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To hear him tell it, Adam B. Wheeler has authored books, delivered lectures, and blazed through academia, grabbing one accolade after another along the way. But to those who knew him, Wheeler was a quiet and private student who just wanted to study English.
And yet, the multifaceted portrait does not end there: Prosecutors are now depicting the former Harvard student as a compulsive—perhaps even pathological—mastermind who built his academic history on a thick stack of lies.
Wheeler, 23, pled not guilty on Tuesday to 20 charges including larceny and identity fraud, following the revelation that various personal documents submitted for college, internship, and scholarship applications were all allegedly part of a “life of lies and deceit,” as described by Assistant District Attorney John C. Verner.
Those who knew Wheeler in the past said in interviews with The Crimson that he kept his personal life discreet, rarely drawing attention to himself in conversation.
“He was a good guy who didn’t talk about his academics or his life history much, but he came off as very smart,” a source close to Wheeler, who did not wish to be named, said in an interview Monday. “We just allowed him his privacy.”
One Harvard graduate said that Wheeler was “a really, really quiet guy. He very much...kept to himself. He seemed really nice.”
“He was quite clearly interested in English from the day he showed up,” the individual added.
Wheeler’s penchant for words is made apparent in an e-mail laden with thesaurus-worthy words that he sent to his fellow incoming transfer students at Harvard in September 2007.
“My own, brief, assessment of my character is that I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic with a streak of contrarianism, a fascination with any pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, and a decent sense of humor,” Wheeler wrote in the e-mail, which The Crimson obtained from a recipient of the message.
Wheeler wrote that he was not a fan of sports, calling them “a neighborhood faux-pas of epic proportions,” and that he planned to study the humanities at Harvard.
In the e-mailed message, Wheeler expressed his plans to study English at Harvard, since he had not experienced the support for humanities that he so desired at MIT, where he said he had spent his first undergraduate year—contradicting prosecutors’ allegations that Wheeler actually had studied at the liberal arts college Bowdoin in Maine for two years before being suspended for academic dishonesty.
“[At MIT], I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain. That being said (fortified by a reflexive snort), I was inspired therby [sic] to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium,” Wheeler wrote.
The news of his fraudulent activities came as a particular shock to the Caesar Rodney High School community due to the seeming disparity between Adam Wheeler the alleged criminal and the Adam Wheeler who quietly attended the school as a normal, but bright, student.
“He seemed to have a lot of potential and ability, so, from our perspective, this is a shock that a young man with such promise would end up doing these things,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, who was the principal of Caesar Rodney during the time of Wheeler’s attendance and is now the superintendent of the school district. “What went wrong that happened in his life to lead him to try to fool so many people? What makes a person do what he did?”
“I don’t know if any of us have the answer,” he added. “I don’t know if he even has the answer.”
During his time at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del., Wheeler was a member of the National Honor Society, earned himself a place in the top 10 percent of his class, and participated in the school’s marching band.
“He was a typical high school student, we’d say,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a good student. He fit in and had friends, but he didn’t do anything that really drew any attention to himself.”
Once Wheeler gained acceptance to Bowdoin College and graduated from Caesar Rodney in 2005, the school “kind of lost track of him,” Fitzgerald said. But in late April of this year, the former student’s name snuck back onto the radar: the high school received an inquiry from an admissions officer at Yale, who asked Caesar Rodney to verify data on Wheeler’s transfer application.
Red flags quickly appeared. Wheeler’s forms stated that he had graduated as valedictorian in 2007—clearly false, Fitzgerald said, since Wheeler did not rank first in his class and had graduated in the year 2005.
Wheeler’s application also listed Advanced Placement courses that had not been offered at Caesar Rodney during Wheeler’s time at the school and showcased perfect SAT scores. According to prosecutors, Wheeler took the SAT twice, achieving scores of 1160 and 1220.
“There was a series of e-mails that went back and forth that basically said, ‘No, these are not correct,’ and from that point, it became more complicated,” said Fitzgerald, who added that Caesar Rodney’s involvement in the Wheeler case did not extend beyond the school’s interactions with Yale. “The flags went up because, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here. This guy is trying to get away with something that’s wrong.’”
Fitzgerald said he believes that the Yale admissions office did not contact Caesar Rodney in April out of suspicion regarding the authenticity of Wheeler’s application, but to conduct a standard vetting procedure of applicants. But with the emergence of the various warning signs, the Yale admissions office contacted its counterpart at Harvard, which Wheeler had left in the fall of 2009 when faced with charges of academic dishonesty.
During his time in high school, there had been “no indication” that Wheeler had committed any form of academic dishonesty or fraud, Fitzgerald said. In fact, when the high school began to learn of the inconsistencies between the claims made in Wheeler’s transfer application and his actual time in high school, the initial concern on the minds of administrators at Caesar Rodney was the possibility that Wheeler was a victim of identity theft.
“That was our first reaction, that the Adam Wheeler that we’re seeing on this application does not fit the Adam Wheeler that we knew when he was in high school,” Fitzgerald said. It was only after the application had gone through a verification process that the high school “confirmed that that was our Adam Wheeler…It really seemed out of character for him.”
“He seems like a different person,” Fitzgerald added. “It’s just a sad case because who knows what demons drive individuals and what pressures he felt, and why in the world he tried to perpetrate the frauds that he did.”
—Esther I. Yi contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at email@example.com.
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