Order of deaths key to wrestler suit


ATLANTA -- The future of pro wrestler Chris Benoit's millions could come down to the timing of a horrible crime: Did Benoit -- having taken high doses of steroids -- strangle his wife and then their young son before killing himself, or did the boy die first?

Lawyers for Benoit's mother-in-law, Maureen Toffoloni, filed a petition last week asking a court to determine the order of the deaths, which could affect whether she gets any of the estate.

Neither Benoit nor his wife left a will, so the death order could mean the difference in whether Toffoloni or Benoit's children from a previous marriage inherit the two homes, several bank and investment accounts and other assets estimated to be worth millions. Lawyers in the case declined Wednesday to provide an exact value.

Investigators have repeatedly said that Benoit killed his wife, then their son and himself during the weekend of June 22.

District Attorney Scott Ballard has said the wrestler used a cord to strangle his wife, then killed his son with a choke hold, then placed Bibles next to the bodies and hanged himself on a piece of exercise equipment.

Under that scenario, the estate would pass to Benoit's surviving two children, who live in Canada with their mother, said Cary Ichter, an attorney for Benoit's father, Michael.

But if the boy was killed first and then the wife, under Georgia law at least some of the estate would pass to Toffoloni, lawyers in the case said.

That's because of a forfeiture statute that takes into account the fact that Benoit was the killer. As such, the law for purposes of estate distribution would consider Benoit to have died before his wife and son.

Ichter said that if the boy was killed first, the estate would pass to the wife and, since she was killed, it would then pass to her family. But he noted that police don't believe that is how it happened.

Richard Decker, an attorney for Toffoloni, of Daytona Beach, Fla., said he doesn't believe the order of deaths is clear. He said he is asking the Fayette County court to make a determination based on the law "and not what we hear on TV."

Investigators have not given a motive for the killings, but the question of whether steroids played a role has lingered. Anabolic steroids were found in Benoit's home, and tests showed Benoit had roughly 10 times the normal level of testosterone in his system when he died.

Besides the Fayetteville home, estimated to be worth $1.5 million to $3.5 million, the Benoits had a home in nearby Peachtree City, which was for sale for $400,000 at the time of the killings, according to Decker. The house was not sold and has since been taken off the market, he said.

A probate court hearing over the appointment of estate administrators is scheduled for Aug. 28, Ichter said.

Ballard did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. A spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation declined comment.