TAVARES — The man who ambushed three Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputies in 2005, killing one and injuring two others, is back in court this week seeking to have his death sentence overturned. .
A jury in 2006 recommended 10-2 that Jason Wheeler be put to death for killing Wayne Koester and injuring Thomas McKane and Bill Crotty, but thanks to a US Supreme Court ruling that a jury must now be unanimous in a death warrant, he gets a chance to be sentenced to life.
Jury selection is due to begin on Monday. The penalty phase trial is expected to last about three weeks, prosecutors said.
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‘Kill me ! Shoot me!
Nothing is routine in law enforcement, certainly not a potentially explosive call for domestic violence.
But no one expected a terrifying and deadly shootout on February 9, 2005, a massive manhunt and a fugitive left crippled and in a wheelchair after being shot dead by another MP. No one maybe, except Wheeler’s girlfriend, Sarah Heckerman.
“I need an officer to come – well, not my house, down the street from my house, because my old man lost him and he promised me that if a cop pulls up in my driveway , it would be a shooting…he’s very violent, so I’m telling you this because I’m worried about everyone,” she said in a 911 call. “He’s sleeping, but he’s is as big as a house.”
She said he tied her up and assaulted her the night before.
Deputies arrived at the Lake Kathryn property in Lake Kathryn Heights in three separate patrol cars. Crotty had picked up Heckerman from his vehicle. They saw the RV the couple lived in with their children and the hurricane-destroyed mobile home Wheeler was trying to renovate, but they did not see Wheeler.
After looking around, they started putting up crime scene tape.
“I could hear something behind me that sounded like a shotgun racket, and there was a commotion, and then there was an explosion behind me,” McKane said in a sworn statement.
“I turned around just in time to see dust and debris coming out of the shotgun end in my direction.”
McKane and Koester took cover.
“I saw Deputy Koester running down the aisle,” Crotty said in his statement. “Deputy Koester was shot in the face. It looked like a bird’s eye shot. His face was bleeding. He tripped going up the driveway. I thought he was going to fall. »
Wheeler shot Koester three times. Koester, who lost his sidearm in the battle, ran to his patrol car to grab a shotgun, but Wheeler shot him in the head with the killing blow.
Crotty fired his gun. He and Heckerman hid behind a car. Wheeler then chased him around the car, riddled the car with shotgun pellets. Heckerman dove to hide under the car.
“I yelled at him,” Crotty said. “I said, ‘Jason, what the hell are you doing?’ He said: ‘I will [expletive] kill you, man.
Crotty, who was shot in the leg, attempted to shoot Wheeler’s legs from under him by shooting under the car.
McKane ran into the open and began shooting Wheeler, who escaped on a dirt bike, but not before shooting McKane in the leg. Wheeler was also shot and wounded, according to court records.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers showed up to chase Wheeler, including the Florida Highway Patrol, officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, and the County Sheriff’s Office. Marion county.
The latter did not need additional motivation. They lost one of their own deputies, Brian Litz, to a mentally ill shooter almost exactly a year earlier.
Lawmen tracked Wheeler to an island on nearby Blue Lake.
“He was categorically shouting at us, ‘Kill me! Shoot me!’” LCSO Cpl. Joseph Schlabach will testify later.
When it appeared that Wheeler had reached for his shotgun, the deputy shot him. A shot went through both legs, one hit his abdomen and another in his left buttock.
Wheeler was taken to the Orlando Regional Medical Center where he told a deputy he had wanted out “in a burst of glory.”
The Florida Supreme Court, in its review of the case, said: “Wheeler had a speaker wire wrapped around his neck and told another officer that he had attempted suicide. A shotgun, which turned out to be the murder weapon, was found nearby.”
“Wayne will never come back”
The initial trial was grueling, especially the penalty phase. Crotty and McKane recalled the horror on the stand. Jurors could hear the raw emotion on recorded radio calls, including one of the deputies shouting: “I was shot.
Koester, who was a longtime beloved member of the Umatilla Police Department, had children with his first wife and stepchildren with his wife two years ago.
Prosecutors posted more than 50 photographs of Koester at family events, as a Little League coach and as a national guard.
“Wayne is never coming back. There will never be any more football games. No dad to walk my daughter down the aisle,” said Virginia Bevirt, his ex-wife.
Wheeler’s friends, family and pastor said Wheeler was under a lot of stress, lost his job after the hurricane, took methamphetamine and blamed Heckerman for not caring for children and destroying the work he was doing. he had done on the mobile home.
His family was not 100% on his side.
“Wheeler’s aunt testified on cross-examination that she told police after the murder that several years before the incident, Wheeler had stated that Heckerman would call the police one day and, when they came and started to shoot him, he would take as much as he could before they caught him,” the Supreme Court opinion said.
Wheeler was convicted of first degree murder of a law enforcement officer, two counts of attempted first degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery of law enforcement officers.
Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson, acting on the recommendation of the jury, ruled that the state proved aggravating the death penalty for cold, calculated, and premeditated murder, and that Wheeler acted to avoid arrest .
Johnson also lent weight to the aggravating claim that Wheeler had previously been convicted of a violent crime, “based on his convictions of contemporary violent crimes involving the other victims in this case,” the judges noted in their statement. notice.
Johnson gave some weight to the legal mitigator that he was “under the influence of extreme and emotional disturbance” and that his “ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was significantly impaired”.
In the end, the aggravating factors prevailed over the mitigating factors, Johnson said.
Johnson, who has spent much of his career as a public defender trying to keep patrons off death row, said: “This court sentences you to death with regret in the manner provided by law.”
He also sentenced him to four life terms.
The state’s highest court upheld the conviction and sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the jury’s unanimous recommendations for punishment 10 years after the trial is what is bringing Wheeler and others back for new sentencing hearings.