Gagne case: Death ruled a homicide

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2009 - 11:06 PM

The family of a 97-year-old who died says charges against the ex-wrestler would be "inhumane."

Although the death of a 97-year-old man thrown to the floor last month by a Minnesota pro wrestling legend now is officially considered a homicide, it's by no means certain that criminal charges will follow, officials said Wednesday.

Helmut Gutmann died Feb. 14 of complications from a broken right hip suffered in a Jan. 26 clash with Verne Gagne in the memory-loss unit of Friendship Village in Bloomington, Gutmann's daughter, Ruth Hennig of Boston, said last week.

Both men suffered from Alzheimer's disease and did not remember what had happened after the fight, officials and family members have said -- factors likely to be weighed as authorities consider whether to charge Gagne. Gutmann's family believes that charges would be "inhumane," Hennig said Wednesday.

In ruling Gutmann's death a homicide, the Hennepin County medical examiner's office said he "died from complications from a right hip fracture due to a fall" after being "pushed by another." The report also said Gutmann suffered from dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The homicide label simply means Gutmann "died at the hands of another," said Roberta Geiselhart, supervisor of investigations for the Hennepin County medical examiner.

"Medical examiners will use 'homicide' in very pure terms," she said. "We do not enter at all into intent. That is more of a legal matter."

The scuffle between Gagne and Gutmann remains under investigation by the Bloomington Police Department. Deputy Chief Perry Heles said a full report will be forwarded to the Hennepin County attorney's office by next week for consideration of charges.

"State of mind and criminal intent are always factors in cases such as this," Heles said. "I suspect both of those factors will be looked at very closely in this case."

A representative of the attorney's office declined to comment Wednesday.

Gagne's family has not been available for comment.

Hennig said the medical examiner's ruling did not surprise her. "I know Verne Gagne was either indirectly or otherwise responsible for my father's death," she said. "My father would be alive today if Verne Gagne had not lifted him off the floor and thrown him down. It doesn't mean that I blame Verne Gagne. He had Alzheimer's, so I don't think you can actually hold him responsible for what he did."

Gutmann, a widely respected scientist and musician, fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1936. Hennig said her mother, Betty Gutmann, who also lives at Friendship Village, was told that after the fight, Gagne was moved to another facility better suited to Alzheimer's patients with aggressive tendencies.

A cruel disease

Gagne, who was born in Corcoran, wrestled for the former Robbinsdale High School and the University of Minnesota, where he was an NCAA champion. In 1949, he began wrestling professionally and established the Twin Cities as the nation's hub for the sport. He wrestled in and oversaw the American Wrestling Association.

Gagne played football for the Gophers in 1943, enlisted in the Marines and then returned to the U, where he was an All-America wrestler.

Sal DiLeo met Gagne in the 1980s, not long after he moved to the Twin Cities from Louisiana after a failed business venture. DiLeo, who had followed Gagne as a kid, was more than starstruck by his hero.

"He was one of the people who gave me hope," DiLeo said. "'You can get up, kid,' was Verne Gagne. ... He admired anyone that wanted to try, and he encouraged people to try."

DiLeo said he last saw Gagne last summer, and DiLeo estimated that Gagne's memory began to slip three to four years ago. DiLeo said that he detected a short-term memory lapse last summer, but that Gagne's memories of his wrestling days and before were strong. More important, DiLeo said, Gagne's big heart and good spirits remained intact. He saw no signs of aggression.

"He is such a great man, a man of honor and a gentleman," DiLeo said. "... there still is the good Verne inside who remembers everything from 1946, '47 and '48, but has difficulty remembering what you told him 20 minutes ago.

"As this unfolds, I'm hoping the good that will come out of it will be for people to be made aware of how difficult [Alzheimer's] is and how anyone can be susceptible to it," DiLeo said. "If you look at Verne, he is still ... in very good shape. It just broke my heart to think his mind wasn't as strong."

Hennig said she has not communicated with Gagne's family, and would not comment on whether a lawsuit may be pending from the incident.

However, "I really think that pressing criminal charges against Verne Gagne, because of his mental state, is not appropriate, and it's not humane, certainly to him or to the family," she said. "I know that's the way my mother feels, too."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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