LIBERTY COUNTY- Cleveland Fire Chief / EMS Director Steve Wheeler was found dead from a gunshot wound around 5 p.m. Monday at his residence off of FM 787.
Wheeler, 55, lived in Cleveland most of his life, serving with the Cleveland Fire Department for over 30 years and as Chief since 1982. During that time, Wheeler participated in, and provided mutual aid to fire departments throughout Liberty and adjoining counties, including East Montgomery County.
Wheeler also headed up the Cleveland Fire Academy, which has successfully trained and certified firefighters now employed with agencies throughout Southeast Texas.
When members of the Splendora Volunteer Fire Department learned of Wheeler’s death, they moved manpower and equipment to Cleveland to cover their city, and the New Caney Fire Department assisted by backing in at the Splendora Fire station. Northstar EMS volunteered their services to the City of Cleveland overnight, with the cities of Livingston and Liberty running their fire calls.
The ambulance transporting Wheeler to the Southeast Forensic Center in Beaumont Monday night passed by the Cleveland Fire Station with an escort, as flags flew at half staff and a flower arrangement was laid at the station and lit. Over 100 people lined the street as the ambulance passed.
The house where Wheeler was found, which is near the Cleveland airport, was his “home away from home.” It stands on property he and his wife owned, where they planned to build a larger home.
City leaders, firefighters and others who knew Wheeler gathered near the home in disbelief as investigators continued their work. Former Cleveland Police detectives Jim Cooper and Harry Kelly are now with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and are the lead investigators in Chief Wheeler’s death.
Friends say the Chief recently purchased a 9mm handgun that was found near his body along with a gun cleaning kit, and planned to take a concealed handgun class next week.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Note: This reporter met Chief Wheeler years ago, while covering the Cleveland area for another newspaper chain, and files this report in a state of shock and devastation.
I hadn’t seen Steve in a long time, until four days ago. As always, a disaster brought us together, and it was as though no time had passed at all. However, this time I wasn’t reporting. I was just along for the ride, and the visit.
Standing there on the sidewalk, scarcely noticing the mayhem caused by the wind and hail, I laughed at Steve and Jerry “Pawpaw” Oliver, with their spontaneous Martin and Lewis style routine (Steve was the “straight man,” of course).
And then, I had to go.
Leaving, I thought of how people say “You can’t go home again,” but it seemed as though time stood still in Cleveland.
I had no idea it would be the last hug, the last smile, the last time I would look back over my shoulder at Steve and Pawpaw together on the periphery of what we called “a scene.”
Maybe you can “go home again.” But for this reporter, Cleveland, Texas will never be the same without Chief Steve Wheeler.