A West Virginia woman is serving an even longer prison sentence after defrauding the Department of Veterans Affairs out of over $300,000 in benefits payments and then attempting to fake her own death to avoid punishment.
According to the Justice Department, Julie M. Wheeler pled guilty last year to defrauding the Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program at the VA.
A veteran’s child with spina bifida who was related to Wheeler was qualified for in home care through this VA program. Wheeler was also the owner of a homecare services company and was hired to provide services to the child at the VA approved rate of $736 a day to provide eight hours of daily services. Wheeler’s care was supposed to include bathing, grooming, changing clothes and other issues associated with hygiene, food intake, and lifestyle.
However, she submitted fraudulent applications where she filled out VA forms and was overpaid for providing the care. Specifically, Wheeler submitted claims to the VA stating that she provided care for eight hours a day, seven days a week, from October 2016 to April 2018 at the full daily rate of $736 a day. However, Wheeler gave a statement to the VA and the FBI admitting that she greatly inflated the rate and quality of the care that she provided which was corroborated by other witnesses. Wheeler further admitted that her conduct defrauded the VA of hundreds of thousands of dollars and deprived the victim of services.
In an attempt to evade her sentencing, she conspired with her husband, Rodney Wheeler, to fake her death. It didn’t work out so well though when authorities found her hiding in a closet in her home.
The Justice Department described the attempted scheme as follows:
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 sentencing, she ended up with more prison time. Julie Wheeler was sentenced to 42 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $289,055.07 for health care fraud relating to her overbilling of the VA program. Because she tried to fake her own death, she was sentenced to another 12 months and one day in prison for her role in a federal conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Her husband faces up to five years of incarceration, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.