WWE tag team legends The Hart Foundation
Courtesy of the2count.com writer Dina M.:
On June 25, 2007 – 6 years ago already – the lifeless bodies of former WCW and WWE superstar Chris Benoit, 40, his wife Nancy (aka former WCW star Woman), 43, and their son Daniel, 7, were recovered from their Atlanta suburb home. Investigators concluded this was a case of double murder by strangulation followed by suicide that took place over the course of 3 days. Chris’ autopsy report revealed an elevated amount of testosterone level in his blood. This was apparently common treatment for testosterone replacement in people who had suffered testicular atrophy following past steroid abuse. There are many theories out there as to how and why Benoit could have committed such horrible actions to the people he loved the most. Nonetheless, this heartbreaking tragedy shook the world of professional sports and entertainment and awoke the debate about steroid use and abuse in athletes.
Where WWE made the decision to literally kill Chris Benoit’s legacy following his unforgiving actions, Nancy Benoit’s sister Sandra Toffoloni went on a mission to keep Nancy and little Daniel’s memory alive by launching the ‘Nancy and Daniel Benoit Foundation’. 6 years later, the foundation is still going strong and educating youngsters and raising awareness about the dangers of steroid use and abuse.
I had the opportunity to interview Sandra in order to shed some light on Chris and Nancy’s relationship, on the events leading up to that fateful weekend when they lost their lives, and to learn more about the foundation. I want to thank Sandra for her time and patience. She answered each and every question I had to ask with tremendous honesty. I have to say for myself that this interview was not easy to conduct due to the grim content. It opened up sad memories for me as I’m sure it will for all of you readers out there. It also obviously brought back extremely painful memories for Sandra since the Toffoloni family have turned down almost every request for an interview for the past 6 years. Chris Benoit was one of my heroes and Nancy was a role model. To me, their tragic death ties Owen Hart’s deadly accident as number one in pro wrestling’s darkest incidents.
Without any further ado, here is the transcript of my interview with Sandra Toffoloni, sister of Nancy Benoit and sister-in-law of Chris Benoit. Enjoy!
First off, I want to thank you Sandra for taking the time to speak with us today and answer some questions. We truly appreciate it.
To begin, tell us a little about yourself.
There is not much to tell! My sister and I were born in South Boston, MA. I was raised around and in the wrestling business because of her. We were 10 years apart on age. I am a training manager for Apple, a freelance comedy writer and pretty much a loner nerd.
How would you describe your relationship with your sister Nancy? How close were the two of you?
Looking back, I think we had only 3… maybe 4 fights in all our lives and it was mostly about her trying to keep me from making poor decisions. Polar opposite of Nancy. My ex brother-in-law Kevin Sullivan said to her once “Your sister’s so smart, she scares the shit out of me. Let’s hope she uses it for good and not evil”. We were extraordinarily close. She raised me, for the most part. Our parents were business owners and my first word was “Nance”. I took my first steps in her dance class, because she was on the other side of the room and I wanted to be by her so badly.
Polar opposites, really? How would you describe Nancy as a person?
Brutally honest. Hilarious. Generous to a fault. Incredibly affectionate and nurturing. Driven.
While in WCW, Nancy and Chris got together, both on-screen as in real life. This was going to lead to Nancy’s 3rd marriage. How did you and your family react to their relationship?
My parents mostly stayed out of Nancy’s personal life as best they could. I, on the other hand, was not as lucky. Bash at the Beach in Daytona that year was a huge turning point in my relationship with my sister and the first time I “officially” met Christopher.
How was it a turning point?
Well, I had loved and known Kevin a very long time. My sister was not at the show. When it was time to leave their was a non-scripted physical altercation backstage between Kevin and Christopher and when Chris phoned my sister afterward, I was told to come home with him and not to go home with Kevin, she said “we need to talk, you can trust him”.
I assume you did as you were told by your sister?
Of course. I left the Ocean Center on a silent ride with a stranger, completely confused. Until, obviously, my sister and I talked.
How did your relationship develop with your brother-in-law Chris?
We bonded instantly, which wasn’t easy with Christopher. I don’t know if it is the difference of being Canadian… or that almost all he knew in life was wrestling; but when we would talk, as young as I was, it was like student and teacher. Books he should get, bands he would love, movies and TV that were a must watch! It was crazy how much of the same things we liked and enjoyed! We got along instantly like peas and carrots. The fact that he loved my sister SO desperately was the first thing, obviously, that we had in common.
