Archive for June 17th, 2009

‘No WWE in Benoit Wrongful-Death Suit’ (full text from SLAM! Wrestling)

[originally published on June 12 at SLAM! Wrestling under the headline “No WWE in Benoit wrongful-death suit — only Dr. Astin and “Distributors X, Y, Z,” http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/Benoit/2009/06/12/9772341.html

By Irvin Muchnick

On Wednesday the family of Chris Benoit’s wife Nancy brought down the civil litigation hammer, filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Newnan, Georgia, over the June 2007 murders by Chris of Nancy and their son Daniel (which were followed by Chris’s suicide).

But as was speculated in this space on Tuesday [Second anniversary of Benoit tragedy slams shut another door on reform], the target of the suit by Nancy’s parents, Maureen and Paul Toffoloni, is not World Wrestling Entertainment. Rather, it is Dr. Phil Astin, Chris’s personal physician, who already has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after the Drug Enforcement Administration busted him for wildly overprescribing drugs to his patients.

(Prosecutors told the sentencing judge that two Astin patients other than the Benoits had died as a result of the doctor’s prescription abuses. One of these patients was Mike “Johnny Grunge” Dunham. The other was believed to be Sherry “Sensational Sherri” Russell.)

The Toffolonis’ complaint introduces a new element to the Benoit mystery in its inclusion of three co-defendants, who are referred to as “Distributor X,” “Distributor Y,” and “Distributor Z.” According to the complainants, the identities of these defendants are currently unknown to them, except to the extent that they are “for profit entities doing business in the State of Georgia” and are “manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and/or retail sellers of certain anabolic androgenic steroids, narcotic drugs, and/or controlled substances.”

Dr. Astin himself is accused of being a proximate cause of the Benoits’ deaths because of his negligent medical care and treatment of Chris, which began in June 2000. During that period, the complaint says, Astin’s actions put Chris “under the influence of CNS [central nervous system] depressants, opioids and anabolic androgenic steroids,” which impaired him mentally and triggered his homicidal-suicidal rampage across a weekend at the family’s home outside Fayetteville.

Both individually and on behalf of Nancy and Daniel’s estates, Maureen and Paul Toffoloni seek a jury trial and recovery of damages for “the full value of the lives of each decedent”; “final expenses, including funeral expenses”; and “compensatory damages for the fear, shock, mental and emotional trauma, and extreme pain and suffering endured by Nancy E. Benoit and Daniel Benoit prior to their deaths.” The plaintiffs also ask for punitive damages flowing from the defendants’ “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, [with an assumption of] conscious indifference to consequences.”

At least three motivations could underly the decision by the family and their attorney, Richard P. Decker, to structure a three-fourths-unnamed defense group. One may be the struggle to locate a culpable party with deep pockets. The only hope of recovering monetary damages from the broken and imprisoned Astin himself would almost certainly be through his malpractice insurer. The Toffolonis may be betting on discovery and new evidence generated by a trial to identify the Atlanta area non-licensed pharmaceutical sources of what we already know, through the Fayette County sheriff’s criminal investigation and through the DEA’s case against Astin, was Chris Benoit’s astounding personal inventory of drugs.

The second motivation may be the need, for civil wrongful-death purposes, to establish something that was missing from the Astin prosecution: counts involving steroids and human growth hormone (not just painkillers and antidepressants). The network for those substances reaches beyond the doctor himself to the netherworld of online and other black-market dealers, and might involve recreational drugs as well.

A third motivation may well be grounded in pure principle — in a simple determination by the Toffolonis to use the civil legal system to expose as much as they possibly can about the circumstances that led to the horrific loss of their loved ones.

“We are not money-hungry people and that is not what this is about for us,” Nancy’s sister, Sandra Toffoloni, told me last year. “We have lost everything. Everything. I firmly believe there is responsibility to be taken, not just by Christopher.”

A facsimile of Wednesday’s 15-page complaint can be viewed through my website at muchnick.net/toffolonicomplaint.pdf.

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.

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WrestlingBabylon / Chris & Nancy YouTube Channel Launched

A channel collecting the media appearances of Irvin Muchnick, author of WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal (2007) and the forthcoming CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, is now live at YouTube.

The URL is http://youtube.com/WrestlingBabylon.

Here is a list of the current content:

* Irv challenges wrestling legend Bret Hart about steroids on CNN’s “Nancy Grace,” June 29, 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXmw7Fmhwgg&feature=channel_page

* Irv dukes it out with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” June 27, 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asTdiVWf4gM&feature=channel_page

* Irv is among those interviewed for a report on the Chris Benoit case and death in pro wrestling on France’s “L’Effet Papillon,” Canal + network, May 25, 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KDqolTYGY8&feature=channel_page

* Irv is among those interviewed for an hour-long documentary on Chris Benoit and death in pro wrestling on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “the fifth estate,” February 6, 2008, in seven parts on YouTube beginning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilMSCWC-Yvs&feature=channel_page

