By RYAN PFEIL
A Central Point man accused of stabbing his ex-girlfriend multiple times and attempting to set her apartment on fire while their baby daughter was inside pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and arson charges Friday.
Jeffrey Wayne Wheeler, 37, also pleaded no contest in Jackson County Circuit Court to charges of abuse of a corpse and criminal mistreatment for events that occurred after he killed Jessica Bethany, 32.
The criminal mistreatment charge stems from leaving his 10-month-old daughter with a neighbor after the killing with the intent to abandon her.
“He is simply saying, I’m not contesting the charges,’ ” said David Orr, lead prosecutor on the case for the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office. “It has the same legal effect as a guilty plea.”
Wheeler likely will face a minimum 25-year prison sentence for the murder charge. The other sentences likely will run concurrently, Orr said.
“It makes it very unlikely that any kind of appeal would be successful,” Orr said. “He would not be eligible for parole until 25 years have passed.
“Everybody agreed this will be a good resolution to the case.”
Additional charges against Wheeler have been dropped. A date for sentencing had not been set as of Friday evening.
Family members and friends of Bethany were not present at the plea hearing.
Bethany’s body was discovered in her apartment at 745 E. Pine St., Central Point, on the morning of Sept. 4, 2011, after a man called to report a possibly deceased person.
Evidence showed that Bethany was stabbed multiple times in the neck, then her body partially burned. The kitchen stove gas was left on, and a piece of paper that was attached to a bookcase near the front door was set on fire, Orr said in the weeks following the murder.
Wheeler was arrested in Medford just hours after Bethany’s body was discovered. He has been lodged in the Jackson County Jail since then.
Veronica Reid, Bethany’s friend and co-worker at Howiee’s on Front in Medford, said she was pleased to hear the news of Wheeler’s plea. She hopes to attend the sentencing hearing.
“I think it gives everyone a little bit of closure, especially the family,” she said.
Reid said she had been working at Howiee’s about three months before Bethany started. Reid trained her, and the two became friends. She said Bethany’s demeanor always helped to put co-workers in a good mood.
“She just had a beautiful, happy spirit,” Reid said.
She added co-workers still talk about Bethany and have fond memories of her.
“Every now and then I still expect her to walk in the door,” Reid said. “She’s still a part of this place.”
Central Point police Chief Kristine Allison said investigators were satisfied with Wheeler’s plea.
“We were prepared to go to trial, and the District Attorney’s Office would have prevailed,” Allison said. “To see people not take that road, we have satisfaction for that, too.”
Allison said the murder affected the community deeply.
“I think that we have a tight-knit community, and we’re still in a healing process,” Allison said. “It really impacted us to be aware of domestic violence, as we should be. A tragedy like this brings it to light and brings it to the forefront.”
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.