A Man Possessed
02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
LATELY HE HAD STARTED TELLING PEOPLE HE WAS THE Dalai Lama. If anyone refused to address him as such, he simply refused to talk to them. That was bizarre, but then John E. du Pont, 57, a multimillionaire scion of the fabled industrial family, had always been odd. For fun he drove an armored personnel carrier around his 800-acre estate, Foxcatcher. He complained about bugs under his skin and about ghosts in the walls of the house. By and large, friends and family shook their heads, fretted about his ravings—and waited for the inevitable breakdown. "John is mentally ill and has been mentally ill for some time," says sister-in-law Martha du Pont, who is married to John's older brother Henry. "But this year he really went over the edge."
No one realized how far over until Friday afternoon, Jan. 26. Around 3 p.m., Dave Schultz, 36, a gold medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, was out working on his car at Foxcatcher, in leafy Newtown Square, Pa., 15 miles west of Philadelphia, where du Pont had established a residential training facility for top-level athletes. Suddenly du Pont pulled into the driveway of the house where Schultz lived with his wife, Nancy, 36, and their two children, Alexander, 9, and Danielle, 6. From the living room, Nancy heard a shot. When she reached the front door she heard a second. Looking out in horror, she saw a screaming du Pont, sitting in his car, extend his arm from the driver's side window, take aim at her husband, facedown on the ground, and pump one more bullet into his body. After pointing the gun at Nancy, du Pont drove down the road to his home, leaving her to cradle her dying husband.
During the two-day standoff that ensued, some 75 police and SWAT team members surrounded the sprawling Greek-revival mansion that du Pont called home. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, du Pont emerged, unarmed, to check on the house's heating unit, which the police had turned off, and was taken without a shot being fired. That evening, a gaunt, ashen-faced du Pont was arraigned in a Newtown Township courtroom on a charge of first-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania can carry the death penalty. As investigators tried to piece together a motive for the seemingly senseless killing, there emerged the sad, scary portrait of a man believed to be worth more than $50 million who was rich enough to indulge his madness and to put enough distance between himself and the world at large to ensure that no one really bothered him about it.
Du Pont's early life was a curious mixture of stifling privilege and emotional isolation. Raised on the family estate in Newtown Square, John was the fourth child of Jean Austin du Pont and William du Pont Jr., the great-grandson of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, who founded the gunpowder mill that eventually grew into what is now the world's largest chemical company. (The 1,000-plus members of the family have long since given up any direct control of the corporation.) When John was 2 years old, his parents divorced. His father subsequently remarried and after that had little to do with his first family. Growing up at the family mansion, a replica of President James Madison's home, Montpelier, in Virginia, John formed a deep devotion to his mother that lasted until her death in 1988. "They saw each other every day," says Martha du Pont. "She was interested in everything he did, and he shared everything with her." But it was far from a happy existence. John was not close to his three siblings, all of whom were considerably older. And as he later acknowledged, the distance of his father left a painful, lasting mark. "I spent a lifetime looking for a father," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986.
A mediocre student at the nearby Haverford School, du Pont went on to the University of Miami, where he majored in marine biology. But his real interest was varsity swimming, and he dreamed of competing in the Olympics. "He was a pretty damn good swimmer," says former swimming coach Buck Dawson, "but not good enough for the Olympics." Du Pont turned his attention to the modern pentathlon, an Olympic sport that combines swimming, riding, running, shooting and fencing. Again, though he became proficient, placing first in the Australian championships in 1965, he never qualified for the Olympics—though he was named the manager of the U.S. pentathlon team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
As a young man, du Pont became a collector of almost manic zeal. He acquired 1 million seashells and birds' eggs as well as 100,000 preserved birds, then built the Delaware Museum of Natural History outside Wilmington to house his treasures. He assembled enormous collections of everything from pricey silverware to tin toys to fine Staffordshire china, and according to one employee at Fox-catcher, he has a fleet of some 50 horse-drawn carriages—including one used in the movie version of My Fair Lady. He also has an extensive weapons collection, including a Civil War Gatling gun, which he kept in the library, and the armored personnel carrier (stripped of its weapons) that he picked up as army surplus 20 years ago. In addition, he gave generously to numerous charities, including hospitals and universities.
As long as he was dealing with mere objects and money, du Pont's obsessive habits posed few problems. But when it came to people it was a different story. In 1985 du Pont approached nearby Villanova University and offered to bankroll the formation of a varsity wrestling team. He had developed a keen enthusiasm for the sport and became head coach. As one of his assistants he named Mark Schultz, like his brother Dave a gold medalist in wrestling in his weight class at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1988, though, Villanova abruptly pulled the plug on the team, expressing concern that du Pont's profligate spending on recruiting and expensive trips to matches might have violated NCAA regulations. Coincidentally or not, several months later an assistant coach named Andre Metzger filed suit against du Pont, alleging that he had been fired for refusing du Pont's sexual advances. Du Pont called the accusations "ridiculous," and settled the matter out of court.
In fact, du Pont's romantic life was a matter of speculation among athletes and friends. A bachelor until he was 44, in 1983 he married 29-year-old Gale Wenk, an occupational therapist who had cared for him after he injured a hand in an auto accident. Ten months later he filed for divorce. (Wenk subsequently sued du Pont for $5 million, claiming he had pointed a gun at her and tried to push her into a fireplace. Her lawyer now refuses to discuss the case.) Some athletes and coaches suspected that he had become interested in wrestling for more than sporting reasons. As Jerry Stanley, a former assistant coach at the University of Oklahoma, told one reporter, "I think he just liked to be around these Greek Adonis-built types." Du Pont once said that wrestling captured his fancy because it was the sort of sport that his parents thought fit only for "ruffians."
