Foxcatcher’s Real-Life Psycho Killer
In the Oscar bait film Foxcatcher, Steve Carell plays cocaine-snorting lunatic John du Pont, who guns down Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. The true story is even crazier.
Bennett Miller’s tragic, true-life saga Foxcatcher is about many things: Familial strife, American exceptionalism, the corrupting influence of money, and Steve Carell’s prosthetic schnoz. It will also introduce many viewers to one of cinema’s most unstable and chilling villains in John du Pont—an ornithologist, philanthropist, conchologist, philatelist, sports enthusiast, and murderer.
The film centers on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). In the wake of his gold medal win at the 1984 Olympics, he’s depicted living in relative poverty, subsisting on a diet of ramen and accepting $20 for speaking engagements. He’s eager to escape from under the shadow of his older, more amiable brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also took gold in ’84. Desperate, Schultz falls under the wing of du Pont (Carell), a cocaine-snorting, gun-toting, psychopathic Svengali who provides him with state-of-the-art training facilities at Foxcatcher Farm in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and even offers to have Dave and his family live on the estate grounds so he can help coach little brother.
On January 26, 1996, du Pont drove to his guesthouse, approached Dave while he was working on his car in the driveway under the watchful gaze of his wife, and shot him three times, killing him.
In real life, John Eleuthère du Pont had creeped out Mark from the very beginning.
“When I first met du Pont, I thought he was the biggest loser on Earth,” Mark recently told People. “His head was caked with dandruff. His teeth were caked with food. He had these little twig arms. It looked like he had swallowed a basketball… I knew I couldn't be around this guy.”
The du Pont family descended from Huguenot nobility in Burgundy, emigrating to the United States in 1800. There, they used their considerable means to establish E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1802, a war-profiteering gunpowder manufacturer that grew to become the largest producer of black gunpowder in the country. The family also believed that inbreeding was central to both preserving the family fortune and ensuring “purity of blood.”
According to Discover Magazine, “Pierre-Samuel du Pont, founder of an American dynasty that believed in inbreeding, hinted at these factors when he told his family: ‘The marriages that I should prefer for our colony would be between the cousins. In that way we should be sure of honesty of soul and purity of blood.’ He got his wish, with seven cousin marriages in the family during the 19th century.”
Due to its development of valuable polymers like nylon, Teflon, Kevlar, and neoprene, du Pont has grown to become the third biggest chemical company in the world, taking in $34.8 billion in revenue in 2012 alone. Gerard Colby’s book Du Pont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain alleges that the family has had heavy influence in American politics as well, including attempts at forcing President Roosevelt from office over opposed New Deal regulatory reforms, munitions sales to the rising Nazis, and the ongoing pollution of our air and water.
The great-grandson of Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, who founded the gunpowder mill that blossomed into a fortune, John du Pont was born in 1938 to William du Pont, Jr. and Jean Liseter Austin. He grew up the youngest of four children at Liseter Hall—a replica of James Madison’s Virginia home, Montpelier, built in Newton Square on 200 acres of property gifted to the family by Austin’s father. Du Pont left Austin when John was 2, and broke off communication with him shortly thereafter, forcing John to be raised by the stern Jean, whom he became very close to.
“I spent a lifetime looking for a father,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986.
Fatherless and emotionally needy, du Pont was a loner who sought companionship and adoration—usually at great financial cost.
“He was weird looking, kind of creepy, with yellow teeth and walking all kind of hunched over,” Suzanne Gillstrom, a neighbor who remembered him as a teenager, told The New York Times.
After graduating near the bottom of his high school class, du Pont went on to attend the University of Miami, majoring in marine biology. The eccentric multimillionaire harbored a fascination with birds, and eventually fancied himself an ornithologist, taking regular trips to the South Pacific where he discovered two-dozen new species. He erected the Delaware Museum of Natural History to house his collection of 1 million seashells and birds’ eggs and 100,000 preserved birds. The museum also published several books on birds penned by du Pont.
Du Pont would become fully immersed in one field—like birds—before moving on to his next obsession. He collected rare china, horse-drawn carriages (even purchasing the one used in the film My Fair Lady), and artillery, ranging from a Civil War Gatling gun to a tank. And he fired his vast array of weaponry on his estate’s private J. Edgar Hoover Pistol Training Center, where he’d regularly host local police who used it for target practice. Du Pont became so chummy with the cops that he’d donate bulletproof vests and other equipment to the department, and they even made him an honorary Newtown Square police officer in the ‘60s.
