The body of a military expert who served in three Republican administrations was found dumped in a landfill and investigators said Monday they were trying to retrace his steps in the days leading up to his death.
John Wheeler, 66, who had not been reported missing, was scheduled to be on an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington on Dec. 28, but authorities say it’s not clear if he ever made that trip. His body was found three days later, on New Year’s Eve, as a garbage truck emptied its contents at the Cherry Island landfill. His death has been ruled a homicide.
Wheeler served as an Army staff officer in Vietnam and later worked in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. He also helped lead efforts to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington and was the second chairman and chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Before the garbage truck arrived at the landfill, it stopped to pick up commercial disposal bins in Newark, several miles from Wheeler’s home in the historic district of New Castle. Investigators have been to the home he shared with his wife, Katherine Klyce. It was not considered a crime scene, said Newark police spokesman Lt. Mark Farrall.
“We don’t have a crime scene at this point,” said Farrall, adding that investigators still do not have any leads in the case.
Initial police reports that Wheeler was last seen getting off an Amtrak train on Dec. 28 were incorrect, Farrall said. Investigators don’t know how long Wheeler might have been missing or where and when he was last seen, though a friend said he received an e-mail from Wheeler the day after Christmas.
The delay in the family notifying authorities was because they were not in town, Farrall said.
Wheeler’s family issued a statement through the police department.
“As you must appreciate, this is a tragic time for the family. We are grieving our loss. Please understand that the family has no further comment at this time. We trust that everyone will respect the family’s privacy.”
Wheeler’s house was darkened Monday night and no one answered the door. Yellow police evidence tape was stretched across two wooden chairs in the kitchen, where several wooden floorboards were missing. A woman who lives next door to the duplex refused to talk about the case, saying she had been asked not to comment. She did not provide details.
Robert Meadus, 85, who lives near the home, described the case as “exceedingly weird.”
“The more you think about it, the more implausible it becomes. … It’s a Perry Mason thing for sure.”
A doorman at the condominium building Wheeler and Klyce shared in New York City, said he hadn’t seen Klyce in two weeks and a package for her had been at the front desk for days. He said two detectives had arrived at the modern-looking building in the Harlem section of the city.
New York City police said they couldn’t immediately confirm that they were involved in the investigation. Telephone messages left for Klyce at the New Castle home were not immediately returned.
The son of a decorated Army officer, Wheeler followed in his father’s footsteps to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His military career included serving in the office of the Secretary of Defense and writing a manual on the effectiveness of biological and chemical weapons, which recommended that the United States not use biological weapons.
Wheeler went on to study at Harvard Business School and Yale Law School.
Richard Radez, a longtime friend who also graduated from West Point and Harvard Business School, said he exchanged e-mails with Wheeler on Christmas. On the day after, Wheeler sent Radez an e-mail expressing concern that the nation wasn’t sufficiently prepared for cyber warfare.
“This was something that had preoccupied him over the last couple of years,” Radez said.
James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, wrote in an article on the magazine’s website that he had known Jack Wheeler since the early 1980s. A photo on the website shows a youthful, businesslike Wheeler in a dress shirt, tie and suspenders, in front of a map.
Wheeler, Fallows wrote, had spent much of his life trying to address “what he called the ’40 year open wound’ of Vietnam-era soldiers being spurned by the society that sent them to war.”
Fallows told The Associated Press that Wheeler had been focused recently on getting ROTC programs restored at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Stanford.
He also exchanged e-mails with Wheeler over Christmas, and said Wheeler was concerned about school dropping ROTC military programs that resulted from the Vietnam War and continued through the debate over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
Author Rick Atkinson’s 1989 book The Long Gray Line featured Wheeler as a prominent member of West Point’s Class of 1966. It called him an extraordinarily intelligent and intense man who relentlessly pursued causes.
“Some of his pursuits were quixotic but others were magnificent,” Atkinson said, citing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as Wheeler’s greatest achievement. He said the monument wouldn’t exist had Wheeler not used his organizational skills to steer the project through a brutal political fight.
Wheeler retired from the military in 1971. He was a special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force under President George W. Bush. He recently worked as a consultant for The Mitre Corporation, a nonprofit based in Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va., that operates federally funded research and development centers.
“He was just not the sort of person who would wind up in a landfill,” said Bayard Marin, an attorney who was representing Wheeler and Klyce in an ongoing legal dispute with a couple wanting to build a home near the Wheelers in the historic district.
“He was a very aggressive kind of guy, but nevertheless kind of ingratiating, and he had a good sense of humor,” Marin said.
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