Back in 2007, a terrible incident shook the world of wrestling. The tragedy was so sad and unsettling, in fact, that it’s still talked about today. Now, though, a new documentary – which features many of those touched by the crime – paints a clearer picture of exactly what happened more than a decade ago. And in the program, information that was previously unknown to the public has finally come to light.
In 2019 the Viceland channel – now Vice on TV – premiered the series Dark Side of the Ring, which explores some of professional wrestling’s most troubling and controversial moments to date. And in the first couple of episodes of its second season, the show tackled the infamous Chris Benoit murder-suicide case.
The two-parter, which aired in March 2020, featured many people close to the late wrestler, with Benoit’s friend Chris Jericho providing the narration. Family members of the deceased, such as Benoit’s sister-in-law Sandra Toffoloni and his surviving son David, were also interviewed.
The Dark Side of the Ring documentary even offered re-enactments of some events. An independent wrestler named Tyson Dux portrayed Benoit for some scenes, although many of the key players are filmed in shadow and with their faces obscured.
And the story itself starts in the 1990s. Back then, Benoit was married to his first wife, Martina, and had two children: David and Megan. But ultimately his head was turned by an attractive woman who was part of WCW booker Kevin Sullivan’s entourage. She was Nancy Toffoloni, and her ring name was “Fallen Angel.”
At this point, the line between fact and fiction begins to blur. You see, Sullivan was Benoit’s rival in the wrestling world, and part of their feud involved a fight over Toffoloni – Sullivan’s real-life spouse. So while at first Benoit and Toffoloni pretended for the cameras that they were having an affair, this would eventually become the case.
In the end, Toffoloni divorced Sullivan and became Benoit’s fiancée. The pair then had their first child together, Daniel Christopher Benoit, in February 2000 and finally tied the knot in November of that year. Toffoloni also became her new husband’s manager.
But things soon appeared to go very wrong in the marriage. In 2003 Toffoloni filed for divorce, claiming in legal papers that the relationship was “irrevocably broken” and that she was “intimidated by threats of violence.” And her allegations, which were made public by TMZ in 2007, paint a disturbing picture.
In the documents she filed, Toffolini alleged that her husband had “lost his temper and threatened to strike [her] and cause extensive damage to the home and personal belongings of the parties, including furniture.” And, of course, the couple’s young son was involved, leading Toffolini to claim that she also feared for Daniel’s safety.
In August 2003, however, Toffolini suddenly dropped both the suit and a restraining order against Benoit. Later, rumors emerged that neighbor and fellow wrestler Johnny Grunge had convinced the pair to get back together. And at WWE events, Benoit and his wife continued to present themselves as though everything was fine.
Then, though, a terrible event took place. On the morning of June 24, 2007, people within WWE began receiving strange messages from Benoit. Some of these concerned the dogs the wrestler and his family kept at their address – almost as if Benoit was suggesting that someone should come look after the pets.
The texts were so strange and erratic, in fact, that the individuals who received them decided to call the police. Then, on June 25, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office went to check on the wellbeing of the family – and they were horrified at what they found. Three bodies – those of Benoit, Toffolini and seven-year-old Daniel – lay lifeless in the house.
WWE was naturally informed of what the police had found, and the franchise quickly put out a statement in response. The message – which was released on the official WWE website – said, “World Wrestling Entertainment was informed today by authorities in Fayette County, Ga., that WWE Superstar Chris Benoit, his wife, Nancy, and his son were found dead in their home. Authorities are investigating, but no other details are available at this time.”
The organization went on to eulogize Benoit, saying, “Instead of its announced programming for tonight on USA Network, WWE will air a three-hour tribute to Chris Benoit. Chris was beloved among his fellow Superstars and was a favorite among WWE fans for his unbelievable athleticism and wrestling ability.”
