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The Great Outdoors

New River Gorge Offers Stunning Trails, Subpar Locations For Faking Your Own Death To Avoid Fraud Charges

New River Gorge's iconic steel arch bridge.
Photo: Shawn Ullerup/Creative Commons

Consider all that West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park has on offer for anyone yearning for the outdoors: thrilling white-water rafting trips, iconic cliffs for climbers to practice deep-water soloing, a poor environment to facilitate a harebrained escape from medical fraud sentencing, and almost 100 gorgeous miles of hiking trails through the scenic Appalachians. So much to do in our country’s newest National Park!

West Virginia couple Rodney and Julie Wheeler could have enjoyed an afternoon hunting for delectable morel mushrooms along the 2.4-mile Endless Wall Trail when they visited the park last May, but according to the Department of Justice, they opted instead to spend the afternoon hunting for a way to fake Julie’s death. In Sept. 2019, Julie was arrested and charged with health care fraud after an Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid Task Force investigation into a “pill mill” unearthed evidence that she’d submitted fraudulent applications to the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of an overbilling scheme. She pleaded guilty to the charges in February 2020—a time when wvtourism.com claims the “addition of snow and cold [to New River Gorge National Park] adds a level of stillness that would otherwise be unattainable”—and was set for sentencing in June until the couple attempted their caper two weeks prior.

Per the National Park Service, Grandview Overlook is a “peaceful place to relax and unwind while enjoying outstanding views of the New River.” The website says nothing about how it’s an ineffective place to fake someone’s death, which is what the Wheelers tried to do. Rodney reportedly called 9-1-1 and told them his wife had fallen off the cliff while trying to search for a lost earring. The DOJ also quoted, at length, a Facebook post he made outlining his distress. The missing person alarm prompted a flood of new visitors into the park—not climbers flocking to the 932 rated sport climbs in the area, but local police, helicopter search teams, volunteers, a dive team, and a crew of rappellers all working together to find Julie. Two days later, they found her hiding in her closet in the Wheelers’ house, not the nearby Lost World Caverns (“a truly magical place for both young and old”).

The Wheelers were sentenced for conspiracy to obstruct justice for their roles in the death-faking attempt, with Julie receiving her sentence in February and Rodney getting his on Monday. On Tuesday, Travel + Leisure named a lodge in New River Gorge National Park one of the “8 Most Beautiful Lodges In America’s National Parks.”