10/24/2006

Man gets death penalty for ambushing deputy in Fla.

The Associated Press

TAVARES, Florida- A man who claimed Satan and drugs led him to ambush and kill a sheriff's deputy has been sentenced to death.

Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson ruled Monday that Jason Lee Wheeler, 31, should be executed for the February 2005 killing of Lake County Deputy Sheriff Wayne Koester.

He and other deputies were responding to a domestic violence call from Wheeler's girlfriend as he allegedly waited in the woods with a sawed-off shotgun.

Wheeler escaped after the attack, sparking a daylong manhunt in the Ocala National Forest. He was found in the woods six miles (10 kilometers) from his home in rural Lake County. He was shot during his capture and was paralyzed from the chest down.

Jurors found Wheeler guilty on May 20 of using a firearm to commit first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer and four other charges, including two counts of attempted murder with a firearm of a law enforcement officer. The same jury recommended the death penalty.

"I honestly wanted life," said Koester's 15-year-old daughter, Amber. "No child should lose their dad. No child should ever have to go through what my brother and I have had to go through _ losing our dad."

Other family members and Koester's colleagues were glad Wheeler was sentenced to die.

"He would have taken four people's lives if he could have," Koester's father, James, said.

Wheeler sent a five-page letter to Johnson in July that said Satan was on a mission to destroy him.

"I was so caught up in drugs and sin, I didn't see it that way. I thought it was just a streak of bad luck," he wrote. "I look back now and say to myself, I would give anything to go back and change that day. Well, once again, I would be wrong because that day wasn't what needed changing."

Wheeler's attorney, Assistant Public Defender William Grossenbacher, had argued that sending Wheeler to prison for life in a wheelchair was punishment enough.

The case will automatically be appealed.

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