How Jimmy Snuka Got Away With Murder. How the Allentown Morning Call Helped Cover Up the Historical and Ongoing Corruption in Lehigh County Criminal Justice. Here’s the Story VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Was Afraid to Tell.

The One and Only Law Enforcement Voice in VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Episode on the Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Case Was a Local Police Chief Who Got Fired the Year I Broke the Story
April 23, 2020
‘Dr. D’ David Schultz and Me
April 28, 2020

PREVIOUSLY:

“Time For a Deep Dive Into the VICE TV / ‘Dark Side of the Ring After Dark’ Censorship of My ‘Live-to-Tape’ Interview About the Ongoing Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Cover-Up in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14399

“Muchnick on Irish Podcast ‘Off the Ball’ Pro Wrestling Edition, Discussing Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka’s Murder of Nancy Argentino and Other Topics,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14403

“VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Producers: We’re Not Responsible For the Train Wreck That Was VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring After Dark’ on the Jimmy Snuka Murder Case,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14410

“What to Make of the Intriguing Testimony of Sam (Tonga Kid) Fatu in the ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Episode on the Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder of Nancy Argentino?”, concussioninc.net/?p=14417

“Muchnick Discusses Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Case on ‘Hannibal TV’,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14437

“The One and Only Law Enforcement Voice in VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Episode on the Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Case Was a Local Police Chief Who Got Fired the Year I Broke the Story,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14441

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by Irvin Muchnick

Getting away with murder is a bit like being dictator of a banana republic: it can be a full-time job. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s escape from responsibility for the seedy death of Nancy Argentino in Room 427 of the George Washington Motor Lodge in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, on May 10, 1983, would consume some unspecifiable amount of his mental and physical energy across the last 34 of his 73 years.

The fabled pro wrestler slipped away for good on January 3, 2017, when Judge Kelly Banach of the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial on counts of third degree murder and manslaughter. Snuka died a mere 12 days later of stomach cancer.

Though controversial at the time, the judge’s ruling had merit. Snuka’s brain was not studied postmortem for strangled accumulations of tau protein — the sign of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. However, from a lay perspective, there is good reason to suspect that decades of bumps inside wrestling rings could have left him seriously brain-addled. Indeed, if Snuka had CTE, it might be a mitigating factor in the murder itself and in his pattern of domestic abuse against Nancy, his first wife Sharon, and other partners. As with confirmed CTE victim Chris Benoit, he of the heinous 2007 double-murder and suicide, so too might it have been with the once high-flying Fijian native James Reiher Wiley Smith.

Snuka was indicted in 2015, in a too-little-too-late prosecution of what was popularly mislabeled a “cold case.” In fact, no significant new physical or narrative evidence, none whatever, emerged subsequent to the file of basic facts, clinical data, and wildly contradictory Snuka accounts assembled by a half-hearted Whitehall detective, Gerald Procanyn, and colleagues in the days immediately following the fatal incident.

What happened, rather, was that a three-decade cover-up simply began unraveling at the arbitrary — and conveniently tardy — milestone of its 30th anniversary. This was thanks to some Freudian slips in Snuka’s 2012 autobiography, as ventriloquized for the functionally illiterate author by his ghostwriter (and possibly sensationalized for vague gossip and commercial value), and to the persistence of Nancy’s justice-seeking sisters, Louise Argentino and Lorraine Salome.

The catalyst for calling new attention to this “cold” case, which in truth was merely something Lehigh Valley powerbrokers kept stored in a proverbial icebox, was a circulation-boosting decision by the Allentown Morning Call. The newspaper had lent its own passive and decades-long assist to the ongoing deep freeze. But in 2013 the Morning Call published a lengthy Sunday article by reporters Kevin Amerman and Adam Clarke; they had unearthed key documents whose existence and essence the public decision-makers and the local press actually knew from the get-go, all but chapter and verse.

