Ex-Army officer disoriented before death
John P. Wheeler III, a former Army officer who helped lead efforts to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was seen wandering in apparent confusion in Wilmington's central business district in the days before he was found slain in a landfill there last week, according to police and a news report in Delaware.
Wheeler, 66, a lawyer and longtime business and government consultant who lived 10 miles south of Wilmington, was found Friday morning by a landfill worker who saw Wheeler's body in a load of trash being dumped by a rubbish truck. Investigators have not disclosed the cause of his death, but they said he was a homicide victim and that the mound of trash in the truck had been picked up hours earlier from receptacles in Newark, Del., west of the city.
Newark police said Wednesday that Wheeler was seen in a downtown Wilmington office building "as late as 8:30 p.m." on Thursday, about 13 hours before his remains turned up at the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington. He "was seen on video" in the building and "appears confused," Lt. Mark A. Farrall, a police spokesman, said in a statement.
The place where he was seen, the 14-story Nemours Building at 10th and Orange streets, is part of the headquarters complex of chemical giant DuPont.
"Police also have learned that earlier in the day ... Mr. Wheeler was approached inside this building by several individuals who offered assistance to him, which Mr. Wheeler declined," Farrall said. That encounter occurred about 3:30 Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the News Journal of Wilmington quoted two people who said they encountered Wheeler in the parking garage of a Wilmington courthouse shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday, the day before he showed up in Nemours Building. One of the witnesses, security guard Cathleen Boyer, said Wheeler appeared disoriented. She said he was clad in a black suit coat, dirty black pants and a white shirt, and that he said he had been robbed of his briefcase.
The other witness, a garage attendant, said Wheeler was carrying his right shoe in his left hand.
"He came out of the bottom level," the newspaper quoted Boyer as saying. "He had dirt on his right leg. His eyes were red, like he was crying or something, and he said he was robbed." Boyer said Wheeler's speech was not slurred and she did not notice any odor of alcohol.
Footage from surveillance cameras at the courthouse garage, made public by police, shows Wheeler in the minutes before his encounter with the guard and the attendant.
After entering the garage, he staggered along a narrow corridor, holding the shoe in his left hand and appearing lost. He hobbled past an attendant's window, then returned and spoke briefly with the person behind the glass, ending the conversation by jabbing a finger.
Then, still wearing just one shoe, he walked unsteadily along another hallway toward an exit door that was open. He pulled the door closed, then turned and flailed his arms in the air before walking back along the corridor and getting on an elevator.
Boyer and the attendant said that after Wheeler's photo appeared in the news media this week, they realized that he was the man they had encountered in the garage of the New Castle County Courthouse at 500 North King St., a half-mile from the Nemours Building. The two said they offered him money, but he declined.
Wheeler's lawyer, Bayard Marin, said in an interview that he was surprised by accounts of his client wandering downtown, apparently disoriented.
Marin, whose office is in Wilmington's central business district, said Wheeler sounded "fine, excellent" when they last spoke by phone, two days before Wheeler showed up in the courthouse garage. Asked if Wheeler was prone to episodes of mental confusion, Marin said, "Oh, God, not at all."
"He had his various moods, but he was always very bright, always sharp," said Marin, who has been representing Wheeler and his wife, Katherine Klyce, in a protracted land-use dispute in the neighborhood where the couple lived, in New Castle, Del., south of Wilmington. Wheeler, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Harvard Business School and Yale Law School, "was really very intelligent, the kind of guy you had to work hard to stay ahead of," Marin said.
Marin said Wheeler's wife did not want to be interviewed about his death. "The police have not revealed much information to us," he said. "I suppose anything is in the range of possibility, but it could have been something very ordinary. If you have a person who is somehow disoriented or having a problem of some kind, there are certainly sadistic people out there on the street who would take advantage of a person like that."
Wheeler graduated from West Point in 1966 and served at the Pentagon and as a rear-echelon staff officer in Vietnam before leaving the Army as a captain in the early 1970s. As the first chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, he was instrumental in raising money to build the memorial on the Mall amid fierce controversy in the early 1980s over its stark design. In time, the divisiveness gave way to acceptance of "the Wall" as an iconic national symbol of sacrifice and service.
In the decades after the memorial was dedicated in 1982, Wheeler worked mainly as lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission and as a self-employed business consultant. He also served as chief executive of several nonprofit organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and held a few mid-level advisory posts in the federal government for relatively brief periods, including a stint in the mid-2000s as a special assistant to the Air Force secretary.
Most recently, Wheeler had been working under contract for the Mitre Corp., based in McLean and New Bedford, Mass. The company does computer-related research and development for several government agencies, including the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
Wheeler "was hired as a part-time consultant for the Mitre Corporation in March 2009," the company said in a statement. "He was providing part-time support to outreach activities aimed at promoting discussions among government, industry and academia on cyber defense topics."
Mitre spokeswoman Jennifer Shearman declined to say whether Wheeler was working at the company's McLean headquarters last week. But police said he was scheduled to take an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington on Tuesday, Dec. 28. Investigators initially were unsure whether Wheeler was on the train, apparently because Amtrak has a cumbersome, time-consuming process of sorting used tickets by hand before matching them to computerized records of ticket purchases.
Authorites said that after Wheeler's body turned up, they found his car in a parking garage near Wilmington's Amtrak station.
It appears now that Wheeler did take the train back to Delaware that Tuesday. A day later, he was seen in a drug store in New Castle, about a mile from his home, according to a pharmacist there. The druggist, Murali Gouro, said in an interview that Wheeler, an occasional customer, walked into Happy Harry's Pharmacy about 6 p.m. on Wednesday and asked Gouro to give him a ride to Wilmington. Gouro said he declined and offered to call a cab for Wheeler, but Wheeler said no thanks and left.
Less than an hour later, Wheeler was in Wilmington, disheveled and disoriented at the courthouse garage.
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