* Irv is the featured guest on “The Josh Kornbluth Show,” KQED-TV, San Francisco, February 26, 2007, in four parts on YouTube beginning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAGq8RCzpPg&feature=channel_page

* Irv is interviewed live by Gary Radnich, KRON4 News, San Francisco, March 22, 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH4Vj6X0Q_s&feature=channel_page

* Irv is interviewed about the Benoit case on WOC AM, Davenport, Iowa, April 8, 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xf-7riLmis&feature=channel_page

* In footage acquired by Irv after a fight before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, Stamford police interrogate the “Benoit Wikipedia hacker,” June 29, 2007, in three parts on YouTube beginning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bHmsfSDvUc&feature=channel_page

‘Steroid Cloud Hovers Over Baseball’s Feel-Good Stories’ (full text from Beyond Chron)

[originally published at Beyond Chron on June 15, http://quartz.he.net/~beyondch/news/index.php?itemid=7030]

By Irvin Muchnick

Anyone who cares about good government must scour the Washington coverage critically. Similarly, if the public-health implications of sports’ steroid scandals matter, you need to read the sports pages with equal skepticism. The feel-good comeback narratives of two baseball players – Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals and Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers – illustrate the latter point.

Both Ankiel and Hamilton were on the list of athletes and entertainers, compiled in 2007 by the Albany, New York, district attorney’s office, who received shipments of steroids or human growth hormone from the gray-market Internet dealer Signature Pharmacy.

I don’t mind Ankiel and Hamilton being forgiven for their mistakes – any more than I begrudge Miguel Tejada, a one-time hero in my household, for his fine current (and, apparently, performance-enhancing-drug-free) season.

The steroid story should not just be about naming names. Still, only an apologist could argue that the game of gotcha has no real-world value. Specific examples reveal the range of subtle motivations and manipulations of drug cheats. Again, the key word is “drug,” not “cheats.” Hundreds of pro wrestlers have died young over the last generation. In the coming decades, dozens of our “legitimate” athletes will follow them in the record book of life.

Rick Ankiel was a phenomenal rookie pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000, whose career went suddenly south in an incurable bout of wildness. In a makeover unprecedented in modern baseball, Ankiel reinvented himself as a slugging outfielder and returned to the major leagues two years ago. Then came the Signature Pharmacy revelation, but it blew over.

“Crash adds chapter to Ankiel’s amazing story,” read the headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 5 of this year. Ankiel had just injured himself running face-first into the center field wall at Busch Stadium on a great catch. He got hurt “playing the way he always has approached any of his baseball jobs: full speed ahead,” wrote baseball columnist Rick Hummel, who has been inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and is nicknamed “Commish” (for “commissioner”).

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called Ankiel “a guy who’s had more than his share of adversity, but he’s shown a lot of courage and strength.” La Russa’s chief lieutenant, Dave Duncan, added, “You have a certain respect for all the things he’s gone through and how he’s dealt with it.”

Not a word from the Commish about Signature. Though the trauma injury of crashing into a wall didn’t have anything to do with steroids, a full account of Ankiel’s “amazing” biography surely did. But as Mark McGwire said to Congress, who wants to talk about the past?

Josh Hamilton was a seemingly can’t-miss prospect who seemingly missed, due to drug addiction. Eight times he went into rehab to shake a cluster of vices, including crack cocaine. Last year he finally emerged as a star with the Texas Rangers, driving in an otherworldly 95 runs in the first half before tailing off, and putting on a show for the ages at the homer-hitting contest before the All-Star Game.

Like Ankiel, Hamilton has a hard time staying off the disabled list. (Ankiel tore a muscle in his side, hampering his swing, just as he was returning to the lineup following his outfield collision.) Now Hamilton is shelved by a torn abdominal muscle, which is said to be a result of running into a wall. Maybe, though running into walls usually causes bruises, not the torn abs, pectorals, and triceps that are relatively recent line items in the sports medicine literature, and are ascribed by experts to steroid abuse, which causes overdeveloped muscles to overload the tendons holding them together.

“Hamilton’s past might still haunt him,” read the headline in Yahoo Sports on June 9. This story was written by Gordon Edes, who last year left the sinking ship of The Boston Globe to become Yahoo’s baseball columnist.

Was “Hamilton’s past” a reference to his steroid/HGH use? Naw. It was the cocaine.

Jose Vasquez, the Rangers’ strength and conditioning coach, who called Hamilton’s strength “off the charts,” told Edes, “His challenge is his health. We just don’t know how his body will bounce back from all those years of drug use. It’s a mystery to all of us.”

Edes wrote that the team was worried about Hamilton’s recovery from surgery: “Last season, Hamilton had a stomach ailment that sent him to the hospital; he wound up on the disabled list. ‘The years of drug abuse tore up my immune system pretty good,’ he said at the time.”

Fans who believe depressed immune systems from cocaine abuse are relevant to torn abdominal muscles need a crash course on how to read the sports pages.

Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death will be published in the fall. See the book’s website, http://benoitbook.com, and follow Irv at http://twitter.com/irvmuch.


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