In the orchestrated thaw, James Martin, the district attorney, referred his 30-year-old “open” investigation to the county’s Seventh Investigating Grand Jury. Martin had been an assistant DA under his predecessor, William Platt, in 1983. The Allentown Morning Call ” forgot” to point its hyped blowtorch in the direction of this clearly pertinent fact. Among several others.

After the newly impaneled grand jury had been re-sifting the Snuka evidence for more than a year, Nancy sisters Louise and Lorraine submitted an opinion essay to the Morning Call. The piece was accepted pending revisions to conform to the newspaper op-ed page’s format. Louise and Lorraine made these changes and resubmitted the article, which was accepted for publication. But the Morning Call refused to schedule it, and neither the op-ed editor nor the editor-in-chief responded to follow-ups. Finally, I arranged for the Argentino sisters to publish their piece at the Wrestling Observer website and at Concussion Inc. See “After 32 Years, ‘Justice’ in Our Sisters’ Death Has Larger Meaning,” February 17, 2015, https://concussioninc.net/?p=9845.

Another thing happened in the interlude between overdue indictment and failed prosecution, something that foreshadowed the recent tip-toe episode about the case on VICE TV’s Dark Side of the Ring. In 2015 both NBC’s Dateline and CBS’s 48 Hours showed keen interest in full backgrounders on this celebrity murder narrative. The CBS team took it all the way into serious pre-production work; they met with the sisters on the East Coast and sent a producer to meet with me over coffee at Berkeley’s French Hotel to break down the whole story. But they dropped it after Judge Banach issued a gag order.

What’s telling about the gag order is that these things are usually sought by the defendant with the claim that particular elements of pre-trial publicity could prejudice a jury. Not so in this case. The gag was sought and obtained (without so much as a written opinion from the judge) by the district attorney, whose (unarticulated) fear was that close scrutiny would focus criticism on the office’s failure to prosecute from the same evidence that had been in hand for decades. Rather than challenge this bizarre court order, of course, CBS folded its tent; there were easier celebrity murder stories out there.

*****

Write this down” — those were the first words spoken, after the obligatory greeting, by Wayne Snyder, the Lehigh County coroner, when I met with him in 1992, on my very first stop of a reporting trip underwritten by New York’s Village Voice.

“Write this down: ‘Upon viewing the body and speaking to the pathologist, I immediately suspected foul play and so notified the district attorney,’” said Snyder, who had been deputy coroner at the time of the incident. Snyder went on to elaborate about the marks throughout Argentino’s body and the strong suggestion of mate abuse.

From there, I went to the Whitehall Township Police Department, where Detective Procanyn played aggressively dumb. The cop said Snuka told investigators, solely and consistently, that Nancy had slipped and struck her head on a roadside stop to urinate on the drive into town, they thought “somewhere near the intersection” of U.S. Highway 33 and State Highway 22. Procanyn also said the Argentino family was perfectly satisfied with these conclusions.

At a conference room at the Morning Call offices, I met with a group of reporters and editors. The reporter on the first-day story of Argentino’s death, Tim Blangger, contradicted Procanyn. Blangger had a vivid recollection of the detective demonstrating to him, with a grab of the shoulders, the prevailing theory that Snuka had pushed Argentino in the motel room, causing her head to strike the wall or a blunt object.

I spoke with Louise Argentino. I pored over records she provided of the family’s two private investigations, and talked to the lawyer who conducted one of them. In fact, Snuka had given multiple explanations of the fatal event, as many as four to six of them, at locations ranging from a purported roadside pee stop to a stop at a gas station to the George Washington Motor Lodge, with agency ranging from “an accident” to “horseplay” to a “lovers’ quarrel.” There was also a highly publicized domestic violence incident months earlier at a Howard Johnson’s near Syracuse, New York (“a nervous desk clerk” fueled a misunderstanding there, the oily Procanyn had assured me). Finally, there was the Argentinos’ default, and uncollected, $500,000 wrongful death judgment against Snuka in Philadelphia federal court in 1985.

