One cold afternoon in January 1996, multimillionaire John E. du Pont slid into his Lincoln Town Car and drove to the guesthouse on his sprawling estate, dubbed Foxcatcher Farm. The wrestling fanatic had offered the residence on 800 acres in Newtown Square, just outside Philadelphia, to Olympic gold medalist David Schultz and his family. Though his motive remains unclear, du Pont rolled up to the driveway, pointed a .38-caliber handgun at Schultz and asked, “Do you have a problem with me?”
Then he fired three shots, leaving Schultz to die on the pavement.
The murder was the lowest point of du Pont’s troubled past — now the subject of Steve Carell’s new film, “Foxcatcher,” which comes out Friday. Carell stars as du Pont, a mentally-ill man with a soft voice, thin eyebrows and large, arching nose. Mark Ruffalo plays his victim, and Channing Tatum plays Schultz’s brother, Mark, who, in real life, wrote a book about it. But it won’t require Hollywood treatment to tell du Pont’s twisted tale.
Over the years, du Pont, an heir to the DuPont Co. chemical fortune, said he was “the Dalai Lama of the United States” and “the Christ Child.” He once threatened an African American wrestler at gunpoint. He believed there were mechanical trees that moved around his estate and that the tooth marks made by horses in his barn were messages from Martians. He once blew up newborn foxes. He was convinced there were bugs under his skin and ghosts inside his walls. And he had razor wire installed in his attic to keep out intruders.
“It was part of his madness,” wrestler Kanamti Solomon told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996.
Du Pont came from old money. His great-great grandfather, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, founded a gunpowder mill that grew into a chemical factory. The company went on to invent materials such as nylon and Teflon. Du Pont alone was worth more than $200 million, and he spent much of it on his passion: wrestling. He gave some $3.3 million to the sport’s governing body, USA Wrestling.
Du Pont is perhaps most known for building a 14,000-square-foot sports compound on his estate, where he paid to train the nation’s top wrestlers. He built a 200-foot-long gymnasium and filled it with the best weight-training equipment. He provided housing on his property for up to 20 wrestlers at a time and paid them a stipend of up to $1,000 per month. He called his group “Team Foxcatcher,” and he wanted to see it compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Schultz was one of those athletes. The 36-year-old all-star was living on du Pont’s dime, coaching Team Foxcatcher and training for the Games later that year, to be held in Atlanta.
Du Pont’s reason for murdering Schultz never became clear. The defense said du Pont shot Schultz because he was convinced the wrestler was conspiring to kill him. Prosecutors said he had grown upset with Schultz over time and killed him in cold blood. Days earlier, Schultz had reportedly told du Pont he was planning to take a coaching job at Stanford University after the Olympic Games ended — and some speculated that made du Pont angry.
On Jan. 26, 1996, du Pont shot Schultz three times as he was working on his car in the driveway. The last shot hit Schultz in the back — and he died in his wife’s arms.
Du Pont fled to his three-story mansion, where it is said he kept an arsenal, and holed up for two days, dodging the scopes of police sharpshooters. He was eventually frozen out when authorities dismantled his heater.
Du Pont pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was treated for schizophrenia in custody.
“John is mentally ill and has been mentally ill for some time,” his sister-in-law, Martha du Pont, told People in 1996. “But this year he really went over the edge.”
In 1997, the jury rejected that claim, but found him mentally ill and convicted him of third-degree murder. He was also found guilty of assault for pointing the gun at Schultz’s wife, Nancy Schultz.
“I think, cynically, some people thought that John du Pont, who is the wealthiest murder defendant in the United States, would use his financial resources to ensure that he never stood trial at all,” District Attorney Patrick Meehan said after the trial.
Prosecutor Dennis McAndrews added the verdict “brings justice to the memory of David Schultz” and that “du Pont should never walk out of prison.”
Du Pont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison. And in 2010, that’s where the 72-year-old died — in his cell at Laurel Highlands state prison in Somerset, Pa., nearly 70 miles from Pittsburgh.
He left behind a book of essays called “Off the Mat: Building Winners in Life.”
“As a member of a prominent American family with wealth,” he wrote, “all my life I have tried to demonstrate — probably because I had to — that I could achieve and win on my own as though my last name weren’t du Pont.”