“Almost heaven, West Virginia” has taken on a new meaning after a husband-and-wife duo was sentenced on Monday for an elaborate con to fake the woman’s death in an attempt to help her dodge a jail term.
A dramatic search-and-rescue operation was launched last May when Rodney Wheeler, 48, phoned 911 — claiming frantically that his wife had fallen off a cliff while they were hiking at Grandview Overlook in the New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia.
According to the Washington Post, the authorities mustered a huge effort to find Julie Wheeler, 44, operating under the assumption that she had indeed taken a 1,400-foot tumble off the overlook into the New River watershed. Search-and-rescue teams — manned by volunteers and helped along by sniffer dogs and helicopters — trekked for days in a valiant effort to find Wheeler, covering mile after mile along the New River.
Rodney Wheeler went to the extent of making a heartfelt post on Facebook, writing: “The accident at Grandview yesterday involved my wife … they have not found her yet but I am holding out hope that she will be found and she is ok.”
“I am heartbroken and lost right now but I have to have faith … please give us time to worth through this and please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.”
This turned out to be a ruse concocted by the Wheelers, who were trying to help Julie Wheeler escape being sent to jail for healthcare fraud. The police found her three days later, cowering in a closet in the couple’s home in Beaver — a small town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in southern West Virginia.
In a statement released by the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of West Virginia, the authorities said that Julie Wheeler was charged with fraud in September 2019, and pleaded guilty. Wheeler had cheated a Veterans Affairs office in 2016, by inflating her work hours and misappropriating around $470,000 from the program.
She was scheduled to be sentenced for the crime on June 17 last year, which could have landed her in prison for 10 years.
It later came to light that the Wheelers intended for Julie to lie low after the “accident” on May 31. They then planned to run away together helping her avoid a lengthy jail term.
“It is hard to hide at home,” said US attorney Mike Stuart in the statement. “West Virginia law enforcement professionals are real pros and they utilized critical resources and risked their lives to try to save or recover the defendant from what was falsely reported to be an awful tragedy.”
According to documents from the Justice Department, Rodney Wheeler was sentenced on Monday to two months jail in federal prison, followed by half a year in home confinement and three years of supervised release, for conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Meanwhile, Julie Wheeler was sentenced to 54 months in jail — 42 months for the healthcare fraud charge and another 12 months for the attempt to fake her death. She was also ordered to pay $300,000 in restitution.
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