Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.
The unsolved murder of John P. Wheeler, 66, a Pentagon official and CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is a mystery that still baffles police to this day.
On New Year's Eve, the investigation into the Wheeler's murder would go on to paint a very strange and ominous picture of the days leading up to his death.
On December 30, 2010, police said they could see the visibly disoriented "Washington Insider," who had worked for four presidential administrations, on video surveillance in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, at 8:30 p.m. The following day, his body would be found in a landfill.
On the night of his disappearance, Wheeler, a Yale, Harvard, and West Point graduate, wandered into a New Castle pharmacy at 6:00 p.m. asking the pharmacist for a ride to the Wilmington train station. The pharmacist offered to call a cab for him, but Wheeler left the store.
Wheeler, who regularly commuted between Washington, New York, and Wilmington, lived in a waterfront duplex that he inherited from his brother in a historic part of New Castle, located approximately a mile away.
About 40 minutes later, video surveillance captured Wheeler, appearing disheveled, in a parking garage. He appeared to be limping and without his coat, and he was carrying one shoe in his hand. He seemed to be searching for his car, which would be later found in another Wilmington parking lot. He told one of the lot attendants that his briefcase had been stolen.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” said Iman Goldsborough, a parking-lot attendant who encountered Wheeler, “but I never thought it would end up like this.”
All of this was uncharacteristic of Wheeler, and his friends said they were not aware of any health problems that may have contributed to his bizarre behavior.
A Break From Reality?
Paul Linde, an emergency psychiatrist at the University of California San Francisco, told Newsweek that disorientation lasting for several days can be caused by several mental health or medical issues, including stroke, heart problems, a problem with medications, or past mental illness. However, Linde said he didn’t think that someone Wheeler’s age was likely to have a first-time psychiatric episode. “It sounds like he had a break from reality, but it’s hard to speculate on what would have caused it,” Linde said.
On December 31, Wheeler was found when a landfill worker saw his body fall into a trash heap in the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington. Police ruled his death a homicide by blunt force trauma.
Another mystery is how Wheeler’s body ended up in a dumpster in a heavily traveled commercial area of Newark. The garbage truck had begun its route at 4:30 a.m. and arrived at the landfill at 10:00 a.m., after making ten stops at an array of businesses, including a senior’s complex, a car dealership, and a public library. Many of the dumpsters were locked or had surveillance cameras in the vicinity, leading police to believe Wheeler’s body was picked up toward the beginning of the driver’s route.
It was a shocking discovery that took the media by storm. How did a well-respected man, almost a national hero, end up sprawled out in a garbage dump?
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Cell Phone Found
On January 7, 2011, police recovered Wheeler’s cell phone from a house that was under construction across the street from Wheeler’s home in New Castle.
Wheeler had filed a lawsuit challenging zoning approval for the neighboring house because it partially blocked his view of Battery Park and the Delaware River. In addition, smoke bombs had been set off in the house prior to Wheeler’s death that police suspected Wheeler may have detonated. Police question whether Wheeler may have dropped the phone while detonating the smoke bombs—another question in a mystery that only seems to deepen with time.
Wheeler's Early Life
Wheeler was born on December 14, 1944, in Laredo, Texas. He descended from a family of military professionals that included Joseph Wheeler, who had served as general both in the Confederate Army and, later, with the United States Army.
Wheeler himself was a member of the United States Military Academy class of 1966, which lost thirty of its members in the Vietnam War. After his graduation from West Point, Wheeler became a fire control platoon leader at a MIM-14 Nike-Hercules base at Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, from 1966–1967.
After that, he became a graduate student of Harvard Business School, spending the summer of 1968 as a systems analyst for the Office of Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C. He went on to serve in a non-combat position at Long Binh in Vietnam. Upon his return, he served on the General Staff at the Pentagon.
After leaving the military, he attended law school at Yale University, became a clerk for George E. McKinnon, and joined a law firm.
He served both Bush Administrations and became CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He also founded the Vietnam Children’s Fund and served as secretary of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Some of his outstanding accomplishments include getting the Vietnam Memorial Wall built, as well as writing an in-depth manual on the effects of biological and chemical weapons, which he was against and strongly cautioned should be pursued with utmost restraint by the United States.
With an impressive career, he was the last person family and friends could believe would be the victim of a baffling, unsolved murder.
Days Leading Up to the Murder
To add to the already bizarre behavior leading up to the days before Wheeler’s homicide, Wheeler’s neighbor claimed that during the week before his death, his television had been turned up to full volume at the residence and left on 24 hours a day. Wheeler was practically never seen during this time.
His wife had been traveling and was out of town, so she never reported him missing or saw his odd behavior. People who did see him in the days leading up to his death said he acted as if he were drunk or drugged.
Wheeler was described by friends to be a “bulldog” of a man, an avid supporter of cadet football, and also a “constant emailer.” They said they suspected something was wrong when Wheeler's emails dwindled and he hadn’t responded to celebratory emails when the Army won its bowl game on December 30.
Seemingly baffled, authorities were very closed-mouthed and did not elaborate as to where or how the murder happened. In fact, all they could be certain of is that his body ended up in a garbage truck in Newark and was transported to the city landfill.
There have been several theories as to what happened to Wheeler.
One such theory revolves around the dispute he was having with his neighbors. The lawsuit had been filed against Frank Mariani for blocking his view, and what made it even more menacing was that Wheeler was suspected in the arson against Mariani.
Also, one of the buildings that Wheeler was wandering around the night of his disappearance was the law firm that was handling his case against Mariani. The idea is that the neighbors may have taken the dispute too far, but there is no evidence to support this theory.
Then there is the theory that Wheeler had gotten in too deep with the government and was silenced.
Wheeler had been working as a consultant for the Mitre Corporation, a nonprofit that manages federally funded research and development centers supporting the Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. He then went to work as the executive vice president and director of communications of the WVC3 Group, an anti-terrorism security firm based in Reston, Virginia.
Prior to his death, Wheeler had been working on cyber-warfare, which he had been vocal that the United States was woefully unprepared for. He was specifically working on detecting cyber-intrusions and criminal activity on the nation’s secured networks. Some think that this activity at the time of his death raised many red flags due to his work potentially impacting the upper echelons of the government.
As intriguing as this may be, there is still little evidence to draw a conclusion.
Burglary Gone Wrong?
There was also a claim that Wheeler’s house was not a crime scene, yet police proceeded to search the house and pry up floorboards, which only fueled the existing conspiracy theories.
We May Never Know What Happened
Was it a burglary gone bad? A vendetta? Or a murder on our government’s watch? Maybe a terrible accident? Someone knows, but without a crime scene and no witnesses that have come forward, John P. Wheeler’s death remains a mystery . . . and we may never know what really happened that fateful day.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini