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‘This can’t be our Adam Wheeler’

Friends, teachers struggle to see the quiet striver they knew in student charged with duping Harvard

Adam Wheeler (left) and high school classmate Brent Porter posed together during a trip to Bath, England, in 2003. Adam Wheeler (left) and high school classmate Brent Porter posed together during a trip to Bath, England, in 2003. (Brent Porter)
By Tracy Jan and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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HARRINGTON, Del. — Early in Adam Wheeler’s freshman year at Bowdoin College, he began cultivating the persona of what one friend called “an English guy,’’ a whiz with words who recited poetry at parties and infused even simple conversations with self-conscious and elaborate vocabulary. It had made some classmates regard him a misfit. And it did not impress his professors, several of whom thought him immature or simply unremarkable.

But then, in the spring of 2006, he submitted to an annual English department writing contest a spare, haunting poem called “This Much I Know’’ and won.

It would be a turning point for a boy so retiring that he was almost invisible. He became known as “the campus poet,’’ one of the most vaunted writers at the school. He made new friends. At parties and other occasions, he showed off poems scribbled on crumpled scraps of paper. Wheeler reveled in the elevated status, and in the years ahead he would transform himself again and again, always hungering for something bigger.

Bowdoin would learn only last year that Wheeler had stolen the poem from contemporary Irish poet Paul Muldoon, using its first line as his title, and revoked the prize. But long before that, some friends had recognized something overwrought in their classmate, a striving for something he could not attain.

“There was a lot going on with Adam we did not know about,’’ said Nick von Keller, who bonded with Wheeler over writing and who also had a winning poem in the contest. “He was smart. It just didn’t seem he was as smart as he wanted to be.’’

Wheeler is now accused at 23 of a three-year string of cons, including faking his way into Harvard College by doctoring his College Board scores and forging letters of recommendation and transcripts from MIT and Phillips Academy, which he never attended. In his resume, he claimed to be fluent in classical Armenian and to have coauthored several books and delivered lectures on obscure topics like Zoroastrian cosmology. At Harvard, he allegedly racked up tens of thousands of dollars in grants and academic prizes, using work lifted from other scholars.

The fictional life Wheeler is said to have created for himself bore no resemblance to the boy who, a few years earlier, had left a faint imprint on his rural Delaware high school. His former teachers describe him as an able — but not stand-out — student who sat at the back of class and rarely participated. In the halls, he walked with his head down, his shoulders hunched.

“If you weren’t looking for him, you probably wouldn’t really notice him,’’ said Brent Porter, a friend and classmate at the 2,000-student Caesar Rodney High School in Camden. “He’s a blend-into-the-background kind of a guy.’’

He made the 14-mile trip to school each day with his father, who was a teacher there, arriving an hour before classes. He often ate lunch in his father’s classroom, alone or with a small circle of friends. After school, he stayed late, tossing a Frisbee in the parking lot with friends or kicking a soccer ball until his father was ready to leave. He interacted with few others. He was well-liked but frequently shunned invitations to birthday parties and dances.

“We were all kind of nerdy, but Adam was the nerdiest,’’ said Josh Ziska, who took French and AP English with Wheeler.

Though some teachers felt Wheeler did not work up to his potential, in at least one class he obsessed over his work. A drafting teacher, Richard Pieshala, said the boy repeatedly stayed after school, fastidiously redoing drawings in order to get a perfect score. Once, Wheeler received a 95 because he had written his name and the title of the drawing in lowercase letters instead of the required uppercase. He could have erased the title block and redone only that part, but he insisted on starting over with a new drawing.

“He had to achieve the highest, and he paid very close attention to detail,’’ Pieshala said. “He had a quiet disgust with himself when he did something wrong. Once I said, ‘Adam, not everybody gets A’s.’ He said, ‘I do.’ ’’

Wheeler lived in a sprawling ranch house in the isolated town of Harrington, amid a flat, pastoral landscape of wheat fields and dairy farms. Nearby was a casino and the Delaware state fair grounds.

His parents regularly attended a United Methodist Church, where his father played classical guitar in the worship band. The family kept mostly to themselves, neighbors said. The few times that some neighbors recall visiting the house, Wheeler was holed up in his room studying. One neighbor said Wheeler seemed like a thoughtful, sweet kid who would watch her two dogs and always refuse payment.

Friends say Wheeler never expressed much ambition and did not share his hopes for the future, even to his inner circle. In his senior yearbook, other members of the class of 2005 listed the colleges they were heading to, their majors, or other aspirations. Wheeler’s entry contained just one word: psychology.

