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.
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."
In the weeks since Wheeler's death, thinking about the case—and dealing with logistics like changing bank accounts and organizing the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, scheduled for April 29—has become Klyce's full-time job. Klyce founded a Cambodian textile company, Takeo Textiles, in 2004. But she's had to set that work aside for now. The energy she dedicates to the case, she says, is "whatever's not dedicated to sleeping."
Klyce knows it's not easy. In 1995, her sister was murdered in her Memphis home by her son's drug dealer. Finding the killer took 10 years. Klyce testified at the sentencing trial and attended subsequent parole hearings. "It never ends," she said. "People don't understand that about murders."
Last time around, though, she had Jack to help her through it. "This is worse," she said. "For a week or so, I'd wake up and expect Jack to be there. And then I wouldn't want to wake up at all because I knew he wasn't going to be there. Some days I'd wake up early and the sun would be coming up and I'd want to try to stop it. How does the sun have the audacity to shine when Jack's not here to look at it? It has to wait for him to get here."
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Official US. Office of Defense portrait of John Wheeler.