Nancy Argentino was just 23 when she died in 1983, after being rushed to a hospital from the motel room of Jimmy Snuka in Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania with a serious head injury. Argentino, from Brooklyn, New York was Snuka’s mistress and traveled with him on the pro wrestling circuit whenever Snuka found himself in the northeast.
According to The Morning Call based out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, “She was rushed out of Snuka’s George Washington Motor Lodge motel room — now the site of Home Depot along MacArthur Road and Route 22 — on May 10, 1983. Snuka, a married man, had returned from a World Wrestling Federation taping at the Allentown Fairgrounds to find Argentino gasping for air and oozing yellow fluid from her mouth and nose.”
Argentino was declared dead hours later at Lehigh Valley Hospital and died of traumatic brain injuries consistent with a moving head striking a stationary object, according to the autopsy. The findings showed that she had more than two dozen cuts and bruises — a possible sign of “mate abuse” — on her head, ear, chin, arms, hands, back, buttocks, legs, and feet. It is believed that Snuka delaying 12-24 hours in calling for medical help, contributed greatly to the emergency staffers’ inability to resuscitate her.
The former was from Dr. Isidore Mihalakis’ autopsy report in 1983 which also urged, “this case should be investigated as a homicide until proven otherwise.”
Deputy Lehigh County coroner Wayne Snyder later said, “Upon viewing the body and speaking to the pathologist, I immediately suspected foul play and so notified the district attorney.”
Charges were not immediately pressed at the time against Jimmy Snuka though the case was left officially open.
The Initial Jimmy Snuka and Nancy Argentino Murder Case Went Nowhere
In 1983, Nancy Argentino’s family hired Richard Cushing, a New York attorney who had spent most of his career defending criminals, to take a second look. He was to re-examine the evidence after Argentino’s death and try to persuade then-District Attorney William Platt that this indeed was not an accident. Cushing spent weeks in Allentown, Pennsylvania visiting scenes, studying records of the case and interviewing witnesses. He believed that there was enough there to take it to a grand jury as a murder case, but William Platt was not convinced.
“I was stonewalled at every turn,” Cushing said. “It became clear pretty soon that [Platt] had no intention of presenting the evidence that I amassed. All the pieces were there. There was enough to take it before a grand jury in 1983. I could not understand why the district attorney could not see it.”
30 years later, the case was still unsolved but an opportunity for the case to be re-opened presented itself. The man responsible for the original autopsy, Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, in 1983 commented to The Morning Call about the investigation. “The clear-cut forensics weren’t there, but the suspicion was there. 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.”
Mihalakis would later say, “Just because she was beaten doesn’t mean she was beaten to death.”
According to police interviews obtained by The Morning Call, Snuka originally told at least five people, including the responding police officer, he shoved Argentino, causing her to fall and hit her head. He later told police he was misunderstood and Argentino slipped and hit her head when they stopped along the highway to go to the bathroom. In another version, Snuka claims he called the authorities as soon as they got to the hotel room. In his book, Superfly The Jimmy Snuka Story, written by Jon Chattman, he says that after coming back from the TV tapings, he was surprised to find her still sleeping, and that’s when he called for help.
The variety of stories as to what he did with Nancy Argentino or how she got injured could fill this whole page. From excessive horseplay amongst them to a lovers quarrel where accidents happen, to her simply slipping and falling. All of these defenses were given in Snuka’s book, various interviews, and other sources such as what Snuka supposedly told the nurses in the ER and what they reportedly overheard him say.
Watch: A little more than a month after the death of Nancy Argentino, Jimmy Snuka loses it on TV
It should also be noted that Snuka allegedly regularly abused his wife Sharon physically and sent her to the hospital five months after Argentino’s death. According to a criminal complaint, there are photos and notes of these injuries taken by Debbie Rogers, the wife of Snuka’s manager at the time, Buddy Rogers.
Snuka wrote in his book, “At the funeral, I told her mother and father how sorry I was about her death. What else could I possibly say?”
