John P. Wheeler III, early supporter of Vietnam Memorial found dead in Delaware landfill

Police in Delaware searched for clues Monday in the death of John Wheeler III, a former Army officer who served in Republican administrations and helped lead efforts to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 12:53 AM

A former Army officer and longtime government and business consultant who played a key role 30 years ago in erecting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was found dead in a Delaware landfill Friday in what police said was a homicide.

John P. Wheeler III, 66, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point whose civilian career included stints at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Pentagon and an array of nonprofit organizations, had not been dead for long when his body was found in a Wilmington dump, police said.

Authorities, who publicly identified the body Monday, would not say how Wheeler died, but they said an autopsy concluded that the death was a homicide.

Wheeler, who had been working for a McLean company that does computer-related research and development for government agencies, was the first chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, serving from 1979 to 1989.

The fund raised $11 million to build the memorial on the Mall amid controversy in the early 1980s over the stark design of what has come to be known as "the Wall." It was dedicated in 1982, and, over time, the divisiveness surrounding it gave way to acceptance of the memorial as a national symbol of loss and service.

"I worked closely with Jack to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," the fund's president, Jan C. Scruggs, said in a statement. "I know how passionate he was about honoring all who serve their nation, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice."

Wheeler, a rear-echelon staff officer in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, "served his country honorably, then dedicated himself to ensuring that our nation's service members are always given the respect they deserve," Scruggs said.

Police said Wheeler, who lived with his wife in New Castle, Del., about 10 miles south of Wilmington, had a reservation on an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington on Dec. 28. A spokesman for the police department that is handling the case said that investigators were trying to determine whether Wheeler got on the train.

At 9:56 a.m. Friday, a trash truck was unloading its contents at the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington, police said. A worker making sure the truck did not dump any prohibited material called for help after he saw a body slide out with the trash, police said.

Investigators determined that all of the trash in the truck had been picked up that morning from 10 large receptacles within a three- to four-block radius in Newark, Del., about 12 miles west of Wilmington, said Lt. Mark Farrall, a Newark police spokesman. For that reason, Newark police took charge of the case.

Officers said they did not know which of the 10 receptacles held the body. "Based on information learned during the autopsy," Farrall said, "it is believed that the body was not in the Dumpster for a long period of time."

If Wheeler had been on the Amtrak train Dec. 28 and got off at his scheduled stop, then he apparently traveled somehow from Wilmington to Newark. Then, on Dec. 31, he was hauled back to Wilmington in the trash truck.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company