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Accused Central Point murderer faces more charges

A Central Point man accused of murdering his former girlfriend and trying to set her apartment on fire now faces new charges because he committed those crimes while their 10-month-old daughter was in the apartment, authorities said.

A Jackson County grand jury Thursday indicted Jeffrey Wayne Wheeler, 36, on additional charges of two counts of criminal mistreatment and one count of reckless endangering stemming from the Sept. 4 stabbing death of 31-year-old Jessica Bethany.

Wheeler already faces charges of murder, arson and abuse of a corpse for stabbing Bethany multiple times in the neck, partially burning her body, then leaving the natural gas on and setting a fire in her East Pine Street apartment after Bethany had a date with another man, authorities said.

The new charges allege that the infant was in the apartment during the attack and arson, Jackson County Deputy District Attorney David Orr said.

One of the criminal mistreatment charges alleges that he left the infant alone in the apartment after turning on the gas, Orr said.

The other mistreatment charge stems from Wheeler's actions after he allegedly returned to the apartment, retrieved the girl and left her with a neighbor, Orr said.

The charge accuses Wheeler of deserting her with the intent to abandon the girl, Orr said.

Evidence will show that before his capture later that day in Medford, Wheeler inquired about buying an airline ticket out of town without using any identification, Orr said.

“We don't believe he was intending to harm her,” Orr said Friday.

No court arraignment on the new charges has been set, and Wheeler's next court appointment was scheduled for Dec. 19, records show.

Prosecutors have said 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.

The murder charge carries a mandatory 25-year sentence under Oregon sentencing guidelines.

Wheeler and Bethany had a multiyear, 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 was convicted of identity theft in 2006 and graduated from Jackson County's Drug Court in 2007.

-- Mark Freeman

Accused Central Point murderer faces more charges