Inside Wrestler Chris Benoit's World

By all appearances, professional wrestler Chris Benoit and his 7-year-old son, Daniel, shared a loving bond. The boy's room in Fayetteville, Ga., was filled with posters and action figures of his father, and on a chair beside his bed lay two miniature championship belts. "He clearly adored his dad," says Fayette County District Attorney Scott Ballard, who saw the room himself. Benoit was known for taking his wife and son on the road more often than most of his peers, according to a fellow wrestler. "When Chris would win, they would come in the ring with him," says this wrestler, who declined to be named out of concern for his privacy. "Daniel was always the perfect little gentleman, always in a little coat and tie, and 'yes sir, no sir'." When Benoit won World Wrestling Entertainment's heavyweight championship belt in 2004, Daniel joined him in the ring, basking in his father's glory.

Yet that familial bond ruptured violently last weekend. Authorities believe Benoit, 40, strangled his son and his wife, Nancy, before committing suicide at the family's new 7,500-square-foot home in a tony neighborhood south of Atlanta. All the more disturbing: police say the killings appear to have been drawn out over the course of the weekend—first Nancy, sometime Friday night, then Daniel on Saturday, and finally Benoit himself in the wee hours on Sunday. It was a bewildering demise for the wrestler known as the Canadian Crippler (for his birthplace), an average Joe who earned fans' admiration with his technical prowess rather than oratorical bluster. As the family's loved ones mourn their loss, wrestling fans and critics have filled the airwaves with speculation about what caused Benoit to snap. Yet law-enforcement officials, who continue to search for a motive, have yet to provide a definitive answer.

One theory put forth by World Wrestling Entertainment officials: that Daniel himself was a source of turmoil for Benoit. According to a WWE lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, Daniel suffered from Fragile X syndrome. A genetic condition, Fragile X is the most common cause of inherited mental impairment and can produce a range of cognitive and intellectual disabilities. McDevitt says that based on WWE's own inquiries, Benoit and his wife were arguing about Daniel's care in the days before the tragedy. The boy had completed kindergarten at First Baptist Church in Peachtree City (where the pastor says Daniel "was loved by his teachers"), and the couple were now looking for an elementary school, according to McDevitt. "It was the issue of Daniel's special needs that was the long-running problem with [Benoit] and Nancy," says the lawyer, who adds that the family had been in the Fayetteville house for only a year. "The tensions were exacerbated now that they were in a new home, in a new community. They didn't know where to go for his special education needs. It was building up." According to WWE, the couple consulted with their family physician about Daniel's condition last Thursday and Friday, on the eve of the killings. Did the stress of that discussion play a role in Benoit coming unhinged?

Some observers are putting forth other theories. Perhaps, they speculate, Benoit used steroids and succumbed to an episode of so-called "roid rage," a violent outburst provoked by excessive use of the hormones. Law-enforcement officials say that anabolic steroids were found at Benoit's home, though they're still awaiting the results of toxicology tests to see if he had any in his bloodstream. Moreover, the district attorney in Albany County, N.Y., issued a statement saying that Benoit received packages at some point from two Florida-based online pharmacies under investigation by that office as part of a steroids-trafficking case. WWE, however, challenges such speculation. McDevitt says that Benoit's most recent drug test, on April 10, came up negative for steroids. And, WWE argued in a statement, "the physical findings announced by authorities indicate deliberation, not rage."

Yet such findings don't rule out the possibility that steroids played some role in Benoit's actions, according to Dr. Richard Melloni, associate professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern University in Boston. For one thing, "roid rage can be very deliberate," he says. In one case he cites as an example, a man on steroids fumed when a driver in front of him failed to pull away quickly enough at a stoplight. Yet the man's actions were methodical; he removed his keys, exited his car, opened his trunk, retrieved a baseball bat, walked up to the other driver's car and proceeded to smash the windshield and headlights. Melloni argues that Benoit could also have been suffering from steroid withdrawal. "Depression appears during withdrawal and can last for quite a long time, including years," he says. Further bolstering that theory, the Benoits' family physician, Dr. Phil Astin, told the Associated Press earlier this week that he had treated Benoit for low testosterone levels, which he said were likely linked to prior steroid use. (Law-enforcement officials raided Astin's office on Wednesday night.)

Marc Mero, a former wrestler who fought as Johnny B Badd, knows firsthand how the stresses of the wrestling world can encourage steroid use. He says he took steroids regularly when he competed and that when he retired in 1999, their use was widespread, though often closeted. "Steroids help keep your body together and help you heal faster," he explains. But "I remember the mood swings and the aggression when I did them." Twenty-eight of Mero's wrestling buddies have died over the years. Some succumbed to drug overdoses, others to suicide, still others to performance accidents. In 16 or 17 of those cases, by his count, steroid use—and its physical and psychological effects—played a contributing role. Now an outspoken critic of the wrestling industry, which he considers a dysfunctional pressure cooker, Mero says the sport takes an especially high toll on families. "Marriages and families are so broken in the wrestling industry," he says. "You are all over the world and never really have a life. Your life is your company, your fans and your fellow wrestlers."

Yet for Benoit, growing up in Canada, that was exactly the life he yearned for. Taken in by the famous Hart wrestling family in Alberta, he trained at their notorious facility, "The Dungeon." He steadily rose up the ranks, adopting several monikers over the years, including Dynamite, Pegasus Kid and Canadian Crippler. Before Nancy, he was married to another woman, with whom he had two children, now ages 14 and 10 and living with their mother in Alberta. Benoit married Nancy—who also worked in the wrestling industry under the nickname "Woman"—in 2000, after she gave birth to Daniel. The couple's relationship was apparently stormy. In 2003, Nancy filed for divorce, accusing Benoit of threatening her with violence and destroying furniture at their home; later, however, she withdrew the petition.

Perhaps those alleged incidents presaged what was to come. After visiting his doctor, Astin, last Friday, Benoit headed home. At some point that night, police say, he killed Nancy, most likely by pinning her face-down to the floor and strangling her with a cord (authorities found her in a second-floor office lying in a pool of blood, wrapped in a towel, with her arms and legs bound). Sometime Saturday, according to police, Benoit murdered Daniel, apparently by asphyxiating him (the boy was found in his bed). Benoit placed Bibles by both of their bodies. Then early Sunday, he headed to the basement to take his own life, hanging himself with a weight-lifting cable. Cops found an empty wine bottle at his feet and nearly a dozen empty beer cans in a trash can. Throughout all this, Benoit apparently reached out to acquaintances and friends. Sounding groggy, he phoned colleagues on Saturday to tell them he'd be delayed for an event in Texas because his wife and son had suffered food poisoning. On Sunday morning, maybe only minutes before committing suicide, he sent a string of text messages giving his home address. (One odd twist to the tale: an anonymous Web user made a posting to Benoit's Wikipedia entry that mentioned Nancy's death—14 hours before authorities discovered her. The user, however, later wrote to the Web site that the comment was a "terrible coincidence" and based on idle online gossip. Whatever the case, police said they were looking into it.)

As authorities pursue their investigation, families on both sides are preparing to bury their loved ones. Funerals for Nancy and Daniel will most likely be held in Florida, where Nancy's family lives. Benoit will be buried in a private ceremony in a town near Edmonton, Alberta, according to a family friend, Scott Zerr. He recalls meeting Daniel once in Canada when the town was celebrating Chris Benoit Day. Daniel was "wearing his little tie and vest," says Zerr, just as he had at so many of his father's celebrations. Surely no one would have imagined that the boy's hero would one day turn on him in a fit of inexplicable rage.