The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 13, 2012

Late DHS worker cleared in child abuse case

From The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — A state child welfare worker who committed suicide after the murder of a former foster child has been cleared of any wrongdoing, prosecutors said.

Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon said Donald Wheeler and Wheeler's supervisor, Wes Priest, are not to blame for the 2011 beating death of 5-year-old Serenity Deal.

"I find nothing in any of the investigation that does anything but exonerate Donald Wheeler," Smothermon said.

Serenity was killed by her father, Sean Brooks, less than a month after the state removed her from foster care and put her in Brooks' care. Brooks has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Wheeler, a child welfare specialist in Lincoln County, killed himself July 13, 2011, about a month after he was suspended over Serenity death, records show. Priest, his supervisor, quit after being suspended.

The Oklahoman reported Tuesday Wheeler repeatedly warned against placing Serenity in Brooks' care but was ignored, according to prosecutors.

Wheeler shot himself at the Chandler baseball camp a couple of days after DHS investigators "harassed" him at his home and seized his computers, Priest said.

"They were just trying to dump everything on him," Priest said.

"Donald was a feisty, old guy. He really was," Priest said Monday. "He really cared about these kids in custody. He didn't do anything that was inappropriate on this case. We just had people in that other county that just wanted to dismiss whatever we were trying to say."

Wheeler's family said they're relieved by the exoneration but remain heartbroken over his death.

"If he had just held on and waited, everything would have worked itself out, and he would have been fine," said his son-in-law, Grant Moore. "I think that's the part that's devastating to me in particular."