A married West Virginia couple desperate for a way out of a health care fraud case involving the wife hatched a plan to fake her death, federal authorities said.
Now, the husband, Rodney Wheeler, will serve two months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, the Department of Justice said in a press release on Monday. The wife, Julie Wheeler, was sentenced in February to 12 months and one day.
The ruse began on May 31 when Rodney Wheeler called 911 to report that his wife had fallen from an overlook at New River Gorge National Park in southern West Virginia, according to federal authorities.
For two days, "a massive search and rescue operation" was conducted to find Julie Wheeler.
The operation involved hundreds of volunteers, law enforcement, and a professional search and rescue team, the press release stated.
"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," the agency wrote.
The search ended when Julie Wheeler was found hiding in a closet in her Beckley home.
The Department of Justice said that during the search, Rodney Wheeler "repeatedly gave false statements to state and federal investigators" to mislead them about his wife's whereabouts. He even made a false Facebook post saying that his wife had not been found and he was "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 wrote.
Prosecutors said that the couple came up with the plan to avoid Julie Wheeler's sentencing for a health care fraud case. She planned to go into permanent hiding with her husband's help, the DOJ said.
The couple was arrested and charged with numerous felony and misdemeanor offenses. In addition to serving time in prison, Rodney Wheeler will be on home confinement for six months after his release followed by three years of supervised release.
Julie Wheeler's sentence will be served consecutively to her 42-month sentence for her federal health care fraud conviction.
Attorneys for Rodney Wheeler and his wife did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.