New Year’s Eve is ordinarily an exciting day. If you’re working, you’re counting down the minutes until your shift is over and you can go celebrate, and if you’re not working, you’re getting ready to celebrate! But New Year’ Eve 2010 was anything but ordinary for one Cherry Island Landfill employee. A truck had returned from its rounds, and more than just trash was dumped into the landfill- this employee witnessed a body being dumped out the back of the garbage truck. He immediately called the police, and an investigation began.
Who was the man found in the landfill? What happened to him, and how did he get there?
Get ready for Minute Mystery Episode 4!
Kathrine Klyce and her husband Jack Wheeler had been married for ten years, and over those years they created a Christmas tradition where in the weird limbo between Christmas and New Year’s, they turned off their work phones, laptops, and spent the week cuddled up watching movies and relaxing together. But on December 26th, Jack told Kathy that unfortunately this year he would have to go to Washington, D.C. for a few days for work. Kathy was upset and obviously wanted him to stay, and they fought, but Jack packed his bag and left their New York condo on Tuesday, December 28th. Boarding a train at the Amtrak station for Washington, D.C., Jack headed to his job as a consultant for a U.S. defence contracting firm Mitre Corporation, where he worked in cyber-security.
Over the next couple of days, Jack and Kathy texted back and forth, trying to reconcile the fight they had right before Jack left for Washington. They had a wedding to go to together at the end of the week, and when Kathy reached out to him to try and organize their travel plans, Jack didn’t respond. She called him- no answer. She tried again a little while later- no answer. She waited a little longer and tried again, and still, no answer. She tried texting him and emailing him, with no answer. Kathy thought that Jack was still angry about their fight and was purposely ignoring her. So, upset, Kathy went to the wedding alone.
But things weren’t what Kathy thought they were; because when she returned home from the wedding, her stepdaughter/ Jack’s daughter Kate showed up on January 2nd, 2011 saying that Jack had in fact not been ignoring her; but that Jack was dead, and his body had been found in the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington, Delaware.
But Jack was supposed to be in Washington, D.C. for work, right? Kathy’s head spun as she learned the few known details about Jack’s death on her way to Delaware. The coroner reported that Jack had suffered a heart attack, but his death was quickly ruled a homicide as his cause of death was not the heart attack, but brutal blunt force trauma. How did a work trip turn into a homicide in a different city? Different State even?
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Born John “Jack” Parsons Wheeler III on December 14, 1944, the military ran deep in Jack’s blood. His granddad served in the United States Army, and his dad attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point College in New York and also served in the United States Army.
Jack was born in Laredo, Texas, where his mom was staying while his dad was in Europe fighting in World War II. Just two days after Jack was born, on December 16th, 1944, The Battle of the Bulge broke out when German forces launched an attack on the Allied Forces in the in the forested area of Ardennes (aar-denz) in Belgium, Luxembourg and France where Jack’s dad was serving. Three days later, on December 19th, 1944, the family received a telegram that Jack’s dad was missing in action in The Battle of the Bulge; but he was later found alive.
Jack carried on the family’s military legacy by following in his father’s footsteps and also attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point College and graduated near the top of his class in 1966. Jack’s graduating class was called to fight in the Vietnam War, but Jack had mixed feelings about the United States part in the war, and decided to delay his service by getting a graduate degree at Harvard Business School.
When it was time for him to go to Vietnam, he went to an administrative position at the U.S. Army headquarters of Long Bihn, about 32km/20mi north east of Saigon, where he worked computerizing army operations from troop movements to food requisitions.
The West Point class of ’66 suffered one of the highest death rates of those who served in Vietnam, and it’s believed that Jack’s choice not to join combat haunted him. Ed Timperlake, one of Jack’s old friends and someone Jack recruited to work for the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program said that “[Jack] always felt that he had somehow let everyone down.”
He spoke often to friends about one of his classmates, Thomas J. Hayes IV. Thomas graduated in the class of ’66 alongside Jack, and served in Vietnam. He died running into enemy gunfire saving two American soldiers, and Jack spoke often of how he wanted to honour Thomas’s example and sacrifice. “’The thing about Jack,’ says childhood friend and West Point classmate Jeff Rogers, ‘is that he didn’t have jobs, he had causes.’”
