Retrial continues: Lake County jury hears deputy's dramatic testimony in 2005 murder case

·9 min read

TAVARES — Bill Crotty’s 2006 trial testimony was read to jurors Friday, but unlike earlier, dry, forensic expert testimony in Jason Wheeler’s death penalty resentencing trial, the retired deputy’s first-hand account of Lake Deputy Wayne Koester’s murder was chilling.

Wheeler was found guilty of first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer with a firearm, two counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, and two counts of aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer.

The jury recommended the death penalty by a 10-2 vote. However, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death recommendations must be unanimous. He is already facing life without parole on lesser charges.

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This retrial could take up to three weeks, with psychiatric and medical experts and other testimony.

Crotty's testimony from 2006 had to read to the jury because, medically, he's unable to testify at this time.

It all started with a report of domestic violence

Crotty, Koester and Deputy Tom McKane were investigating a domestic violence complaint in a rural Lake Kathryn neighborhood on Feb. 9, 2005.

Jason Wheeler watches court proceedings from wheelchair at defense table.
Jason Wheeler watches court proceedings from wheelchair at defense table.

He said he was talking to Wheeler’s wife, Sarah Heckerman. “She had a bruise on the bridge of her nose, and she had a partial gash on her head.” She said she had been “hog-tied” and assaulted.

Crotty heard gunfire while the other deputies were marking the residence with crime scene tape.

“It sounded like three shots from a long rifle. Possibly a hunting rifle or a shotgun, something of that nature,” he testified.

“I turned to Heckerman and told her to get down, and I looked down the driveway to see what was going on.”

Deputy Koester came running down the driveway

Within seconds, he saw Koester running down the driveway from a camper and a mobile home.

“It looked like he had birdshot to the face,” Crotty said.

“It looked like BB pellets had hit him all over the side of his face,” he added.

Slain Lake County Deputy Wayne Koester is shown in an undated family photo with his son, Ryan. (AP Photo, Ocala Star-Banner/Bruce Ackerman).
Slain Lake County Deputy Wayne Koester is shown in an undated family photo with his son, Ryan. (AP Photo, Ocala Star-Banner/Bruce Ackerman).

“… at first, I saw him trip and I thought he was going to lose his balance. He had a very frightful look on his face. He regained his composure, continued to move towards me and then I saw the suspect come up behind him with a shotgun.”

“I raised my handgun.”

“I was going to try to attempt to take a shot at the suspect coming up behind Deputy Koester with his shotgun, but I couldn’t get the shot off because Deputy Koester was between myself and the suspect. Once Deputy Koester cleared a little bit, the suspect turned his shotgun from Deputy Koester and shot me,” Crotty testified.

Crotty was shot in the leg

Shot in the leg, Crotty said he fired one time with his handgun when Koester cleared his line of fire.

Koester continued to move towards the three deputies’ patrol cars.

Wheeler took cover in nearby woods.

Crotty took Heckerman and moved to McKane’s car, the last in the line of patrol vehicles.

“I saw him come out of the woods about where the second [Koester’s] vehicle was.”

“He immediately moved to the front of the vehicle that I was at the back corner of. So, I moved Heckerman around to the back of the vehicle. And he was standing in the front of the vehicle.”

'He attempted to shoot me through the windshield'

“[He] attempted to shoot me through the windshield,” said Crotty, who counted four blasts from Wheeler’s shotgun.

“…the suspect continued to move around the car. Heckerman literally disappeared from my sight. I don’t know where she went, because the last I saw her was when we were moving around to the back off the car. I was trying to keep her safe and out of the line of fire. I moved around to the driver’s side of the vehicle and the suspect moved to the passenger’s side of the vehicle.”

He dropped down and attempted to shoot Wheeler’s legs out from underneath him.

“I saw the suspect start to move towards the front wheel and I knew that I needed to get off the ground,” Crotty testified.

Crotty said he got up and went to the rear of the car.

“I said, ‘Jason, what the hell are you doing?’”

“He said, ‘I’m going to f---ng kill you, man.”

Wheeler came around to the driver’s side near the trunk. Crotty was by the rear passenger door.

“…all of a sudden, I didn’t hear anything, and I thought that maybe I had an opportunity to pop up and shoot him in the chest. But it’s like at the range when somebody jams their rifle or they misfire, or they’re out of rounds, there was that lapse in firing.”

Wheeler had moved off into the woods again.

