A Professor Disappears

By David Abel and Ralph Ranalli  |  Globe Staff  |  12/02/2001

MEMPHIS - It was getting late and the well-dressed professor had switched from sipping port to ginger ale when he told a few of his colleagues how much he was looking forward to taking his wife and two young children to see where Elvis Presley lived.

The group of eminent scientists had retired
to the piano bar from a penthouse banquet hall in The Peabody, a century-old hotel. As midnight approached on Nov. 15, Harvard biochemist Don C. Wiley was preparing to drive back to his father's home about 20 minutes away.

"He was very upbeat," recalls Patricia Donahoe, the chief of pediatric surgical services at Massachusetts General Hospital and an old friend of Wiley's who chatted with him about 10:30 that night. "He was his normal, even-tempered self, and he was happy his family was coming in."

But Wiley, one of the nation's foremost experts on the way viruses such as HIV, influenza, and Ebola become deadly infectious diseases, never got to take his family to Graceland. He never even made it back to his father's.

Instead, the lanky 57-year-old professor vanished. At 4 a.m., police found Wiley's rental car abandoned on a mile-long bridge that spans the Mississippi River, with his rental-car contract in the glove compartment, the keys in the ignition, and a full tank of gas.

Two weeks later, police here say they have no clue what happened to him. Speculation abounds about the fate of the man colleagues say was doing work that could make him a candidate for a Nobel prize. But after more than a dozen Globe interviews with family, colleagues, and police, every theory seems to have serious flaws.

Since his car was parked in a traffic lane without any signs of a struggle and on a bridge where others have jumped, some investigators surmise Wiley killed himself. Yet family and friends insist the father of four and granddad of three is just not the type to commit suicide: He's exuberant about his work and was nearing a breakthrough in a molecular understanding of HIV that could help develop an AIDS vaccine.

While it's possible he was mugged or abducted, police and local criminologists say the downtown area around the Peabody is heavily patrolled and the safest part of Memphis. And both police and colleagues say Wiley has no scientific knowledge that would benefit bioterrorists, making it absurd to suggest he was kidnapped for his expertise.

"At this point, it could really be anything," says Lieutenant Richard True, a spokesman for the Memphis Police Department.

Wiley had come to Memphis on Wednesday Nov. 14 to attend a two-day annual meeting of the scientific advisory board of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, on which he has served for about a decade.

He had flown in from Washington, where he went that Sunday to attend meetings for several days at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md. The institute has long sponsored much of his research. At the Memphis airport, he rented a white 2001 Mitsubishi Gallant from Avis and drove for about 20 minutes to his 82-year-old father's ranch home in Raleigh, a quiet residential neighborhood in north Memphis.

It was late in the afternoon and the professor's father, William C. Wiley, says that his son seemed in good spirits. The two caught up for a while and the professor called his wife in Cambridge to let her know he had arrived and to find out what time he should meet her and their two children Lara, 7, and William, 10, at the airport that Friday.

Wiley's wife had already bought four tickets to visit Graceland. The couple's son, William, is a budding Elvis fan. The professor and the boy have a close relationship, and Wiley was eager to finally take him to Graceland.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary," says Wiley's wife, Katrin Valgeirsdottir, about their last conversation at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 14. "We talked about where we were going for dinner on Friday night, and how I should talk to his dad about finding a nice place to eat. He sounded happy to see his dad."

Wiley left his father's house soon after for a dinner meeting at the Peabody Hotel with members of St. Jude's scientific advisory board, a group of high-profile scientists serving the nation's largest childhood cancer center. One board member, Leland Hartwell of Seattle, for example, was recently awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine. And Wiley, who colleagues say has a strong shot at the Nobel for his work using X-ray crystallography and complex mathematical formulas to diagram viruses, has received the prestigious Lasker and Japan awards.

The reserved professor greeted his colleagues that night with the same subdued but warm embrace they had come to expect from him. He inquired about the families of some and the progress of others' research. After finishing business for the night, Wiley and a few colleagues walked across the street to the Rendezvous, a rib joint that is perhaps Memphis' most famous barbeque restaurant.

"All I can really say is that he was definitely engaged," says Marvin Zelen, a board member who's a professor of statistical science at Harvard School of Public Health.

After dinner, Wiley returned to his father's home. The next morning he was up early and drove to the sprawling campus of St. Jude's to meet the board for a 7:30 breakfast.

His mission that morning was to review the hospital's structural biology department, which Wiley played a key role in founding. The professor toured the high-tech facilities and at times marveled to some of the department's 46 staff members that St. Jude's often received the latest scientific equipment before Harvard.

Later, in a formal review in front of the advisory board, Wiley delivered a report that praised the progress of the department's researchers in paring diseases down to their molecular level and making discoveries that might soon help treat a variety of infectious diseases.

"He asked a lot of technical questions and he was very thorough," recalls Larry J. Shapiro, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School and a board member who reviewed the structural biology department with Wiley. "I saw nothing at all to say he was disturbed, agitated, uneasy, or anything atypical."

When the board meeting wrapped up late in the afternoon, Wiley drove back to his dad's house. Around 5 p.m., the professor's father returned home from a few errands and found a note telling him his son was out for a 5-mile run and would be back soon.

When Wiley returned from the run, his youngest brother, Greg, who also lives in Memphis, popped in for a short visit. "We just shot the bull," says Greg Wiley, recalling the last time he saw his brother.

The professor showered, shaved, and just before 7 p.m. he zipped back to the Peabody Hotel for the banquet in honor of the visiting scientists. Wiley was wearing a black suit he had bought in 1999 when the emperor and prime minister of Japan awarded him their country's top science prize for his work showing how the immune system fights infections.

The formal gathering in the Peabody's penthouse included about 150 doctors, researchers, and administrators from St. Jude's. Several colleagues remember talking to Wiley that night about how he took his son sailing and his family's plans for the weekend.

"He was in great spirits," says Samuel L. Katz, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Duke University Medical Center who also serves on the hospital's advisory board.

Dinner ended about 10 p.m. and Wiley and several colleagues decided to hang around for a while in the hotel's lobby. After nursing a glass of port for about an hour, the professor switched to soda and told Patricia Donahoe and others about his plans to take his family to Graceland.

Although he had a room reserved for him at the hotel, Wiley told his remaining colleagues around midnight he was heading back to his father's house and he would see them the next day.

It was the last time anyone saw him.

The next four hours are a mystery.

About 3:45 a.m., the first calls started ringing at the police department. A white car pointing west in the direction of Arkansas was blocking a traffic lane on the narrow bridge. Patrol cars arrived a few minutes later and found the empty car.

Other than a missing hubcap on the right front wheel and yellow scrape marks on the Mitsubishi Gallant's front bumper, the car looked like it just came from the showroom. Police say they have no idea if the marks and missing hubcap were on the car before that Friday morning.

Harvard and St. Jude's announced a $10,000 reward this week for any information that helps find Wiley, and police say they have received a few tips since then. But investigators acknowledge they are no closer to finding him today than they were more than two weeks ago.

"The case remains a mystery," says Lieutenant Richard True. "He's still classified as a missing person. There's always hope."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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