By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 10:16 PM
John P. Wheeler III, a former Army officer who helped lead efforts to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was seen wandering in apparent confusion in downtown Wilmington in the days before he was found slain in a local landfill, police in Delaware said Wednesday.
Wheeler, 66, a lawyer and longtime business and government consultant who lived near Wilmington, was found Friday by a landfill worker who saw his body in a load of rubbish being dumped by a truck. Investigators said the trash had been picked up hours earlier from receptacles in Newark, Del., west of the city.
Authorities said he was a homicide victim but have not disclosed how he died.
Newark police said Wednesday that Wheeler was seen in an office building in Wilmington's central business district "as late as 8:30 p.m." last Thursday, about 13 hours before his remains turned up at the landfill. On security video from the building, Wheeler "appears confused," police Lt. Mark A. Farrall said.
The 14-story Nemours Building, at 10th and Orange streets, where Wheeler was seen, is part of the headquarters complex of chemical giant DuPont.
"Police also have learned that earlier in the day . . . Mr. Wheeler was approached inside this building by several individuals who offered assistance to him, which Mr. Wheeler declined," Farrall said. That encounter occurred about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
The night before, investigators said, a disheveled and disoriented Wheeler was seen in a downtown parking garage, a half-mile from the Nemours Building.
Surveillance video from the HyPark garage, next to the New Castle County Courthouse, shows Wheeler staggering along a narrow corridor, clad in a dark suit coat, dark pants and a white shirt, and holding his right shoe in his left hand.
He hobbled past an attendant's window, then returned and spoke briefly to the person behind the glass, ending the exchange by jabbing a finger. He walked unsteadily along another hall toward an exit door that was open. He pulled the door closed, then turned, threw up his arms as if in frustration and got on an elevator.
Security guard Cathleen Boyer, who saw Wheeler at the garage, told the News Journal of Wilmington that Wheeler said he had been robbed of his briefcase. She said that his speech was not slurred and that she did not notice any odor of alcohol.
"He had dirt on his right leg," the newspaper quoted Boyer as saying. "His eyes were red, like he was crying or something."'Always sharp'
Asked whether Wheeler was prone to episodes of mental confusion, his attorney, Bayard Marin, said in an interview, "Oh God, not at all."
Marin added, "He was always very bright, always sharp."
Wheeler, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Harvard Business School and Yale Law School, was "the kind of guy you had to work hard to stay ahead of," Marin said. He said that when he and Wheeler last spoke by phone, Dec. 27, Wheeler sounded "fine, excellent."
Wheeler and his wife, Katherine Klyce, have been enmeshed in a protracted legal fight to stop construction of a large house across from theirs in New Castle, Del.
Marin, who has been representing Wheeler and Klyce in the lawsuit, said Klyce did not want to be interviewed about her husband's death. Wheeler's wife was away from home during the time he was observed in Wilmington last week.
"The police have not revealed much information to us," Marin said. "I suppose anything is in the range of possibility. . . . If you have a person who is somehow disoriented or having a problem of some kind, there are certainly sadistic people out there on the street who would take advantage of a person like that."
Wheeler served as a junior staff officer in Vietnam and at the Pentagon before leaving the Army as a captain in the early 1970s. As the first chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, he was instrumental in erecting the memorial on the Mall amid fierce controversy over its stark design. In time, the divisiveness gave way to acceptance of "the Wall" as an iconic national symbol of service and sacrifice.
In the decades since the memorial opened 1982, Wheeler worked as lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission and as a self-employed business consultant. He also held a few mid-level advisory posts in the federal government, including a stint in the mid-2000s as a special assistant to the Air Force secretary.
Most recently, Wheeler had been working under contract for the Mitre Corp., based in McLean and Bedford, Mass. The company does computer-related research and development for several government agencies.
He was a part-time consultant involved in "promoting discussions among government, industry and academia on cyber defense topics," the company said in a statement.Rode Amtrak from D.C.
Police said it appears that Wheeler took an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington on Dec. 28. A day later, he was seen in a drugstore in New Castle, about a mile from his home, according to a pharmacist there.
The druggist, Murali Gouro, said in an interview that Wheeler, an occasional customer, walked into Happy Harry's Pharmacy about 6 p.m. Wednesday and asked Gouro to give him a ride to Wilmington. Gouro said that he declined and offered to call a cab for Wheeler but that Wheeler declined the offer and left.
Less than an hour later, Wheeler was in Wilmington, seeming lost at the HyPark garage.