An Eccentric Heir's Wrestle With Death

If the category is rich loons, John Eleuthere du Pont, 57, qualifies as world class: very rich and very, very loony. The great-great-grandson of Eleuthere Irene du Pont, who founded the giant chemical company that bears the family name, John du Pont inherited a fortune estimated in 1985 at about $46 million. Friends describe him as eccentric, but the word hardly does him justice. A well-known patron of U.S. amateur wrestling, du Pont is a gun fanatic who proudly owned an armored personnel carrier and a helicopter tricked out in military-style camouflage paint. According to local legend, he once drove two brand-new Lincoln Continentals into a pond--one after the other. Then there was the Dalai Lama thing. According to his sister-in-law Mrs. Henry du Pont of Greenville, Dela., in recent months du Pont demanded that family members address him as the Dalai Lama of the United States. "He wouldn't speak to us if we wouldn't call him that," Mrs. du Pont said.

Clearly, John E. du Pont had become a severely troubled man--and last week, in a bizarre episode at Foxcatcher Farm, his 800-acre family estate in Newtown Square, west of Philadelphia, he became a murder suspect as well. The victim was Dave Schultz, 86, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist and a leading candidate in the 168-pound class for the 1996 U.S. freestyle wrestling team. According to police, Schultz died after being shot twice in the chest and once in the arm with a .38-caliber pistol. "Arlene, he shot him right in front of me," Schultz's wife, Nancy, sobbed to a friend.

Police said Schultz died outside his home on the du Pont estate, where he trained and coached at the Foxcatcher wrestling complex. The shooting was probably prompted by a dispute over money. Du Pont then retreated to his Georgian mansion and defied repeated demands to surrender. A siege involving three SWAT teams and dozens of other officers was still underway 24 hours later, and the cops were in no hurry to force the millionaire out. "John du Pont is a marksman, and he has an arsenal," a spokesman said on Saturday. "We don't know how many guns or how much ammunition he has."

His path toward chaos begins and ends in the stately confines of Fox-catcher, where the manor house is modeled on James Madison's Virginia home. The du Pont clan, with a combined net worth of more than $10 billion, is a vastly extended family: former Delaware governor Pete du Pont is a distant cousin. A shy boy who doted on his divorced mother, John du Pont was raised in the genteel world of East Coast old money. After an education at the Haverford School and the University of Miami, he grew up to be an accomplished gentleman dilettante. He was a noted shell collector and ornithologist. He endowed the Delaware Museum of Natural History, wrote or co-wrote three books and numerous scholarly articles and identified and named some two dozen species of exotic birds. He was also an avid athlete--a swimmer and wrestler who nearly qualified for the Olympic pentathlon in 1968 and served as manager for a U.S. Olympic squad in 1976.

But wrestling was his passion. In 1986, du Pont became the financial angel and a nominal coach of a new wrestling program at nearby Villanova University, contributing $5 million to build an athletic center on the school's Main Line campus. By 1989, du Pont moved on to bigger things. He became a major backer of USA Wrestling, the organizing committee for the U.S. national team, and gathered his own squad of promising amateur wrestlers in a specially built 14,000-square-foot facility at Foxcatcher. Dave Schultz, who had been one of his coaches at Villanova, stayed with du Pont.

Andre Metzget didn't. Metzger, now at the University of Oklahoma, had a brief career as an assistant wrestling coach during the du Pont era at Villanova. He lost his job in a dispute with du Pont and sued for $555,000-claiming, among other issues, that du Pont made a homosexual overture to him. Du Pont and his lawyer dismissed it all as "ridiculous," but du Pont's fondness for young athletes was widely rumored among wrestling enthusiasts. "We'd see him at tournaments and he just made us feel creepy," Jerry Stanley, a former assistant coach at Oklahoma, told NEWSWEEK. "He was using his money to put himself closer to these athletes." Stanley said it was common knowledge that du Pont settled the lawsuit out of court--and that du Pont at one point offered to decide the suit by wrestling Metzger himself.

In his own horsey neighborhood, du Pont was just as famous for being an ardent supporter of the police. From the mid-1970s and well into the '80s, he sponsored and ran police training programs at his own firing range -- which he called the J. Edgar Hoover Center -- on the grounds of his estate. He was deputized by the Newtown Township Police Force and once posed for a photograph in the uniform of the local gendarmerie--a millionaire amateur cop. Vicky Welch, whose husband, Tim, is a local officer, vividly recalls a visit from du Pont on Christmas Eve, 1984. Around 11:30 p.m., du Pont pulled up at their house--the Welches were living at Foxcatcher then--in his armored personnel carrier. "He popped out of the hatch and his head was all bloody," she says. "He'd been smashing into trees. He said, 'Can Tim come out and play?' I said, 'No, I don't think so'." The Welches moved.

Du Pont's cop fetish gave him easy access to guns; the guns led to scary incidents. One involved a woman, Gale Wenk, a physical therapist whom du Pont married and quickly divorced in 1984. According to court papers, Wenk said du Pont once accused her of being a Soviet spy and pulled out a pistol, saying the only thing to do with spies was to shoot them. (He didn't shoot.) Dan Chaid, who until recently was on the Foxcatcher wrestling staff, says du Pont threatened him with a gun last October after a dispute over Chaid's housing on the estate. "He came right up to me with the machine gun [and] told me, 'Don't f-k with me. I want you off my farm'," Chaid recalled. Frightened, Chaid called 911--but the investigating officer, he says, merely said, "John's always been a little bit different."

But du Pont, friends and family say now, was steadily sliding into madness. Alcohol and cocaine may have played a role; Chaid says du Pont used both. Whatever the reason, du Pont found Dave Schultz sitting in his blue Toyota station wagon and, police say, used his pistol to blow away one of the best wrestlers the United States has ever had. It was a strange end for a star athlete--and a glimpse into the darkening mind of an eccentric gone wholly mad.