A Beaver woman who allegedly faked her death to avoid a prison term was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison Tuesday on federal health care charges, United States Attorney Mike Stuart announced.
During her Tuesday sentencing on the fraud charges, Julie Wheeler, 43, was given a “sentence enhancement” for obstructing and impeding the administration of justice by faking her fall from the overlook at Grandview State Park on May 31.
Senior United States District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. ordered Wheeler to serve 42 months in federal prison and to be placed on supervised release for three years afterwards.
Copenhaver also ordered Wheeler to pay $289,055.07 in restitution, an amount that was calculated by the Veterans Administration (VA).
Wheeler and her husband, Rodney Wheeler, 48, both formerly of Oak Hill, made international news when their teen-age son reported to Raleigh County 911 dispatchers that his mom had disappeared at Grandview Ledges, the so-called Overlook, at the New River Gorge while searching for a lost earring.
This report led to an extensive search effort in the New River Gorge by state, federal and local authorities, assisted by numerous volunteers.
West Virginia State Police found Julie at her own home in Beaver on June 2, hiding in a downstairs closet.
Julie and Rodney are presently charged in Raleigh Magistrate Court for numerous felony and misdemeanor offenses relating to the false reporting of an emergency.
“The court found that this scheme contributed to Wheeler’s failure to accept responsibility for her criminal conduct and enhanced her federal sentence accordingly,” Stuart said Tuesday.
The couple staged the elaborate hoax so that Julie could avoid the prison sentence she received Tuesday, authorities allege.
Julie had pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to submitting fraudulent applications to the VA Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program, Stuart said, where she overbilled for providing spina bifida care for her younger sister, the late Kelli Wriston, a 2000 graduate of Oak Hill High School.
Stuart reported that Julie was the owner of a home care services company, JRW Homecare Support Services, and was hired to provide services to Wriston, due to Wriston’s spina bifida condition.
Stuart said Julie billed the VA the approved rate of $736 a day to provide eight hours of daily services. Julie’s care was supposed to include bathing, grooming, changing Wriston’s clothes and other issues associated with Wriston’s hygiene, food intake and lifestyle.
Julie did not provide Wriston the care during the time period described, Stuart alleged.
He said that Julie submitted claims to the VA stating that she provided care for Wriston eight hours a day, seven days a week, from October 2016 to April 2018 at the full daily rate of $736 a day. Stuart said Julie later told the VA and the FBI that she had “greatly inflated the rate and quality of the care that she provided” to Wriston.
Other witnesses provided statements that Julie did not provide eight hours of daily care.
“Absolutely despicable,” said Stuart. “Wheeler’s egregious fraud scheme denied much needed spina bifida care for her own sister while she fleeced the Veteran’s Administration of almost $300,000, then she faked her own disappearance to evade sentencing, risking the lives and resources of first responders and emergency personnel.
“Outrageous,” he added. “Terribly tragic case, all around.”
Stuart praised the work of the Veterans Affairs - Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the United States Department of Health and Human Services - Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) for the investigation of the underlying fraud, and the National Park Service and the West Virginia State Police for their work in locating Julie.