John Wheeler
© U.S. Air Force
John Wheeler
Toxicology "didn't play a role" in his death, officials said.

Homicide victim John P. Wheeler III, a former Pentagon official and presidential aide whose body was discovered Dec. 31 in a Wilmington landfill, was beaten to death in an assault, the Delaware medical examiner's office announced today.

The official cause of Wheeler's slaying was "blunt force trauma,'' agency spokesman Karl Kanefsky said about a case that has drawn worldwide media coverage.

Police reiterated today that the case remains under investigation but acknowledge they cannot fill in critical gaps in the murder mystery.

Within hours of the grisly New Year's Eve discovery, state pathologists had ruled that the 66-year-old New Castle resident was a homicide victim, but until today authorities had been mum on the cause of his death -- an unusual posture in Delaware, where such information is usually released promptly.

The four-week delay has helped fuel rampant speculation that Wheeler, a defense consultant and expert on chemical and biological weapons, was poisoned by enemies -- a theory that persisted in part because he was seen stumbling around Wilmington in the days before he died and officials said they were awaiting the results of toxicology tests.

Hal G. Brown, deputy director of the medical examiner's office, said he did not know what medications or chemicals, if any, were in Wheeler's system, but said the death certificate makes it clear that toxicology "didn't play a role'' in Wheeler's death.

Brown said blunt force trauma describes the result of being struck with an object or a body part such as a fist. Brown added that Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, who handled Wheeler's autopsy, met with police and prosecutors today about her conclusions.

Newark police are the lead agency on a multi-force investigation because the garbage truck that dumped Wheeler's body at Wilmington's Cherry Island Landfill was emptying debris it had collected at trash bins in Newark. The FBI is also assisting the probe.

Newark police spokesman Lt. Mark Farrall was mum Friday on the official word that Wheeler was killed in an assault. "I can't comment on his injuries,'' Farrall said.