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Former pro wrestler accused in nursing home death

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MINNEAPOLIS - During his glory days as a pro wrestler, Verne Gagne shared the spotlight with other burly men in trunks, guys with names like Killer Kowalski, Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher and Baron Von Raschke.

But all of that seemed well in the past until just weeks ago, when authorities say Gagne, 82 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, apparently body-slammed a 97-year-old fellow patient at the suburban nursing home where they both lived, causing the man's death.

Bloomington police are investigating, but not even the victim's widow wants to see the dementia-stricken Gagne prosecuted.

"It's been so hard on both families," said Greg Gagne, Gagne's son and a former wrestler himself.

Helmut Gutmann, a former cancer researcher who suffered from dementia himself, died Feb. 14, about three weeks after breaking his hip in the confrontation. Authorities ruled his death a homicide.

Police said there was no clear indication of what set Gagne off, and neither man could remember the incident afterward. Behaviour and personality changes are common as Alzheimer's progresses, and victims of the mind-robbing disease can become agitated.

Like others with the disease, Gagne had all but lost his short-term memory, while his recollections of long-ago events were vivid. But whether he was suffering a flashback to his days in the ring, as some have speculated, is anybody's guess.

Police said they plan to forward the case to prosecutors by the end of the week for possible charges. Gagne, who has since turned 83, has been moved to another institution.

Joseph Daly, a former prosecutor who is now a professor at Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, said he doubts Gagne will be charged. State law prohibits prosecuting anyone who is too mentally deficient to understand the proceedings or offer a defence. Daly said that would appear to apply to Gagne.

"It's a tragedy for the man who was killed, it's a tragedy for the man's family, but it's equally a tragedy for the family of Verne Gagne," said Daly, who has warm memories of Gagne from his youth.

In the ring, Gagne (pronounced GAHN-yuh) drew on his background as a college wrestling champion in the 1940s, and typically finished off opponents with his trademark "sleeper hold" - a headlock that appeared to make the beaten man pass out.

Gutmann's widow, Betty Gutmann, said she was told by residents and staff members at the nursing home that Gagne picked her husband up and threw him to the ground. She said that they had had one scuffle before, when her husband had been shouting at other residents and Gagne put a chokehold on him. Gutmann wasn't hurt in that incident.

But Betty Gutmann is not blaming Gagne, saying he didn't know what he was doing.

She said most Alzheimer's victims are old and frail, and when they lash out, they don't usually cause much harm. The difference with Gagne is that "he was a professional athlete and was trained to do certain moves. This is what makes him much more dangerous than the ordinary person" with dementia.

Helmut Gutmann fled Nazi Germany in 1936, became a U.S. citizen and joined the army, where he worked to try to develop an antidote for mustard gas, among other projects, according to his family. He spent 40 years as a cancer researcher at a veterans' hospital in Minneapolis.

The company that runs the nursing home refused to comment, citing federal privacy laws.

Gagne was the founder and owner of the American Wrestling Association and wore its championship belt. In the 1960s and '70s, his "All-Star Wrestling" was a TV sensation. The show was a modest affair, taped before small audiences at various Minneapolis TV stations. But it was syndicated on up to 120 channels across the Midwest and as far away as San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Winnipeg.

He mostly stopped wrestling in 1981 but remained active in the business. He trained more than 140 wrestlers from the late 1950s up until 1990, including Blackjack Lanza, Larry (The Axe) Hennig, The Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter and Jesse (The Body) Ventura, who later became governor of Minnesota.

Times turned tough for Gagne in the early 1980s with the rise of the glitzier World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), which went national on cable TV. Vince McMahon's WWF lured away the AWA's flashiest star at the time, Hulk Hogan, and other fan favourites, Greg Gagne recalled. The AWA, founded in 1960, folded in 1991.

In the 1990s, Hennepin County took Verne Gagne's 23 hectares and home on Lake Minnetonka for a park, paying him only a fraction of what the family thought it was worth, Greg Gagne said. By the time that fight was over and the bills were paid, he said, his parents had little money left.

Another blow came three years ago when Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the Mayo Clinic, his son said.

"His short-term memory is not there," Greg Gagne said. "But we were up there the other day, and if you talk about his first grade teacher he can discuss that." He said his father also reminisces about his days as a wrestler and football player at the University of Minnesota.

Daly, the law professor, counts himself among the many saddened by what happened at the nursing home. He fondly recalled a day when he was a teenager working at a local drug store and Gagne came in and struck up a conversation.

"Here he was, talking to a teenager about wrestling, about sports, about life," Daly said. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, what a nice person."'


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