Defendant conspired to fake her own death to avoid federal fraud sentence found hiding in her own closet
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – United States Attorney Mike Stuart announced that Julie M. Wheeler entered a guilty plea to the federal felony offense of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Wheeler, 44, of Beaver, faces up to five years of incarceration, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release when she is sentenced on January 6, 2021.
“Egregious. Wheeler risked the lives of first responders and wasted the critical resources of law enforcement and taxpayers in an attempt to evade her sentence in a federal fraud case only to be found safely hiding in a closet at her home,” said United States Attorney Mike Stuart. “The only thing she gained was a subsequent federal conviction, up to an additional 5 years behind bars and a fine of up to $250,000.”
In a case that garnered national attention, Julie Wheeler admitted to conspiring with her husband, Rodney Wheeler, to fake her own death at the New River Gorge. To fake her death, her husband and another family member placed a 911 call on May 31, 2020, claiming Julie Wheeler had fallen from the Grandview Overlook in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. The overlook is a steep cliff with a series of ledges leading down to the New River. This 911 call prompted a massive search and rescue operation with hundreds of people looking for Wheeler at the base of the overlook and the surrounding area. False statements were given to state and federal investigators by Julie Wheelers’ family as part of the conspiracy, including statements to National Park Service officers and the United States Probation Office. The purpose of these statements was to continue Wheeler’s ruse that she had fallen and was missing. Julie Wheeler was actually hiding in her own home.
After two days of searching, the West Virginia State Police located Julie Wheeler in her home hiding in the closet. Once removed from her closet, she was taken into custody. In statements to state and federal investigators, Wheeler admitted she faked her disappearance to avoid her pending federal sentencing in a health care fraud case. Julie Wheeler was sentenced on June 30, 2020, to 42 months in prison and three years of supervised release for health care fraud relating to her overbilling a VA program for spina bifida care. She was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $289,055.07 for the overbilling scheme.
The National Park Service and the West Virginia State Police conducted the criminal investigation, assisted by the Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The United States Probation Office in the Southern District of West Virginia also conducted an independent investigation of Julie Wheeler’s disappearance and conduct related to the obstruction. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG), the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the United States Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) conducted the investigation of the underlying health care fraud.
Co-defendant Rodney Wheeler’s case is set for trial on November 17, 2020 and he is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. The Wheelers are both presently charged with numerous felony and misdemeanor offenses in Raleigh County Circuit and Magistrate Courts relating to the false reporting of an emergency.
Senior United States District Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr. presided over the plea hearing. Assistant United States Attorney Erik S. Goes is handling the prosecution.
A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia. Related court documents and information can be found on PACER by searching for Case No. 5:20-cr-00145.