The WWE statement concluded, “[Benoit] always took great pride in his performance and always showed respect for the business he loved, for his peers and towards his fans. This is a terrible tragedy and an unbearable loss. WWE extends its sincere condolences and prayers to the surviving members of the Benoit family and their loved ones in this time of tragedy.”
So, on the evening of June 25, WWE showed the three-hour tribute to the departed star. As the broadcast neared its end, however, the most horrifying aspect of the crimes slowly started making its way around the internet. Benoit had, reports said, killed both his wife and son via asphyxiation before taking his own life.
Then, as what had happened became clear, WWE released another statement. This one was read out by Vince McMahon, who began, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Last night on Monday Night Raw, WWE presented a special tribute show recognizing the career of Chris Benoit. However, now some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent.”
McMahon’s announcement continued, “There will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight. On the contrary, tonight’s show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process. Tonight, WWE performers will do what they do better than anyone else in the world: entertain you.”
Still, the healing process would be a long time coming. Everyone from wrestling fans to the mainstream media was deeply shocked by the news. And more about the incident kept on coming out, including one particularly bizarre and baffling detail. According to law enforcement, it appeared that Benoit had been with his family’s dead bodies in his house over the weekend before committing suicide.
Commentators also tried desperately to unpick the horrible tangle of the Benoit situation. Some people even speculated whether drugs had played a part in the crimes. An answer of sorts was reached on June 27, when The New York Times reported that although no toxicology tests had as yet been completed on the bodies, steroids had been found in the Benoit home.
Yet former wrestler Christopher Nowinski had another theory. He told The New York Times that constant untreated concussions sustained in the ring may have caused Benoit’s brain to break down. And Nowinski had considerable knowledge of the subject, having written a book about the condition – known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Nowinski had been well-acquainted with Benoit, too. He added to the newspaper, “[Benoit] was one of the only guys who would take a chair shot to the back of the head, which is stupid. Part of me hopes there was something wrong with his brain. The Chris Benoit I knew was always more concerned about everybody else’s well-being than his own.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is better known today than it was back then, and some sports organizations now team up with medical professionals in an attempt to safeguard athletes from the condition. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, the damage may have already been done in some cases. The medical center’s website says, “Some signs and symptoms of CTE are thought to include difficulties with thinking (cognition), physical problems, emotions and other behaviors. It’s thought that these develop years to decades after head trauma occurs.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Benoit tragedy, some people blamed WWE. Debra Williams, the ex-wife of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, certainly had strong words for the franchise when she told Denver-based Fox affiliate KDVR, “Domestic and drug abuse is out of hand in the WWE, and something needs to be done about it.” Williams also claimed that she had been placed under a gag order when it came to her ex-husband and the domestic abuse of other wrestlers.
Regardless of the potential trigger for the murders, though, it’s been confirmed that Benoit’s brain was in a terrible state at the time. The late wrestler’s grieving father arranged for tests to be done on the organ by West Virginia University’s Julian Bailes, with the neurosurgeon going on to discover that the 40-year-old’s brain more closely resembled that of an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s.
And with the release of the new documentary, old questions have resurfaced. Did Benoit know exactly what he was doing, or was his brain so damaged that he couldn’t be held accountable? And what role did WWE play in the whole horrible situation? Dark Side of the Ring tried at least to provide some answers.
One upsetting thread of the story involved a dear friend of Benoit’s, his fellow wrestler Eddie Guerrero. After Guerrero died in 2005, it appeared that Benoit was completely inconsolable. Chris Jericho explained in the documentary that Benoit had “come and [given him] a hug.” Heartbreakingly, though, Jericho added, “But it was like the most desperate, saddest, I’m-hanging-on-for-dear-life hug you could ever get.”
Other participants in the documentary remembered how people had rallied around Benoit in the wake of Guerrero’s death. Toffolini apparently also bought a journal for her husband and encouraged him to write in it to express his feelings or pen letters to his departed friend. Yet while this method seemed to help for a while, things would eventually get much worse.
