by Irvin Muchnick
In a 2008 email to me, Jerry McDevitt, the lawyer for WWE potentate Vince McMahon, made a side comment about my work on the Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka murder cover-up. McDevitt’s bleat of denial on behalf of his client is newly relevant today.
The relevance stems from an article by David Bixenspan at the online men’s magazine Mel. I’d call this, in some respects, the deepest dive yet into the Snuka-Nancy Argentino story: a lengthy account, backed by granular primary-source documentation, not only of the corruptly aborted murder investigation by the Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania, police and the Lehigh County district attorney, but also of the precursor incident earlier in 1983 in Salina, New York. In that episode, at a Howard Johnson’s motel outside Syracuse, Snuka had brutally assaulted Argentino, setting off a wild police scene that wound up in the Superfly’s whimpered resolution of a donation to the local Ronald McDonald House. (That is, if he ever even made a donation …)
OK, go read the Bixenspan piece: https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/jimmy-snuka-girlfriend-nancy-argentino-death. Then come back for my comments on it, on my relationship with the author, and on how my own work is settling into responsible, no-BS Snuka murder historiography.
Bixenspan has made a major breakthrough in documenting the role of McMahon in the full New York-Pennsylvania arc of his star wrestler’s lack of accountability for his girlfriend’s violent death. The writer acquired and quoted from files in which Gerald Procanyn, the coordinating Pennsylvania detective of the ultimate tanked murder investigation, ran down the details of the Howard Johnson’s assault and police action, and summarized: “Vince McMahon tried to talk her [Argentino] out of making the [New York state third-degree assault] complaint against Snuka.”
Bixenspan correctly pegs this as “the first evidence of McMahon’s presence in the New York case [found] in the public domain.”
While it doesn’t nail down the suggestion that the wrestling promoter later used his influence to keep Snuka from being prosecuted in the Keystone State for killing Argentino, it does qualify as disturbing “evidence that McMahon may have helped facilitate the cycle of abuse that kept Nancy Argentino in Jimmy Snuka’s company, and potentially gave ‘Superfly’ the opportunity to kill her,” Bixenspan writes.
Then there’s the punchline:
“[This fact pattern] also chillingly recontextualizes something that, according to Muchnick’s reporting, McMahon told the Argentino family’s initial attorney, Richard Cushing, in 1983. ‘Look, I’m in the garbage business,’ McMahon purportedly said. ‘If you think I’m going to be hurt by the revelation that one of my wrestlers is really a violent individual, you’re mistaken.’”
I call McDevitt’s 2008 Snuka remark to me a side comment because the thrust of his communications with me through that period was the research for my book on the Chris Benoit murder-suicide, Chris & Nancy, which would be published the next year.
McDevitt’s often blustery letters and emails seem to have been designed to intimidate or chill or shut down. In this regard, they most certainly failed. My practice was to publish the lawyer’s missives in entirety, no matter how loaded they might be with both benign rhetorical snark and malignant legal threat. As Chris & Nancy neared publication, I made the cheeky decision to run McDevitt’s most exhaustive (and exhausting) letter in a standalone several-hundred-part Twitter series across weeks. Later in 2009, American Lawyer magazine published an article about the McDevitt-Muchnick verbal mano a mano, complete with caricatures of us (see http://muchnick.net/americanlawyer.pdf).
On June 16, 2008, McDevitt wrote to me in part: “[Y]our insinuation that Mr. McMahon in some unspecified way kept authorities from charging Jimmy Snuka for murder in 1983 is an odious lie.” The full text of his letter and my reply is at https://concussioninc.net/?p=570.
David Bixenspan’s portfolio includes covering pro wrestling for the late, lamented Deadspin. He has been an acquaintance of mutual respect for more than a decade, ever since Canada’s SLAM! Wrestling assigned him to review Chris & Nancy. Bixenspan produced a thoughtful, intellectually honest, and in several respects highly critical take. Then, as the reviewer joked to his social media followers, he ducked — expecting my reaction to the criticisms to overwhelm my processing of their thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty. But I accepted and even embraced the review as a welcome contrast to the knee-jerk reactions of the fanboys and their outlets, so something else happened.
I told David that I appreciated how he had grappled with the issues and aims of my book, even if he didn’t share all my conclusions. And I proudly cited his interpretation of Chris & Nancy alongside more gushingly positive ones. For the second edition, in 2013, I incorporated several factual corrections and clarifications, some of which had been generated by Bixenspan’s review.
It’s now time to explain the genesis of my own, necessarily telescoped Snuka piece, published online in the 1990s and then as a chapter of my book Wrestling Babylon. I’ve given this fuller explanation in various podcast interviews but not yet here on the blog.
The account of my 1992 visits with authorities, journalists, and other Allentown area sources (what the new Bixenspan article for Mel terms the “seminal” reporting of the Snuka case) has since been supplemented by others’ lengthier or more production-values-laden treatments. However, the added record from 28 years has never shaken the accuracy or authority of every word of Chapter 9 of my 2007 book.
The original piece was conceived as what’s called a sidebar to a longer main article, assigned by the Village Voice in ‘92, which covered the range of the then World Wrestling Federation’s drug and sex scandals that some today call “Titangate” (after the company’s then corporate name, Titan Sports). These scandals would culminate in Vince McMahon’s federal indictment — on steroid-trafficking and conspiracy charges only — in 1992, and they would dissipate with his acquittal at trial in 1994. (A key reason for the acquittal, likely to get more attention in future scrutiny of the period, is that the government badly overreached on the more popularly digestible, but poorly backed-up, drug charges, while prematurely dropping investigations of the sex charges and their cover-up.)
