Murder, Intrigue, and a Case Involving Fregoli Syndrome?

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Fregoli Syndrome
Fregoli Syndrome

On January 26, 1996, the Newtown, PA police and 3 SWAT teams surrounded the du Pont mansion on the Foxcatcher estate, about 15 miles west of Philadelphia. Earlier that day, John du Pont, the chemical company heir, shot and killed his longtime friend, Dave Schultz, 36, an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling. Armed with several guns, du Pont refused to surrender to police and held up in his mansion. A standoff commenced. It was particularly cold, and after 2 days, the police shut off the power and heat. When Mr. du Pont went outside to investigate, they captured him.

The circumstances surrounding the shooting were strange and by most accounts uncharacteristic for the eccentric millionaire. However, as more details became known, an even more bizarre and troubling picture emerged. Around 1985, John du Pont became very enthusiastic about wrestling and bankrolled a varsity wrestling program for Villanova University. He spent millions financing the Villanova team until the school became concerned about potential NCAA violations. Around 1987, he began transforming part of his family's Foxcatcher Farm into a state-of-the-art training facility, complete with a 200-foot gymnasium, weight rooms, free athletic housing, and scholarships. Between 1987 and 1995, du Pont's private Foxcatcher Wrestling Club was home to as many as 20 athletes at any given time. He also provided a $1000 monthly stipend to every wrestler on Team Foxcatcher. Over that same period, he gave $3.3 million to USA Wrestling. When asked about his sudden philanthropic endeavor, du Pont said that wrestling captured his fancy because, "it was the sort of sport that his parents thought only fit for ruffians."

John du Pont's eccentric behavior was well known, as were his struggles with alcohol, but his mother always seemed to keep him in line. However, as he grew older, he became more paranoid. Sometime after the Patty Hearst kidnaping, he erected a 12-foot steel fence around his estate, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by a couple of German shepherds to protect him. Around 1983, he was briefly married to a young woman named Gale Wenk. She was the head of the occupational therapy department at Crozer-Chester Medical Center and someone that his mother disapproved of. Her dislike of Ms. Wenk wasn't based on any personal idiosyncrasies, but as a close family friend put it, "She was as blue collar as can be." After 6 months, they were separated and later divorced. Gale claimed John was frequently drunk and abusive. In one instance, she said, he was convinced that she was a Russian spy and he threatened to kill her.

Early on in the wrestling endeavor, du Pont approached Dave Shultz to be the coach of Team Foxcatcher. As such, Shultz was given a salary of $70,000 per year and a house to stay in rent free. However, as the years progressed, so did du Pont's strange behavior, especially after the death of his mother in 1988. Claims of sexual harassment began to surface from some of the members of Team Foxcatcher. Several athletes complained that on multiple occasions, not during a wrestling match, Mr. du Pont grabbed their privates. The athletes would call it the "Foxcatcher five," and a law suit based on similar allegations was eventually settled. His paranoia seemed to increase after he hired a security firm. He began driving an armored personnel carrier around his 800-acre estate and developed a phobia about the color black. When he saw team members driving a black van around the Foxcatcher estate, he forced them to get rid of it, and later he expelled 3 black members from the team. He complained of bugs under his skin and ghosts in the walls. He wanted to be addressed as the Dalai Lama and/or His Holiness. In the weeks leading up to the murder, there were reports that he called the police claiming that assassins were trying to kill him. Then on a cold Friday afternoon in January, John du Pont drove to Dave Schultz's home, pointed a gun from the window of his Lincoln Town Car, and fired 3 shots, killing his friend of 10 years.

Could John du Pont have been suffering from Fregoli syndrome (FS)? The consensus was that he was delusional and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, although his paranoia was not directed to strangers but close relations, like his friend Dave and his wife Gale.

Fregoli Syndrome

FS derives its name from the world-renowned protean actor Leopoldo Fregoli. In the early 1900s, many considered him to be the "man of a thousand faces." He had an uncanny ability to convincingly and quickly change his appearance and voice. He was primarily a stage actor/comedian and was perhaps the originator of the one-man show. During his shows, audience members would marvel as he, in a matter of seconds, effortlessly slipped from one character into another, complete with costume changes.

Along with Capgras, intermetamorphosis, and subjective doubles syndromes, FS makes up 4 of the basic delusional misidentification syndromes (MIS). FS was first discussed in 1927 by French psychiatrists Corbin and Fail in a paper titled, "Syndrome d'illusion de Frégoli et schizophrénie." In it, they detail the case of a delusional 27-year-old woman who believed Leopoldo Fregoli kept appearing to her as different people in her day-to-day life. In cases of FS, the afflicted misidentify family, friends, or strangers as some sort of persecutor in disguise. And they can't be convinced otherwise despite evidence to the contrary. They believe they can detect subtle cues and affects that their loved ones don't possess. FS is commonly linked to multiple organic illnesses, including dementia, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, partial epilepsy, and cerebral vascular episodes. Levodopa therapy has been linked to this condition, as has traumatic brain injury. However, the underlying pathogenesis of FS is undetermined. Several models have been proposed. Traditionally, psychological models attempted to explain FS as poor interpretations of prior experiences (endorsement model) or suggested that the manner in which the individual tries to form new beliefs is flawed (explanationist). These models were intrinsically flawed and unsuccessful. Today, neurological approaches attempt to find dysfunctional regions in the brain and focus on damaged neural pathways. Of particular interest are dysfunctions/lesions in the visual pathways that link sight to recognition and emotional cues. These include the fusiform face area (FFA), occipital face area (OFA), and superior temporal sulcus (fSTS), and the emotionally significant amygdala. It is noteworthy that in the MIS spectrum, FS is not commonly linked to episodes of violence, but it is not unprecedented.

During the trial, both sides agreed that du Pont was mentally ill. The defense claimed he was a paranoid schizophrenic and believed Dave Schultz was part of an international conspiracy to kill him. They performed numerous neurological tests, including a brain MRI, but the results were never entered into evidence. Ultimately, John du Pont was convicted of third-degree murder because he lacked criminal intent (mens rea) due to mental illness. His friend, Howard Butcher, who went to school with him and whose wedding du Pont was in, recalls an incident that happened about a year after John's mother died. Howard saw du Pont at the Villanova gymnasium and went over to say hello, but John didn't recognize him and replied, "Do I know you?" John du Pont died in prison on December 9, 2010. One of his last rebellious actions, much to the chagrin of the Newtown Square Historical Preservation Society, was the sale of his estate to developers. Prior to the sale, he instructed the maintenance crew to paint every building black. Some believe it his way of erasing the past, and then again, perhaps painting everything that he loved the color he hated was his own penance.

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