Kathy Klyce was worried. Her husband, Jack Wheeler, a prominent consultant and former Pentagon official, had been out of touch for a few days. They had argued about his decision to head to Washington on Dec. 28, 2010, while she stayed at their condo in New York, but silence from her normally voluble husband was unusual.
She was stunned when her stepdaughter arrived, on Jan. 2, 2011, to tell her police from Newark, Del., had called: Jack was dead, they said. And the details Klyce learned when she traveled to Delaware were shattering: Jack had been beaten severely and suffered a heart attack. His body had been discovered in a landfill after being dumped from a trash truck. His killing was a shocking end to a lifetime of service.
John “Jack” Parsons Wheeler III, intense, brilliant and troubled, had built a distinguished résumé in his 66 years. He graduated near the top of his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, earned a business degree from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, served in Vietnam and co-founded the organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as the Wall, which draws more than 5 million visitors per year. He carried out projects for Presidents Carter and Reagan, helped guide Macy’s out of bankruptcy, built 51 schools in Vietnam, and worked as a national director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Deafness Research Foundation. Later in his career, he served as special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, Mike Wynne, and as a national security consultant to the research and development firm Mitre Corp. By then portly and sporting a thin ring of gray hair, he forged an interest in cybersecurity, a remarkable professional turn for a man in his 60s.
He accomplished all this while fighting a decades-long battle with depression and bipolar disorder, which triggered bouts of frenetic activity and dramatic mood swings. He left behind a rich legacy and one of the most perplexing murder mysteries in America — a kaleidoscope of clues, potential culprits and conspiracy theories.
The case includes several intriguing tangents: an attempted arson in which Wheeler is the prime suspect; a chaotic scene discovered at Wheeler and Klyce’s second home, in New Castle, Del.; and numerous eyewitness sightings of an uncharacteristically rumpled Wheeler, wandering around the nearby city of Wilmington, Del., telling people his briefcase had been stolen. But more than six years after his death, there are still no answers. “We have been waiting to hear something,” says Klyce, “but no call ever comes.”
This Memorial Day weekend, tens of thousands of motorcyclists and spectators from all over the country are gathering for the 30th Rolling Thunder, an annual rally to support veterans. The events will include the traditional deafening motorcycle ride from the Pentagon to the Wall, a memorial made possible by Jack Wheeler’s energy and persistence. Meanwhile, many of his friends and loved ones will continue to wonder: Just how did Jack Wheeler wind up dead in a Delaware landfill?
Shortly after Christmas in 2010, Wheeler told his wife he needed to spend a couple of days working at Mitre. He said he would stay at the Metropolitan Club in downtown Washington.
Klyce, now 73, acknowledges she felt “ticked off.” A diminutive woman and transplanted Southerner, Klyce ran a silk importing business while Wheeler worked in government and security. The pair maintained two residences: the condo in Harlem and a historical home in quaint New Castle, Del. They had been married for 10 years, an autumn union after previous marriages (Jack had two children, including a son who declined to be interviewed for this article).
“It’s important,” was all he told her.
The pair fought through text messages and emails for a couple of days until Jack fell out of contact. At the same time, though Klyce didn’t know it, strange things were going on in Delaware.
On the night of Dec. 28 — the same day Wheeler traveled to Washington — a New Castle neighbor heard an odd thudding sound outside. Scott Morris went to his window, where he saw the darkened silhouette of a man standing in the frame of the house under construction across the street, methodically lighting what looked like small balls of fire and tossing them on the floor. Morris called police, who discovered little damage was done. But Morris felt unsettled. “It was creepy,” he says. “The figure appeared very calm, and when he finished he turned very deliberately and walked [away] toward the path along the Delaware River.”
Wheeler had opposed the construction, a three-story home being built on a slice of private land in Battery Park, a waterfront green space with historical significance. The new home would partially block Wheeler and Klyce’s view of the trees and the water beyond, but friends say Wheeler fought because he considered building a house on that land a form of sacrilege: Colonists, and then the Revolutionaries, had maintained a defensive battery there. He circulated a petition and filed legal challenges arguing that the house violated local ordinances. “Jack was an unusual client,” says his attorney, Bayard Marin. “He was an attorney himself, and he was always calling me with ideas about the case. He was very disappointed when the house kept going up ... but we still had pending legal challenges. The case wasn’t finished.” (The homeowners declined to comment for this article.)
