As a member of one of America’s richest families, John du Pont could have had pretty much whatever his heart desired. His great passion was wrestling, so he bought his way into the sport and gained access to some of its greatest athletes. Several champion wrestlers trained on the grounds of his immense estate, but despite all this, du Pont wasn’t the happiest man in the world. He had his demons, and they ultimately led him to commit the darkest crime of all: cold-blooded murder.
In 1938 du Pont was born in Philadelphia, the heir to an immense fortune his family had made in the chemical industry. They lived exactly the sort of life you’d expect of an American dynasty of such wealth and status: they resided on a massive estate spanning some 800 acres, where they bred the finest caliber of horses.
In his youth du Pont spent his childhood roving around the grounds, taking a particular interest in the animals he could spot. It’s been suggested that his affinity for wildlife during those early days served as a distraction from the loneliness he’d felt within the family home.
Within the walls of the immense family mansion, by all accounts the love and care that a child needs were sorely missing. Du Pont’s dad was barely ever around, having left his wife when the boy was still a toddler.
Du Pont couldn’t even turn to his brothers and sisters: they were older than he was and apparently they tended to ignore him. It was not a normal, happy childhood by any stretch of the imagination.
Du Pont did have one friend as a kid: he was the child of a chauffeur who worked for the family. It must have been a tremendous relief for the young du Pont to have a pal to confide in, but even this part of the story is distressing. He’d eventually come to make a tragic discovery about this friend.
It turned out that the other boy hadn’t cared much about du Pont at all: as a matter of fact, he’d only hung out with him because du Pont’s mom had paid him to! That must have been a crushing discovery for the young heir.
Another mishap to befall the young du Pont was an incident that had occurred while he’d been riding. In an awful accident, he fell from his horse and ended up impaled upon a fence. His testicles were badly damaged and became infected: in the end, there was no saving them and they had to be removed.
In addition to the heavy psychological trauma of such an event, du Pont also had to deal with the more practical consequences of his injury. He wasn’t allowed to participate in contact sports from that point on; this was a big deal for a young boy.
As he grew up, du Pont seemed to exhibit a desperate need to be accepted. His lonely childhood and the horrendous injury he’d sustained, it seems, left their mark on the man he would become. He was terribly insecure, and he clearly wanted to prove himself to the world around him.
His academic career was fairly impressive; he studied natural sciences and even managed to obtain a doctorate. He later set up the Delaware Museum of Natural History, but the pursuit of sporting recognition is what really seems to have driven him.
Du Pont actually tried to make his name in the pool, joining northern California’s acclaimed Santa Clara Swim Club for a time. He was, reportedly, the worst swimmer there. He arranged for a big pool to be installed in his home, but no matter how hard he tried, it was clear he was never going to reach the upper tiers of the sport.
So, it was time for a pivot. His next ambition was to become a star of the pentathlon, which combines swimming with show jumping, cross-country running, pistol shooting, and fencing. His aim was to represent his country at the Olympics, but, in reality, that too was little more than a pipe dream.
Eventually du Pont’s attention turned to wrestling, a sport his mother had always looked down upon. She considered it fit only for “ruffians,” and she’d actually forbade him from any involvement with it when he had been a kid. Now he was a grown-up, though, what was to stop him? He couldn’t compete, but he could use his money to get involved in different ways.
Perhaps du Pont felt conflicted about going against the wishes of his mom? While she could often act in a rather disdainful way towards her son, he was still dedicated to her. But he proceeded with his plan to get into wrestling all the same.
In terms of his love life, du Pont had issues. He remained single until he was in his 40s, at which point he tied the knot with a younger woman, Gale Wenk, who worked as an occupational therapist. They’d met after du Pont had hurt his hand in a traffic collision and she had been assigned to help him recover.
Yet their marriage would prove to be short-lived. Within ten months of their 1983 wedding his wife was seeking a divorce, on the grounds that he drank too much and had been violent towards her. At one stage, she claimed, he’d pulled a gun and accused her of being a spy.
Not long after the breakdown of his marriage, du Pont established a wrestling training center on the grounds of his estate. He changed the name of the property to a moniker that has now gone down in infamy: Foxcatcher Farms.
Here, he wanted to produce champions. In addition to his training center, du Pont invested millions in American wrestling’s governing body. He was, in essence, embedding himself into the very heart of the sport.
Du Pont wanted his wrestling team — Team Foxcatcher — to be the very best, so he sought the greatest trainers. He brought an Olympic medalist onto his team in the form of Mark Schultz, who had taken the gold at the 1984 Games. Schultz had been unemployed at the time, so was more than happy to accept du Pont’s massive salary offer.
