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Signposts to a Tragedy : Du Pont Heir, Accused of Murdering Olympic Gold Medalist, Is Sports Philanthropist With a History of Eccentric Behavior

January 31, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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