Signposts to a Tragedy : Du Pont Heir, Accused of Murdering Olympic Gold Medalist, Is Sports Philanthropist With a History of Eccentric Behavior
In a conference call last November, USA Wrestling’s athletes advisory council debated whether to ask the sport’s national governing body to end its association with John E. du Pont. Amateur wrestling’s most generous benefactor for almost a decade, Du Pont had been accused of racism after dismissing two African American wrestlers from the state-of-the-art training center on his 800-acre Foxcatcher Farms estate in the rolling hills near Philadelphia.
During the heated discussion, one wrestler alleged that Du Pont had pointed guns at athletes on the property. But Chris Campbell, council chairman, said that charge was quickly dismissed as the athletes focused on the race issue, ultimately deciding to take no action because the relationship between USA Wrestling and Du Pont had already begun to cool.
“In retrospect, I wish I had asked more questions about the guns,” Campbell said Tuesday, “although it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Du Pont’s most ardent defender during that conference call, Campbell said, was Dave Schultz, a 1984 Olympic freestyle gold medalist at 163 pounds and the leading contender to earn a berth on the U.S. team in that weight class for this summer’s Olympics at Atlanta.
Last Friday, Schultz, 36, was shot and killed outside the house he shared with his wife and two children on the Du Pont estate, where Schultz had coached and trained as a member of Team Foxcatcher since 1987. Police in Newtown Square, Pa., said that Du Pont pulled his silver Lincoln Town Car into the driveway while Schultz was repairing his car radio and opened fire with a .38 caliber revolver. No motive has been determined.
Du Pont, 57, an heir to the chemical company fortune, was arraigned Monday on murder and weapons charges, then jailed without bond pending a Thursday hearing. Delaware County District Atty. Patrick L. Meehan did not say whether the death penalty will be sought.
USA Wrestling President Larry Sciacchetano said that he had heard stories of Du Pont’s increasingly erratic behavior. Among those appearing in various media reports since the shooting are that Du Pont twice drove luxury cars into the pond on his property, escaping before they sank, once shot a large number of geese over the pond because he believed they were casting spells on him, and removed treadmills from the training center because he thought the clocks on them were sending him backward in time.
Sciacchetano said he was aware that Du Pont at one point had a drinking problem, but he said it surprised him to read that friends and acquaintances were telling reporters that Du Pont also used drugs, especially cocaine. He also said that he had never heard until reading it within the last few days that Du Pont, an expert marksman who used to invite local police to practice on his 12-position shooting range, sometimes roamed the estate with weapons.
“This history of eccentric behavior hadn’t just started in the last months,” Sciacchetano said. “From what we know, it’s been going on for years. But John was a gentle person and never seemed to be a threat to anyone. . . . If we ever felt there was a threat to those athletes, we would have advised them of that.”
Jeff Devlin, a modern pentathlete from Downington, Pa., who was funded by Du Pont in 1989, described him during those days as “quirky. But I never thought of him as having a violent or malicious nature.
“It was only lately that I heard people saying that John had been acting strange, doing crazy things. If it was true, why didn’t people close to him try to get him help instead of just saying, ‘He’s a crazy old millionaire, that’s John’? He definitely was going toward mental illness, and it should have been taken care of.
“You can’t justify anything John did, but I think he had a lot of people around him who weren’t confronting the problem because they didn’t want their funds to be cut off. You could look at this as a big, huge cry for help. Unfortunately, there were terrible consequences.”
Until Friday, Du Pont was considered one of the most positive forces for amateur sports in the United States. In addition to his official role as a sponsor for USA Wrestling, he also contributed financially over the years to modern pentathletes, swimmers, gymnasts, track and field athletes and triathletes.
At one point in 1992, more than 150 athletes in three sports were using his training center. He once said the more world-class athletes there the better because “gold rubs off on gold and never tarnishes.”
In rare interviews, Du Pont, who proclaimed himself “the Golden Eagle of America,” and was called “Eagle” by his athletes, stressed winning. “Second place is like any other--not first,” he told Triathlon Times USA in 1990.
But Devlin said that Du Pont has never demanded results in his arrangements with athletes, only that they perform at their best.
“If you want to know his philosophy, you just have to look at the titles of his two books, ‘Off the Mat,’ and ‘Never Give Up,’ ” Devlin said.
Sciacchetano said Du Pont enjoys the company of elite athletes, often spending entire days not only coaching, motivating and counseling them but also training beside them. Sciacchetano said athletes also seem to like Du Pont, socializing with him at restaurants and movies and inviting him into their homes for holidays.
“Foxcatcher was like a family,” said Joy Leutner, a triathlete from Hermosa Beach who lived for two years on the estate. “Eagle was like a father to us, and we were like his kids. The man that I know was a very sensitive man, very focused and very intense, but more toward helping all the athletes reach their potential. The man who killed Dave Schultz is not the man I know at all.”
Aside from his association with elite athletes, Du Pont also received satisfaction from the financial assistance he gave young athletes, particularly those in the American Swimming Coaches Assn.'s Swim America Program that he has funded since its inception in 1988.
John Leonard, the ASCA’s executive director, said that between 2 and 3 million children, including 700,000 last year, have learned to swim in the program.
“I hold John in the highest regard,” Leonard said. “If, in fact, he’s guilty, this is one terrible, tragic incident in the life of a man who’s meant a lot of good things to a lot of people.”
