The estate of a Wichita motorist hit and killed by a driver fleeing from police in a stolen pickup is seeking $3 million in damages from the city and others, claiming the chase was “carried out with reckless disregard for the safety of others,” court documents say.
The lawsuit, filed in March in Sedgwick County District Court, is in its early stages at the same time that the fleeing driver, Keith Ritz, was on trial this week on charges including first-degree murder in the death of 38-year-old Venancio Perez on March 5, 2013. On Wednesday, a jury found Ritz guilty of the murder charge.
According to testimony Tuesday in the criminal case, the chase was estimated to last a minute to a minute and a half. It occurred around 10 a.m. in a residential neighborhood. An officer in a marked patrol car was pursuing Ritz with lights and sirens and a second patrol car was trailing or going parallel to the chase as Ritz blew through stop signs, according to testimony. The lead officer was within about two blocks of Ritz when the stolen pickup ran a final stop sign while going north on Wichita Street and struck Perez’s pickup on the driver’s side. Perez was driving west on Harry and was within two blocks of his home. He died instantly.
A prosecutor said the investigation showed the stolen pickup was going 64 mph when it hit Perez’s truck.
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The lawsuit, which names the Board of City Commissioners, the city of Wichita, the Wichita Police Department, Police Chief Norman Williams and Ritz, claims that police lacked justification for a high-speed chase that put the public at risk.
Officials with the city’s legal department declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
In an answer to the lawsuit petition, an attorney representing the city denied the allegations. “Defendants deny responsibility for the criminal conduct of Keith Ritz,” the attorney said. At the time of the collision, the closest police vehicle was more than two blocks from the stolen pickup, the defendants said in their answer.
The lawsuit notes that about two months before the fatal crash, Ritz led police on another chase in another stolen vehicle before he crashed into a light pole at Rock and Harry, and that police failed to take Ritz into custody after he was taken to a hospital.
The lawsuit also accuses the police chief and supervisors of failing to adequately train officers on proper vehicle-pursuit methods.
After the crash, police said that the chase had been called off. According to testimony in the criminal case Tuesday, a supervisor had called off the chase and officers were losing sight of the stolen pickup as it accelerated and roared past stop signs.
Department policy, the lawsuit says, calls for ending a chase immediately when ordered by a supervisor or if conditions merit it, including “when there is a clear and unreasonable danger to the officer or public.”
“The location of the pursuit, through a residential neighborhood at high rates of speed warranted the termination of this pursuit,” the lawsuit says. “There was a clear and unreasonable danger to the public by continuing the vehicle pursuit.”