What Happened to Don Wiley?

Windy up here. Not a place to be late at night. Definitely not a place to stop your car and step outside. Eighteen-wheelers rumble past, and the bridge starts vibrating. One hundred thirty-five feet straight down, the chocolate brown current of the Mississippi River rushes past the concrete supports.

We’ve been told it was an accident. A renowned Harvard biology professor — at the height of his career, in peak physical condition — slipped or was blown over the railing by a passing rig while visiting Memphis for a conference. The tiniest of clues proved critical in reaching that bizarre conclusion, from a missing button on his dress shirt to the angle at which he fell. Still, the idea of a grown man being blown off a bridge by the gust from a truck sounds far-fetched to say the least. In ruling out murder or suicide, investigators answered every question that came up — except for one. Where was Don Wiley in the four hours before he died? The case is closed, the cops have moved on. But ask if it still gnaws at them, that mysterious gap, and you get a nod and two words: “Oh, yeah.”

Outside Vidalia, Louisiana, on December 20, a crane operator at the Murray Hydroelectric Plant pulling logs out of the Mississippi, 340 river miles from Memphis, spotted a body in the water. “It popped up among the logs,” explains Jimmy Darden, an investigator with the sheriff’s office. Investigators pulled the body onto a boat, soaked shirt and pants still clinging to its lifeless limbs, and one retrieved a wallet from a pocket. Darden saw Wiley’s name and hometown, called police in Cambridge, and got bounced first to Harvard, then to Memphis. “Everybody was real hush-hush,” Darden says. “They all were like, ‘We’ll call you right back.'” He also talked with the FBI and later learned that Wiley’s background working with viruses had triggered speculation he’d been snatched by terrorists. “They thought maybe he’d been kidnapped, I guess because of his research background,” Darden says.

He shipped the body to Memphis, to Dr. O. C. Smith, Shelby County medical examiner. “This case,” Smith says about Don Wiley, “got the presidential treatment.”

Nevertheless, he adds, he anticipated skepticism about his ruling that Wiley’s death was an accident. “The conspiracy theorists, the kooks, and armchair quarterbacks were going to come out.”

One even wrote to the local newspaper, saying: “The public should be outraged that they are considered stupid enough to believe a person would stop on this heavily traveled bridge to examine a small dent and fall over a tall railing into the river.”

Smith says that’s what happened. And he’s sticking to it.

The 911 call came at 3:47 a.m. on November 16. A trucker crossing from Tennessee into Arkansas reported an abandoned car on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. Four 911 calls followed in the next 15 minutes, a flurry that helped investigators conclude Wiley hadn’t stopped hours earlier and sat around. Whatever happened, happened quickly.

Police found the Mitsubishi Galant with Missouri plates, the keys inside, the engine off, the tank full, the upholstery spotless. They traced the car to the Avis office at Memphis International Airport and learned the name of the renter: Don C. Wiley, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The department’s missing persons team took over next. “It was still a missing person on Friday afternoon,” Major Mike Quinn, head of the homicide bureau, recounts. Quinn’s office is an organized train wreck, with overflowing wire baskets and sticky notes on his computer. From the start, Quinn, 53, was confident Wiley was not murdered. “When a car is found at that bridge, we think suicide,” he says. “It usually happens a few times a year.”

Then police simply wait for the body to surface.

The probe moved slowly. With no witnesses, police worked the phones. The first hint to suggest something other than suicide happened came when they learned that Wiley’s wife, Katrin Valgeirsdottir, had planned to arrive in Memphis with their two children on the day Wiley vanished. The family was going to spend a weekend in the city and visit Graceland. Marital and financial woes are two things investigators consider motives for suicide, and, according to Quinn, Wiley was a frugal person in an “ideal marriage.”

On Tuesday, Quinn’s homicide team took the case from missing persons. “If we think foul play is involved, or the possibility of death, we take it,” he says.

Detectives questioned Wiley’s family again and tracked down scientists who, like Wiley, had been in Memphis for the annual meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Police talked to his first wife, his grown children from that marriage, his colleagues at Harvard, and the bartender at the Peabody Hotel where Wiley and a group had spent the evening of November 15 listening to the piano player sprinkle ragtime into the air. They learned some valuable details, including how Wiley was in high spirits that night and had two drinks before switching to Perrier because he was planning to drive to his father’s 20 minutes north of Memphis later. One thing police did not find was a witness who saw Wiley leave. The bartender guessed he left by 12:30 a.m.

