By Jessica Farrish
CNHI NEWS WEST VIRGINIA
BECKLEY — A Raleigh County woman who reportedly fell into the gorge at Grandview State Park on Sunday evening was found "alive and well," West Virginia State Police reported Tuesday evening.
Rescuers from various fire departments and police agencies had been searching the New River Gorge for Julie Wheeler, 44, of Shady Spring, since Sunday evening, when a caller to Raleigh County 911 Center reported that she had fallen into the gorge at the Grandview overlook area.
"After an extensive search, troopers from the Beckley State Police Detachment has located Julie Wheeler alive and well," State police First Sgt. C.F. Kane reported in a press release Tuesday evening. "Mrs. Wheeler was reported missing recently from the Grandview Overlook area.
"The details surrounding this situation are being held due to this being an open and ongoing investigation.
"No further information is being released at this time."
Wheeler was set to be sentenced in United States District Court Southern District of West Virginia on June 17, 2020, for health fraud charges. Wheeler pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to September 2019 charges that she had fraudulently collected funds from the Veteran's Administration Spina Bifida Health Cares Benefit program for caring for a relative daily from October 2016 to April 2018.
U.S. attorney Mike Stuart said that Wheeler admitted that she had not provided the care to the relative, who has since died, for as long as she had represented to VA. She was facing 10 years in prison and restitution payments from $302,131 to $469,983, along with a fine of $250,000, Stuart reported in February.
On Sunday evening, a caller to the Raleigh County Emergency Operations Center shortly after 8 p.m. reported that Wheeler had gone over the edge of the cliff at the Overlook.
EOC dispatchers reported Tuesday that Raleigh Sheriff's Department was dispatched to Grandview on Sunday evening. A Raleigh deputy responded to the initial report, but the investigation was eventually turned over to West Virginia State Police, a Raleigh Sheriff's Office representative said Tuesday.
It was unclear on Tuesday afternoon if Wheeler's husband, Rodney Wheeler, or her son had placed the 911 call.
National Park Service Ranger and Public Information Officer Leah Perkowski-Sisk said on Tuesday that NPS was told on Sunday evening that Wheeler had been at the park with her husband and son. She said NPS started a search for Wheeler around 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
There are no surveillance cameras at the spot where Wheeler had reportedly gone over the edge, she added.
NPS Rangers were told Sunday that Wheeler had been searching for an earring when she fell over the cliff, Perkowski-Sisk said.
"That was the story that came from the family," Perkowski-Sisk said. "The information I received (was) that it was just confirmed by family."
It was unclear on whether Wheeler's husband, Rodney Wheeler, or her son had reported to authorities that she was searching for an earring when she fell.
Rescuers brought dogs to search for Wheeler on Monday. According to Perkowski-Sisk, the dog detected Wheeler's scent at the top of the overlook.
"The dogs did not go over the hillside," she added.
Search and rescue officers found a cell phone over the cliff on Monday, Perkowski-Sisk verified. She did not state whether officials had verified on Tuesday that the cell phone belonged to Wheeler.
Perkowski-Sisk said that NPS rescuers were told by an unidentified person in the case that Wheeler had been wearing a pink shirt when she went over the cliff. NPS officials reported that a shoe was found at the search site, but it was unclear if authorities believed the shoe belonged to Wheeler.
Rescuers had not been able to find broken tree branches or other signs of foliage disturbance, said Perkowski-Sisk. A helicopter search on Monday did not locate the missing woman.
"They have not seen an obvious disturbance (of foliage)," she reported. "The helicopter crew was out yesterday and did a visual search over the area, but, you know, there's a lot of tree.
"There's a lot of underbrush, a lot of Rhododendron, steep cliff lines, sharp drops."
Rescuers were using a rope line on Tuesday to go down into the New River Gorge, a jagged, deep canyon that attracts tourists and locals, to continue searching for Wheeler, Perkowski-Sisk said.
"Our main job right now is to search, regardless of circumstances," she noted.