A career criminal pleaded no contest Thursday to second-degree murder for leading police on a high-speed chase that ended in a crash that killed a Fresno motorist in July 2013.
Walter Levon McDaniel, 39, also pleaded no contest in Fresno County Superior Court to two felony counts of child endangerment.
Under a plea agreement, he faces 37 years and eight months to life in prison when he is sentenced on March 16, said Fresno attorney Robert Lamanuzzi, who represents McDaniel.
McDaniel entered his plea in Judge Brian Alvarez’s courtroom just two weeks before his trial on a dozen felony charges and three misdemeanors in connection with a crime spree that began in August 2012 and ended with the traffic death of 55-year-old Earnest Grant at Marks and North avenues on July 17, 2013.
He’s very remorseful for what happened and felt no need to have a trial.
Fresno defense attorney Robert Lamanuzzi
If convicted of the charges, McDaniel would have faced about 67 years in prison, Lamanuzzi said. His plea gives him a chance to be paroled, possibly in his late 60s, Lamanuzzi said.
“It was the right thing to do,” Lamanuzzi said, noting that the plea would have happened sooner, but prosecutor William Terrence wanted McDaniel to do a long prison sentence. “He’s very remorseful for what happened and felt no need to have a trial.”
At a court hearing in May 2014, prosecutors said McDaniel has a habit of drinking, stealing cars and taking children on high-speed police pursuits. Judge John Vogt agreed, saying McDaniel knew that driving at high speeds while intoxicated puts the public at risk.
In one pursuit in 2012, he drove 80 mph and so erratically that police had to call off the chase, court records say. In another pursuit, two hours later, police used a spike strip to flatten his tires, finally arresting him.
On April 20, 2013, he was arrested again after making an unsafe lane change and hitting a big-rig in Madera, court records say. McDaniel’s blood-alcohol was over the legal limit to drive and a child was with him.
Then on July 17, 2013, McDaniel stole a car from a Fresno used car lot. He then picked up a woman and a 13-year-old boy as passengers. Police reports say McDaniel was going about 100 mph and had run six stop signs before crashing into Grant’s car.
McDaniel’s criminal behavior put a spotlight on the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and Madera County Department of Corrections and led to a civil lawsuit against a Fresno used car dealer.
During the May 2014 hearing, Joshua Sharp, a detective with the Fresno Police Department, testified that McDaniel was under surveillance by police on July 17 because of his criminal history and his recent release from jail.
Sharp testified that after McDaniel was arrested, he confessed to his involvement: “He said he had just killed someone.” McDaniel also admitted that he had been smoking methamphetamine and marijuana for the past four days and had “blacked out while driving,” Sharp said.
McDaniel also was arrested in connection with a June 27, 2013, incident in which a Fresno police officer spotted him walking with a missing boy. That prompted a massive police search that included the FBI and other agencies. Officers later learned that McDaniel had been driving with the boy in a stolen van.
His criminal behavior put a spotlight on the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and Madera County Department of Corrections. In the months leading up to Grant’s death, McDaniel had been arrested several times for serious crimes, but still walked free from Fresno County Jail on July 6. The Madera corrections department could have taken custody of him, but authorities did not come to the Fresno jail to claim him before he was released, Fresno County sheriff’s officials said at the time.
The killing of Grant led to a civil lawsuit against the used car lot where McDaniel stole the car that ended up killing Grant. Under the settlement, My Auto Maxx and its affiliate, Auto Maxx, admitted no wrongdoing in Grant’s death, but agreed to pay $950,000 to his widow, Victoria Westbrooks, to settle the lawsuit in June last year.