A Richardson County jury last Thursday evening in District Court found a 21-year-old Verdon man guilty of three Class II Felonies stemming from a June 26, 2013 vehicle collision in Falls City and, pending appeal, he will be sentenced to a minimum term of one year in the Nebraska Dept. of Corrections.
The trial of Phillip A. Doerr began with jury selection last Monday and lawyers made closing arguments late Thursday afternoon. After deliberating for about three hours, the jury of 12 returned guilty verdicts of assault in the first degree, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony. By state law, conviction of a Class II Felony is punishable by a minimum of one year and up to 50 years in an institution “under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Correctional Services” and the person convicted is not eligible for probation. Even if Judge Daniel Bryan sentences three concurrent minimum terms, with “good time,” which essentially credits two days for each one served, Doerr faces at least six months in prison. He remains free on bond until sentencing, which is expected to be scheduled Dec. 8 or 15.
The verdict comes more than two years after the two-pickup truck collision authorities and prosecutors described as “road rage,” and not yet a calendar year after the 21-year-old, who operates a local contracting business and also performs tree and snow removal, was tried in a day — and acquitted in an hour — by a jury on two other Class II Felonies in an unrelated case. Greg Ariza, of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, served as special prosecutor in both cases. Doerr last week was represented by prominent Nebraska attorney Clarence E. Mock of the Johnson & Mock firm, which has offices in Omaha and Oakland, NE.
Authorities accused, and Ariza successfully argued with help of eyewitness testimony, photographs and investigation by local police, and expert witness and forensic testimony acquired from a crash reconstruction conducted by the State Patrol, that Doerr “intentionally” crashed his Ford F-350 super duty pickup into the back of a compact, Chevy S10 truck driven by Timothy L. Wittwer, 36, of Falls City, at a speed of up to 55 miles per hour. Authorities say an altercation ensued and Doerr was in possession of a gun. His defense team argued that the collision was an accident, there was not sufficient evidence to prove otherwise and since no crime was committed, in was within his legal rights to carry a firearm.
The wreck occurred on 14th Street, between Weaver and Fulton Streets, in the middle of the afternoon as both vehicles were westbound. According to witness testimony, photographs taken at the scene and forensics conducted by the State Patrol, Wittwer’s truck rolled twice before coming to rest on its four wheels. “Substantial contact and induced damage was observed to the rear left side” of the truck. Wittwer was transported to Community Medical Center and then to a Lincoln hospital for treatment of possible spinal and neck injuries, as well as lacerations to his head. Doerr’s truck, which he had just previously purchased, rolled onto its top, slid on the grass north of 14th Street, and struck a light pole in the northeast corner of 14th and Fulton Streets. Doerr exited the vehicle from the rear cab window, but he didn’t report major injury.
Prosecutors called several eyewitnesses, including Wittwer, who all testified that Doerr “didn’t look like he tried to slow down” or “never let off the gas” before impact. Doerr, who did not take the stand during the trial, at the scene allegedly told investigating officer Jeremy Goldsberry of the FC Police Dept. that he had attempted to avoid a welder that had slid out of the back of a third pickup, that of Robert Fisher, 52, of Falls City. Doerr, according to the report, said when he swerved to pass the welder, Wittwer’s truck was stopped in the turning lane and blocking traffic. He told Goldsberry that when he swerved to the right to avoid the collision, his truck struck the north edge of the road and rolled. Goldsberry’s investigation “revealed the two vehicles had crashed and that Wittwer’s pickup truck was rear-ended by Doerr’s pickup truck.”
The State Patrol conducted a crash reconstruction in September 2013 and came to a similar conclusion. Based on collected data, including tire marks, path of travel of both trucks, damage analysis, and Wittwer’s Airbag Control Module, as well as corroborating statements made by eyewitnesses, in the professional opinion of State Trooper Pedram Nabeigh, Doerr intentionally caused the accident.
The reconstruction “also determined there was ample distance for Doerr to avoid the collision, even if he was traveling 55 mph, and he could’ve avoided the crash if he had stayed in the turning lane. (There is) probable cause to believe Doerr intentionally crashed his vehicle into Wittwer’s vehicle and provided false statements to Officer Goldsberry during his investigation.”
Doerr initially was not issued a citation at the scene, but both he and Fisher were later both accused of willful reckless driving and Fisher a second count, hauling an unsafe load. According to witness testimony, Fisher was giving chase to Wittwer, when the latter stopped his truck on 14th Street before the intersection in an effort to create distance between the vehicles. When Wittwer accelerated away, Fisher again allegedly gave chase and a welder in the bed of his pickup slid onto the street. That’s when Doerr allegedly passed Fisher’s truck in the turning lane, swerved back into the driving lane and struck Wittwer’s vehicle.
According to court documents, Fisher and Wittwer were feuding for months before the incident and at the time of the wreck. In fact, in late December of 2012, police were called to Fisher’s home and arrested Wittwer on felony charges of assault and terroristic threats for allegedly “pointing a gun” at Fisher’s head and threatening to “blow his head off.” He later pled guilty to misdemeanor assault in the third degree and was fined $750. Wittwer said Fisher wanted to exact revenge on him, as did Doerr, as the two were friends (Doerr had actually purchased the truck he was driving at the time of the wreck from Fisher) and Doerr was a part-time employee of Fisher’s.
Doerr that fall was charged with felony assault in the second degree, but special prosecutor Jennifer Ladman-Stehlik dismissed it without prejudice in late October 2013. An arrest warrant was issued for Doerr in April 2014, but only for Assault in the Second Degree, a Class III Felony. That charge was amended, and the two others added, later in 2014.