Whatever his motives, du Pont began spending considerable sums on establishing a private wrestling club at Foxcatcher. He built a 200-foot-long gymnasium and installed state-of-the-art weight-training equipment. He provided housing on the grounds for the athletes, as many as 20 of whom were in residence at any given time. In addition, he paid the wrestlers up to $1,000 a month, and often flew them to tournaments in his Learjet. From 1987 to 1995 du Pont also poured $3.3 million into USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body.
Early on, du Pont hired Dave Schultz to serve as a coach for what became known as Team Foxcatcher. Schultz, who hoped to make the U.S. Olympic team for this year's games in Atlanta (he'd won the last three national titles in his weight class), was paid in the neighborhood of $70,000 a year, with a rent-free house thrown in, to do nothing but coach and train. It must have seemed an ideal arrangement for the free-spirited Schultz, who came from a middle-class family in Palo Alto, Calif., and who was far from independently wealthy. (His father, Philip, was an actor who played a psychiatrist on the hit TV series Hill Street Blues and is now a minister; his mother, Jean, is a costume designer.)
Presumably, du Pont was delighted—even flattered—to have him. Schultz was not merely a world-class athlete, an Olympic champion in the 163-pound weight class, but a legend in his sport. His success rested less on agility and strength than it did on his intelligence and unsurpassed technical proficiency. His constant drive to hone his skills even prompted Schultz to teach himself Russian so he could study and discuss new holds and moves being used by his main adversaries. Among the cognoscenti, he was often hailed as the best wrestler, pound for pound, in the world. "It was scary to wrestle him," says Chris Campbell, a former world champion himself and one of Schultz's best friends. "He was like some ancient martial artist who knows all the secrets of how to immobilize a body."
He was also one of the most popular figures in the sport. Though Schultz could be punishing in matches, away from competition he was friendly, outgoing and unassuming. Above all, he was devoted to his wife and children and had named his son after Aleksandr Medved, a renowned Soviet super-heavyweight wrestler. Between training sessions at Foxcatcher he would frequently drop by Culbertson Elementary School in Newtown Square to have lunch with his kids. He also gave talks to children, stressing the virtues of sportsmanship and hard work. "A neat thing he would do is go around to each kid and put his Olympic medal around each one's neck," says school principal Tom Cook. "He made them all feel special."
Such warmth and easy sociability may have endeared Schultz to du Pont as well, but did nothing to moderate his patron's erratic mood swings, which by all accounts became markedly worse seven years ago after his mother's death. He took to carrying loaded handguns and once drove his Lincoln luxury car into a pond on the estate for no apparent reason, then swam to shore while a passenger barely managed to scramble out.
He also began to exhibit distinctly paranoid behavior, claiming that his house was haunted and that unspecified persons were trying to control his mind. He hired bodyguards to protect him and became increasingly withdrawn. Michael Gostigian, an Olympic pentathlete and close friend of du Pont's, recalls several years ago inviting him to go trapshooting. "It was the first time in six months that he had left the farm," says Gostigian. According to athletes and friends, du Pont at times showed up for practice with alcohol on his breath, and there was talk he was using cocaine and pills. His sister-in-law Martha says the family tried to intervene, to no avail. "We tried to get him help," she says, "but he wouldn't see a doctor."
Meanwhile, the air of menace deepened at Foxcatcher. Last year du Pont suddenly developed a phobia about the color black, to the point that he prohibited one of the wrestlers from driving a black van on the property. In March, he abruptly expelled three black wrestlers who trained at the facility. One of them, Kevin Jackson, maintains that du Pont's strange behavior stemmed from a morbid fear of dying. "He didn't want anything black around because he associates it with death," says Jackson.
Then in October, says wrestler Dan Chaid, a member of the Foxcatcher team, an incident occurred that sent a clear warning that du Pont was capable of violence. Chaid says he was lifting weights one day when du Pont pointed an assault rifle at his chest, cursed him and ordered him off the property. Chaid reported the episode to Newtown Square police. At the time, some athletes suggested that police had ignored the incident because of du Pont's past support for the department, which included providing them with bulletproof vests and access to the pistol range at Foxcatcher. After the Schultz killing, police officials denied that du Pont, who in the 1970s had even been a volunteer for the department, had received any preferential treatment, pointing out that Chaid had never filed an official complaint.
Not surprisingly, many wrestlers wanted nothing more to do with du Pont and urged the national organization to sever all ties with him. Ironically, Schultz was the athlete who remained most loyal to his benefactor, despite recognizing the signs of mental instability. "If anything was said about John, Dave would defend him," says Rob Eiter, a top U.S. wrestler. "Dave was the mediator between John and the other wrestlers."
Nonetheless, friends and family urged—even begged—Schultz to move away from Foxcatcher, fearing it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened. He refused. After dominating so many opponents on the mat, he evidently believed he could handle the situation. "He was fearless," says Chris Horpel, wrestling coach at Stanford and a longtime friend of Schultz's, "and in the end that may have been part of the problem."
In retrospect, some athletes feel they should have done more to head off trouble. "People saw what was happening, and nobody did anything about it because he was John du Pont and he was giving money to USA Wrestling," says wrestler Kurt Angle, who trained at Foxcatcher. What finally set du Pont off is unknown. In fact, there may never be a rational explanation for what he did. "I know John was a good person, but he definitely had to have something wrong with him," says Angle. "I don't think I could ever forgive him for what he did to Dave, but you've got to feel sorry for him." That is the kind of compassion Dave Schultz understood, and which ultimately may have cost him his life.
BOB CALANDRA and ROBERT STRAUSS in Philadelphia, LINDA KRAMER and JENNIFER MENDELSOHN in Washington, LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles and GABRIELLE SAVERI in San Francisco