Events after the alleged arson attempt at the construction site added to the mystery. On the morning of Dec. 30, a neighbor who knew that Klyce and Wheeler were out of town noticed odd details — an upstairs window open, a side door ajar — and went inside their home.
The condition of the house was worrisome. A dining room chair was overturned. Several dishes lay broken in the sink. The counter was covered in scattered spices and bottles. A wide path of powdered kitchen cleanser covered the floor, revealing one bare footprint. And Wheeler’s West Point cadet sword, a prized possession, lay on the floor, unsheathed and atop the scabbard.
“My first thought was that there was a break-in,” says the neighbor, Rob Dill. After unsuccessfully trying to reach Klyce and Wheeler, Dill phoned the authorities on Dec. 31. About the same time, a landfill worker spotted Wheeler’s body.
“He could just be gone, disappeared,” says Wheeler’s daughter, Kate. “Whoever killed him ... didn’t want his body to ever be found.”
In the early hours of the investigation, police say, they focused on the suspected break-in. The TV, stereo and Klyce’s art collection were all present. Nothing appeared to be missing. But there was one curious detail: Amid the disarray, a book lay open on the kitchen counter. It was “The Long Gray Line,” by former Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, a nonfiction account of West Point’s Class of 1966, in which Wheeler featured prominently.
The focus of the investigation, however, quickly moved beyond the house. Police discovered eyewitnesses and surveillance videos detailing Wheeler’s last, chaotic hours as he walked around downtown Wilmington. The usually well-groomed Wheeler appeared disheveled, distressed and confused — and complained he’d been robbed and needed a ride out of town.
When Jack Wheeler left New York on Dec. 28, he took an Amtrak train to Washington. (Investigators say surveillance video corroborates that he was there.) He sent emails steadily from his phone, to Klyce, in an effort to make up, and to his daughter and stepdaughters. Around 5 p.m., he posted on the West Point Class of ’66 message board, griping about corruption in NCAA sports.
Police records, witness reports and emails shared by the family suggest, however, that any appearance of normalcy at this point was misleading. Though he’d told his wife he needed a “couple of productive days” in the District, Wheeler returned to Delaware by 7:30 p.m. Cellphone records show he called cabs in Wilmington about an hour apart. Around 11:30 p.m., someone attempted to set the house he opposed on fire.
No one knows where Wheeler spent that night, but around 8:45 a.m. on Dec. 29, he got another cab in Wilmington and asked to go to the Hotel du Pont, engaging in casual conversation with the driver. It’s unclear whether he had any business at the hotel.
Around 9:30 a.m., he emailed Mitre, saying he’d suffered a home break-in. He reported his cellphone, badge, key fob and briefcase stolen. He also emailed his therapist, saying he felt “dazed, boxed in a corner” after his fight with Klyce.
There are fewer emails that day (given his missing cellphone, it’s unclear where he sent the emails from). And there are no reported sightings of him till 6 p.m., when he walked into a Happy Harry’s pharmacy, a few blocks from his New Castle house. A regular customer there, he approached pharmacist Murali Gouro with an unusual request: “Can you give me a ride to Wilmington?”
Wheeler looked a little upset, Gouro recalled, but still put-together in a black suit and white shirt. Gouro offered to call him a cab. Wheeler declined. But 40 minutes later, he turned up on a surveillance video taken in a Wilmington parking garage and later released to the public.
In the video, he appears rougher, perhaps even disoriented. His suit is wrinkled, and he limps, with one shoe on and the other in his right hand. He also seems agitated, wagging his finger at one attendant and, later, opening and abruptly closing a garage door without stepping outside.
“Someone stole my briefcase,” he told one of the attendants. He also said he was looking for his car, which investigators later discovered in another garage altogether, where he’d left it on Christmas Eve. A worker offered him money to get home. Wheeler declined, saying he had plenty of cash.
There appear to have been no further sightings of him until the afternoon of the next day, Dec. 30, when he arrived at the Nemours Building, a high-end office high-rise.
He asked to speak to a managing partner at a law firm there but left the offices before receiving any consultation, a lawyer who was with the firm at the time confirms. He also requested train fare.
Surveillance cameras captured him exiting the Nemours Building later that night, walking east toward historic Rodney Square and the high-crime streets beyond that contribute to Wilmington’s designation as one of America’s most dangerous small cities. The next morning, he was found dead in Wilmington’s Cherry Island Landfill. Police in Newark took the case because of evidence that the trash truck containing Wheeler’s body made its stops in Newark — meaning that Wheeler’s body somehow wound up in a dumpster about 13 miles from where he was last seen on surveillance video.
