Report courtesy of David Dexter:
Thirty years ago, Nancy Argentino was fatally injured and rushed from the wrestling superstar’s hotel room in Whitehall. No charges were filed.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka had just walked into his Whitehall hotel room, where a beautiful young woman lay in his bed.
It wasn’t unusual for Snuka, a married man, to spend the night with his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino. But on this night, after the budding wrestling superstar had returned from a series of World Wrestling Federation TV tapings at the Allentown Fairgrounds, something was amiss.
Argentino was gasping for air. Yellow fluid oozed from her mouth and nose.
Snuka grabbed the room phone and frantically dialed the front desk. Paramedics rushed her to Lehigh Valley Hospital, where Snuka later stood helplessly and watched doctors try to save his girlfriend’s life. About 3 a.m., Snuka dialed a number in Brooklyn, where Louise Argentino-Upham was startled awake by her mother sitting on the bed, phone pressed to her ear.
“Dead?” Caroline Argentino, Nancy’s mother, cried out. “Dead?”
The date was May 11, 1983.
Thirty years later, Nancy Argentino’s death remains unsolved. The Lehigh County district attorney’s office has refused to allow the coroner to release her autopsy report over the past three decades. The document, included in 1985 civil lawsuit, was obtained by The Morning Call from a federal archives warehouse in Philadelphia.
Argentino, 23, died of traumatic brain injuries consistent with a moving head striking a stationary object, according to the autopsy. Her injuries weren’t reflective of a singular head injury, wrote Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, the nationally recognized forensic pathologist who examined the body.
Argentino suffered more than two dozen cuts and contusions — a possible sign of “mate abuse” — on her head, ear, chin, arms, hands, back, buttocks, legs and feet, Mihalakis wrote in his autopsy report.
“In view of the autopsy findings and the discrepancies in the clinical history, I believe that the case should be investigated as a homicide until proven otherwise,” Mihalakis wrote.
Snuka and Argentino were the only two in the hotel room that night, records say. Snuka was later named a “person of interest” by the Whitehall Township Police Department, but no criminal charges were filed. In 1985, the Argentino family won a $500,000 wrongful death lawsuit against Snuka. Claiming he was broke and couldn’t afford a legal defense, Snuka never paid.
The local police investigation effectively went cold on June 1, 1983 after an follow-up interview with Snuka that was ordered by Lehigh Valley authorities and attended by WWF mogul Vince McMahon. It is still open to this day.
Five months after Argentino was buried, Snuka famously soared from the top of a 15-foot steel cage and plastered “Magnificent” Don Muraco to the wrestling mat. He would go on to a Hall of Fame career that spanned five decades.
For the Argentino family, closure remains elusive.
“I feel like the police didn’t take it as far as they should have,” said Lorraine Salome of New York, Nancy’s older sister. “The whole thing, for our family, is still up in the air. We still walk around wondering, ‘What the hell?'”
Snuka, now 70 and living in New Jersey, maintains Nancy Argentino fell and hit her head when they stopped along the highway to go to the bathroom on their way to Allentown. He wrote in his 2012 autobiography that her death, and persistent rumors that he is to blame, ruined his life.
According to police records reviewed by The Morning Call, Snuka told the responding police officer and four hospital employees that he shoved Argentino, causing her to hit her head. Those accounts differ from what Snuka told detectives in his official interview after Argentino’s death, when he insisted she slipped on the side of the highway.
“That’s the story he hung with the best,” said Gerry Procanyn, a former Whitehall detective who remembers standing in the hotel room when Argentino was hurried to the hospital.
The autopsy results showed Argentino, who Snuka claimed hit her head on concrete, had no gravel or similar dirt particles on her head or scalp.
Officially, Procanyn is still investigating the case as a detective for the Lehigh County district attorney’s office. But in reality, it’s been years since he’s received any new information.
In the early 1980s, Agricultural Hall at the Allentown Fairgrounds was a regular stop on the burgeoning WWF circuit.