The family was satisfied by the Whitehall and Lehigh County investigation? My foot.

*****

Post-Snuka death commentary in the wrestling world took three forms. In descending order of volume, they were the disgustingly bad, the mostly right, and the almost completely on the mark.

Jim Ross, the famous wrestling announcer and former WWE executive, was disgustingly bad. When WWE’s flagship Raw television show aired a hagiographic video package of Snuka tied to an immediate pitch for “Jimmy Snuka Collection” merchandise, Ross derided critics of its tastelessness and greed. “[J]ust let the [Snuka] family grieve,” Ross wrote on his blog, “before we go back on this Oliver Stone quest of proving Jimmy Snuka posthumously was a murderer. It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing.”

The next week Ross apologized, noting that “I have apparently upset some folks.” Specifically, he said that “my inadvertently flippant remarks about the ‘Oliver Stone’ types” were not intended “to disrespect the Argentino family for their loss of their daughter/sister Nancy Argentino.”

Ross’s remorse didn’t keep him from doubling down on “conspiracy theories” in the Snuka case in his next podcast conversation, with retired wrestler Mick Foley.

Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, was mostly right. In a podcast interview with another wrestling personality, Jim Cornette, Meltzer made mention of my 1992 investigation. In the way of wrestling fan sheet writers, Meltzer put a lot of energy into speculating on the sequencing and motivations of Snuka’s evolving accounts to hospital personnel, a chaplain, and the police; these are interesting and useful, in my opinion, but less important than the bedrock fact that he obviously couldn’t keep his story straight, and the cops and prosecutor proceeded to act as though this, in combination with compelling circumstantial evidence of mate abuse, were not enough to arrest him and bring him before a jury. These shortcomings in Meltzer’s take (along with a couple of trivial errors in reference to me) were insignificant. Of more concern was the naive belief of Meltzer — shared by most observers — that the 2015 indictment was some good-faith bombshell rather than an extension of a charade by the authorities.

David Bixenspan, an independent journalist, was almost completely on the mark — and I say this even though his characteristically dogged research and analysis included only passing reference to me. In an article for the sports muckraking site False Start, published by the Vocativ media and technology company, Bixenspan wrote in his conclusive paragraph: “So here’s what matters: Most anyone who has followed or researched the Argentino murder case agrees that Snuka would have been found guilty. Given that, Snuka could have been the world’s greatest neurosurgeon and it still wouldn’t matter much in the end. Murderers deserve to be remembered as such first and foremost.” (Bixenspan didn’t get to what a consider the indispensable additive of cop and prosecutor corruption.)

*****

Dark Side of the Ring flew me to Las Vegas for an hours-long sit-down interview on October 12, 2019.

Last month, after VICE TV called to book me for an interview on a pre-taped after-show panel discussion called Dark Side of the Ring After Dark, I was given a peek at the DSOTR episode a couple of weeks before its April 14 initial airing.

Aware of executive producers Jason Eisener and Evan Husney’s fanboy-friendly “complicated legacy” format (already ranging in past episodes on murder-suicide perpetrator Benoit and Elmer Gantry-Great Santini mashup Fritz Von Erich), I was not entirely surprised to find the guts of my remarks about the background of the deep-sixed Snuka investigation sliced and diced into oblivion. By and large, I was reduced to blabbing redundancies along the lines of Legendary promoter Sam Muchnick was my uncle…. In his day, Jimmy Snuka was a star…. A big star…. A HUGE star….

Meanwhile, Amerman and Clarke, the Morning Call writers, got copious run time to ooh and ahh, like Jimmy Olsen on steroids, over their feat in spurring a failed (and as they say in wrestling, perhaps even a “worked”) prosecution. I hasten to add that they did deserve credit for unearthing the Argentino autopsy report and the Snuka police interrogation records from U.S. District Court archives of the family’s aborted civil lawsuit. But they didn’t name-check Procanyn, the crooked cop, or Platt and Martin, the crooked prosecutors. Reporter Clarke praised the unnamed district attorney for his 2015 act of putting his stale evidence in front of a grand jury (or as Clarke called it in a populist flourish, to “the people”). Colleague Amerman gushed as though the consequent failed prosecution were the neatest journalistic coup since the Pentagon Papers.

