A Fresno used car dealer is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court, accused of allowing a “prolific auto thief” to steal a car that ended up killing an innocent family man in a two-car collision west of Fresno three years ago.
Earnest Grant, 55, of Fresno, was killed on July 17, 2013, when his car was struck by a stolen Infiniti driven by Walter Levon McDaniel.
Fresno attorney Nicholas “Butch” Wagner laid out the case as the wrongful death civil trial began Thursday. In opening statements to the jury, Wagner said:
My Auto Maxx general manager Wally Salah Ali knew McDaniel had stolen the Infiniti on July 12, 2013, but did not report it to police until four days later. And when Ali made his report to police, he lied about when the car was stolen.
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In addition, a Fresno police officer had warned My Auto Maxx employees to secure the Infiniti to make sure it wasn’t stolen. But the employees did little to prevent its theft, even though they knew McDaniel had stolen the keys to the Infiniti.
Five days after it was stolen, McDaniel led Fresno police on a high-speed chase in the stolen Infiniti. McDaniel ran several stop signs before reaching the intersection of Marks and North avenues, where he slammed the Infiniti into Grant’s car, killing Grant instantly.
Wagner represents Grant’s wife, Victoria Westbrooks. She is suing My Auto Maxx, which was at Blackstone and Clinton avenues before it was sold after Grant was killed, and its affiliate Auto Maxx, which is on Blackstone near Barstow Avenue. Wagner contends the car dealer employees’ negligence played a substantial role in Grant’s untimely death.
McDaniel awaiting murder trial
In defending the car dealer, Fresno attorney Gregory Mason told the jury that the evidence doesn’t support Wagner’s negligence claim. Mason also said the blame should be directed solely at McDaniel, 39, who is awaiting trial on a murder charge in connection with Grant’s death.
The killing of Grant was the subject of a grand jury investigation because McDaniel had been released from the Fresno County Jail 11 days before the fatal crash.
Court records say McDaniel had been wanted on a Madera County warrant issued in April 2013 for failing to appear in court on felony charges of driving a stolen car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Fresno police arrested him on June 27. On July 1, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office notified Madera County jail officials via a statewide system that they had six days to pick up McDaniel or he would be released from jail.
When a car is stolen, something bad always happens.
Fresno attorney Nicholas “Butch” Wagner
When Madera County law enforcement didn’t pick him up on July 6, McDaniel was released. The grand jury concluded that Madera County jail officials should have taken action to keep McDaniel locked up, and recommended changes to the way the county corrections office handles interagency communication.
What happened after McDaniel’s release from jail will be the focus of the two-week trial in Judge Mark Snauffer’s courtroom, where Wagner contends My Auto Maxx employees could have prevented Grant’s death. “If they had taken reasonable precautions, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Grant, a truck driver who grew up in Riverdale, began dating Westbrooks in 2001. They married two years later, settled in Fresno, and have adult children.
“He was gregarious and well-loved,” Wagner told the jury.
Wagner: McDaniel stole 3 cars from lot
In presenting his case, Wagner said McDaniel stole three vehicles from My Auto Maxx’s lot at Blackstone and Clinton avenues over a period of three months, from mid-April to mid-July 2013. His last theft ended in Grant’s death. Before McDaniel’s thefts, no other cars had been stolen from the lot at Blackstone and Clinton avenues in the previous five years, he told the jury.
In the first theft, Wagner said McDaniel stole a Nissan Altima. It was easy to steal, Wagner said, because My Auto Maxx had left the keys in the car. McDaniel drove the Altima for about a week. While intoxicated, he totaled the vehicle in a collision with a big rig in Madera on April 20, 2013, Wagner said.
The second theft, a Chrysler minivan, ended with McDaniel’s arrest on June 27, 2013, after police found him driving the stolen van with a boy inside.
By then, My Auto Maxx employees knew McDaniel “was up to no good,” Wagner told the jury.
After his release from the Fresno County Jail, McDaniel went to My Auto Maxx on July 12, 2013, to look at cars and fill out a credit application, Wagner said. An employee recognized McDaniel from a photograph that Ali had passed around to employees. The employee contacted Ali, who confronted McDaniel and told him to leave the car lot, Wagner said.
Fresno attorney Gregory Mason said the blame should be directed solely at Walter Levon McDaniel, 39, who is awaiting trial on a murder charge in connection with Earnest Grant’s death.
But before he left, McDaniel took the car keys to the Infiniti, Wagner said.
Ali told police that he immediately checked the sales office where the car keys were kept and discovered they were missing, Wagner said. Later that day, the office manager, Carmen Valencia, told a Fresno police officer that she also believed McDaniel had stolen the Infiniti keys, Wagner said.
According to Wagner, the officer advised Valencia that employees should disable the Infiniti, “given the fact that McDaniel had the keys and was likely to come back and attempt to steal the car.” Despite the officer’s advice, the employees did not disable the car, Wagner said, telling the jury that all it would’ve taken was removing the car battery or installing a steering wheel locking device. Instead, the employees parked a small car in front of the Infiniti, but left the driveways to the car lot open, Wagner said.
Sometime between late July 12, 2013, and early July 13, 2013, McDaniel returned to the car lot, broke the window of the car in front of the Infiniti and then pushed it out of the way, Wagner said. He then drove the Infiniti off the lot. Four days later, Ali reported to police that the Infiniti had been stolen.
In his conversation with police, Ali told police he last saw the Infiniti on July 15, 2013, and said it was stolen the next day, Wagner said.
Mason: Car lot not to blame
Mason told the jury Ali didn’t lie to police; he had his dates mixed up. He also said Ali was the service manager, not the general manager, and he and the other employees didn’t know if McDaniel had stolen the keys to the Infiniti or if the keys were just missing or misplaced. In addition, when employees told police about how they were protecting the Infiniti from theft, police did not criticize the method or say it was insufficient, Mason said.
But Wagner said Ali was covering up for his negligence.
Because Ali has an electrical engineering degree, “he could have found 20 different ways to disable the Infiniti,” Wagner told the jury. Ali also kept the keys for the used cars in a place accessible to everyone, so it was easy for McDaniel to steal keys, Wagner said.
“When a car is stolen, something bad always happens,” Wagner told the jury. “And no one knows that better than a dealer who sells cars.”