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Man, 84, accused of trying to kill wife, 85

Prosecutors say James Wheeler fed carbon monoxide into couple's home. He's jailed in Santa Barbara County.

September 23, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

To his Carpinteria neighbors, James Wheeler was viewed as the kindly old man who gently guided his ailing wife on walks around the block every day.

On Monday, a prosecutor described the 84-year-old retired engineer as a threat to his wife, himself and the neighborhood and said he should remain in Santa Barbara County Jail without bail.

Wheeler has remained in custody since late Wednesday, when he allegedly attempted to kill his 85-year-old wife, Betty Wheeler, by pumping carbon monoxide into their home. He faces charges of attempted murder and elder abuse.

Both prosecutors and Wheeler's defense attorney say that Wheeler intended to die along with his bride of 64 years after he fed a 2-inch-wide hose from his car's exhaust pipe into their home.

The elderly man had grown despondent because Betty's dementia had progressed to the point where she could no longer recognize her husband or their two children, said Steve Balash, Wheeler's attorney.

At a bail hearing set for today, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Barron said she will ask a judge to keep a no-bail hold on Wheeler. Wheeler told investigators that if given the chance, he would try again to kill his wife and himself, Barron said.

"We continue to see him as a danger to himself, as well as his wife and the community," Barron said.

"His attempt at taking their lives with carbon monoxide could have endangered the community."

But Balash said his client is not a threat to anyone. His wife was briefly hospitalized but is now in a care home, Balash said.

The couple's daughter lives three doors away from their home near the Carpinteria shoreline.

Balash said he will ask a judge to release Wheeler with electronic monitoring until his case comes up for trial.

Wheeler has been sleeping on a mattress on the jail floor because of overcrowding in the Santa Barbara jail, Balash said.

"He doesn't want to hunt her down and kill her," the defense attorney said. "In his mind, he just wanted them to be together. He doesn't want to live without her."

The couple's children had apparently talked with their father about placing Betty Wheeler in a care home, Balash said.

But he was adamant that he would continue caring for his wife, as he had over the last five years as she descended into dementia, the attorney said.

"He was devoted to her," Balash said. "He used to take her on daily walks and out to breakfast a couple of days a week. And now she's in a care home and he's in jail."

Barron said she understands that Wheeler may have viewed his action as "benevolent."

But he had no right to decide when his wife should die, the prosecutor said.

"From her perspective, she had absolutely no say in the matter," Barron said. "What gives someone the right to take the life of another person just because she had dementia?"

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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