With family, friends, and neighbors by his side, James Wheeler changed his plea on Friday, October 17, at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
Wheeler is the 84-year-old Carpinteria man who was arrested on September 17 on charges of attempted murder when he attempted to kill his dementia-stricken wife and himself via carbon monoxide poisoning. Wheeler was subsequently released on bail by Judge George Eskin at a September 24 hearing. In an interview with The Independent, Wheeler spoke of the attempted murder-suicide as resulting from compassion for his wife and his desire to prevent their separation.
On Friday, Wheeler pled no contest to a count of attempted murder, and the charge of elder abuse was dropped by District Attorney Mary Barron. Wheeler also signed a waiver of his constitutional rights that would otherwise guarantee him the right to trial by jury. The plea, dismissal, and waiver had all been previously agreed upon by his attorney, Steve Balash, and Barron.
“I’m going to do something unusual,” said Eskin before ruling, “but then this is an unusual case.” He asked Balash to disclose what he had told Wheeler in regard to the waiver – clarifying that signing the waiver did not guarantee anything. Wheeler “could serve life in prison or he could be on the high side,” Eskin said. Attorneys indicated probation is a likely sentence for this case.
Wheeler and Balash still agreed to go through with the plea change. All sides agreed to a psychological exam that would be open to the court before sentencing, which is tentatively set for January 7.
Wheeler is currently residing with his daughter, Terry Scrivner and her husband, Stan. The Scrivners met with Barron earlier to confirm that Wheeler’s wife, Becky, is now residing permanently in a nursing home, ostensibly out of harm’s way.
Wheeler was advised not to speak to the press at the end of trial, but he flashed a thumbs up to everyone in the courtroom.
Megan Landry, Wheeler’s niece, said, “The family is so relieved to get an agreement that is acceptable to both sides : and today does show the possibility of probation.” Landry came to the hearing today accompanied by a crew of women from Carpinteria Curves – a women’s gym that both she and Terry Scrivner attend. Standing in the long security line outside Deptartment 12, one woman commented that all of Carpinteria must be empty.
Wheeler had many supporters. There were friends he and his wife used to meet with weekly to play volleyball, a contingent from the Alzheimer’s caregiver support group Terry Scrivner and her husband attend, and people who play bridge with Wheeler.
“We are living one day at a time,” Scrivner said.