Wrestling

Jimmy Snuka’s Lies And A Murderer’s Legacy

You've probably read about Jimmy Snuka lately and you've probably gotten some bad information

Wrestling
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Jan 23, 2017 at 1:49 PM ET

If you keep up with pop culture and sports news, then you may have seen that professional wrestling legend “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka passed away last week. Unless you found out by watching World Wrestling Entertainment’s TV shows, in which Snuka was lionized, then you most likely saw something in the coverage about how he had been charged with causing the death of his then-girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, in 1983. In which case you were most likely exposed to reckless reporting that could barely be distinguished from an outright misinformation campaign.

Maybe you read one of several reports from large mainstream media outlets, including the New York Daily News and NBC News (archived here), that said Snuka was acquitted of the charges. Maybe you read The Ringer, which ran a Snuka profile that said Snuka had paid the Argentino family a $500,000 wrongful death judgment in a civil suit.

None of these things are true. Most of the corrections came from me specifically reaching out to the authors on Twitter. None of the modified articles included correction notices. One brushed it off as a “mistake.”

The revival of the case, first in the public eye by local newspapers and later by the prosecution of Snuka, led to a classic media phenomenon: The awareness of the case increased dramatically, but knowledge and comprehension of the specifics were lacking to nonexistent. Everyone, including reporters at respected major market and national news organizations, became that guy who only reads the headline of every article. The sheer scale of it, which was only worsened by WWE airing a lavish tribute video of Snuka, requires a proper accounting of all of the facts that are out there.

On January 18, 1983, Snuka was arrested after attacking Argentino in a motel room in Salina, NY. The story was syndicated nationally, but it was less because a married celebrity beat his girlfriend and more because he stared down police dogs in his underwear, with the wire article making light of what happened. It’s not clear how widely the piece was circulated outside of the upstate New York area, though searching Newspapers.com returns a result from Florida.

Snuka discussed the arrest in broad strokes in the Toronto Star a few weeks later, saying that “The hotel manager just got a little excited. Yeah, there was some excitement. The cops just didn’t give me the chance to explain. They blew it up, brother.” In actuality, the deputies who first responded to the call witnessed Snuka dragging Argentino by her hair while she was wrapped in a blanket. He was yanking so hard that she had to be treated for scalp injuries.

On May 11, 1983 at 2:20 a.m., Argentino died of a head injury at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, PA, less than three hours after Snuka called an ambulance to their motel room. According to police records and the 2015 grand jury indictment, in the immediate aftermath of the call, Snuka told first responders, bystanders, and hospital employees different variations of a story that ended in him shoving Argentino, resulting in her hitting her head. Usually he said something about them “fooling around” or “wrestling” when he accidentally shoved her, but he also told two nurses that he pushed her during an argument. Some variations have Snuka saying that it happened just outside their motel room door, but he told the hospital chaplain that it took place when “clowning around” after they pulled over to go to the bathroom. The chaplain “assumed it was at a service station” but wasn’t sure.

At 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Snuka spoke to police in a formal interview where he was read his Miranda rights. This time, he claimed that Nancy slipped and fell on her own when she went to relieve herself by the side of the road. “We came here to Allentown. It was early in the morning, around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “On the way here, we stopped on the side of the road to use the bathroom. She was desperate to use the bathroom so she went a little into the bushes and squatted. In the meantime there were a lot of trucks coming by. So I said to hurry up and she jumped across the grass onto the road.” That’s when Snuka told police that Argentino fell. “And then she slipped and fell backwards and hit her head. Right on the concrete on the side of the road, she just slipped backwards.”

From that point, Snuka lays out a scenario where, after Argentino was knocked out, she came to and he drove her to their motel room, where they checked in. What’s especially notable is that in telling a story that completely contradicted what he said the night before, he still paints a picture where he’s completely oblivious to his girlfriend being in a near-death state while barely moving in the motel room bed.

“I came back here and looked at her, and she just looked like she was sleeping,” Snuka claimed. “Breathing and everything.” At that point, noting that he saw no blood, only a lump, he says he put a cold towel on her head. “I thought maybe she was so tired. Just laying there and breathing.” Then he left again for work, and it was when he got back again that he thought something was seriously wrong and called for help.

The detectives almost immediately brought up what he said the night before, and he gave largely nonsense answers. The most justification he could muster was to say that everyone was “talking too fast at me” and he generically replied “yes” to some of the questions they asked, which didn’t resemble anyone else’s story. Eventually, he said that as he was helping her into bed, she fell and hit her head on a chair. He didn’t explain why he only remembered that in the middle of the interview.

That part is important, because in the autopsy report that was completed several days later, the forensic pathologist wrote that Argentino’s fatal head injury was “consistent with a moving head striking a stationary object.” However, he added that it was “not consistent with a single simple fall in view of the multitudeness [sic] other scalp, facial and bodily bruises and abrasions.”  Further, “[t]he multiplicity and magnitude of the injuries may even be suggestive of ‘mate’ abuse,” and the autopsy showed absolutely nothing supporting Snuka’s claim of a fall by the side of the road. The forensics lab found “no evidence of dirt or tears” in Argentino’s clothing, and the coroner found “no gravel or other similar dirt particles” in her hair and scalp.

