Ex-headmaster guilty in child porn case

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2014 5:08 PM

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — The former headmaster of an elite Delaware prep school faces at least 50 years in prison after being convicted Monday of dealing in child pornography.

Christopher Wheeler, 54, was found guilty on all 25 counts. Wheeler is a former headmaster at Tower Hill school, where he was paid more than $300,000 a year and where tuition exceeds $25,000 a year. Graduates of the school, founded by members of the du Pont family, include DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and television personality Dr. Oz.

Superior Court Judge Eric Davis said the evidence showed Wheeler sought out and downloaded images of child porn.

"Mr. Wheeler developed a pattern of Internet browsing for child pornography," Davis said.

Wheeler waived his right to a jury trial after the judge denied a defense motion to suppress evidence seized by police.

Wheeler showed no emotion as Davis read from a lengthy opinion. The judge tentatively set Wheeler's sentencing for March. Each count carries a minimum two-year prison term.

Defense attorney Tom Foley said he planned to appeal.

Wheeler resigned from Tower Hill in October 2013 and has remained behind bars in lieu of $1.5 million cash bail since his arrest.

Wheeler, an accomplished musician and composer who flew his own airplane, was hired as headmaster at Tower Hill in late 2004 after 14 years at Lake Forest Academy near Chicago, where he was assistant headmaster and wrestling coach. He previously worked at St. Paul's School in Garden City, New York.

Tower Hill officials said in a letter to the community after Wheeler's arrest that he was extensively vetted and had a criminal background check before being hired.

Court records suggested Wheeler for years may have hidden a darker side.

In a letter to a Pennsylvania man who asked Wheeler about making amends for alleged child sexual abuse, Wheeler wrote: "I did those things. I am the one responsible," according to court documents.

"I will not compound your pain by attempting to deny or in any way deflect responsibility for my actions 35 years ago," Wheeler wrote. "I'll wait to hear from you about further appropriate steps towards resolution and restitution."

Wheeler has never been charged with sexually abusing anyone, despite allegations leveled by the Pennsylvania man and his younger brother. They came forward in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University. Wheeler's own adopted son also has accused him of abuse.

Prompted by those allegations, Delaware investigators searched Wheeler's home and office at Tower Hill last fall for evidence of witness tampering or intimidation. They instead found more than 2,000 images of child pornography, according to police.

A Delaware State Police officer who was the only witness called at Wheeler's trial testified that Wheeler had subscribed to several online newsgroups involved in child pornography, and that Wheeler tried to scrub his laptop computer as police closed in on him.

Foley argued that prosecutors had failed to prove that Wheeler viewed or downloaded any child pornography, or that he knew images from online newsgroups to which he subscribed were being automatically cached to his computer. Foley said Wheeler could not be found guilty of dealing in, or even possessing, child porn based on what prosecutors think he might have looked at, suggesting that prosecutors were acting as "mind police."

The judge rejected the notion that Wheeler may have been unaware of the images or wound up with them on his computer devices inadvertently.