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Blairsville teen acquitted in adoptive dad's death

| Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Seventeen-year-old Codee Wheeler walked into an Indiana County courtroom at 7:35 Monday evening facing a possible life sentence for murder, but walked out of jail and into the arms of her mother a half-hour later a free woman.

A jury of seven men and five women acquitted Wheeler of all criminal counts related to the March 21, 2007, house fire that killed her adoptive father, William Wheeler, 57. She was charged as an adult with murder, aggravated assault and arson filed by state police and Blairsville police.

If Wheeler had been convicted of first-degree murder, she would have faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison. But the jury didn't buy the prosecutor's claim that Wheeler intentionally set the fire in order to escape a strict home life.

"Hey guys, I have a lot of stuff," Wheeler said as she hugged her adoptive mother, Susan Wheeler, for the first time outside the front entrance to the county jail. The Wheelers and an unidentified relative walked to Susan Wheeler's car to drive home to Blairsville. The younger Wheeler did not speak to reporters about her first taste of freedom in the nearly 10 months since her arrest July 25.

Susan Wheeler waved off reporters saying she felt "wonderful" about the jury's verdict. "It's the hardest thing that's ever happened ... to live with this," she said.

Minutes earlier, in the courtroom of Judge William Martin, Codee Wheeler and several family members broke into tears as the not-guilty verdicts were read.

The teenager hugged her attorney, Thomas Kauffman, as well as his co-counsel, Ryan Fritz. She was led out of the courtroom by sheriff's deputies to retrieve her items before being released from the jail.

Kauffman said he couldn't remember exactly what Codee Wheeler told him as the verdicts were being read.

"It was just very, very emotional. I just can't imagine the pressure that this teenager has gone through since this started. The jury's verdict shows how carefully they considered the evidence and believed she was innocent," he said. "Codee has always maintained her innocence, and we all had to keep believing that the right thing would eventually happen. There were a lot of tears of joy in that courtroom."

Kauffman wasn't sure what Codee Wheeler's plans were, but believed that the Blairsville High School junior would pursue her dream of graduating and one day enrolling in college.

Jurors were escorted out of a rear entrance to the courthouse by sheriff's deputies and waved off reporters seeking comment after the verdict.

The defense rested its case early yesterday morning without Wheeler taking the stand in her own defense. In his closing argument Kauffman told jurors that they had enough information from her numerous interviews with police and insurance investigators after the fire to find her innocent.

"Codee tried to stay calm during the fire and get out of the house. Interestingly, of all the people who saw the fire, Codee was the only person who reported that fire," Kauffman said. "That's very significant. She was just a teenager trying to handle the situation the best way she knew how and called her mother first."

Codee Wheeler was alone in the home with William Wheeler when the fire erupted around 7 a.m. She fled the home and called Susan Wheeler at work before calling 911, according to trial testimony.

William Wheeler was asleep in a first-floor bedroom, just off the family room. A diabetic, he weighed 340 pounds and had trouble walking. A bus driver and students at Blairsville Senior High School said they saw Codee Wheeler on the sidewalk outside her home that morning as black smoke billowed from the house.

Wheeler, who was talking on a mobile telephone, declined offers of assistance, according to testimony.

First Assistant District Attorney Patrick Dougherty argued that Codee's actions after the fire -- calling her mother first and waving off people who asked if she needed help -- were proof that she intended to kill her father.

"She doesn't tell anyone outside her home who stopped that her dad is still inside that house. She didn't even try," Dougherty told jurors. "The first thing you learn when you're young is to call 911, and she didn't do that."

Dr. Steve Zurby, a psychologist who examined Codee Wheeler, said she was under a lot of stress that morning and that would explain her actions.

Codee Wheeler told police she tried to call her father on his cell phone after she came downstairs to go to school and saw the flames.

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