After Jack left the army in 1971, he worked as a senior planner at Amtrak for a year before attending Yale Law School. One job he held was serving on the legal team for Roberta S. Karmel, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s first female commissioner, a job Jack was really proud to have. He was the first director of the Reagan-era Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program that helped vets during their transition back to civilians, giving them jobs in leadership roles. He was the founding CEO of the Vietnam Children’s Fund and built 51 schools in Vietnam. Jack helped navigate Macy’s out of bankruptcy and worked as a national director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and The Deafness Research Foundation. He co-founded the organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial known as “The Wall” in Washington D.C. with Jan Scruggs. He worked for U.S. Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and was a former Pentagon official where he served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Wynne, who also graduated in the West Point class of ’66 alongside Jack.
And while Jack’s friends and colleague’s careers were sun setting and they preparing for retirement, Jack, in his 60’s, was sinking his teeth into a new career path: cyber-security. That’s when he took on the role of consultant for the U.S. defence contracting firm Mitre Corporation that specializes in artificial intelligence, satellite systems, space security, and cyber-security.
In everything that I read, everyone spoke so fondly of Jack and described him as brilliant- everyone said he was brilliant. That he was intense, and energetic. He threw himself at everything fully, jumping in with both feet so to say. But people also talked about how he was troubled. Jack had fought a decade’s-long battle with depression and Bipolar Disorder One, but those close to him said he was very on top of taking his medications and keeping things under control.
Now, let’s fast forward to December 28, 2010.
All Jack told Kathy about his work trip was that it was important.
He travelled to Washington by train, and set out to work.
Around 11:30 on the night of the 28th, the same day that Jack travelled to Washington, a man named Scott Morris living in New Castle, Delaware, heard an odd thudding noise outside his house. He went to his window and looked around- that’s when he noticed the dark silhouette of a man standing in the frame of a house being built across the street lighting “what looked like small balls of fire” and tossing them onto the floor of the house before he calmly turned and walked away in the direction of the Delaware River path. The house didn’t catch fire, but Scott immediately called the police and an attempted arson case was opened.
Now, Jack’s travel to Washington was confirmed and recorded by CCTV and cellphone records, showing that he was actively texting his daughter Kate, his step daughters, and Kathy, whom Jack told he needed a couple of “productive days” in Washington. But around 7:30pm that same night, Jack’s cellphone records show he called two taxis in Wilmington, Delaware, about an hour apart from each other. Not taxis in Washington.
Because Jack travelled to Washington frequently for work, the couple kept their condo in New York and also owned a home in the historic city of New Castle, Delaware, an hour and a half drive from Washington, D.C.. Their New Castle home was only about 9km/6mi (15 minute drive) from Wilmington, Delaware, and faced the historic Battery Park across the street right on the edge of the Delaware River that Jack was very passionate about.
Battery Park was the landing site of William Penn when he arrived to America in 1682 to establish a place of religious freedom, and he designed New Castle so that Battery Park would be a green space that could be preserved forever. But Battery Park was not being preserved, and a house had been approved for construction on the park grounds. Jack was extremely upset that a house was being built on the historic site and considered it “sacrilege”, and believed that Delaware officials were corrupt for allowing a house to be built there.
Why are we talking about a park? Well, one of Jack and Kathy’s neighbours at their New Castle home was Scott Morris, the man who witnessed and reported the attempted arson in the house across the street from them, and there is only one house across the street: the house being built in Battery Park.
Jack hadn’t mentioned to anyone that he was planning on visiting Delaware or their New Castle home during his work trip, and no one actually knows if he was in New Castle on the night of the 28th.
On the morning of the 29th, around 8:45am, Jack got in a taxi and asked to be taken to Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington. No one knows what he was doing there, and around 9:30am he sent an email to Mitre Corporation saying that his home was broken into and his work badge, key fob, cell phone and briefcase were all stolen.
