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Ex-Harvard student accused of living a lie

Adam B. Wheeler falsified records. Adam B. Wheeler falsified records.
By John R. Ellement and Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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He crafted an elaborate web of lies to con his way into Harvard University, authorities say, but Adam B. Wheeler wasn’t content to graduate quietly and get away with just a degree.

After two years of blending into campus life and racking up academic prizes and tens of thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships, Wheeler allegedly upped the ante: The 23-year-old senior applied for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships last fall using falsified credentials, including a fake transcript and work he plagiarized from a Harvard professor, said investigators.

Wheeler was indicted yesterday on charges of larceny and identity fraud, among other charges. If proven, the charges — he is also accused of falsely claiming to have attended MIT and Phillips Academy and coauthored several books — suggest a student on a fraudulent quest for advancement at all costs, and raise questions about how he nearly got away with it.

“This defendant seriously undermined the integrity of the competitive admissions process, compromised the reputation of some of the finest educators and educational institutions in the country, and cheated those who competed honestly for what he fraudulently received,’’ Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said in a statement.

Leone also highlighted what he said was the financial toll from Wheeler’s alleged deeds: more than $45,000 in grants, scholarship, and financial aid money awarded to him “based on lies and reproductions of other people’s hard work.’’

Calls to Wheeler’s Milton, Del., home were not returned yesterday. Attempts to reach his lawyer were not successful.

A Harvard spokesman said yesterday that federal privacy laws prevent the university from discussing individual cases. Wheeler was dismissed from Harvard in October.

In court documents, authorities laid out the intricate life they say Wheeler concocted to gain admission to one of the world’s most selective universities, where he enrolled as a transfer student in 2007. In his Harvard application, he said he had graduated from Phillips Academy, an elite prep school in Andover, and attended MIT.

The MIT transcript he submitted indicated perfect grades from his first year there, according to the documents. In addition, he submitted letters of recommendation from four MIT professors and the director of college counseling at Andover, essays discussing his time at MIT, and official documents from The College Board indicating he had received a perfect SAT score of 1600 in March 2005.

He also included a full transcript from Andover that indicated he had graduated and held a diploma from the school.

In fact, Wheeler graduated in 2005 from Caesar Rodney High School, a public school in Kent County, Del., and was a Bowdoin College student for two years until 2007, when he was suspended for academic dishonesty, according to Bowdoin and court records. At the time Wheeler was informed of his suspension, he was completing his transfer application to Harvard.

The recommendations Wheeler had submitted to Harvard carried the signatures of professors at Bowdoin, not MIT, according to court documents. All the professors have told officials they never wrote a recommendation for Wheeler, and some said they did not even know him, the documents say.

A subpoena sent to The College Board revealed that Wheeler’s SAT scores from the two times he took the test were 1160 and 1220, in March and November 2004, the court documents show, well below the 1600 he asserted. Wheeler paid attention to small details, according to an official in the prosecutors’ office. Harvard personnel have reported his recommendations and transcripts arrived on the appropriate letterhead from the other schools.

During a mandatory interview with a Harvard alumnus on the Bowdoin campus in April 2007, Wheeler presented himself as an MIT freshman hoping to transfer. When the interviewer asked what an MIT student was doing in Brunswick, Maine, Wheeler said that his spring courses at MIT did not require exams so he finished up his work and moved to Bowdoin mid-semester to work for a professor as a student assistant, court documents say.

Wheeler’s alleged charade began to unravel last fall during Harvard’s interview process for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. His application packet contained glowing recommendations from Harvard professors, a resume listing numerous books he had coauthored, lectures he had given, and courses he had taught, according to court documents.

He also allegedly doctored a transcript to make himself a straight-A student. Court documents show Wheeler had a far less impressive record — some A’s, a few B’s, and a D.

Harvard officials found him to be an “exceptionally strong candidate’’ who, pending his final interview, was likely to receive the college’s endorsement for one or both of the scholarships, the documents said.

But James Simpson, a Harvard English professor, sensed that something was awry in September. Upon reviewing Wheeler’s application, Simpson discovered Wheeler had plagiarized the work of Stephen Greenblatt, another Harvard English professor, and notified university officials, court documents say. Neither Simpson nor Greenblatt, a noted scholar of Renaissance literature, responded to calls for comment yesterday.

When confronted and offered a chance to share his side of the story at a disciplinary hearing, Wheeler told his resident dean that he was going to leave Harvard and would not attend the hearing. That is when Harvard officials dug deeper and discovered the scope of Wheeler’s alleged scheme.

University officials then found that the recommendation letters Wheeler submitted for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, which were written by three professors, had been altered or expanded upon.

Harvard officials also learned that Wheeler won two Harvard writing prizes using a submission plagiarized nearly word for word from a dissertation by a Cornell University graduate student, according to court documents.

Those who knew Wheeler at Harvard describe him as personable, if a bit of a loner.

“I was just knocked silly by this,’’ said one Harvard professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, who likened Wheeler’s fabrications to a scenario from the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley.’’ “There’s something that’s pathological there. And it’s something that seems to me that needs care and clinical treatment, rather than incarceration.’’

After his dismissal from Harvard in October, Wheeler did not sit idly. Three months later, he applied for an internship at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric hospital. The hospital concluded that Wheeler had fabricated his background, prosecutors said.

In the meantime, Wheeler once again submitted transfer applications — this time to Yale and Brown universities. In his applications, Wheeler said he was interning at McLean and included two false letters of recommendation, the documents show.

Wheeler is being held by Cambridge police pending his arraignment this morning at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn. He is charged with four counts of larceny over $250, eight counts of identity fraud, seven counts of falsifying an endorsement or approval, and pretending to hold a degree.

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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