It didn’t take very long, though, before the trainer was worn down by du Pont’s behavior towards him. He had reportedly taken to treating Schultz like a sort of plaything, whom he could use as and when he pleased.
Schultz later wrote about du Pont’s conduct during this period in his autobiography, which is titled Foxcatcher: the same name as the film that was later based upon it. “We were his newest trophies,” Schultz wrote. “If you didn’t want to be displayed on his wall, he threatened to ruin you.”
At the 1988 Olympic Games, Schultz bowed out in sixth place. He even claims to have lost a fight on purpose at one stage, just to annoy du Pont. The bitterness, clearly, ran extremely deep.
Schultz continued in his assessment of du Pont, “He climbed to the top of USA Wrestling using the credibility he got from my name... In his mind, our lives only existed to glorify him. And he would do anything to get what he wanted, which was respect. But he didn’t earn it though. That was the problem. He thought he could buy it.”
In the end Schultz left Team Foxcatcher; he just couldn’t take it anymore. But du Pont didn’t take long in finding a replacement to fill in the hole left in his team. He hired Schultz’s brother, Dave.
Dave Schultz, like his brother, had been an Olympic gold medalist, and he had a whole other host of honors and titles to his name, too. A highly decorated wrestler, he was considered to be among the very best in the world, even among his famously competitive fellow athletes.
Speaking in 1996 to The Washington Post, the 1995 World Champion Kurt Angle, said of him, “Dave was the godfather of USA Wrestling, contributing as a coach, a leader, and an athlete. He cared about everyone and always put people first, no matter who you were.”
Another Olympic champion wrestler, Kevin Jackson, has also gone on record singing Dave Schultz’s praises. “If it wasn’t for Dave being at Foxcatcher, nobody else would have gone,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “He was a legend, just one of the best wrestlers in the world at the time.”
“There was no one else who carried himself like Dave. He was an ambassador for the sport, a one-of-a-kind [and] someone a lot of people called ‘friend.’” That’s a consistent theme when people talk about Dave: he was a great person, as well as a great wrestler.”
Dave’s kind-hearted nature supposedly extended to how he looked upon du Pont. He was always willing to exhibit empathy towards his boss, even as the latter’s behavior began to deteriorate in more extreme ways. Du Pont had started, for instance, to carry a gun around and he’d even once shot at the ceiling in the gym while his athletes had been working out.
Du Pont was also involved in a hit-and-run that had left someone injured, and he was showing increasing signs of extreme paranoia. He took some shots at some geese at one stage, because he was convinced they had been “casting magical spells against him.”
Du Pont’s behavior wasn’t always exactly dangerous, but it was definitely weird. For example, he purchased a cop car once — or, at least, a car that looked like one — and he got himself a police uniform and badge. He then hung out just beyond the boundaries of his property, pretending to be a cop and pulling cars over.
He’d take this “game” really far, even issuing people with warnings and citations that seemed pretty realistic. Locals in the area were aware of this bizarre behavior, referring to du Pont by the nickname of “Officer John.”
It’s pretty amazing to think du Pont could get away with something like that, but he was in the actual police’s good books. That’s because he allowed officers to come to his estate to practice their shooting skills, which reflected well on his public image.
And, of course, the money he was pumping into wrestling went down well with people, too. His immense wealth, in essence, seemed to distract people from his worrying behavior, or it at least meant they would tolerate it.
Du Pont’s contributions to USA Wrestling had provided him with a wonderful reputation within the sport, but that wouldn’t last forever. As Dan Chaid, one of the wrestlers who’d spent many years training with du Pont at Foxcatcher, put it to The Daily Telegraph, “But then came the downward spiral.”
After du Pont’s mom passed away in 1988 many people around him noted a steep deterioration in his mental health. This was around the time that Mark Schultz left his team.
At its worst, du Pont’s mental state would see him experiencing paranoid hallucinations. He became convinced Nazis were spying on him and that messages were being transmitted to him by horses on Mars. When he drove around his estate, he was noted, at times, to mention seeing characters from Disney cartoons.
According to him, trees would rip themselves from their own roots, before going on a stroll around Foxcatcher Farms. Treadmills and exercise bikes inside his gym were “capable of turning back the clock,” so he had them removed. Du Pont’s grip on reality was dramatically slipping.
But to make things even worse, it seems du Pont had also been abusing drugs. People would regularly detect the scent of booze on him, plus there were suggestions that he was taking cocaine and other drugs. People around him tried to step in, but du Pont wasn’t accepting help.
Chaid told The Daily Telegraph, “I’d say ‘John, you really need help, pretty soon,’ but he’d close you out because he didn’t want to hear that.” Things never improved, and there was even an incident in 1995 that led the wrestler to get in touch with the cops.
