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.
The last time Katherine Klyce saw her husband, John Wheeler, she was mad at him. It was the day after Christmas, and she was looking forward to a relaxing few days at home in New York City. "I like the week between Christmas and New Year's because you can lie around and go to the movies," said Klyce. But Wheeler said he had to go to Washington, where he'd held numerous posts in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, and where he currently worked for a defense technology firm. Klyce was upset, but she didn't sense anything wrong. "He seemed just like Jack."
Nor was it a surprise when she didn't hear from him for a few days. Wheeler and Klyce, his second wife, had homes in New York City and New Castle, Del. Wheeler traveled a lot for work, so they weren't always in the same place at the same time. Klyce tried to call Wheeler a couple of times in the days after Christmas, but the calls went straight to voice mail. "That just made me madder," she said. They had plans to attend a cousin's wedding in Cambridge on New Year's Eve. When she couldn't reach her husband, Klyce went to the wedding without him.
It wasn't until Jan. 2, when she was back in New York, that she heard Jack was dead. His body had been found in a pile of trash at the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington, Del., the morning of New Year's Eve. * Newark police had first called Kate Wheeler, Jack's daughter by his first marriage who currently lives in New York. Kate went to Klyce and Wheeler's Harlem apartment to tell Klyce in person. "You hear it and you don't take it in," Klyce said in an interview. "It's like your brain doesn't absorb the news."
Since then, the news has sunk in. But if mourning wasn't painful enough already, it's even more so when there's no explanation. The details that have emerged fail to produce a complete picture of Wheeler's final days. There are bits of video from places he visited and pieces of testimony from people he spoke with before his disappearance, but they provide little understanding of whether his death was a random killing or, as Klyce suspects, a targeted operation. As the investigation has dragged on, Klyce has become increasingly frustrated with law enforcement. "If you write anything, I hope you write that the cops just made our lives miserable," she said.
Some facts are relatively straightforward: On Dec. 26, Wheeler apparently boarded an Amtrak train from New York to Washington. Two days later, he hopped back on the train to Wilmington, Del., a 20-minute drive from the family's home in nearby New Castle.
Then things get hazy. At 11:30 p.m. the night of Dec. 28, firefighters discovered a smoke bomb in the half-built house across the street from Wheeler's house in New Castle. The new home has been the subject of a long-running dispute between the Wheelers, who moved to New Castle in 1999, and the owners of the property, Frank and Regina Marini. The police haven't named Wheeler as a suspect in the smoke bomb incident. But local news organizations have reported that police found Wheeler's cell phone in the new house.
The next morning, Dec. 29, a cabbie picked Wheeler up at the Amtrak station in Wilmington and dropped him off about 12 blocks north. He was then off the radar until 6 p.m., when Wheeler stopped by a pharmacy near New Castle called Happy Harry's. He asked one of the pharmacists for a ride back to Wilmington. The pharmacist offered to call Wheeler a cab, but Wheeler declined and left. Nonetheless, he somehow got to a courthouse in Wilmington, where he told a garage attendant that his brief case had been stolen and he was looking for his car. (His car turned out to be at the Amtrak station three blocks away.) The video of Wheeler shows him walking back and forth along the halls of the garage, holding one of his shoes in his hand. Wheeler seemed confused, according to a parking lot attendant he spoke with.
Wheeler spent part of the following day, Dec. 30, wandering around downtown Wilmington. That afternoon, he showed up at the offices of the law firm Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutch, asking to speak with a partner. (Colm Connolly, the Wheeler family's lawyer, works in the same building, but not at that particular firm, despite the similar name.) When the receptionist returned, Wheeler had left. Security cameras later caught Wheeler wandering around the Rodney Square area north of where he'd been, now wearing a sweatshirt and heading toward the city's relatively dangerous East Side.
What happened next is the big question. Wheeler's body was first discovered coming out of a dump truck at the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington by a spotter, there to keep an eye out for hazardous waste. The spotter called the Wilmington police, who then phoned the Newark police, since the truck's route originated in their jurisdiction. The cops quickly ruled Wheeler's murder a homicide. But if police know how Wheeler got from Wilmington to a dumpster 13 miles away along the Newark truck route that leads to the landfill, they're not saying.
The lack of communication has frustrated Klyce. "They have been so bad," she said. "They've made my life so miserable." After Wheeler's death, the whole family went down to the Newark police station for questioning. "They treated us like criminals, all of us," said Klyce. "They were rude." The cops confiscated credit cards, financial records, and Wheeler's computer. In recent weeks, some of her cards have had mysterious charges, including two plane tickets from New York to Madrid totaling $3,000, according to Klyce.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Official US. Office of Defense portrait of John Wheeler.