There has been considerable buzz about the new movie “Foxcatcher”. It stars Steve Carell as John du Pont, one of many heirs to the du Pont chemical fortune, who gained infamy by murdering Dave Shultz, an all-time great amateur wrestler. A man whose personality was beyond “eccentric”, du Pont developed an extremely unhealthy interest in college wrestling, which grew into the establishment of Foxcatcher Farm, a training facility for top amateur wrestlers – including olympians – on his estate.
On January 26, 1996, du Pont, reportedly suffering from delusions and paranoia, shot and killed Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist who was training for the 1996 Atlanta games at Foxcatcher. He then became a barricaded subject for two days before he surrendered to police. He died in prison in 2010.
Two years after du Pont’s bizarre murder of Schultz, another even more complicated, grotesque, and sinister murder involving the Royal Family of Delaware was perpetrated.
Dean MacGuigan was the son of another du Pont heiress, Lisa Dean. Lisa had been quite the number among the society set back in her prime, in the 1950’s. After several failed marriages to fellow plutocrats, including the union which produced Dean and his brother, she decided to step down significantly, and married the gardener for her Delaware estate, Christopher Moseley.
Moseley was the dark sheep of his socially registered family. His father was a prominent Executive Vice President at J.P. Morgan, and former captain of both the football and hockey teams at Harvard.
Christopher Moseley attended an exclusive prep school, but dropped out two weeks after his 18th birthday and joined the Army, serving 25 years as a Communications Expert with an Honorable Discharge.
Moseley’s new stepson, Dean, was a similar disappointment. A graduate of the University of Virginia and stock broker for a time, he was also as addicted to narcotics as one can be. His drug of choice was heroin, and he preferred the company of a fellow addict – the love of his life, Patty Margello – to high society, which Patty was anything but. She was a drug addled part-time hooker missing most of her teeth (reportedly at the hands of one of her dealers) and part of a finger. She lived in squalor in a South Philly neighborhood which might generously be called “working class”, and Dean preferred being there with Patty, wasted, rather than with his estranged wife or on the family estate.
Moseley, whose alcohol consumption (about a half gallon of vodka daily) rivaled Dean’s heroin habit, was just as bizarre as “Foxcatcher’s” John du Pont. He told fabulous stories of intrigue from his military career, suggesting that he had been a secret operative; a James Bond-esque character, who was not to be trifled with. Whether this was the consequence of his virtually uncontrolled drinking, we’ll never know. But he was one strange agent; and though not related by blood, disturbingly reminiscent of John du Pont.
In an apparent attempt to impress his high society bride, the international man of mystery devised a 4-step plan to extricate Dean from his relationship with Patty: “Operation Dean”. In essence, he would escort Dean to Las Vegas, establish residency, secure a divorce from his current wife and try to clean him up. In the event these efforts were unsuccessful, however, “Operation Dean” had a Step 5: kill Patty Margello.
The details of the trial, which took two weeks to try, with about 300 exhibits introduced by the Government and 3 days of jury deliberations, are far too detailed for the purposes of any blog. Suffice to say, it was one of the most sensational and widely covered federal trials in Las Vegas history. It became known as “The du Pont Murder”. (Funny how some crimes are named for their victims, like “The Wynn Kidnapping”, and others for the perpetrators.)
True Crime author Dominick Dunne was in court every day, and wrote about it in his book Justice, and an exposè in Vanity Fair magazine. He also featured it on his show “Power, Privilege, and Justice”. We turned down interview requests with reporters from “People” magazine who were there, and articles about the sordid, appalling episode appeared in several of the rags sold at supermarket checkout counters.
On TV, “Law and Order” milked the case for not one, but two episodes, merely tweaking the facts a bit. An Australian true crime show, “Beyond Mansion Walls” did a one-hour double episode which covered both the Shultz murder and the Vegas Conspiracy to kill Patty Margello. Thankfully – at least as far as my wife was concerned – it was shown on relatively few cable channels in the U.S. She observed that the camera, with some help from my eating habits, added not 10, but more like 50 pounds to my image (or at least her image of me), and that I resembled Jabba the Hutt in a suit.
The federal crime, Murder for Hire, was both sick in concept and sickening in its execution.
Steps 1 through 4 of “Operation Dean” having failed, on August 1, 1998, a “wretched group of dysfunctional people…who probably surprised even themselves by carrying out this horrific act”, as I described them in my closing statement, carried out Step 5.