Argentino’s oldest sister, Lorraine Salome, remembers differently. “He came there in shorts and didn’t say anything to my mother. He did not express his apologies or sympathies.”
Buddy Rogers left him there and vowed to attend the church service later, but he didn’t. This again was according to Argentino’s oldest sister.
Watch: One of several stories Jimmy Snuka has told on how Nancy Argentino got injured and ultimately died
Other than Snuka’s constantly shifting story of what happened, the autopsy report revealed to the public and even his 2012 autobiography helped put pressure on authorities to delve into the case once more.
In 1999, with internet usage still somewhat in its infancy, when writer Irvin Muchnick first published the story of Snuka and Argentino online, it circulated and gained steam amongst fans and underground newsletters. Muchnick is the author of Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal and the 1992 book JUSTICE DENIED: The Untold Story of Nancy Argentino’s Death in Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Motel Room. In the article, he compares Nancy Argentino to Mary Jo Kopechne.
In 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy left a party near midnight with Kopechne. He drove his Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island which is near Martha’s Vineyard. He abandoned the 28-year-old woman who had crash trauma and drowned. The senator waited 10 hours until he reported it. In a televised speech, he said that his behavior had been “indefensible” but denied it was alcohol-fueled.
Kennedy only got a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury and damaged any presidential ambitions that he may have had.
As told to The Daily Beast, Muchnick, while researching the incident, says that Detective Procanyn never told him that they didn’t have enough evidence to indict Snuka. He instead told him that Snuka told one story and it was perfectly consistent every time. Muchnick considers that to be “a blatant lie.” For 30 years, Snuka continued with his life as if nothing had happened.
Three Decades Later, The Jimmy Snuka and Nancy Argentino Death Investigation Is Revived
Three weeks after The Morning Call published the story recalling the death of Nancy Argentino and revealing an autopsy report and police interviews never seen by the public, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin would ask Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Gallagher and Detective Gerry Procanyn “if there’s anything to be gained by opening a grand jury investigation.” Detective Procanyn was a former Whitehall detective who was in the motel when Argentino was rushed to the hospital in 1983.
Did Vince McMahon Save Jimmy Snuka From A Trial?
The original investigation went cold on June 1, 1983, after prosecutors met with Jimmy Snuka and World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon in the district attorney’s office law library. There is no record of what was talked about during the meeting but Judge Robert Steinberg, who was an assistant district attorney at the time, was there and remembers that McMahon did all the talking but was cooperative, which is recorded in the police accounts.
“I remember Vince McMahon being what Vince McMahon has always been — very effusive. He was very protective, a showman,” Steinberg said. “He was the mouthpiece, trying to direct the conversation.”
Snuka does mention in his book that the details are hazy but that he went with Vince McMahon to a court or a law office, and that Vince had a suitcase. He doesn’t remember if money was given to the family of Nancy Argentino but he knows for sure that he did not hurt her.
The WWE issued a statement after Snuka’s book was published and the story about McMahon showing up with a briefcase to solve the Snuka situation when it happened in 1983,
“The insinuation that a group of medical examiners, detectives, and prosecutors — including two who became judges — could have their integrity compromised and participate in an improper activity during the course of a meeting is absurd, categorically false and insulting to all parties. We are hopeful that justice will prevail.”
After the one hour meeting in the district attorney’s law library, there are no records of Jimmy Snuka ever being questioned by police again. The case went cold for 30 years.
Four months before: Nancy Argentino died, Snuka was charged with assaulting her in a New York Howard Johnson motel. Police say he also battled with responding police. He 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. Argentino swore in a deposition after the alleged assault that Snuka never hit her or intentionally harmed her.
In 1985: The Argentino family won a $500,000 wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Snuka but never received their money. He filed for bankruptcy and the family never got any restitution.
