Wednesday 7 December 2016

Paul Kimmage: Awful truth is hidden in plain sight

To end the George Gibney misery, good people in America must reach out to good people in Ireland

Published 06/09/2015 | 17:00

What kind of person devotes their life to this? And how does he make it pay? 'A crazy person,' laughs Irvin Muchnick
What kind of person devotes their life to this? And how does he make it pay? 'A crazy person,' laughs Irvin Muchnick
Irvin Muchnick

In May 1992, Irvin Muchnick travelled to Allentown, Pennsylvania and checked into a room at the George Washington Motor Lodge. The 37-year-old freelance reporter had been commissioned by The Village Voice to write a cover story about sex and drugs in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), but it was a death that had brought him to the motel.

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Nine years had passed since Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka, wrestling's second most popular star, had returned to Room 427 after finishing a show in Allentown and found his girlfriend of nearly a year, Nancy Argentino, gasping for air. Two hours later she was pronounced dead of "undetermined craniocerebral injuries."

A two-month investigation followed but no charges were brought and nine years later the case - officially at least - was still open, but Muchnick wasn't convinced. He spoke to the Argentino family, trawled the archives and interviewed police detectives but was denied access to the autopsy and the transcript of Snuka's interrogation.

The deputy coroner, Wayne Snyder, recalled that upon viewing the body he had "immediately suspected foul play" and the more questions he asked the more he was reminded of Ted Kennedy in 1969 and the young woman who had died in his car on Chappaquiddick Island. By the end, Muchnick was convinced: "Nancy Argentino was pro wrestling's Mary Jo Kopechne."

His editors at The Village Voice, the celebrated New York paper founded by Norman Mailer, didn't see it the same way. They edited the story and sat on it for months until a piece with a similar theme appeared in Penthouse magazine. Emboldened, they ordered Muchnick to write it again but he refused and took them to court for the fee, $4,000. He won.

Two years later, in 1994, he was hired as assistant director by the National Writers Union and spent the next six years dealing with copyright litigation and fighting for author's rights. It was rewarding but mostly frustrating - he most wanted to be a journalist but he couldn't make it pay.

"I've never quite fit in as a mainstream journalist," he says. "I'd make a deal with a publication, send them the 5,000 words that we agreed and they would edit and say they were going to run it next week. Then they say, 'Oops, we've got to lawyer it a bit more'. A week turns into a month, a month turns into two months and I say, 'Screw it! I've got a website, I'll publish it myself.' Whatever it takes to succeed in institutional journalism - patience, political skills, sharp elbows - I don't have. What I do have is a passion for truth telling."

He posted the Snuka story on a website in 1999 and started to find his stride. "There are good and bad things about the internet," he says, "but I was so liberated by the ability to report and write on things without the filter of a corporate publisher. I didn't have an editor, and had my ass handed to me plenty of times, but it was the right set of circumstances and the right time to do the kind of investigative journalism that excites me."

The professional wrestling industry had always excited him. His uncle, Sam Muchnick, had been a 'Don' in the days of the old National Wrestling Alliance and the sport was in Irv's blood. His first book, Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death and Scandal, was published in 2007, and was followed two years later by Chris and Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling's Cocktail of Death.

But Nancy had never left him.

On May 10, 2013 - the 30th anniversary or her death - he published an ebook, Justice Denied: The Untold Story of the death of Nancy Argentino in Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka's Motel Room and donated all of the royalties to a charity nominated by her family.

"In the end, not every crime has a clean solution," he writes in the introduction. "Speaking strictly for myself, I don't hold out for a miraculous thaw of the cold case and a turnaround by the public officials of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, who in 1983 conducted themselves so cravenly.

"My goal is more modest, and I hope more effective: shining daylight on what happened - and in the process subjecting the DA, WWE, and Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka to the full prosecutorial wrath of history and the court of public opinion."

A month later, in an extraordinary twist, two reporters from the Allentown Morning Call managed to obtain a copy of the autopsy. Nancy had died from traumatic brain injuries and had suffered 39 cuts and bruises to her body. Her injuries were consistent with being hit against a stationary object about 12 to 24 hours before she died.

The case was reopened by the Lehigh District Attorney and handed to a grand jury. Last Tuesday Snuka, now 72, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Muchkin was thrilled: "It was a good day for the good guys, to use a wrestling term," he smiled. "The fact that people are starting to get it, and that there's a modicum of justice in this horrible story for the Argentino family is just a great feeling. It's probably the biggest break of my professional career."

But now he has a new target.

* * * * *

Gibney showered the girl with attention. He promised her he would make her a star. He gave her gifts of swimming togs and tracksuits and hats and goggles. He hugged her every time she swam well. At the national championships, she streaked home first in four races. She was 16 years old and poised to be selected for the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.

Justine McCarthy

Deep Deception

Four years have passed now since the journalist Justine McCarthy took the call. The girl had escaped from Portrane hospital and travelled to Malahide. She had bought a bottle of vodka and was going to kill herself. Her mobile phone was running low, almost flat. Justine suggested she go into a shop and ask to have it charged. The girl said she would. The girl liked Justine.

Ten minutes later, as the phone was being charged, it was the shopkeeper who answered when Justine dialled the number. She explained that the girl wasn't well and to keep her in the shop until help arrived. Justine called Portrane and they said they would send someone over, but when they arrived she was gone.

The girl was on a bus heading for town. She called Justine again and was crying and really distraught. Justine asked her to give her phone to a nice looking person on the bus. The girl gave the phone to a woman. Justine asked the woman to have a quiet word with the bus driver to call the guards but the girl got off the bus.

