The DHS child welfare worker who committed suicide after a young girl's murder and his supervisor are not to blame for her death, a prosecutor has concluded.
“Nothing in my investigation showed any wrongdoing by either worker,” Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon said Monday.
Lincoln County child welfare specialist Donald W. Wheeler killed himself July 13, 2011, about a month after he was suspended over Serenity Deal's death, records show. His supervisor, Wes Priest, quit after being suspended.
Pottawatomie County child welfare specialist Randy J. Lack and supervisor Jennifer Shawn also were suspended and later fired.
Those two were charged Friday with suppressing evidence from the judge handling Serenity's case.
Both pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge. They will be on probation for a year. Both agreed never to work for the Department of Human Services again.
Serenity is the 5-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her father in June 2011, less than a month after she began living with him full time at his Oklahoma City apartment.
She had been in a foster home.
Lack and Shawn had pushed for the girl to be placed with her father, Sean Devon Brooks, even though she had been injured twice during overnight visits with him in January 2011, records show.
Wheeler had urged caution because of several concerns about the father, records showed. Priest backed him up.
“I find nothing in any of the investigation that does anything but exonerate Donald Wheeler,” the district attorney told reporters Friday.
“Donald Wheeler repeatedly tried to warn these two workers not to place this child with Sean Brooks, and he was repeatedly ignored.”
The district attorney decided to charge Lack, 59, of Tecumseh, and Shawn, 33, of Shawnee, after reviewing a 1,046-page report by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
The prosecutor told the media Friday that the judge would have made a different decision about Serenity's placement if Lack and Shawn had not suppressed evidence about the father.
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.”
Priest, 37, of Shawnee, said he now works for a drilling company.
Wheeler contacted some well-known attorneys seeking free help just before his suicide.
He told one attorney's answering service, “I'm a social worker and totally broke, but I'm needing some legal representation to defend myself in this case. ... I'm a 24-year veteran with DHS. Probably a third — if not a half — of my ... annual evaluations are ‘exceed standards,' but they're trying to lay this case on me.”
In a recorded message found after his suicide, Wheeler told his wife, Glinda Wheeler, “I can't believe they are giving me up,” she recalled earlier this year.
Wheeler's son-in-law, Grant Moore, told The Oklahoman on Monday, “If he had just held on and waited, everything would have worked itself out, and he would have been fine. I think that's the part that's devastating to me in particular.”
Moore also said the family was uplifted by Wheeler's exoneration.
“We knew he had done nothing wrong and was one of the good guys in this horrible case, but the thought of his family being pulled into the media frenzy pushed him to make his decision to end his life,” Moore said.
One of Wheeler's daughters, Jae Tommi Miller, said, “A child dying is every child welfare worker's worst nightmare. Workers need to be counseled and supported through the tragedy, not isolated and threatened.”
Miller, who once was a DHS child welfare worker herself, said his family's hope “is that the tragedy of his death could result in substantial changes in DHS, preventing further grief and tragedy.”
On his Facebook page, according to his family, Donald Wheeler had this quote: “Most superheroes don't have super powers. They are just regular men and women from everyday life that have a super passion and a super tenacity and are unwilling to endure the unethical and the unconscionable.”
His widow, Glinda Wheeler, said Monday, “Donald was a man of integrity and love. He believed it was always best to tell the truth in his personal and work life.”