The story then begins to branch out.

At some point in the next couple of weeks, Snuka came in for another police interview, one that was not not recorded, but was later described by detectives present to reporter Irv Muchnick. At Snuka’s side was his boss, Vince McMahon, who had asked to speak to detectives during the previous interrogation. Sitting across from them was Lehigh County District Attorney William Platt, which was highly unusual. After this interview, the case just faded away and went cold in spite of the clear and convincing evidence. While his account should be taken with a canister of salt for obvious reasons, Snuka made a pointed reference in his memoir to McMahon arriving with a briefcase and leaving without it.

And… that was it. In the immediate aftermath, some fans would catcall Snuka, but that dissipated quickly. Media coverage ceased. Snuka went on with his career. He moved his family from North Carolina to New Jersey, only to start beating his then-wife, Sharon, several months later. These allegations come from grand jury testimony made by both Sharon herself and her then-neighbor, the wife of wrestler Buddy Rogers.

At one point, according to Muchnick, not long after Argentino’s funeral, Argentino’s mother got a call from someone at Titan Sports (now WWE) offering $25,000 if she agreed not to talk about what happened. She told off whoever it was and hung up the phone. Numerous women claiming to have been victims of Snuka’s abuse also called the family home, including Sharon.

The Argentino family sued Snuka for wrongful death. Before long, he was unable to pay his lawyers and they withdrew from the case. The Argentinos won a $500,000 default judgment, but Snuka never paid.

In an affidavit signed on October 15, 1985, he claimed that “my family and I are extremely poor” with debt including “approximately $75,000 in back taxes” owed jointly by he and Sharon. Snuka also wrote that he “used to be a professional wrestler,” was “currently unemployed,” and had not worked since July. Going by the available results that have been collected by wrestling historians, this was, more or less, technically true: He had not worked since the beginning of August. However, he had otherwise been working steadily, and it’s the only noticeable gap in his record other than when he was in rehab just over a year earlier.

While Snuka had been dropped by the WWF, moved to Hawaii, and was not working full time, he had a lucrative part-time job in Japan that paid in the low five figures for a few weeks’ worth of shows. He returned to Japan exactly a month later for a year-end tag team tournament, which was arguably the biggest annual event in the business at that time.

The story was briefly revived in 1992 by Jeff Savage of the San Diego Union Tribune and freelancer Irv Muchnick, working on assignment for The Village Voice. Both were working on larger stories about the WWF’s sex and drug scandals and were unable to come up with much because the police interview transcript and autopsy report couldn’t be located.

Muchnick’s piece, which went unpublished until he launched a website several years later, became the go-to document about the case, at least in public. Most significant about Muchnick’s piece, at least in hindsight, was what one of the detectives, Gerald Procanyn, told him. Having outlined what Snuka said about Nancy falling on her own, Muchnick wrote that “Procanyn said Snuka’s story never wavered, and no contradictory evidence was found.” We now know that Procanyn was not telling the truth.

For most of the three decades after Argentino’s death, Snuka refused to speak about the situation publicly. That changed in 2012, when he released a memoir with ghostwriter Jon Chattman.

In the book and in interviews during his media tour, he told variations of the ‘Nancy fell when she tried to go to the bathroom’ story. Between the newfound attention and the 30th anniversary of Argentino’s death approaching, local newspapers in Pennsylvania started investigating. The Allentown Morning Call got the key documents, which led to enough pressure that Snuka was indicted on charges of Murder in the Third Degree and Involuntary Manslaughter. Citing dementia from in-ring head injuries, Snuka’s lawyer, Robert Kirwan, argued that his client was not competent to stand trial. Having interviewed Snuka and heard stories of him trying to flee the house to make nonexistent wrestling bookings, Judge Kelly Banach agreed. After a six month waiting period to reevaluate Snuka, the charges were dismissed just a few weeks before his death.

In the aftermath of the dismissal, Kirwan told the local media that he had discovered evidence that proved Snuka’s innocence, which he would soon be releasing. He did not respond to Vocativ’s request to see said evidence.

After more than three decades of Snuka offering contradictory versions of what happened the night of Nancy Argentino’s death, it now seems Kirwan will take up the mantle of peddling Snuka’s version of the truth. As if Kirwan wasn’t enough on his own, misinformed writing and the WWE’s own myth-making apparatus serve to lighten the severity of the case against Snuka and keep the focus on his admittedly historic pro wrestling career. These two facts—that Snuka dodged an obvious murder conviction and was a great pro wrestler—are now twisted together into a Gordian knot that only serves to make an imaginary point about what we’re left to believe is Snuka’s complicated legacy.

So here’s what matters: Most anyone who has followed or researched the Argentino murder case agrees that Snuka would have been found guilty. Given that, Snuka could have been the world’s greatest neurosurgeon and it still wouldn’t matter much in the end. Murderers deserve to be remembered as such first and foremost.