I anticipated a more level playing field for After Dark: in securing the booking, the producers represented to me that the program would be shot “live to tape.” Even someone who was not the double-crossed party could see this was a lie.

In my hot take for SLAM! Wrestling the day after the broadcast, I wrote of how host Chris Gethard, in a cut passage said invitingly, “The floor is yours,” before I riffed my distaste at seeing the Morning Call guys preen a story that properly should have focused on the “justice delayed, justice denied” manipulation by the authorities. Gethard reacted: “You make a fair point.” This was only one of the many edits of After Dark. I was barely on screen except for attempts at correcting those PhD’s in forensic analysis, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brian “Nasty Boys” Knobbs, who averred that they had “heard” Nancy Argentino simply fell.

In the subsequent social media blowback, VICE TV appears to have euthanized Dark Side of the Ring After Dark. There was no post-show following the documentary episode last week and it is nowhere in published future program listings.

Eisener and Husney, the faces of DSOTR, protested that After Dark was produced by a company unaffiliated with their own. The damage to their cheesy brand is done, however, and in my view it is richly deserved. It might even amount to a taste of the rough justice they wimped out on directing toward Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka — the man who murdered a 23-year-old woman — and the local law enforcement thugs who let him get away with it.

William H. Platt, the prosecutor who didn’t prosecute Snuka, while so helpfully leaving the case file “open” so that it couldn’t be touched by public information law requesters, became a senior state judge. (Platt’s son, William H. Platt II, was the lawyer who represented the pathetic former Whitehall police chief, Frederic Conjour, who was the only cop interviewed or named in Dark Side of the Ring. Platt Jr. represented Conjour after Whitehall fired him, just months before my ‘92 reporting trip — yet another little factoid DSOTR didn’t share in the context of putting the irrelevant and evasive chief on camera.)

Platt’s assistant district attorney and successor as DA, James Martin, is still there and still keeping a lid on the office’s m.o. of crony justice. Martin is years into a “private” harassment defamation lawsuit — a First Amendment-chilling “SLAPP,” or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — against a local advertising guy, Bill Villa, whose daughter Sheena was killed in 2006 by a drunken binge-drinking driver, Robert LaBarre, son of a prominent Allentown lawyer, whom Martin gave a slap on the wrist. 

Detective Gerald Procacyn retired from the Whitehall force, kicking in his municipal pension, then immediately took a double-dipping job as an investigator for the district attorney. Last year Procanyn retired again, which means that he now may be eligible for two public pensions for jobs well done.

Jobs that included timely help on two ends in the systematic cover-up of the murder of Nancy Argentino by Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.

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Chapter 9 of the 2007 book WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal is the first published investigative account of the death of Jimmy Snuka’s girlfriend Nancy Argentino. (The article had been published online in the 1990s.) Order the book on Amazon here, or order an autographed copy direct from the author for US $17.95, postage paid. (PayPal to paypal@muchnick.net, or money order to Wrestling Babylon, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709. Canadian orders, add US $5.00 for postage; all other foreign orders, add US $10.00 for postage.)

The 2013 ebook JUSTICE DENIED: The Untold Story of Nancy Argentino’s Death in Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Motel Room, which was published prior to the Allentown Morning Call’s famous article of the same year, supplements the original story with updated analysis, primary source documents, and photos. Order it here.

The Concussion Inc. blog archives include our more than 150 articles referencing Jimmy Snuka. Most of them involve aspects of the Argentino murder case and the related vagaries of the Lehigh County district attorney’s office and other institutions of the local criminal justice system. Enter “Snuka” into the search bar at https://concussioninc.net/?page_id=2359.

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