Bucks County and Pennsylvania State Police investigators have solved a 40-year-old cold case in the upper end of the county.
The 1980 murder of 34-year-old Richard Wesley Wheeler in Nockamixon Township was solved recently by Bucks County Detective David Hanks and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Christopher Cleveland, District Attorney Matt Weintraub’s office announced Friday.
Peter Eric Marschner was identified as the shooter who killed Wheeler in September 1980. Marschner had fled the authorities after the murder and had changed his name.
Marschner shot Wheeler four times in September 1980, and hid his body on the wooded property off Center Hill Road, approximately a mile south of the intersection with Kintner Hill Road, the district attorney’s office said.
According to the investigation pieced together by the county and state investigators, Marschner killed Wheeler under orders from Leslie Schmidt, a man who felt Wheeler mishandled a large amount of money.
The investigation discovered that Wheeler, Marschner, and Schmidt all knew each other before the murder and met while being held in Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Prison.
Marschner, who had a history of stealing yachts, boating equipment and money from harbors in the Caribbean Islands, was a German national known as “the Captain.” He was sent to prison in May 1974 for two years for stealing a 41-foot sailboat in Martinique, an overseas region of France in the Caribbean, authorities said.
After he was released from federal custody, Marschner was supposed to be deported to Germany, but he found his way back to the Caribbean Islands by working as a crewman on a private yacht.
In February 1977, Marschner, all the money onboard, $10,000 worth of boating equipment, and a motorized dinghy went missing from a yacht in St. Lucia after the owners went on shore.
A month later, Marschner stole a 43-foot sailboat from a harbor in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, authorities said.
After an extensive manhunt, Marschner was arrested by French law enforcement in May 1977.
Marschner subsequently entered a guilty plea to grand theft and interstate transportation of stolen property, which landed him in the Danbury Federal Prison. There, he met Wheeler, a marijuana dealer from California, and Schmidt, a methamphetamine dealer from Bucks County.
The three men planned to establish a methamphetamine lab in Upper Bucks County once they were freed from prison. They hatched the plan while they were still in federal custody.
Wheeler was the first of the trio to be released in November 1979.
Later in 1979, Schmidt was released on a 30-day furlough.
Schmidt introduced Wheeler to a friend who rented Wheeler the Nockamixon Township property while he was out of jail. Authorities claim that in addition to giving Wheeler $250,000, Schmidt also instructed him to use money to support Schmidt’s family as he completed the rest of his prison term.
After Marschner was released from jail in July 1980, U.S. immigration officials took him to JFK Airport in New York City to have him returned to Germany.
Marschner was able to flee and leave the airport when his deportation trip was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties with the aircraft. Prosecutors said he took advantage of the confusion caused by the cancellation.
In Bucks County, Marschner reconnected with Wheeler, who hired him as his personal driver and bodyguard, authorities said.
Wheeler was residing in a camper on the Nockamixon Township property and had started working on a methamphetamine lab there. Even while Schmidt was still behind bars, he was funding the drug operation in Bucks County, the investigation found.
Schmidt and Wheeler eventually fell out over their financial arrangement. Schmidt suspected that Wheeler was misusing the $250,000 that Schmidt had given him, utilizing it for himself instead of Schmidt’s family, authorities said.
The investigation found that Schmidt gave Marschner the order to assassinate Wheeler because of the belief Wheeler was misusing the $250,000.
Between September 8 and September 18, 1980, Wheeler was shot four times, authorities said.
After the murder, 42-year-old Marschner escaped to New Jersey in Wheeler’s pickup vehicle.
Investigators interviewed witnesses in 1983 and came to the conclusion that Schmidt hired a “German gentleman to pull the trigger.”
Detectives sought to speak with Marschner as part of the investigation.
Over the years, Marschner was unable to be located. Investigators said it was like the man disappeared.
As county and state authorities looked into Marschner’s criminal background earlier this year, they found that he had been detained in New York in 1982 on suspicion of narcotics conspiracy charges while using the name “Charles McLaren.”
A key break in the case came as fingerprints from Marschner’s arrest in 1977 and McLaren’s arrest in 1982 were identical matches, authorities said.
Despite all the parties involved being dead, authorities continued to probe the case this year.
The investigation found that Marschner had been living as Charles McLaren, with a new name, date of birth and social security number after the murder.
After being released on the 1982 drug conspiracy case, Marschner moved to New Jersey, got married, had children, and ran a successful limousine service in New York City before his death in 2006.
Marschner and Schmidt have both passed away, the former in 2006 and the latter in 2022.
“The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office considers this case solved due to the deaths of all the participants in the murder. Additionally, this office has consulted with the victim’s family, and they are grateful that this crime is now solved,” the statement said.
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