CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A 23-year-old eastern Illinois woman is charged with drowning her newborn boy, hiding the body in a wooded area near her home, then later burning down the residence.
Cayla Wheeler of Westfield is charged in Clark County Circuit Court with first-degree murder, concealing a homicidal death and arson. Westfield is about 50 miles southeast of Champaign.
Prosecutors say Wheeler gave birth to the boy at home around July 2, then apparently drowned him and hid the body in a hole in a wooded area about 100 yards from the house.
Wheeler is accused of then burning down the home she shared with her husband, Eric Wheeler, seven days later.
While investigating the fire, police learned Cayla Wheeler had recently been pregnant, wasn't any longer but had no child with her, according to Ed Parkinson of the Illinois Appellate Prosecutors Office, which is handling the case because Clark County State's Attorney Dennis Simonton has said he's known the Wheeler family for years.
Investigators initially believed the child had been stillborn and looked through the rubble for remains with the help of dogs, Parkinson said Tuesday.
"They didn't find any evidence of a child in the fire rubble," he said. "While doing that search, they became aware about a hundred yards away from the house that there was a body of a newborn baby boy."
Parkinson said an autopsy determined the baby had been drowned, but he declined to discuss details. He said authorities have not determined a motive.
Wheeler's attorney, public defender Nancy DeSelmes, declined to comment on the case.
Wheeler and her husband have been married just more than a year and have no other children, Parkinson said. Eric Wheeler is not considered a suspect in the case.
"He came to learn things as the investigation proceeded," Parkinson said.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 6.