By Jessica Farrish
CNHI News West Virginia
BECKLEY — A woman who reportedly fell from the Grandview Overlook into the New River Gorge was facing 10 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and court-ordered restitution when she disappeared Sunday night, United States District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia show.
Julie Wheeler, 44, was set to be sentenced on June 17, Deanna Eder of the Southern District said Tuesday.
Rescue crews searched for Wheeler Sunday and Monday, after receiving reports that she had gone over the cliffside at an overlook at Grandview State Park on Sunday evening.
Wheeler, 44, had pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to submitting fraudulent applications to the Veteran's Administration while serving as caretaker for an individual with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that often results in a patient being unable to walk and relying on others for feeding, hygiene and other daily care.
As a result of the plea, United States Attorney Mike Stuart said in February, Wheeler was facing 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of her punishment, he said, she also would be ordered to pay restitution ranging from $302,131 to $469,983.
Her sentencing date had originally been set for May 20. On Sunday evening, however, Wheeler was reportedly at Grandview State Park with her husband Rodney Wheeler, and the couple's son.
Various media are reporting that investigators were told that Julie was searching for a lost earring when she went over the cliff at an overlook site around 8:30 p.m. Sunday. National Park Service officials reported that they were notified she was wearing a pink shirt at the time she fell.
It was unclear, based on statements by rescuers, if Julie was alone at the time she went over the cliff, which has a series of "ledges" below it and is not a straight drop.
“Someone did observe the woman looking over the overlook, and when they turned around and looked back, she was gone," National Park Service Chief of Interpretation Eve West said Monday. “That’s really all the information we have right now.”
Rescuers began looking for Julie immediately after the fall was reported to authorities, West reported.
Emergency crews, including those from the National Park Service, the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Office, Beaver Volunteer Fire Department, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, JanCare Ambulance Services, the Beaver Volunteer Dive Team, and the Fayette County Vertical Rescue Team used rope lines and other methods to search for Julie. They also brought in canines to aid in the search for the missing woman, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Investigators had not released Julie's identity to the public on Monday evening, but Rodney made a Facebook post around 7:30 p.m. Monday in which he asked the public to pray for Julie.
"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.
"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."
Crews searched until late Monday.
The Wheelers had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2011, The Gazette-Mail reported, and they owned an Oak Hill motorcycle riding club, Saints and Sinners, in 2014, according to data at the Secretary of State's Office.
The couple have two sons.
Julie had graduated from Oak Hill High School in 1994.
Julie had pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to submitting fraudulent applications to the Veteran's Administration while serving as a caretaker of an individual with Spina Bifida from October 2016 to April 2018.
Stuart said that as part of her punishment, Wheeler would likely be ordered to pay restitution from $302,131 to $469,983. She faced 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Stuart reported in February that Julie was related to a "veteran's child," identified in court documents as "K.L.," who qualified for in-home care through a VA program that provides care benefits to Korean and Vietnam War veterans' children. The program is called the Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program.
Spina Bifida is a type of birth defect where there is an incomplete closing of the spine in utero, leading to complications that can include limited mobility and poor bladder or bowel control.
Julie was the owner and operator of a business called JRW Home Health Support Services in early 2019, according to court documents.
The Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid Task Force (ARPO) was investigating "pill mill" clinic operations in West Virginia and surrounding states in April 2019, according to a report by MetroNews. ARPO is a team member of the United States Attorney’s Healthcare Fraud Abuse, Recovery and Response Team (ARREST), which links civil and criminal enforcement efforts to investigate the opioid epidemic and healthcare fraud.
Julie was one of seven defendants from the Southern District who faced federal charges as a result of the ARPO investigation. The other six defendants, including five doctors, faced charges related to unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, without a legitimate medical purpose.
In September 2019, Julie was charged with health care fraud in September 2019, following the ARPO investigation. Her charge was the only charge that did not involve drug distribution.
A search of the Secretary of State's Office website on Monday night did not immediately return results for a business with the exact name of JRW Home Health Support Services.
Stuart wrote in court documents that Julie was charged because she had submitted to VA that she had provided care for K.L., for eight hours per day, seven days a week, from October 2016 to April 2018. The reported care included bathing, grooming, changing clothes and other forms of assistance.
Julie reportedly had received a daily rate of $736 for providing care to K.L.
Witnesses told investigators that Julie had not provided the hours of care to K.L. that she had reported to VA officials and that she had not provided the care for the time period she reported, Stuart reported. Stuart said Julie also admitted she had not provided care for the time period she had submitted to VA officials.
In February, Julie pleaded guilty to submitting fraudulent applications and said that she was overpaid for providing care to K.L., who had passed away by then.
Julie's sister, Kelli Wriston of Scarbro, a 2000 graduate of Oak Hill High School, had died in October 2018 at age 37, according to her obituary.
Friends of Julie told The Register-Herald Monday night that, prior to Kelli's death, Julie had provided care for Kelli, who was disabled.
Court documents did not state Julie's relationship to the Spina Bifida patient in the fraud case.