It’s been more than nine years since the horrific tragedy gripped not only wrestling fans, but also true crime aficionados, news junkies, conspiracy theorists, and, well, pretty much everyone. Many of us remember it well, although I imagine we also remember it differently. Such is the effect of the passage of time, the uncovering of evidence, and the facts that create more questions than they answer.
This is what I remember. I turned on the TV to watch Raw, as I did (and still do) every Monday night. Rather than the usual raucous crowd and rowdy show, however, the crowd was quiet, and a somber, visibly shaken Vince McMahon stood in the center of the ring with a microphone. I don’t recall his exact words, but he informed those present and those watching at home that Chris Benoit was dead. Seconds later, we learned that his wife and son were dead too. The circumstances were not yet public knowledge.
So that night’s Raw – June 26, 2007 – was a tribute to the fallen legend. Not only was he one of the sport’s biggest stars of the moment, but he was one of the greatest competitors ever to step into the squared circle. His technical proficiency had no equal. And, despite a marked lack of charisma, the fans loved him. When he finally won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 20, the crowd went insane. He was genuinely loved in the wrestling world.
A lot of the top stars of the WWE even recorded messages for Chris Benoit before the details of the murder/suicide came to light (something you’ll never see on the WWE network) and talked about how much they respected Chris and what he meant for the industry. Unfortunately, all of the videos are uploaded separately, so here are some notable ones:
As the confetti fell during the post-match celebration, Benoit’s best friend, Eddie Guerrero (himself a title holder) joined his friend in the ring. These two grown men were crying buckets, and the tears were real. Also joining in the celebration were Benoit’s wife, Nancy, and their small son, Daniel. The family was beside themselves with joy. The image of the happy family, basking in triumph and covered in confetti, is one I’ve never been able to forget.
During his 22-year career, Chris Benoit took many “bumps,” as they’re known in the wrestling industry. The innocuous term belies – probably intentionally – just how serious the injuries can be. From chair shots in TLC matches, to lead pipes, stop signs, and God knows what else in Hardcore contests, to botched German suplexes, there are a plethora of ways to sustain head trauma in this business. And they all happened to him. Repeatedly. Many more times, I think, than anyone really knew while he was still alive.
As a survivor of a traumatic brain injury, I can personally attest to the huge effect they have on your everyday life. Your memory goes straight to shit. Focus and concentration require herculean efforts. Gross motor function can suffer as well. And it can have quite the effect on your personality too. It often feels as if You #1 got knocked back behind your brain, and sometimes can’t find its way out. So it is replaced by You #2, who is very similar in many ways. It has the same interests, the same memories (or what’s left of them), the same preferences as You #1. People who don’t live with you will probably never know the difference.
But You #2 *is* different. Sometimes it’s sad; sometimes it’s frustrated; sometimes it’s so angry it can’t think straight. And it never really knows why. But negative emotions become much more difficult to keep in check. There’s no taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and everything returning to hunky-dory. That isn’t really an option anymore. So, whether it manifests as anger management issues, manic episodes, or crippling depression, severe head injuries change you, and rarely for the better.
In the middle of all this, an emotional trauma decided to join the physical ones. On November 13, 2005, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room, the victim of heart failure at the age of 38. While Guerrero was clean at the time of his death, the coroner’s conclusion was that past steroid abuse contributed to the weakening of his heart. Whatever the cause, the lost of his oldest and dearest friend was a life-changing blow to Benoit’s increasingly fragile psyche. Many of his friends and coworkers said that he was never the same person again after Guerrero’s death. Just skip to 2:20 of this video:
Taking all of this into account, it’s only natural that both the WWE and the fan base were devastated when Benoit joined his friend less than two years later. It was a sad and untimely end to a difficult but promising life. The fact that his wife and son died with him made the situation exponentially more tragic. What could have happened that would kill all of them at once? A home invasion / robbery gone horribly wrong? Or perhaps it wasn’t violent at all. Maybe a carbon monoxide leak took them peacefully in their sleep, and they didn’t suffer at all.
We all know now just how off base these scenarios were. But we’re forgiven for our optimism, of course. None of us ever would have imagined the investigation’s eventual conclusion – murder/suicide. According to police, Chris Benoit strangled his wife on Friday, his son on Saturday, and finally hung himself on Sunday morning. The bodies were discovered by authorities on Monday afternoon.
I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of terror trapped in the house during that hellish weekend. Nor can I fathom the deterioration of sanity that would drive a man to kill his adored wife and beloved son. There are no words, no explanations, no circumstances that would make it make sense. None.
Or are there? After the grisly details of the coroner’s report were released to the public, Christopher Nowinski, a former wrestler who was now the head of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, contacted Chris’s father, Michael Benoit, to request permission to perform tests on his son’s brain. Permission was granted, and the results were startling: repeated head injuries had left Benoit’s brain so severely damaged, it was identical to that of an 85 year old man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Brain damage this severe is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Unsurprisingly, this meant that he also had severe dementia, deep depression, and increasing paranoia as well.
