ARCHIVE 4/1/08: Fayette County Sheriff Didn’t Tell WWE ‘Double Homicide/Suicide’ on June 25. Yes, But … (WDMKABAWDHKI, Part 2)

ARCHIVE 4/1/08: Introducing ‘What Did McMahon Know About Benoit and When Did He Know It?’ (WDMKABAWDHKI)
May 13, 2009
ARCHIVE 4/2/08: Dennis Fagan, Andrews International Security Firm, and WWE (WDMKABAWDHKI, Part 3)
May 13, 2009

On Monday I talked with Detective Ethon Harper of the Fayette County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office.

Fayette County Sheriff Didn’t Tell WWE ‘Double Homicide/Suicide’ on June 25. Yes, But … (WDMKABAWDHKI, Part 2)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

by Irvin Muchnick

On Monday I talked with Detective Ethon Harper of the Fayette County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office. Harper wrote the closing report on the Benoit investigation, which was released in February. In future posts I’ll offer the detective’s perspective on specific topics. First, I want to share his assurance that his office did not inform World Wrestling Entertainment on June 25, 2007, the day the bodies were discovered, that the case was a double homicide/suicide.

I accept this isolated factoid with respect. I also process it with realism. Figuring out when Vince McMahon knew Chris Benoit was the perpetrator, not a victim, is a matter of intense public curiosity. But it is not the mission of law enforcement per se. The sheriff was charged with investigating only the crime itself.

Harper told me he had reviewed the events of June 25 with Lieutenant Tommy Pope, who that day was the sheriff’s office coordinator at the crime scene. Harper and Pope agreed that no one from their agency told WWE anything that specific about Chris Benoit’s role in the three deaths, and I believe them.

“We were just doing our job, gathering and evaluating evidence,” Harper said. It was not a moment for announcing findings, no matter how obvious the crime might have been on its face. Details might still influence the underlying narrative, if not the very direction of the investigation. To give you a quick example, Nancy was bound as well as strangled. Therefore, investigators had to ponder the possibility that Chris, at least initially, might have had a plan to take off alive, perhaps with Daniel.

So it is only fair to reemphasize Detective Harper’s insistence that no one pulled aside someone from WWE in the hours prior to the Raw tribute and said, in these or similar words, “What we have here, we’re pretty sure, is that your wrestler went on a rampage.”

But I think it’s equally essential to point out that the absence of such a conveyance from the sheriff to the company does not automatically exonerate the latter. I say so for several reasons:

  • As the first day wore on, news media characterizations of the incident grew more explicit. Harper thinks these reports were sparked by statements from Scott Ballard, the district attorney. (Down the road I will analyze in depth how Ballard shaped the public’s evolving perception of the tragedy.)
  • Protocols aside, no one can read Harper’s report and conclude that any theory other than double homicide/suicide had any traction from the get-go. Three dead people were found, with the last having hung himself. And there was no sign of forced entry into the home. Those who would attack the Raw tribute hardly expected WWE to rush to judgment; they just found it irresponsible for McMahon to whipsaw his audience from a tearjerker to a burial of Benoit’s image. I agree with these critics, and not only on grounds of taste. McMahon had ample motivation for the tack he chose. On-the-fly tribute shows to Brian Pillman (1997), Owen Hart (1999), and Eddie Guerrero (2005) had established the genre as a TV ratings winner. More importantly, McMahon had to know that the sympathy and distraction of a Raw tribute, even if momentary, would serve as the opening gambit in the wrestling industry’s defense against unprecedented scrutiny of its culture of drugs and death.
  • Moreover, the open records released by the sheriff do include contemporaneous references to murder-suicide, whether or not they were immediately communicated to others. One crime scene unit report cautiously labels the case “Death Investigation times three.” But another lists Nancy and Daniel as “victims,” Chris as “suspect.” (Others have the verbiage “murder-suicide” at the top, but this is ambiguous, as they were probably typed up much later even though they chronicle the work of investigators and technicians on June 25.)
  • Finally, there is indeed something of a smoking-gun document, from another agency, on what WWE knew Monday afternoon. That document is especially damning when combined with information from new sources. I will turn to that part of the story shortly.

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