Times of Oman
Sep 04, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 08:18 PM GMT
When he took a natural disaster personally
March 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Photo - Shutter stock

Thousands of lives were wrecked when four hurricanes tore their way through Florida in the autumn of 2004, but most folk simply picked up the pieces and got on with life the best they could. But not property-developer Jason Wheeler. He took the natural disaster as a personal affront. He felt he should be immediately compensated for the $300,000 worth of damage to his property and that someone should come in and put things right. The fact that hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne had cost the state of Florida over 100 lives and more than $42 billion didn't interest 29-year-old Jason Wheeler. He lost the business he had struggled to build up... and someone would pay for it.

The first people he punished were his girlfriend Sara Heckerman, 27, and their two small children. Soon the Sheriff's Department of Florida's Ocala Forest district had a long list of calls to disturbances in the mobile home in which Jason Wheeler and his family were now living.

David Dugan, Jason Wheeler's best friend and business partner said: "Jason completely changed after the hurricane. He became violent and moody and felt the world was against him. He spent hours brooding in the woods."

"Things became so bad between Jason and Sara that she threatened to leave him and return to her parents in Ohio, taking the children with her. I tried to persuade them to come with me and my family for a few days on the beach to chill out and get things in perspective, but if anything it only made matters worse."

That night Sara and her children stayed with the Dugan family. Sara told David she had decided to leave Jason but she needed some money — at least $750 — to return to her parents, and that she intended to tell the police about the latest alleged assaults on her by Jason.

David Dugan said later: "I went to see Jason and he gave me the money for Sara." I said: "Buddy, that's not going to stop her calling the police," and he replied: "Well, if she does, I'll be ready for them."

At 8am next morning, Sara rang the Lake County police and told them that Jason had continued to threaten and attack her, despite a court order. She continued: "I'm taking the children away. He has promised me that if a cop pulls into his driveway there's going to be a gun battle. I'm telling you this because he's very violent and because I'm worried about everybody. I've got a feeling this could be a real bad day."

It was decided to send Deputy William Crotty to escort Sara and her children to her parents and in the meantime fellow deputies Wayne Koester and Tom McKane would investigate what was happening at the mobile home.

Sara Heckerman's prediction soon came true. When the deputies drove into the driveway, shots immediately rang out. Tom McKane said: "I turned round just in time to see dust and shot coming from some bushes behind me." He returned to the patrol car to radio for help and William Crotty passed Sara and her children to another officer and drove immediately to the scene.          

McKane then managed to find cover, but Koester, who had lost his gun during the first encounter, ran down the long drive, followed by Jason Wheeler. Crotty would later say: "Wayne had been shot in the face and was bleeding badly. He slowed down and then tripped and fell. I saw Wheeler running up behind him and raising his gun to shoot Wayne who was helpless on the grounds and had no gun.

"I shouted to Wheeler not to shoot. But he took aim and deliberately shot the fallen man. Wayne died instantly. He had absolutely no chance."

Crotty then fired but by then Wheeler had run into nearby woods. Crotty climbed into his car and with McKane gave chase until the track ended and they found themselves facing a barrier of bushes. Suddenly Wheeler burst out of the foliage, gun blazing, shooting Crotty in the shoulder and McKane in the leg. He then blasted the vehicle with bullets and set it on fire. Now what had started as a domestic dispute had escalated into a massive manhunt. By the end of the day over 500 officers and FBI agents from all over Florida had converged on Ocala Forest. Ironically, operations were being directed by McKane's wife Andrea, who worked at Florida police communications centre.

"I knew Tom had been shot but I didn't know how bad it was," she said. "Then I heard him on the radio and I burst into tears of relief."

Despite the efforts of tracker dogs, helicopters, planes and heat-seeking devices, Jason Wheeler disappeared into the forest without trace for two days. Then a helicopter spotted him riding a yellow off-road motor-bike near a beauty-spot called Kathryn Heights and police closed in.

When Jason Wheeler was finally cornered in a lakeside shack he was in no mood to surrender. A Lake County jury was later told by Sheriff 's Deputy Joseph Schabach: "When we told him to come out quietly and throw down his weapon he just said that we would have to shoot him first and that he would take some of us with him."

Schabach said he had been instructed to open fire on Wheeler if attempted to kill anyone else. "He walked towards us and pointed his gun straight at me. I saw his finger on the trigger and I had no alternative to defend myself," the deputy told jurors.

As Jason Wheeler blasted away with his shotgun, Deputy Schabach fired five times and every bullet reached its target. He was shot in the spine, paralysing him from the waist down. Lying helpless on the ground, he attempted to turn his gun on himself, shouting: "You'll never take me alive," before lapsing into unconsciousness.

When Wheeler appeared in court in a wheelchair in May 2006 charged with murder, attempted murder and assault, defence lawyer William Grossenbacher said the crimes were not premeditated but a result of the police's unreasonable behaviour. "Here was a hardworking man who had lost everything in the hurricane disaster and he was treated like a criminal and threatened with firearms."

"Not surprisingly he acted as he did to protect himself and his family. He had also been drinking a lot. This was no excuse but it might help to explain his behaviour."

But District Attorney John King rejected the explanation. "Voluntary intoxication is no defence," he told the jury. "And as for the hurricanes, thousands of people were worse affected than him and they didn't go out killing." Wheeler had told Sara the previous day what would happen if police came to his home. He then shot defenceless Wayne Koester in his driveway.

"At any point he could have surrendered or turned away but he still continued to fire his shotgun until the officer was dead."

It took the Lake County jury five hours to find Jason Wheeler guilty on all counts and he was sentenced to death. Wheeler, who had laughed and joked all throughout the trial, gave a victory sign to the jury when they gave their verdict.

Still in jail awaiting an execution date, Wheeler wrote a letter to his victim's widow apologising for what he had done, but it hasn't impressed Mrs Ashley Koester, who says: "It's not for me to forgive Jason Wheeler, that's up to God."

"I'm pleased his last trip to the gas chamber will be a slow one. He won't be a dead man walking. He'll be the one wheeled to his execution..."

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