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Ex-gang boss sentenced to life in prison

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James "Frank" Wheeler, the former leader of the Outlaw motorcycle club who prosecutors said oversaw a highly organized operation that sold drugs and engaged in violence with rival gangs, was sentenced yesterday to life in prison.

Judge David Katz, who presided in the 2 1/2-month racketeering and conspiracy trial of Wheeler and 13 other Outlaw members, imposed the sentence during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Toledo.

Wheeler, 62, of Indianapolis, was convicted by a jury in June of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and conspiracy to distribute drugs. However, when given the chance to address the court, Wheeler, sporting a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, maintained that he was innocent of the crimes.

"I've got some issues that I would like to get some answers to. Other than that this is beyond me," he said.

The jury that heard the case acquitted Wheeler on a firearm charge. Nine other Outlaw members were convicted of racketeering charges. Two others were convicted of conspiracy to commit racketeering and two others were cleared of all counts.

The case was tried in Toledo because the investigation was initiated in Lima, Ohio, where the Outlaws were trying to establish a chapter.

Prosecutors said the trial included testimony about the club's efforts to sell drugs in Sandusky.

Judge Katz said it would have been impossible and an insult to one's common sense to conclude anything other than Wheeler was the leader of the organization from the testimony that was given at trial.

"This case has given me significant opportunity to reflect on the law, vis-a-vis the influences of evil one person can have on so many others. While you, Mr. Wheeler, alone did not create an atmosphere of disrespect for the law, you perpetuated and enlarged upon a culture within the Outlaw motorcycle club, which created disdain for the rule of the law," Judge Katz said.

A jury last year convicted Wheeler in federal court in Tampa for racketeering and other crimes involving activities during his leadership of the Outlaws, one of the nation's four largest motorcycle gangs. He was sentenced in January to 16 1/2-years in prison.

Wheeler took over as the Outlaws' leader after Harry "Taco" Bowman went on the run in the late 1990s. Bowman, who led the club for 20 years, was eventually arrested and convicted in 2001 of racketeering and other charges. Bowman is serving a life sentence.

Jeff Helmick, an attorney for Wheeler, asked the court to consider that Wheeler sometimes intervened when feuds erupted with rival gang motorcycle gangs, and that his client served as a peacemaker to minimize hostilities.

After the sentencing, Mr. Helmick said his client would seek to have the convictions overturned by a higher court. "Obviously we are disappointed," Mr. Helmick said.

Gary Crim, a Dayton attorney, was appointed by Judge Katz to represent Wheeler on the appeal.

Joe Wilson, an assistant U.S. attorney who was lead prosecutor, asked Judge Katz to impose a life sentence and not provide Wheeler with the opportunity to seek parole.

Mr. Wilson said the acts of violence perpetuated by the Outlaws under Wheeler's control included shooting an innocent bystander when Outlaws riddled a rival gangs' club house with bullets and the attempted firebombing of a club in Indianapolis.

Testimony during the trial revealed that Wheeler oversaw the sale and distribution of drugs in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.

"The sentence brings to an end a long journey," Ava Dustin, assistant U.S. attorney, said. "We feel that certainly the crimes that were committed while Wheeler and the members were under investigation is well justified by the sentence."

In addressing a request from Wheelers' attorneys, Judge Katz said he would recommend that Wheeler be placed in a federal prison in Florida so that he could be close to his wife and 13-year-old son.

Contact Mark Reiter at

mreiter@theblade.com or

419-213-2134.

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