Mysterious Murder of Bush Official: John P. Wheeler III Found Dead in Delaware Landfill

The murder reads like a spy novel: An ex-Pentagon official is found dead in a landfill, three days after disappearing between Washington and Wilmington. Christine Pelisek and Pat Wingert on what happened.

01.04.11 2:18 AM ET

The murder could be taken from the pages of John le Carré.

A former Pentagon official boards a train from Washington to his home in Delaware just after Christmas.

The man—a West Point cadet, a Yale and Harvard graduate and former general's aide in Vietnam—disappears without a trace, only to be found dead in a landfill days later.

This is the story of John P. Wheeler III, an adviser to four different administrations, whose body was discovered on New Year's Eve.

Beyond these sketchy details, police say, not much more is known about the apparent murder of the 66 year old, whose resume read like that of a character in a modern spy novel, and whose body was found dumped in a Wilmington landfill.

An employee at the landfill noticed Wheeler's body after it was dumped from a Waste Management truck onto a pile of trash at the Cherry Island landfill—miles from his home in the historic district of New Castle where he lived with his wife Katherine Klyce.

Three days earlier, Wheeler had been scheduled to take an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington near his home when he disappeared without a trace. Even this last journey is shrouded in mystery, police say. "He was scheduled to take the train but we don't know if he actually boarded the train," said Lt. Mark Farrall of the Newark Police Department. Although it took several days before Wheeler's body was identified, he was not reported missing by his family because his wife was out of town at the time of his disappearance, investigators say.

Wheeler is best known as one of the main forces behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

On Sunday, the chief medical examiner's office in Delaware ruled that Wheeler's death was a homicide although the office refused to release the cause of death "pending further studies including toxicological analysis," according to Deputy Director Hal G. Brown.

"At this point we don't have any answers as to how or why this happened," said Farrall. "We don't have any suspects or motives at this point. We just don't know."

Police say they identified Wheeler by particular items they found on his body.

According to friends and associates, Wheeler was a skilled networker whose career was an unusual mix of military, government, charity, and private sector work.

Wheeler is best known as one of the main forces behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The decision to use designer Maya Lin's abstract design caused controversy and significant pushback from Ross Perot and James Webb, now senator of Virginia, but Wheeler was one of Lin's strongest defenders and, as chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, took a lot of the heat until the compromise to erect a statue of three soldiers nearby was worked out.

Wheeler, who served a tour in Vietnam as a general's aide before retiring from the military in 1971, fought hard to get the memorial built because he was motivated by the many West Point classmates he'd lost in the war, said some who knew him.

"John was one of the few people who understood what a central role the memorial would play in the nation's healing," said Richard F. "Rick" Weidman, executive director for Policy and Government Affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America. "He was one of the core of people who made it happen."

Wheeler, who his close friends knew as Jack, reportedly had earned TS/SCI (Top Secret / Special Compartmentalized Information) clearance during his most recent government job, special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force during the administration of George W. Bush.

"It's the kind of clearance you have when you're in the inner ring (of the Pentagon)," said a source who didn't want to be identified. "But that doesn't mean anyone thinks there's an espionage component to this murder."

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Founder and President Jan Scruggs said Wheeler was a "religious and patriotic person."

"He liked reading the bible, theology and he liked military events," he said, dismissing any conspiracy theories. Although he could be a fierce opponent in verbal jostling, Wheeler "didn't have the sorts of enemies" who would want to see him dead, said Scruggs.

"The people who were his enemies were guys he would argue philosophy or memorandums with," he said, adding that Wheeler's death "is a mystery."

"He was very well-spoken, and he could disarm people with his words," agreed Weidman. "But he was not a street fighter. He was not someone who you could ever imagine would be involved in anything that appeared to be a hit."

James Fallows, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, remembered Wheeler, a friend, in a post on Monday.

"He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes," Fallows wrote.

At the time of his disappearance, Wheeler and his wife were involved in expensive litigation in Delaware Chancery Court with a neighbor who was building a two-and-a-half story home across the street.

While the dispute had dragged out, Wheeler's attorney Bayard Marin said, "There were no Jerry Springer moments."

Marin said he spoke to Wheeler the day before he disappeared. "It was a nice personal conversation, thanking me for the past three years and sticking with him through litigation," he said. "It was a kind of Christmas/New Year call. He seemed very cheerful. He seemed very pleasant."

Wheeler's death is the second time a murder has hit close to home for his current wife. In 1995, Klyce's sister, Emily Klyce Fisher, was brutally slain in her home in one of Memphis' toniest neighborhoods. Investigators later linked the murder to Fisher's drug-addled son, who had bragged about the valuables in the family safe to the men later accused of killing his mother.

Klyce was Wheeler's third wife, friends say. Wheeler also had a very public romance with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc's daughter Linda Smith in the '80s, two associates confirmed. Smith could not be reached for comment.

The Wheeler family had no comments on Monday. The Newark police simply issued a statement on their behalf, stating: "As you must appreciate, this is a tragic time for the family. We are grieving our loss. Please understand that the family has no further comment at this time. We trust that everyone will respect the family's privacy."

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.