The killing of Jack Peters

The van from the Hartford Correctional Center arrives, and Andrew “A.D.” Wilson, manacled at the waist and ankles, gets ushered to his second court appearance. Even now,…Before that, as president of the worldwide agency, Peters worked alongside Joe O’Donnell, who was then ceo and designated chairman of J. Walter Thompson. Together they orchestrated what JWT Group—the parent of J. Walter Thompson, Hill & Knowlton and a couple of other operating units–would call “an abortive attempt” to oust its management. Many believe the 56-year-old Peters used the 43-year-old O’Donneli as a pull toy in the ill-fated coup. Either way, the pair made advertising history. And Peters’ reputation as “the kind of guy who put his balls on before coming to work in the morning,” to quote a seasoned associate, became as fixed in agency lore as the beard on old Commodore Thompson.While the circumstances surrounding the end of Peters’ career were controversial, those surrounding his death were tragic. It happened on Aug. 5, Peters’ 62nd birthday, after a morning excursion to the Bronx Zoo. The outing wasn’t for the birthday celebrant so much as the two Irish boys the Peters family, as participants in a Northern Ireland “fresh air” program, had been putting up for several summers. After returning to their magnificent brick home in an elite section of Greenwich, Peters’ wife, Tina, directed the youngsters upstairs. There the boys set about making birthday cards to honor the head of then’ summertime household. While they worked, Peters’ wife of 36 years slipped away to do some shopping. Peters used the occasion for an afternoon swim.It was then that the paths of Jack Peters and A.D. Wilson, who had attended high school with Peters’ two sons, crossed for one last time. According to police reports, Wilson emerged from the trees that separate Peters’ two-acre estate from a private driveway sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. He was carrying a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, purchased three days earlier. Although more than a dozen shell casings would be left at poolside, Wilson found his target only twice. Peters, whom police would discover still floating in the pool, was killed by bullets to the head and chest. The burst of gunfire sent the visiting boys running to the safety of neighbors.At 5:10 p.m., Wilson, 32, appeared at the front desk of the Greenwich Police Department and confessed to the murder. He said the weapon was in the trunk of his car, an old Buick convertible he’d parked behind police headquarters. As for a motive, a police affidavit notes that Wilson “blames (oldest son) Dirk Peters for brainwashing him through the use of drugs and hypnotism.” He blamed Jack Peters as well, the affidavit says, “for assisting Dirk in controlling (Wilson).” It quickly became apparent Wilson’s only workable defense would be insanity.There were 2,005 homicides last year in New York City, where murder has become a horrific and constant part of the big-city landscape. But in Greenwich, an hour’s train ride away, Peters’ killing is the first since January 1992, when a 17-year-old boy shot a friend the same age and then took his own life. The murder prior to that came in 1987.”You can’t connect this death to anything,” says J. Walter Thompson chief Burt Manning, who worked with Peters for two decades. “If anything, it’s a symptom of the madness in the world.”Adding to the tragedy is the notion that the assailant’s life had as much potential to come together in adulthood as the victim’s did to unravel in retirement. Greenwich High is nothing if not a hotbed of privilege, talent and intelligence. Steve Young, the San Franscico 49ers quarterback who last season was voted Most Valuable Player of the National Football League, graduated from Greenwich in 1980, a year after both Wilson and Dirk Peters, and a year before Dirk’s brother, Todd.Dirk Peters was a defensive back on the team that Young, while a junior, piloted to the state championship. Young’s girlfriend at the time was Christy Fichtner, a homecoming queen and cheerleader who in 1986 became Miss USA. Fichtner’s older brother, Chip, after dropping out of Southern Methodist University and becoming a commodities broker for Bear, Stearns & Co., wound up being featured in a 1981 People story on the new breed of hot-shot businessmen. Dirk Peters dated a cheerleader, too. He also played on the school’s lacrosse squad, alongside A.D. Wilson.For Wilson, Greenwich High may have offered more promise than his adult life could possibly realize. “He was good-looking-tall, blond and well-built,” recalls a classmate. Wilson’s girlfriend at the time was the daughter of John Margenot, the town’s first selectman (the equivalent of mayor). “She was one of the hottest girls in Greenwich,” the classmate continues. “You had to be a superstar to go out with her.” That Wilson did only enhanced his “cool” quotient. The 1979 yearbook shows a photo of the pair cavorting in costumes, Wilson’s being an oversized Budweiser can. “I can’t imagine the events leading up to (the murder),” the classmate says. “The downward spiral to produce such an outcome is beyond comprehension.”Wilson’s status was validated by his membership in the “tree freaks,” a distinct set in Greenwich High’s social order. The name refers to the group’s penchant for hanging out under a giant tree in the school’s massive student center. The “tree freaks” tended to have the prettiest girls and fanciest cars. They also tended to mix drugs, attitude and extracurricular activities (including sports) in ways sure to stir the envy of their peers. “They were all real bright,” the classmate says. “But they were too cool to appear troubled by academic demands.”The drug of choice at the time was pot–described as “commonplace,” even during the school day–though speed, cocaine and mescaline were sometimes available. Social life centered on weekend keg parties which, says the classmate, assumed “gigantic” dimensions during the whirl of football season.Appearances notwithstanding, the academic pressure was almost as intense as the social pressure. “Only dummies didn’t go to college,” the classmate explains. Wilson went on to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where for a couple of years he continued to date his high-school sweetheart, who attended nearby i Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass.After graduating from Massachusetts, Wilson drifted back and forth between the region outlying Greenwich and Nantucket. The Wilson family owned a home at the elite resort, where A.D., his brother and sister spent the summers of their youth.That so few of the class of ’79 would wind up settling in Greenwich proper is hardly unusual. Some from the class joke that the only contemporaries of theirs who can afford to live there are the ones who never went away. “The guys still there are the ones who learned their father’s trade and stayed put,” the classmate explains. “They’re the ones making a nice living preying on people who can’t fix their own toilets but can pay modest fortunes to add on to their homes.”The joke has been crueler to some than to others. Wflson, an aspiring filmmaker, reportedly landed a few jobs editing for film and television after college, but most recently he worked in Bridgeport at the jai alai fronton. During this time, people acquainted with Wilson say, he became fixated on parts of his past, including his high-school girlfriend and Dirk Peters. A friend of the Peters family learned that Dirk was begrudged for a party he threw years ago. Wilson supposedly arrived at the party early and parked his car in the driveway. Others parked behind Wilson’s car, making it impossible to retrieve when his girlfriend wanted to leave early. That someone else drove her home reportedly became another Wilson obsession.Press accounts have traced Wilson’s moves since late last year. That’s when, First Selectman Margenot told The New York Times, Wilson emerged “like the Loch Ness monster” and began calling his daughter. The daughter contacted the local police and changed to an unlisted number. On March 31, Wilson showed up at Greenwich Town Hall and visited the first selectman, who hadn’t seen Wilson in about a decade. Wilson “was just kind of mixed up,” Margenot told the Greenwich Time, and the two talked about high-school days. Later, Wilson sent Margenot two letters and a tape that included recorded conversations with Dirk Peters and John Peters. In them, the first selectman said, Wilson “lamented the way his life turned out.” Margenot eventually turned the letters over to Jack Peters, who, a friend says, began seeking help for the disturbed friend of his son.Peters was not alone. According to confirmed reports, Wilson’s sister, now a California resident, so feared for her brother’s mental condition that on July 19 she faxed letters of concern to the police in Greenwich and Madison, Conn., where Wilson had been living, on and off, for at least six years. But Wilson was in Nantucket at the time, outside both jurisdictions. And, despite the concerns of his sister, he hadn’t made the sort of threat that warranted extra vigilance. Wilson, then unemployed, filled out an application to buy a gun in Connecticut during this period and began the 14-day wait required by state law. On Aug. 2, three days before he would turn himself in for murder, Wilson picked the weapon up at a gun shop in East Haven, Conn. He also picked up a dozen rounds of ammunition.Wilson’s next recorded act could not have been more dramatic, but a childhood friend cautions against overly dramatic interpretations. “The accounts I’ve read have been more literary than accurate,” he says. “I’d leave the Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield comparisons alone. Put the emphasis where it belongs. This is a case of a mentally unbalanced person.”The world may never know why A.D. Wilson transferred his obsession to the father of a high-school friend. What’s certain, but still mystifying, was the ability of Jack Peters–the ultimate target of Wilson’s obsession–to evoke ambivalence. People either loved him or hated him throughout his advertising career. Some, such as former JWT Group head Don Johnston, would even swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Until the end of Peters’ career, Johnston was his promoter and protector, going so far as to dub his once-favored underling “Jack Armstrong–our all-American boy.”Peters certainly looked the part. Even in his 60s he managed to maintain the boyish good looks of an era his horn-rimmed glasses captured to a tee. Reinforcing this look was a preference for business suits that always appeared a little more dowdy than those worn by any of his peers. At a memorial service earlier this month in Old Greenwich, Joe O’Donnell, who fought to have Peters as his right-hand man upon assuming leadership of J. Walter Thompson in 1986, recounted his first meeting with the executive he adopted as his mentor:”He made a distinct impression. Perhaps it was because he was continually stuffing, primping, lighting and then tugging on a new pipe, which refused to give up to his considerable efforts. Perhaps it was due to his haircut–a kind of mid-’70s, pre-Perot look at a time when most men’s ears were barely visible. But more striking than the pipe, and the hairdo, were his words . . . When talking about the company, he talked about its values rather than his accomplishments or his goals. When referring to successful JWT-produced campaigns, he used the plural ‘we’ and ‘they’ rather than the singular ‘I.'”Another colleague remembers Peters as a “country slicker” whose bearing never betrayed his Midwestern upbringing. The values remained Midwestern as well and, for 30 of his 31 years at J. Walter Thompson, served Peters in ways most managers can only envy. Even when clients asked to have the up-and-coming account man removed from their business, which happened several times during his career, Peters landed not only safely but often higher in the JWT organization. A lot of his success was assured by Johnston, whose fondness for Peters stemmed from their shared corporate loyalty. The two were once so close that Johnston volunteered his Rolls-Royce and served as chauffeur at the wedding of Peters’ oldest daughter.J. Walter Thompson was a political hotbed throughout much of Johnston’s extended reign, and Peters alone was able to mix among its various and ever-changing factions. There were times he was considered the best friend of current ceo Burt Manning, whom Johnston initially passed over for the top job in 1986. And there were times he was considered the best friend of O’Donnell, who initially got the top job. Peters’ ability to mix was not lost on his detractors. One describes him as “the Zelig of Madison Avenue.” Another calls him “the ultimate logo.” It should be noted that most of these characterizations emerged after Peters and O’Donnell attempted to oust Johnston, which is remembered by a JWT alum as “one of the great betrayals in all of business.”Were Peters alive today, those who knew him say, he would defend the action he took with O’Donnell as consistent with the high principles that governed his life. At the time of the failed coup, a couple of Thompson offices overseas had been so lax as to invite scandal, operations weren’t generating revenues that sufficiently outpaced costs and the stock was languishing at takeover levels. “He really did believe in J. Walter Thompson as the embodiment of all things good,” says then-company spokesman Tom Robbins. “He hated the money-losing, scandal-ridden company that, in his mind, Thompson had become.”The case has been made that Peters and O’Donnell sought to avoid a takeover by having the company take itself private in a leveraged buyout funded by an employee stock ownership plan. It also has been suggested that Peters and O’Donnell felt the scandal-plagued J. Walter Thompson empire could return to high moral ground only by replacing Johnston. Whatever their motives, the execution of their plan was so clumsy it got them fired after a single hearing by JWT’s board. The upheaval was enough to attract Martin Sorrell, who set about plotting what until then had been deemed impossible: the hostile takeover of a service business. And who should Sorrell enlist, at the princely rate of $1,233 a day, to assist in the takeover of J. Walter Thompson? None other than the recently fired Jack Peters.Sorrell did succeed in taking over JWT, but not before the vanquished management team elicited a promise after an all-night session of haggling. “In view of the foregoing (takeover conditions),” the final tender offer read, “parent and the purchaser have no present intention of causing the surviving corporation to employ Mr. Peters or Mr. O’Donnell.”The strange amendment reflected, again, Peters’ uncanny ability to foster ambivalence. Indeed, some veterans of that time admit they are hard put to say which upset them more: Sorrell’s hostile takeover or Peters’ perceived betrayal.His advertising career ended, Peters did display Zelig-like tendencies by pulling off what few prematurely finished executives ever do. He embarked on a glorious retirement. A pilot since his teens, Peters ran a small aviation company out of a Westchester airport. He also took up golf and exercised his longstanding passion for scuba diving, completing more than 200 dives in the Caribbean and Pacific. He certainly didn’t unravel, and it’s unlikely he even looked back. “Jack didn’t waste an instant being a pale, withdrawn, sentimental retiree,” says Manning. “He always had a whole other life outside of work.”What’s more, Peters’ life promised only to get richer. Youngest daughter Sarah was to be wed in September, and oldest daughter Kim, on the day of Peters’ death, had announced plans to remarry in October. Son Todd, who works for Ketchum Advertising in San Francisco and was recently married himself, says the family will press ahead with the wedding plans. “My father would have wanted it that way,” he explains.Meanwhile, only minutes after his courtroom appearance, the Greenwich High alum who couldn’t contain his obsession with Jack Peters is ushered outside again, his feet shuffling in blue plastic sandals and his bull-like frame surrounded by imposing uniformed guards. The van then returns Wilson to the Hartford Correctional Center, where he’ll undergo psychiatric observation until his next court date on Sept. 14.”Chances are there’ll be a trial,” says Monte Radler, the public defender assigned to the case. “It all depends on whether both sides agree if he meets the requirements of the (mentally diseased or defective) statute.” It all depends, in other words, on the precise nature of the obsession that sent one of advertising’s most controversial veterans to an early grave.Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)