50 years for child porn
Former Tower Hill school headmaster Christopher D. Wheeler, who rejected an offer to serve only a minimum of four years in prison for dealing in child pornography, was instead sentenced to a mandatory 50 years behind bars Friday.
Wheeler’s sentencing and guilty verdict, which his lawyer plans to appeal, culminated an 18-month investigation that shook the elite private school in west Wilmington.
In a case that stemmed from unsubstantiated allegations that Wheeler had sexually abused his adopted son and two other teenagers years ago, the 55-year-old Wheeler received a mandatory two years on each of 25 counts of dealing in child pornography.
The sentence was handed down Friday morning by Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis, who had pronounced Wheeler guilty in December.
Ex-headmaster guilty of dealing in child porn
Prosecutor Abigail Layton revealed the plea bargain offer Wheeler turned down after the verdict. She said Wheeler would have faced the statutory two to 25 years in prison on each of the two counts, with only a minimum of four years behind bars. Prosecutors would have sought no more than 15 years, Layton said.
Wheeler instead opted for a non-jury trial, which Davis held in September. It lasted only one day, with only the lead state police detective testifying, and ended with separate closing arguments in November.
Wheeler’s attorney, Thomas A. Foley, has said he plans to appeal the verdict. Wheeler has been held in prison since his November 2013 arrest.
Davis rejected Foley’s argument that Delaware law, which requires two years behind bars on each count was “obscene, outrageous.”
Said the judge: “This is a very serious crime. This is the abuse of a child and let’s not forget that.”
Wheeler declined to address Davis, saying, simply, “No thank you, your honor.”
Outside court, Foley had no comment on the sentence or Wheeler’s rejection of the state’s earlier offer.
Layton was satisfied with the sentence.
“Think about what is contained in each of those pictures,” the prosecutor said. “In those pictures, kids are being raped and violated, and it is captured on film for the rest of their life, the life of the Internet. Their worst moments are on film.”
During an October 2013 raid at the school-owned mansion where Wheeler lived, authorities seized more than 2,000 images and videos of boys engaging in sex acts with men from a computer Wheeler kept in the music room. The discovery led school officials to immediately fire Wheeler from the headmaster job he had held for nearly nine years. He earned more than $300,000 a year in salary and benefits.
School officials said last month an outside investigation found “no evidence” Wheeler had “abused any student” at the school.
On Friday, spokeswoman Teresa Messmore issued a statement after the verdict that said, “None of Dr. Wheeler’s conduct that was the subject of the criminal case involved students at our school. At this point, our school has nothing further to say.”
Wheeler has not been charged with sexually abusing anyone, but in court documents made public in the child porn case, authorities wrote Wheeler was suspected of raping a boy he adopted from Russia when he worked at a private school in Illinois in the early 2000s, and of sexually assaulting two boys whose family he befriended in the West Chester, Pa., area about three decades ago.
Since Wheeler’s arrest and ouster in October 2013, school officials have enhanced its child protection policies and procedures, the letter said. “This has been an exceedingly painful event in our school’s history,” the letter said. “We sincerely regret the fear and anguish this situation has caused our students, parents, faculty and staff, and our alumni.”
The two brothers, whose family Wheeler befriended when he attended Westtown Friends near West Chester in the late 1970s, decided to confront their past after following the child sex abuse case of former Penn State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, according to an affidavit used to search Wheeler’s Tower Hill-owned home, school office, and his vehicles and private airplane.
In a letter to one of the brothers, 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. I’ll wait to hear from you about further appropriate steps towards resolution and restitution.”