Raleigh County man sentenced after faking his wife’s death at the New River Gorge

Crime

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – A Raleigh County man was sentenced to eight months of confinement for his role in faking his wife’s death at the New River Gorge back in May 2020.

Rodney Wheeler, 48, of Beckley, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice on January 5.  He was ordered to serve two months of incarceration in federal prison, followed by six months of home confinement and then three years of supervised release. 

According to court documents and statements made in court, Rodney and Julie Wheeler conspired to fake Julie’s death at the New River Gorge to avoid her federal court sentencing for health care fraud. Rodney Wheeler placed a 911 call on May 31, 2020, falsely claiming that 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 volunteers, law enforcement, and professional search and rescue personnel looking for Julie Wheeler at the base of the overlook and the surrounding area. Helicopters provided by the West Virginia Air National Guard and the West Virginia State Police searched from the air, repelling experts looked in the cliffs, and rescue dogs with their handlers scoured the ground looking for any trace of Julie Wheeler.  In fact, Julie Wheeler was hiding in her own home and planning to go into permanent hiding with Rodney Wheeler.

Throughout the massive search effort, Wheeler repeatedly gave false statements to state and federal investigators intentionally designed to mislead them about his wife’s whereabouts. Wheeler also made a false Facebook post on June 1, 2020, stating “[T]he 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.”  The purpose of Wheeler’s false statements was to continue the Wheelers’ ruse that she had fallen and was missing.

After two days of searching, the West Virginia State Police located Julie Wheeler hiding in a closet inside her own home.  Once removed from her closet by the State Troopers, Rodney and Julie Wheeler were both taken into custody.  

In statements to state and federal investigators, Rodney and Julie Wheeler both admitted they conspired to fake her disappearance to avoid Julie Wheeler’s pending federal sentencing in a health care fraud case. 

“A highly-coordinated effort by the agencies named herein led to the arrest and prosecution of Rodney Wheeler,” said Acting United States Attorney Lisa G. Johnston. “I applaud the tremendous work of  the National Park Service, the West Virginia State Police, the United States Probation Office, the FBI, the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA), the VA-Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General, the West Virginia Air National Guard and the Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Rodney and Julie Wheeler both were charged with numerous felony and misdemeanor offenses in Raleigh County Circuit and Magistrate Courts relating to the false reporting of an emergency. 

Julie Wheeler was sentenced in February 2021 to a total of 54 months in federal prison for health care fraud and her own role in the obstruction conspiracy. 

Julie Wheeler’s underlying health care fraud conviction related 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. 

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