Thus, the Snuka-Argentino death mystery piece clocked in relatively short, a tad under 2,000 words. It also got buried in publishing politics. Though the sidebar sailed through the Village Voice editing and legal vetting process and was good to go, the main article, on WWF ringside doctor George Zahorian’s steroid farm and on a couple of company employees’ brazen sexual exploitation of underage ring boy temps, lingered for many months in Voice editorial purgatory, until another magazine beat us to the punch. I had to take the Voice to court to collect my contracted $4,000. In turn, this episode redirected my career into an interlude as assistant director of the National Writers Union, then a copyright litigation consultant, then leader of a slate of objectors to a global class action copyright lawsuit settlement, which wound through the federal courts for many years and took a detour at the U.S. Supreme Court under the 2010 decision Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick.
As the headline above says, Bixenspan has taken to another level our understanding of all things Snuka. But much of the advocacy on behalf of what I first wrote about the case nearly 30 years ago flows from the sense that this is a story that fundamentally never needed another level. Snuka lied, with multiple mix-and-match versions of how Argentino died. Exactly when or why he changed stories, or even whether he was riffing himself or in the control of handlers who put him up to it, are corroborating, slam-dunking details. He was the only suspect and he lied. An arrest, followed by a trial of his jury of peers, should have been axiomatic. That it never happened makes indispensable — from a perspective that is reality-based instead of WrestleWorld-centric — not a minute-by-minute breakdown of all the machinations deployed to shield Snuka from justice, but rather the patent and calculated failures of the local custodians of justice to even pretend to do their jobs.
Back in 1992, battling the Village Voice editors to daylight my exclusive work, I lacked the resources and the platform to go to the mat with Detective Procanyn, other Pennsylvania authorities, and the Allentown Morning Call management, all of whom were a decade into a 30-year cover-up.
Procanyn claimed that files I was seeking under the state public records act were exempt from disclosure because they were part of a homicide investigation that was left bogusly “open.” Anyone who knows anything about my subsequent muckraking career knows that public information law fights are my metier: I have successfully litigated such disputes with municipalities and public entities in five states. I took the federal Department of Homeland Security all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to get the goods on former Irish Olympic swimming coach George Gibney, the most notorious at-large sex criminal in the history of global sports.
Like many others, I was initially excited when the Allentown Morning Call picked up on my work (without crediting the earlier freelance reporter at all … but so it goes), and produced a 30th anniversary so-called cold case story in 2013. In the process, the newspaper uncovered some of the key documents to which my article had drawn a road map.
But enthusiasm turned into two and a half strangled cheers, at best, when it became apparent that the Morning Call was pulling its punches in protection of the long-time Lehigh County district attorney, James Martin. The story did not even name Martin nor note that he had been assistant DA under the original cover-up architect, William Platt.
In 2015, more than a year into the manufactured grand jury reexamination of what was a “cold case by design,” the Morning Call blew off an op-ed piece by Nancy Argentino’s sisters, which I would arrange to get published at the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s website and this one.
And when DA Martin — not the intuitively more interested party, defendant Snuka — preempted a report by CBS’s 48 Hours, by means of an uncontested and unargued gag order, the Morning Call wasn’t there to analyze it and its motivation, much less to challenge it.
A quarter of a century ago, I didn’t directly call the Jimmy Snuka-Nancy Argentino story a murder cover-up, because that wasn’t germane to my project and because I didn’t have the space to develop it. In 2020, I affirm that characterization. And I back it up with the full weight of the history of its unfolding.
Bixenspan, a harder-core wrestling fan than myself who also shares the great historian Robert Caro’s obsession for leaving no pertinent piece of paper unread, no line of exploration unexamined, has performed a great service in ticking off the multiple persons, institutions, and societal attitudes that failed Nancy Argentino, up to and all the way through that fatal May 1983 night in room 427 of the George Washington Motor Lodge in Whitehall. These start with the contemporaneous mainstream media accounts of the earlier incident in Salina, New York — as if it were the fodder of comedy, a wrestling shtick, even though a 23-year-old woman’s life was at stake.
But in 2020, I also hold to my vision of a deeper level to the deeper level. Criminal justice in Pennsylvania was corrupt in 1983 and it remains corrupt today, with most of the same players in place, in a musical chairs rearrangement of double-dipping cops on municipal pensions; Morning Call reporters burying known stories of heinous crime before going through the revolving door to the government payroll; assistant DA’s, DA’s, and judges rotating merrily, incestuously, throughout the musical chairs of the system, while the guilty but well-connected go free.
In this demimonde of “justice delayed, justice denied,” Vince McMahon and WrestleWorld fit, like a hand in a glove.
Order WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal through your favorite online seller (the Amazon link is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001Q3M7EM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1). Or get an autographed copy direct from the author for US $17.95, postage paid. (PayPal to [email protected], 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 Ultimate Historical Edition of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death is now on sale at all major ebook platforms:
AMAZON KINDLE: https://amzn.to/2U9E4Gc
RAKUTEN KOBO: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/chris-nancy
CHRIS & NANCY, Ultimate Historical Edition will be published later as a paperback, with a new cover. You can order an autographed copy of the 2009 “classic” edition, by remitting $19.95 via PayPal to [email protected] or by sending a money order in that amount to Benoit Book, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709. (Orders from Canada should add $10.00 for postage and handling; orders from other foreign countries should add $20.00 for postage and handling.) Fulfillment of orders for the “classic” edition will include supplemental printouts of the new introductions for the 2013 second edition and for the 2020 Ultimate Historical Edition.