- Elizabeth Merrill
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. -- The house, by most appearances, is immaculate and perfect. The fireplace, the wooden deck, the private staircase climbing up to a little boy's room. The circle driveway and the red Hummer.
When fact blurred to fantasy, Nancy Benoit never told people this, that in high school, all she really wanted to be was a housewife. Now her house is where the story ends and the spectacle begins.
It takes a good navigational system to get to the Benoit home, past a gravel road, through a narrow two-lane spin with tall Georgia trees on both sides. Gawkers have inched by for days, peering through the metal gate for answers. A woman rolled in from North Carolina the other night, reeking of alcohol, firing a volley of "why"s as a neighbor went to get his mail. She allegedly pelted him with rocks and wound up in jail.
"It's certainly surreal," says Fayette County District Attorney Scott Ballard. "I've used the word bizarre. There are so many bizarre things about it."
The why might never be answered -- why Chris Benoit, wrestling superstar, alleged family man, apparently murdered his wife on a Friday, strangled his son on a Saturday, then wrapped a cord from his weight machine around his neck and hanged himself on a Sunday.
Because they lived in a world of scripted story lines, flying clotheslines and outlandish ring names, it took nearly a day for some WWE fans to believe that Benoit and his family were actually dead. Some still can't swallow it.
But fiction, those close to the case will say, could not trump the reality on Green Meadow Lane.
Ballard sits in his office across town at 5:30 p.m., after office hours because the Benoit case has evolved into a round-the-clock, breaking-news buffet of Geraldo and Greta proportions. Before Monday, Ballard had no idea who Benoit was. Maybe, he says, nobody really did.
He's describing how rigor mortis had set in by the time they found Nancy, whose skin was marbleized as she lay face-down on the floor. He's remembering his walk into Daniel's room -- the 7-year-old boy's body was gone, but posters of his dad still hung on the wall, and two toy wrestling belts sat on a shelf.
There was every indication, Ballard says, that Daniel Benoit adored his father.
"I pray for two things," Ballard says. "That he didn't know about his mother's death and he was asleep when he was strangled.
"I don't think anybody can give me a why for that little boy being strangled that would satisfy me. I will never understand that."
Jim Daus was headed out to dinner Monday night when a call pierced his steeply planted world.
Nancy was dead.
Before she was "Woman," before she graced the covers of wrestling magazines and was drooled over by teenage boys, Nancy Benoit was Nancy Daus, a Florida girl who dropped out of high school to marry her boyfriend Jim.
They were high school sweethearts, kids with no money and little to do, and on Sunday nights, Jim grabbed his girl and whisked her to Orlando to watch wrestling. It was new for Nancy, whose protective parents didn't let her go at first. But he had front-row seats, and the couple was lured by the drama, the machismo, the circus.
"How would I describe it? Male soap opera," Daus says. "You follow the story lines like you'd watch a soap opera on TV. It builds, and you have to wait 'til Monday to find out the next chapter."
He used to call it fate, being in the right place at the right time. One night, as a wrestler grabbed Jim's chair and heaved it into the crowd, a camera clicked away at Nancy's surprised expression. She was discovered that night and joined wrestler Kevin Sullivan's entourage, and her life as a valet/diva/manager put her in leather and chains and took her everywhere from Texas to Hawaii.
For a while, Daus was a happy part of the ride. They grew up fast and owned their first house as teenagers. Eventually, though, there was no room for him on the tour.
On New Year's Day -- Daus isn't sure what year -- he picked her up from the airport, heard all the places she was booked for and said they were drifting in different directions. He suggested a divorce. Within days, they were seeing the same lawyer.
"We cried a lot that day," he says. "It was very hard on me. That was the toughest year of my life, the year I got divorced."
He stopped watching wrestling. It was too painful. Nancy's career skyrocketed, and she married Sullivan, a booker/wrestler known for his satanic references in the ring. If the entourage ultimately pulled Nancy away from Jim, it almost seemed fitting that another wrestling saga eventually pried her from Sullivan.
