‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka murder case dismissed
The 34-year-old mystery behind the death of a 23-year-old woman may remain forever unsolved after homicide charges were dropped last week against WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
Snuka, 73, was accused of murdering his then-girlfriend Nancy Argentino in 1983 at a motel in Whitehall Township, Penn., but wasn’t arrested or charged until 30 years later.
An autopsy had determined that the Brooklyn woman died of traumatic brain injuries and had suffered more than two dozen cuts and bruises on her body that were potentially signs of “mate abuse.”
Snuka, 40 years old and married with a wife and four children in North Carolina at the time, initially claimed that upon returning from a WWF event in nearby Allentown, he returned to his motel room to find Argentino unresponsive, struggling to breathe and with mucus flowing from her mouth and nose. Telling authorities that she fell and hit her head in the hotel room, he later changed his account and suggested that the victim had slipped and fallen during a roadside bathroom break.
Although a pathologist recommended investigating Argentino’s death as a homicide, no one initially was charged. An audiotape that authorities said implicated Snuka reportedly was lost, and the wrestler’s explanation was enough to keep investigators off his trail until three decades later when new evidence was brought to light.
But a Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday determined that Snuka, who allegedly is suffering from a terminal illness, was not mentally fit to stand trial. “It would be unjust to resume the prosecution,” said Lehigh County Judge Kelly Banach.
The ruling ended a legal battle that began in September 2015 when Snuka, the only suspect in the case, was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. A county grand jury determined Snuka repeatedly assaulted Argentino at the motel and then left her in bed to die on May 10, 1983.
Snuka pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyers urged the judge to drop the case last June because the wrestler was suffering from dementia due to the head trauma he sustained throughout his career. Prosecutors argued his brain showed normal signs of aging and suggested he might be feigning symptoms for the cameras, asking the judge in August to either send him to outpatient treatment or dismiss the case entirely.
Snuka, who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer, was scheduled to return to court last month for a hearing to re-evaluate his mental fitness, but was too sick to travel from Florida. His wife told the judge that the family struggles to keep him from leaving home during bouts of psychosis in which he thinks he’s late for a wrestling match. Snuka and his wife testified via FaceTime.
Once Banach saw his condition had worsened, she made the decision to end the case in a closed-door hearing.
If convicted, Snuka could have faced 20 to 40 years behind bars.
“The court is satisfied that the defendant remains incompetent and the court is satisfied that the defendant will not regain competency and that it would be unjust to resume the prosecution,” Banach said in her order.
Defense attorney Robert Kirwan said he doubted prosecutors will appeal. “They were losing the case, badly,” he said.
“It was time for there to be closure,” Kirwan added. “The medical evidence showed that he was not getting better, and in fact he’s getting worse.”
Snuka had intensive surgery in which three-quarters of his stomach, some lymph nodes and part of his large intestine were removed, according to Kirwan. He also has shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
In the past two months, Snuka reportedly has been hospitalized twice for recurring infections.
Argentino’s family won a $500,000 settlement in 1985 after suing Snuka for wrongful death.
“The evidence was there,” Louise Argentino, Nancy’s younger sister, told CNN. She believes detectives didn’t investigate further because Snuka “was a big star at the time.”
Snuka denied allegations that he was involved in Argentino’s death in his 2012 autobiography.
“Many terrible things have been written about me hurting Nancy and being responsible for her death, but they are not true,” he wrote.
“This has been very hard on me and very hard on my family ... I never hit Nancy or threatened her. I never wanted to harm her.”
The incident, nonetheless, had a profound effect on Snuka.
“That night ruined my life. If I was guilty of anything, it was cheating on my wife, and that was it ... Nancy was a good girl. I will never forget what happened to her.”
The Fiji native, who grew up in Hawaii and changed his name from James Reiher, was known as one of the high-flyers during the ’70s and ’80s. Added to the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996, his section on the website was taken down after he was charged in 2015.
Many friends agree that Snuka’s potential could have been unlimited. But, they add, WWE owner Vince McMahon simply couldn’t trust Snuka at that point in the wrestler’s career.
The Fiji native was a hardcore partier prone to not showing up at events.
“When he was main-eventing everywhere and he just wouldn’t show up, it was hard for Vince to keep putting money into him,” wrote WWE Hall of Famer Tito Santana. “I believe Vince had tried and tried and got tired with him. He was unreliable. Knowing Jimmy now, I think he realizes what drugs did to him.”
Most of it was his doing, admitted Snuka.
“They promised I would be the main guy in the company, and then Hulk Hogan got all the attention. On the other hand, I had plenty of baggage of my own.”
Former WWF champion Bob Backlund, one of Snuka’s greatest opponents, even refused to let Snuka get in his car because of Snuka’s involvement with drugs.
“I was so very scared he had something in his bag, and if we were pulled over ... mentally I couldn’t take that,” said Backlund. “I had made a lot of promises. Young people have always been very important to me, and I was very protective of my active life, and living up to what I said I was.”
On an overseas tour of the Middle East, Snuka was caught with cocaine and jailed. His traveling partner, Rocky Johnson, eventually bailed him out. On another occasion, Snuka was caught with cocaine and sent to jail again. This time Johnson had to use his influence with a Saudi Arabian king to pull strings and free Snuka.
“Everything just started to go down for me,” said Snuka.
Snuka eventually left WWE, returned home to Hawaii, and quit the steroids and cocaine.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.