Life After Death
John Wheeler was found in a Delaware landfill on New Year's Eve. His widow discusses Wheeler's life, his death, and her frustration with the investigation.
Conflicting information about the cause of death has also been a source of stress. Police first told her that Wheeler had probably died of a heart attack. "You go up and down, up and down," she said. "Your brain says, maybe he would have had a heart attack soon anyway, to make it not so bad."When the Delaware medical examiner finally announced the cause of death on Jan. 28—"blunt force trauma," possibly from a beating—the family heard about it from the media. "I'm on the phone with his 90-year-old mother, she's asking me, 'Did he suffer when he died?,' and I can't tell her," Klyce said. Lt. Mark Farrall, a spokesman for the Newark Police Department, said that the police have "released as much as we can release without jeopardizing the investigation."
Despite the lack of communication from the police—or maybe because if it—Klyce is concerned that they're not devoting the proper resources to the case. "They just don't have a clue," said Klyce. "I think they wish it would all just go away." (Farrall said that the Wheeler case is the "top priority" in the department's criminal division.) So the family—Klyce, her two daughters, Wheeler's two children, Wheeler's sister and mother—tried a new approach. On Jan. 30, they announced a $25,000 reward for information that led to the arrest of Wheeler's killer. No one has responded.
The silence strengthens a hunch Klyce has had since the beginning: That Wheeler's death wasn't random. "I think perhaps no one has been on the reward because they've already been paid," she said. Then there's the way Wheeler's body was apparently moved from Wilmington to the dumpster in Newark. "The way they disposed of his body, it's a miracle anybody ever found it. That just sounds like a pro to me." Klyce isn't the only one to raise the possibility. Citing Wheeler's involvement in the military and government, Thomas McInerney, a retired Air Force officer, told ABC News: "A man with that experience, it could have been foul play to get some of the secrets he had."
Many news reports have described Wheeler as appearing "disoriented" and "disheveled" on the surveillance video. "I kind of thought he had dementia or something," said a parking lot attendant who spoke to Wheeler. Klyce saw the videos, and said Wheeler appeared normal—for Wheeler, at least. Wheeler's doctor, who has known him 40 years, agreed, according to Klyce. Wheeler had a terrible sense of direction. "He was disoriented every day in his life," she said. "He couldn't walk from here to CVS without specifically drawn maps." "He was probably most definitely lost," she added.
But she disputes the notion that he was crazy or demented. Wheeler, who was bipolar and took lithium for his condition, didn't always respond to social cues. "He was a touch Asperger-y," she said. "He couldn't read faces. He couldn't gauge other peoples' reactions." What about the shoe in his hand? "He didn't care about clothes," she said. "Jack was oblivious. Nothing sartorially peculiar about Jack is out of the ordinary."
Wheeler, a member of West Point's class of 1966 who became a subject of Rick Atkinson's book The Long Gray Line, was an odd combination of purposeful and oblivious. He had a gift for persuasion, especially when fighting for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the design of which many of his military colleagues opposed. "I told him, Jack, you're like a race horse," Klyce said. "If somebody puts you on the track, you'll win the race. But you'll never find the track unless someone puts you there." James Fallows, a journalist and friend of Wheeler, called him "a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes."
Wheeler did have enemies, says Klyce. But they were not the kind to leave someone in a dumpster. As CEO of the Deafness Research Association (Wheeler wasn't deaf), he enraged deafness advocates by telling them that cochlear implants were inevitably going to erase deaf culture. Numerous people opposed his vision for the Vietnam Memorial, including one future senator who once called up and told Wheeler's then-5-year-old son that he would kill his father, according to Klyce. But the memorial was built pretty much according to architect Maya Lin's design, which Wheeler supported, and the debate over it has long since subsided.
Wheeler was most recently in a disagreement with Frank and Regina Marini, the couple who were building the house across the street from Wheeler's house in New Castle. Wheeler objected not just because the new house would block their view of the Delaware River, but because he was annoyed that they were building on a historic battery where cannons sat during the War of 1812, Klyce said.
Wheeler threw himself into the legal fight over the Marini house. "He was a very intense person," said Klyce. "Everything he did he was intense about." First, the Wheelers got 82 fellow residents to sign a petition opposing the construction. In 2006, they formed a "Save Battery Park" group. In 2009, they accused the Marinis of improperly uprooting trees. Still, construction proceeded, and in December, a judge ruled that it can continue if the Historic Area Commission makes an exception. Klyce blames their failure to block construction on local politics: "It's a corrupt little town."
Klyce said she doesn't know anything about the smoke bomb incident on Dec. 28. "I think it'd be nutty—not to say that Jack wasn't capable of nuttiness—to do anything that would cause that much damn trouble when you don't have to."
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Official US. Office of Defense portrait of John Wheeler.