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John Wheeler's slaying had an odd prelude

John P. Wheeler III
John P. Wheeler III (Ho)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011

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.

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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."

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