The Foxcatcher Murder
With a movie on the way John du Pont’s lawyer tells all.
(left) Steve Carell’s John du Pont coaches Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz (right) Tatum and Mark Ruffalo portray the Schultz brothers in “Foxcatcher.”
Du Pont dominance and dignity morphed into du Pont disgrace and defeat when John Eleuthere du Pont, the eccentric multimillionaire, paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the chemical company fortune, murdered Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996 at the once fabled 800-acre du Pont family estate, Foxcatcher Farm, in Newtown Square, Pa.
With the anticipated major motion picture release of “Foxcatcher” this year from director Bennett Miller, Hollywood—along with a separate independent documentary—is about to hit Delaware where it might still be hurting.
On the big screen, Steve Carell will star as du Pont, the great-great-great-grandson of the chemical company founder who largely poured his inheritance and prominence into two chief fascinations—the natural world (he founded the Delaware Museum of Natural History) and Olympic-level sports like wrestling. At Foxcatcher, he collected the world’s best wrestlers like he collected the finest shells, birds and stamps.
For years, Taras M. Wochok, du Pont’s close friend and longtime attorney, had to keep mum, even after the powerful patron’s death, particularly as du Pont’s personal estate was held up in litigation.
While the estate won’t be completely settled until the end of the year, Wochok is certain there are no risks for further legal challenges. Finally, he’s talking—sharing decades of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and emotions about Delaware’s most famous family—but like many of us, he’s still only caught just one scene of the motion picture, Sony Picture Classics’ trailer.
“It’s uncanny,” Wochok says. “[Carell] really looks a lot like John.”
Wochok met du Pont through a mutual friend in 1973. He was working as an assistant district attorney under Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter.
“It was all about John wanting to hire another lawyer closer in age so they could grow old together,” Wochok recalls. “[Before getting hired] I went through the longest interview in the history of mankind—one-on-one.”
(left) John du Pont with Dave Schultz in better times (right) John du Pont at the time of his arrest
The two met off and on. However, since Wochok remained with the city, he wasn’t permitted to have outside practice interests. Plus, he was tapped to run Specter’s third-term re-election campaign. Had Specter won—he didn’t—the plan was to seek the Pennsylvania governor’s seat. Wochok would have run that election campaign, too.
Wochok left the city and began working with du Pont in earnest, mostly reading contracts and offering second opinions, and by November 1975, took on du Pont full time.
“There were years where we did so much work for John that he was 40 percent of the practice,” he says. “Early on, the job was to keep people out of John’s pocket. He was a target defendant—Mr. Money Bags—so plaintiffs would file suit in hopes that he’d back down and then they’d get a settlement.”
Du Pont owned a California ranch and a separate home there, too. “He had a wide variety of businesses and interests, including film,” Wochok says. “Also, there were always issues with his family.”
While he’s never taken the time to tally the number of hours, cases, files, dollars or telephone calls invested in representing du Pont, he says he could. Perhaps, he’ll gather those figures when his own book on his attorney-client relationship with du Pont debuts. It’s a third or so finished.
“There aren’t a lot of books on such relationships, and ours was a strange relationship,” he says.
In this extensive, exclusive interview, Wochok also admits to being one of the half-dozen trustees in a blind trust that du Pont ordered created in 1984. It was re-affirmed and expanded in 1997, the same year du Pont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison for murder after a jury found him guilty but mentally ill.
That trust has intentionally kept his surviving family from ever inheriting his money. Since the trust isn’t public record, the other beneficiaries may never be known.
Du Pont died of acute aspiration pneumonia Dec. 9, 2010, in a Somerset County, Pa., prison. He was 72. He was buried in his red Foxcatcher wrestling singlet, in accordance with his will, which stipulated that 80 percent of his holdings beyond the trust be divided among famous Bulgarian wrestler Valentin Jordanov Dimitrov, who lived at Foxcatcher at the time of the murder, and his family. Dimitrov was also executor of the will.