By the mid-1990s, Sullivan was on the outs with Nancy, and he scripted an angle that had her canoodling with Benoit. Wrestling fans knew her as "Woman." Benoit called her Nancy. In a life-imitates-art moment, they fell in love.
Some people thought it was an odd combination -- Chris the quiet workmanlike wrestler, Nancy the headstrong, career-savvy manager. Some also wondered why she gave it all up, left the business to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.
She disappeared from the spotlight, showing up occasionally at her husband's side. In the flurry of video clips of the past week, she's seen hugging Chris while confetti rains down on another wrestling victory. He's shown kissing his little boy as the emotions seep from his sweaty, sculpted body.
How much did anyone know about what went on with the Benoits? She filed a divorce petition in 2003, but withdrew it a few months later. She also filed a temporary protection order from domestic abuse, but later dropped that, too.
Richard Decker, an attorney for Nancy's parents, Paul and Maureen Toffoloni, said the family had no reason to believe there was turmoil on those 8.6 acres in Fayetteville.
"None. Zero," Decker says. "They had a normal son-in-law relationship with Chris. They didn't treat him as a superstar, and he didn't want to be treated as a superstar. He took out the trash, and they treated him as anyone would treat a son-in-law. [The couple] had a close and loving relationship as far as they knew."
The testimonials for Chris Benoit, pre- and post-death, sound almost prerecorded from those close to him. Hard worker, they say. Loyal, polite and quiet. Passionate.
Nearly everybody in the wrestling business has a story of seeing Benoit within the past couple of weeks and of how he seemed like the same man who crawled through the ropes and into fantasy more than two decades ago.
One close friend, who declined to be named, says he vacillates from wanting to block the whole thing out to gluing himself to the Internet in search of the latest developments. One morsel of information might crack this thing, and explain the invisible demons.
It's one thing to grieve the death of a good friend. But how do you mourn a monster?
"Do I still love this guy, or do I walk away hating this guy who's so out there that he could actually kill his wife and son," the friend says. "It's hard to distinguish, and you can't meet them both halfway."
When wrestling fans wanted to be marveled by gimmicks, they followed any number of spandex-wearing musclemen. When they wanted a good show, they watched Benoit. He was old-school, he was intense, and his gimmick was that he didn't really have one.
"People looked forward to his matches," says Mike Mooneyham, co-author of "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks," a book about the WWE. "He was believable, realistic and probably one of the greatest workers over the last 10 or 15 years. If it was a bad show, Chris could save it in his match."
Reality has never been a staple of professional wrestling. Its stars are cut from granite; its canned drama could cause the most gullible to roll their collective eyes. Then there's the schedule. In the old days, Russ Hart says, they'd bond on eight- or nine-hour bus trips together, riding from show to show, taking chairs to the head until the next stop.
The average professional wrestler today spends between 200 and 250 days of the year on the road. Some jokingly call "Marriott" their home address. Others become caught up in their make-believe lives in the ring. Flyin' Brian Pillman wrestled with a loose-cannon gimmick that eventually led to his being fired by the WCW. He crashed his Hummer into a tree, slipped into a coma and became addicted to painkillers. He died in a Minnesota hotel room, at the age of 35, of an undetected heart ailment.
Benoit's secrets -- and not-so-little-secrets -- have unraveled in the week since his death. The office of his friend, Dr. Phil Astin, was raided last week. Authorities want to know what might have been in Benoit's system at the time of the apparent murder-suicide. Friends of Benoit's say it was obvious long before last weekend that the wrestler was using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I don't think anybody had any illusions about whether he was on steroids," Hart says. " just by looking at his physique and the muscle mass he had."
Then there were the statements by a WWE attorney this week who said the Benoits had been arguing recently about the care of Daniel, who reportedly had fragile X syndrome. Many people close to Benoit, including his in-laws, said they were unaware of any mental ailment.
That was typical Chris -- keeping to himself, hiding.
"You've got to realize that athletes generally handle their problems physically, so we're probably not the best with relationships," says Bill Watts, a former wrestler and promoter. "But here's the problem with athletes: It's not the fear of hope or reward that guides you, it's the fear of loss. You're always trying to look for the edge, to do whatever you can to maintain it, so you push all the parameters.
