Something I picked up from hanging around courthouses is that real criminals are almost never like the ones you see in the movies.
In crime fiction, it’s all about the motive. In real life, criminals are no more likely to know why they are doing something than the rest of us.

You really see this with the con men, who are the most calculating and motivated masters of crime on the big screen – think Paul Newman in “The Sting” planning four moves ahead of his mark – but a different story in real life.

Real con men are frantic improvisers. Often more delusional than diabolical, they’re able to lie so effectively because they first lie to themselves.

For complicated frauds to work, the victim can almost become an accomplice to the scheme, and you can see why. Once they’ve sent a few hundred dollars to a deposed general in Nigeria, they want the hidden fortune story to be true just as badly as the con man does, and they become willing to overlook a few flaws in story – like the fact that they’ve sent him money, but he never sends any to them.

Something like that must have been at play with Adam Wheeler, the Delaware man who is now facing felony fraud charges for allegedly convincing Harvard University that he was one of the great young minds of his generation and deserved the golden ticket that Harvard gives out to a chosen few.

As we all now know by now, Wheeler was a student with a solid, if unspectacular, record at a public high school and was kicked out of Bowdoin College for academic dishonesty.

Undaunted, he transferred to Harvard by changing a few details in his resume. Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del., became Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from which he claimed a 4.0 GPA and garnered effusive, if forged, recommendations. His SATs went from pretty good to perfect.

And the school he transferred from went from Bowdoin to MIT, where his transcript showed straight A’s (even though freshmen there don’t get letter grades).

Harvard bit, and if Wheeler hadn’t gotten even more brazen by applying for a Rhodes Scholarship with plagiarized material, he would have collected a Harvard diploma this spring instead of going to jail.

We love this story, if only it gives us a chance to feel superior to Harvard, which doesn’t happen often enough for me.

All of us can finish the following sentence, “If you’re so smart, how come you …” Or, as my mother-in-law likes to say, “Four years of college and you don’t know how to iron a shirt?”

And for this purpose, “Harvard” is just a code name for any number of elite institutions that have been having a bad couple of years. From the wizards of Wall Street, to the Washington establishment and the Supreme Court, we love stories that tell us that the elites are not really all they are cracked up to be.

How could Harvard officials have been fooled so badly? If it’s not because they are dumb, and there is no reason to believe they are, it may be because membership in the elite is really not as merit-driven as we have been led to believe.

Yes, some of the students are truly extraordinary, and many are outstanding, hard-working, bright and energetic young people truly committed to changing the world for the better. But some are just the children of people rich enough to donate a building and others are just flat-out frauds. How many? We don’t know, but as this case shows, the university doesn’t look too hard to fool.

Wheeler’s ordinary abilities didn’t set off any bells.

Harvard could have saved itself some embarrassment if one of its world-renowned professors walked up to him and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” in Classical Armenian, one the three languages that he claimed to have mastered. (The others were Old English and Persian.)

But, like 87 percent of the people who are accepted to Harvard, Wheeler was going  to graduate with his class. Nothing apparently alerted professors or administrators  to the fact that he was merely bright and not the co-author of four books, and an in-demand lecturer around the globe, all before the age of 23.

Why did Harvard fall for such a crude hoax?

The university probably wanted it all to be true. Once it accepted him, Harvard had no more interest in exposing his fraud than a museum has in admitting that the Piet Mondrian canvas it just bought for half a million bucks was knocked off by a guy named  “Chootch” in a garage in Jersey.

Adam Wheeler really had to be  “Adam Wheeler” because he wouldn’t have been accepted to Harvard otherwise.

Harvard was hooked by the con man and, like many victims, it became part of the con.

What does an Adam Wheeler give them? More proof that the school is the pointy end of the pyramid in a great meritocracy, where only a select few belong.

So what if not every graduate or professor is extraordinary? Or if many thousands more students could perform there at a high level than could ever be accepted? Or that some students make it in because of wealth and privilege, inflated grades or embellished resumes?

There are high school graduates with perfect SAT scores and at least a working knowledge of Classical Armenian who are lining up at the door. So maybe it all really is true.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]