And while birds, guns, and playing cop were his hobbies, the heir’s real fascination was always the Olympics. He swam in college and dreamed of competing in the Games, but wasn’t close to being good enough, so he turned to the pentathlon. Du Pont’s biggest sporting achievement was winning the 1965 Australian national pentathlon championship, but since the pentathlon was a nonexistent sport in Australia, the prize was essentially bought.
“Almost any American could have gone down there and won,” Robert Marbut, president of the United States Modern Pentathlon Association, told The Times.
He served as manager of the U.S. pentathlon team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and in September 1983, the 45-year-old du Pont married 30-year-old Gale Wenk, an occupational therapist who’d treated him for a hand injury stemming from an automotive wreck one year prior.
But one month into the marriage, du Pont began to show signs of trouble. He became paranoid that his bride would be kidnapped, and told her to never go to the same place twice. He started drinking heavily, and choked her, threatened her with a knife, and even tried pushing her out of a moving car.
“On a February night in 1984, she said, her husband of five months entered the bedroom and turned the television to a channel featuring patriotic music,” wrote The Times. “When asked to turn down the volume, Mr. du Pont pulled a pistol from a dresser drawer, placed it to his wife's temple and, according to her, said, ‘You know what they do with Russian spies? They shoot them.’”
Wenk tried contacting local police about the abuse but, presumably because of du Pont’s power and influence within the community, it fell on deaf ears. She moved out a month later, and du Pont subsequently filed for divorce. She later sued him alleging a vicious cycle of abuse, and he settled with his ex-wife out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Then, in 1985, du Pont turned his attention (and Forbes-estimated $200 million fortune) to wrestling. He approached nearby Villanova University and offered to donate money to establish a varsity wrestling team there, provided they make him head coach. He poured millions into building Foxcatcher Farm, a wrestling facility boasting top-of-the-line weight machines. To lend him credibility, he hired Mark Schultz as his assistant coach, who lived on his estate from 1986-1988 until Villanova disbanded the team due to concerns that du Pont’s donations and recruiting tactics stood in violation of NCAA regulations.
Du Pont’s keen interest in wrestling, meanwhile, had some suspecting it was sexual in nature—something alluded to in the film. “As Jerry Stanley, a former assistant coach at the University of Oklahoma, told one reporter, ‘I think he just liked to be around these Greek Adonis-built types,’” reported People.
He’d regularly wrestle with his team members, and according to former Team Foxcatcher wrestlers, took a particularly liking to Bulgarian wrestling champ Valentin Jordanov. The two would wrestle alone together on weekends, and ex-Foxcatcher member Trevor Lewis recalls a bizarre episode where du Pont denied him access to the gym on a Sunday. “That’s my time to work out with Valo,” Lewis claimed du Pont told him. “I’d prefer if we were alone.”
In December 1988, former Villanova assistant wrestling coach Andre Metzger, 29, sued du Pont alleging that his firing from the post “was a direct and proximate result” of his “refusal to submit to homosexual advances” by du Pont, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer, who later described the atmosphere at Foxcatcher as “a scene out of the corrupt Emperor Caligula's Roman bathing spas.” He sought $550,000 in damages, and du Pont vehemently denied the charges. The case was settled out of court.
After Villanova, du Pont became involved with Team USA Wrestling and Schultz’s road to a repeat gold at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He joined Team Foxcatcher, a group of wrestlers who trained on and received free food and lodging, as well as up to $1,000 a month. Du Pont would even fly his wrestlers to tournaments in his Learjet or helicopter. Between 1989 and 1995, du Pont donated $400,000 a year to USA Wrestling.
“I feel the whole wrestling community has prostituted ourselves,” Glenn Goodman, a Foxcatcher wrestler from 1987 until 1992, later told The Times. “It wasn't like we didn't know what he was about. We knew. Because he brought some big money to the sport, I believe we turned a blind eye to some of the things he was doing.”
According to Mark Schultz’s memoir Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold, which will be released on November 18, he purposely lost his 1988 Olympic match to spite du Pont.
“I could not give du Pont the credibility and status that would come from his team’s producing an Olympic champion,” Schultz wrote.