Various du Pont descendants have asserted that Dimitrov coerced du Pont into drafting a new will months before his death, and also that wills after 2006 contain forgeries. Wochok and a paralegal have been accused of collusion, “false allegations,” Wochok says.
DT: With all the varied legal work you did for John du Pont did you ever think that you would be defending him on a murder charge?
TW: Never. Not in my wildest. John had an angry streak and an impulsive streak—but he also had a tender streak and that would trump all else.
DT: Can you define your attorney-client relationship with du Pont?
TW: What distinguished it was that John came from a culture that involved taking total control—which meant moving things around, moving people around. I was generally the carrier of bad news, and initially I had serious doubts that our relationship would work. We never had a contract; it was only ever a handshake. People have told me that was foolish, but it’s the only way I thought it would work with John.
DT: What was your first sign that du Pont would try to exert a power-play on you?
TW: Within the first three to seven months of doing regular work with him, he wanted me to move onto the property in a house that his mother and aunt had lived in at different times—the Cherry Knoll house. It had fallen into disrepair, but he said I could fix it up any way my wife and I wanted, and to just send him the bills. I said no, that it wasn’t going to work, that if I was his lawyer I would have to give him advice and if it was advice he didn’t like, I could get asked to leave and be left with nothing. He said he would take care of everything and any differences. I said, no, there was no way he could take care of something like that. I told him that he would have too much access to me, that he would come over day and night and I would become another one of his minions. It’s what he did with everything. It’s what he did with Foxcatcher.
DT: How much access did John have to you?
TW: Literally, we spoke every day, usually in the morning and in the late afternoon. Rarely did a day go by where we didn’t. Once he called three or four times during Christmas dinner, which angered my parents. I said, “It’s just the way it is.”
DT: In the long relationship, were you able to teach John anything?
TW: Over the years, I taught him that there was no way he could direct me. He’d say, “Do this, this and this in that order,” but then I would say that it’s not going to work. In some instances, I told him to go elsewhere [for legal direction], but then he’d come back sheepishly and say, “Let’s try it your way.” If anything, he learned that we had to do it the straight way with no bribes, and no payoffs. He liked to appear in total control, but I think he learned patience and that the strong-armed approach of his family was not going to work in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His conception of the world was not the way the world functions—and certainly the shooting proved that.
DT: What about the day of the murder? What do you remember most?
TW: I was with John the day of the shooting. He was being sued [a federal suit, an alleged breach of contract claim by a former business associate] and I fully expected a marshal to serve him papers that day. We met at 10 a.m. and I instructed him on how to accept, what to say and what not to say. He said he would talk to me later in the day. I fully expected to hear from him by noon or by 2 p.m.—then nothing. That afternoon, I left the office because my youngest son had an ice hockey game. When I got to the rink, my wife said there was a shooting at John’s. I asked if he was OK. My wife said the news stations were reporting that John did it. I thought, “I can’t believe it.” Then, John’s secretary called and said he wanted me there immediately. By then, you already couldn’t get through the front gate.
DT: How did you begin to tap into the details and make progress?
TW: Terry McDonnell, John’s landscaper, filled me in. I knew John well enough to know that more than anything he was scared of what would happen next, and to know that he would not harm anyone else—and that if indeed he had shot Dave that he would recognize the enormity of what he did. If the police had let me help, I know I could have talked him out [of the house] and saved the three-quarter million dollars that was spent to deal with that. But I don’t want to second-guess the police.
DT: At that point, were you acting as a friend or as his lawyer?
TW: Both crossed my mind. My first concern was that the others in the house get out safely. My second concern was John. I never for a second thought he would do anything to harm himself, but I did think that he might conduct a show of force. That was his nature. It was his family’s nature. John always had to be running the show. But some of the wild suggestions … the [Vietnam-era] tank. That was the final straw. At one point, [officials] were going to get it and drive it through the front door. I was the one who said that you can’t do that.
DT: Is there anything you knew that the officials and investigators didn’t?
