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Caught between love and the law

September 28, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Jimmy Wheeler, 84, is out on bail. The charge? Attempting to kill his wife.

I stopped by his daughter's house in Carpinteria and he greeted me at the front door, ready to talk about what he intended as an act of mercy.

Wheeler shook my hand and led me to the dining room table. A pleasant smile was fixed on his tanned, lined face, but he was dabbing at his eyes.

And then he lost it on the first question.

I asked how he met his wife, Betty, whom he calls Beckie. He sobbed, his chest heaved and then he began his story. They were students at UCLA, he said, his memories still fresh. He never saw her on campus, though. The first time he laid eyes on her was at the beach in Santa Monica.

She was with friends, but they were invisible to Jimmy.

"She was cute, she was smart, she was happy," he said. "And she had a nice shape."

Wheeler drove a Model A station wagon painted UCLA blue and gold, and Beckie agreed to ride back to campus with this lanky young poli-sci major. He looked a little like Jimmy Stewart, with piercing blue eyes.

They were married two years later, at the height of World War II. Soon he was off to fly bombing missions over Europe. After the war, he finished school at Oregon State and got a graduate degree from Stanford. Jimmy then found work as a petroleum engineer, and he and Beckie raised a son and daughter in Carpinteria.

This is a love story, of course. The attempted murder notwithstanding.

It's a story many of us find familiar in one way or another, particularly we boomers with ailing parents. I couldn't stop thinking about -- and talking about -- my own parents as Mr. Wheeler and I chatted.

A hundred times in the last year, my siblings and I have wondered whether we're intruding too much, or not enough, into our parents' lives. Is it time to insist on home care? Should we insist it's time to surrender driver's licenses?

We're much better at the questions than the answers.

Wheeler and his wife have been married 64 years, and they've enjoyed what he called "a wonderful life." But Beckie, 85, has Alzheimer's.

Jimmy Wheeler took good care of his wife, stealing all that he could from what was left of normal. They kept traveling, one of their great joys, until her illness made that impossible. Until quite recently, he and Beckie could be seen walking down the street to the beach, holding hands like young lovers.

But Beckie was fading into solitude, the world around her a growing mystery, and then finally Jimmy was a stranger to her.

"She wakes up in the morning and doesn't know who the guy in bed with her is," Wheeler told me with wet eyes, capturing perfectly the horror of watching a loved one disappear into a fog.

In a way it's crueler than death itself, because there's no moving on for the survivor. There is only this ghost, a constant reflection of love and loss.

"Are you OK?" Jimmy's son-in-law, Stan Scrivner, asked him one morning when he came to the door in obvious distress.

"No," Wheeler said. "Beckie's gone."

Scrivner asked what he meant.

"She's gone," Wheeler repeated. "She doesn't recognize me anymore."

Wheeler couldn't bear to see her like that, and eventually he came up with a plan.

"She said she wanted to be with Jesus," he said. "I just wanted to be with her."

Although he has pleaded not guilty, the basic details of what happened next aren't in dispute.

One night earlier this month, he turned on the gas burners in the house, according to authorities.

"It was Romeo and Juliet," Scrivner said.

Except that it didn't work.

Plan B, authorities said, was to run a hose through a window and into the house from the exhaust pipe on Wheeler's '99 Olds.

Wheeler wrote a suicide note and included instructions for cremation of the bodies. He left a check to cover the cost. He advised loved ones on how to handle his estate, says his attorney Steve Balash, cautioning them to be careful about probate lawyers who charge too much.

The exhaust might have done the trick, but a neighbor saw what was up and called police. Jimmy Wheeler ended up behind bars, charged with attempted murder and elder abuse. He slept on a mattress on the floor of the overcrowded Santa Barbara County Jail.

A county prosecutor called Wheeler a threat to himself, his wife and the neighborhood. Superior Court Judge George Eskin listened to that argument but at a recent bail hearing he said the case called for "compassion and understanding."

"I am aware of the tragedy of Alzheimer's," Eskin told me by phone. He noted that unlike other countries and the state of Oregon, California has not embraced legalized options -- including assisted suicide -- for people nearing the end.

Eskin allowed Wheeler's release on $100,000 bail pending a preliminary hearing Oct. 8, and ordered him to be supervised and undergo grief counseling.

"He's not going to do her in," Eskin reasoned, so the judge's emphasis was on making sure Wheeler gets help to see if "he can find the strength to go on."

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