Parking attendant recounts encounter with former Pentagon official
By the CNN Wire Staff
January 5, 2011 8:03 p.m. EST
Wilmington, Delaware (CNN) -- A parking lot attendant in Wilmington described a strange encounter with a former Pentagon official, just two days before his body was discovered in a Delaware landfill.
Iman Goldsborough told CNN on Wednesday that a man she later recognized as John P. Wheeler wandered into the parking garage where she works on December 29 around 6:40 p.m., disheveled and carrying a shoe in one hand.
"'I'm not drunk, I'm not drunk,'" Goldsborough quoted Wheeler as saying.
The man, who wasn't wearing a coat despite temperatures in the 30s, couldn't remember where he had parked his car, and said his briefcase had been stolen, she recounted. Goldsborough said she doesn't think his car was parked in that garage, because she had never seen him before and she knows most of her customers.
Two days later, police say, Wheeler's body was found in Wilmington's Cherry Island Landfill. Goldsborough said when she saw the news reports about his death, she recognized him as the man she had spoken with that night.
A man whom police identified as Wheeler was recorded by security cameras in an office building in downtown Wilmington as late as 8:30 p.m. December 30, the day before his body was discovered, according to a police statement Wednesday.
He appeared confused, the statement said.
The man had been approached earlier that day by several people who police say had offered him assistance, which the man declined, according to the statement.
An area newspaper, The News Journal, reported in its online edition that Wheeler walked into a pharmacy in New Castle, asking for a ride to Wilmington at 6 p.m. December 29.
Pharmacist Murali Gouro, who had filled prescriptions for Wheeler in the past, said he offered to call a taxi, which the former Pentagon official declined, the website reported.
Gouro told CNN the report was accurate but would not confirm the details of his alleged encounter.
Authorities want to hear from anyone who might have seen Wheeler on Thursday, and they're actively searching for the crime scene.
"If we can find the location where this happened -- that will lead us hopefully to the killer," said Newark Police Lt. Mark Farrall.
He said police are also working with Amtrak officials in an effort to determine whether Wheeler had been on a train from Washington to Wilmington that he had been scheduled to take near the time of the death.
Wheeler, 66, of New Castle, was a West Point graduate, an advocate for Vietnam veterans and the first chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
He had served in the past three Republican administrations.
Farrall said Wheeler's body was seen jutting out of a garbage truck Friday at the landfill by a spotter whose job it is to ensure that hazardous material is not dumped there. Police believe Wheeler's body was most likely picked up by the truck at one of the first of 10 specially designated trash bin pickup spots before heading to the landfill.
Police have asked a car dealership and a Goodwill store listed as "locations of interest" for any surveillance videos in which their garbage bins are visible, according to those businesses.
"We are cooperating fully with the Newark Police Department regarding our surveillance tapes of our Dumpster," said Mike Childers, a manager at Newark Toyota. "Beyond that, I cannot go any further."
Wheeler's vehicle has turned up in a different parking garage near Wilmington's Amtrak station, Farrall said.
Police in the city of Newark, about 12 miles south of Wilmington, are the lead investigators in the case, but detectives are consulting with the FBI, Farrall said Tuesday.
Wheeler worked in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He served as a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force from 2005 to 2008.
While in the Army, he served as a staff officer in Vietnam and later as head of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Wheeler also worked as a part-time consultant for the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development and information technology support to the federal government.
He had been been working on promoting discussions about cyberdefense between governments, industry and academia, according to a company statement.
"At this time our thoughts are with his family," said spokesman Jennifer Shearman in the statement.
As authorities dig into Wheeler's background, Farrall said, an apparent dispute between Wheeler and a neighbor is being looked at as "one facet of the investigation."
Wheeler's attorney, Bayard Marin, told CNN that his client had been involved in a lengthy legal fight with a couple building a new home across the street in a historic district of New Castle, about six miles south of Wilmington. Wheeler had adamantly opposed the new construction.
The dispute may have become contentious, but "I can't recall a confrontation," Marin said. "Everything seemed to be kept within normal bounds."
Wheeler's family has said they won't comment on his death and asked for privacy. But veterans' advocates offered statements of praise for the former official.
"It is only fitting that we pause now and remember Jack Wheeler, who served his country honorably, then dedicated himself to ensuring that our nation's service members are always given the respect they deserve," said Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
What Wheeler "cared about was civic values and civic virtue," wrote James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and a longtime friend.
"He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes. ... I feel terrible for his family and hope they will eventually find comfort in knowing how many important things he achieved."
CNN's Sarah Hoye, Susan Candiotti, Deborah Feyerick, Sheila Steffen and Allan Chernoff contributed to this report.