"You can't live this persona and turn it off when you go home and read the newspaper or watch the news. It becomes you."
By all accounts, Chris Benoit was just being Chris Benoit on the afternoon of June 22. He visited Astin's office, took the hour-plus ride to Carrollton, Ga., through at least two construction zones and handfuls of stops, and smiled for a fan in a picture that has been plastered all over the national media. He made plans to fly to a WWE event over the weekend.
Then Benoit bound his wife's wrists and feet and strangled her.
Interviews have given Ballard a better idea of who the Benoits were. But they haven't answered most of the questions.
"A lot of people who knew him are very complimentary of him," Ballard says.
"I wonder how well they knew him."
Dinah Lawrence is a blond-haired mother from Social Circle, Ga., who carries a metal casket on her key chain and a love of wrestling in her heart. She's made the hour-long trip here, to the Benoit house, with her 20-year-old son, Chris.
They met Benoit more than a year ago, at the Mall of Georgia, when their hero was on a publicity stop. Most wrestlers shake a few hands and go on their way, Lawrence says. Benoit was different. He spent 30 minutes with her, talking about everything from her studies to become a funeral director to the fact that her son shared his name.
It was one of Benoit's first public appearances since the death of his good friend Eddie Guerrero, who died in another Minnesota hotel room, at 38, of heart failure. Benoit told the complete strangers about his friend, and he mugged for a picture. Lawrence brought a copy of the photo to the Benoit house Thursday, along with a handwritten note she placed near an action figure of Benoit.
"This is what I want to remember," Lawrence says as she stares at the picture. "The guy who was just the guy next door."
When police discovered the bodies Monday, it touched off tears, finger pointing and general confusion among wrestling fans. Monday night's WWE "Raw" broadcast was supposed to focus on the fictitious death of chairman Vince McMahon, whose limousine exploded in a television scene a few weeks ago. Could the grisly stories emanating from the Atlanta area be make-believe, too?
"I probably had 50 or 60 messages Monday," Mooneyham says, "and most of them weren't convinced.
"That line between fact and fiction is so blurred that fans don't even know."
The Benoit house is remote enough that cell phones spin from roaming to no service, but his fans keep coming. They leave potted plants, a smashed-up guitar, a baggie of uncooked macaroni. Near the gate is a note that says, "I love you."
Lawrence's note fills an entire page.
"I'm so sorry you felt this was [the] solution to your problems " it says.
Every couple of minutes, a man is seen through one of the first-floor windows. It's an investigator trying to piece together last weekend.
"He was like your best friend," Lawrence says. "It's hard to equate what happened in there with what we saw."
The first three nights after Nancy Benoit's body was found, Jim Daus couldn't sleep.
He's been remarried for nearly 20 years now and has a job in the real world marketing propane and natural-gas products. His work takes him on the road a lot. It almost seems strange -- years after Nancy was going places he couldn't, Jim's job takes him everywhere.
Nine years ago, scrambling to catch a flight in Chicago, he found a seat in the back of the plane, looked up and saw a familiar face. It was Nancy. They talked for three or four hours and reminisced. They had that kind of relationship, no bad blood, just laughs and memories and a little sadness. Jim has been to two wrestling matches since their divorce, and he took his son there once. His son hated it, and they've never gone back.
Now, wrestling is keeping him awake, bringing him more pain.
"For years, I told everybody [her discovery] was the right place at the right time," he says. "What happened to Nancy it kind of feels like the wrong place at the wrong time.
"That's why I feel bad. I pushed her into this whole thing."
He wonders why she stayed and what happened in that big house on Green Meadow Lane. Maybe, he says, Nancy tried too hard to make it work. She was stubborn like that.
He knew she was happy at some point. The last time they communicated was by e-mail seven years ago, when Daniel was born.
He congratulated her and remembered how they didn't want kids. But that was fantasy. This was reality.
"Congratulations on your son, too," she wrote back. "I guess some things change."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
What really caused wrestling superstar Chris Benoit to apparently murder his wife, strangle his son, then hang himself? ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill looks for answers inside wrestling's world of fact and fiction.