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Murder-suicide rocks wrestling fans, Fayette

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/27/07

In the ring, wrestler Chris Benoit, the "Canadian Crippler," would vault from the ropes to pancake an opponent. Or grab a wrestler from behind before slamming him to the mat.

It was all in fun, part of the smackdown entertainment that millions of wrestling fans enjoy.

And Benoit was one of the best, crowned World Wrestling Entertainment champion in 2004. He performed on pay-per-view events that were broadcast worldwide.

But away from the limelight, the 40-year-old Fayette County resident was struggling with family issues he couldn't defeat. The results were tragic.

Over the weekend, Benoit strangled his wife, Nancy Benoit, 43, and smothered their son, Daniel, 7, and placed Bibles next to their bodies before hanging himself with cord from a weight machine, authorities said Tuesday.

She was found in an upstairs den at the family's 2-year-old traditional frame home, wrapped in a towel, her wrists and feet bound. Daniel, who had recently completed classes at the First Baptist Church school in Peachtree City, was in his bed.

Fayette County Sheriff's Lt. Tommy Pope said steroids were found at the house.

"There were some prescription medications ... that we believe at this time were legal prescriptions," Pope said.

Toxicology test results may not be available for weeks or even months, said District Attorney Scott Ballard. As for whether steroids played a role in the crime, he said: "We don't know yet. That's one of the things we'll be looking at."

Benoit received drug deliveries from a Florida business that sold steroids, human growth hormone and testosterone on the Internet, according to the Albany County, N.Y., District Attorney's Office, which is investigating the business, MedXLife.com.

Six people, including two of the pharmacy's owners, have pleaded guilty in the investigation, and 20 more have been arrested, including doctors and pharmacists.

The WWE, based in Stamford, Conn., issued a statement Tuesday saying steroids "were not and could not be related to the cause of death."

"The physical findings announced by authorities indicate deliberation, not rage," the company said, adding that Benoit tested negative April 10, the last time he was tested for drugs.

Police said Benoit, a native of Montreal, probably killed his wife of seven years Friday and his son Saturday before hanging himself in the basement of their home Saturday.

No note was left, and people who knew Benoit were at a loss to explain the carnage.

"The Chris I know couldn't have done this," said James Robison, a manager at Partners Pizza in Peachtree City, where the Benoits would go on the Fourth of July before the fireworks began.

"They'd sit right over there in that booth," he said, pointing to a booth by the window in the shopping center restaurant. "I definitely won't be here on that night. It'll be too painful."

"I met them in 2004 and I used to tease Chris about wrestling being fake," said Angela Hall, holding a disposable camera and wiping away tears during a visit to the Benoit home Tuesday. She knew them as shoppers at the Publix just outside Peachtree City, where she worked at the deli. "I told him, 'You sure make it look real.' "

"It's indescribable," she said of the killings. "I still don't believe it.'

The Rev. Kenneth Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church, called them "a regular family." First Baptist school workers are putting together information packets to help parents and children deal with the grief.

Deputies went to check on Benoit after his employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, told them he had missed out-of-state engagements. Benoit failed to appear at Saturday's live wrestling event in Beaumont, Texas, and at WWE's "Vengeance: Night of Champions" in Houston on Sunday night. WWE told Sunday's pay-per-view fans that Benoit had a "family emergency."

The Benoits had been together since 1997 and were married in 2000. He had two other children from a former marriage.

Benoit met his future wife while wrestling for Ted Turner's defunct World Championship Wrestling.

At the time, she was Nancy Sullivan, married to someone else and managing several wrestlers under the stage name "Woman."

Her then-husband dreamed up a story line in which she and Benoit were romantically involved. That fantasy soon turned to reality.

Signs of trouble in the Benoit marriage became apparent in May 2003, when Nancy Benoit filed for divorce and sought court protection from her husband.

In the protective order petition, she said Benoit "lost his temper and threatened to strike the petitioner and cause extensive damage to the home."

But three months later, the couple reconciled and the petition was dismissed.

Chris Benoit's only other known brush with the legal system occurred in September 1998, when Peachtree City police arrested him on a DUI charge.

He was observed parked late at night in front of a house on Fairfield Drive. "Mr. Benoit stated that he used to live in the house until his divorce a year ago," the police report says. "He stated he was sitting there 'reminiscing.' "

The Benoits lived on eight acres in a semi-rural area east of Peachtree City. Their house, soft brown with white trim, is set well back from the road behind a stacked stone wall and iron gate.

Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, said medication is a part of the pro wrestling culture. Benoit broke his neck about six years ago, which put him out of action for more than a year.

"I know [his wife] was concerned about the drugs -- painkillers and the steroids," Meltzer said. "That was a problem."

Early Sunday, two co-workers received a series of text messages from the cell phones of Benoit and his wife. Most stated his home address in Fayetteville, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. One message from Benoit's phone said: "The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open," according to WWE. The prosecutor said the messages appeared to be an attempt to get someone to the home to find the bodies after his suicide.

The boy had old needle marks in his arms, Ballard said. He said he had been told the parents considered him undersized and had given him growth hormones.

"The boy was very small, even dwarfed," Ballard said.

Benoit was just under 6 feet and about 230 pounds. Meltzer said he was a wrestler's wrestler, more technique than show.

"He wasn't the biggest star," he said, "but if you ask me who the best wrestler was ... that would be the name I would say -- Chris Benoit."

While a teenager in Edmonton, Alberta, Benoit fell in love with wrestling after seeing the Dynamite Kid.

He wrestled in Japan in the early 1990s as the Pegasus Kid before heading to the United States in 1994 and becoming the Canadian Crippler.

He was an "enigma," according to his attorney in the divorce proceeding, Stanley Levitt, because the Crippler "was one of the most gentle and soft-spoken people I had run across in a very long time."

Robison, the pizza manager, would agree. They met several years ago while checking in for a tanning bed appointment. Robison joked Benoit was trying to push ahead.

"Chris just stepped back and apologized over and over again. He was so sorry," Robison recalled.

That was a far different time from last weekend.

"I know it happened," Robison said, "but it's a total mystery."

Staff writers Saeed Ahmed, S.A. Reid, Abby Brunks and Rhonda Cook and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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