In the documentary, it also emerged that Guerrero had gotten Benoit into religion – and unfortunately there was a religious element of sorts to the murders. After killing his wife and son, Benoit placed Bibles next to their bodies and a suicide note inside one of the books. Before taking his own life, he had additionally searched the internet for Bible passages.
However, when it came to what exactly had caused the tragedy, the interviewees had different opinions. Author Matthew Randazzo spoke about WWE and narcotics use, claiming that the organization had “large blind spots that allowed wrestlers to use drugs at a really large scale without tripping the test.” Nancy’s sister Sandra said, by contrast, “It’s not one thing. I think it’s a factor of alcohol and drugs and – yes – possibly CTE, [along with] stress and grief.”
In any case, many of the people involved in the documentary expressed anger against WWE. One text from Nancy herself was shown that read, “We both know [WWE’s] wellness program is a joke.” And Sandra recalled that WWE sent its representative Jim “JR” Ross to the deceased’s funerals. In response to that move, she claimed to have “lost [her] cool and told [Ross] to his face that he wasn’t welcome at the wake.”
Ross also reflected on that moment during the documentary, saying, “I felt like I was the most unwelcome person in the building because I was a WWE guy. And I probably knew [Benoit] the best of anybody there.” But there was yet more to come, as Benoit’s surviving son, David, was particularly furious with how WWE had dealt with the murders.
David’s perspective was painful to hear, too. When he was asked, “Did anyone from the WWE ever reach out to you or your family?” he answered, “Chris Jericho and Chavo Guerrero. That’s it. Nobody else. You know? Screw them. They weren’t there for me… They backed off, like I didn’t even exist.”
And Sandra, who had lost a sister and nephew in one go, had similar thoughts. When she was asked, “Who in the wrestling business provided care for you and your family?” she answered, “Is that a serious question? Not a single person. No-one.” It was clear that she was livid with the organization.
But David’s agony about the media attention was also made apparent. He sadly explained, “It was so hard after the funeral because the media was just non-stop, 24/7… I didn’t even watch the news anymore. I didn’t watch TV for months. I couldn’t even watch wrestling anymore… That really, really was the darkest time of my life.”
Sandra echoed this lament, saying, “[The media coverage] made everything extremely difficult. It made everything under a magnifying glass, ’cause CNN and Fox and all the news channels were at the gates. You know, a double murder-suicide with a seven-year-old kid is news. But I think there’s a point where you really just need to let the family grieve.”
Naturally, then, David and Sandra had been badly affected by the tragedy. Nevertheless, at the end of the documentary, a new detail about the pair was brought to light. And even despite the terrible events being talked about, something good had come out of the making of the program.
During filming, Sandra was asked what contact she had with her nephew. To this, she replied, “I was told – I won’t say by who – that the children didn’t want anything to do with us. And, apparently, the children were told we didn’t want anything to do with them because of what their dad did – which was absolutely not the truth.”
However, David and Sandra’s situation changed thanks to another person who had been affected by the losses. Sandra explained on camera, “Chris Jericho, wrestling angel come to life – he gave my number to my nephew and gave my nephew’s number to me. We hadn’t talked since before everything happened.”
David added that the two had finally reconnected. He said, “It’s been a very long time. [Sandra] finally called me, I answered, [and] we talked on the phone for probably a good two hours. And now we’re going to watch wrestling. And I still love it. It’s in my blood. It feels like we never were apart… like we just reconnected. Left off where we started.”
Sandra even believes that she may be able to forgive Benoit one day. Speaking on Dark Side of the Ring, she said, “Everyone deserves forgiveness. Everyone deserves mercy. I think within time there will be a day when I get on my knees, and I finally say it: that I forgive him. You never know, it might be tomorrow.” Even so, she added, “But I do know it’s not today.”