TW: The police thought they had stopped all his outside calls, but that wasn’t true. I didn’t get home until 4 a.m., and that’s when the phone rang. It was John, who said, “You’ve got to get right over here.” I kept telling him that they wouldn’t let me in, but that they might let me in on calls to him. I had to explain that they wouldn’t [legally] be able to record his responses—his voice—but that anything I said to him would be recorded. I would have appreciated having direct contact, but that settlement was better than nothing. I think there were 45 calls in the two-day period. They used me to keep him on the phone.
DT: How often do you relive those couple days, the shooting and the standoff?
TW: I don’t think about it every day, but from the time of the shooting until he was in jail in 1997, I thought about it a lot. I dreamed about it. More than anything I thought about what I could have done to prevent it. I don’t feel guilt, but I always felt that in the three years prior to the shooting, John was not himself.
DT: You knew he was unraveling?
TW: Most of what I learned came secondhand. It had to. Early on when he started having delusions my response was always, “Come on, John. It’s not happening.” He immediately realized that I wasn’t going to have an open ear to it, so he shut down those conversations with me.
DT: But you were aware that his delusions persisted and tortured him?
TW: Beginning in about 1992, John showed signs of delusional thinking and behavior, but the surfacing of the behaviors was intermittent. In fact, long periods of time would pass with absolutely no sign of any delusion. It started initially because he saw forms. He was fascinated with forms. I kept telling him that they didn’t exist. Well, he said, “Prove it to me.” So we hired a company to analyze materials—his rugs, for example. All the company found were dust mites, but John took that as confirmation of what he saw. I would then explain that dust mites are so small that you can’t see them, but he’d say, “If they clump together, you could see them then.” So we brought people in to disprove that. This was all happening in 1992-93, then after that he just shut down on me. My sources were largely [wrestlers] Rob Calabrese and Dave Schultz and others. My problem—their problem—was that you could never confront John. Whenever you did, he would do everything in his power to shut down the relationships I had had with any of those people. It was part of the culture of dealing with palace politics—you could never let people get too close to each other in the palace because if they did they would rise up against the king—revolution—and he was the king, no question about that. It was his uprising mentality that had been in place since he married [Gail Wenk du Pont in 1984. They lived together less than six months, then finalized a divorce in 1987].
DT: Did you try to get John help?
TW: His drinking gave us concern. We took steps to get him into a facility, and I was elected to approach him and did. We had completed the arrangements for him to report to a local facility and he was to go that Monday. I met with him all weekend so I was sure it would happen, but someone else went to pick him up on Monday—and he was nowhere to be found. I tried to get in touch with him all day, but couldn’t until late afternoon. I said, “You were supposed to go to the facility.” He said, “You’re all ganging up on me.” He said he would do it himself. Well, he had to prove it, or I told him we would take the next step, a formal one, and get his family involved. If there was any form of social control over John, it was his family. He was scared to death of them, particularly his sister Jane [also deceased] for whom he had the deepest respect—but also fear. He told me stories, ones I never followed up and researched, but put it this way, if half of them were true, I knew why he was so afraid. He stopped drinking for three or four months, but after that he was drinking heavily again.
DT: Were drugs also involved?
TW: Others told me about drugs, but I never observed any. I had my suspicions.
DT: What about getting him psychiatric help?
TW: I had contact with a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania to get John brought in—committed. That was another Monday morning pickup, and again he wasn’t going. I said we’d get the family involved and then all the paranoia set in. He thought they were going to take away all his money, that they would take everything away. The family, through his mother’s authorization, had removed him as an executor of her will. That’s when he directed me to create a blind trust to hide his money [which despite many attempts the family has never been able to legally challenge and cash in, including any of the $28.5 million realized in the sale of what was left of Foxcatcher Farm, which was finalized in April 2010].
DT: What role did his involvement with the world’s best wrestlers have in his undoing? What was it about those relationships?
TW: Simply put, John couldn’t control the behavior of the wrestlers as he had previously been able to do with athletes in other sports and programs. He became frustrated as a result. That frustration built. It led to his isolation and may very well have had something to do with the shooting.
