16-year term handed down in statutory rape

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Lewisburg man who pled guilty in May to aggravated statutory rape and multiple counts of sexual exploitation of a minor was sentenced Wednesday to a total of 16 years in prison.

Christopher M. Wheeler, 28, of 7th Avenue South, has been jailed since January.

Testimony at the sentencing hearing revealed that a woman in Missouri called the Lewisburg Police Department and said her 14-year-old sister had been texting Wheeler and sending him pictures. When officers went to his home, Wheeler managed to delete that girl's photos, but at least 20 pictures of young girls engaged in sexual activity remained on his cell phone. The images had titles like "preteen," "Little 1," and "preteens playing with each other," according to the warrants taken out by Detective James Johnson.

After Wheeler was jailed, another inmate informed officers that Wheeler had been bragging about having sex with a 14-year-old Lewisburg girl, and that was how the rape charge arose.

Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard cited enhancing factors that should make Wheeler's sentence longer. Prior convictions date back to his teenage years in Battle Creek, Mich., and include several charges of criminal sexual conduct that were dismissed. Also, at the time of the offences here, Wheeler was on probation from Bedford County after pleading guilty to an assault on a boy in Wartrace. Further, he appears to have no intention of stopping one type of criminal conduct: Charles Brannon of the Board of Probation and Parole stated in the pre-sentence report that Wheeler told him he had no plans to quit smoking marijuana.

Marshall County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Danny Kerbo and Jail Administrator Sabrina Patterson both testified to Wheeler's conduct in jail.

"Is he a problem inmate?" Barnard asked.

"He's been in lock-down several times," Patterson replied. "He's in lock-down now."

Patterson and Kerbo described a recent confrontation in the administrator's office when Wheeler had to be placed in restraints after his behavior became threatening.

Barnard asked for consecutive sentences, exclaiming, "This guy is dangerous: he's a predator. Like a shark in the water, he goes looking. You can't give him enough time. The sooner he gets out of jail, the sooner he gets to be a shark again."

"We're not asking for probation," said defense attorney Michael Collins of the Public Defender's Office, asking for a sentence of four to eight years total.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler called Wheeler's juvenile record "disturbing," and agreed with Brannan's conclusion that Wheeler was a "very high risk" to offend again. He then sentenced him to a total of 12 years on charges relating to the pictures, and four years on the rape.