Fallen Warrior

The Dallas Morning News covers Kerry Von Erich's tragic death in these three stories from its February 19, 1993 issue.

by Jennifer Nagorka and Dan R. Barber

Professional wrestler Kerry Von Erich ended his troubled life Thursday with a single bullet in his chest, becoming the fifth of six brothers to die young.

Tragedy has been as much of a Von Erich family hallmark as athleticism, fame, and the "iron claw" pressure-point grip. In the end, friends and officials said, Kerry struggled as much with the demons of drug addiction and his brothers' deaths as opponents in the colorful world of professional wrestling.

"He said he felt that he'd never worked his way through the grief of the loss of his brothers," said wrestling promoter Grey Pierson, who spoke to Kerry twice Thursday about his planned Friday night match in Dallas against a wrestler known - ironically - as the "Angel of Death".

Mr. Von Erich, whose real name was Kerry Gene Adkisson, was on probation for a drug conviction and had been indicted Wednesday on a cocaine possession charge. A warrant had been issued for his arrest.

But Mr. Pierson, president of North Star Promotions, said that the 33-year-old wrestler did not seem despondent and had promised to appear as scheduled despite his legal problems. Instead, a memorial service will be held at 8 p.m. at the Sportatorium, followed by the rest of the planned matches.

"Although it was not spoken, I think he felt he was left to bear the mantle of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty. It fell on his shoulders. I think that mantle must have been a terribly heavy burden," Mr. Pierson said.

Mr. Adkisson arrived at his father's Denton County home about 1:30 p.m. Thursday and said he wanted to drive around the property, said Denton County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sue Morrison.

"His father got worried about him, went to look for him, and found his body" about a quarter-mile north of the house, Ms. Morrison said. "This is being investigated as a possible suicide. There is no indication of foul play."

Series of Deaths

The family wrestling dynasty has been eroded by one death after another.

The patriarch, Jack Adkisson, gained fame as wrestling villain Fritz Von Erich after a football career at Southern Methodist University and with the professional Dallas Texans.

As his sons grew, five trained as wrestlers, and he built an international TV wrestling empire around their prowess.

And, one by one, they died. Of an intestinal inflammation. Of a drug overdose. Of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

"It's a tragic story," said Steve Planamenta, a spokesman for the World Wrestling Federation, for whom Kerry Adkisson had wrestled as the "Texas Tornado".

More recently, he had been a headliner for the Global Wrestling Federation as "The Modern Day Warrior".

Jack Adkisson tried to absorb the latest tragedy while surrounded by friends in the kitchen of his renovated farmhouse. He moved back to the Sandy Shores area last summer as he and his wife were getting a divorce.

Doris Adkisson and their son Kevin, who has been wrestling in the Virgin Islands, were on their way back to Denton County on Thursday afternoon.

Looking shaken and drawn, Mr. Adkisson declined to comment about his son's death. "I just can't say anything right now," he said. "I don't know what I would say."

Fans Offer Sympathy

Fans mourned the loss and offered sympathy to the family.

"I can only imagine the devastation that they're feeling. I know the shock I'm feeling," said Carol Herrera of San Antonio, who has trekked to Dallas as many as six times in a year to see Von Erichs at the Sportatorium.

"I can remember watching Fritz as a child; I was 4 or 5 years old," said friend Renee Valadez. "When you think of wrestling, you think of the first family of wrestling. The Von Erichs. Regardless of all the hardships, they were it."

"It's like I just talked to you yesterday," Ms. Valadez said in a soft, halting voice, referring to a conversation with a reporter 17 months ago, when Chris Adkisson took his life.

The World Wrestling Federation's Mr. Planamenta recalled Kerry Adkisson as "very religious, very family-oriented."

But a 1986 motorcycle accident, in which he nearly lost a foot, apparently left Mr. Adkisson addicted to prescription drugs.

He was arrested just over a year ago on charges of using forged prescriptions for Vicodin, a painkiller, and Valium, a tranquilizer. He later pleaded no contest on the charges and received 10 years probation.

"People knew he had a substance abuse problem, and we certainly tried to help as much as we could," Mr. Planamenta said. "It seemed something that was very difficult to him to overcome."

Despite his apparent addiction, Mr. Adkisson had compassion for others and liked to help with charity events, Mr. Planamenta said. The World Wrestling Federation often brings children with disabilities or terminally ill children to wrestling matches, he said.