From there until 4 a.m., the tracks dried up. His credit cards weren’t used. Cops flashed his picture at the blues bars along Beale Street to strollers, bartenders, waitresses, trolley drivers, street sweepers, even prostitutes. They took his picture to truck stops, hoping to find the trucker who called 911. They held a news conference to hold up photographs of Wiley’s face. They checked with Avis for the mileage on the car when Wiley rented it to see if he had driven long distances. (He hadn’t.) They were stumped over why he had been on the bridge at all, especially at 4 a.m., since it was in the opposite direction of his father’s house. In the end they speculated he was tired, maybe mildly intoxicated, and made a wrong turn at a confusing split.

Every twist sent Quinn back to that four-hour gap. “From day one,” he says, “that was the focus of the investigation.”

Kidnapping, carjacking, and murder were all ruled out because the car left no hint of foul play. “If someone had abducted him, they certainly wouldn’t have gone to the bridge, which is so heavily traveled,” Quinn says.

Suicide was equally hard to prove. No note. No wallet on the car seat. No last call to a loved one. No shoes left behind, as is often the case with jumpers.

That left the only reason the FBI took interest in Wiley’s disappearance: his work at Harvard understanding how viruses infect human cells. Because Wiley’s disappearance came just two months after September 11, right in the middle of the string of anthrax mailings, the idea that bioterrorists might have kidnapped an expert in germ warfare seemed completely conceivable. Problem was, Wiley wasn’t that expert. He studied AIDS, Ebola, herpes, and influenza. “We didn’t think it happened because of that, but we didn’t discount it either,” Quinn says. The media, he says, “tried to make it into foul play more than the facts presented themselves to us.”

For a coroner, a body can reveal everything. Or nothing.

After floating for a month in 55-degree water, Wiley’s body had begun to decompose. The shoes were gone. So was the suit jacket. His watch and ring were still on. His wallet still held cash and cards. The white shirt and black trousers were torn. The shirt was dry in the back, evidence the body floated mostly on its stomach. Smith noticed the third button missing from Wiley’s white Armani shirt. “The stitching was perfect,” Smith says. That told him the button had broken off, not been torn off.

The body’s injuries had a distinct pattern — 22 fractures on the right side, 15 on the left — indicating it had landed on its right side. The spine had four breaks. The skull was fractured. The breastbone was cracked at the spot of that missing third button. Smith calculated the fall lasted 2.9 seconds. “He didn’t jump cleanly off the bridge, feet first,” Smith says. “This was consistent with a fall.”

A friend of Wiley’s suggests he went to the railing to vomit. “What happened next I can’t imagine,” the friend says. But he also says: “It’s hard for me to imagine a wind gust from an 18-wheeler” caused the professor’s death.

Or did a mysterious ailment (Smith says Wiley had a seizure disorder) cause a seizure? Wiley never had his illness diagnosed and took no medication. “He could control a minor episode,” Smith says. A major episode could impair his ability to drive.

Smith and his staff spent hours dangling over the side of the bridge with tape measures. They examined the cones and construction barriers, trying to learn what caused Wiley to get out of his car so late at such a treacherous spot. The car had minor damage to its front bumper that left yellow paint and rust. Smith couldn’t find corresponding damage on the bridge, but the construction signs were orange and the stanchions yellow.

Of all the measurements Smith took, one stood out: 8 inches. That’s how narrow the curb is from the road to the railing, which is only 43 inches high. “If he stood against the rail, it’s hitting him in the back of the thigh,” Smith says. “If he’s startled or caught by a gust from an 18-wheeler, his center of gravity is 47 inches, near the top rail, below his hip.”

When Smith laid out all the pieces — the narrow curb; the low railing; the tired, tipsy driver; the vibrating bridge; the trucks; the ailment; the car’s damage; the injuries; the broken button — and considered what he didn’t find (a suicide note, blood, depression), he could draw just one conclusion:

Driving to his father’s, Wiley takes a wrong turn and winds up on the bridge. Bleary-eyed, he nicks an orange cone, a construction barrier, or maybe the curb, and, in what can only be described as an error in judgment, stops to inspect the damage. Standing on the curb, inches from the railing, he loses his balance. Maybe it’s a seizure. A slip. A wind gust. He’s knocked into the rail, his thighs hit the top, and he plunges over.

“We will not saddle the family with a suicide ruling unless we have something definite,” Smith says. “The ruling is written on paper, not carved in stone. If new circumstances come to light, we can change it. But there was absolutely no indication of homicide, absolutely no indication of suicide.”

And, he adds, no sign of what Don Wiley was doing in his last four hours.

“We really would have liked knowledge of those few hours and a witness. Nobody likes to have a piece of the puzzle missing. But in real life, you always have a missing piece.”