JUSTICE DENIED: The Untold Story of Nancy Argentino’s Death in Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Motel Room will be published Friday, May 10. Below is the Introduction.
The ebook is priced at $2.99 US, with all proceeds being forwarded by the Argentino family to the My Sisters’ Place women’s shelter and resource center in White Plains, New York. Look for the Amazon Kindle link here tomorrow. Readers without Kindle-compatible devices can pre-order PDF file copies by sending $2.99 US, via PayPal, to [email protected].
IN A LONG AND UNORTHODOX CAREER as a freelance investigative journalist, my 1992 story on James Wiley Smith “Superfly Jimmy Snuka” Reiher and his companion Nancy Argentino – pro wrestling’s Mary Jo Kopechne – resonates like no other.
In 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy, possibly inebriated as he left a party near midnight with Kopechne, drove his Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off a bridge on Chappaquidick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard – then abandoned the 28-year-old woman, who died from crash trauma and drowning.
In 1983, then World Wrestling Federation superstar Snuka, possibly strung out on cocaine and other drugs as he left Room 427 of the George Washington Motor Lodge in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, for a television taping in Allentown, abandoned the 23-year-old Argentino in the culmination of what can reasonably be deduced as a case of, at minimum, unindicted involuntary manslaughter.
Kennedy emerged with a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury – along with irrevocably damaged presidential ambitions. Reiher emerged legally unscathed. The subject of this ebook is the similarities and differences between the reputational fallouts for a privileged Massachusetts politician and a calculatedly savage Polynesian-born entertainer with a jungle-boy gimmick.
NINE YEARS AFTER THE SNUKA INCIDENT – then, as now, the source of underground fan gossip but little more – I was in the early stages of carving out a niche as a general-readership chronicler of the peculiar wrestling industry. My 1988 piece in Penthouse (r.i.p.) on the death-, drug-, and suicide-plagued Von Erich wrestling family was selected for an anthology of the year’s best magazine articles. The same year, a story for The Washington Monthly on WWF (now WWE) chief Vince McMahon’s efforts to get out from under state regulations and taxes landed me on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
In ’92, WWF was coming off the federal steroid-trafficking conviction a year earlier of its Pennsylvania attending physician, Dr. George Zahorian, as well as newer reports that pedophile company executives and employees were preying on underage ring boys. New York’s Village Voice gave me a $4,000 contract to write a cover story tying together the scandals. The Snuka piece was a “sidebar” to the larger story. I traveled to Allentown (indeed, stayed at the George Washington Motor Lodge), talked to cops and to reporters for the daily newspaper there, the Morning Call, and interviewed others and probed records.
I have a clear memory of knocking on the door of the Lehigh County Agricultural Hall, where WWF had recorded its regionally syndicated television shows prior to the historic cable TV wars and national expansion of the mid-eighties. I wanted to see the interior for a scene-setter, and I wanted to find out if anyone remembered anything about Snuka. The building manager closed the door in my face. “We know why you’re here and we don’t want any part of you,” he said.
Thus, 18 years before the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno scandal at Penn State University, which would unfold more than 150 miles west of Allentown, I had my first insight into what has become a cliché of national Election Night demographic analysis: “Pennsylvania consists of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh … and Alabama in between.”
The Village Voice assignment didn’t work out. The Voice editors’ learning curve and agility proved inadequate, as other media outlets beat us to the punch on the various “Titangate” scandals (sans Snuka). I later collected on a court judgment in my favor, requiring the Voice to pay me the agreed-upon full fee. This Pyrrhic victory set the stage for my decades of work as a writers’ rights activist – as National Writers Union shop steward at SF Weekly, then as assistant director of the NWU, then as a class-action copyright litigation consultant. In 2005, I led a slate of objectors to a global class-action settlement with the newspaper, magazine, and electronic database industries (a settlement partially orchestrated by my old friends at the NWU). The tortured path of that case through the federal courts included the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. At this writing, a satisfactory revised settlement was still being negotiated.
Meanwhile, around 1999, I posted the Snuka sidebar (but not the main and longer Voice article draft) at a website collecting both previously published and unpublished wrestling articles. The Snuka turned into an Internet samizdat classic, getting passed around the virtual water cooler the world over. Pirated versions and inanely uninformed interpretations added the precise overlay of mystery and sensationalism so relished by the wrestling cult (and the world at large). The prose of “Irvin Muchnick’s Wrestling Journalism Archive” would become the foundation of my 2007 book from ECW Press, WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal.