Of course, there were also facts uncovered during the police investigation that simply didn’t add up, leading to multiple conspiracy theories. The most confusing bits included the fact that Benoit sent multiple text messages to several different friends, which seemed to be pleading for help. Stranger still is the fact that the timestamps on those messages were several hours after the coroner’s official time of death. Then there’s the bizarre edit made to the wrestler’s Wikipedia page, stating that he missed a house show due to the death of his wife – which was posted more than 12 hours before the bodies were discovered. One of the strangest things to my mind was the fact that a plethora of empty wine bottles and beer cans were found littered on the floor under Benoit’s hanging body – yet he had a 0.0 blood alcohol level at the time of his death.
So, with all these conflicting pieces of evidence, it’s no surprise that a great deal of people didn’t believe the official conclusion reached. Among the prevalent theories, here are the most popular:
They were murdered by Kevin Sullivan, Nancy Benoit’s ex-husband, on the ten-year anniversary of her divorcing him to be with Chris. Sullivan was alleged to be a Satanist, and while that might make him a skeezy individual, it doesn’t necessarily make him a murderer. He was, however, widely known to hold a venomous grudge against both his former wife and her new husband.
Chavo Guerrero, Eddie’s nephew and a close friend of the Benoit family, reportedly spoke to Chris on the phone that Friday afternoon. About 15 minutes into the call, Chris asked Chavo to wait a moment, because there was someone at the door. Chavo allegedly heard a scuffle, then the line went dead. If this was in fact a home invasion, it would explain why there was no sign of forced entry – Chris simply opened the door, without knowing who was on the other side. This theory is based on hearsay, since Chavo has never confirmed the story on record. Interestingly, though, he has also never denied it.
Chavo did, however, go on the record as saying that he spoke to Chris again the following day, Saturday, after Nancy was believed to have been killed, but before Daniel. Chavo said that he had a missed call at approximately 3:30pm, with a voicemail from Chris, saying that he had overslept and missed his flight to Texas, and wouldn’t be present for the house show that night. He immediately called his friend back, and as he said, “He sounded very odd, like his words were forced. He said “I love you, Chavo,” when he hung up. He’s told me that a million times, but this time was very different. It was enough for me to hang up and think that something really wasn’t right.” Either side of the argument could use this one: Those believing in Benoit’s innocence say that he was being forced, perhaps at gunpoint, or by threats to his family, to account for his absence so that no one would come looking for them. However, if he had just killed his wife and was planning to kill his son next, he could have made the call voluntarily for the exact same reason. His damaged brain breaking with reality could certainly account for the odd, forced voice that Chavo heard.
At 12:10am, on Monday June 26, 2007, an addition was made to Chris Benoit’s Wikipedia page. It read: “Chris Benoit was replaced by Johnny Nitro for the ECW Championship match at Vengeance, as Benoit was not there due to personal issues, stemming from the death of his wife Nancy.” This is the one I have the hardest time rationalizing. I mean, how could such a specific claim be pure coincidence? Someone who just wanted to jump the gun and appear to be “in the know” before anyone else on the story behind Benoit’s absence could easily have been more vague. They could have said he was ill, that there was a family emergency, or even a death in the family. But to specifically name his his wife, who was in fact dead, when the general public – moreover, even the authorities – did not know? The mystery deepened when the police investigated the post, and found that the IP address originated from Stamford, Connecticut – home of WWE headquarters, as well as the whole McMahon family. Now, of course I’m not saying that Vince sent some goombas to take Benoit out for no particular reason, then was dumb enough to tell someone about it, and that person was stupid enough to post it online before it was even discovered, let alone announced. No, I don’t think the McMahons themselves were involved. However, the chain of events is just to specific for them to all be coincidental. Someone knew something, and the only way that person could know is if they were either directly responsible, or knew the person who was and was taken into that person’s confidence.
So, why dredge up all of this extremely unpleasant history? And in such detail. (Not counting lists, this is the longest article I’ve ever written.) The reason is that – you guessed it – someone has finally decided to make a movie about this terrible moment in history. I would like for people to know the circumstances of what happened, both the good and the bad, the strange and the ugly, the tragic and the horrifying. I know people who are adults now, and avid wrestling fans too, who only vaguely remember this as a sad event from their childhoods. So my aim here is to inform. To let people know, and to make them think. Gather your own information, and form your own opinion. That’s all I ask.
The film will be titled Crossface (which was Benoit’s signature submission move), and will be directed by Lexi Alexander. She has previously directed Green Street Hooligans, Punisher: War Zone, and episodes of many TV series, including Arrow, Supergirl, and Limitless. I can only hope that this won’t be a sensationalized account of events, but rather an honest, probing look at what we know, and why we don’t know what we don’t. I hope it covers his past steroid abuse, the issues in the Benoits’ marriage, and his tenuous grip on reality at the end. But I also hope it covers the good times in their marriage, his professional accomplishments, the series of repeated head injuries that may have led to the loss of his sanity, and the sloppy, rushed police investigation that left so many questions unanswered. I hope the film is respectful of both Chris’s and Nancy’s families. And I hope that in the end, we all remember that an innocent little boy lost his life for no logical reason. But we also need to remember that he lived, that he was a product of the love between his parents, and that he brought joy to their lives, before tragedy struck.
What is your opinion of this film? Is it a good idea, or should the past be left in the past? Is there any way to do it tactfully, or is it more likely to be classless, sensationalized garbage? And what are your thoughts on the events of that terrible June weekend nine years ago? Let us know in the comments. (And please, be respectful of each other. I realize that this topic will bring out some strong opinions, but there’s no need to be angry with each other over a difference of opinion or belief. Thank you.