ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Professional wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka suffered so many blows to the head during his long career — even getting a coconut smashed on his skull — that he now suffers from dementia and is mentally incompetent to stand trial in the death of his girlfriend more than three decades ago, a psychologist testified Friday.
Snuka’s severe mental impairment also stems from a history of abusing alcohol and cocaine, Dr. Frank Dattilio testified at the wrestling star’s competency hearing.
Snuka was charged with murder and involuntary manslaughter last year in the 1983 death of 23-year-old Nancy Argentino, who was from New York. Snuka’s lawyer asserts he doesn’t understand the charges or even know he was arrested.
Dattilio, testifying for the defense, said he had a “hell of a time” trying to get even basic background information from Snuka. The psychologist said Snuka can’t assist in his own defense and quoted one of Snuka’s doctors as saying he’s a “shell of a man.”
“This is permanent damage, and he’s not likely to be restored to competence,” Dattilio said.
He recounted an infamous televised scene from 1984 in which another wrestler, Roddy Piper, broke a coconut over Snuka’s head. He said one side of the coconut had been shaved down so that it would easily break, but Piper inadvertently used the hard side of the fruit on Snuka’s skull.
Prosecutors assert Snuka is well enough to stand trial. During cross-examination, they played a video that showed him in the ring as recently as last year — even doing his trademark move, the Superfly Splash, albeit from the second turnbuckle instead of the top.
Another video showed him giving an interview recently in which he appeared lucid and in character.
Snuka is trying to avoid trial in a case that was long dormant.
The wrestler had been at a World Wrestling Federation taping at the Allentown Fairgrounds, and he told police shortly after Argenito’s death that he had returned to their Whitehall Township hotel room to find her unresponsive in bed. She was pronounced dead at a hospital several hours later.
An autopsy determined she died of traumatic brain injuries and had more than three dozen cuts and bruises, and it concluded her injuries were consistent with being hit with a stationary object. But the probe went cold, and Snuka continued his high-profile pro wrestling career.
After a 2013 story by The Morning Call newspaper raised questions about the case, Argentino’s sisters approached Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, who reopened the investigation.
A grand jury report said Snuka, a Fiji native who lives in Waterford Township, New Jersey, had provided more than a half-dozen shifting accounts of Argentino’s injuries, at first telling paramedics he hit her during an argument outside their hotel room and she struck her head on concrete, then saying to police she slipped and fell during a bathroom break on their way to the hotel.
The grand jury also said it heard evidence that Snuka beat Argentino four months before her death and repeatedly assaulted his wife, Sharon Snuka, in the fall of 1993. Snuka has long maintained his innocence.
Snuka was known for diving from the ropes in a career that spanned four decades. He was admitted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1996, according to the organization’s website.