South Africa’s six-times Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius faced a sentencing hearing on June 13 for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
The 29-year-old sprinter, who competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games at London 2012, is far from being the first top sportsman to have faced murder charges – with several American Football players falling into this category.
Rae Carruth, a wide receiver and the first round draft pick of the NFL side Carolina Panthers in 1997, was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. On November 16, 1999, he stopped his car in front of his girlfriend Cherica Adams, who was eight months pregnant with twins. Another car pulled alongside Adams’ vehicle and the passenger shot her four times. Carruth and the assailants fled the scene.
Doctors were able to save one child, but Adams and the other twin both died in hospital. Carruth posted $3 million (£2.1 million/€2.6 million) bail and then fled the state, but was later discovered hiding in the boot of a car parked outside a motel in Tennessee. In the boot alongside him was $3,900 (£2,700/€3,400) in cash, bottles to hold his urine, extra clothes, chocolate bars and a cell phone.
Eric Naposki, the linebacker who played for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts in the late eighties and early nineties, was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison without the prospect of parole for a murder he had committed in 1994.
Following the introduction of new technological detection methods, the former footballer was charged with killing Bill McLaughlin – by shooting the 55-year-old six times from close range – so that McLaughlin’s girlfriend, Nanette Johnston, could collect her husband’s life insurance. At the time, Naposki was romantically linked to Johnston, who was also convicted for the murder.
Another American football player, Robert Rozier, was jailed after admitting to killing seven people as a member of “The Brotherhood”, a black supremacist cult founded by Yahweh ben Yahweh in the 1980s. Rozier later testified against Yahweh and earned his freedom through the witness protection scheme.
The highest profile murder case involving a leading sportsman, other than that of Pistorius, occurred in 1994-95, when the defendant was OJ Simpson, the feted American football player. In what was widely called “The Trial of the Century”, Simpson was controversially acquitted of the double-murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
At the time, Simpson was a celebrity. He was a Heisman Trophy winner, an NFL Hall of Famer and the only running back to run for 2,000 yards in a 14-game season. He was a Monday Night Football and NFL on NBC commentator and an actor whose work included roles in The Naked Gun series.
On February 5, 1997, in a civil action brought by Goldman’s father, a jury in Santa Monica, California, unanimously found Simpson liable for the wrongful death of and battery against Goldman, and battery against Brown. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million (£20.5 million/€30 million) in damages.
In September 2007, Simpson was charged with a number of felonies including armed robbery and kidnapping, and was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment with a minimum of nine years without parole.
In November 2005, top baseball pitcher Ugueth Urbina was arrested after he and a group of men attacked five farm workers on his family property in Venezuela. The victims were attacked with machetes and had petrol poured on them, with their assailants then attempting to set them alight.
Urbina was convicted of attempted murder, among other charges, and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
In a case relating to Japanese baseball, Hiroshi Ogawa, a retired pitcher for the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball, was convicted of murder in the first degree.
According to the prosecution, Ogawa, 43, was heavily in debt and demanded money from the housekeeper of the chairman of an industrial waste plant. When she refused, he burgled the house, stealing ¥1.75 million (£11,000/$16,000/€14,500), and drowned the housekeeper, 67-year-old Kazuko Nishiuchi, in a nearby lake. On September 29, 2005, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Boxing has also had numerous instances of serious violence outside the ring.
Clifford Etienne, a former high school football star in Louisiana, was paroled in 1998 after serving 10 years for attempted armed robbery.
He then became a professional boxer, nicknamed the “Black Rhino”. In 2001, Etienne signed a multi-fight deal with Showtime, but his career ended soon after a 49-second first-round loss to Mike Tyson in February 2003.
He was convicted again in March 2006 of attempted murder and several other charges. Etienne stole more than $1,900 (£1,300/€1,700) from a check-cashing business in August 2005, and then stole a car with two children inside before crashing it. When police responded to the scene, Etienne tried to shoot them but his gun jammed. On June 22, 2006, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
His sentence was later reduced – to 105 years.
Esteban de Jesús was a lightweight champion boxer who turned professional in 1969 and gained fame for being the first person to beat Roberto Durán as a professional. He was the World Boxing Council (WBC) lightweight champion from May 8, 1976 until January 21, 1978.
After ending his boxing career with 57 wins – 32 by knockout – and five losses, De Jesús was convicted of murdering a 17-year-old boy after a traffic dispute during Thanksgiving weekend in 1981.
Carlos Monzón became one of Argentina’s most popular sportsmen during a career in which he held the undisputed world middleweight title for seven years. He successfully defended his title 14 times and is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time.
But the boxer had a history of domestic violence, and of attacking paparazzi who attempted to follow him. In 1988 he was charged with killing his wife and the mother of his child, the Uruguayan model Alicia Muñiz, while on holiday in the Mar del Plata resort.
It was alleged that he beat Muñiz during an argument, followed her to the balcony of their second floor apartment and strangled her there before throwing her off it and then jumping himself, injuring his shoulder in the process.
He was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
In France, there was huge media coverage of the trial of the former captain of the national rugby union team, Marc Cécillon, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for the murder of his wife in 2004.
Cécillon admitted shooting his wife, Chantal, with a revolver at a party in 2004 but had denied murder. Cécillon, who won 46 caps for France between 1988 and 1995, said he was depressed and drunk at the time and did not intend to kill her.
In terms of its severity, Pistorius’ crime stands out in an Olympic context – although there is a fairly lengthy list of past Olympians who have fallen foul of the law for crimes of varying seriousness. Boxing again provides several cases.
