January 30, 2011 by Jack Blood
Toxicology “didn’t play a role” in his death, officials said.
By CRIS BARRISH and ESTEBAN PARRA • The News Journal • January 28, 2011
Homicide victim John P. Wheeler III, a former Pentagon official and presidential aide whose body was discovered Dec. 31 in a Wilmington landfill, was beaten to death in an assault, the Delaware medical examiner’s office announced today.
The official cause of Wheeler’s slaying was “blunt force trauma,’’ agency spokesman Karl Kanefsky said about a case that has drawn worldwide media coverage.
Police reiterated today that the case remains under investigation but acknowledge they cannot fill in critical gaps in the murder mystery.
Within hours of the grisly New Year’s Eve discovery, state pathologists had ruled that the 66-year-old New Castle resident was a homicide victim, but until today authorities had been mum on the cause of his death — an unusual posture in Delaware, where such information is usually released promptly.
The four-week delay has helped fuel rampant speculation that Wheeler, a defense consultant and expert on chemical and biological weapons, was poisoned by enemies – a theory that persisted in part because he was seen stumbling around Wilmington in the days before he died and officials said they were awaiting the results of toxicology tests.
Hal G. Brown, deputy director of the medical examiner’s office, said he did not know what medications or chemicals, if any, were in Wheeler’s system, but said the death certificate makes it clear that toxicology “didn’t play a role’’ in Wheeler’s death.
Brown said blunt force trauma describes the result of being struck with an object or a body part such as a fist. Brown added that Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, who handled Wheeler’s autopsy, met with police and prosecutors today about her conclusions.
Newark police are the lead agency on a multi-force investigation because the garbage truck that dumped Wheeler’s body at Wilmington’s Cherry Island Landfill was emptying debris it had collected at trash bins in Newark. The FBI is also assisting the probe.
Newark police spokesman Lt. Mark Farrall was mum Friday on the official word that Wheeler was killed in an assault. “I can’t comment on his injuries,’’ Farrall said.
Farrall said detectives still do not know how Wheeler got to Newark or how he got into the dumpster.
“We’re still attempting to determine how he made his way to Newark and who is responsible for his murder,” Farrall said. “How he got the injuries, I just don’t know.”
Jason Miller, spokesman for Attorney General Beau Biden, said their office could not comment on the “ongoing investigation.’’
Wheeler, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, led fundraising efforts in the 1980s to construct the Vietnam memorial and served as an adviser to the last three Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Most recently he worked part-time for the MITRE Corp., which provides systems engineering and information technology services to the government about issues such as aviation defense and intelligence.
Wheeler is believed to have been on a train from Washington, D.C., to Wilmington on Dec. 28, Newark police said.
A cabbie interviewed by The News Journal, however, said he picked Wheeler up at the train station on Dec. 29.
Video and witness accounts of Wheeler’s behavior in the 48 hours before his body was found show him disoriented, carrying one of his dress shoes, and looking in vain for his car in a Wilmington parking garage blocks from where his vehicle was located.
On Dec. 30, Wheeler was captured on surveillance video at the Nemours building at 10th and Orange streets in downtown Wilmington, where he asked for train fare at the Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz law firm.
The last image of him that day was leaving the Nemours building and walking southeast on 11th Street, past and through the Hotel du Pont valet parking area. He continued southeast and crossed Market Street and was last seen in camera view at 8:42 p.m. walking toward the East Side, a low-income neighborhood known as a hot spot for crime.
Complete establishment coverage of the Wheeler case
John Wheeler (U.S. Air Force)
Dec. 13: John P. Wheeler III parks his vehicle at a garage on Martin Luther King Boulevard near the Wilmington train station.
A neighbor reports that for four days over Christmas, the television in Wheeler’s Third Street home in Old New Castle was blaring around the clock.
Dec. 26: Wheeler posts a photo of Manhattan snowstorm that he took from his condo on an electronic forum for 1966 graduates of West Point.
Dec. 28: Wheeler is believed to be on an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington.
5 p.m. — Wheeler’s last response to an ongoing e-mail conversation concerning West Point and college football.
11:30 p.m. — Firefighters discover a smoke bomb in a house under construction across the street from Wheeler’s. He and that home’s owners had been involved in a legal dispute. Officials have not linked Wheeler’s death to the smoke bomb incident.
State fire officials report finding several low-powered devices — commonly used to smoke out small animals. There are no suspects but investigators had hoped to speak to Wheeler.
8:48 a.m. — Cabbie Roland Spence picks up Wheeler outside the Wilmington train station and drops him off at the corner of 11th and Orange streets.
6 p.m. — Wheeler enters the Happy Harry’s on Del. 9 near New Castle and asks the pharmacist for a ride to Wilmington. Unable to give Wheeler a ride, the pharmacist offers to call a cab. Wheeler declines and leaves.
6:40 p.m. — Wheeler enters the parking lot adjacent to the county courthouse in Wilmington holding his right shoe in his left hand and telling a Colonial Parking attendant his briefcase has been stolen. He is seen on surveillance video shuffling back and forth, apparently confused and disoriented, before he leaves about 25 minutes later.
3:30 p.m. — Wheeler is spotted in the area of 10th and Orange streets in Wilmington.
Wheeler visited the 10th-floor offices of the Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz law firm in the Nemours building and asked to speak to a managing partner. He also asked for train fare before leaving.
8:30 p.m. — Surveillance video captures Wheeler wandering through the Nemours Building at 10th and Orange streets. Several people approach him because he appears disoriented or confused. Wheeler declines their help. He is dressed differently from the day before.
8:42 p.m. — Wheeler is picked up on surveillance video leaving the Nemours Building through doors on the 11th Street side. He then continues southeast on 11th Street, walking through the Hotel du Pont valet parking area, crossing over Market Street, and is last seen walking on the west sidewalk of 11th Street, toward the city’s East Side.
4:20 a.m. — A Waste Management refuse truck starts its route through Newark, emptying trash bins, including one containing Wheeler’s body.
10 a.m. — Wilmington police are called to investigate a body found at Cherry Island Landfill.
Medical Examiner’s Office rules the death a homicide.
2 p.m. — Newark police are contacted after it is determined the body came from there.
Newark police identify the 66-year-old Wheeler as the victim.
Newark police crime-scene team spends the day at Wheeler’s home.
Jan. 4: Wilmington detectives ask Sunday Breakfast Mission workers if Wheeler has stayed in their shelter. He has not.
Jan. 5: Newark investigators are spotted near several bins near Newark Shopping Center. Police also ask at least one business there for security video of parking lot.
A City Cab driver is questioned by police as to why Wheeler’s cell phone contains his phone number. Other cabdrivers have been questioned through the week.
Jan. 28: The state Medical Examiner’s Office said Wheeler’s death was a result of blunt force trauma after being assaulted.