Klyce says her husband looked “scared” to her in those surveillance videos. And in the final images, he does look like a man on the run. He had even traded his suit jacket for a black hoodie, which he pulled up tight over his head. When he walks out of the frame, his trail disappears.
Today, on a spit of land across the street from the West Point military academy’s stadium, there is a granite boulder adorned with a plaque that reads: “In memory of our classmates and other members of the United States Armed Forces Who Fell in Battle in The Vietnam Conflict.”
Wheeler rallied classmates to build this memorial, a small piece of West Point’s 16,000 acres, yet a vital touchstone to his later achievements and the arc of his life. John Parsons Wheeler III hailed from a military family: His grandfather was a cavalryman; his father attended West Point and fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge.
But when his generation’s conflict arrived, Wheeler felt ambivalent about America’s role in Vietnam. After he graduated from West Point, he opted to delay his service by getting a graduate degree at Harvard Business School. Then he obtained an administrative position at Long Binh, the U.S. Army’s headquarters, about 20 miles northeast of Saigon, computerizing Army operations, from troop movements to food requisitions.
The decision not to fight haunted him. His West Point class suffered one of the highest death rates of those that served in Vietnam.
“He always felt that he had somehow let everyone down,” says longtime friend Ed Timperlake, whom Wheeler recruited in 1982 to work for the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program.
Wheeler fixated, in particular, on the loss of Thomas J. Hayes IV, a former classmate who died after running toward enemy gunfire and rescuing two American soldiers. Wheeler talked to friends, sometimes incessantly, about longing to honor that example. He became a man on fire, building a résumé that featured bursts of creativity and success yet bore a scattered quality as he leapt from one position to another. “The thing about Jack,” says childhood friend and West Point classmate Jeff Rogers, “is that he didn’t have jobs. He had causes.”
Even a partial list impresses. After leaving the military in 1971, Wheeler worked as a senior planner at Amtrak for a year, then attended Yale Law School. One of his early jobs was serving on the legal team for Roberta S. Karmel, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s first female commissioner, a first of which he was very proud. He was the first director of the Reagan-era Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, which reincorporated vets into society as leaders. He was the founding CEO of the Vietnam Children’s Fund, which built dozens of schools.
With each job, he sought some deeper meaning. Even while helping Macy’s navigate a bankruptcy — dry financial work — Wheeler rallied colleagues, thundering: We’re preserving a vital part of America for every child who will see “Miracle on 34th Street” and want to visit the store! “You had to be impressed,” says Tom Shull, who worked with Wheeler there. “He’d fire you up.” But Wheeler’s best-remembered and most personal achievement will always be the Wall, a project he started pursuing almost by chance.
In July 1979, Wheeler was vacationing in Pawleys Island, S.C., when he picked up a newspaper and saw an article that changed his course: Jan Scruggs, a former enlisted man, had announced a plan to build a Vietnam memorial — and had raised just $144.50.
In an unlikely pairing, which Scruggs calls “complicated,” Wheeler joined the effort, serving as chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. His contacts, organizational skills and fervor provided the idea a much-needed spark.
“I will tell you this,” says Scruggs. “The Wall would not have been built without Jack. I had the idea for it, but Jack knew important people, how to organize for the effort, and he would not be denied.”
Harry G. Robinson III, dean emeritus of the School of Architecture and Design at Howard University, says the speed of the project was “miraculous”: Just 15 months to gain site approval and choose a design from a jury-approved contest; about three years from initial idea to the dedication in November 1982.
At the time, the Wall engendered furious opposition. Angry veterans likened the now iconic black granite structure — bearing the names of more than 58,000 service members — to a “black gash of sorrow and shame.” Today, however, the Wall is considered a source of national healing. Anthropologists dub it a “liminal space,” where the living and dead meet.
The Wall’s uniting and healing effect directly reflects Wheeler’s political ethos. Friends and family describe him as a kind of “progressive conservative,” a staunch Republican who favored an inclusive party and considered compromise virtuous in a democracy. In his book “Touched With Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation,” published after the Wall opened, Wheeler envisioned the memorial as a place where conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves could realize their common identity as Americans. “Exposed to light,” he writes, “the wounds and events of the era will not be as hideous as we may think.”
“I’ve experienced that sense of unity there myself,” says Lee Edwards, a longtime writer at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who initially opposed the memorial design. “There is a spirit which hovers over that wall ... like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.” That spirit seemed to serve a personal function for Wheeler, who, friends believe, was on a perpetual quest to heal himself.