Every third Tuesday, Snuka and a ring of contemporaries that included Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant, would travel to Ag Hall to film several episodes of the “WWF Championship Wrestling” television show that a generation of children grew up watching.
The tapings would end around 10 or 10:30 p.m., when the wrestlers filtered out to local bars like Ringer’s Roost on Liberty Street, where owner Don Ringer recalls George “The Animal” Steele once ordered $64 in take-out beer.
“They were all very cordial,” said Ringer, who remains friends with some of the old-timers. “Even the bad guys were nice.”
After a few drinks, the cast would retire for the night to the George Washington Motor Lodge — bulldozed in the mid-90s and now the site of Home Depot along MacArthur Road and Route 22 in Whitehall. The next morning, they would leave for Hamburg, Berks County, and continue their circuit across the Northeast.
Professional wrestling had always been a territorial business. The WWF dominated the Northeast while other promoters enjoyed a stranglehold on the markets in the South, the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
But in 1982, Vince McMahon set out to change that — and enlisted a barefoot, Tarzan-like character named Jimmy Snuka to play a leading role.
McMahon bought the WWF from his father, Vince Sr., with a vision of building his regional brand into a global cable TV and pay-per-view powerhouse that, in 2012, reported annual sales of $484 million. At the height of its popularity in 1987, Wrestlemania III was watched live by millions, including 93,000 who packed into the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit — a North American record for an indoor event at the time.
Before he got there, McMahon needed to find performers with name recognition in each city, said George Schire, a professional wrestling historian and author.
So McMahon began raiding other territories for their most popular talent. He created a roster full of stars, including Snuka, one of his father’s final acquisitions.
Snuka, whose legal name is James Reiher, was born in the Fiji Islands and grew up in Hawaii. He began wrestling in the early 1970s and was a veteran of the ring by the time his straight-out-of-the-jungle character hit the WWF in 1982.
For his signature move, the “Superfly Splash,” Snuka would climb to the top rope and pause to extend his arms in the air with his index finger, pinkie and thumb up pointed out. With his opponent lying back-to-the-mat in the center of the ring, Snuka would fly through the air and land chest to chest.
“Superfly” was one of the WWF’s first high-flyers, and his style, combined with his hulking physique, made him especially marketable, Schire said.
In May 1983, the WWF was on the cusp of graduating from dingy Ag Hall and arriving at the bright lights and fanfare of Wrestlemania I just two years later. Snuka, on the verge of his 40th birthday, was at the height of his career.
“At that point in time, [Snuka] could have probably been the number two guy in the WWF,” Schire said.
‘East Coast girlfriend’
Nancy Argentino was a Brooklyn girl.
Raised on the 800 block of N. 27th Street by Catholic, working-class parents, she was a good student, optimistic and outgoing, according to her sisters.
“I always admired her because she had a fun spirit,” said Lorraine Salome, who is six years older than Nancy and the oldest of the three sisters. “She didn’t have any trouble relating to people. People were drawn to her. She was just fun to be around.”
Nancy worked in a dentist’s office from the time she was 15 or 16 and became a dental assistant. She took some college courses, but eventually dropped out to travel with the WWF.
Never a wrestling fan herself, Nancy started going to matches at Madison Square Garden with one of her friends, who dated and married a WWF mainstay named Johnny Rodz, short for Johnny Rodriguez.
Nancy was Italian, 5 feet 7 inches tall, 115 pounds with dark, curly hair and brown eyes. It wasn’t long before she caught the eyes of the wrestlers.
“You have a look and an attitude, I think, when you’re raised in Brooklyn,” Louise Argentino-Upham, now of Florida, said. “She was tall. She was pretty. She took good care of herself.”
Argentino-Upham recalls Nancy going on a date with Hulk Hogan, who would soon become the face of the booming professional wrestling industry.