After Benoit and his family’s bodies were discovered, it didn’t take too much detective work to piece together the tragic events that had unfolded. Unfortunately, however, this isn’t always the case, and finding someone’s killer can take years. Take Karen Klaas’ brutal murder, for instance. Experts had to wait 40 years for the DNA testing technology to catch up with their evidence before they could determine who committed the horrendous crime.
Karen Klaas’ friends stand at the back door of her California home and shout out for her. In response, though, they only hear a muted cry – a shocking sound that sends them running in fear. Then, after racing around from the back of the house to the front, the group see a man exiting the door. Little do they know that he has just strangled Klaas – and it will take 40 years for investigators to figure out who he is.
But before we delve further into the tragic events of January 30, 1976, let’s discover a bit more about Klaas. While attending California’s Santa Ana High School, she counted Bill Medley as her best friend. And things took a romantic turn when she showed up at one of Medley’s gigs. You see, he just so happened to be a musician – both as a solo artist and as part of the duo The Righteous Brothers.
In 2017 Medley recalled to People that he had once peered out into the crowd and seen someone familiar. He added, “Of all the people that were standing in the audience, I just could see her smiling face, and I said, ‘Wow. That’s Karen.’ So I got her number and I asked her out, and there you go.”
Klaas and Medley ultimately got married in 1964, with their union producing one son named Darrin. Yet their partnership didn’t last long, as six years later the former high school buddies filed for divorce. The pair stayed on good terms, however, even as Klaas welcomed another son, Damien, and wed someone else – although that marriage would later end, too.
Plus, Medley had his music to focus on post-divorce, as his career as part of The Righteous Brothers had since taken off. In 1965 the duo had a chart-topping smash with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” Amazingly, the track now stands as the song most frequently broadcast on U.S. radio.
Famously, The Righteous Brothers also had a hit with the classic “Unchained Melody.” And after Medley chased a solo career, he similarly saw a few successes along the way. In 1969, for example, he sang The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at the Grammys, with this performance subsequently leading to a record deal. Then, three years later, a song called “Freedom and Fear” earned him a Grammy nomination of his own.
Medley didn’t know at the time, though, that he’d soon be putting his musical career on an indefinite hiatus. You see, life for him, his son, Darrin, and his ex-wife Klaas was about to be altered forever following the events of January 30, 1976. Yet according to Detective Tom Harris, who spoke to True Crime Daily in 2017, the morning of that day was meant to have been a pretty normal one for Klaas.
Harris told the website, “[Klaas] was supposed to go to coffee with her neighbors after she took her child to school.” When the 32-year-old mother of two never made it to the meeting, however, her friends became worried, and they decided to go to her Hermosa Beach home to make sure that everything was okay.
Then, when the group arrived at Klaas’ house, they could tell something was amiss before they went inside. Harris explained, “They get to the back sliding door, [and] it was open a little bit.” So, Klaas’ buddies called out for the former Mrs. Medley – and they heard a very faint response from inside the house.
With that, Klaas’ friends knew that something was seriously wrong. And upon hearing the muffled sound, they ran for help from the back of her house toward the front. As the group turned the corner, though, they found themselves in even more shock when they saw someone emerging from the front door of Klaas’ house.
Detective Larry Brandenburg recalled to True Crime Daily, “The front door opened, and a gentleman came out with bushy, kind of long hair and a beard. And he said, ‘Hi, ladies,’ and this really startled them.” So, Klaas’ friends quickly called the police, who arrived on the scene and discovered the mother of two naked and bound on the floor of her bedroom.
Someone – perhaps the man who had fled through the front door – had tied one leg of a pair of pantyhose around Klaas’ hands. Investigators later determined that the individual had then used the other leg and a bra to strangle the 32-year-old. But the assailant’s attempt to kill Klaas hadn’t succeeded; while she laid on the floor unconscious, she was still living. It seemed, in fact, that Klaas’ neighbors had managed to interrupt her attacker before he’d completed his crime.