A hooker recruited in a Vegas casino by Moseley, Diana Hironaga (“Kiane Lee” in her porn star days) befriended Patty and ultimately lured her to a (now razed) rent by-the-hour motel in a seedy area of the Las Vegas Strip. Patty was under the impression that she and her new friend were about to hook up with some high rollers for a handsome fee. The customers were, in fact, Hironaga’s former boyfriend, Ricardo Murillo, who was as cold as they come, and his friend, Joseph Ballignasa.
Around 2:30 a.m., Hironaga booked room 6 at the Del Mar Motel for three hours. Once the group arrived, it took only a few minutes for Patty’s street sense to give her a bad feeling about these guys, and she called Dean and his buddy Jimmy Facenda – another South Philly loser – to tell them so. Dean was flat broke, as usual, and of little help. He told her to call a cab and get the hell out of there. She said she would, and excused herself to the bathroom to try to compose herself for an escape.
Patty returned from the bathroom and sat on the bed. Murillo grabbed her neck and forcefully wrenched it to the side, apparently an unsuccessful attempt to break her neck. Murillo then shoved Patty to the bed and climbed on top of her. A struggle lasting several minutes ensued. At various points, Murillo choked her throat with his hands, placed her in a headlock, and smothered her with a pillow. Finally, Balignasa tossed Murillo his belt. As Balignasa held Patty’s feet and Hironaga pinned her arms, Murillo wrapped the belt around her head twice, once through her mouth and once around her throat. Murillo finally yanked the belt through the buckle and strangled Patricia Margello to death.
Murillo and Balignasa then left to go to the store while Hironaga stayed with Patty’s body. Around 3:30 am, at a Walgreens just up the road, they bought refreshments: two sodas and a bottled water. They also purchased a box of 15 green trash bags, a roll of clear mailing tape, and a roll of brown mailing tape. After returning to the Del Mar, Murillo, Balignasa, and Hironaga wrapped Patty’s dead body in the trash bags and a sheet from the bed. They taped the bags together, tied her ankles with a coaxial cable from the television set, and tied jumper cables from Murillo’s car around the outside of her wrapped body. Murillo, Hironaga, and Balignasa then forced her body into an air conditioning duct through a one-foot by two-foot opening. In order to fit her in the vent, the killers effectively broke Patty in half, snapping 10 of her ribs. They had originally planned to saw her into pieces, and remove her in plastic bags, but changed their minds at the last minute, viewing this as imprudent inasmuch as they believed Patty to have AIDS.
The preparation and trial of this case were remarkable. It would take a long and detailed book to recount it all.
Some VERY high paid legal talent represented Moseley, who pled guilty pursuant to a cooperation agreement. An affable Las Vegas criminal attorney, Mace Yampolsky, was assigned to represent Hironaga, who did the same. The Federal Public Defender chose to represent Murillo, and elected to go to trial. They thought they had a good chance of a high profile acquittal, and were loaded for bear. Two accomplished trial lawyers, two investigators, a paralegal, and a private jury selection consultant, hired at the taxpayers’ expense.
I selected Peter Ko, a brilliant young prosecutor I (in theory) supervised as Chief of Narcotics and Violent Crime, as my co-counsel. Pete’s IQ is probably double mine. He can also type better. Like a machine, this “kid” expertly cranked out the voluminous documents required for submission to DOJ and/or filed with the court. When Pete started pounding on his laptop, it seemed as if he was the one speeding on crank.
At the 11th Hour, the case was transferred to a visiting senior judge from Spokane, Washington. He decided that the trial date was inconvenient to him, so he advanced it to monday morning, November 8, 1999. It was irrelevant to him that the brother of the Government’s lead counsel – me – was to be married in New York, on the other side of the continent, the night before.
So I came up with the perfect solution: we would draft my friend Matt Parrella, whom I had recruited to Vegas from our old DA’s office in New York, to start the case with Pete in my absence. In fact, we would totally change the order of the evidence presentation. After picking a jury with Pete, Matt would go through the processing of the crime scene, something he, as a former state homicide prosecutor, could do in his sleep – and far better than either Pete or I.