"If he knew there was a child in the building who had a disability or something, he'd want to go meet this kid," Mr. Planamenta said. "He was so good with the community."

Once a Dynasty

The ill-fated Von Erichs were once considered a wrestling dynasty.

At its height, from 1980 to 1985, the family's television show was syndicated in 66 U.S. markets and in Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East. Kerry was a success in the ring, winning the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship on May 6, 1984 at Texas Stadium. A record crowd of more than 32,000 watched the match, called the "David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions." Kerry lost the title later that month.

But tragedy struck with the regularity of a referee's bell, starting with the electrocution of Jack Jr. in 1959.

David, 25, died in February 1984, during a wrestling tour of Japan. Michael, 23, overdosed on tranquilizers in April 1987. The youngest, Chris - far smaller than his brothers and father - shot himself with a 9mm pistol in September 1991.

Three weeks ago, Kerry Adkisson told his probation officer that the strain of his addiction and the family's losses were mounting.

"He talked about it then. He said he just missed his brothers and didn't feel like going on," said Gary Hunter, recalling their last meeting, a routine probation session Jan. 27 at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building.

Mr. Hunter said the wrestler rejected his advice to seek counseling for suicidal feelings and his drug problem.

"He said he was putting up a pretty good fight," Mr. Hunter said. "But it was tough. He said because of the world he was in, the wrestling world, the availability (of drugs) was just so convenient."

Mr. Hunter, the probation supervisor in state District Judge Larry Baraka's court, said he had gotten to know Mr. Adkisson during the five months he supervised the wrestler on probation.

He said he is taking Mr. Adkisson's death hard. "I feel a little hurt. I got to know him in that time."

When Mr. Hunter last spoke with Mr. Adkisson, by phone Wednesday, the wrestler did not hint that he planned to kill himself, he said.

Judge Baraka, who placed Mr. Adkisson on 10 years probation in September, had the harshest words for the wrestler.

"Ain't that a shame," the judge said. "It's sad. It's very sad. I really sympathize with his family. He's obviously a very weak man....he took the coward's way out."

Judge Baraka said he learned of Mr. Adkisson's death shortly after 5 p.m., after a break in a trial. "My heart just kind of sank," he said. "Killing yourself over this."

Judge Baraka said Mr. Adkisson "may or may not" have gone to prison on the drug charge. "If it was automatic, we wouldn't have had any reason for a hearing."

Charles Caperton, Mr. Adkisson's attorney, said he had come to love his client like a son.

"He's like a child. He's like a 14-year-old boy who never grew up," said Mr. Caperton, visibly fighting back tears. "I would give just everything on earth..." he said, before pounding his fist on a wooden partition in a courtroom. "If there was something I could have done..."

Mr. Caperton said he had planned to represent Mr. Adkisson on the latest charges and was unaware his client felt suicidal.

"He had no money, but I wasn't going to leave him," he said.

About two months ago, the wrestler gave his lawyer a pair of his world champion wrestling boots. He autographed them "in appreciation of all the caring and love Charles had given him," said Mr. Caperton's wife, Marilyn.

"Kerry was special. Kerry was very special," she said.

Family Tragedies

  • Jack Adkisson, Jr. - Died of electrocution in 1959, age 7.
  • David Adkisson - Died of an infection during a tour of Japan in 1984, age 25.
  • Michael Adkisson - Died of an overdose of tranquilizers in 1987 after an infection had forced him from the ring, age 23.
  • Chris Adkisson - Died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1991, age 21.
  • Kerry Adkisson - Died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound February 18, 1993, age 33.
  • Kevin Adkisson - the last surviving son.

by Sylvia Martinez

Hours after his death, Kerry Von Erich's name still shone on the lighted marquee outside the Sportatorium in Dallas, where he was scheduled to wrestle the "Angel of Death" in an iron claw vs. titanium claw duel Friday.

Inside, friends gathered to mourn and to plan a fitting memorial for the wrestler whose real name was Kerry Adkisson.

"There's been wrestling here every Friday night since 1938, and Kerry would want it to go on tomorrow night," said Grey Pierson, wrestling promoter and Mr. Adkisson's friend. Behind him was the wrestling ring to which Mr. Adkisson had returned only 2 1/2 months ago.

"We will have a memorial for Kerry and then, as Kerry would have wanted, go forward with the wrestling."

As Mr. Pierson continued with the television interviews in the dark, damp wrestling arena, Sportatorium director of operations David Hightower continued answering phone calls from distraught fans.