As such, first responders rushed Klaas to the hospital in an effort to save her. Meanwhile, in Lake Arrowhead, California, ex-husband Medley received a phone call that would change his life. At that moment, he learned that his ex-wife was in the hospital in a coma – and her prognosis was grim.
Medley told People in 2017, “There was no coming back [for Karen], and everybody knew it.” But while Klaas remained in a coma for five days, he had hoped for a miracle. The star remembered, “I said to her, ‘Come on honey, the boys need you. We all need you.’ Real positive stuff.”
Tragically, though, Medley’s encouraging words did nothing to turn Klaas’ situation around, as she ultimately died five days after the attack. And of that dreadful period, her ex-husband would later recall, “I was a wreck. It was a big-time out-of-body experience. I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I am here looking at caskets for Karen.’ It just didn’t make sense. She was beautiful and alive and a wonderful lady.”
Losing Klaas meant that Medley’s life drastically changed in another way, too, as her death left their son, Darrin, with only his dad to look after him. Medley explained to People that, at the time, he had been “a single bachelor living on the beach in Newport Beach.” He went on, “[Then] all of a sudden I was a single parent… I took some time off to get Darrin’s life back together.”
While Medley and his son worked to rebuild their lives, though, police found themselves stumped by Klaas’ case. In 1976, you see, they didn’t have DNA testing and profiling as part of their investigative arsenal; such procedures only really came into their own in the 1980s. Still, law enforcement did gather up the pantyhose and bra used to strangle Klaas as well as a towel left in the vicinity of the crime scene.
Of course, there was one more potential lead, as Klaas’ friends had seen that possible suspect leaving her home on the morning of the attack. And although police found themselves unable to solve the case even with the physical evidence and a description of that man, they continued to work on Klaas’ case as DNA testing and profiling became more and more advanced.
For instance, in the 1990s detectives told the public what they knew about Klaas’ suspected killer. According to The Washington Post, he had been “a shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans.” In 1999 investigators also utilized DNA from the towel at the crime scene to rule out five men whom they had previously considered to be suspects.
This DNA testing also exonerated Medley and the other men in her life at the time. As Detective Tom Harris told True Crime Daily, “[Klaas] had remarried and then was divorced again. She had a boyfriend. We checked his DNA; we also checked her husband’s DNA [and] her ex-husband’s DNA. Everybody was cleared.”
In addition, detectives used a growing DNA database to see if Klaas’ killer had committed any other crimes and subsequently had his genetic information recorded. But after that test didn’t provide any matches, law enforcement went back to square one. In 2009 cold-case investigators thus began to get back in touch with sources from the original case files.
That year, Harris told the Ventura County Star that he hoped a second round of interviews might drum up an old forgotten memory that could crack the case. On top of that, he said, “We start all over… see if we can identify people that hadn’t been contacted before.”
Ultimately, though, even these further efforts left Harris, Brandenburg and the rest of the investigators without answers. But, as it happens, all was not lost, as a forensic biologist who had long worked on the Klaas case came up with an idea. According to Brandenburg, the scientist called him up and asked him, “Ever thought about doing familial?”
Specifically, the forensic biologist was referring to a more modern analytical technique known as familial DNA testing. This method allows investigators to compare a genetic sample to those from criminals in a DNA database. And in this way, they can sometimes find partial matches by identifying family members of a suspect, which in turn may eventually lead them to the person whose DNA resembles the sample perfectly.
Yet although this technique provides investigators with a great resource for finding criminals, it has come under scrutiny. In 2008 American Civil Liberties Union science adviser Tania Simoncelli told The Washington Post, “If [famililal DNA testing was] practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance.”
Nevertheless, those investigating Klaas’ murder decided to use familial testing. Indeed, as Brandenburg later told True Crime Daily, he felt as though it was “all [the team had] left” to try. So, the case’s forensic biologist submitted the suspect’s DNA and awaited word as to whether or not Klaas’ case was approved for such treatment.
