John du Pont, the chemical fortune heir who killed an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler at his palatial estate near Philadelphia, died Thursday after being found unresponsive in his Pennsylvania prison cell. He was 72.
Du Pont was found just before 7 a.m. at Laurel Highlands state prison, prisons spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said. He was pronounced dead a short time later at a local hospital.
He was serving a 13- to 30-year prison sentence after being found guilty but mentally ill in David Schultz’s death.
“He had had some illnesses, so we are considering it natural,” said McNaughton, noting that the county coroner would ultimately make the determination on the cause of death.
Du Pont was the great-great-grandson of E.I. du Pont, the French-born industrialist who developed a formula for smokeless gunpowder and founded the chemical company of the same name. He was one of hundreds of heirs to the family fortune.
In January 1996, he shot and killed Schultz, a 1984 gold medalist in freestyle wrestling who trained at the state-of-the-art Foxcatcher National Training Center that Du Pont had built on his 800-acre property in Newtown Square, Pa. Schultz, 36, lived with his wife and two children in a house on the Du Pont estate.
After the shooting, Du Pont barricaded himself in his home for two days but was taken into custody when he left his mansion to fix a boiler that police had shut off.
“In many ways, John du Pont died for me the day that he took my son’s life,” Schultz’s father, Philip, said from his home in Palo Alto. “So the fact that he’s officially gone is almost a moot point.”
The trial exposed Du Pont’s bizarre, paranoid behavior and his many delusions, including believing that his body was being inhabited by bugs and that he was being spied on.
Du Pont had a reputation for acting erratically, including once driving two new Lincoln Continentals into a pond on his property, one after the other. Wrestlers who had trained at Foxcatcher alleged that Du Pont pointed guns at them, drank too much and once kicked out a wrestler because he was black.
His lawyers contended that Du Pont was insane and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. A psychiatrist testified at his trial that it was cocaine, not mental illness, that fueled Du Pont’s rampage.
Born in 1938, John Eleuthere du Pont was the youngest of four children. He was raised by his mother, Jean Austin du Pont, on the grounds of the family estate after his father, William du Pont Jr., abandoned the family when John was 2.
Du Pont tried several times to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the modern pentathlon — a sport combining the disciplines of running, swimming, fencing, shooting and horseback riding — but fell short. He served as manager of the U.S. team in that sport at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
He then began contributing large sums to organizations that support amateur athletes in the United States. Pentathlon, swimming and wrestling groups were his favorites.
Du Pont founded a wrestling program at Villanova University in 1986 and named himself head coach. The program was dropped two years later after the NCAA began investigating reports of preferential treatment of athletes.
A former Villanova assistant coach, Andre Metzger, claimed in a 1988 lawsuit that he was fired after nine months because he refused to become Du Pont’s lover. The case was settled out of court.
Over the years, Du Pont lost several appeals of his murder conviction, including one to the Supreme Court in 2000.
Only last month, he lost another appeal with the federal appeals court in Philadelphia. He had contended that his trial counsel was ineffective. The court disagreed.
Du Pont, whose one brief marriage ended in divorce, had no children.