Trial held for ex-headmaster of exclusive prep school accused of dealing child pornography

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WILMINGTON, Delaware — As he moved through the ranks of tony prep schools, Christopher Wheeler seemed right at home. An accomplished musician and composer who flew his own airplane, he seemed adept at raising money and catering to wealthy families who entrusted him with their children.

But court records suggest Wheeler for years may have hidden a darker side of his personality that surfaced after he became headmaster at Tower Hill School, an elite Delaware prep school founded by members of the du Pont family.

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

"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," Wheeler wrote, according to court records.

Wheeler, 54, has not 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 has also 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 some 2,000 images of child pornography, according to police.

Wheeler was paid more than $300,000 a year at Tower Hill, where tuition exceeds $25,000 a year. The school's graduates include DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and television personality Dr. Oz.

Wheeler has remained in custody since his arrest last fall, unable to post $1.5 million cash bail. He appeared gaunt and pale at his trial Tuesday, his face covered in a gray beard.

Wheeler is charged with 25 counts of dealing in child pornography and faces at least 50 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Wheeler has elected to have Superior Court Judge Eric Davis decide his fate.

Sgt. Kevin Perna of the Delaware State Police high tech crimes unit was the only witness to testify at Wheeler's trial, which lasted barely two hours and ended with defense attorney Tom Foley filing a motion asking Davis to either dismiss the case or acquit his client. The judge gave prosecutor Abigail Layton until Oct. 24 to respond.

Foley argued that prosecutors failed to prove that Wheeler viewed or downloaded any images of child pornography. Perna noted that Wheeler had subscribed to several online newsgroups involved in child pornography.

Perna also testified that Wheeler tried to scrub his laptop computer as police armed with search warrants closed in on him. Upon arriving at Wheeler's home last October, investigators noticed a "shredding" application had been initialized barely half an hour earlier, he said.

Perna said investigators found hundreds of child pornography images on two other computers at Wheeler's home and an external hard drive in his Tower Hill office. The images that are the subject of the indictment were found on a computer that was stored in a closet and last powered up in 2012, according to Perna.

Wheeler 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.

Wheeler was investigated after the younger Pennsylvania man told authorities he had been molested by Wheeler when Wheeler was living with his family some 30 years ago.

"I shudder at the notion that you, in your career, have chosen an environment that brings you into daily contact with other boys who are as old as I was when you molested me," the man wrote in a July 2013 letter to Wheeler.

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