He did seem to love Nancy very dearly. We know that, unfortunately, their relationship started to get rocky at some point. When did you first get wind that things were turning complicated between them?
I lived in Atlanta and my sister asked me home almost every one of my days off. 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.
What do you mean by “high spots”?
Yelling, screaming, name calling, shoving, pushing, breaking stuff.
Did Nancy ever mention anything about fearing for her or Daniel’s safety?
Yes, when she first filed for divorce.
In 2003, Nancy filed for divorce citing cruel treatment and an irrevocably broken marriage. She also filed a restraining order against Chris. She later dropped the proceedings as well as the restraining order. Why did she do that?
Because, like with any marriage where there are issues, they made up and wanted to reconcile, especially for Daniel.
It was reported that Daniel suffered from Fragile X syndrome and that he was being given human growth hormones. Was Daniel’s health an issue in Nancy and Chris’ disagreements?
Daniel did not have Fragile X. I have his medical records. He was NOT sick.
Is it true that track marks were found on Daniel’s arms during the autopsy?
When my sister filed for divorce, we had a legal document created that gave me custody of Daniel if anything happened to Nancy and Chris simultaneously. So when Daniel died, I was his custodian. He did not have track marks on his arms and the District Attorney made a public statement apologizing for the mistake. As his custodian, I obtained his medical records and our lawyer, Rick Decker, made a statement to the public – the only one made – letting them know that that was 100% false information.
When was your last conversation with your sister Nancy and what was it about?
I spoke to Nancy on Thursday June 21, 2007, the day before she passed. I used to visit with my sister on Sundays and Mondays, which were basically the days that Chris was away. I had told her that, this particular week, my schedule would not allow me to visit with her before Monday. I lived in North Carolina at the time. We were both concerned about my best friend’s friend’s grandmother who had become very ill in Florida. I was trying to figure out a way to get to Florida and visit with “Nana”, as we used to call her, and support my friend. Nancy told me that she would take care of flying me down there and she also said that I was very tired and stressed out and needed to unwind and do something for myself. We talked about mascaras and she told me that I needed to get a good quality mascara for myself. We also talked about Daniel and how he was graduating from horse camp. We talked about David (Chris’ older son) and how he was growing. Nancy also spoke to me about her home improvement plans for the upcoming summer. Chris and Nancy were considering having another baby but Nancy had said that she wouldn’t have one until I moved closer to them. They then suggested that a house be built for me on the acreage right by their own home. Chris was actually stoked about it. Nancy was hoping to travel with Chris on occasion if they could have someone close by to take care of the children. Once we hung up, Nancy called me back a little later to tell me that she had put some money in my bank account so I could do something for myself that upcoming Monday: get a massage, a pedicure, buy some mascara. This is how generous my sister was and that was the last time I ever spoke to her. She had no clue as to what was about to happen.
Following the tragedy, it was reported that, sometime in 2006, Chris stopped attending church due to a hatred of religion, that he wouldn’t let Nancy out past 6 pm, and that he wouldn’t let Daniel out of the house because he felt that someone was stalking him and his family. Chris had allegedly developed symptoms of paranoia due to undiagnosed Late-Onset Schizophrenia. Can you confirm that?
This turn of events was not sudden. Early in 2006, they were looking into putting Daniel in a private Christian school, the best school in the area. Many athletes’ children attended this particular school and the high level of security was related to the caliber of the families of the children that went there. In order to get Daniel in that school, Chris and Nancy had to attend church service regularly. Although my sister and I were raised strictly Catholic, Chris did not subscribe to any one particular religion. He developed an interest in Eastern religion and philosophy while wrestling in Japan. This interest got stronger when it was time to get Daniel into private school. When my brother-in-law wanted to do something or learn of something, he fully invested himself into it. His dedication to his career and his relationship with my sister are proof of this. I used to tell him where to look and what books to read that may be of some interest to him.
Before all that, Chris had suffered multiple losses of friends. Eddie Guerrero’s death in 2005 shocked us all, no one was prepared for that. It was devastating for Nancy but it was devastating for Chris on a whole other level. Eddie’s passing came after a long line of huge losses and Chris was in a state of perpetual bereavement. His as well as Nancy’s closest friends passed away and it always seemed to be drug or steroid-related.