Former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick, who was the last man to fight Muhammad Ali and also the man Mike Tyson beat to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion, received a five-year sentence for sexually assaulting his family’s babysitter in 1992.
At 21, Berbick represented his native Jamaica as a heavyweight at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, despite only having had 11 previous fights. He lost to eventual silver medallist Mircea Simon of Romania, but showed promise.
Berbick was killed at the age of 52 on October 28, 2006, in Norwich, Jamaica, after being beaten with a steel pipe. His nephew received a life sentence for the murder – believed to have been sparked by a land dispute – and his 18-year-old accomplice got 14 years for manslaughter.
Twelve years after Berbick’s Olympic competition, Riddick Bowe, representing the United States, won silver in the super-heavyweight category. Bowe, who went on to become undisputed world heavyweight champion after defeating Evander Holyfield in 1992, served 17 months in Federal prison after being convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife, Judy, and their five children.
Reportedly hoping to reconcile, Bowe went round to his wife’s house with a knife, handcuffs, duct tape and pepper spray, forcing her and their children into a vehicle and setting out for his own home in Maryland. During the kidnapping, he stabbed his wife in the chest.
On June 1, 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr reported to the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas to serve an 87-day jail term for domestic abuse. After serving two months, he was released from prison on August 3.
Before putting together an undefeated professional career that earned him world titles in five divisions, Mayweather Jr won a featherweight bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Strictly speaking Mike Tyson was never an Olympian, but he did win Junior Olympic titles in 1981 and 1982, winning every bout by knockout, before going on to become the youngest world heavyweight champion.
On March 26, 1992, Tyson was sentenced to six years in prison for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, Miss Black Rhode Island, in an Indianapolis hotel room, eventually serving less than three years before returning to the ring.
Bruce Kimball, who won silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic diving competition behind fellow American Greg Louganis, was sentenced to 17 years in jail in 1988 after crashing into a crowd of teenagers while driving under the influence of drink. Travelling at between 70 and 90mph, he killed two boys and injured four others, subsequently pleading guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter. He eventually served less than five years.
Tonya Harding’s performances at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics took place under an intense media spotlight given the case that was in process back in the United States regarding an attack on her domestic rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the Games.
Harding, who had finished fourth at the 1992 Winter Games, ended up in eighth place as Kerrigan took silver at the Hamar Arena – but shortly afterwards she was banned for life by the US Figure Skating Association, avoiding a jail sentence by pleading guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers – who were led by her then husband, Jeff Gillooly.
Maxim Staviski, the Russian-born naturalised Bulgarian who won world ice dance titles in 2006 and 2007 with partner Albena Denkova, was given a suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay compensation after crashing into another car at 100kph while drunk, killing 24-year-old Petar Petrov and leaving his 18-year-old fiancée, Manuela Gorsova, in a coma.
Staviski and his partner finished seventh at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and fifth in the 2006 Turin Winter Games.
In 2002, 34 years after winning gold in the men’s individual figure skating at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, Austria’s Wolfgang Schwarz was convicted on charges of trafficking human beings after bringing five women from Russia and Lithuania to Austria to work as prostitutes.
He received an 18-month sentence which was postponed because he had skin cancer. In December 2005 he was acquitted in a separate case of trafficking. And in August 2006 he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in jail for plotting the kidnapping of a Romanian teenager.
In November 2009, James Waithe – who competed in judo for Barbados at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and later represented England at the 2006 Commonwealth Judo Championships – was convicted of drugs offences in Bristol, having reportedly been an enforcer and debt collector for a local drug-trafficking gang.
In one incident Waithe and an associate were said to have tied a man to a chair, beaten him with nunchuks, stuck a cigarette in his ear and put his hands in a toaster.
In March 2009, Australian swimmer Nick D’Arcy received a suspended jail sentence of 14 months and 12 days for inflicting grievous bodily harm on fellow swimmer Simon Cowley, who later filed successfully for $180,000 (£126,000/€160,000) in damages.
The assault took place shortly after D’Arcy’s success at the national Olympic trials, but he was dropped from the Beijing Games team in 2008. Four years later he was almost dropped from the Olympic team again after posting Facebook pictures of himself and a fellow swimmer posing with guns at a US gunshop, but eventually competed, reaching the semi-finals.
In Pistorius’ own sport of track and field athletics, there have been relatively few instances of criminal behaviour.
The highest profile fall from grace concerned multiple world and Olympic sprinting champion Marion Jones of the United States. She won three gold medals and two bronze medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but was later stripped of the titles after admitting to steroid use.
On October 5, 2007, Jones admitted to lying to Federal agents under oath about her use of steroids prior to the Sydney Games, and pleaded guilty at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Jones also pleaded guilty to making false statements about her knowledge of a cheque-cashing scheme which led to the conviction of the father of her child, former world 100m record holder Tim Montgomery, who won sprint relay gold and silver respectively at the 2000 and 1996 Olympics.
On January 11, 2008, Jones was sentenced to six months in jail for these offences.
Montgomery pleaded guilty to the cheque-cashing charges on April 9, 2007, and was sentenced to 46 months in jail on May 16, 2008.
British 400m runner David Jenkins, the 1971 European champion who admitted using steroids later in his career, went on to be convicted for setting up a production plant for steroids in Mexico.
The Scotsman was sentenced in December 1987 to seven years in the Boron Federal Prison Camp in California’s Mojave Desert for his part in the trafficking of steroids worth around $100 million (£70 million/€88 million)
He was released early for good behaviour after serving 10 months and 15 days, and subsequently set up a legitimate business selling supplements.
By Mike Rowbottom
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz