BLUFFTON, South Carolina — As the oldest child of an impoverished Russian family with an alcoholic, widowed mother who was in and out of jail, 9-year-old Nikolai Kovalevsky did his best to care for his brother and sister.
He stole food so they could survive, at least until authorities sent the siblings to separate orphanages. Despondent, Kovalevsky went several months without talking.
Then, in 2002, the 12-year-old thought he had been blessed with a miracle. Christopher D. Wheeler, an affluent American bachelor from an upscale Chicago suburb, adopted him.
"Today I speak English fluently. I speak Russian fluently. I play professional golf. I have a lot of good friends. He's done a lot more for me than my real parents ever did. For that, I'll always be grateful," Nikolai Kovalevsky Wheeler, now 23, said in an interview last week at the home he and his father bought on the outskirts of Hilton Head Island, S.C., where the young man spends his days playing golf.
But Nikolai Wheeler's miracle came at a horrible price — sexual abuse from the man he counts as his savior, according to a court affidavit released after Christopher Wheeler, most recently headmaster at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Del., was arrested Nov. 1 on 25 counts of dealing in child pornography.
Police said they found explicit images of men molesting boys during an Oct. 22 search of Wheeler's mansion on the campus of the elite private school.
At Wheeler's first court appearance Friday, Deputy Attorney General Abigail Layton said investigators had recovered more than 1,400 images of child porn from Christopher Wheeler's computers and devices.
Nikolai Wheeler and his father moved to Wilmington in 2005 after Christopher Wheeler was hired as headmaster at Tower Hill, an elite college preparatory school founded in 1919 with longstanding ties to the du Pont family and DuPont Co.
At the time of Wheeler's hire, Pierre du Pont Hayward, president of Tower Hill's board of trustees, lauded the selection of the new headmaster, who had attended Westtown Friends School in nearby Chester County. Tower Hill representatives who met Wheeler during visits to Illinois were impressed with his credentials, demeanor, tenacity and energy.
"When you look into the soul of Chris Wheeler, you see someone who is honest, straightforward, humble, smart and very capable," Hayward said at the time.
Christopher Wheeler beat out 44 candidates to win the post, heading an institution where annual high school tuition now runs $26,400. It is a coveted and lucrative position, one that paid him total compensation of $360,876 in 2012 and allowed him to live in a 9,500-square-foot brick colonial that the school owns.
His mother was 14 and already an alcoholic when he was born, he said. His biological father died when he was a baby. He lived with his grandparents and his siblings, Nastya and Sergey, in a ramshackle hut in a remote Black Sea village. In his young life, he saw his mother only a handful of times when she wasn't in jail.
"It's another world," he said. "You have no water. Or you have no food, and you have to eat peas or tomatoes as your meal.
"I had my first job job when I was 7, gardening for a neighbor who would pay for my brother and my sister to go to school. Sometimes she would give us food, and sometimes I would have to steal food."
Because of one of those thefts ended up in his police custody, he said. That led authorities to commit the Kovalevsky children to separate orphanages.
"As bad as it was going through all those things, it's actually good because it taught me a lot about myself and what I'm capable of," Nikolai Wheeler said.
When he left Russia at age 12, he had not seen his siblings for two years.
He and his new father lived in the Chicago area, where Christopher Wheeler, a composer and licensed pilot, was a dean and wrestling coach at the exclusive Lake Forest Academy. Nikolai Wheeler, who spoke only Russian, struggled to adjust and regarded his new father as a savior.
Nikolai Wheeler now caddies at Chechessee Creek Club near Bluffton and aspires to become a professional golfer.
Asked if he had a complicated relationship with his adoptive father and conflicted feelings toward him, Nikolai Wheeler didn't mince words.
"Nope," he said. "I love my dad very much and I'm grateful for what he did for me, and that's that."
His goals are high. Next year, he hopes to qualify for the Canadian Tour and eventually become a touring pro with the Professional Golfers Association. He wants to qualify for the Russian or U.S. Olympic team in 2016.
He prays that his father can be part of the success he envisions.