During the summer of 2003, following their sophomore year at Caesar Rodney High School, Ryan Lawrence roomed with Adam Wheeler during a two-week tour of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lawrence says Wheeler “was fun to be around.” Then, after a pause, he adds, “But I really don’t remember much of Adam during the trip.”
Talk to Wheeler’s small circle of friends from school days and you’ll hear a similar theme: “Adam was quiet. He kept to himself.” They rarely encountered him outside of school, and few have seen him since their graduation ceremony.
Over seven years later, they still haven’t seen him, but they’ve certainly heard about him. The schoolboy who led a nearly cipher-like existence underwent a 180-degree transformation. Compelled by a need for achievement coupled with a desire to be seen as the smartest guy in the room, Wheeler left a trail of deceit at some of the premier institutions of higher learning.
In May Wheeler’s secret life became public knowledge. In a Woburn, Massachusetts, court, he was charged with 20 counts of larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement or approval, and pretending to hold a degree. The charges, each carrying a maximum of five years in prison, resulted from Wheeler’s attempts to dupe Harvard University out of $45,000 in financial aid, scholarship money and academic awards.
In December he pleaded guilty to all counts. The 24-year-old was ordered to pay full restitution to Harvard and was sentenced to 10 years—30 days to serve, the remainder suspended—and is to continue counseling. He apologized in court, saying he was “ashamed and embarrassed.”
When the allegations surfaced, the Caesar Rodney community was stunned. The Wheeler family had lived a quiet life in Harrington. Father Richard taught technology at Caesar Rodney High. He and his wife, Lee, attended a United Methodist Church.
As for Adam, until his court appearance “it was like he had jumped off the face of the planet [after high school],” says Charles Hajec, who met Wheeler in seventh grade. “Now all of a sudden,” he says, “we’re reading about him on CNN.com.”
At Caesar Rodney, Hajec may have qualified as Adam’s closest friend. They hung out together in the senior Wheeler’s classroom before school each day, playing on the computers. After school they sometimes played ultimate Frisbee in the parking lot until Richard was ready to drive home. Hajec says father and son seemed to get along well.
Adam’s emergence from his social cocoon began at Bowdoin College, where he enrolled after graduating from CR. That he even applied to Bowdoin, a top-notch liberal arts school in Brunswick, Maine, came as a surprise to Hajec.
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At Bowdoin, Adam’s behavior took a turn. According to the Boston Globe, he let his hair grow, wore shorts and flip-flops even in the frigid Maine winter, and began using “oddly ornate phrases, like ‘Dionysian Shangri-La.’” The Globe reported that Wheeler “joined the ultimate Frisbee team, which became his core social circle. He attended parties with the team but often stood awkwardly in the corner with a baseball cap pulled low over his face.”
In spring of his freshman year, Wheeler won the annual English department writing contest with a poem titled “This Much I Know.” He became known as “the campus poet” and he made new friends while showing off poems he scribbled on pieces of paper. Bowdoin would later learn that Wheeler had plagiarized the verse.
When he returned for his sophomore year, Wheeler had further changed his appearance. Skinny for most of his life, he had put on 20 pounds of muscle and was into a “maniacal” weight-lifting regimen.
Then Bowdoin accused him of plagiarizing an essay and suspended him for a semester. He would have been allowed to return, but he’d already raised his sights.
According to court documents, he had assembled a transfer application to Harvard, posing as a first-year student at MIT who was, essentially, perfect: a 4.0 grade point average and an SAT score of 1600. He even forged a transcript from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, using an ID number that belonged to a real student at Phillips. Harvard admitted him as a sophomore transfer in the fall of 2007.
Hajec recalls his reaction when his mother told him his friend had been admitted to Harvard. “I said, ‘I can’t believe that.’ He was never very ambitious in high school. But I said, ‘That’s cool.’”
Wheeler went on to win university writing awards at Harvard with, according to prosecutors, plagiarized material. He was even on track to receive Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships.
After two years, Harvard finally caught up to Wheeler, expelling him in October 2009. He returned to Delaware and the Broadkill Beach home to which his parents had moved. There, his serial duping of academia continued. Using fictitious resumes, he applied for an internship at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School. He also applied as a transfer student to Yale, Brown and, finally, Stanford University.
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Stanford accepted him as an incoming junior. The acceptance was later revoked, with Stanford—obviously embarrassed—issuing a vague statement about investigating “misrepresentation of facts.”
Yale was more diligent. According to Kevin Fitzgerald, the Caesar Rodney District superintendent who was the high school principal at the time, a Yale official contacted the school to check Wheeler’s transcript. “He claimed to have taken AP courses that we did not have at the time, and that he had been involved in some activities—setting up a mentoring program—that did not exist,” Fitzgerald says.
Wheeler’s parents apparently were unaware of their son’s deceptions until Yale contacted them. They cooperated with officials. Delaware State Police took Adam out of the home in handcuffs on May 10.
Fitzgerald was most surprised by the revelations. “Adam was an A-B student and appeared to be a good writer, and he did honest work in high school,” he says.
What prompted Wheeler to swerve off the straight-and-narrow? Wheeler, his parents and his lawyer aren’t talking to the media. But Dr. Brad Wolgast, a psychologist in UD’s Center for Counseling and Student Development, has a theory.
“He sounds like he fits into a category of people we see rarely who get away with things and they get good at it, and they just keep going until they are caught,” says Wolgast. “I bet it was thrilling at first when he got into Harvard and he started getting all those scholarships. And then he couldn’t help himself.”
Cheating has probably reached an all-time high in colleges. In 1940, 20 percent of students admitted to cheating during their academic careers, according to NoCheating.org. Today, according to the website, that number is 75 percent to 98 percent.
Wheeler has taken cheating far beyond the standard answers-scribbled-on-the-palm crib sheet. In doing so, he has apparently achieved minor cult status. At Harvard, his booking photo spawned some “Free Adam Wheeler” T-shirts.
Even his former Delaware buddies are somewhat in awe. In a not untypical reaction, Brent Porter admits that, besides being shocked, he found Adam’s exploits “neat, in a way.”
“Honestly,” says Porter, “my initial reaction was impressed, more than anything, that this quiet guy I knew in high school was able to dupe one of the top schools in the world.”