As Geno Mrosko noted a few days ago, this week marks the sixth anniversary of the blackest moment in wrestling history, the discovery of the bodies of Chris Benoit, wife Nancy and son Daniel. The police quickly determined that Chris had murdered his wife and child over the space of a weekend, before committing suicide via hanging himself with his weight machine. This has left wrestling fans to this day wondering why the tragedy happened with theories ranging from roid rage, abuse of prescription medication, repeated concussions causing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), mental illness, a latent sadistic dark side that was finally became uncontrollable or a combination of all those factors and more.
The person who could best answer this troubling question is probably Sandra Toffoloni, Nancy Benoit's close sister, but she wisely chose to avoid the media scrum in the immediate aftermath of the combined tragedy. In fact, Sandra had refused every request for a public interview and chose to hold her tongue until now, when she surprisingly talked to Dina M of the magazine style pro wrestling website The2Count.com.
Describing her sister as "Brutally honest. Hilarious. Generous to a fault. Incredibly affectionate and nurturing. Driven." one can see why Nancy got trapped into what could be classified as abusive, turbulent relationships during her wrestling career. One gets the sense that even Sandra herself is in denial over the truly toxic nature of her sister's romance with Chris Benoit, having so strongly bonded with the man too over the years:
"I want to be clear: Chris was not an abusive husband. But there were, what we call in the industry, though don’t often talk about, "high spots". She had been there, in that position before, and refused to put up with it at all, especially with Daniel in their home. So I went with her after one of these "incidents" to file an order of protection."
These "high spots" included "yelling, screaming, name calling, shoving, pushing, breaking stuff" and were so bad that Nancy rightly feared for her own safety and her son's too when she filed for divorce in 2003, which she sadly didn't follow through on.
In the interview, Sandra confirms that Daniel Benoit did not have Fragile X syndrome, a strange rumour started by a parent of a child with that condition which WWE leapt on and consequently got a life of its own, nor had track marks on his arms, an even more bizarre mistake by the District Attorney at the time.
Consistent with Dave Meltzer's reporting at the time, Sandra still blames a combination of roid rage and prescription painkiller abuse for the mental decline that she believed caused Nancy's murder, rather than undiagnosed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a theory Chris Benoit's father Mike has promoted for many years, or schizophrenia:
"Chris did a lot of self-medicating. My brother-in-law made every show, he went to every production meeting, never missed a call, never missed a flight and always drove himself or made travel arrangements. Chris wasn't schizophrenic. Someone with schizophrenia wouldn't be able to do all that. He had a serious drug problem, used a lot of steroids and was certainly not alone in that at the time. The paranoia was a direct result of the abuse of steroids. The last 2 weeks I spent with Chris, we used to go to the gym and go tanning together. At some point, he began acting weird and I wondered what was wrong with him. He would find 30 different routes to drive to the gym which he never did before. This is not schizophrenia! This was a result of combining steroids with pain medication and, later on, alcohol....
It is my understanding that "roid rage" typically does not last an entire weekend. It is my belief although I was not there that he and Nancy got into a terrible argument that escalated to the point of serious violence. In spite of what the public has heard following the autopsy reports, let me tell you that my sister was brutalized. My sister's death was a direct result of "roid rage." He completely lost it. The Chris Benoit I had known for a decade loved my sister so much that he would never - even in the worst episode of high spots - have hurt my sister this bad. I believe he totally blacked out. I also believe that, when he came out of it and realized what he had done, he went out of his mind. He probably couldn't believe what he had done to Nancy. He realized what he had done and medicated even more and drank and wondered how he would explain this to Daniel. He probably became so grief stricken with his own actions that he didn't want to live anymore. I can understand him taking his own life, especially knowing he would get capital punishment if he were tried and found guilty of my sister's murder. However, I can't put a reason on why Chris killed Daniel. I myself am unable to have children and my sister and Chris always made me feel better about this fact by sharing so much of my nephew's life with me. I was very, very close to Daniel. Chris knew I would have taken care of and loved that child with everything I had. I would have kept David and Megan in his life as well and he knew all that.
I don't believe in the brain damage theory. He killed 2 people and believed he could go wrestle. The concussion theory doesn't really stick with me. Yes, my brother-in-law had concussions, he hit his head for a living and I understand that. But way beyond that, he had a very serious drug and steroid problem....
Mike Benoit knows what Chris did was horrible. If my child would do what Chris did, I too would try to excuse his behaviour. So I understand why Mike Benoit would want a physical REASON for what his son did; and utilizing Concussion Syndrome to explain away Chris’ actions would provide that. Though I sympathize with their pain, it simply is NOT the entire truth."
Personally, I'm of the belief that everything played a factor in this horrendous mess and you can't rule anything out completely, but given that Sandra was more aware of Chris's drug abuse than his father Mike was, you can see why they came to completely different conclusions on the matter.
I thought the most intriguing part of the interview was the contradiction between what the coroner told the Toffoloni family privately and what he told the media publicly:
"The medical examiner told us after the autopsy that Chris was on his way to death within 10 months. His heart was huge, about 3 times normal size, and it was ready to blow up at any moment."
Wrestling reporters like Dave Meltzer were so misled by the coroner that it took three and half years for this fact to become public knowledge. He also had an enlarged liver and spleen at the time of his death, something I spotted when Irv Muchnick published online Chris Benoit's official autopsy report shortly thereafter.
It also becomes clear from the interview that sadly there is no love lost between the Benoit and Toffoloni families, which I suppose is only natural when there was a lengthy legal battle over Chris and Nancy's estate:
"Mike barely ever came to the US to visit with Chris, Nancy and Daniel. He flew to New York for Wrestlemania XX when Chris won the title. Chris had made arrangements for his parents but only Mike came. They saw Daniel about two or three times in all seven years, when Chris and Nancy flew to Canada for his sister’s wedding and on one Christmas. Chris had spoken of not having a very close relationship with his Dad at that time and it frustrates me to know that on that Father’s day weekend, Chris reached out to his father and told him about some problems that were not related to Nancy and Mike didn’t notice that something that out of blue could be a red flag of sorts. Mike painted this picture of them being so close to Chris, but they weren’t in the decade I knew him."
When asked about her plans for the future, Sandra mentioned the possibility of a book or documentary about Nancy "Woman" Benoit's wrestling career, a thought put into her head by Paul Heyman:
"One of my sister’s closest friends, Paul Heyman, has been nagging me to write a book or make a documentary featuring my sister Nancy’s 20 year wrestling career. Paul has been an avid supporter of me and my family for a very long time. Nancy loved him dearly. She had once told me: "If anything ever happens, go to Paul. He’s one of the very few you can trust". In spite of the image he portrays on television, Nancy was right. He is one of the very few trustworthy people around the business."
I would recommend reading the interview in full, Cagesiders, as it's very long and detailed, and she also talks about the positive work she has done since Nancy's tragic death promoting steroid awareness and education as part of a nationwide non-profit organisation she set up in her memory called the Nancy & Daniel Benoit Foundation.