This whole time Jimmy Snuka had claimed innocence and wrote in his book, “Many terrible things have been written about me hurting Nancy and being responsible for her death, but they are not true. This has been very hard on me and very hard on my family… I never hit Nancy or threatened her. I never wanted to harm her. I think she died of a fracture to her skull. I was devastated.”
Snuka continues, “That night ruined my life. If I was guilty of anything, it was cheating on my wife, and that was it… Nancy was a good girl. I will never forget what happened to her.” He adds, “Sometimes being trapped with my thoughts can be more painful than any injury I’ve suffered in the ring.”
Days after Snuka’s arrest, the WWE erased his Hall of Fame profile and all images and videos from its media sites. As of this publication, however, you can find images and videos of him restored on the site.
On January 28th, 2014: Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin announces that the Nancy Argentino case will go to a grand jury.
In August 2015: Carole, the third wife of Jimmy Snuka, says that he has stomach cancer.
On September 1st, 2015: After a recommendation from a grand jury, Martin procedes to charge Snuka with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
The county’s investigative grand jury found that Jimmy Snuka assaulted Nancy Argentino on May 10, 1983, then left her in a Whitehall Township motel room to die. “His assaultive acts and his failure to act to obtain medical attention resulted in her death,” the grand jury wrote in a presentment on July 17, 2015, recommending he be charged with homicide.
Following the county’s investigative grand jury findings, the WWE issued this statement, “WWE expresses its continued sympathy to the Argentino family for their loss. Ultimately, this legal matter will be decided by our judicial system.”
After Snuka was charged with third-degree murder, Jim Cornette questioned, “Why doesn’t someone really start investigating more about why nothing got done for 30 years when there was all of this evidence and conflicting stories? [Argentino] was evidently beat up and banged up and bruised up—you know, a couple of dozen bruises and cuts on her body, besides a fractured f*****g skull in a wrestler’s hotel room that had just been previously arrested, in the f*****g same state I believe, about 6 months beforehand by eight cops and two police dogs for beating up the same girl!”
Cornette continued, “Even in Snuka’s book, he wrote that Vince [McMahon] came to represent him at the meeting, which everyone agrees on, but Vince was carrying a briefcase! And he never saw the briefcase again? What the f***?”
Defense Blames CTE For the Actions of Jimmy Snuka
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by mild or repeated head trauma, but the exact amount needed for the condition to occur in yet unknown. It is a deterioration of brain tissue and function and was discovered in 2004 at the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office after performing an autopsy on a former Pittsburgh Steelers player, “Iron” Mike Webster.
Most documented cases have occurred in athletes of contact sports such as American football, ice hockey, rugby, boxing, and professional wrestling. Currently, a definitive diagnosis can only be done during an autopsy and analyzing a person’s brain under a microscope after they are dead.
The Hearings To Determine the Mental Competency of Jimmy Snuka
During the hearings to determine whether Jimmy Snuka was mentally competent to stand trial, his defense attorney Robert Kirwin said that Snuka suffered from brain trauma so severe that he had developed CTE and subsequently dementia. He argued Snuka’s head trauma had progressed to the point where he couldn’t understand what was happening in a courtroom and commented that his private doctors had seen memory impairment in him as early as 2010 and that Snuka might develop CTE in the future. Other doctors in 2010 said they also saw signs of dementia developing.
Frank M. Dattilio was a forensic psychologist hired by the defense. He testified that Snuka was a “shell of a man” whose brain is damaged beyond repair from years of wrestling and who is suffering from dementia that is “worsening by the month.”
Dattilio told Judge Kelly L. Banach that tests show Snuka’s brain is shrinking, causing serious memory loss. Snuka does not understand what’s going on in court and does not even remember his attorney’s name according to the psychologist.
During one of the hearings, prosecutors noted Snuka did not begin complaining of head trauma until after he learned he was under investigation.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Craig Sheetz pointed to medical records that show Snuka had an appointment with a concussion specialist on January 29, 2014. This was a week after District Attorney Jim Martin announced he was re-opening the case.
