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Student pleads guilty to faking his way into Harvard

Posted by Metro Desk  December 16, 2010 04:36 PM

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Adam Wheeler, the former Harvard student accused of conning his way into one of the nation’s most prestigious universities by fabricating a stellar academic record, pleaded guilty this afternoon in Middlesex Superior Court to larceny, identity fraud, and other charges.

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Adam Wheeler

Wheeler, 24, was sentenced to 10 years of probation, ordered to pay restitution of more than $45,800, ordered to continue attending counseling, and forbidden to make a profit from his story.

"I'm ashamed and embarrassed by what I've done," he said, apologizing to the court, his professors, his fellow students, and his friends. "As much as possible, I want to put this behind me and move forward."

Wheeler was arrested and indicted this spring on 20 counts after an investigation showed he had spent the last three years plagiarizing the writings of others while collecting awards for his academic prowess both at Harvard and, before that, at Bowdoin College in Maine. Prosecutors said he had received tens of thousands in grants, scholarships and financial aid after weaving an intricate web of lies.

The guilty pleas marked the close of one of the most-high profile cases of academic fraud in recent history.

Assistant District Attorney John Verner argued for the lengthy probation period, saying, "This wasn't a one-time crime of passion. This wasn't a one-time mistake."

He also pointed out that Wheeler's actions had harmed applicants who had played by the rules and not cheated. "The money itself is one thing. The bigger problem is he took opportunity from the No. 2 person who would've won the award" or spot at Harvard, he said.

Kottmyer agreed with the 10-year probation sentence, rather than a term of only four to five years suggested by the defense, because, "This suggests to me an element of compulsion and, in my view, that is best addressed by a lengthy period of probation and requirement of counseling throughout that period."

After spending a month in jail, Wheeler was released in June on $5,000 bail posted by his father, Richard Wheeler, a former shop teacher at Adam Wheeler’s public high school in rural Delaware. Adam Wheeler has been living quietly and working in Massachusetts. As a condition of his release, he surrendered his passport but was allowed last month to travel to his parents’ oceanside home in Milton, Del.

Those who know Wheeler say they hope he will now be able to move on with his life, though he is no closer to a college degree than he was three years ago. His next move remains unclear. The case shocked his family and friends, some of whom have said it remains a mystery why the likeable wallflower who had never before been in trouble and did well enough in high school to be accepted to Bowdoin would embark on such an elaborate charade that seemed to grow more brazen over the years.

The case has also exposed a serious breach in the admissions policies of some of the nation’s most prestigious universities and has prompted Harvard to use technology to more closely scrutinize applications for fraud.

Wheeler faked his way into Harvard College as a transfer student by doctoring his College Board scores and forging letters of recommendation and transcripts from MIT and the prep school Phillips Academy, neither of which he attended. He had, in fact, been suspended from Bowdoin for plagiarizing an essay his sophomore year.

He was expelled from Harvard in October 2009 during his senior year, after he upped the ante months away from graduation by applying for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships using a fake straight-A transcript and work he plagiarized from a Harvard professor, prosecutors said. That was when the image Wheeler had presented of himself – claiming to be fluent in classical Armenian and to have coauthored several books and delivered lectures on obscure topics such as Zoroastrian cosmology -- began to unravel. Harvard officials later discovered Wheeler had won two university writing prizes using a plagiarized submission.

But the expulsion did not stop Wheeler. He subsequently applied as a Harvard transfer student to Stanford, Brown, Yale, and a Williams College maritime program. He was admitted by Stanford and Williams, where officials said they discovered he had fooled them after learning of Wheeler’s alleged fraud at Harvard from news reports.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Originally published on the blog MetroDesk.

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