Archive for June 14th, 2009

‘Second Anniversary of Benoit Tragedy’ (full text from SLAM! Wrestling)

“Second anniversary of Benoit tragedy slams shut another door on reform,” Tuesday, June 9, has cycled off the list of top stories at SLAM Wrestling. Below is the full text. The link is http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/GuestColumn/2009/06/08/9715336.html.

The second anniversary of the weekend that will live in infamy — June 22-24, 2007, when Chris Benoit strangled his wife Nancy with a cable TV cord, snapped their son Daniel’s neck with a variation of the Crippler Crossface, and hung himself from a basement weight-training machine — approaches.

Under Georgia law, the families must file wrongful-death civil lawsuits within two years of the crime. There is no indication that either the Benoits or the Toffolonis will do so. And if that proves out, the window will slam shut on perhaps the last best chance for information that could drive reforms in the regulation of pro wrestling health and safety standards.

Most pointedly, the World Wrestling Entertainment wellness program, complete with “therapeutic use exemptions” (TUE’s) for astronomical testosterone levels — which the company’s own TUE administrator at the time, Dr. Tracy Ray, acknowledged to Congressional investigators had “shadiness in almost every case” — will proceed in a business-as-usual mode.

After an initial flurry of sensationalism, the media have already whiffed on the implications of the Benoit story; the mainstream media didn’t care and the wrestling media cared more about breaking down the next pay-per-view storylines. A couple of committees of the House of Representatives strutted their stuff for a while before deciding that they could get more mileage out of investigating fake records in the legit sport of baseball than out of probing the stunning volume of real deaths in “sports entertainment.”

So, for public education and possible future action, only the potential of new revelations in open court remained. With Benoit’s personal physician, Dr. Phil Astin, recently having been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for overprescribing prescription drugs to his patients (though the access to steroids that he also provided was not among the charges), a private lawsuit might have facilitated, for example, release of the wrestler’s medical records. That, in turn, could have shed additional light on the history of both Benoit’s drug use and his concussions — to cite the two major areas of interest to students of his inexplicable descent into homicidal-suicidal insanity.

If, as I’m guessing, neither Cary Ichter nor Richard Decker (respectively, the Benoits’ and the Toffolonis’ attorneys) pulls the trigger, the core reason will be that there is simply not a compelling civil case to be made. Or, certainly, not one that stacks up as a good business proposition, on a contingency retainer, against the formidable legal firepower of WWE.

In December 2007 a story leaked that WWE had rejected a preemptive $2 million settlement offer from Ichter. Mike Benoit, Chris’s father, denied ever approving such an offer, and told me that he subsequently instructed Ichter to focus on resolving the estate dispute between the two sides of the family. Benoit did continue to have Ichter’s office investigate some of the gaps in the Fayette County sheriff’s report closing its homicide file; many of those discrepancies were first exposed on my blog Wrestling Babylon News.

When I was in Georgia last summer, I met with Ichter over breakfast (and, by the way, we went “Dutch”). Ichter expended most of his energy pitching coverage of his lawsuit against TNA on behalf of Konnan. (I wasn’t interested, and that suit soon settled.)

The Benoit civil lawsuit card was always a long shot. In an email to me a year ago, WWE lawyer Jerry McDevitt wrote, in part, “Chris Benoit, and only Chris Benoit, is factually, legally, and morally responsible for the murders of his wife and child and his decision to commit suicide rather than face the legal consequences for committing two first degree murders.” It’s almost impossible to argue with the first two-thirds of that statement.

McDevitt added a point that could have had a chilling effect on any party tempted to file wrongful-death litigation as a kind of fishing expedition.

Dr. Astin, McDevitt noted, was charged with not only prescribing an illegitimate amount of drugs to both Chris and Nancy Benoit, but also “with conspiracy with some of the recipients of his prescriptions to further distribute the drugs. As Michael Benoit surely knows, since he is the executor of the estate, the house where the murders were committed had no mortgage. Instead, the builder was paid by a series of payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all payments were consistently made by Nancy Benoit from various accounts.”

The clear message — which should have been obvious anyway — was that if WWE were hauled into court, it would defend itself aggressively, and such a defense inevitably would further drag Chris and Nancy’s names through the mud. The same message, in more subtle form, may have been behind the brief campaign by WWE to promote Chris and Nancy’s concern over little Daniel’s medical condition as Chris’s main stressor before he snapped.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The deepest mysteries inevitably leave open questions, and the Chris Benoit double murder/suicide is no exception. As a writer, I have pushed, and will continue to push, for as much disclosure as possible. Only the most strident fringe of the deny-all crowd could fail to realize that the drug intake and mental hygiene of pro wrestling talent is a legitimate public health issue. The lives of hundreds of wrestlers and their loved ones hang in the balance.

  • Irvin Muchnick’s Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death will be published this fall by ECW Press. Pre-order and other info is at benoitbook.com.
  • Fox 5 Atlanta’s ‘New’ Benoit-Astin Revelations Are Old News

    On the Friday newscast on Atlanta”s Fox 5, a report touted “new revelations in the Chris Benoit double murder and suicide.”

    The station said the civil wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Benoit’s in-laws against Dr. Phil Astin “contains documents that haven’t been seen before in public. In it is a letter written by Dr. Astin to Fayette County deputies on June 26 – a day after the bodies were found.”

    The report is wrong. Astin’s letter was included in the file released in February 2008 by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, closing the criminal investigation.

    The full text of Astin’s letter is below. I emailed Fox 5 reporter Doug Evans, but he has not responded.

    Irv Muchnick

    ***************

    June 26, 2007

    To Whom It May Concern:

    I have been Chriis and Nancy Benoit’s personal physician and friend for approximately seven (7) years. Chris Benoit was seen in our office on Friday, June 22, 2007. He was here from approximately 12:30 p.m. to about 1:45 p.m. He was seen on a routine check-up whiich hye is seen [sic] in 2-3 month intervals.

    He had no outstanding complaints other than his usual pain and muscular spasms. He did stat3e he wanted to restart an antidepressant, Zoloft, which he had taken in the past. On further history he stated he was mildly depressed mostly secondary to his travel schedule. He was given a prescription for Zoloft 50 mg. One per day, the usual dose and the same dose he had used in the past.

    Chris did not appear outwardly depressed nor anxious. He did state Nancy had been very “moody” lately and he asked about premenopausal and hormonal changes in women her age. I explained about hormal changes, menopause, and mood swings to Chris. He asked me to see her professionally after the upcoming July 4th holiday. I agreed to see her and agreed not to mention our conversation or his conversation to her.

    Chris stayed at our office conversing with my staff as he usually does during his visits. He designed a few autographs for some patients and left approximately 1:45 p.m. He ddid not appear distressed, anxious, nor even depressed at th3e time he was in  the office. I told Chris as a friend I would call Nancy if he desired, but he stated I could see her later.

    I hope this helps in the investigation of this tragic incident involving a great athlete and good person.

    Yours truly,

    Phil C. Astin III, M.D.

    Internal Medicine


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