No one is sure when Wheeler’s bipolar disorder was diagnosed — his daughter says it was while she was a child — but the high energy and emotional volatility that can characterize the condition were apparent early in his life.
Wheeler argued over articles in the Yale Law Journal to such a degree that his fellow students wrote a poem: “He worked like a fiend, seven days a week,” the poem goes. “He’d scream and cry / He’d beg and plead. / No one alive could help but heed ... Big Jack.” That emotionality continued through his career, even at the Pentagon. “He was brilliant and passionate,” says his boss there, Mike Wynne, a fellow member of the Class of ’66, who would deploy Wheeler like a “battle tank” when he needed someone to make a strong stand.
His old neighbor Rob Dill says he had to cut off Wheeler when he ranted — “What would William Penn want?” — about the house being built across the street. His posts on the West Point message board got so intemperate that the board’s moderator, Doug Thornbloom, suspended him: “I just needed to give him a timeout.”
Wheeler felt his shortcomings keenly. He saw a therapist, and the boxes of memorabilia and documents he left behind include fact sheets on Asperger’s syndrome, bearing Wheeler’s notes, like “Is this why I can’t maintain relationships?”
As his old classmates downshifted into retirement, Wheeler went on to Mitre, and regularly attended conferences and meetings in the community of hackers and cybersecurity experts. He gave little thought, says his wife, to retirement.
“I don’t like to say it,” says Klyce, “but I think Jack hated himself. He tried to do good all day so he could sleep at night. Then he’d wake up in the morning and that self-hatred would be there, waiting for him.”
Those trying to solve the mystery of Wheeler’s death have painted him as everything from the victim of a mugging gone wrong to a hero silenced by malignant forces. A cottage industry of possible explanations continues on the Internet, where even a partial list of the theories found in blogs, chat rooms and comments on articles ranges from the mundane to the wildly conspiratorial:
A random street mugging in Wilmington induced a fatal heart attack. The resourceful assailant(s) drove his lifeless body to a dumpster in a different city.
An enemy from his past stalked and killed him.
The Chinese murdered him for secrets he held about America’s cyberwarfare capabilities.
The U.S. government assassinated him because he was going to blow the whistle on the dumping of a chemical weapons stash.
Then there’s his friendship with Andrew Robert Levene, a home developer and former military man whose claim that he worked in Special Operations has attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists.
One year later, in December 2011, Levene allegedly killed a jeweler in Connecticut, stole $300,000 and fled to Europe. He was arrested in Spain and found hung in his jail cell, his cause of death ruled a suicide. Levene was also named as a suspect in a Colorado arson. Newark police would not comment on Levene.
Klyce, seeking answers, retained Colm F. Connolly, a former U.S. attorney in Delaware. “This case is, from an investigative perspective, all over the place,” he says.
Connolly hired a private investigator who brought Klyce a theory — which remains popular on the Internet — that Wheeler wasn’t actually killed. In this scenario, Wheeler sought refuge from the cold in a dumpster and died after the drop into a trash truck. Newark police reject this idea, however, saying the autopsy evidence — which they won’t specify for fear of harming the investigation — is entirely consistent with a homicide. Further, a photograph of Wheeler taken after his death, which a friend of the family shared with their permission, shows Wheeler’s face and head covered in bruises that appear to be more likely the product of a sustained pummeling than a drop into a trash truck.
Even the most likely theory — that Wheeler was assaulted after wandering into a bad neighborhood — faces challenges. Police say strong-arm robbers normally leave victims where they lie. Further, while police will not divulge whether Wheeler’s body still bore a wallet, credit cards or money, some items that a mugger would be expected to take — his West Point class ring and Rolex watch — were left behind.
In light of all this, Klyce believes that her husband was targeted for murder. She recently increased the reward for information in the case from $25,000 to $50,000.
Klyce also thinks that her husband was suffering a bipolar episode at the time of his death. “Looking back,” she says, “I can see it.”
She also says she believes he was the person who set off the incendiary devices across the street. He kept garden-pest smoke bombs on hand, which he could have used to try to set the house on fire. And receipts he left behind indicate he had bought black clothing and a full-face ski mask. He even told Klyce he might torch the house, describing how he’d walk to the river path, as Morris reported the arsonist doing, and take a circuitous route to Wilmington.
“I said, ‘That’s crazy!’ ” says Klyce. “I didn’t think he’d really do it ... and after that conversation, I think he didn’t want me to know he was going to do it.”