After Eddie passed away, Chris and Nancy discussed the possibility of Chris leaving the WWE and starting his own wrestling school. As a matter of fact, it had become more than a possibility. A business plan had been developed and merchandise had been designed. However, the WWE was prepared to give Chris a big push and put him into another championship match so Chris began training harder and pushing his body further. 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. I had never seen him like this before. The final blow came in mid-June 2007, just a few days before everything happened, when Sherri Martel passed away. That devastated Nancy just as much as Eddie’s death had devastated Chris. I remember my sister telling me “I don’t know how much more of this I can take and I don’t know how much more of this Chris can take”.
It is popular belief that Chris committed the murders while under the effects of what we commonly call ‘roid rage’. The WWE stated several reasons why that couldn’t have been the case. According to them, Chris’ actions were deliberate. Others state that his actions could be related to brain damage following numerous concussions. What do you think really happened?
First of all, at that time, the wellness policy program was ineffective. I’d like to think that it’s changed but I’m not sure it has. Everyone joked about it. There was no way Chris could have tested clean unless the sample wasn’t his. 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.
You know, evidence showed that on the Sunday before he committed suicide, he was booking flights to get to the show he was scheduled to appear on in Beaumont, Texas. This shows that there was a moment, however brief, that he thought he could get away with it. 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. Unfortunately, a lot of athletes still do to this day. It’s spiraling out of control. 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. It can’t be told to me that this wasn’t the determining factor behind what happened. I wasn’t there that weekend but I was during the last decade. Chris could have never done what he did had it not been for the steroids and prescription drugs.
After the bodies were discovered, what words were exchanged between your family and the Benoit family, if any?
I was the only one who had any contact with Mike Benoit, Chris’ father. My parents were in no state to communicate with anyone and I needed to know where to send his belongings. So I called and Chris’ mom answered and broke into hysterics. Mike said he was coming to the US to identify Chris’ body and I asked him to come to the house, I agreed and hung up. 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.
Since the investigation’s conclusions were released, WWE has made the decision to ban Chris’ name and likeness from the company in spite of the fact that he was one of the best technical wrestlers the business has ever seen. On the week following the tragedy, Vince McMahon took an oath on air before the SmackDown broadcast to never pronounce Chris Benoit’s name again on WWE programming. How do you feel about this decision?
It’s a very difficult question to answer. I feel that their original reaction in dedicating Monday Night Raw to Chris’ memory on the same very day the bodies were discovered was a huge PR nightmare for them. They made this 2-hour tribute show with a 15 minute tribute in the opening minutes. How they got all this together so quickly, I don’t know. If anything it’s a testament to the swiftness of their production crew.
I think it’s too soon to make a decision about whether or not it will ever be okay for them as a company to bring Chris back up. I still know a lot of people in the business and hear a lot of things. Although a case was recently made for Chris to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, the mere mention of it was quickly squashed. Let me be the first to say this: Chris was the best at what he did professionally. He was very dedicated to his craft, his career and this company. But he is a murderer. He choked the life out of his own son and he brutalized my sister in ways that are unimaginable. Sadly, when you do something like that, the rest of what you did in your life no longer matters and that was a decision HE made. Bringing Chris back up again would crush my parents. It’s way too soon to even mention that idea. It’s been 6 years but it feels like yesterday to us. Maybe one day it will be okay to once again recognize him for the career he did have but, in the meantime, he created the legacy that now haunts the industry. I think that as a company as business-savvy as WWE, they know better. They see what happens when we get angry. Vince McMahon took a public oath on the air to never mention Chris’ name again. Legally and public-relations wise, I think that they’re scared of what might happen if they go back on that oath. Vince McMahon won’t go back on his word. There is no way they would even think about it without consulting with us first. No matter how much lobbying Chris’ family or the fans can do. 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. If Chris were to resurface in any way, it would have to be much further down the road. We are not even close to a healing point. A lot of people would expect me to be hateful and spiteful to Chris and his legacy but the Chris I want to remember is the brother-in-law I knew up until the year before all this happened. Unfortunately, I don’t have any contact with David and Megan, Chris’ children, but they too have to be considered. It must be a huge burden for them to carry the Benoit last name in Canada. I love them and miss them very much.
