An Earlsboro man initially charged with murder involving the 2011 child abuse death of his grandson has pleaded no contest to a reduced manslaughter charge and been sentenced to serve 12 years in prison.
Darin Lee Wheeler, 51, was initially charged in Pottawatomie County District Court with first-degree murder – child abuse, along with possession of controlled substance, methamphetamine.
Charges stemmed from an investigation into the suspicious death of Justin Cade Netzel, 2, of Holdenville.
Wheeler, who was set for a jury trial on Jan. 14, decided to go before a judge this week to enter a no contest plea to lesser-amended charges of first-degree manslaughter and possession of drug paraphernalia.
First Assistant District Attorney Russ Cochran said prosecutors, while evaluating what evidence they have in any case, work to determine what a just result might be, which is what they did in this case.
“Our hearts go out to the family of this little child but we’re grateful the defendant is being held accountable for his death,” Cochran said.
Following the plea, Wheeler was sentenced to 12 years with the Department of Corrections in the manslaughter count and also received a one-year term in the county jail for the drug count, court records show.
Because a manslaughter term must be served at 85 percent time, Wheeler must serve at least 10.2 years behind bars for the child’s death. Wheeler will remain jailed at the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center until he is transferred to a state penitentiary.
An investigation into the child’s suspicious death was launched June 26, 2011, by the Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office and district attorney investigators after the boy stopped breathing while spending the night at his grandparents’ home in Earlsboro.
According to the arrest warrant initially filed in this case, it was 10:41 a.m. that summer morning when the grandmother made a 911 call. Emergency crews responded to the home on Layton Drive, where Justin was on the living room floor with bruising on his abdomen, back, arms, legs and head, with fluid blocking his airway, the affidavit shows. The child was taken to what was then Unity Health Center in Shawnee, where he was pronounced dead.
An investigation began, with an autopsy later revealing the toddler died from an abdominal injury caused by blunt force trauma.
The child had attended two birthday parties that included swimming the day and evening before in Holdenville, then went to the spend the night, along with other grandchildren, with the grandparents. It was about 2 a.m. when Justin was reportedly crying and began throwing up while sleeping in a bed with his 6-year-old brother and grandfather, according to the warrant.
Page 2 of 2 - The next morning, the child could barely hold his head up, was thirsty and had a tightened belly, based on information in the affidavit. The warrant shows the grandmother attempted CPR, but every time she would blow air in his mouth, his chest would rattle and clear fluid would come out.
During his interview with authorities, Wheeler allegedly said an older child sleeping in the bed with Justin was kicking while having a nightmare. He also allegedly said he “would never hurt any of his grandchildren,” the affidavit reads.
As part of the probe, investigators reviewed digital photographs taken of Justin during the birthday parties where he had no major injuries or bruises and also interviewed the 6-year-old brother, who said he thought Justin died from swallowing too much water while swimming.
During that interview, the document shows, investigators also learned from the sibling that Wheeler was allegedly “mad” when Justin threw up in bed during the night and was “hollering” before Justin got a “butt busting.” When asked where, the sibling pointed to his hip area on the left side of his body, the affidavit reads, which detectives noted was the same general area of bruising and trauma on Justin’s body at the time of his death.