There were no signs of Jack until 6pm that evening when he entered a Happy Harry’s Pharmacy, where he was a known customer and got his prescriptions filled when in New Castle. He walked up to one of the pharmacists that he knew, and asked if he could get a ride somewhere. The pharmacist had an odd feeling about it and would later tell the police that when Jack came and asked him for a ride, he looked really upset, but put together. He was wearing his business suit, and just looked like he needed a hand. But the pharmacist listened to that little voice telling him something wasn’t right, and he instead offered to call Jack a cab. Jack declined and left the pharmacy.
40 minutes later, Jack was seen on the CCTV footage of the New Castle County courthouse parking garage acting odd. Jack limped into the frame of the surveillance camera looking dishevelled. His suit looked wrinkled and he was only wearing one shoe, carrying his other shoe in his hand. He was seen wandering around before going up to one of the garage attendants and speaking to them, pointing at them and looking angry. He then went down the hall, opened a door to the garage and poked his head out quickly, scanning the garage before ducking back into the hallway and closing the door. He went back to the attendant. There is no audio with the footage, but the attendant said that Jack was saying he couldn’t find his car and was asking for help to find it, and that he had been robbed. The attendant thought Jack was acting odd and wasn’t sure what to do, so he offered him some money to help get him home, which Jack declined saying he had plenty of cash before leaving the garage.
But Jack wouldn’t have been able to find his car parked in the New Castle County parking garage, because he didn’t park it there. He parked it in a different garage on Christmas Eve before heading to New York for the holiday.
No one knows where Jack went after the parking garage, or where he stayed for the night of November 29th.
Robert Dill, a friend and neighbour of Jack and Kathy’s at the New Castle house always kept an eye on the place when they were in New York. On the morning of December 30th, he noticed that an upstairs window was open, and that a side door to the house was slightly open. He knew Jack and Kathy would be enjoying their week off in New York, and decided to enter the home to make sure everything was alright.
He walked in to a disaster. One of the dining chairs was knocked over, there were broken dishes in the kitchen sink, and the counter was covered with things that looked like they’d been pulled out of the cupboards. There was a bunch of powdered cleaner dusted on the floor with a single bare footprint in it. Most notably, Jack’s ceremonial class sword from his class of ’66 was unsheathed and lying on top of the scabbard on the floor, and a nonfiction novel “The Long Gray Line” written by Rick Atkinson was open on the counter among the mess. The Long Gray Line was written about the West Point Class of ’66, and Jack was highlighted in it greatly. Robert tried to get a hold of both Jack and Kathy, but when he wasn’t able to he called the police to report a break in.
Later on the 30th, Jack was captured on CCTV footage walking into the Nemours Building, a high-rise office building in Wilmington. He walked up to the front desk and asked the desk attendant if he could speak to one of the managing partners at a law firm in the building. The desk attendant called up to the law firm and one of the managing partner’s said he would be right down to meet Jack- but when he got down to the lobby, Jack was gone. He didn’t say where he was going, but reportedly asked the front desk attendant for train fare.
Several hours later, Jack’s movements were caught on CCTV for the last time. On the night of December 30th, Jack was seen north of the Nemours Building no longer dressed in his usual suit, but now wearing a hoodie with the hood up. He was seen heading in the direction of Rodney Square, an area that contributes to Wilmington’s position as the 7th most dangerous city in the United States for 2021 on neighborhoodscout‘s list.
The next time Jack was seen, it was the morning of December 31st, and he was being dumped out the back of a garbage truck at the Cherry Island Landfill in Wilmington.
Investigators were able to track the truck route and found that Jack had been picked up from a dumpster in Newark, Delaware, 20km/13mi from Wilmington where he was last seen hours earlier on CCTV. We have no idea how Jack managed to get from Wilmington to Newark, Newark back to Wilmington, and everything in between.
