Raleigh County Woman Sentenced to a Total of 54 Months in Prison for Conspiracy to Obstruct Justice and Health Care Fraud
Defendant’s husband also pled guilty in January for his role in the conspiracy to fake her death at the New River Gorge
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – United States Attorney Mike Stuart announced that Julie M. Wheeler received a sentence of 12 months and one day for her role in a federal conspiracy to obstruct justice. Wheeler’s sentence was ordered to be served consecutively to her 42 month sentence previously imposed for her federal health care fraud conviction. The consecutive sentence increases Julie Wheeler’s total sentence of incarceration to 54 months of federal incarceration. In a separate criminal hearing last month, Rodney Wheeler pled guilty to the federal felony offense of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Rodney Wheeler faces up to five years of incarceration, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release when he is sentenced on April 5, 2021.
“Julie Wheeler faked a traumatic death to avoid her judgment day with the courts. While she was found hiding in a closet she was also hiding from justice. The scheme put many lives at risk and wasted valuable resources,” said United States Attorney Mike Stuart. “By conspiring to avoid her federal sentence for health care fraud, she, with the aid of her husband, only made matters worse. Julie added another year to her sentence and Rodney now has a federal felony conviction for which he will soon be sentenced.”
In a case that garnered national media attention, Rodney and Julie Wheeler conspired to fake her death at the New River Gorge to avoid her federal court sentencing for health care fraud. To fake her death, Rodney Wheeler 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 volunteers, law enforcement, and professional search and rescue personnel looking for Julie Wheeler at the base of the overlook and the surrounding area. Helicopters, rescue dogs, and repelling experts also scoured the area looking for her. Additional false statements were given to state and federal investigators by Rodney Wheeler 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 the Wheelers’ ruse that she had fallen and was missing. In reality, she was hiding in her own home and planning to go into permanent hiding with her husband.
After two days of searching, the West Virginia State Police located Julie Wheeler hiding in a closet inside her home. Once removed from her closet, Rodney and Julie Wheeler were both taken into custody. In statements to state and federal investigators, Rodney Wheeler and Julie Wheeler admitted they conspired to fake her disappearance to avoid Julie Wheeler’s pending federal sentencing in a health care fraud case.
Instead of avoiding her federal sentencing hearing for health care fraud, Julie Wheeler was incarcerated and subsequently 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 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.
The National Park Service and the West Virginia State Police conducted the criminal investigation concerning the conspiracy to obstruct justice. 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 Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office also assisted with the investigation and 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 and sentencing hearings. Assistant United States Attorney Erik S. Goes is handling the prosecutions.
The investigation was also conducted by members of the United States Attorney’s Healthcare Fraud Abuse, Recovery and Response Team (ARREST), an innovative approach linking civil and criminal enforcement efforts together in a comprehensive attack on healthcare fraud. United States Attorney Mike Stuart announced the formation of ARREST in February 2019. All health care related cases in the Southern District of West Virginia, whether they are the subject of criminal or civil investigation or enforcement, are directed through ARREST. Included within the purview of the team are the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, Affirmative Civil Enforcement Unit, Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force, Medicare and Medicaid Fraud, and Asset Forfeiture efforts related to all healthcare matters.