Two weeks ago, a Pennsylvania judge, at the request of the district attorney, issued a gag order in the murder trial of retired wrestling superstar Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka for the 1983 death of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino.
The gag order had its immediate intended effect: Nancy’s sisters were prevented from talking with CBS News about the longest-running cold case in the history of the Lehigh Valley, and 48 Hours decided to put on indefinite hold an hour-long episode in pre-production.
Of course, 48 Hours promises to jump right back in when the gag order expires. But I believe that, by then, the national coverage could be tepid and cookie-cutter: just another story of a well-connected celebrity getting away with something for too long, and the victim’s family’s quest for a measure of justice.
From my perspective, the larger story comes in between now and then, but because of the gag order, is likely to get short shrift. I’m referring to hard-hitting examination of the original police and prosecution work — either botched or downright corrupt — that kept the Snuka case on the back burner for more than 30 years.
And make no mistake: it is the national media, and the national media alone, that would tell that story, certainly not the Allentown Morning Call.
True, it was the Morning Call’s better-late-than-never 2013 front-page package that finally got Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin moving again. But the newspaper also carefully fudged then, and continues not to make clear to its readers today, the aspects calling out an overly incestuous local criminal justice establishment.
Specifically: Martin was first assistant D.A. in ’83 under William Platt, who is now a senior state judge. Several of the same individuals and institutions that let Snuka slide, at the time and for many years now, bear the current burden of delivering to a jury a case of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Almost no one is talking about this disconnect.
Peter L. Pavlovic, a retired police officer in another county township, encapsulated the problem in a letter to the Morning Call. In order to have a truly “fresh look” at the Snuka case, Pavlovic argued, “You need a new investigation team, and that should be the state police, not a county detective who investigated the case as a Whitehall police detective and did not file any charges. This case was not rocket science; this case was a case of conflicting stories by the person involved. This was a case of just bad police work.”
Meanwhile, in a ham-handed attempt to chill the First Amendment rights of one of his constituents, D.A. Martin earlier this year sued Bill Villa, an Allentown advertising man who blogs about local skulduggery at his site “Lehigh Valley Somebody.” Martin sued Villa for defamation for having the audacity to write, among other things, that the D.A. (as a reelection candidate) and the Morning Call have used the services of the same law firm. What had started Villa in his muckraking avocation was the soft-pedaled prosecution of a son of one of the law firm’s partners. The son, Robert LaBarre, was convicted of vehicular homicide in the drunk-driving accident in which Villa’s daughter Sheena was killed.
This is not the place for reviewing the LaBarre case, except to say that almost immediately after the 2006 incident, LaBarre, who had been released without bail, jetted to Belize to party. The Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas judge who allowed all this, with no consequences, was Robert Steinberg — earlier one of the assistants who sat in with D.A. Platt at the June 1, 1983, meeting with Vince McMahon that culminated in no charges for Snuka.
The upshot of the parallel chilling of national media scrutiny in the Snuka case — via a gag order with neither merit nor constitutional basis — is that Snuka might very well get off the hook. Or he might be allowed, with little scrutiny, to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge of involuntary manslaughter (for not calling early enough for emergency medical attention) in return for dropping the felony charge of third degree murder in the traumatic brain injury death of Argentino. Remember that the original coroner’s autopsy report said Argentino had sustained a pattern of bruises throughout her body “consistent with ‘mate abuse.’”
In my estimation, today’s justice calculus goes beyond whether the 72-year-old Snuka, who is recovering from stomach cancer surgery, should do prison time for an incident from three decades ago. His conviction at trial on the felony count is no sure thing, anyway, given how stale prosecutors let the evidence against him become. There is nothing of importance in the September indictment of Snuka not fully known to them in ‘83.
Did garden-variety incompetence, or WWE-greased corruption, derail swift and sure justice? Thanks to the gag order (issued by yet another former assistant D.A., Judge Kelly Banach, who had worked under Martin), we might never have that important public conversation regarding whatever kept the Snuka-Argentino file buried and in suspense for so long.
As is well known, Snuka’s own 2012 autobiography went to the trouble of recounting how his boss McMahon carried a briefcase into his meeting with Platt, Steinberg, and three Whitehall Township police detectives. Whether or not that was true (or whether it mattered even if true), WWF’s tri-weekly syndicated television tapings at the Allentown Fairgrounds and in nearby Hamburg were ongoing shots of Chamber of Commerce steroids for all of Eastern Pennsylvania.
The only arguably new information in the September grand jury presentment was the testimony of Snuka’s ex-wife and of Buddy Rogers’ widow that Snuka had shown a pattern of domestic violence against the ex-wife. In that connection, the gag order eases the pressure on prosecutors to develop additional witnesses who might have come forward subsequent to the grand jury.
Recently a woman, whose bona fides checked out, contacted Concussion Inc. with information about her time as Snuka’s girlfriend in the 1990s. The information included both allegations that Snuka abused her and a claim that he gave her an account of how Nancy Argentino had died. The account purportedly identified the blunt object in the hotel room that Nancy’s head struck.
Unfortunately, instead of advancing on such angles, the national media are in retreat. The gag order has jeopardized the full airing of something more than your average celebrity murder case.