His death was quickly ruled a homicide, but no arrests have been made, and as far as I know, there are no suspects either. All we have are theories:
The Police theorize that Jack was killed in a mugging, but they haven’t released if his wallet, credit cards or money were found on his person- but they have said that when Jack was found, he was wearing his Rolex watch and his West Point class of ’66 ring. One problem I have with this theory is obviously that a very expensive piece of jewellery (do men call watches jewellery or accessories?) were found on his body, AND that if someone is attempting to mug someone, they typically don’t go farther than that. Because if they were to get caught, why take the risk of escalating a robbery charge to a murder charge? And if someone were to mug someone else, it’s typically a bing-bang-boom in and out kind of deal. They don’t stick around, and I highly doubt that someone trying to snatch a wallet off of someone with time being of the essence take the time to haul a body into a dumpster. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Another theory that doesn’t make sense to me comes from a private investigator that was hired by a former U.S. attorney hired by Kathy- and that is his belief that Jack wasn’t murdered at all. He theorizes that Jack was out in the cold and sought out shelter in a dumpster, and was so startled by the garbage truck lifting the dumpster that he suffered a heart attack, and that the mechanics of the garbage truck killed him. But his wounds are not characteristic to those caused by a garbage truck, and the police and coroner say his wounds are undoubtedly consistent to homicide by blunt force trauma.
Kathy, Jack’s wife, believes that Jack was targeted and purposefully murdered. She also believes that Jack was the one trying to set fire to the house in Battery Park, because he told Kathy he was thinking about doing it. He kept smoke bombs for garden pest use at the New Castle home, and he even told Kathy that after he set the house on fire, he would leave walking down the Delaware River path, which their neighbour Morris reported seeing the night of the attempted arson. Receipts were also found belonging to Jack for an all-black outfit including a balaclava. More incriminating yet: Police found Jack’s cell phone in the Battery Park house.
Jack believed that the Delaware officials allowing the house to be built on Battery Park were corrupt, and in the month’s leading up to his death, had begun an investigation into those linked to the construction. Kathy found a to-do list of Jacks from the beginning of December, and dated December 5th, 2010, was a task to “hack a target associated with the construction dispute.” He had also opened a legal case against the construction, and his attorney said that the case was still open at the time of Jack’s death.
Kathy thinks that someone either knew Jack had attempted the arson on the house or was caught in an attempt to hack into something and pissed someone off, and said that his final moments caught on CCTV footage reflected someone trying to stay out of sight- like someone was following him –and that he didn’t look crazy, but scared.
The Class of ‘66’s 50th reunion in May 2016 was full of emotion. A lot of Jack’s classmates and men that he served with in Vietnam said that when the Vietnam Vets returned home, they were treated poorly -but that Jack had worked so hard to do good by them and provide them with jobs and some sense of normality with moving back to being a civilian- and now Jack was not receiving justice. “’It’s troubling,’ Wynne said. ‘Jack deserves better.’”
Jack’s daughter said: “’For me, he will always be primarily my father,’ […] ‘But I am very aware that he made a big, positive impact on the world beyond me, and in some way that made his death easier.’”
And Jack’s wife of ten years said: “’He was found in the trash,’ […] ‘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 grow.’”
I think Jack had his demons. But I think, from the accounts of those who knew him, that he lived every day to defeat those demons and do right by those who had fallen as well as anyone he met along the way- he definitely sounded like the type of person you wanted in your corner.
And while we may never know what really happened to Jack in those few days between Christmas and New Year’s, I agree with Kathy that he was purposefully murdered. Maybe Jack threw himself at the Battery Park house with the vivacious energy he was known for, and died fighting for something he believed in.
The fact that his class of ’66 sword was out, that The Long Gray Line was open on the counter, he was found wearing his class of ’66 ring, and he had just turned 66 two weeks prior is odd to me. People say that he didn’t have any sort of special government clearance that would warrant a hit, but everything around 66 just doesn’t seem right to me. Maybe he knew something that had happened that year, or maybe I’m just reading into it. Either way, Jack Wheeler was a legacy, and unfortunately there are very few details about his death- but that’s what makes this a Minute Mystery.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to Jack’s story. Here is a link to the non-profit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund that Jan Scruggs and Jack started together if you would like to help support them.