Following the passing of your sister Nancy and your nephew Daniel, you launched the Nancy and Daniel Benoit foundation. Tell us a little more about the foundation’s mission.
We started the foundation very quickly after everything happened. I had a weird evening at my sister’s home and as crazy as it sounds, I felt my sister moving me to action, in my head. I got this overwhelming feeling of “don’t let this be for no reason”. I felt that we had to do something about this steroid abuse in this business and everywhere else. The very next day, I sat down with my parents and suggested we create a foundation because we don’t want another child to die because his father had a sudden episode of “roid rage”. We spoke about all the people we lost and decided to form the foundation right then and there. I wasn’t prepared for the massive undertaking a non-profit organization required and I was certainly not prepared for the massive grief that was ahead of me. Essentially what we aimed to do is educate parents and children in middle and high school levels about the adverse effects of steroid abuse on the brain. As the foundation grew, I became more focused on student athletes because they’re the ones using drugs to enhance their performances. Our message to them is that if you’re really good at what you do and work hard at it, the win is a wonderful feeling. There is no need to stain your performance with knowing that you cheated. Above and beyond the cheating, these drugs are killing people and families of athletes. We want young athletes to know that you can still be the best at what you do, you can still be a winner by being clean and playing fair and working hard. On the foundation’s website, I have included pictures of my sister’s family because we want people to see the faces that steroids have destroyed.
What are your plans for the future?
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 am glad my family can also count on good friends such as Dean Malenko who sat by my parents’ side during the memorial for Nancy as well as Marc Mero who stood up for Nancy after the tragedy and who keeps supporting our foundation and our family. Of course also, Sir Oliver Humperdink was also very close to my sister and I we just lost him this past year as well, but he took an awful lot of grief stricken phone calls from me, even when he was sick.
As far as the foundation is concerned, we are hoping to come up with sufficient funds to create several Nancy and Daniel Benoit Scholarships. These scholarships would be used to get athletes into their programs and teach them to be clean. I currently have a special Olympian I would like to help get into college but the fundraising is tough. I really want to help young athletes in every field possible, even pro wrestling. You know, as much as the industry has taken from me, it has given to me as well. I have many fond memories of growing up in arenas with Ric [Flair] and Arn [Anderson] and Kevin’s [Sullivan] kids. I would like nothing more than to get clean people where they want to be, even in the WWE if they were to agree to our terms. I am very excited about the direction the foundation is going. I can only pray that Nancy would be proud of where the foundation is headed. You know, last February would have been Daniel’s 13th birthday. I didn’t expect it to but it hit me hard. I used to remember thinking that someday I would be his cool “Auntie Zsa Zsa”. Daniel used to call me that because he couldn’t say “Sandra” when he was a baby but came up with “Zsa Zsa” all on his own! It became very funny because when I was a teenager I used to ask Nancy for fancy clothes to borrow, Nancy would say, “Who do you think you are, Zsa Zsa Gabor?” So when Daniel said it and stuck to Auntie Zsa Zsa it became a huge family joke! I used to look at him and be excited for Daniel to get to his teens in order to come to his auntie for guidance and comfort when needed. But it won’t happen and this is why his birthday hit me harder this year. I hope Daniel is happy that Auntie Zsa Zsa is raising funds to send kids to school. He must be: he wanted to become a wrestler. I miss my nephew everyday of my life.
Before we end, my final question to you is, as difficult as it would be, have you or will you ever forgive Chris for his actions?
My parents are still very angry but they are in their 70s. I, on the other hand, have a lot longer to live with this than they do (God willing!). Holding on to this much hate towards someone will eventually hurt me more than anything else. I’m working toward it. I really am. I don’t want to be some old lady carrying hate and vengeance against someone for doing something, even for stealing my family from me. I just think it would be an unbearably huge weight to carry around for a lifetime. Hard to forget something that you can’t understand to begin with. Someday I’d like to at least find peace with it if I can’t even summon the forgiveness.
We wish to once again thank Sandra for her kindness in doing this interview with us, and wish to continue to express our sympathies regarding the tragedies that occurred six years ago.
We strongly recommend you check out the ‘Nancy and Daniel Benoit Foundation’ here at www.ndbfoundation.org. All information regarding the foundation’s initiatives and donations can be found there.
If you wish to follow Sandra on twitter you can at @butisitfunny
Follow Dina on twitter at @Dina7810