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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

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.

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