Thirty-eight years ago this fall, the city of Duluth woke up to news of a brazen slaying.
As joggers, anglers, tourists and flyers enjoyed a pristine weekend day, a figure from a prominent Duluth family had been strangled in broad daylight along the Lake Superior shoreline.
The woman’s body was found 8 miles north of the city’s east side, under a tree 75 feet off North Shore Scenic Drive. The body was covered by a driftwood log and an old tire, her killer doing cursory work to hide what they’d done.
As part of Forum News Service's new cold-case series, “The Vault,” the Duluth News Tribune revisited the unsolved murder of Dale Heimbach Wheeler, a 33-year-old tennis enthusiast, wife and mother to three young children, who went for a bike ride and never came home.
The family, which last year endured the loss of Wheeler’s husband, well-regarded businessman Tom Wheeler, declined to comment about the cold case. It has been newly reassigned to Investigator Jessica Labore of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s painful still,” Labore said, regarding the family. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
The homicide occurred on the afternoon of Sept. 25, 1983. Following several days of poor weather, it was a pristine fall Sunday, which drew residents and tourists outdoors to the shores of Lake Superior and all its offerings. Wheeler had opted for some alone time as her husband and children went to church.
“We’re assuming she walked down there to rest or to sun herself, and that’s where the assault occurred,” said the sheriff at the time, Ernie Grams, who would later die in an on-duty vehicle crash.
Duluth News Tribune reports from the day were feverish with details. The stories said Wheeler left a note for her husband, saying she would be on her bicycle. She left their home at 2122 Woodland Ave. late in the morning, intending to return before 6 p.m. Her worried family reported Wheeler, who was always punctual, missing by mid-evening.
The day after the crime, with the city on alert for her whereabouts, an angler privy to the search was trolling the shoreline and spotted the handlebars of what came to be Wheeler’s bicycle.
Photos from the time show a scrubby shoreline that’s now overgrown with trees. The angler's tip led to the recovery of Wheeler’s lithe body — clothed in the same warm-weather outfit she’d worn leaving her home. Authorities ruled out a sexual assault, and seemed convinced they’d learn more quickly.
“Somebody saw something,” Grams told the paper.
A police sketch of a bushy-haired and bearded man in his 20s resulted from a witness who had seen a man both sitting in and walking around an older-model sedan in the area. Authorities cleared an unknown number of men they spoke with who matched the description. At one point, they sought a pilot who’d flown low over the lake around the suspected time of the killing, around 3 p.m., according to the medical examiner’s report following an autopsy.
But 10 years after the homicide, the Sheriff’s Office lamented in a 1993 News Tribune piece — the local newspaper’s most recent story until now related to the killing — about their interactions with a young photographer.
“The young man told authorities that he was taking pictures along the North Shore that day and saw Wheeler sitting on the rocks,” the story by reporter Candace Renalls said, noting the man said he got no closer than within 40-50 yards of her.
Authorities interviewed him until he requested an attorney. Though the newspaper reported he “may have been infatuated with Wheeler,” the man insisted he didn’t photograph her, and never turned over film the authorities requested. They were left to simply keep track of his whereabouts after he moved from the city.
“If I thought we had the evidence, we’d present it to a grand jury,” said a sergeant at the time.
Renalls’ story features additional speculation about a possible serial killer, or the perpetrator having either both known or been a stranger to Wheeler. She reported the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s involvement, which produced a sealed profile of the killer, but was unable to discover fingerprints on evidence despite new laser technology.
Today’s Sheriff’s Office isn’t so forthcoming about the case. Labore declined to discuss specifics, calling it an open investigation. She commented around its edges, saying she’s reviewing the case as time allows. She insisted it’s not a lost cause.
“We’re at such a different place now with science and technology that there’s stuff we couldn’t have fathomed,” she said. “I hope to see that grow, so there can be a resolution in the case.”
She wouldn’t confirm if there was any DNA evidence. A year after the slaying, Wheeler’s purse was found 3 miles away from her body. Early in the investigation, her wallet, checkbook and other items were located scattered about 200 feet from the crime scene.
None of it produced fingerprints.
Authorities seem to have dismissed the assault as being a simple mugging or robbery, even though cash was missing from her wallet. Renalls’ story suggested the face-to-face nature of the slaying tended, in cases like it, to indicate familiarity between the parties.
In the days after her death, Wheeler, whose father was a well-known jeweler in town, was remembered as a vibrant and positive person — a morning jogger, city-wide tennis champion, gardener, leader of a book club, volunteer through the Junior League, and loving advocate for the city’s children. She was well-known for delivering Christmas cookies she baked with her own children to those around her.
One next-door resident told the News Tribune at the time: “She was a good neighbor."