He also detailed du Pont’s alcohol and cocaine problem, writing that he always appeared “drunk or on drugs, or both.” They snorted cocaine “two or three times” together and Schultz alleges that du Pont once even showed him a kilo of cocaine labeled “evidence” that he kept in a drawer—presumably from the local police precinct where he had close ties. Rob Calabrese, a wrestler on Team Foxcatcher, later testified that in 1988 he saw Schultz and du Pont snort a 3-inch line of cocaine together. In his memoir, Schultz also recounted a time when du Pont drunkenly drove his tank onto a police officer’s property (receiving no punishment), and when once burst into Schultz’s room drunk and high, pointing a gun at his then-girlfriend.
Du Pont’s fascination with wrestling and erratic behavior seemed to stem from the death of his mother, who passed away in August 1988. She once allegedly told her son that wrestlers were “ruffians.”
In 1989, du Pont randomly dismissed the younger Schultz from Foxcatcher Farm, and that same year, summoned Dave Schultz to train Team Foxcatcher—offering him a $70,000 annual salary and free lodging on his estate for his wife, Nancy, and two young children.
That’s when things got very strange.
“Bizarre imaginings by Mr. du Pont have also been recounted by athletes who trained with Team Foxcatcher,” wrote The Times. “They said he placed infrared ‘ghost-finding’ cameras in his house, believed the walls were moving and grew afraid that clocks on the treadmills were taking him back in time.”
Du Pont also began drinking and drugging more regularly, became obsessed with numerology, and chose to carry a firearm around at all times. He later drove two Lincoln Continentals into his lake with little in the way of explanation. At the 1995 world wrestling championships in Atlanta, du Pont “wore an orange jumpsuit and asked to be introduced as the Dalai Lama,” reported The Times. Later that year, du Pont reportedly developed a phobia for the color black, prohibiting black vans from being driven on his property. Olympian Kevin Jackson later accused du Pont of firing him from Team Foxcatcher for being black.
“At the time, Mr. Jackson said he thought Mr. du Pont was being racist because three blacks were included in a group of athletes he dismissed and Mr. du Pont told one of them that the wrestling center was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote The Times. (He later changed his mind and said his dismissal was probably due to du Pont’s psychosis).
In October 1995, three months before the shooting, ex-Foxcatcher wrestler Dan Chaid alleged that du Pont shoved a machine gun into his chest and threatened to kill him, shouting, “Don’t fuck with me, I want you off this farm.”
Despite the pattern of disturbing behavior, Dave Schultz always sprang to du Pont’s defense, offering to take him to rehab to kick his addiction to alcohol and drugs, and defending him to the rest of Team USA. By the start of 1996, du Pont had become almost completely withdrawn, staying inside his home for months at a time. Team Foxcatcher had dwindled from a high of 30 wrestlers to just 4.
Then, on January 26, 1996, du Pont drove over to Schultz’s guesthouse and, with his head of security in the passenger’s seat, shot Schultz in his driveway. Nancy heard the shot, then another, and came to the window to witness the third and final bullet be fired into her husband. Du Pont then pointed the gun at Nancy, before driving off.
After the shooting death of Schultz, a two-day standoff ensued between du Pont, who was holed up in his mansion with a massive cachet of weapons, and 75 local police and SWAT team members. When he went outside unarmed to check on the house’s heater, which the police had shut off, he was apprehended without conflict.
According to Schultz’s memoir, he doesn’t know why du Pont killed his brother, but noted that the murder happened on the birthday of Jordanov, du Pont’s favorite Foxcatcher wrestler. “I believe that du Pont had a birthday present he wanted to give Jordanov that would demonstrate how much du Pont loved him,” Schultz wrote.
Du Pont, 57, was initially declared “actively psychotic” and unfit for trial by a judge, and ordered to a psychiatric hospital. But in 1997, he was later found guilty (but mentally ill) in the shooting death of Schultz and sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison. He passed away in his cell at the age of 72 on December 9, 2001, from natural causes.
In March 1996, just two months after the shooting death of Schultz, a team of defense psychiatrists interviewed Du Pont. During the 75-minute videotaped interview, du Pont referred to himself as the Dalai Lama, the last Czar of Russia, and a successor to the Third Reich. He also claimed that the CIA had dispatched a clone of himself to Foxcatcher Farm to kill Schultz.
“I recognized Dave Schultz as my protector,”' du Pont said in the March interview. “I didn't put two and two together until after Dave had been killed.”