, on residential streets with a 30 mph speed limit. Emery said he soon lost sight of Ritz because, as an officer, Emery was having to slow down at stop signs and look for traffic.
Emery estimated the chase lasted a minute to a minute and a half.
Emery told Sylvester, the defense attorney, that he didn’t hear a supervisor end the chase through emergency radio traffic and couldn’t recall if he later heard that it had been ended. When asked by Sylvester if he thought he might have been in trouble for chasing too vigorously, Emery replied: “No. I didn’t feel I did anything wrong.”
Under questioning by the prosecutor, Emery said he slowed down greatly at stop signs for safety reasons and that nothing caused him to turn off his lights and sirens.
While Emery was driving the lead chase vehicle, Officer Alex Recio was trailing Emery in another marked patrol car.
Recio said he told a detective investigating Perez’s death that a supervisor had called off the chase.
Prosecutors told Judge David Kaufman that they expect to rest their case Wednesday.