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Husband of ailing wife in court

Man, 84, pleads no contest in attempt to kill his spouse, self.

October 18, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Surrounded by family and friends in a Santa Barbara courtroom Friday, James Wheeler, 84, entered a plea of no contest to the attempted murder of his ailing 85-year-old wife by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Prosecutors dropped a second charge of elder abuse in return for the plea. Defense attorney Steve Balash said he will push for probation, based on Wheeler's lack of a criminal record and the unusual circumstances of the case.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Barron said Wheeler could still face severe punishment at his sentencing, set for Jan. 7. An attempted murder conviction could bring anything from probation to life in prison, she said.

"We may end up agreeing with the defense or we may not," Barron said after Friday's brief hearing. "We are still assessing the facts."

Wheeler will undergo a psychiatric evaluation before sentencing and will be watched closely to ensure he is following his bail terms, which include no driving and no unsupervised contact with his wife, now in a Goleta care center.

Longtime friend Katy Meigs called Friday's outcome "helpful" to the Wheeler family, whom she has known for more than 50 years.

"It gives both sides time to work things out," Meigs said. "And it will give Jimmy time to show good behavior."

In making his plea, James Wheeler admitted that he intended to kill his wife, Betty, on the night of Sept. 17 by pumping car exhaust into the couple's Carpinteria home. Betty Wheeler is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, and no longer recognizes her husband, Wheeler told police.

His plan to die peacefully beside his wife of 64 years was interrupted by a neighbor who was walking his dog and noticed the pipe running into the residence. Friends and neighbors from Carpinteria have rallied around Wheeler, arguing that his intention was benign and his actions taken out of love for his wife.

The couple were extraordinarily close, and James Wheeler was his wife's primary caregiver as she descended into dementia over the last four years, family members have said.

Prosecutors initially sought to keep Wheeler in jail on a $1-million bond, arguing that it was not the first time he had tried to take the life of his wife and himself. But Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin said the circumstances called for compassion and lowered his bail to $100,000.

Wheeler has been living with his daughter since being released on bail. He recently made a visit to see Betty, with his children as monitors.

"He sang to her and she hummed along," said daughter-in-law Karen Wheeler.

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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