A Central Point man suspected of killing his former girlfriend has been indicted on a murder charge, five counts of first-degree arson and a charge of first-degree abuse of a corpse.
Prosecutors allege that on Sept. 4 an enraged Jeffrey Wayne Wheeler, 36, stabbed 32-year-old Jessica Bethany to death, partially burned her body, left the gas on and set a fire in the apartment.
A Jackson County grand jury on Thursday indicted Wheeler after hearing testimony from 13 people for four hours, Jackson County Deputy District Attorney David Orr said.
Murder carries a possible life sentence with a mandatory 25 years in prison. Arson carries a mandatory minimum sentence of seven-and-a-half years. Abuse of a corpse is a class B felony with a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years.
Evidence from Bethany's Central Point apartment showed that the 32-year-old mother was stabbed multiple times in the neck, then her body partially burned. The kitchen stove gas was left on, and a piece of paper that was attached to a bookcase near the front door was set on fire, Orr said.
The abuse of a corpse and arson charges stem from Wheeler's alleged actions after the murder. The evidence in the case does not currently meet the statutory requirements necessary to charge Wheeler with aggravated murder, which can carry a death penalty.
But that could change as the case unfolds, Orr said.
Aggravated murder can be charged when the victim was intentionally maimed or tortured in the course of a homicide, according to Oregon Revised Statutes.
Bethany, who had terminated her abusive relationship with Wheeler sometime before, had gone on a date with a new man the night of the murder, her friends said Thursday.
After Bethany and their 10-month-old child returned to her apartment at 745 E. Pine St., Wheeler gained access to the ground-level dwelling near Abby's Pizza, Orr said, adding there were no signs of forced entry.
After the attack, Wheeler left their baby girl with a nearby neighbor, Natica McCaskill, police said. Orr said McCaskill's father became concerned about what his daughter was telling him on the phone regarding the events that were unfolding. It was he who placed the 9-1-1 phone call about "a possible deceased adult." McCaskill's father lives in Washington state and placed the call from there, Orr said.
Wheeler quickly was identified as a person of interest, and tracked down in Medford.
The pair had a multi-year tumultuous relationship. In March 2010, Wheeler admitted in a statement to investigators that he had assaulted Bethany in December 2009, grabbing her by the throat and throwing her on their bed. When she fought back, he called police, blamed her for attacking him and lied about his actions in the incident.
Wheeler admitted what he had done in the statement and asked that the assault and harassment charges filed against Bethany be dropped as she was pregnant with their first child together.
Wheeler also said he and Bethany were in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. He stated he had been in three drug treatment programs, and had just graduated from a fourth. His "clean date" was Jan. 6, 2010, Wheeler said.
Wheeler was convicted of identity theft in 2006. He graduated from Drug Court in 2007, said Pam Marsh, deputy director of OnTrack Inc. He worked at the recovery center from September 2007 to September 2009 as a paid "peer recovery support person." He also did some temporary clerical work this past spring, she said.
Marsh said she can't reveal whether Wheeler was able to maintain his sobriety, was fired or quit.
"We are as shocked as everyone else," she said. "We were not aware of any dangerous aspects of his personality. He clearly had some tough times after he left employment here."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.