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An 'unconscionable' crime is punished

A Central Point man who stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death and tried to set her corpse and her apartment on fire has been sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.

Muffled sobbing filled the packed Jackson County Circuit courtroom Monday afternoon as Judge Tim Gerking sentenced Jeffrey Wayne Wheeler, 37, to life in prison for the September 2011 murder of Jessica Bethany. Under state law, he will not be eligible for parole for 25 years.

The emotional crowd of friends and family of the 32-year-old woman spilled from the courtroom as the sentence was handed down.

Wheeler, red-faced and with his head down, apologized to those who knew and loved Bethany.

"I want to take full responsibility for her death," Wheeler said, noting he had relapsed into drug and alcohol use at the time of the murder.

Wheeler, who on Nov. 16 pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and arson, said he would not have committed the crime had he remained sober.

"I lost my mind and completely shut down," Wheeler said.

Before the sentencing, prosecutor David Orr laid out a gruesome scene in which Wheeler stabbed Bethany 22 times in the neck while their 11-month-old daughter was inside the one-bedroom apartment.

Wheeler, who had recently returned to the area from California, became enraged when Bethany told them they were finished as a couple. He managed to enter her Central Point apartment shortly before 2 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2011, and then attacked her, Orr said.

After the murder, Wheeler tried to hide his crime by pouring lighter fluid on Bethany's corpse, turning on the gas range, removing the smoke detector and setting lit fuses, Orr said.

Wheeler hoped the fire would consume the building and the evidence of the murder, Orr said.

"During all of this, his 11-month-old daughter was in her bedroom," he said.

Wheeler admitted his crime to friends, but initially denied his guilt to police, Orr said, adding he was grateful Wheeler finally agreed to accept responsibility for the murder.

Jennifer Bethany Bleser, one of Bethany's three sisters, spoke before Wheeler's sentencing. Bethany had once loved Wheeler "more than any person on this earth," Bleser said.

But her sister had grown to fear Wheeler, Bleser said. The week of the murder, Bleser had taken Bethany to court to get a restraining order and to file for custody of her daughter, she said.

Orr verified detectives had found an application for a restraining order not yet filed in Bethany's car after the murder.

Bleser said Bethany's last minutes of life had to be terror-filled as she feared not only for her own life, but for the life of their daughter, Bleser said.

Yet Bleser offered her forgiveness to Wheeler, and asked those present in the courtroom to turn their hearts away from anger and hatred.

"I thought I would be filled with hatred, but I'm not," she said.

Two of Bethany's friends, Jody Brooks and Anita Miller, spoke of the impact Bethany had on their lives. Miller held up a photo of Bethany, and turned and swept her hand around the packed courtroom.

"She was loved," Miller said, asking Gerking to put Wheeler away for life.

Gerking said Wheeler's "selfish rage" in taking away his child's mother, a beloved daughter, sibling, aunt and friend was "unconscionable."

"There are very few fates for a young child worse than the loss of a mother," Gerking said. "I just can't imagine the panic and fear she experienced in the moments before she died. For the rest of your life, this will be your heavy burden."

Gerking also found Wheeler guilty of first-degree arson, criminal misconduct and abuse of a corpse. Those sentences ranged from 90 months to one year and will be served concurrently with Wheeler's life sentence. If he is released after serving 25 years, Wheeler will be on probation for his lifetime. He must pay more than $60,000 in fines and fees, Gerking ordered.

Before Wheeler was led away by deputies, he turned to the crowd one last time.

"I swear before God, I wish I was the one who was gone," Wheeler said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Jennifer Bethany Bleser reacts to the sentencing of Jeffrey Wayne Wheeler, 37, to life in prison for the September 2011 murder of her sister, Jessica Bethany. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch