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When Jeff Wheatley relocated to Stockton in 2010, he was looking for a fresh start.
Over the years, the veteran had battled addiction, experienced a string of failed marriages and pursued several different dead-end careers.
Although the move promised new beginnings, Wheatley’s demons followed him to the Northern California city, and he was brutally murdered in a drug-fueled case of mistaken revenge.
Born in 1961, Wheatley grew up in San Jose, California. He was the only boy in a house full of women and was described “a wild child” and “a rascal” by his sister, Wendy Fishburn.
Failing to graduate from high school, Wheatley decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was introduced to opioids following a bad knee injury.
“He became addicted to pain pills, then the VA took him off of pain pills and he resorted to street drugs,” Fishburn told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen. “He tried really hard a few times and there were times where he was clean, but he always fell back.”
Following his stint in the Coast Guard, he ran a restaurant in Georgia, worked as a trucker and studied to be a nurse. He was married three times and lived around the country, never settling into any one career or relationship for long.
In the aftermath of another unsuccessful relationship, Wheatley headed to Stockton and rented a room from an acquaintance named Drew Pyeatt. Also staying at Pyeatt’s house was Valerie Nessler, a 25-year-old Stockton native who had already lived through a lifetime’s worth of heartache.
In the course of two years, she had lost her father to suicide and her newborn daughter, Chloe, to sudden infant death syndrome.
“After losing Chloe, she got into drugs really heavily and that was it,” cousin Aime Hussey told “Snapped.”
While Pyeatt and his tenants seemed to get along, drug use was a rampant, and Wheatley allegedly sold methamphetamine out of the home, according to court documents.
People often filtered through the residence, hanging out and partying, and among them was Nessler’s friend, Robert Turner. A troubled 33-year-old career criminal, Turner was first incarcerated in his early teens, according to Stockton’s Record newspaper.
Like Nessler, Turner’s life was filled with tragedy. His father died when he was just 5 years old, and he later lost his beloved older brother William "Moose" Phillips as the result of an accidental firearm discharge.
“It affected my uncle, Robert, a lot, because he had already lost his father,” Turner’s niece, Trisha Rivera, told “Snapped.”
As an adult, Turner hit another rough patch when he was laid off from a job, sending him on a downward spiral.
“He pretty much gave up. He started hanging out with that crowd and started doing drugs,” Rivera said.
During one drug-fueled conversation in March 2010, Wheatley bragged to Nessler that he had killed a man in 1994, the same year Moose died, according to The Record. Nessler told Turner, who somehow became convinced that the man who Wheatley killed was Moose.
“Turner … theorized that [Wheatley] killed his brother, and at that point, came up with a plot to kill him,” Lodi Police Officer Nick Sareeram told “Snapped.”
On the afternoon of April 6, 2010, Nessler told Pyeatt to get out of the house because “things were going to happen,” according to court documents. Turner later phoned Pyeatt and said that if he told anyone, he would kill him as well as his parents.
Pyeatt warned Wheatley of Turner’s threat, but he believed “he could talk his way out of the potential danger,” according to court documents. Nessler said she was going to leave the house as well, but she ended up staying behind.
Later that day, Turner arrived at the house with his friend Allen John “AJ” Periman, Jr. Turner confronted Wheatley and then shot him in the face and shoulder.
“You could see the shotgun pellets that were to hit the wall and the cabinet, so clearly there was a shotgun blast in the kitchen, there was a struggle,” former Deputy District Attorney Mark Ott told “Snapped.”
Turner then picked up a kitchen knife and repeatedly stabbed Wheatley in the face and head. It is believed that Turner was purposely torturing Wheatley, stabbing and beating him while asking him questions about the death of his brother.
“He had stab wounds — 32 of them all over his body. Some were very pronounced, very deep in the thorax, stabbed in the eye, across the bridge of the nose,” Ott said.
Nessler also participated in the brutal stabbing.
When the attack was over, Turner poured gasoline over Wheatley and set him on fire.
“They flicked the match on him, and he goes up in a fireball,” Ott said.
Forensic pathologists would later determine Wheatley was still alive when he was engulfed in flames.
Around 11 p.m. that night, Pyeatt drove by the house and saw flames, and he called 911. After subduing the blaze, firefighters discovered Wheatley’s remains inside. He was 48 years old.
When detectives questioned Pyeatt, he told them about Nessler’s warning to get out of the house. They quickly tracked down Nessler, and during her interview, detectives caught her in several lies before she eventually gave up Periman and Turner.
Multiple law enforcement agencies began their search for Turner, but soon after announcing he was wanted in connection to Wheatley’s murder, he turned himself in. When Turner was in custody, investigators noticed a cut on his hand that “was very deep and consistent with thrusting a knife down,” Ott said.
Authorities were convinced both Turner and Nessler were part of the murder, but they could hold only Turner until conclusive DNA evidence came back from the lab.
Two months later, the lab results came back and showed Nessler’s DNA and Wheatley’s blood had been found on a latex glove recovered from the crime scene. Once confronted with the evidence, Nessler admitted her part in the killing, but she claimed she only did it out of fear.
“She said, ‘I only stabbed him a couple times,’ and she completely tried to play up that, ‘I was fearful...I didn’t go along and do what they said, that they’d hurt me’,” Ott said. “She clearly is trying to put all culpability on Robert Turner and AJ Periman.”
Two knives discovered at the scene were also tested, and Turner’s blood was on the handle of one knife that had Wheatley’s blood on the blade.
Nessler, along with Turner and Periman, were charged with murder and arson, according to The Record.
Nessler and Turner were tried together with separate juries in July 2011. In the middle of the trial, a court officer caught Nessler with a note from Turner, saying he would take the fall for the murder if she had $10,000 put into his prison bank account.
It took less than an hour for jurors to find Turner guilty of arson, first-degree murder and the special circumstances of torture and arson. A few days later, Nessler’s jury found her guilty of arson and first-degree murder, according to The Record.
In a separate trial, Periman was found guilty of second-degree murder, according to court documents.
Nessler was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2037, at the age of 53.
Perimen received a sentence of 15 years to life and will be eligible for parole in 2022.
Because Robert Turner was found guilty of the special circumstances charge, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
To learn more about the case, watch “Snapped” on Oxygen.
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