DT: What did John ever admit to in shooting Dave? Did he ever share his motivation, or an explanation?
TW: John was never comfortable discussing the details of the shooting, or his motives, which made representing him extremely difficult. He did, however, recognize what happened and expressed remorse for the shooting, and for how the shooting impacted the lives of Dave Schultz’s family, as well as the lives of other wrestlers.
DT: Did John’s mental state worsen while he was incarcerated? Did he will himself to die?
TW: John’s mental state in prison did not, surprisingly, deteriorate. Everyone around him thought that it would. He did go on a hunger strike shortly after he was arrested while housed at the Delaware County prison. After approximately a month, he abandoned that tack after realizing that it didn’t accomplish anything, and he never engaged in that conduct again.
DT: Did John order that all of what remained at Foxcatcher be painted black before the sale of the property? What was his rationale for that stroke of power?
TW: John had parts of several building walls painted black shortly after his arrest as a sign to the community that his farm “was in mourning.” His delusions caused him to believe that residents of the community would be so disturbed by the darkness of the buildings that they would prevail upon the “authorities” to have him released from prison so that the buildings could be restored to their former color.
DT: Other than your conviction that all further legal challenges will forever be kept at bay, why are you finally sharing your story?
TW: It’s a story that needs to be told so it never happens again. It’s all so unusual. I mean he shot his most loyal, trusted friend. It’s difficult to grasp even to this day. It could have been me, and I thought that on at least a half dozen occasions. I just thought about all of the times he was so angry with me, but at the end of every one of those days, I was the one person he would turn back to for advice.
DT: What did you learn from John du Pont?
TW: He had more money than I could ever count, but I was from such a modest background. I grew up in the (pre-gentrification) Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. He put me in touch with things that I would have never come into contact with. In many ways, I was the male counterpart to what his mother [Jean Liseter Austin du Pont] represented to him. To John, she was everything a woman can be—a mother, a sister, a wife. To John, I was a brother, a father, a son. At times, I filled all those roles.
DT: In the aftermath, what kinds of things have you been accused of privately or publicly in the family’s or other lawsuits, in the accusations about John’s last will, or in your status as a trustee of the blind trust?
TW: There wasn’t much criticism leveled at me by John’s family over the years because many of them realized that I tried to convince John to keep and foster his family relationships. When the trust amendment was concluded, there wasn’t much criticism leveled at me because other counsel had been retained to handle the trust issues and that was a fact known to the family. Some family members did level some accusations at me after John’s death. However, because I did not write John’s last will, and because the accusations proved to be untrue, those accusations died on their own.
DT: What’s blinding the family, the truth of John’s intentions or the money?
TW: They were motivated to keep John’s money in the “family” because they considered John’s money to be “du Pont money,” and that it should remain in the “family.”
DT: What personal ghosts remain for you?
TW: There are several “ghosts” for me. First, I’m still haunted by the recognition that one can never predict what another human being will do, or is capable of doing, no matter how well you think you know that person. Secondly, I’m haunted by the thought that perhaps not enough was done to prevent the shooting. I constantly search for signs that existed, or signs that should have been recognized. The fact that I represented John following the shooting gave me the opportunity to conduct a good bit of the investigation into the events of the hours, days, weeks and months prior to the shooting, and that served as something of a redemption. Many things that occurred during that time frame were unknown to me at the time. It wasn’t until after the shooting, and after much of the investigation was completed, that we were able to piece together a course of conduct, and a true picture of the actual events. Finally, I’m haunted by the fact that, despite all of the good things that John did during his life, he will be remembered primarily for the murder of Dave Schultz. How tragic!
DT: Beyond legal challenges, do you feel that you are still defending John du Pont?
