Benoit Family Double Murder-Suicide

A decade has not diminished the shadow the event casts over pro wrestling

Chris Benoit and Nancy Benoit - File Photos
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June 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of what has come to be known as the "Benoit Killings" and the "Benoit Family Murders," the double murder-suicide of a highly lauded wrestler, who was once an icon of the sport. The date, June 25, 2007, where the bodies of former WCW and World Heavyweight Champion Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy, and their 7-year-old-son Daniel were found by police still is a painful and dark blemish on the professional world of wrestling.

A decade has not erased the shadow the horrific event continues to cast over the sport. The issues it raises are still widely discussed — probably even more so — than at the time of the murders, and raise questions that remain relevant in wrestling, and in many other professional contact sports as well.

The "Crippler"

Benoit was a Canadian wrestler who competed first in that country and then for eight years in Japan, where he achieved international success and notoriety. He came to American professional wrestling — World Championship Wrestling and the now defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling — in the early 1990s. In 1994, he took part in a match that would define his career, and offer an eerie foreshadowing of his grizzly end.

According to the 2007 book, "Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport," Benoit had a passion for wrestling and was eager to make a name for himself in the United States. A mid-1990s match would give him that chance, as "Benoit" explains:

"It was November 5, 1994, the big November to Remember show, and Benoit was taking on one of the most wild high fliers on ECW's roster of misfits and castoffs, 'The Homicidal, Genocidal, Suicidal' Sabu. Like Benoit, Sabu had a burning desire for pro wrestling. ... (As the two faced off) what should have been a routine, though fierce, battle ended in tragedy when Sabu fell awkwardly, landing on top of his head."

The fall broke Sabu's neck. Benoit cried about it for about an hour in the locker room after the fight. But, later he was more sanguine about the accident. "It's a physical contact sport, and injuries are going to happen," Benoit was quoted as saying in the book. For the next two years, Benoit would be widely known by his new wrestling moniker: "The Crippler."

"Perfect" Relationship

Benoit literally stole the wife, Nancy Sullivan, he would later savagely murder from World Championship Wrestling opponent Kevin Sullivan. Benoit and Nancy Sullivan began living together, and in February 2000, their son Daniel was born; the couple married in December of that year.

Years later — after Benoit had killed his wife and son — fellow wrestlers expressed shock. They said that Benoit had been a fatherly figure to them and that the couple seemed to have a perfect marriage. Still, in 2003 Nancy filed for divorce citing "irrevocable differences" and even filed a restraining order against Benoit, saying he would become violent and break furniture in their house. But, she later withdrew her demand for a divorce and had the restraining order withdrawn. Things seemed quiet after that, and for several years, the Benoits again appeared to be the perfect couple: until the murder-suicide in 2007.

The Double Murder-Suicide

To say that the murder-suicide was grizzly would be to understate the case. Benoit's employer, the WCW, asked the police to check on the family after he failed to appear at a much-hyped "Raw" event scheduled for a weekend in late June 2007. "Investigators searching the house found Nancy E. Benoit, 43, in an upstairs family room with her hands and feet bound and blood under her head," according to a "New York Times" article on the murders. Benoit had strangled his wife, police said.

The murders and suicide actually occurred over a three-day period. Benoit waited a full day before strangling his son in his bed. Benoit had sedated the boy before he asphyxiated the child. Yet, another day passed before Benoit hung himself with a cable dangling from a weight machine in his home, the "Times" article noted.

"I'm in the dark," Nancy's previous husband Sullivan told the "Times" after the murders. "I wrestled with him a lot. I thought he was a great performer."

Brain Injury?

Authorities never found a specific motive for the murders. They did find steroids at the scene of the crime, "prompting many to suspect that 'roid rage' had accounted for Benoit's behavior," according to ABC News.

But Benoit's father wasn't satisfied with that explanation and turned part of his son's brain over to Julian Bailes of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization devoted to researching and finding ways to prevent concussions and resulting brain injury caused by trauma to the skull. Testing showed that Benoit's brain was "so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient," Bailes told ABC News.

Christopher Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who worked with Mr. Benoit, and who was forced to quit because of head injuries, agreed, telling the "New York Times" that he believed that repeated, untreated concussions might have caused his friend to snap. “He was one of the only guys who would take a chair shot to the back of the head,” Nowinski said, “which is stupid.”

Indeed, Nowinski has written a book called “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis," about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that can cause memory loss, depression and “bizarre, paranoid behavior.”

If it was CTE that sparked Benoit's murderous/suicidal outburst, it would make the wrestler's demise among the first documented cases where the condition — now bedeviling other sports as well, such as the NFL — led to violence and even death.