Suspect Caught in Killing of Deputy

A felon accused of killing a sheriff's deputy and wounding two others was captured Wednesday after a daylong manhunt using helicopters, armored vehicles and airboats in the swamps and hills of the Ocala National Forest (search), officers said.

Jason Lee Wheeler (search), 29, was wounded in a gun fight with the officers who captured him in woods six miles from his home in rural Lake County, about 30 miles north of Orlando, at about 5 p.m., officers said.

"We were able to flush him out of the woods," said Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels. He said he did not know the nature of Wheeler's wounds, and that none of the deputies who captured him were wounded.

Wheeler allegedly ambushed three Lake County deputies outside his home at about 9 a.m. as they responded to a domestic battery call.

Deputy Wayne Koester (search) died after being transferred to a hospital, sheriff's Capt. Nick Pallitto said. Deputies Tom McKane and Bill Crotty were treated for non-life threatening injuries a hospital in nearby Eustis.

Sara Heckerman, Wheeler's girlfriend, warned authorities in a 911 call that her boyfriend "almost killed me yesterday" and was poised to fire upon law enforcement.

"My old man has lost it and he has promised me that if a cop pulls into that driveway there's going to be a gun battle," Heckerman said on the tape released by the sheriff's office.

"He's a big boy so you might want to bring more than one," she said.

Wheeler was removed from the forest on a stretcher aboard an airboat. He was being taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he was in critical condition, said hospital spokesman Joe Brown.

About 500 deputies and officers — some in helicopters, armored personnel carriers and airboats — from 28 different law enforcement agencies searched for Wheeler.

Two nearby elementary schools were on lockdown and area roads were blocked off during the search. Bob Curry, the principal of Spring Creek Elementary in Paisley, one of the schools under lockdown, said the students were kept four hours past their normal 2 p.m. dismissal.

The incident began when the three deputies arrived at Wheeler's home to check on a domestic disturbance report phoned in by his girlfriend. The dispute had happened Tuesday night, and she waited until Wheeler slept to make the call.

Heckerman said in the 911 call that she had taken her children from the home and stayed in a hotel in DeLand Tuesday night.

When the deputies began securing the home as a crime scene, Wheeler emerged from the woods and fired a shotgun at Koester, hitting him in the head, Daniels said. A firefight ensued, in which the other deputies were wounded, before Wheeler escaped.

"He just came out shooting," Pallitto said. "You train for a lot of things but it's tough to train for that."

Heckerman was being interviewed by authorities.

According to state records, Wheeler has been arrested four times in Florida, mostly for drug crimes, and has served two six-month jail sentences. The most serious charges against him came in October 1995 for possessing cocaine and resisting arrest with violence.

Wheeler had previously lived in northwest Ohio where he was arrested on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, felonious assault and disorderly conduct between 1997 and 2000, said Henry County Sheriff John Nye.

Wheeler lived in the Ohio towns of Napoleon and Defiance, Nye said.

Koester, 33, had been with the sheriff's office since last May, said his brother, Victor Koester. The Florida National Guard said he was a specialist stationed with DeLand-based Battery B, 1st Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery, and assisted in the aftermath of last year's devastating hurricane season.

He is survived by a wife and two children: a 13-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy.

McKane's father said his 26-year-old son was not seriously wounded.

The incident had several family ties. Crotty, 39, is the brother of Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty, and the deputy's wife was among a team of nurses who treated him. McKane's wife is a dispatcher with the sheriff's office who helped direct authorities to the scene.

The mayor said his brother was recovering.

"He's fine. He's going to be fine," Crotty said. "He can't wait to get back on the job."