W. Va. Husband and Wife Allegedly Faked Her Fatal Plunge from Overlook So She Could Avoid Prison
Search and rescue teams in West Virginia spent 3 days looking for Julie Wheeler, who was allegedly found hiding in her closet
A West Virginia woman and her husband have been arrested and charged with allegedly faking her death by making it look like she’d fallen off a cliff at a state park so she could avoid prison time, say authorities.
Reported missing on May 31, Julie Wheeler, 44, of Beaver, was found “alive and well” on June 2, hiding in the closet of her home, the Times West Virginian reports.
“The entire thing was planned,” the lead investigator, Trooper C.A. Dunn, told local station WVVA.
In February, Wheeler had pleaded guilty to submitting fraudulent applications to the Veteran’s Administration while she was working as a caretaker for a patient, The Register-Herald reports.
She was scheduled to be sentenced on June 17.
She faced up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution ranging from $302,131 to $469,983, according to US Attorney Mike Stuart, The Register-Herald reports.
But two and a half weeks before she was supposed to learn her fate, she vanished.
On the night of May 31, Wheeler’s husband, Rodney Wheeler, and the couple’s 17-year-old son reported Julie Wheeler missing, the Associated Press reports.
They said Julie Wheeler had fallen from the main overlook at Grandview State Park, The Register-Herald reports.
During a supposed trip to the park with her husband and son, she allegedly fell off the overlook while looking for a missing earring, The Register-Herald reports.
Officials launched a massive search and rescue mission, with dive teams searching the river below, helicopters scouring the area and repellers climbing down the steep gorge to look for the missing mother and wife, WVVA reports.
On June 1, Rodney Wheeler took to Facebook to ask for prayers for his missing wife.
“The accident at Grandview yesterday involved my wife," posted Rod Wheeler. "They haven't found her yet, but I am holding out hope that she will be found and she is OK.
Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE’s free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.
"I am heartbroken and lost right now, but I have to have faith," he added. "Please give us time to work through this, and please keep us in your thoughts and prayers."
State Police were able to locate Julie Wheeler after obtaining a search warrant for cell phones and other electronic communications at the Wheeler's home, court records obtained by WVVA show.
While searching the house, State Police found Julie Wheeler hiding in a downstairs closet, the court records show.
Rodney Wheeler and his son "planted items at the Grandview Overlook to fake the death or disappearance of Julie Wheeler," the criminal complaint obtained by WVVA shows.
"Julie Wheeler was trying to avoid the possibility of federal prison on a separate charge," it says.
Both Julie and Rodney Wheeler were arrested on June 4, and charged with conspiracy and giving false information to West Virginia State Police, the Associated Press reports.
West Virginia State Police were unavailable for comment.
It is unclear whether the Wheelers have retained an attorney who can speak on their behalf.