Nancy wasn’t looking for a free ride, her sisters say, but she liked nice things and wanted the best for herself. Jimmy Snuka could provide that, and the couple started dating in 1982.
About 16 years Snuka’s junior, Nancy was the star wrestler’s travel companion, guide and “East Coast girlfriend,” as he refers to her in his book.
“We slept together each time, but we also hung out,” Snuka wrote. “She was a very nice girl and we got along right away.”
Nancy made sure Jimmy arrived at the arenas on time. Jimmy gave Nancy money to buy fur coats, dresses and whatever else she wanted, as long as she accounted for her spending, her mother, Caroline Argentino, told police in 1983.
On occasion, Nancy brought Snuka to the family’s home, where he would sleep on the couch. He was a good person, quiet, and never argued with Nancy, Caroline Argentino told police.
But not long after the two started dating, the Argentino family began to have suspicions that Snuka was married.
Caroline Argentino told police that Nancy didn’t know Snuka was married and had a “wait and see” attitude about an engagement. They were planning to move into a condo together and Snuka had bought her a ring and told her he loved her in front of the family, she said.
Yet older sister Lorraine was skeptical of the big-time wrestler.
“I really couldn’t figure out what the attraction was,” she said. “She was pretty and she had a great personality and he was weird. He never spoke. He used to come over to the house and he wouldn’t say one word.”
Lorraine was the one Nancy turned to whenever she was in trouble. And on Jan. 18, 1983, she received a message from the front desk of a Howard Johnson motor lodge in Salina, N.Y.
Snuka and Nancy were in a fight, the message said, and Nancy wanted to come home.
Police records documenting the incident, including Onondaga County Sheriff’s Deputy Lawrence D. Witter Jr.’s sworn deposition, were presented in the 1985 civil lawsuit and reviewed by The Morning Call.
The hotel manager called police after guests complained the occupants of Room 1 “were raising hell and a male was beating up a female.”
Police responded — and were met with almost superhuman resistance from Snuka. After a melee, it took at least five police officers and two police dogs to subdue and arrest the 6-foot-tall, 225-pound wrestler.
An officer reported seeing Snuka grab Nancy by the hair when she ran out of the room and drag her face against the drywall. The police officially listed her injuries as “a bruised right thumb, a contusion to the neck, possible fractured ribs and injury to the lower back.”
Nancy later swore in a deposition that Snuka never struck her or intentionally harmed her.
Snuka was charged with second- and third-degree assault, resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration but accepted a plea deal that dropped all of those charges in exchange for pleading guilty to harassment in April 1983.
On Mother’s Day, May 8, Nancy called her mom and said she would stop by the family home on the way from Connecticut to the George Washington Motor Lodge, outside Allentown.
Caroline Argentino never heard from or saw her daughter again.
George Washington Motor Lodge
When the WWF finished its tapings at Allentown’s Ag Hall on May 10, 1983, Snuka returned to the George Washington Motor Lodge to drink beers with his on-camera rival Don Muraco and fellow wrestler Mr. Fuji, according to Whitehall police records, which were subpoenaed for the 1985 civil case.
Muraco and Fuji told police in their interview that Snuka told them his girlfriend was “not feeling well” and he wanted to return to his room to check on her condition.
By the time Snuka walked into Room 427, Nancy was almost dead.
“I thought, my God, I better try to call a doctor right away,” Snuka said in his 1983 police interview. “Right away, I just went out of my mind. I didn’t know what to do with her, I just called the front desk. I told them my girl is having a hard time breathing, just seems like she can’t even breathe at all, whatever you do, please hurry up.”
The ambulance arrived at Lehigh Valley Hospital about 12:40 a.m. on May 11. Inside the emergency room, Snuka stood in one spot, staring at Nancy, according to witnesses interviewed by police.
She was pronounced dead at 1:50 a.m. In the immediate aftermath, Snuka told at least five different people he pushed Nancy, and she fell and hit her head. He later said they misunderstood him.
