To an outsider, John du Pont looked like he had it all. An heir to the du Pont chemical and automotive fortune, du Pont was a multimillionaire who busied himself by supporting his greatest passion, wrestling. Du Pont poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the sport, donating to universities and even building a wrestling facility named Foxcatcher on his estate, where he coached Olympic hopefuls. The sports enthusiast had a life that most would envy: money to burn, a gorgeous home, and fervent admiration from people who appreciated his generosity. But on January 26, 1996, du Pont shocked the world when he murdered his friend and fellow wrestling coach, Dave Schultz, in cold blood.
At the time of his death, Dave Schultz had been living on the du Pont estate for about seven years. Du Pont had offered Dave an obscene amount of money and a place to live, rent-free, if he would help coach Team Foxcatcher, the wrestlers that trained at du Pont’s private facility. Dave and younger brother Mark were the only American brothers to win gold medals at both the World Championships and the Olympics, bringing a certain amount of prestige to du Pont’s team. Du Pont and Mark had also worked together, but they went their separate ways in 1988. Mark later claimed that he left because du Pont was unstable and controlling. But Dave couldn’t pass up such a lucrative offer, even if it was for a job that had so annoyed his younger brother. It was a decision that would ultimately bring about his untimely death and haunt his family for years to come.
Though du Pont initially bought the elder Schultz’s allegiance, the two actually became friends, making Dave’s later murder all the more shocking. On January 26, 1996, du Pont drove up to Dave’s house and parked in his driveway. With no idea of the fate that was in store for him, Dave approached the vehicle. Du Pont said, “Do you have a problem with me?” Then, he pulled a gun out and shot Dave three times at point-blank range. Dave’s wife and du Pont’s security guard were present and witnessed the crime, although there was nothing to be done to save Dave. Dave died in his wife’s arms at the scene, at the age of 36. He left behind two children.
John du Pont fled back to his mansion, where he barricaded himself in the home’s bomb shelter for two days. The estate was quickly surrounded by hundreds of police officers and SWAT team members. Du Pont refused to leave, despite several back-and-forth phone calls with authorities who tried to persuade him to give himself up. Finally, the standoff ended when police had the idea to turn John’s heating system off. Bothered by the cold, du Pont left the house to attempt to fix the boiler and was quickly captured by police.
Why would du Pont kill a friend for no apparent reason, in front of several witnesses? Authorities have never discovered a motive for Du Pont’s heinous act, making this crime truly mind-boggling. Many of the people in his life expressed shock at this sudden plunge into violence, including Joy Hansen Leutner, a triathlete who was close to du Pont. He had helped her get through a difficult period in her life, and her fiance had even asked du Pont, rather than Leutner’s father, for permission to pop the question. “With my family and friends, John gave me a new lease on life. He gave more than money; he gave himself emotionally...There's no way John in his right mind would have killed Dave.”
In fact, the general consensus is that du Pont was not in his right mind, and was likely suffering from mental health issues that were never treated. Though his initial insanity defense was thrown out, in du Pont’s 1997 trial the jury found the killer guilty but mentally ill, sentencing him to 13 to 30 years of incarceration.
Hindsight is 20/20. Though no one suspected du Pont would be capable of murder, he did display erratic behavior for years before Dave Schultz’s murder. In fact, his lavish donations may have even prompted people to turn a blind eye to his deteriorating mental health, for fear that he would withdraw financial support. Glenn Goodman, a former wrestler at Foxcatcher, discussed his guilt over the matter and even went so far as to say, “I feel the whole wrestling community has prostituted ourselves.”
In the weeks and months leading up to the murder he committed, du Pont had placed infrared cameras in his house to detect ghosts and spoke of fears that the walls were moving, that Nazis were out to get him, and that he would travel back in time through the clock on his treadmill. Signs of du Pont’s instability may have gone back even farther. In 1983, he was married for just a few short months. In that time, his wife alleged that on different occasions he had expressed paranoia that she would be kidnapped, pointed a gun at her head, accused her of being a Russian spy, and tried to shove her in a fireplace.
The circumstances of John du Pont’s bizarre crime were portrayed in the critically acclaimed true crime drama film, Foxcatcher. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo were lauded for their performances as John, Mark, and Dave, respectively. Directed by Bennett Miller, who also earned accolades for directing Capote and Moneyball, the film was nominated for five Oscars. While the movie is true to life in most ways, it does occasionally depart from real-life events. At one point, Mark Schultz slammed the film when he realized that some scenes could be interpreted as suggestions of a sexual relationship between him and du Pont, which he declared was utter fiction. However, he later recanted his criticism, calling Foxcatcher “a miracle.”
In 2010, du Pont died in prison at the age of 72. He had been incarcerated for nearly 14 years. Though Dave’s murderer was now dead, the Schultz family didn’t exactly rejoice. Philip Schultz, Dave’s father, said, “John du Pont died for me the day he took my son’s life. So the fact that he’s officially gone is almost a moot point. I did forgive the man for what he did. I never forgave the act.” Committed to his passion until the day he died, John du Pont was buried in his Team Foxcatcher wrestling singlet.
Feature photo: Annapurna Pictures and Wikimedia Commons