The next Justine heard was that she was back in hospital. She had walked into a shopping centre and been found in a toilet cubicle with blood streaming from her wrists. "It's been constant suicide attempts, self-harming and hospitalisation," Justine says. "She has had no life whatsoever for the last 20 years."

Six years have passed since we first cried for the girl in Deep Deception - McCarthy's seminal account of Ireland's swimming scandal. The cruelty starts at age five, when the girl's mother is suddenly hospitalised with a life-threatening illness and she is sent three doors down to her best friend's house to be minded by her friend's live-in grandfather.

The man is a paedophile. He abuses her for six years until the other family, and the grandfather, move to a different neighbourhood and slowly the girl, who has been withdrawn and struggling at school, starts to improve. A new swimming pool has opened in the area and brought sunshine to her life.

"It felt like I was flying," she tells Justine. "Like I'd been freed. I put everything into it. I really focused. It happened so quickly. One year, I wasn't able to swim. Within a year, I was breaking Irish records. People were wondering who I was."

She is spotted by a top coach and invited to join Trojans, perhaps the best club in Ireland and the home of Ireland's best swimmer, Gary O'Toole. The Trojans' pool in Newpark is an 18-mile drive from her home. She sets the alarm for 4.0am and her father drives her to training and sleeps in the car - exhausting for him but exhilarating for her: "I was so driven," she says. "All I wanted to do was go to the Olympics at any cost. That was my dream."

George Gibney is the head coach at Trojans. In 1991, in the build-up to the National Championships and the trials for the 1992 Barcelona Games, he rapes her during a training camp. It destroys her. The joy of water suddenly evaporates. A few months later, she is rescued from the sea by a friend after her first suicide attempt.

She makes a statement to the guards about Gibney. He's being investigated and facing trial and the only spark in her life is the hope of seeing him jailed. Two detectives arrive at her home with bad news - the DPP has decided there will be no prosecution. She watches them leave and walks to a local field. She takes out her scarf and tries to hang herself from a tree.

A priest cuts her down and her parents are called from the Mater - the first of many visits they will make over the years. "The fact that he was never brought back from America has had a terrible effect", her mother tells Justine. "She did dreadful things to herself for months and months and months after. She has the life of a tortured person now. She can't live with the feelings she has."

* * * * *

In 2008, the only thing that bugged Irvin Muchnick about swimming was the early starts. His eldest daughter had joined a club near their Berkeley, California home and he'd spent the year climbing out of the sack at 5.0 to drive her to training. And then something unusual happened.

It started with an argument on the pool deck between the team's star swimmer and the coach, Jesse Stovall. The swimmer decided to quit, others followed, and within a couple of months, the club had fallen apart. A year later, Stovall was arrested on a fugitive warrant in Florida for raping a 16-year-old girl at a national meet. A local paper, the East Bay Express, ran the story. With little support from other parents, Muchnick was the main source and he thought that was the end of it until the spring of 2010, when ABC news ran an investigation on the national scandal of abusive coaches in swimming and a light went on in his head. "I realised that I had witnessed the local precinct of a national problem," he says.

Violence toward women had always stirred him up, so he phoned a colleague, Tim Joyce, and decided to investigate. "Swimming coaches and their athletes have a peculiar dynamic," he says. "It's not about willy-nilly paedophiles preying on our children, it's almost always about a 30-something coach with power and leverage, and a mid-teens girl who is driven to succeed and desperate for adult approval."

The sport was riddled with abusive coaches but as they trawled through the cesspit of cases, and thousands of pages of discovery in civil lawsuits, there was one story that did not make sense. Why was George Gibney living in Florida? And who had sponsored his green card?

"Gibney has been hiding in plain sight in my country for 20 years - the same as Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile - and it was something I decided to go deep with," he says. He made some calls to Justine McCarthy, secured a copy of Deep Deception and has pursued the story incessantly for eight months now.

Some headlines from his reports on Concussion Inc:

February 18: US Citizenship and Immigration Services Offers Confused Initial Response to FOIA (Freedom of Information) Request for Rapist Irish Coach George Gibney's Visa and Green Card Files.

February 23: Rapist Irish National Coach George Gibney in Colorado in 2000 - Coached for USA Swimming Club, Claimed To Be on Board of At-Risk Youth Center, Travelled to Peru With a Priest.

February 25: More Info on George Gibney at the USA Swimming Club in Denver, As Public Records Requests Escalate.

March 3: Member of Irish Parliament Calls on Government to Seek George Gibney's Extradition From the US.

March 4: Wheat Ridge (Colorado) Police: We Destroyed 1998 Report on George Gibney.

March 19: US Immigration Agency Official: 'Final Review' For Release of George Gibney Files is Under Way.

April 12: Rapist Irish National Swim Team Coach George Gibney's American Odyssey Begins - And May End - in Florida.

May 21: Muchnick Appeals Government's Rejection of George Gibney's Immigration Records FOIA.

June 12: Federal Court Appeal Next After Government Denies Internal Appeal for Release of Rapist Irish National; Swim Team Coach George Gibney's American Immigration Records.

July 21: Update on George Gibney's Criminal Investigation in Ireland.

July 30: IrishCentral: 'How did an indicted Irish paedophile manage to get a US green card?'

August 10: To End the George Gibney Misery, Good People in America Must Reach Across the Water to Good People in Ireland.

The truth is out there and Muchnick will find it but at what cost, I wonder? What kind of person devotes their life to this? And how does he make it pay? "A crazy person," he laughs. "I'm not well remunerated in my work - I do it because I love it."

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