After all, familial DNA testing can’t happen in every case; it’s only permitted in a handful of states in the U.S., for starters. Plus, as Brandenburg has since described, access is limited to both the technology and data needed. He added, “You have to go through with the state, [and] they’re very protective of it. It’s very stringent; [there are] restrictions on it.”
Apparently, the California panel took months to decide whether or not to accept the Klaas case. But they eventually did – although another waiting game then began. Would the killer’s DNA prove to be a familial match with anyone else in the system? Well, Brandenburg fielded the response. He reported to True Crime Daily, “They ran [the sample], called me and said, ‘Nothing.’”
It appeared, then, that the failed test was yet another dead end. Nevertheless, the Klaas case investigators didn’t give up on their quest to find her killer. And, fortunately, the team turned out to have someone – or, rather, something – in their corner. In 2016, you see, Brandenburg answered a phone call that would finally crack the case wide open – a whole 40 years after Klaas’ death.
According to Brandenburg, the familial DNA lab phoned him one last time. And of that moment, he later recalled to True Crime Daily, “[They] said, ‘You want us to rerun this? We don’t do that too often, but we’ll do it on this case.’” Brandenburg agreed, saying, “Sure. I got nothing.” Once again, then, the wait was on.
This time, though, the search would end in a strange phone call from the DNA lab. Workers there promised that they had some information to share, but it took them up to two months to do so. Before the results were finally revealed, however, a lab technician apparently told Brandenburg to sit down. Then, according to True Crime Daily, she informed the investigator, “They got a hit.”
It turned out that just after the familial DNA panel had run the first test on the Klaas sample, someone from the killer’s family had committed a crime. As a consequence, then, this individual’s genetic code had entered the system in time for the 2016 test. And after the experts had found the initial match, they performed further analysis in order to confirm that Kenneth Troyer had slain the mother of two in 1976.
Troyer had a lengthy criminal history, too, comprising mostly of sexual assaults that he had committed in California. But while he eventually landed in jail, he managed to flee in 1982. And while police finally found Troyer in March of that year, he would never return to being incarcerated, as those in pursuit of the criminal ultimately shot and killed him.
Furthermore, in spite of Troyer’s lengthy rap sheet, none of his DNA had ever been stored or recorded. You see, even up until the time of his death, no legislation existed that mandated this information be added to a database. When detectives had the technology to process Troyer’s DNA in the 1990s, then, they never found a match.
But even with Troyer’s identity finally confirmed, investigators couldn’t answer every question about Klaas’ murder; they couldn’t discern the killer’s motive, for instance. They did know, on the other hand, that Troyer had had one relative who had lived close to Klaas’ Hermosa Beach home – clarifying, perhaps, why he had been in the locale in the first place.
Nevertheless, Klaas’ family still found solace in finally knowing the identity of the person who was responsible for her death. According to a 2017 report by The Washington Post, her son Darrin said that he could finally “experience the joy of closure.” He also lauded the methods through which investigators had solved the case.
Darrin added, “I couldn’t be more blown away with the technology. I want to give hope to other families that this kind of technology can be utilized to identify criminals. It’s extremely important.” His father, Medley, shared a similar sentiment with People after learning the identity of Klaas’ killer.
Medley also tried to describe just how much Klaas’ unsolved murder had bothered him over the years. He said to People, “It is really resting on a different nerve that I never have felt before. I’ve been on stage in front of presidents, and that is just a different nerve. This is so ugly.”
“But it is also so wonderful that they put an end to all of this so we can close the book on this,” Medley continued. And the singer apparently felt a sense of relief that Klaas’ killer had died long ago. He admitted, “I thought I would want to look the guy in the eye and deal with him, but now I am just real grateful there won’t be any court.”
In fact, Medley had come up with his own way to deal with his grief and anger: music. In January 2017 he said that he planned to finish writing “Beautiful Lady” – a song that he had started to pen in honor of Klaas. He added during his interview with People, “That actually will be a good distraction. The stage has always been a lifesaver for me.”