The longer version

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

For David Wheeler, 2007 could not have started off any better.

A share of the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association Medal of Honor. A slew of glowing notices from his boss, Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson, culminating in a promotion from corporal to sergeant in July. From all appearances, a wonderful family life with his wife and three sons.

It didn’t last.

By the end of the year, Wheeler was fired, saw his marriage break apart and spent time in jail on charges of assault, making terroristic threats and endangering one of his children. One of his attorneys said Wheeler had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his work. Records show he repeatedly threatened to kill himself, his wife and deputies from his own agency who arrested him. Deputies arrested him again last week and charged him with violating a protection order by parking just outside his wife’s property line and watching the house.

Nobody saw it coming.

Not even Wheeler.

“I remember like it was yesterday sitting in the Police Academy & some instructor reading off statistics about Cops getting divorced, suicide, cheating on spouses, hitting their wifes etc.,” he wrote to Robinson in a December letter from the Jefferson County jail. “I remember telling the guy next to me that I would never do any that b/c I had the sweetest, Godliest wife and wonderful family. Who ever knew I would be part of the statistics.”

Wheeler, 30, a five-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who had worked in a maximum-security prison before that, was not supposed to end his career this way, said former Jefferson County Sheriff Boe Fontaine, who hired Wheeler in 2002.

“That sucker looked like a poster for the sheriff’s department,” Fontaine said. “He exceeded all expectations and succeeded at everything he did. He was everything you look for in someone you want to encourage and promote.”

Then people in the sheriff’s office saw a different side of Wheeler begin to emerge.

“This is a man who was used to having control, who used to be able to control most any situation, and then at home he lost the ability to be in charge,” Fontaine said.

And when Wheeler lost control, Fontaine said, he got dangerous.

“I was afraid we might have to kill him,” Fontaine said. “I was afraid he’d put himself in a position where he’d harm himself or his family and we’d have no choice.”

Predicting behavior is tricky, because debilitating stress for one person has no effect on another. Yet many police departments try anyway.

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, based in Fairfax, Va., required its members with more than 74 full-time sworn and non-sworn jobs to develop early-intervention systems to try to detect problem officers by Oct. 1, 2007. Such programs include tracking citizen complaints, internal discipline, uses of force against suspects and overtime.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s office is not a member of the accreditation commission and has no such system for its 45 law-enforcement personnel, instead relying on the regular work of its Internal Affairs Division to handle complaints and inquiries, Major Greg Bolin said. He said even if the agency had one, it wouldn’t have flagged Wheeler.

Wheeler declined to comment through attorney Bryan Achorn, who represents him in his divorce and in the criminal charges against him. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 18. The former deputy is free on a $100,000 bond, though Prosecuting Attorney Steve Dalrymple filed last week to revoke Wheeler’s bond following his most recent arrest.

***

Wheeler’s mother, Terri Drew, said her son had long been interested in law enforcement.

“He loved it,” she said. “He always wanted to do it.”

The Arkansas Department of Correction hired him as an officer at the maximum-security unit in Tucker in March 1998, two years after he graduated high school.

He excelled immediately.

“Keep up the good work at ADC and you will go far,” Correction Department training administrator Fred Campbell wrote to Wheeler in a letter dated June 12, 1998.

In June 2001, he was named employee of the month in the maximum security unit.

Wheeler also volunteered as a part-time Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy beginning in 2000.

Over time, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office took note of his abilities. Fontaine hired him in April 2002.

His application the preceding December contained his handwritten description of the societal problems he thought most acute.

“I believe the morals of society are at an all-time low and are steadily dropping which leads to a lack of respect for self and others,” Wheeler wrote. “If you do not have firm morals you will not make good decisions in life.”

At about the same time, Wheeler met a woman named Shelly Jones.

***

Jones was a dispatcher for the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association, which handles calls for the sheriff’s office and other agencies. Wheeler was married with a young son. The two remained friendly even after Jones left the association, and in October 2004, according to sheriff’s office records, they began a sexual affair.

Once when they wanted to have sex, Wheeler, a member of the Tri-County Drug Task Force, went to a hotel in White Hall and told a clerk he needed a free room to talk to a confidential informant, Wheeler admitted in an Internal Affairs Division interview last year.

Jones declined to comment for this story.

The affair began a few months after Wheeler and another deputy shot and killed a man during a standoff in front of the man’s family, on June 18, 2004.

Attorney Michael Boyd, who represents Wheeler in connection with his firing, said Wheeler repeatedly cited this shooting in describing symptoms that led to his being diagnosed last year with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But whatever uneasiness Wheeler felt toward his job, and whatever questionable decisions he made in his personal life, they didn’t show on the surface.

“Nobody had any idea,” Fontaine said.

As of Jan. 1, 2006, Wheeler was promoted to corporal.

A little more than three months later, on April 19, 2006, an employee at the Tyson poultry plant in Pine Bluff pulled two 9mm handguns out of his locker. He shot a co-worker in the groin.

