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Christopher Wheeler of Tower Hill Charged In Child Porn Case

2:38 PM, Nov 2, 2013   |    comments
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Esteban Parra and Matthew Albright, The (Wilmington, Del) News Journal

WILMINGTON, Del. - The former headmaster of an exclusive private school who stepped down last week amid a criminal investigation, surrendered to authorities Friday, the state Attorney General's Office said.

Christopher D. Wheeler, 53, was charged Thursday with 25 counts of dealing in child pornography, which authorities discovered during an Oct. 22 search of his office and former home on the campus of Tower Hill School here.

"He is in custody," said Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "The Child Predator Task Force made arrangements for him to turn himself in."

He was missing for more than two days. Late Friday, Wheeler was arraigned and is being housed in the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution with a $1.5 million bail.

Officials at the school, which has almost 750 students from age 3 to grade 12, could not be reached for comment about the arrest. Previously, Tower Hill spokeswoman Nancy Schuckert said the school, which was founded in 1919 and traces its roots to the du Pont family, was continuing to cooperate with authorities.

High school students at the school pay $26,400 in tuition a year. The preschool and elementary programs cost $9,000 to more than $20,000 depending on the grade level. Among Tower Hill's graduates is Mehmet Oz, better known as daytime TV host Dr. Oz.

At the time the headmaster's house was searched last week, school officials said they had no reason to believe the investigation involved current students. However, on Thursday the Attorney General's Office declined to say whether any students of the college-prep school were involved.

"During the search, multiple computers and other digital media, along with other evidence, were seized," Miller said. "A forensic examination of the computers and digital media conducted by the Delaware Child Predator Task Force recovered multiple images of child pornography."

Miller would not comment on whether Wheeler was under surveillance following the home and office searches.

Michael Kelly, a school board trustee and parent speaking only on behalf of himself, said he was surprised by the news.

"We have not seen the arrest warrant or affidavit of probable cause," said Kelly, a Tower Hill graduate whose children are current and former students. "We are stunned by all of this. Tower Hill will issue a statement in due course.

"Any alleged wrongdoing by Chris Wheeler will not impact the school, which I believe to be the finest around," he said. "I am proud to be a parent and alum."

On Oct. 25, the school board of trustees appointed Harry Baetjer, a longtime teacher and administrator, acting headmaster. Baetjer has been associated with Tower Hill for more than four decades in teaching, coaching and administrative capacities, according to the school.

Wheeler, a composer and licensed pilot, became the school's eighth headmaster when he succeeded Timothy B. Golding in 2005. He had been an assistant head of school and dean of admissions at Lake Forest Academy in Illinois.

Wheeler's total compensation at Tower Hill was $360,876, according to the school's latest IRS filing for the 2012 tax year. That amount consists of base pay of $282,500, retirement benefits of $22,600 and other nontaxable benefits of $55,776. It was not clear Thursday whether Wheeler was still on the school's payroll.

Wheeler, who is unmarried, adopted a young boy from Russia in the early 2000s after the child was separated from his brother and sister at age 9.

Nikolai Kovalevsky Wheeler, now 23, came to Delaware with his father, attending Sanford School in Hockessin, Del., and Layton Preparatory School in Centreville, Del., before enrolling at Wilmington University.

He now is pursuing a career as a professional golfer.

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