Snuka’s own career had long been in decline, but that had nothing to do with whatever the public understood about Allentown ’83 (that is to say, very little). Drug-addled, physically spent in his forties, fifties, and sixties, Snuka devolved from one of the most popular stars in the game into the prototypical Mickey Rourke figure from the Darren Aronofsky movie: an itinerant at ring bookings and autograph shows of small, independent promotions, who continued to do the occasional nostalgia cameo for WWE, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Snuka will turn 70 later this year. His daughter Tamina, one of his four children, is a WWE female performer, or “diva.”
AND THAT’S HOW THINGS MIGHT HAVE STOOD FOREVER, had Snuka and his handlers not decided to lie through their teeth, carny-style, about Nancy Argentino and related topics in his newly published autobiography, Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story. The foreword is by Rowdy Roddy Piper. The introduction is by retired wrestler and New York Times bestselling author Mick Foley, who modeled parts of his own wildly risk-taking performance style after Snuka, a childhood hero; and who today – with a gruesome irony Foley himself doesn’t seem to appreciate – promotes the work of the anti-sex assault organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).
Depending on how you keep score, Snuka has told between three and five-and-a-half different versions of what went down in Allentown. Only with the extreme enabling of softball interviewers can he hide the fact that he still can’t coherently retell even the version he is supposedly sticking with.
Twenty-one years ago, I had spoken briefly with Nancy Argentino’s still-devastated surviving younger sister. Then, just weeks ago, I heard from Nancy’s older sister, who told me that an Allentown Morning Call reporter was working on a “cold case” story about Snuka for May 10, 2013, the 30th anniversary of the incident.
Would I be interested in expanding, annotating, and updating my material? the older sister asked. The answer was obvious. Snuka and Foley took insane plunges from the tops of cages; it’s what they did. I write the stories the mainstream media don’t want to publish about the unacceptable human toll of out-of-control bread-and-circuses American entertainment; it’s what I do. That Snuka-Argentino dovetailed with current themes of my work, in exposing the disgrace of widespread coach sexual abuse and cover-up in our national Olympic swimming program, was a bonus.
(As we were going to press, at least one other newspaper, besides the Allentown Morning Call, was working on an anniversary story.)
Together with the sisters, I resolved that every dime of royalties from this project would go in Nancy’s memory to an organization chosen by the family. They picked My Sisters’ Place, a battered women’s shelter and resource center in Westchester County, New York.
THIS EBOOK HAS FIVE ELEMENTS:
· “THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE” reprints my 1,900 words from 1992 and provides the basic facts. No, ladies and gentlemen, Nancy Argentino did not jump out of the hotel window. Sorry, folks, but the episode three months earlier, when Snuka got arrested for a melee at a Howard Johnson’s motel outside Syracuse (for which he eventually pleaded guilty), was not just a little misunderstanding. It was a violent precursor of avoidable death.
· “JIMMY SNUKA’S PATHETIC LIES” reviews his book and recent public statements, and adds harsh comments on what I believe has been the timid and equivocal coverage of it in the “wrestling news media” (those three words, all too often, are oxymoronic).
· “THE SHORT, INTERRUPTED LIFE OF NANCY ARGENTINO” attempts, with the help of her loved ones, to put a real name and face, and flesh and blood, on the tragedy of “that woman Snuka was involved with in Allentown.”
· “OTHER UPDATED INFORMATION”
· “APPENDIX” has facsimiles of primary-source documents that represent what was said by Snuka and others at the time of the incident, and allow readers to make final judgments for themselves.
In the end, not every crime has a clean solution. Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t hold out for a miraculous thaw of the cold case and a turnaround by the public officials of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, who in 1983 conducted themselves so cravenly. District attorney William Platt, now an esteemed senior judge in the state court system, simply exercised his discretion, and exercised it poorly.
My goal is more modest, and I hope more effective: shining daylight on what happened – and in the process subjecting the D.A., WWE, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka to the full prosecutorial wrath of history and the court of public opinion.