By Paul Duggan
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.
"We're requesting information from anyone who knows anything about his whereabouts from the 28th to the 31st," Farrall said. "The detectives don't know how he got to Newark from Wilmington or wherever it was he came from."
Wheeler had been working since March 2009 as a consultant at the nonprofit Mitre Corp. in McLean, company spokeswoman Jennifer J. Shearman said. She said the company does information technology work for several federal agencies, including the Defense and Homeland Security departments, but she did not know what type of work Wheeler did.
"He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions and causes," one of his longtime friends, journalist James Fallows of the Atlantic, wrote on the magazine's Web site Monday.
The Wall "is now taken as a great, triumphant icon on commemorative architecture," Fallows wrote, "but at the time the 'black gash of shame' was bitterly controversial, and Jack Wheeler was in the middle of the controversy - raising money, getting approvals, collecting allies and placating critics until the wall was built."
After graduating from West Point and Harvard Business School and serving in Vietnam and at the Pentagon, Wheeler received a law degree from Yale in 1975 and held several posts in eight years at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
At various times over the past 20 years, he was a self-employed business consultant and chief executive of the Deafness Research Foundation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other nonprofits.
As a special assistant to the Air Force secretary in the mid-2000s, Wheeler was known as a brilliant, moody and somewhat erratic figure in the buttoned-down Pentagon.
He raised frequent and occasionally hyperbolic warnings about the threat of cyberattacks on U.S. computer systems and advocated for the Air Force to play a greater role in defending those systems. Some officials said that Wheeler, who was self-taught on the subject, often pressed forward without a clear understanding of cybersecurity issues.
He left the Pentagon when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired Wheeler's boss, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, after the Air Force lost track of nuclear material.
"His most recent crusade was to bring ROTC back to elite campuses," Fallows wrote. "To be within e-mail range of Jack was to look forward to frequent, lengthy, often urgent-sounding and often overwrought dispatches on the state of the struggle."
Late on Christmas night, Fallows said, "I was surprised to see this simple note from him."
It read: "Jim, Merry Christmas, Old Friend. Onward and upward."
Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.