“Adam was always quiet so it was hard to guess what he was thinking,’’ said Charles Hajec, who became friends with Wheeler in seventh grade. “He just kind of disappeared after high school.’’

At Bowdoin, he grew his hair out, and wore shorts and flip-flops, even in the frigid winters of Brunswick, Maine. He peppered his conversation with oddly ornate phrases, like “Dionysian Shangri-La.’’ And he joined the ultimate Frisbee team, which became his core social circle. It was where he met von Keller and formed a relationship around poetry. He attended parties with the team but often stood awkwardly in the corner with a baseball cap pulled low over his face.

After winning the poetry award and seeming to come out of his shell, friends noticed other changes. Though he had begun college skinny and shy, he returned his sophomore year 20 pounds heavier and muscle bound. He worked out manically, lifting weights in the school gym, and gained a brand of fame for devouring up to a dozen bananas in a sitting.

While other students played drinking games, at parties, he and von Keller increasingly bantered about poetry, and von Keller became ever more impressed by the varied writing styles in the poems Wheeler brought for him to critique.

“Everybody knew he was a big-time writer,’’ von Keller said. “Now, I can’t help but wonder how much of the stuff he actually brought was his.’’

Meanwhile, Wheeler appeared to have less interest in schoolwork. His adviser, Jorunn Buckley, said she reached out repeatedly to him but he didn’t respond.

“He was never interested in letting me get to know him,’’ she said.

An English professor said he began to see Wheeler alone in the cafeteria, writing. His handwriting was so small that his essays were difficult to read, he said. The professor, who asked not to be named because of school policies about student privacy, grew alarmed by what he perceived as Wheeler’s isolation and reported his concerns to a dean.

When Wheeler stopped showing up to his class that spring semester, the professor called to warn him he was on a path to failure.

“Just give me an F,’’ the professor recalled Wheeler saying. “My friend died in a motorcycle accident four days ago. I’m not in the mood.’’

“Now,’’ the professor said, “I don’t know what to make of that.’’

About that time, Bowdoin accused Wheeler of plagiarizing an essay he had submitted in a class and suspended him for the following semester. He would have been allowed to return, but he had something else in mind. According to court documents, Wheeler was assembling a transfer application to Harvard, posing as a first-year student at MIT with a 4.0 grade point average and a perfect 1600 SAT score. Several friends said he told them he was transferring to the University of Chicago.

Shortly after being admitted at Harvard, in September 2007, he wrote in an e-mail to fellow transfer students that he planned to study English because at MIT “I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain,’’ according to The Harvard Crimson, which obtained the e-mail from a recipient of the message. “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.’’

For the next two years, he racked up university writing awards and, in his senior year, was on track to win Harvard’s endorsement for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships — all based on plagiarized work, according to prosecutors.

Harvard, after discovering the pattern of deceit, expelled Wheeler in October, and he returned to Delaware, to the remote vacation community of Broadkill Beach where his parents had moved after he graduated from high school.

There, he began plotting another move — using made-up resumes to apply for an internship at McLean Hospital, a famed psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and then to transfer to Yale or Brown universities.

None of it came to pass. Delaware State Police, arriving unannounced, pulled into his parents’ driveway on the evening of May 10 and took him away in handcuffs. The police report says that the arresting officer noticed him fiddling with an object in his pocket that turned out to be a 2-inch Exacto knife blade. Wheeler said nothing when the officer took it from him and asked what it was for.

A week later, two Harvard police detectives brought him back to Massachusetts, where he faces larceny and identity fraud charges and awaits a June 9 court date in jail. No one has posted the $5,000 bail. Wheeler has pleaded not guilty, but has not spoken publicly about the charges. He and his parents did not respond to interview requests.

In this rural patch of Delaware, some neighbors, classmates, and teachers struggle to recall the name Adam Wheeler. And some try to piece together the Adam Wheeler they have seen on the evening news with the one they knew as the sweet, shy boy who always managed to stay out of sight.

“We were all thinking, ‘This can’t be our Adam Wheeler,’ ’’ said his former principal, Kevin Fitzgerald, now superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District. “It must be a case of identity theft. What he claimed to be was so over the top that it was almost like a cry for help.’’

Globe correspondents Stefanie Geisler and Shana Wickett contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com; Milton Valencia at mvalencia@globe.com.

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