Chaid recounted, “I was working out in the weight room. Du Pont came in and pulled a gun on me and said ‘Don’t you… [mess] with me, I want you off the farm,’ in a very aggressive way. I could tell he wasn’t in the right state of mind. I cowered to him just enough to get him to back off. Then he left.”
“I told local police. The next day I went to the local courthouse, put in a report there, then the county courthouse. He was definitely getting closer and closer to doing something where somebody was going to get hurt.”
Chaid wasn’t alone in feeling concerned about what was happening to du Pont. Fellow wrestler Jackson, too, had realized something was deeply wrong with him. “Sometimes he’d say something a bit off the wall and I would just not respond,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “Like, you’re sitting there with his trophies and he says one of them is moving and that it means someone just went in through a hidden door into the house.”
In actual fact, du Pont had become so convinced that intruders were moving around in secret tunnels beneath his house that he hired security to check them out. But while that does sound extremely paranoid, the truth is that there actually were tunnels underneath the property.
It wasn’t just the tunnel thing that worried Jackson. “[Du Pont] started carrying a pistol around,” he recalled, “it’d be at the dinner table in the evenings and I saw incidents of him shooting through the roof.” To say that was disconcerting for Jackson would be something of an understatement.
“I’d think, ‘Worst-case scenario, he’s going to shoot somebody,’ so whenever I walked into the house I’d come in whistling and singing loudly. I didn’t want him getting all surprised on me with a gun.”
Things got really disturbing for Jackson in 1995 when du Pont “started eliminating anything black on the farm,” after becoming obsessed with the color’s connection to death. For Jackson, an African-American, du Pont’s compulsion was especially concerning. “He was taking out black gym equipment; the coach was told he couldn’t drive his black vehicle.”
“I was told, ‘Yeah, he’s kind of losing it. And the black thing, that includes you too.’ Everyone knew, including… [USA] Wrestling, everyone, that this guy was teetering on the edge. We all thought du Pont had issues and problems and unfortunately it all came to a head.”
It was January 26, 1996, when things finally did indeed come to a head. That afternoon, du Pont’s security advisor, a guy named Patrick Goodale, visited Foxcatcher for a meeting. Du Pont requested that the two of them drive around the grounds to check out if there had been much damage after recent stormy weather. They ended up outside Dave Schultz’s house, who, along with his family, had been living on the grounds for years by this stage.
Dave had been outside the house at the time, messing around with the radio in his car. He saw that du Pont and Goodale had arrived, so he walked over to meet them. Schultz had obviously known that du Pont had been acting weirdly lately, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what was about to happen.
As he approached du Pont, Dave apparently said, “Hi boss.” Du Pont’s reply was instantly aggressive. “You got a problem with me?” he shouted out, before pulling a gun he’d been concealing.
He aimed it at Goodale, first of all, before turning it toward the wrestling legend. The athlete had no time to react to what was happening: in an instant, it was all over. Du Pont opened fire, and Schultz fell to the ground, fatally injured.
Goodale later spoke in court about what he’d witnessed that grim day, sitting in the car alongside du Pont as he’d carried out this terrible deed. The security advisor testified, “I said, ‘John, what are you doing?’ David screamed after the first shot. He fell.”
Goodale had also been armed at the time, and he jumped out of the vehicle and took aim at du Pont. “Our barrels met,” he recounted as he recalled the situation. “Then he threw his gun on the seat and backed [the car] out.”
Dave Schultz’s wife had been inside the house as all this horror was unfolding. She noted the commotion outside and rushed out, only to find her husband lying dead in a pool of blood on the ground. She ran to him and tried to comfort him, but he was already deceased.
She called 911, saying, “John Du Pont shot my husband.” When the person on the other end asked why that had happened, she frantically replied, “Because he’s insane!” She was now without a husband, an awful fact she would later have to break to the couple’s two young children.
Du Pont made off towards to his house, where he barricaded himself in and reloaded his weapon. Cops massed outside, as did a SWAT team. This stand-off turned into a massive siege that ended up lasting for a couple of days. The stakeout only ended after the cops turned off the property’s heating system, forcing du Pont out.
Du Pont later went to trial for murder, with his defense arguing insanity. “On a day as cold and gray as death itself,” his attorney Thomas Bergstrom said in court, “John du Pont got into his Lincoln town car and drove out of the gates of his estate and into the abyss of insanity.”
Psychiatric specialists on both sides of the trial agreed that du Pont was mentally ill, but it was only the defense that pushed for a diagnosis of insanity. They claimed he had been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia which had caused him to become convinced that Dave Schultz was involved in a conspiracy to murder him.
