The scene reeked of leaking oil.
And to Omaha police, the story just plain smelled.
At 11:44 p.m. March 3, an Omaha attorney called 911 to report that barking dogs had roused him from his sleep and he had gone outside to find a thief taking off in his 2005 pickup truck.
I chased after him but he got away, attorney James R. Walz said, according to police.
Officer Christopher Doble immediately thought something was hinky. First, Doble noted, Walz appeared to have been drinking. Second, a trail of oil and antifreeze lined Walz's driveway at 16311 Spring Circle and extended down the street.
That trail led to questions about what happened that night and, eventually, to misdemeanor charges against the 53-year-old Walz. And the court resolution led to questions about Omaha city prosecutors' handling of Walz's case.
According to police reports and attorneys in the case:
Responding to Walz's stolen-vehicle report, Doble and another officer, Jonathon Torrey, traced the trail of car fluids spilling out of Walz's driveway. The trail took them a few blocks away — to Center Park, near 159th and Valley Streets.
There, they found Walz's 2005 GMC Canyon pickup truck with “heavy front end damage,” a deployed airbag and no front license plate.
Torrey then cruised the area to look for a possible crash scene. On 160th Street, just south of West Center Road, Torrey found tire marks on the grass bordering the west curb. He then spotted more tire tracks zigzagging across a wide grass median before the tire marks ended at a tree on the side of the road.
At the base of the tree: The front license plate of Walz's truck.
Torrey again followed the trail of antifreeze and oil — to Walz's house.
There, he and Doble confronted Walz with their conclusions: that Walz had gotten in a wreck, driven the truck home, then dumped it at a nearby park before calling 911.
Walz insisted that he was home all evening, according to police reports.
“Walz stated he was not in the accident,” Doble wrote, “and claimed the vehicle was stolen.”
Doble noted that there was no damage to the steering column consistent with a car theft — nor was there any evidence of forced entry.
An hour after Walz called 911, officers cited him with two misdemeanors: giving false information and leaving the scene of a property damage accident.
A month later, the Omaha City Prosecutor's Office charged Walz with three additional misdemeanors: hitting a fixed object, reckless driving and driving under the influence.
Walz declined to comment for this story through his attorney, Horacio Wheelock.
Wheelock did not detail Walz's defense. However, he did issue a statement in which he said Omaha city prosecutors had no basis for the DUI charge. Despite their notation that Walz had consumed alcohol, Omaha police did not administer a breath test or any field sobriety tests to determine whether Walz was intoxicated, Wheelock noted.
Nor did Walz ever say he was driving. In fact, he never backed off his assertion that his truck was stolen, Wheelock said.
City Prosecutor David Smalheiser said he added the DUI charge based on police reports. Though officers did not test his breath, they reported that Walz appeared to have been drinking. Smalheiser said that observation, combined with the wreck, led city prosecutors to determine there was probable cause to believe Walz had committed a DUI.
Smalheiser said he later backed off the DUI because of concerns about the police investigation. Smalheiser said police did a good job finding the truck and “holes” in Walz's story. However, he said, he wished they would have gathered more evidence, including the breath test. Smalheiser pointed out that police had not asked Walz when he had his last drink and had not questioned Walz's children to see if Walz indeed had been home all night.
Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, defended the officers' investigation. Because they found Walz at home, a breath test would have done nothing to determine whether Walz had been drinking before a crash, Wells said.
Wells said the officers were “tenacious” in gathering evidence about whether Walz's truck had been stolen.
“That's good police work,” Wells said.
When the case came to trial last week, Smalheiser's office made a deal with Walz. Prosecutors dismissed four of the five counts — allowing Walz to plead no contest to leaving the scene of a property damage accident. In return for his plea, prosecutors agreed that Walz would face a fine, not jail time. (Before the deal, Walz had faced the potential of up to six months in jail on each of the false information and leaving the scene charges, a month in jail on the DUI charge and lesser amounts on the others.)
Judge Joseph Caniglia imposed Walz's fine: $200, plus court costs.
Wheelock said the deal was fair — and had nothing to do with Walz's status as an attorney. Walz is a solo practitioner who primarily does civil litigation.
Wheelock said it made no difference “whether Mr. Walz was an attorney, a doctor, a teacher, a construction worker or unemployed.”
“Regardless of ethnicity, race or stature in the community, I would have gotten this same deal — across the board — based solely on the facts of the case,” Wheelock said.
Smalheiser said Walz “did not receive any special treatment.” He noted that his office had successfully prosecuted Walz before for DUI. In that May 2000 case, Walz drank and drove and caused a crash near 30th Street and Sorensen Parkway. Police said Walz, who had a .18 percent blood-alcohol level, then led officers on a chase in which he rammed a cruiser and resisted arrest when he was finally stopped near 118th Street and West Maple Road.
A judge ordered him to serve 18 months of probation for DUI and operating a motor vehicle to avoid arrest — and Walz successfully completed the term.
In the latest case, Smalheiser said, prosecutors would have risked Walz being “acquitted of everything” if they had taken the case to trial.
Based on Walz's story and the trail of car fluids, Smalheiser acknowledged that a judge or jury would have had to believe that the thief took Walz's truck from his house, got into a wreck at 160th and West Center, returned the truck to Walz's home, got spooked by the barking dogs, took off and dumped the car in the park.
“It smells,” Smalheiser said. “The story doesn't seem all that credible. But not believing him is not the same as having evidence.”
Asked if he should have tried for a false reporting conviction, Smalheiser said “maybe.” But overall, he said, the result was just. On top of the fine, he noted, Walz lost half the points a driver needs to retain a license.
“He was convicted of leaving the scene — the most serious charge that police (originally) ticketed him on,” Smalheiser said. “We charged him in a way that encouraged him to be convicted of what he was. It turned out just as I hoped it would.”
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