TAVARES — The man who ambushed three Lake County Sheriff's Office deputies in 2005, killing one and wounding two others, is back in court this week trying to get 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 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a jury must now be unanimous in a death recommendation, he gets a chance for a life sentence.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday. The penalty phase trial is expected to last about three weeks, prosecutors said.
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'Shoot me! Shoot me!'
Nothing is routine in law enforcement, certainly not a potentially explosive domestic violence call.
But no one was expecting a terrifying, deadly shootout on Feb. 9, 2005, a massive manhunt and a fugitive ending up paralyzed and in a wheelchair after being shot by another deputy. No one perhaps, except Wheeler’s live-in girlfriend, Sarah Heckerman.
“I need an officer to come — well, not my house, down the street from my house, because my old man’s lost it and he’s promised me that if a cop pulls up in my driveway it’s going to be a gun battle… he’s very violent, so I’m telling you this because I’m worried about everybody," she said in a 911 call. "He’s asleep, but he’s as big as a house.”
She said he had hog-tied and assaulted her the day before.
Deputies arrived at the Lake Kathryn property in Lake Kathryn Heights in three separate patrol cars. Crotty had picked up Heckerman in his vehicle. They saw the RV the couple was living in with their children and the mobile home wrecked by a hurricane that Wheeler was trying to renovate, but they did not see Wheeler.
After looking around, they began putting up crime scene tape.
“I could hear something behind me sounding like a shotgun racking, and there was some commotion and then there was a blast from behind me,” McKane said in a sworn statement.
“I turned around just in time to see the dust and debris coming out of the end of the shotgun in my direction.”
McKane and Koester ran for cover.
“I saw Deputy Koester running up the driveway,” Crotty said in his statement. “Deputy Koester had a gunshot wound to the face. It looked like bird shot. His face was bleeding. He tripped coming up the driveway. I thought he was going to fall.”
Wheeler shot Koester three times. Koester, who lost his handgun in the battle, ran to his patrol car to grab a shotgun, but Wheeler shot him in the head with the fatal shot.
Crotty fired his weapon. He and Heckerman took cover behind a car. Wheeler then chased him around the car, riddling the car with shotgun pellets. Heckerman dove for cover under the car.
“I yelled at him,” Crotty said. “I said, ‘Jason, what the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m going to [expletive] kill you, man.”
Crotty, who was shot in the leg, tried to shoot Wheeler’s legs out from under him by firing under the car.
McKane ran into the open and began firing at Wheeler, who escaped on a dirt bike, but not before shooting McKane in the leg. Wheeler also suffered a gunshot wound, according to court records.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers showed up to hunt for Wheeler, including the Florida Highway Patrol, officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Volusia County Sheriff's Office and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
The latter didn’t need any extra motivation. They lost of 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 adamantly screaming to us, ‘Shoot me! Shoot me!’” LCSO Cpl. Joseph Schlabach would later testify.
When it appeared that Wheeler reached for his shotgun, the deputy shot him. One shot passed through both legs, one struck his abdomen, and one went into his left buttock.
Wheeler was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center where he told a deputy he had wanted to go out “in a blaze of glory.”
The Florida Supreme Court in its review of the case said, “Wheeler had a speaker wire wrapped around his neck and repeated to another officer that he tried to kill himself. A shotgun, which proved to be the murder weapon, was found nearby."
'Wayne will never be 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 the taped radio calls, including one of the deputies shouting, “I’ve been shot.”
Koester, who had been a longtime, beloved member of the Umatilla Police Department, had children with his first wife and stepchildren with his wife of two years.
Prosecutors displayed more: than 50 photographs of Koester at family events, as a Little League coach and as a National Guardsman.
“Wayne will never be back. There will never be no more football games. No daddy 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, had lost his job after the hurricane, was taking methamphetamines and blamed Heckerman for not taking care of the children and destroying the work he had done on the mobile home.
His family wasn’t 100% on his side.
“Wheeler’s aunt testified on cross-examination that she had told police after the murder that several years prior to the incident, Wheeler said that Heckerman would call the police one day and, when they came and started shooting at him, he would take down as many as he could before they got him,” the Supreme Court opinion stated.
Wheeler was found guilty 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 jury’s recommendation, ruled that the state proved the death penalty aggravator of cold, calculated and premeditated murder, and that Wheeler acted to avoid arrest.
Johnson also gave weight to the aggravator that Wheeler had previously been convicted of a violent felony, “based on his convictions of the contemporaneous violent felonies involving the other victims in this case,” the justices noted in their opinion.
Johnson gave some weight to the statutory mitigator that he was “under the influence of extreme and emotional disturbance,” and that his “capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired."
In the end, the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigators, Johnson said.
Johnson, who spent much of career as a public defender trying to keep clients off death row, said: “This court regretfully sentences you to death in the manner provided by law.”
He also sentenced him to four life sentences.
The state's highest court upheld the conviction and penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on unanimous jury penalty recommendations 10 years after the trial is what brings Wheeler and others back for new sentencing hearings.
This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Man on death row for Lake County deputy's murder seeks life sentence