As the great-great grandson of E.I. du Pont, the French-born industrialist whose family has made trillions of dollars since he founded the DuPont chemical company by developing a formula for smokeless gunpowder, John du Pont is one of hundreds of heirs. According to his ex-wife’s lawsuit, he was worth $46.2 million in 1985.
Du Pont’s interest in sports came from his mother, Jean Liseter Austin du Pont, who over a period of 80 years won more than 3,000 ribbons, cups, trophies and awards at horse, cattle and dog shows and equestrian competitions. He was about 3 years old when his parents separated and was not close to his father, William du Pont Jr., who raised thoroughbred horses.
John du Pont once told a reporter that he “spent a lifetime looking for a father,” finally finding one in Villanova’s legendary track and field coach, Jumbo Elliott.
“I went to Villanova like a little orphan and they took me in,” Du Pont said. “Ed Geisz, the swimming coach, let me use the pool and Jumbo taught me how to run.”
After college, Du Pont tried unsuccessfully in the ‘60s and ‘70s to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic team in modern pentathlon, a sport requiring skills in running, swimming, fencing, shooting and horseback riding. He was named manager for the U.S. team in the sport for the 1976 Summer Olympics. Most of his success as an athlete has come in more recent years in masters events for participants 40 and older.
Du Pont was particularly attracted to wrestling, he once told the Philadelphia Inquirer, because his family disapproved, calling it a “sport for ruffians.” After building a $15-million sports pavilion for Villanova, Du Pont endowed a wrestling program for the university in 1986. Not only did he pay for it, he also supervised it as the coach.
But Villanova disbanded the program two years later because, university officials said, they recognized that there was little interest in the sport on campus and feared that Du Pont had violated NCAA rules with his lavish treatment of the wrestlers.
There also were allegations by wrestlers that Du Pont appeared intoxicated at practices. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was under heavy medication and staggering under the weight of a back brace. Also, a former assistant coach, Andre Metzger, accused him of sexual harassment after Metzger spurned Du Pont’s advances. Du Pont’s lawyers denied that.
During his years at Villanova, Du Pont also became involved with USA Wrestling, contributing $100,000 in 1987 and in ’88 and $400,000 a year for the next seven years to the freestyle team. In return, his name became part of the title for both the U.S. freestyle national championships and the freestyle world team trials. His name also was on the team’s warmup suits.
As an at-large member of USA Wrestling’s Board of Directors since 1989 and a financial contributor and advisor to the international federation, FILA, he was so influential within the sport that Campbell said another reason the athletes advisory council took no action against him in November was because they feared a backlash against U.S. wrestlers by wrestling officials in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
While building his power base within the sport, Du Pont also turned Team Foxcatcher into one of the world’s best. He built a $600,000, 14,000-square foot training center that included an Olympic size swimming pool, weight and exercise room, a large wrestling room, video room and kitchen, and recruited the nation’s most decorated wrestlers. The Schultz brothers, Dave and Mark, both gold medalists in 1984, were two of first members.
Compared to other amateur wrestlers in the country, Du Pont’s were treated royally--flying first-class or on the Concord to international competitions and receiving stipends of between $600 and $1,000 a month. Some lived in houses on the estate.
He seemed to be closing in on his goal for all 10 members of the U.S. Olympic freestyle team to come from Team Foxcatcher. Last year, his wrestlers had four first places, three seconds and a third in the national championships. Three others finished in the top five.
But even before then, Du Pont had begun to distance himself from the sport. He withdrew his name from the tournaments and the warmup suits and contributed no more money after June of last year.
Sciacchetano said that Du Pont did not offer an explanation and that USA Wrestling officials were unable to communicate with him, especially after the telephone lines were cut to his mansion during two fires within hours of each other in October. Police repaired the lines last Friday in order to talk with Du Pont during a 48-hour standoff after he allegedly shot Schultz. The status of Du Pont’s relationship with USA Wrestling, Sciacchetano said, was on the agenda even before Friday to be discussed by the organization’s executive board this weekend at New Orleans.
In an interview Monday with television station WHYY in Wilmington, Del., Du Pont’s sister-in-law, Martha du Pont, said that the family had been concerned that he was mentally ill. She said that his behavior included “paranoia, thinking that somebody was trying to get him, and there were people in the walls and voices were talking to him.”
Those associated with him in sports could not help but notice his increasing eccentricity. Ray Essick, executive director of USA Swimming, said that Du Pont chased all athletes except wrestlers off his property within the last several months. Campbell said that Du Pont also dismissed two African American wrestlers “because he didn’t want anything black around, cars or athletes or anything. He was afraid of death and black meant death.”
Another wrestler, Dan Chaid, filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that Du Pont drove him off the estate where the wrestler had lived and trained for nine years with a machine gun in October. Chaid said that police did not take his charge seriously. Newtown Township Police Chief Michael Mallon said Chaid refused to sign a formal complaint.
“It was really bothering me, how dangerous the situation was,” Chaid told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I even told Dave, ‘Look, you’ve got to go, the situation is too dangerous. John is too unstable. Somebody is going to get hurt.”’
Schultz was one of only four wrestlers remaining on the estate when last week began. Art Martori, who founded the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in Phoenix where Schultz coached before going to Foxcatcher, said Schultz was too loyal to leave.
“David truly thought he was helping John in being there,” Martori told the Associated Press. “It’s hard to abandon someone who has helped you as much as he had.”
Times staff writer Ann O'Neill contributed to this story.