From AJC archives: The Customs Agent: Death is 'America's loss'

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 13, 2005.

David Wilhelm worried when duty kept U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents out late.

"He didn't want to go to bed until he knew everybody was OK, " said Jason Kidd, who worked for him. "Dave was very much into making sure everybody was OK and getting home safe."

On Saturday, two carpenters found Wilhelm's body in a five-bedroom Buckhead house he was building. Authorities suspect Brian G. Nichols killed Wilhelm, one of four assistant special agents in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Atlanta office, a day after they say Nichols killed a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy in downtown Atlanta.

Police found Wilhelm's 1994 Chevy pickup not far from a Gwinnett County apartment building where Nichols surrendered.

Wilhelm lived in Peachtree City with his wife of six years, Candee.

"He was the most honest person I've ever met, " she said.

The couple had no children but doted on their dog, Mars.

She recalled her husband as a man with a strong work ethic. She said he rarely missed workouts at the gym and loved to do tile work. She said he had been working on their house almost every weekend for the last two months. They planned to move in in June.

On Friday, Candee Wilhelm said, as helicopters choppered overheard and authorities searched for the suspect in the courthouse shootings, she worried along with everyone else in metro Atlanta.

"I was edgy, " she said. "We talked about that guy being out there."

About 8:30 p.m. Friday, she said goodbye to her husband and returned to their Peachtree City apartment while he continued working on the house.

"I tried to call him later, " she said, "but I couldn't get an answer."

Colleagues recalled Wilhelm, 40, as a skilled investigator with a national reputation, an agent with a knack for complex cases who relaxed by tackling construction and home improvement projects.

"He was widely considered one of the top agents in the former Customs Service, " Kidd said. "Everybody said, 'Who's your best agent?' That was Dave. He was the go-to guy, the top agent."

Wilhelm worked in Virginia and North Carolina before coming to metro Atlanta about five months ago. He supervised agents who investigate the drug trade, human trafficking, money laundering and other offenses in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Kenneth Smith, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Atlanta office, called Wilhelm's death "a tragic loss for the entire law enforcement community." Voice breaking, he called Wilhelm "an exemplary officer, a trusted colleague and a true friend."

U.S. Attorney David Nahmias called Wilhelm "a great federal agent and a good man."

Wilhelm's brother, Patrick, is a special agent in Atlanta for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Wilhelm grew up in Salisbury, N.C., where his parents still live. He studied psychology in college and knew how to read people, a trait that served him well in his career, his wife said.

Wilhelm was a decorated agent who won the former Customs Service's prestigious Blue Eagle award in 2001. In a speech, Commissioner Robert Bonner singled out Wilhelm for his "single-handed determination" in the dismantling of eight drug smuggling organizations and the seizure of over 9 tons of marijuana and $2 million in "ill-gotten proceeds."

Jeff Jordan, assistant special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Charlotte, said Wilhelm worked harder than anyone he knew. "He was just a tremendous, tremendous soldier in our fight, " Jordan said. "It's America's loss."

--- Staff writers Paul Donsky and Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.