The judge would also hit us with inscrutable faxes addressing various musings, including his preferences regarding weather and his golf game. They would come from his chambers – not in Spokane, but in Palm Desert, California. After a full day of trial, just as we were packing up our files and ready to step out of the courtroom, we would cringe in anticipation of his research assignments for us, which would have to be completed that night, along with the prep of all the witnesses, who were waiting for us at our office, for the following day. It was grueling. Senior Federal Judges, you see, are much like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, only not mere proverbs, and a sometimes harsh reality which lawyers must live with.
As disturbing and revolting as the crime was, there were times that it seemed the Keystone Kops were investigating it: a completely unanticipated confession from Moseley which forced us to charge the case before we were anywhere close to ready; a magistrate in “du Pont Country” – aka Delaware – who cranked up the pressure on us with ridiculously expeditious scheduling of his court proceedings; critical searches left unperformed; an agent whose sole assignment was to escort Dean to Las Vegas “lost” him at the Denver airport, and showed up at our office alone; witnesses, including some from law enforcement, chatted up the press like school girls and hammed it up on TV, while case related matters (some of which they were not aware) were pending – without even telling us, the prosecutors. The SNAFUs went on and on.
Then there was a substantial dispute between us, the Vegas prosecutors, and our “superiors” who comprise the Death Penalty Committee at DOJ in Washington. These are the folks who make the final recommendation to the Attorney General whether to seek the death penalty. I won’t reveal the details, I will say that it came down to a rare, 45 minute conference call with Attorney General Janet Reno. FYI, this determination comes down to – or is supposed to – a dispassionate application of the statutory criteria enumerated in the statute. Our personal opinions are irrelevant. I did not think those criteria were present in this complex case – at least, not for all three defendants. In the end, the death penalty was not authorized.
And as is typical in Vegas cases, there is now a new and unexpected, if attenuated, twist, in light of “Foxcatcher”.
As it turns out, the mutli-talented Peter Ko, then a student, contributed his considerable wit and writing skills to a blog called “teepee,” where he critiqued movies and television shows.
In 1997 Pete had tuned in to a new ABC comedy, “Over The Top”. He was impressed. Very impressed. He wrote:
“Horace Walpole once wrote, ‘The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel’ ”, wrote Pete. He continued, “No offense to the Hormeister, who after all was one of the great gadflies of 18th century English literary and artistic society, but in this case I think he was wrong. Dead wrong. Because I’m thinking like a sonuvabitch, and I still can’t see anything funny about Over the Top.”
After panning star Tim Curry, Pete set his sights on Steve Carell, Curry’s second banana, and current star of “Foxcatcher”:
“Of course, not even Hitler managed to cheese off several races and the Allied powers all by himself. Much in the way that young Adolf had his Heinrich Himmler, Tim Curry has his Steve Carell… [whose] performance as what appeared to be a deaf-mute European chef caused anyone watching the show with a modicum of taste to start tearing at their hair while screeching, ‘Get it off my TV! Get it off my TV! Take it away! Oh god, what have we done to the kids….’ ”
Pete ended with a brilliant flourish:
“I wish I could say that Carell is bad—but that would imply that I have some frame of reference to judge him against. The truth is I have never seen anything like what I saw last Tuesday night. I have stood in a freezer full of dead people at the morgue. I have seen a man’s scalp pulled back over his nose. I’ve even seen 35 minutes of Ellen DeGeneres’s “Mr. Wrong.” But I can now honestly say that until Steve Carell’s turn in the premiere of Over the Top, I have never known true horror.”
As if the bitingly hilarious review is not enough, there is even more to this story.
In 2006, at the 22nd annual Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Awards, Steve Carell was the winner for Individual Achievement in Comedy award for “The Office.” His acceptance speech included reading Pete’s review! E tu, Ko.
Still not done.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, as recently as November 23, 2014, in a chat with Carell, his pal Stephen Colbert “…revealed he was so impressed by the reviewer’s writing, he asked the reviewer, Peter Ko, to be a writer for The Colbert Report, but Ko wasn’t remotely interested.” According to Pete, he got an e-mail from Colbert saying “nice writing”, but no job offer.
Back to the case. As planned, Moseley and Hironaga pled and testified against Murillo, who was convicted on all counts.
Moseley, not surprisingly, died in prison in 2004. Hironaga was released in 2012. Murillo is doing life. And poor Dean, perhaps surprisingly, died in 2013. Actually, I didn’t think he’d live that long. Reported cause of death: a contaminated raw oyster.
I haven’t seen “Foxcatcher” yet. But I plan to. Who knows, maybe there will be a sequel.