Thursday, April 3rd, 2008
by Irvin Muchnick
Back on June 25, 2007, Michael Benoit couldn’t have cared less about the exact timelines for the determination that his son, the famous pro wrestler Chris Benoit, had murdered his wife Nancy and their 7-year-old son Daniel before killing himself, all over the course of a weekend at their gated mansion outside Atlanta, Georgia. All the senior Benoit cared about was that he had lost a son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson under the most gruesome and inexplicable circumstances imaginable. “My world,” he recalls, “was very black.”
These days Mike Benoit devotes himself to spreading the word about new research on the long-term effects of repeated brain concussions, which he believes is key to understanding Chris’s homicidal/suicidal rampage. It’s also yet another window on the lax health and safety standards of pro wrestling, which has endured a pandemic of premature deaths among its performers.
But now, in an exclusive interview, Benoit talks about how he and his wife Margaret got the awful news. Combined with newly released public records from Fayette County, Georgia, Benoit’s information answers one of the most controversial questions in the aftermath of the tragedy: What did World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon know and when did he know it? Is it true, as some WWE critics speculated early on, that McMahon staged a tribute to Chris Benoit on Monday Night Raw, hours after the bodies of the families were found, with full knowledge that Benoit was not a victim of the incident, but rather its perpetrator?
The answer is yes.
Mike Benoit says that Margaret answered the phone at around 3:30 p.m. Mountain time (5:30 Eastern) at their home near Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton, Alberta. The caller was Carl DeMarco, president of WWE Canada. “I considered Chris one of my best friends …” DeMarco began.
“Why are you telling me this?” Margaret Benoit asked.
At that point DeMarco, realizing that the family had not yet been notified, said he would call her right back. DeMarco apparently proceeded to call Detective Bo Turner in Georgia, who had been assigned to inform both sides of the family, and Turner called Margaret Benoit. DeMarco also enlisted Scott Zerr, an Edmonton journalist who was close to Chris Benoit, to drive to Mike and Margaret’s and lend his support.
Mike Benoit was summoned home by Margaret. He pulled into the driveway around 4:45 p.m. Zerr greeted him there “and told me that Chris had taken the lives of Nancy and Daniel and then taken his own life,” Benoit says. “This information had been given to [Zerr] by WWE.”
Forty minutes earlier, in California, Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, had received the same news in a call from Canada. Meltzer says the caller was a good friend of a WWE executive who had told him.
Constable Rob Morris of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that he was dispatched to the Benoit home at 4:36 p.m. The constable assisted Emergency Medical Services in “a complaint of a distraught female [who] was just informed that her son, who lives in the United States, had passed away.” His report documents that he “called Detective TURNER to confirm details. Detective TURNER had already spoken with Chris’s Mother, Margaret BENOIT, and informed her of Chris’s passing. The incident was being investigated as an alleged murder-suicide.”
References to homicide-suicide also crop up early in crime-scene field reports.
At 8 p.m. Eastern time, a three-hour live special edition of WWE’s Raw began on the USA cable network. The show was originally planned to be built around the storyline death of Vince McMahon, the evil promoter “Mr. McMahon.” But three to four hours earlier, WWE decided to cancel that script, along with the live wrestling matches scheduled to be shown from the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. Instead, McMahon appeared in an empty ring in an empty arena. “We at the WWE can only offer our condolences to the extended family of Chris Benoit,” McMahon said, voice choking, eyes blurred with tears. “The only other thing we can do at this moment is pay tribute to Chris Benoit.” With that, taped highlights of Benoit’s career, culminated by his winning the WWE world championship at WrestleMania in 2004, were played.
At the start of another WWE show the next night, on the Sci Fi network, McMahon said new facts had emerged and that, as a result, Benoit would not be mentioned again by WWE. All Benoit videos and merchandise were pulled from sale.
McMahon’s performance in Corpus Christi may have been designed to garner momentary sympathy for the company and distract the public from what WWE knew would be unprecedented scrutiny of its drug culture once the full facts came out. An additional factor in the equation may have been the historically high TV ratings for dead-wrestler tribute shows – Brian Pillman (1997), Owen Hart (1999), and Eddie Guerrero (2005).
WWE vice president for corporate communications Gary Davis did not respond directly to allegations of what the company might have known on June 25, 2007. In a news release the next day, WWE published a timeline and concluded: “In keeping with company policy, and with limited knowledge regarding facts of the case, WWE chose to air a memorial dedicated to the career of Chris Benoit. As facts emerged surrounding the case, all tributes to Chris Benoit were removed both on-air and on WWE.com.”
However, documents from the police investigation also expose serious contradictions in WWE’s timeline. In the early afternoon of Monday the 25th, WWE security chief Dennis Fagan called the Fayette County 911 Communications Center to ask for a “welfare check” on the missing wrestler. The 911 recording shows that Fagan represented that Benoit had left a mysterious message “to another wrestler” in the early hours of that morning, without specifying the medium. In fact, Benoit had sent a series of cryptic text messages to two other wrestlers, Scott James and Chavo Guerrero, more than 24 hours earlier. It is not clear if Fagan was simply mistaken or if the head of the company’s sophisticated security operation had not been properly briefed by higher-ups; and, if the latter, if that was part of a WWE public-relations strategy in the run-up to the Raw tribute show.
The WWE timeline accurately pegs to early Sunday morning the text messages to Benoit’s colleagues (whom the company does not name). Phone call logs compiled by the Fayette County sheriff show that Scott James texted back to Benoit at 9:26 a.m. Sunday, “When do u land?” – an apparent reference to a Sunday morning Atlanta-to-Houston flight that WWE executives had booked for Benoit, according to the company timeline.
(In a voicemail message and by other means, I solicited James’ comment on why he sent the “When do u land?” message. I also asked both James and Guerrero about the claim in the WWE timeline that company executives did not know about Benoit’s texts until 12:30 p.m. Monday. Neither wrestler responded.)
Mike Benoit says the family was grateful for the comfort and support provided by WWE Canada’s DeMarco. As for McMahon himself, Benoit says the chairman did not call until Friday, July 6 – 11 days later. Screening calls, Mike heard McMahon’s message live on the home answering machine. “I suppose that I could have called earlier,” McMahon said. “But we were both trying to deal with this.”
Benoit did not return McMahon’s call.