The jury apparently considered the defense’s claim that du Pont had been schizophrenic very seriously. They asked the judge to carefully define the three degrees of homicide, plus they asked for Goodale’s testimony to be recited to them: they wanted to be sure of getting this verdict right.
Goodale, during his testimony, had stated that du Pont had been acting unusually erratically before he had fired upon Dave Schultz. The defense cited that as evidence that their client had been in the midst of a paranoid episode, and that he hadn’t planned the murder in advance. On the other hand, the prosecution saw the situation in a different way.
Du Pont had brought a gun along with him to Schultz’s house, which they argued showed intent. Plus, his words to Schultz before pulling the trigger seemed to point to a grievance du Pont had felt against the wrestler, which in turn implied a motive.
It’s worth noting that the O.J. Simpson case had taken place in very recent memory around this time. Why is that relevant? Well, du Pont was, perhaps, the most wealthy person in American history to stand trial for murder. The O.J. Simpson case had demonstrated what a lavishly expensive legal team was capable of doing, when it managed to get Simpson off. Du Pont’s prosecutors had this fresh in their mind.
The prosecution presumed du Pont’s team would be the best money could buy, one capable of successfully arguing that their client should be considered legally insane. In response, they attempted to paint du Pont as “a self-absorbed, entitled rich guy,” as co-prosecutor Dennis McAndrews put it to CNN in 2014.
McAndrews’ colleague on the trial, Joseph McGettigan, still seems genuinely to believe in the case they were putting forward. When asked by CNN about his understanding of the type of person du Pont was, he said, “Some people are just basically jerks. Whether he was born a jerk or was made a jerk, he was a jerk.”
“He was a mean guy. Money was inconsequential to him. When you have years and years of enabling by scores of people because of your incredible wealth, it can veer into tragic circumstances.”
McAndrews accepted that du Pont really had done a lot of things in his time that, on the surface, may have seemed genuinely insane. He didn’t dispute that the man had frequently acted in bizarre ways, but, as he saw it, there was always a thread of rationality running through his actions.
Du Pont had hired security to sweep through secret tunnels under his mansion. Paranoid? Maybe, but there really were underground tunnels at Foxcatcher. He’d set up razor wire along the walls of his house. Crazy? Maybe, but apparently his wrestlers had used to conceal themselves within the walls to leap out and frighten him.
In the end, the prosecution argued its case well. The jury returned with its verdict after five weeks of the trial: du Pont was guilty of committing murder in the third degree. He was not, though, considered insane. In the end, he was sentenced to spend between 13½ and 30 years behind bars.
The jury did believe du Pont was mentally ill, but that his crime wasn’t related to his condition. The judge, too, seemed to agree. According to CNN, her characterization of him ran something like: “He was mad, and he was bad.”
Du Pont’s attorney emerged from court trying to put a positive spin on things. “It could have been a lot worse,” he told the press, after his client had been found guilty. “Obviously, it could have been better, but I think the jury worked very, very hard.”
“I think they came to a result that we can live with.” He also went on to claim that du Pont himself had expressed his gratitude once the verdict was delivered.
Speaking in the wake of the trial, the district attorney Patrick Meehan referred to the verdict as a “shallow victory;” du Pont had been condemned to jail, but a “great person” in the form of Dave Schultz was dead. He said it was “tragic” that nothing had been done to aid du Pont before it was too late, in spite of the crazy resources at his disposal.
Meehan also acknowledged that many had expected du Pont to get off, owing to his wealth. He said, “I think, cynically, some people thought that John du Pont, who is the wealthiest murder defendant in the United States, would use his financial resources to ensure that he never stood trial at all.”
Du Pont’s odd behavior wasn’t done yet, just because he was behind bars. From prison he sent out an order for his estate to have another name change. It was now to be known as Foxcatcher Prison Farm. Not only that, but he insisted all the buildings be painted black, the color he had once obsessed over because of its association with death.
The estate eventually fell into disrepair, with weeds growing out of control and horses galloping around freely. The house itself was left empty for more than ten years, before finally being sold off for millions.
Du Pont died an inmate in 2010; at that point he had been 72 years old. With his death vanished the last chance to ever discover what had driven him to murder Schultz, Maybe even he didn’t know? In the end, it was an essentially senseless act of violence committed by a man who was suffering from some immense difficulties.
As former Foxcatcher wrestler Jackson put it to The Daily Telegraph, “Du Pont wanted people to credit him for creating champions. But in the end, he destroyed one of the greatest champions wrestling ever had. Dave’s death was a tragedy on so many levels and why it happened we’ll never truly know.”