On Tuesday afternoon, Lehigh Valley Live’s Sarah Cassi broke the news that the murder charges against 73 year old WWE Hall of Famer “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka have been dismissed. Snuka had been ruled incompetent to stand trial by Judge Kelly Banach in June, so it was considered to be a matter of time before the case was thrown out entirely. Snuka’s family and doctor claimed that thanks to decades of performing a hard style of pro wrestling, he was suffering from dementia so bad that he didn’t recognize his wife and tried to break out of the house to make nonexistent bookings. Snuka is currently a plaintiff in one of the concussion-focused lawsuits against WWE.
Snuka had been charged in the 1983 death of then-girlfriend Nancy Argentino, who he carried on an affair with while leaving his family in North Carolina, where he had wrestled previously. He had gotten violent with her before, having been arrested in Salina, New York in an incident that got national attention. It clearly wasn’t the pro wrestling star beating his girlfriend that got the attention of the media at the time, though. Instead, contemporary accounts were more fixated on Snuka trying to fight off police dogs. The whole thing was treated as a joke, with even the Associated Press including a line about how “the officers waited for reinforcements, then forced open the door and the match was on.”
For reference, at the time, New York state was still a year away from criminalizing marital rape. Domestic abuse was not viewed the same as it is today.
A few weeks later, Snuka addressed the case in the Toronto Star, where the case had been covered due to both its proximity to the city as well as the area’s rabid wrestling fandom. “The hotel manager got a little excited,” he said. “Yeah, there was some excitement. The cops just didn’t give me a chance to explain. They blew it up, brother.” After concluding that “there’s no trial date and I really think that they’ll drop the charges,” Snuka didn’t show much awareness of his situation, cracking that “[it] should be a good crowd, though.”
A few months later, Snuka and Argentino were in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area, where WWE taped television every three weeks. Argentino suffered a severe head injury, but by Snuka’s own admission, he didn’t immediately take her to the hospital. Only once she became completely unresponsive did he call an ambulance. At that point, Snuka’s story was mostly consistent: While either arguing or “horsing around,” he shoved Argentino and she hit her head on their motel room’s dresser or nightstand. The hospital chaplain, paramedics, nurses, and various bystanders all heard that version of what happened. After Argentino died, though, he started to change his story to different variations of her initially falling and hitting her head when urinating by the side of the road.
Within a few weeks, even after Snuka made a terrible accounting of himself in a police interview, the case was shelved. After minor media coverage in the Allentown and Syracuse areas, the story disappeared, as did a lot of the details. Interest in the case was revived in the ‘90s by journalists Irv Muchnick (a freelancer working on a Village Voice piece) and the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Jeff Savage, but faded when there was little substantive information to be found. Muchnick’s article did highlight what would really help clarify the case, though:
“Of particular interest would be two documents: the autopsy and the transcript of the interrogation of Snuka immediately thereafter. One local official involved in the investigation, as well as one of the Argentino family’s lawyers, told me the autopsy showed marks on the victim other than the fractured skull.”
Perhaps just because nothing ever came of the case, the prevailing belief was that Argentino’s autopsy was inconclusive as to the matter of death (i.e. natural vs. accidental vs. homicide vs. suicide). When the 30th anniversary of the crime was approaching the Allentown Morning Call newspaper began an investigation and hit a jackpot, finding both of the key missing documents in a government records facility. The autopsy dropped the bomb: “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.” The same report also proved that Snuka’s “Nancy fell by the side of the road” claim was demonstrably false:
The coroner also found signs that Argentino had been subject to prolonged “mate abuse.”
Between the evidence that should have been used all along, Snuka’s conflicting statements for decades, and testimony from both Snuka’s ex-wife Sharon (detailed abuse at his hands) and her old neighbor Debbie Rogers (confirmed Sharon’s story), there was enough to indict. It wasn’t long, though, before Snuka’s attorney made his alleged mental state an issue in the case, which clearly succeeded in the long run.
Meanwhile, shows like CBS’s 48 Hours began preliminary work on features about the case, specifically why the investigation stopped out of nowhere. Those plans went out the window when Judge Banach instituted a gag order on not just all parties to the case, but also Argentino’s sisters. There’s a very good chance that the gag order on the Argentino family wouldn’t have held up in court, but CBS got cold feet and didn’t challenge it. As for what the actual reason was, WWE has denied all allegations of any attempts to influence the case. For whatever it’s worth, Snuka himself even made a pointed reference in his book to Vince McMahon joining him for a police interview and leaving a briefcase with detectives. His credibility has obvious issues, though.
That said, with triweekly WWE events being a large chunk of the area’s economy at the time, it’s theoretically possible that some of the local authorities could have felt pressure even when none was being exerted by the wrestling promotion. Whatever the actual reason for the delay was, the moral of the case is clear, and it’s one that’s become a mantra for those following it: Justice delayed is justice denied.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix as well.