TW: I am still defending him. I don’t want his intentions diminished or destroyed. It never bothered me to also be identified as a close friend as well as his attorney. It’s what I want to address in the book: You can be both a friend and still be an effective lawyer at the same time without crossing the line. You can still be moral and ethical. I often asked myself if this was the train I wanted to be on, but once you’re on, it’s hard to get off. I was cast into an unusual situation and just tried to do it the right way ... and I did.
Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Bill Ordine, who worked on the John du Pont documentary, shares his insights on the bizarre saga at Foxcatcher.
Bill Ordine, a veteran news and sports journalist who was once part of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporting team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, amassed more than 200 newspaper stories on the John du Pont-Foxcatcher saga and later co-authored “Fatal Match: Inside the Mind of Killer Millionaire John du Pont” (Avon Books, 1998). He lived in Chester County for more than 25 years, and worked at the Inquirer’s Main Line Neighbors bureau from 1984 to 1987, then again from 1991 to 1999.
His latest venture, PhillyGambles (phillygambles.com), covers casinos and gaming in the Greater Philadelphia area, southeast Pennsylvania, Atlantic City and northern Delaware.
DT: With the planned major motion picture release of “Foxcatcher,” what do you expect from the film?
BO: My first-hand experience is with the extraordinarily fascinating legal case that came from the horrible murder of David Schultz, and the chain of events that led to it. I just don’t know if the movie will track the Schultz-du Pont narrative with which I became familiar.
DT: You worked on the related independent documentary. In light of the big-screen film, was the documentary’s survival ever iffy? What can it add to the story?
BO: I was pleased to find out that the documentary is still on track. I helped write an outline and participated in interviewing some of the important figures in the trial. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The producer, Jon Greenhalgh, strikes me as painstakingly meticulous so I’m highly optimistic.
DT: You covered the du Pont saga for so long. What’s the most bizarre, haunting or daunting part of the story?
BO: You could pick any one of many, many individual events and call it bizarre: John du Pont picking at his skin with a knife trying to rid himself of alien bugs; his belief that he was the American Dali Lama; thinking the tress on his property moved—and having videos taken to prove it. But those were the delusions and hallucinations of an ill man who may have contributed to his own psychological problems with alcohol and drugs.
DT: Was there an underlying ill—a real alien bug—that picked away at du Pont and Foxcatcher?
BO: The larger mystifying part of all this was the insidious enabling that went on at Foxcatcher, day after day, month after month, year after year, by people who knew better. And it extended beyond the boundaries of the Newtown Square estate and the many people who were getting checks. Clearly, there were signals of misconduct by du Pont that deserved official intervention, and it didn’t happen with the kind of authority that was obviously warranted. And here’s the tragic part, at least as far as many on Foxcatcher were concerned: There may not have been a thing they could do about it and make a difference. His money, and the influence it bought, would thwart anyone trying to do the right thing. The inevitability of du Pont going off the rails made that whole story very much a weird Greek tragedy.
DT: Will this story ever die or is it a permanent part of the fabric of the Main Line and Delaware?
BO: This one stays around for a while. In part because du Pont is a household name. In part because there are the wild anecdotes which make the passing of the lore so easy. And with a movie and a documentary retelling the tale, that will help keep it alive.
DT: Did du Pont help or hurt wrestling? Will the movies help or hurt?
BO: John du Pont did wrestling no favors. Individual wrestlers certainly had their careers advanced as a result of being able to pursue their training at Foxcatcher but du Pont’s involvement certainly caused the wrestling establishment serious embarrassment. Nancy Schultz, David’s widow, has done a great deal financially for the sport after she won a reported multi-million dollar settlement in a wrongful-death suit against du Pont. I think the documentary will hold up a mirror for those in wrestling, and they can make their own judgments.
DT: Is there anything that we can learn from John du Pont or from the upcoming film or documentary? Is there a moral?
BO: The moral of the story in an old one. Money is power, and power can corrupt. It can make people look at a video of a tree—and if the guy showing the video believes the tree is moving and is writing checks—those folks also soon start seeing the tree move—if they squint hard enough. In a sense, that’s what was happening at Foxcatcher.—J.F.P.