Proving And Disproving Jimmy Snuka’s Ability to Stand Trial
Trying to prove that Jimmy Snuka was mentally and physically capable to stand trial, the prosecutors showed fliers from charity events Snuka attended during times the psychologist said he was showing signs of dementia. One event was a 2012 poker game in New York in which Snuka won $100,000 for charity, Scheetz said. This was to prove that he was lucid.
Snuka’s attorney, Robert J. Kirwan, argued that the fliers and videos did not prove anything about Snuka’s competency. He called the video of a May 2015 wrestling match the prosecution had shown from a Rhode Island gymnasium “fake”, pointing out how slowly and carefully Snuka climbed the ropes before falling onto the other wrestler’s chest. He mentioned that this was a far cry from the Snuka that truly used to leap off cages and turnbuckles.
“If that was ‘The Superfly Splash,’ it was the geriatric version,” Kirwan said.
Even the incident with Roddy Piper smashing a coconut on Snuka’s head was used.
The coconut was supposed to be shaved thin on one end, to crack like an egg, the psychologist explained, but Piper hit Snuka with the wrong end.
Dattilio testified Snuka was unable to recall many of the injuries that led to his head trauma but did recount the incident mentioned above which left him dizzy and disoriented.
You Can’t Blame Everything On CTE
Ronald Hamilton, a doctor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who helped discover CTE, said other factors such as drinking, drug use, and depression could also cause mood changes. Jimmy Snuka had publicly admitted to drinking heavily, smoking tobacco, marijuana, and drug use such as cocaine and even anabolic steroids throughout his life according to his book.
Hamilton mentioned the case of Chris Benoit in 2007 who killed his wife, his son and then even though he probably had serious head trauma from his wrestling career and perhaps was suffering dementia, still was competent enough to hang himself after the murders.
“All of these wrestlers in the WWE have head trauma, they can’t avoid it, it’s part of their job,” Hamilton said. “Even though their decision-making is impaired, there isn’t a loss as far as I can tell of the sense of right and wrong.”
“I loved Jimmy Snuka as a fan. I didn’t know him as a person but he’s a professional cohort. But if he did this, this should have been settled a long time ago.”
– Jim Cornette
According to the experts, there is no proof that people who suffer from CTE are also legally incompetent.
Also, to reinforce the aforementioned, Dr. Manish Fozdar, a Raleigh, North Carolina expert in Neuropsychiatry and forensic psychiatry said, “There are no cause-effect relationships as Snuka’s defense attorney argued.”
Dr. Paul Hoyer a forensic pathologist for the Montgomery County coroner’s office said, “Dementia can be a muddy diagnosis, as there is no clear-cut test to determine whether a person suffers from it.” He continued, “Where is the line between dementia and normal? Dementia is defined legally as being unable to understand what’s going on. Does [Snuka] understand what’s going on? If he does, he’s responsible.”
On the matter, Jim Cornette lamented, “The word started getting around. It was obvious. It’s obvious if you go back and look at the facts of the case, something went on. Something went on and something got covered up. It’s been known within the business — if not exactly a topic of conversation every f*****g day — that something f*****g happened.”
“Superfly” Jimmy Snuka Declared Not Mentally Fit
June 1st, 2016: Almost six months after being tried for third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Judge Kelly L. Banach determined that Jimmy Snuka was not mentally fit to assist his defense.
She said, “Justice suffers after 30 years because everything decays.”
June 21st, 2016: Prosecutors ask Banach to force Snuka to undergo mental health treatment.
December 2nd, 2016: Snuka’s defense attorney says he’s in a Florida hospice and doctors have determined that he only has six months to live.
January 3rd, 2017: Judge Banach dismisses homicide charges against JimmySnuka.
Reactions To Judge Dissmissing Homicide Charges
When Lorraine Salome, the older sister of Nancy Argentino, was reached by phone, she said she wasn’t surprised when she got the call informing her that the judge dismissed charges against Snuka. “We kind of expected it because there were so many ridiculous things going on with the defense.” She went on to describe Snuka’s incompetency defense as “a total act.”
