John E. du Pont, a frustrated athlete who used his family’s fortune to surround himself with world-class wrestlers, was convicted Tuesday of killing Olympic gold medalist David Schultz on the grounds of the country estate he had turned into a private training camp.
After seven days of deliberations, the jury decided that du Pont, 58, was guilty of third-degree murder but mentally ill on Jan. 26, 1996, when he shot the wrestler three times at point-blank range with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver. He was also convicted of one count of simple assault for pointing the pistol at his security consultant.
Du Pont is undergoing treatment at Norristown State Hospital and will go to prison only if the authorities decide he has been cured.
Dressed in the same blue sweatsuit he has worn since his arrest, his gray hair long and greasy after more than one year in custody, du Pont turned his gaunt face vaguely about the courtroom as the jury of six men and six women delivered the verdict.
“I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet,” said Mark Klugheight, a lawyer who is representing du Pont in a competency hearing for control of his fortune, which is estimated at $250 million. “Sometimes he gets things right away; sometimes he doesn’t.”
Third-degree murder means that du Pont meant to kill when he pulled the trigger, but did not plan it. It also means that he could be home in five years. State law sets a maximum sentence of 20 years, with guidelines recommending 5 to 10 years.
“We will definitely push for the lower sentence, on the grounds of mental issues,” said the chief defense lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom. “This will give John a chance to get the help he needs without punishment that’s unduly harsh.” Sentencing is scheduled for April 22.
Nancy Schultz, the slain athlete’s widow, was red-eyed and mournful after the verdict. But she said, “It is comforting to know du Pont was not above the law and held responsible for David’s death.” She also thanked “all the wrestlers who provided comforting laughs and big shoulders” for her children, Alexander, 10 and Danielle, 7.
Speaking after the verdict was announced, District Attorney Patrick Meehan said, “Some thought John du Pont, the wealthiest murder defendant in the history of the United States, would use his great fortune to escape justice.” He added, “He can now get the mental treatment he needs, and that is justice.”
The verdict comes after three weeks dominated by testimony from both the defense and prosecution concerning du Pont’s bizarre behavior: about the time, martini in hand, he drove a tank around his Foxcatcher Farm estate; about his love of high-powered guns; about his delusions of his body being inhabited by bugs, spied upon by Nazis and assailed by ghosts and would-be assassins.
A psychiatrist hired by du Pont’s lawyers testified that he believed Schultz was killed by the U.S. government, “a splinter group of the Buddhist church” or, perhaps, “someone dressed up” to look like him.
But Delaware County Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGettigan argued that du Pont was a rich bully who knew exactly what he was doing when he shot Schultz and thought he could get away with murdering an athlete whose prowess he envied.
That envy had grown, McGettigan said, as the 1996 Summer Olympics approached. He said du Pont was also angry that Schultz, who often functioned as intermediary between the athletes and their erratic patron, remained friends with a wrestler du Pont had driven off the estate at gunpoint three months earlier.
“He was raised as a prince and felt he could do and say anything he pleased,” Phillip Schultz, the victim’s father, said in an interview. “I met du Pont several times, and I saw his rage and his eccentricity.”
David Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, was training for an Olympic comeback when he was killed. On that afternoon, he was in his driveway when his patron’s silver Lincoln Town Car pulled up. Patrick Goodale, the security consultant for the du Pont estate, testified that he and du Pont had been driving around the property checking storm damage.
He was unconcerned about the gun on the seat between them, Goodale said, because du Pont often carried a weapon. “David smiled, walked over and said, ‘Hi, coach!’ ” Goodale said. Then, without warning, du Pont opened fire.
After the wrestler dropped face down in the snow, Goodale testified, du Pont fired twice more into his back, saying, ” ‘You have a problem with me?’ “