According to police records:
• Snuka told the responding officer he and Nancy “were fooling around” outside the hotel room door when he pushed her and she fell, striking her head.
• Two emergency room employees, Carol McBride and Susan St. Clair, told police Snuka stated he and Nancy got into an argument and “he pushed her and she fell back and hit her head.”
• Emergency room doctor John Fassl told police Snuka said he and Nancy were fooling around and she “was pushed and fell backwards and struck her head.” At some point after the fall, they were fooling around again, with Snuka giving Nancy “light slaps to the face,” Fassl told police. He also said Snuka seemed genuinely concerned for Nancy’s condition.
• Hospital chaplain Barbara Smith helped Snuka call the Argentino family after Nancy was pronounced dead. She told police that Snuka told her he and Nancy had stopped on the way to Allentown to go to the bathroom and were clowning around when he shoved her with “his forearm and she fell backward on her back and hit her head on the concrete.”
In an interview with police inside the morgue, Deputy Coroner Wayne Snyder said Nancy’s body had “several black and blue marks.” He suggested police interview Snuka and compare his verbal statement with the professional results of an autopsy.
About 9 a.m., inside the hotel room, Snuka was interviewed by three Whitehall police detectives. There, he told what he maintains to this day is the true story of Nancy’s death — a story that starts around 4 or 5 a.m., before the match at Ag Hall.
Jimmy and Nancy were on a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania and Nancy was “desperate to use the bathroom,” Snuka told police.
“She went a little into the bushes and squatted,” he said, according to police records. “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. And then she slipped and fell backward and hit her head. Right on the concrete on the side of the road, she just slipped backward.”
Snuka told police Nancy “had a real bad concussion.”
“When I saw that I just picked her up and slapped her across the face to get her to come to again,” he said.
When they arrived at the George Washington Motor Lodge, about 45 minutes later, Nancy said her head hurt and she wanted to lie down. They went to sleep for a few hours. Snuka left for the fairgrounds around 1 p.m. and Nancy was breathing normally, he told police. He kissed her and said, “I’ll be right back as soon as I get done.”
During a break around 6 p.m., Snuka returned to check on Nancy and found her sleeping with a “big lump on her head — it was swelled,” he told detectives.
He said he returned to check on Nancy a second time immediately after the taping ended, which Muraco and Fuji contradicted when they told police Snuka drank beer with them. When Snuka realized how bad Nancy’s condition was, he called the front desk, he said.
Detectives pushed Snuka about the inconsistencies in his story, and asked him about arguing with Nancy. Snuka said the argument was “nothing,” and revealed that Nancy did fall inside the room and hit her head on a chair — but not because they were fighting.
“She was like in a daze, so she just fell down and collapsed,” Snuka said.
Later, police asked Snuka again about witnesses who said Snuka told them he pushed Nancy.
“Do you remember saying to [the doctor] that you and Nancy were pushing each other around and that she fell outside of the motel room?” they asked.
“No-no-no-no,” Snuka said. “This is explaining to him how we, you know, playing around with each other at time(s), but I didn’t tell him that we, that she fell outside here. This is on the road when she fell.”
It appears the detectives then received a message from the district attorney’s office, suggesting Snuka take a polygraph test and officers take him along the highway to find the spot where Nancy fell. Procanyn wouldn’t comment on whether either of those actions was taken.
Detectives obtained a copy of Snuka’s schedule and the phone number for Vince McMahon and let Snuka go.
Along with manager Buddy Rogers, Snuka attended Nancy’s viewing and cried while leaning over the casket, according to Caroline Argentino’s police interview.
The family believed Snuka would come back for the funeral the next day.
He never showed up.
On the 30th anniversary of Nancy’s death, The Morning Call left a phone message for Snuka at his New Jersey home. His third wife, Carole, whom he married in 2004, returned the call, saying Snuka did not wish to comment for this story.
“He did address the subject in his book, and he has nothing more to say,” she said.
