A woman who staged an "elaborate hoax" including a faked fatal fall into a gorge to avoid the consequences of VA health care fraud was caught anyway -- and will serve 3 and-a-half years in federal prison, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.
Julie M. Wheeler, 43, of Beckley, West Virginia, has been sentenced by Senior United States District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. to 42 months in prison and restitution of $289,055.07, DOJ officials said in a release.
Wheeler had previously pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to defrauding the Department of Veterans Affairs Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program. According to the release, she had long overbilled as a caregiver for a family member, identified as K.L.
Wheeler, who owned a company called JRW Homecare Support Services, charged the VA-approved rate of $736 per day to provide full-time care to K.L., including bathing, grooming, feeding and other support.
"Wheeler did not provide K.L. the care for and during the time period described," DOJ officials said in the release. "Wheeler submitted claims to the VA stating that she provided care for K.L. eight hours a day, seven days a week, from October 2016 to April 2018 at the full daily rate of $736 a day. 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 to K.L. This was corroborated by other witnesses who provided statements that Wheeler did not provide eight hours of daily care."
Wheeler acknowledged as well that her conduct had deprived her family member of services, according to the release. Sadly, K.L, who really did have spina bifida, has since died, officials said.
But after pleading guilty, Wheeler sought to avoid paying for her actions in federal sentencing, officials said. On May 31, according to the release, "Wheeler and other family members staged her fall from the Grandview State Park overlook," a popular state park in Raleigh County, West Virginia.
"This report led to an extensive search effort in the New River Gorge by state, federal and local authorities, assisted by numerous volunteers," officials said.
According to local news reports from the time, the search-and-rescue mission for Wheeler continued for three days and law enforcement resources used to find her exceeded $1,000.
Wheeler was ultimately located in her own home, where state police found her hiding in a closet. Wheeler's husband, Rodney was charged with felony and misdemeanor charges including conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, false emergency report and willful disruption of a governmental process, WWVA.com reported.
Some of those charges are still pending; Wheeler herself was slapped with sentence enhancements for obstruction of justice.
"Absolutely despicable. Wheeler's egregious fraud scheme denied much needed spina bifida care for her own sister while she fleeced the Veteran's Administration of almost $300,000," U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart said in a statement. "Then she faked her own disappearance to evade sentencing, risking the lives and resources of first responders and emergency personnel. Outrageous. Terribly tragic case all around."
Many agencies were involved in investigating Wheeler's case, including the VA Inspector General's office, the FBI and the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the release. The fraud investigation was undertaken by the United States Attorney's Healthcare Fraud Abuse, Recovery and Response Team, or ARREST, which was created in Feb. 2019 and handles health care related investigations in the Southern District of West Virginia.
Assistant U.S. Erik S. Goes was the prosecutor.
In addition to her sentence and restitution, Wheeler will be under supervised release for three years, officials said.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.