NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Larry Bethea's troubled life began when he left pro football. It ended Thursday when he apparently shot himself in the head within hours after he was identified as the gunman in two robberies.
Drug abuse was blamed for the problems of the former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman, who was a first-round National Football League draft pick in 1978.
"This man, who had so much going for him, lost everything, including his life. I believe that Larry Bethea would be alive today if he had been able to stay away from drugs," Jay A. Carey, Newport News police chief, said in a statement read by a police spokeswoman.
On Jan. 23, Bethea was given a four-year suspended prison term after pleading guilty to stealing his mother's life savings of $64,000.
Newport News Circuit Judge J. Warren Stephens also ordered Bethea to spend two years on probation and to repay the money.
Bethea was arrested by Dallas police on Aug. 4 with $61,375 in cash in his pockets after he allegedly accosted his estranged wife, Gloria. She summoned police, who found her with bruises and a bloodied lip.
Bethea's mother reported the next day that her $64,000 was missing.
Bethea said in January that he was grateful for his lenient sentence. "I got a little confused in the big picture, and I hurt my family," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt them."
Bethea pleaded guilty in 1985 to setting three fires in Mount Rainer National Park in Paradise, Wash. He was ordered to pay $1,000 to the park to cover the cost of fighting the fires.
In the latest and final incident, police were called by an unidentified friend of Bethea while officers were still questioning witnesses who said the former football player had robbed two convenience stores shortly before midnight Wednesday.
Bethea, 30, was found in the friend's backyard with a gunshot wound to his right temple and a .38-caliber automatic pistol near his body. He was taken to Hampton General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 2:08 a.m., according to a hospital spokeswoman.
The gun used in the shootings and the two robberies is believed to be a weapon that was reported stolen from a parked vehicle in the city Wednesday, police said.
Witnesses said a lone gunman took an undisclosed amount of cash from the two stores, which are near the house where Bethea lived with his mother, Alice Bethea.
Bethea was the 28th overall pick in the '78 NFL draft out of Michigan State and played for the Cowboys until 1983. He signed a contract with the United States Football League in 1984, playing for the Michigan Panthers. His final season, 1985, was spent in the USFL with Oakland and Houston.
"It is hard to believe that a player who was as congenial and as happy as Larry seemed to be with the Cowboys would end his life in this manner," Cowboy Coach Tom Landry said.
Darryl Rogers, who coached Bethea at Michigan State, said: "The thing I remember most about Larry is he always had a big smile on his face. When he was with us, we saw nothing in his life style that would indicate problems ahead for him."