Recalling a crisis

Like McKane, who testified in person Wednesday, Crotty’s words sometimes revealed how the human mind tries to make sense out of an insane split-second moment during a crisis.

“The last time I saw Deputy Koester (alive) was when I moved to the back of my patrol car,” he said. “And it kind of struck me funny. It looked like he was sliding into home. He slid by the door, opened the door, and chambered a round in a shotgun.”

McKane thought it was odd that Koester was lying face down, with his palms up. “If you’re going to fall, you’re going to try to catch yourself.”

Jurors on Wednesday heard for themselves the frantic recorded calls to dispatchers, including “Shots fired!” and “I’ve been shot.”

Organized chaos

It was organized chaos, and extremely impressive under the circumstances, with deputies trying to capture the shooter, calling for the helicopter, EMS, other law enforcement agencies, doing everything they could to protect Heckerman, and warn responders that Wheeler, an avid outdoorsman, was armed and might try to attack them.

“…I went back around slowly to the passenger side of the vehicle that I was behind Deputy McKane’s vehicle,” Crotty said.

“I looked down the side to see if I could see Deputy Koester, at which time I saw Deputy Koester on his knees. I saw him collapse on his face. And then I saw Deputy McKane immediately come around the car and get to the door where Deputy Koester was. I said to Deputy McKane, ‘Please check Wayne to see if he’s OK.’”

“He said, ‘He’s blue.’”

“I moved around to the back of the vehicle, and I unloaded one of the magazines in my handgun shooting in the direction of the suspect.”

The Glock 22 magazine holds 15 rounds.

He reloaded.

“It looked like that he had winced at one point, kind of like on his right hip like maybe I had him in the butt or in the leg or the lower back.”

McKane wanted to the group to move to abandoned building. Crotty, fearing Wheeler might pop out of the woods again, nixed the idea.

“And the suspect did exactly what I expected. He came back out of the woods and engaged Deputy McKane again in a fire fight,” Crotty said.

“He said, ‘Bill, I’m hit.’ And I could see his leg was bleeding. I knew that he had been hit and it worried me because I was worried about possibly being hit in the femoral artery.”

They then heard Wheeler crank up a dirt bike.

'She's under the car'

This time, Crotty agreed to move to an abandoned shell of a house that had burned in a fire.

“Where’s the girl?” McKane asked.

“I didn’t know and then he said, ‘She’s under the car.' ”

Soon, the sheriff’s Eagle 1 helicopter arrived, hovering low over the abandoned building, a deputy pointing a gun out of the side of the cockpit.

Then, their supervisor arrived.

“Sgt. [Christopher] Cheshire arrived, and he said, ‘I have to go back, and I’ve got to get Wayne out of here,' meaning Deputy Koester. He said, ‘As soon as I get him out of here, Bill, I’ll come back and get you guys.’”

Cheshire went over to McKane’s vehicle, which was locked but had the engine running. He smashed out the window and backed the car up to the abandoned building.

“…Heckerman gets in the car. Deputy McKane gets in the car, and I get in the car, and we all get in the back seat, which is a caged vehicle. I’m getting ready to close the back door thinking Sgt. Cheshire is going to drive us out of there, at which time Sgt. Cheshire goes running past the patrol car. And I looked over at Deputy McKane and I said, well, I guess this means he wants me to drive us out of here. So, I got in the front and drove out.”

He had not shut his door.

“Thank God I didn’t,” he said, because back doors lock and can’t be opened from the inside.

Crotty drove the car to an EMS staging site, where ambulances took them to Waterman Hospital.

“I received two buckshot rounds to my left [leg], one went just above my knee on the inside. It was a clean-through-shot. It hit strictly fatty tissue. It did not injure me. The other one went in just below my knee behind my calf. It tore through my calf and the round wound up about an inch-and-a-half down from my shin and had to be removed two weeks later,” he testified.

'Shoot me! Shoot me!'

Crime scene analysts testified for the state. Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators spent days collecting evidence at the site, including dozens of shell casings, bloodstain evidence, DNA and the residences.

One analyst said he was beginning his work when he heard gunshots. He took cover and saw a sheriff’s pickup truck rushing past with an injured Wheeler on the way to an ambulance.

Wheeler was tracked by nearby Blue Lake, where he popped up and said, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” Deputies testified he appeared to reach for his shotgun. He was shot and left paralyzed for life.

This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Lake County, Florida jury hears more testimony in murder retrial