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Bail set for man, 84, accused of trying to kill wife who has advanced dementia

September 24, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A Santa Barbara County judge Tuesday set bail at $100,000 for an 84-year-old Carpinteria man accused of attempting to kill his ailing wife and himself with auto exhaust.

Superior Court Judge George Eskin reversed a no-bail hold that has kept James Wheeler in custody since Sept. 17, when a neighbor foiled his alleged murder-suicide plan.

Although prosecutors said the elderly man posed a risk to himself, his wife and the neighborhood, Eskin said the case called for "compassion and understanding."

Wheeler's 85-year-old wife, Betty, has advanced Alzheimer's dementia and recently had stopped recognizing her husband and children, according to the police investigation.

She is being cared for at a Goleta facility and is not expected to return to the beach-area home that the couple shared during their 64-year-marriage, family members said.

The judge said James Wheeler had no previous criminal record and posed little threat to anyone but himself. Wheeler has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and elder abuse. Eskin said Wheeler's actions were motivated not by malice but by the "desperation that developed as his wife drifted away."

"This is symptomatic of our society today as people live longer and get this terrible affliction," the judge said. "I've heard many stories of people who are physically here but mentally there."

James Wheeler's children said they would post his bail, probably freeing him from jail as early as today, said his attorney, Steve Balash.

Authorities said that about 10 p.m. Sept. 17, Wheeler ran a 2-inch-wide hose from his car's exhaust pipe into his home. He then allegedly put his wife to bed and left the vehicle's motor running, investigators said.

A neighbor walking his dog noticed the hose running from the couple's 1999 Oldsmobile to the house and realized that the motor was running, said Det. Christopher Corbett of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. He said the neighbor pulled the hose out a window and called for help.

Wheeler allegedly admitted to investigators that he intended to kill his wife, and said he intended to die along with her. He told investigators that his wife wanted to "go see Jesus," and that he didn't want to live without her.

Corbett said a five-page suicide note that Wheeler left on a living room table allegedly included a notation about another murder-suicide attempt he had made the previous night.

When questioned about it, Wheeler admitted that he had turned on gas pilots on the stove, fireplace and heater in an attempt to fill the house with gas fumes.

The attempt failed and Wheeler told detectives that he would try other suicide methods if he had the chance.

"He told us that if the exhaust didn't work, he'd find a way until he succeeds," Corbett told the judge.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Barron said Wheeler's determination was reason enough to keep him in jail. His attempts at filling the house with poisonous gas threatened not only his wife, but neighbors and emergency crews, Barron said.

But Wheeler's son and daughter testified that their father was a stable, loving husband and father who had snapped.

Terry Scrivner, the daughter, said her father would move in with her if he was freed so he would have constant supervision.

Eskin set several conditions on the $100,000 bail, including revoking Wheeler's driver's license and ordering that any visits to his wife be under the supervision of an adult. He also ordered Wheeler to engage in grief counseling to deal with the loss of his wife to dementia.

The judge said he was touched by the family's plight and by Wheeler's reputation as a well-regarded resident of Carpinteria. More than a dozen friends from the community came to the hearing to show support for Wheeler's release.

"I hope there will be an early resolution of this case to reduce the pain and anguish everyone is feeling," Eskin said.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled Oct. 8 in the Santa Barbara courthouse.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

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