Representatives of McMahon’s company, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, also declined to comment.
Case goes cold
By all accounts in police records and recent interviews with those involved in the case, McMahon and the WWF were fully cooperative with the police investigation. On May 27, 1983, The Morning Call reported that District Attorney William Platt, now a Pennsylvania Senior Superior Court judge, said the investigation into Nancy’s death was nearly complete.
“It’s just a matter of getting everybody together,” Platt was quoted as saying, referring to the investigators and attorneys involved in the case, according to the article.
Five days later, on June 1, 1983, Snuka and McMahon met with Platt, then-Assistant District Attorney Robert Steinberg and Mihalakis, the medical examiner, in the DA’s office law library. Whitehall Police Detectives Gerry Procanyn, Al Fritzinger and Vincent Geiger were also at the meeting, according to police records.
There’s no official record of what was said and Snuka doesn’t remember much of what happened, according to his book.
“All I remember is [McMahon] had a briefcase with him,” Snuka wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t know what happened. …The only thing I know for sure is I didn’t hurt Nancy.”
Steinberg, now a Lehigh County judge, said Snuka didn’t say much and McMahon “did all the talking.”
“I remember Vince McMahon being what Vince McMahon has always been — very effusive. He was very protective, a showman,” Steinberg said, noting he couldn’t recall specifics of the conversation. “He was the mouthpiece, trying to direct the conversation.”
Procanyn said McMahon gave authorities the phone numbers of wrestlers and managers they wanted to speak with. Fritzinger could not be reached for comment and Geiger died in 1984. Platt wouldn’t comment when asked if Whitehall police pushed for charges to be filed.
“I do not believe that as a judicial officer I am permitted to discuss this matter,” Platt said in a written statement. “Besides that, as a practical matter, I am not privy to anything that may have happened in the matter since I left the DA’s office in 1991.”
Even though three decades have passed, Mihalakis, the prominent pathologist whose work helped convict serial killer nurse Charles Cullen, who admitted killing 29 patients, said he remembers Argentino quite well and hasn’t forgotten the facts surrounding the case.
“The clear-cut forensics weren’t there, but the suspicion was there,” said Mihalakis, who has performed over 10,000 autopsies. “I did not have a clear-cut case. It was a very worrisome case. Obviously, there was enough there to arouse my suspicion but not enough to take it to trial. … Just because she was beaten doesn’t mean she was beaten to death.”
After the conference on June 1, there’s no record of police ever interviewing Snuka again.
In March 1985, at the first Wrestlemania, “Superfly” was in the corner for Hulk Hogan and Mr. T as they faced “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and his tag-team partner. He soon disappeared from WWF television programs.
Unbeknownst to most WWF viewers, the Argentino family had filed a civil lawsuit in 1985 alleging Nancy was injured because of Snuka’s “intentional and/or reckless and/or negligent and/or careless” behavior that may have included “pushing, shoving and/or striking” Nancy along Route 22 or at the George Washington Motor Lodge.
In a sworn affidavit on Oct. 15, 1985, Snuka said he had been terminated from WWF, his family was extremely poor and he owed $75,000 in back taxes. Snuka’s attorneys withdrew their representation that year, saying he couldn’t afford to pay them.
The family was awarded a default judgment of $500,000, covering Nancy’s future earnings and funeral expenses. They never collected a penny, according to Nancy’s sisters.
Snuka maintained that he never hurt Nancy.
“I am very sorry that she died because she was a wonderful young lady. I regret this very deeply and personally, and I am sorry for the Argentinos’ loss,” he said in his affidavit in the lawsuit. “I know the Argentinos feel grief for their loss and I know they want to be comforted. They were my friends, and I hope they will find a way to show mercy on me and not take advantage of my present situation and my inability to defend their lawsuit.”
Even before the Internet, the story of Argentino’s death was circulated among underground wrestling newsletters, said Irvin Muchnick, an investigative journalist and author who has reported on the behind-the-scenes world of professional wrestling for more than 30 years.