Workers fled the plant, but Wheeler and a few other officers went in. They found the employee in the feather-plucking room. Wheeler fired as the employee raised his own gun. At least two others fired as well.

The employee survived.

Fontaine nominated Wheeler and two others for the Arkansas Sheriffs Association Medal of Honor. They learned in January 2007 that they won.

***

Wheeler was riding high and his work remained exemplary.

Every month, Robinson, who took office as sheriff at the start of 2007, offers nuggets of praise for good work in an agency-wide memo titled “Performance Highlights.” Wheeler appears in the memos for January, February, March, April, May, July and October last year. He was promoted to sergeant in July.

But by September, he was no longer invincible. The sheriff’s office began investigating Wheeler for abuse of power after rumors swirled that he had choked Jones while working off-duty and then threatened to arrest her for assaulting an officer after she slapped him.

Wheeler acknowledged during the investigation that he made the threat, sheriff’s office records show. He denied choking Jones, however, and the investigation determined that claim was unfounded.

Investigators did conclude that Wheeler had sex with Jones in his county-owned Ford Expedition, violating the agency’s code of conduct. According to sheriff’s office records, Internal Affairs Division Capt. Rod Shelby recommended that Wheeler be suspended for 30 days or ordered to forfeit 30 days of pay and receive a letter of reprimand. Shelby also suggested that Robinson place Wheeler on probation for one year and reserve the option to demote Wheeler to corporal.

Because the only confirmed instance of Wheeler using his drug task force position to get a free hotel room for sex was in 2004 — three years earlier — Shelby recommended no discipline.

Robinson suspended Wheeler for one month beginning Sept. 20, writing in a suspension letter that he decided not to demote Wheeler because of his past performance.

The sheriff also gave Wheeler a warning in the letter: “Hopefully,” Robinson wrote, “you will look back on all the factors that led to your suspension and know that any future conduct of this nature will not be tolerated by this department.”

The sheriff declined a request for an interview.

Wheeler faced other consequences, too. According to a transcript of her interview with Shelby during the investigation, Wheeler’s wife, Carole, said she became aware of her husband’s affair in June.

***

The first 911 call came Sept. 15, four days after Carole Wheeler’s interview with Shelby. According to a sheriff’s office report, her husband refused to leave their house in White Hall when she asked him to and they argued about it.

“Then things got worse,” Fontaine said. “And worse. And worse. Nobody could believe it.”

At one point in October, sheriff’s office records show, Wheeler took an ax and chopped up the back steps of their house, then walked inside and threatened to cut off his wife’s head. He gave her a black eye twice, according to sheriff’s office reports.

She called the sheriff’s office again. In front of the deputies who came out to the house, her husband cried and begged her to minimize what happened so he could keep his job, according to one report.

Carole Wheeler filed for divorce Nov. 6.

During one conversation at about the same time, she told deputies, she heard a gunshot. Wheeler told her that he had just put a bullet through a family photograph, she said.

The Arkansas State Police began a criminal investigation.

Robinson fired him Nov. 14, keeping his word from his September suspension letter and citing “violation(s) of state law” the sheriff’s office did not specify, records show. The same day, records show, Wheeler was admitted to the psychiatric care unit at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, where he would stay for about two weeks.

But there was still more to come.

Early in the morning Dec. 6, deputies again went to the Wheelers’ house. Windows were broken out, records show, and a log had been flung into a room where one of their sons slept.

Wheeler was gone, but he came back in a fury, records show, ripping off his shirt, tossing his keys and cell phone to the ground and screaming at one deputy, “Shoot me motherf—-r, shoot me.”

Deputies arrested Wheeler and took him to jail.

“Upon arriving, Wheeler stated, without questioning, to this Deputy that he loved us like brothers and would not do anything to harms us,” Deputy Larry Aldridge wrote in his report. “Once inside the jail, Wheeler then stated, ‘I’ve killed two in the line of duty and the badge did not mean s—. I’ll kill four or five of you motherf—–s.’”

The next day, Carole Wheeler filed for an order of protection against her husband. Within a week, he had been charged with aggravated assault, terroristic threatening and endangering the welfare of a minor.

On Dec. 17, Wheeler wrote his letter to Robinson.

“I can’t discuss what happened that Thursday morning, b/c of pending charges, which are blown way out of proportion,” he wrote. “But if people only knew what had happened to me in the last few days leading up to the those events I bet a lot of people would have a total different perspective on everything.”

Wheeler wrote that he planned to dedicate himself to the church and to rebuilding his family.

“Ya’ll will hear me preaching in a church this summer,” he wrote. “I know it. I already have my first sermon written out.”

A Jefferson County judge ordered a mental evaluation of Wheeler on Jan. 8. It has not been made public.

The Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training revoked Wheeler’s police certification April 10.

And last week, he was arrested again, accused of violating the order of protection.

His mother, Drew, said her son turned his Medal of Honor into a Mother’s Day gift for her. He gave her the medal, she said, along with a typewritten discussion of what honor really means.

“Why can’t people see all the good he did for them right now?” she asked. “He has certainly paid dearly for his mistakes.”

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