Teen pleads guilty to murder in 2010 killing at Cheltenham

UPPER MARLBORO — — A teenager pleaded guilty Friday to sexually assaulting and then murdering his teacher at the troubled Cheltenham Youth Facility when he was 13. He was sentenced to 85 years in prison.

Brian Lee Wonsom, now 15, hung his head during the hearing before Prince George's County Circuit Judge Toni E. Clark, who told him that "at this juncture in your life, you are not fit to live in our society." The teen also admitted to attempted murder of a neighbor in an unrelated break-in.


Wonsom was accused of killing and sexually assaulting 65-year-old Cheltenham instructor Hannah E. Wheeling of Bel Air on Feb. 17, 2010. Her partly clothed body was found by another staff member about 7:45 a.m. the next day outside a lower-security building for young offenders, her face so severely bludgeoned with a concrete block that she was barely recognizable.

At the time, Wonsom, a troubled youth from Laurel, was being held at Cheltenham on charges stemming from 2009 burglaries in Laurel — in one, a resident found Wonsom eating his food and watching pornography on his computer. But after Wheeling's killing, Wonsom was accused of stabbing a neighbor in another break-in in the fall of 2009, when fingerprints from that crime scene matched those on file for Wonsom.


That neighbor had harsh words for him in a statement read in court Friday.

"I hope you are put away for a long time, and during that time I hope you will reflect on your life and realize the hurt and pain you have put myself and others through, not forgetting the anguish you have caused your own family," Harriet Pepprah wrote in the statement.

"It is too late to say you could have made different choices for your life," her statement continued. "It serves you right."

Wonsom did not speak during the proceeding. His attorney later said Wonsom was uncomfortable in the spectator-filled courtroom.

After the plea, State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said the she was satisfied with outcome. A person who raped and killed "is not fit to live among us," she said.

Neither Wonsom's mother nor Wheeling's family attended the proceeding. Assistant Public Defender Allen Wolf said the teenager and his family thought it would be too emotionally difficult. Members of Wheeling's family also chose not to attend but indicated they'd like to see a steep sentence.

Wonsom pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and attempted first-degree rape of Wheeling, and attempted murder of Pepprah. He received three concurrent sentences of life with all but 85 years suspended, making him eligible for parole consideration when he is in his mid-50s.

Terms of the plea included the judge's recommendation that prison officials evaluate Wonsom for a program at Patuxent Institution that treats youthful offenders. Had he received multiple life sentences to serve consecutively, he would not have been eligible for the program.

"Brian very much would like to go to Patuxent and get help for the problems that he had — problems which he didn't get help for earlier," Wolf said after the plea. They include bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

The killing of Wheeling was the first fatal attack on a staffer in recent memory at a Department of Juvenile Services facility, and may have been the agency's first, spokesman Jay Cleary said Friday.

At the time of Wheeling's killing, Wonsom was in the Re-Direct program at Murphy Cottage, a lower-security program for youths determined not to be a danger to themselves or others. Since then, the program has been "suspended indefinitely," Cleary said.

The killing also led the DJS to fire two people, demote one administrator and suspend several other employees. Also, security at Cheltenham was upgraded to include increased lighting, more cameras and a new security post, Cleary said.


The library at Cheltenham has been named in Wheeling's memory, along with a garden.

Wheeling was giving Wonsom a test about 4 p.m. the day she was killed. Her colleagues didn't panic when they saw her car still at Cheltenham early the next morning because they thought someone else might have driven her home; there had been a snow storm that night.

Maryland State Police investigators found his DNA was on Wheeling, and her blood was on clothing with his name on it that had been stashed under a stairway. He told investigators that he was at the scene of the crime but had no part in it.

Wonsom was charged as a juvenile, but prosecutors worked to try to him as an adult, saying they wanted to prevent him from being released from custody at the age of 21. Wonsom's history of violence — which escalated while he was receiving therapy, even as he was placed in a special school — was detailed during several hearings.

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