Muchnick wrote about the discrepancies between Snuka’s accounts of that night in his 2007 book, “Wrestling Babylon.” It’s the work cited by almost every post about Nancy Argentino on the Internet.
“It’s a case of prosecutorial discretion,” Muchnick said. “I think William Platt, then the DA, now a big-time judge there, exercised his discretion poorly.”
Platt wouldn’t respond to Muchnick’s comment.
But Fred Conjour, the former Whitehall police chief, defended Platt’s handling of the case.
“Bill was one of the most professional, intelligent and concerned prosecutors that I’ve ever run into,” he said. “He was certainly not the kind of guy who was going to shy away from anything if he thought it wasn’t right.”
Steinberg, who said the decision was “out of my pay grade” at that time, explained that there were “missing pieces” that prevented the district attorney’s office from pressing any charges.
“I think what happened here is they were just unable to put the case together,” Steinberg said. “Dr. Mihalakis couldn’t give us the forensics to put the case together.”
Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin wouldn’t comment extensively.
“We still look at that case,” he said. “I’m not going to elaborate on it because it’s an open case. Maybe one day, something will happen with it.”
Procanyn, the former Whitehall detective still investigating the case as a detective for Martin, said the last call he received on the case was sometime around 2009. It was someone telling him Lou Albano, Snuka’s former manager, had died.
Procanyn wouldn’t comment when asked if he believes Snuka should have been charged in his girlfriend’s death.
“The decision as to making an arrest comes from the DA’s office,” Procanyn said. “We were laying out what we had. …[Platt] scrutinized it and said we needed to dig further. I brought forth what we had.”
Procanyn said he doesn’t believe the district attorney’s office ever conducted a grand jury investigation to ask citizens if an arrest is warranted. He said anyone with information about the case should call him at the DA’s office at 610-782-3100.
In his book, Snuka maintains his innocence.
“Many terrible things have been written about me hurting Nancy and being responsible for her death, but they are not true,” he wrote. “This has been very hard on me and very hard on my family. To this day, I get nasty notes and threats. It hurts. I never hit Nancy or threatened her.”
He later adds: “I will say this about the whole thing, brudda — that night ruined my life. To this day, that is how I feel. If I was guilty of anything, it was cheating on my wife, and that was it.”
Nancy’s father, Ralph, passed away in 1999. Her mother, Caroline, now 87, moved to Florida, where younger sister Louise Argentino-Upham also lives. When contacted by The Morning Call, the family had no idea the case was still open.
Nancy’s sisters didn’t want their mother to be interviewed because it would be too upsetting for her, they said. After her parents realized they weren’t going to collect the money they were awarded in the lawsuit, they tried to move on, Argentino-Upham said.
“My parents handled it the way they handled it and then I guess they just wanted to forget about it,” she said.
For years, Caroline Argentino never changed Nancy’s bedroom, leaving it as a shrine to her daughter. She still has a collection of photos she keeps as a makeshift memorial.
The family also has the old photos of Jimmy and Nancy and the hospital bill that lists “altercation” as the reason for Nancy’s injuries.
When the family gets together, they talk about Nancy and how their lives would be different if she were still alive, older sister Lorraine Salome said.
“I always felt so guilty because I felt that at that moment when she was in trouble [in Allentown] and she got injured, I always felt that if she could have gotten to the phone I would be the one that would have gotten that phone call from her,” Salome said.
Though 30 years have passed, the sisters still believe police didn’t do enough to find out how Nancy died.
“Nobody to this day really actually knows what happened,” Salome said. “It’s just like they squashed it somehow. I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know what they did, but it was just like they squashed it.”
• Author Irvin Muchnick published a 30th anniversary eBook about the death of Nancy Argentino available at http://www.amazon.com/kindle-store/. All proceeds are donated to My Sister’s Place women’s shelter in Westchester County, N.Y., a charity selected by the Argentino family.