Judge rejects plea deal in fatal Wolf Lake crash case

KPC NEWS SERVICE

ALBION — A Fort Wayne man attempted Thursday to plead guilty to operating while intoxicated charges stemming from an accident that killed an Albion man last summer, but the judge rejected the plea after reviewing the sentence dictated by the agreement.

In the proposed plea, Shawn Schertz, 25, would have pleaded guilty to a Level 4 felony charge of operating while intoxicated causing death. Under the negotiated sentence, Schertz would had served no prison time, instead being sentenced to two years of electronically monitored home detention followed by four years of probation.

He also would have had to pay more than $12,500 in restitution and serve under a zero-tolerance substance policy during the six-year sentence.

In June 2016, Schertz turned left into a Marathon gas station in Wolf Lake in front of a northbound motorcycle. The driver of the motorcycle, Doug Gaerte, 61, of Albion, was thrown off the bike, severely injured and later died at a Fort Wayne hospital.

A blood test taken from Schertz after the accident indicated the presence of THC, the chemical compound found in marijuana, in his system at the time of the accident.

Noble Circuit Court Judge Michael Kramer didn’t think the terms of the plea agreement were appropriate, considering a man lost his life in the crash.

“This court is concerned with justice,” Kramer said Thursday. “I don’t think the plea agreement is appropriate, and I’m going to reject it.”

After the hearing, Noble County Prosecutor Eric Blackman said he felt there was a 50/50 chance of the judge accepting the agreement. He acknowledged in court that the terms appeared lenient, but Gaerte’s family had been involved in the negotiations and were agreeable to the proposed sentence.

“This is a family that is hurting, but also a family willing to forgive,” Blackman said in court.

Schertz’s attorney, Bart Arnold, declined to comment after the hearing, stating it would be inappropriate to do so at this time while the case is still pending.

During the sentencing hearing, Gaerte’s wife and daughter made impassioned statements to Schertz, stating his death has rocked their family. Both testified that Gaerte was an exceptionally hard-working and faithful man, who was a pillar to his wife, children and grandchildren.

Both also stressed that they wanted Schertz to stop using drugs and drinking, and to quit smoking tobacco. Schertz reportedly was going to the gas station in order to buy a pack of cigarettes when the accident occurred.

But there also were words of encouragement for Schertz to change his lifestyle and become a better person for himself, his two children, his fiancée and society.

Ann Gaerte, Doug Gaerte’s wife, gave Schertz a Bible on her way off the witness stand, in hope that he would use it to come closer to God.

“I do not hate you. I know you didn’t do this on purpose,” she said. “You took a good guy out of this world. Now you have to become that good guy.”

Schertz turned around to apologize directly to Gaerte’s family sitting in the gallery and said he’s already been making changes in his personal life.

“I’m terribly sorry. I can’t express that enough,” Schertz said. “I stopped doing drugs, and I do not intend to do them again.”

Despite all of the testimony, Kramer was irked by information that Schertz had gone golfing with friends in Fort Wayne on Wednesday and then drank a beer when he got home.

Under the plea agreement, Schertz would have to pay $12,560.44 in restitution as well as nearly $400 per month to be on home detention, which would have been difficult, considering he earns a wage of $13 per hour at work.

Kramer noted he would have liked to have seen Schertz set aside some money in anticipation of his debts if the plea was accepted.

Ultimately, he sent the prosecutor and defense counsel back to the negotiating table. A new pretrial hearing was set for Aug. 3, with a trial date set for Aug. 29.

Arnold told the judge he had continued to prepare for trial in case the plea was rejected, but he was still was waiting for an accident reconstruction from police as well as responses from the state of Indiana’s toxicology office.

Blackman said he still thinks it will be possible to work out a new plea with the defense that would be more agreeable to the judge.

The statute for operating while intoxicated causing death doesn’t require prosecutors to prove a driver was actually impaired by drugs at the time of a fatal accident, only that a substance was in the driver’s blood at the time of the accident.

Schertz could spend between two and 12 years in the Indiana Department of Correction for the Level 4 felony charge, if convicted.

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