Wheeler’s reason, the “sacrilege” he perceived in the construction, was consistent with his life’s passions, but — reckless and illegal — also reflects what Klyce considers his addled state. The same is true of his apparent execution: Investigators found his cellphone in the house under construction after the alleged arson. In this context, Wheeler’s ransacked home could have been an improvisation, by him, to explain his lost phone.
Klyce is also sharing her suspicion that computer hacking might be involved. In the weeks and months leading up to his death, Wheeler wanted to investigate the officials and agencies of Delaware, a state he considered corrupt after watching construction begin on the Battery Park house. A friend Wheeler made in the hacker community, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons, says Wheeler asked for lessons.
“I thought it was a little odd,” says the hacker. “But Jack was a really brilliant guy, and I ... gave him a reading list.” One of the to-do lists Wheeler left behind, dated Dec. 5, mentions hacking a target associated with the construction dispute.
Klyce wonders if he somehow got caught, either at arson or hacking. “I think he might have pissed someone off,” she says, “and I think his movements reflected that. He was trying to stay out of sight because someone might have been following him.”
“I don’t subscribe to any particular theory,” says Wheeler’s old friend John Ketels. “I think that what we know, because Jack was involved in a lot of things, suggests we should keep an open mind.”
In May 2016, the West Point Class of 1966 gathered for its 50th reunion. They met in the lobby of the grand Thayer Hotel, a vast room redolent of big-band-era luxury — polished wood, deep carpeting and claw-foot tables and chairs. As one pocket of old vets laughed raucously, another nearby group would dab away tears.
Klyce attended the reunion. “I wanted to represent Jack,” she says.
Throughout the weekend, his classmates talked about Wheeler’s death — and the lack of progress in the case disturbed and sometimes even infuriated them. “It opens up old wounds a bit,” said Jeff Rogers, who grew up with Wheeler as an Army brat. Vietnam vets “were treated so poorly when we returned home, and it’s hard to feel like Jack isn’t being treated poorly now.”
“It is troubling,” Wynne said. “Jack deserves better.”
The weekend closed on a Sunday morning marked by intermittent rain. Alumni, wives and family, 500 strong, entered the academy’s massive chapel to remember the classmates they’d lost in war and since. There, time seemed to fold in upon itself as cadets — in peak physical condition and full military dress — welcomed the now gray-haired men and women they hoped to become.
The cadets passed out programs and stood by solemnly through a full church service. The names of deceased class members were then read aloud — like the names off the Wall — with each punctuated by the tolling of a bright bell. At ceremony’s end, the class journeyed to the academy’s cemetery, where a great many of them walked first to the grave of one particular cadet: Tommy J. Hayes IV.
Even those who tired of Wheeler’s obsession with Hayes recognize that his feelings were real: “Jack took on all his tasks with the zeal he did in an effort to live up to Tommy,” says Timperlake.
Hayes appears to have been on Wheeler’s mind near the end of his own life. The copy of “The Long Gray Line” found on his kitchen counter was turned to pages 440 and 441, where Wheeler is described as honoring Hayes through a favorite Rudyard Kipling poem, “To Thomas Atkins.” “I have made for you a song,” reads the poem. “And it may be right or wrong ... Thomas, here’s my best respects to you!”
To those he left behind, Wheeler’s life — like Hayes’s — now stands as a triumph that transcends the circumstances of his death. Scruggs, the former enlisted man who got the Wall built with Wheeler, announced last year that he is donating half his estate to West Point, in Wheeler’s name.
“For me, he will always be primarily my father,” says Kate Wheeler. “But I am very aware that he made a big, positive impact on the world beyond me, and in some way that has made his death easier.”
“He was found in the trash,” Klyce says, “but he left these things behind: those schools in Vietnam and, of course, the Wall. These things speak to Jack’s higher calling, and where he would have liked to see the country go.”
On the last night of the reunion, Wheeler’s childhood friend, Jeff Rogers, reminisced fondly. “I know Jack had a lot of problems,” he said, tearing up. “But he overcame them to achieve a lot. And I look around and it seems to me, we could use a lot more Jack Wheelers right now.”
An earlier version this story said Jack Wheeler created the Reagan-era Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. He was its first director.
Steve Volk is a writer at large for Philadelphia Magazine and a contributing editor for Discover. He previously wrote about a U.S. Department of Agriculture whistleblower for The Washington Post Magazine.
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