Snuka’s defense attorney Robert Kirwin, who had motioned for the case to be closed once it had been determined in June 2016 that Snuka was mentally unfit to assist his defense said, “It was time for there to be closure. The medical evidence showed that he was not getting better, and in fact, he’s getting worse.”
Shortly after Snuka’s arrest in 2015, judge Banach had issued a gag order (to not talk about the case in public) to all the attorneys involved and to Snuka’s and Argentino’s families.
Kirwin, speaking about the prosecution publicly for the first time, also added, “Their case was doomed from the start. There is much that is not publicly known about this case. My client would have liked to clear his name, and there was never a doubt in my mind that he would have been acquitted by a jury if he’d been well enough to stand trial.”
The judge dismissed the charges by saying that she was satisfied that Jimmy Snuka would not regain competency and “it would be unjust to resume the prosecution.”
Jimmy Snuka – a Free Man, And Days Later, A Dead One
Robert Kirwin, defense attorney of Jimmy Snuka, called Snuka’s wife Carole with the news and said that she wept with joy and wanted to know if it was truly over. He communicated to her that Snuka was now a free man.
And just like that, only 12 days later on January 15th, 2017, Jimmy Snuka passed away. He was suffering from stomach cancer and other ailments. He was 73.
Mick Foley spoke about Snuka, a man who inspired him to pursue a career in wrestling. “Unfortunately, the death of Nancy Argentino is inextricably entwined in the life story of ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka, making the celebration of his life and career so much more difficult.”
Journalist Mike Mooneyham offered, “While Snuka will remain forever tied to Nancy Argentino’s death, it must be noted that he was never convicted. Many critics, however, would argue that justice delayed was justice denied.”
The excerpts of the interview were provided by WrestlingInc.com.
“I didn’t push [Jimmy] at all. Right from the get-go, the one constant with him was he kept saying, ‘I want the truth. I want the whole story.’ It was never one of those deals where, ‘We must put this in,'” Chattman recalled. “In terms of the Nancy situation, I asked him the question a couple of times. I went online and there was a lot of stuff that I also heard that I took to him. And his story never wavered. And the way it’s in the book is the way it was told to me.”
Chattman said that while the criminal charges left a “blemish” on Snuka’s legacy, he does not think they should define it.
“I don’t think it’s Chris Benoit. I’ll say that much. I don’t think you erase him from memory,” Chattman said. “All I’ll say is I think his legacy is intact. Ultimately, you look at what he did in the ring and it’s remarkable. And he was an innovator and he inspired so many people. But it’s a touchy subject. It’s hard because we’re talking about a human life that passed away. Me, personally—if you ask me, ‘Do you think Jimmy did it?’ No. I met him and he was the kindest man possible. I just look at the whole thing as a shame, because there’s a loss of human life there.”
Snuka’s fall from grace was as low as his peaks of fame were high. Unlike Chris Benoit, the “Superfly” has not been erased from WWE’s history books as of yet. If this is correct on their part, I do not know. Can we still appreciate the man’s huge contributions to wrestling knowing that it is very possible that he had a hand in Nancy Argentino’s death? Feel free to discuss this on the Pro Wrestling Stories Facebook and Twitter pages.
All royalties from Irvin Muchnick’s 1992 book JUSTICE DENIED: The Untold Story of Nancy Argentino’s Death in Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Motel Room are donated to organizations fighting domestic violence. It is considered one of the most authoritative accounts on what happened to Nancy Argentino.
Listen to ProWrestlingStories.com’s JP Zarka discuss Jimmy Snuka and the Death of Nancy Argentino on an episode of “Crimes in Wrestling” on Total Engagement with Matt Koon:
Most of the information was gathered from articles by The Morning Call who, with several different writers, covered the Jimmy Snuka and Nancy Argentino case from when it was revived in 2013 to his hearings and until his passing in 2017. Other sources have been linked where applicable.
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