Many of the callers, he said, "were girls crying and asking 'Is it true? Is it really true?'"

Mr. Hightower said he learned of the 33-year-old wrestler's death the same way many fans did.

"I heard about it on the radio," he said. "I was about 300 yards away" from the Sportatorium at 1000 S. Industrial Blvd. when he walked into his office, he found 68 messages on the ticket office answering machine.

Wrestling fans wanted to know whether Friday's matches would be held, and avid Von Erich fans wanted to know where to send cards and flowers. (Callers were advised to send them to the Sportatorium. Officials there will make sure they get to the family, Mr. Pierson said.)

Amid the ringing, Bill Colville, Mr. Adkisson's friend and bodyguard of more than 13 years, and Mr. Hightower reminisced about their friend.

Behind the championship wrestling belts, the drug problems and the family fame and tragedy, there was a child who loved children, his friends said.

"He had lived the last two months for his daughters and kids" in general, said Mr. Hightower.

Mr. Adkisson doted on his daughters, 8-year-old Holly and 6-year-old Lacy, and spent as much time with them as possible. He frequently donated money to children's charities, Mr. Colville said.

"I'd sure like people to know the Kerry Von Erich that I know," said Mr. Colville."He goes to his kids' school every Friday and reads to the classes and has lunch with his daughters. He's never been too busy to stop and talk to a kid. We've toured I don't know how many children's hospitals."

Mr. Colville recalled the time Mr. Adkisson had returned from a wrestling match in Corpus Christi.

"We got him off a plane to take a tour through Medical City for the Craniofacial Foundation. He'd torn a ligament and was having to lean on me through the whole tour."

Mr. Adkisson ignored the pain, his friend said, and "went into kids' rooms and visited with them and talked with people in waiting rooms."

Friday, Mr. Adkisson will be remembered by thousands of fans, friends, and fellow wrestlers. A memorial is scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Sportatorium, where speeches will be followed by the traditional last ringing of the bell and a minute of silence.

by Sam Blair

Few families have enjoyed more celebrity or suffered more heartbreak than the Von Erichs. It grew deeper Thursday when 33-year-old Kerry Von Erich took his life in a rural Denton County area where he grew up as a seemingly All-American boy.

Ten years ago, the Von Erichs were the most famous clan in the entertainment and athletic world of professional wrestling. Now they represent one of society's saddest statistics. Five of the six sons or Jack and Doris Adkisson - the family name before Fritz Von Erich became a headliner at the Dallas Sportatorium in the early 1950s - are dead. Four have been lost in the past nine years, the last three by suicide.

When they heard the news of those three suicides - Mike in April 1987, Chris in September 1991, and now Kerry - family friends who knew the love and closeness that Jack and Doris Adkisson felt for their sons wondered what created the tragic turn in their lives. There is no one answer, for each of the three killed himself for a different reason.
  • Mike, plagued by physical and emotional problems after a near-fatal bout with toxic-shock syndrome, took his life with an overdose of the tranquilizer Placidyl. He died in the same area where Kerry died - their boyhood playground.
  • Chris, the youngest of the brothers and an asthmatic who never grew to the impressive athletic proportions of his brothers, grieved for Mike, the fifth of the six brothers and the one to whom he felt closest. Ultimately, he was discouraged when injuries halted his attempt to launch a modest pro wrestling career. He shot himself with a pistol on the East Texas ranch where Jack had built Doris her dream house - a white, two-story 19th- century style home.
  • Kerry, the fourth of the brothers, was the biggest gate attraction among the Von Erichs after the death of David in February 1984. A strapping 6-foot-7, blue-eyed blond who enjoyed the fanatical popularity of a rock star, David was stricken by inflammation of the intestine while touring Japan. The auto procession from the Denton church where his funeral was held to Grove Hill Memorial Park in East Dallas stretched five miles.
Kerry, Mike and Kevin (the second of the six brothers and now the sole survivor) strived to maintain the Von Erichs' tremendous box-office attraction, but without David it began to slip.

In recent years, the Von Erich family name had faded into the shadows of the professional wrestling world. Meanwhile, Kerry's troubles increased.

Besides trying to cope with the suicides of Mike and Chris, he struggled with physical problems in and out of the ring. A critical ankle injury suffered in a motorbike accident in the summer of 1987 almost cost him a foot, and he never fully recovered. He never regained his old agility and athleticism and often was in pain.

On the day he died, Kerry was on probation after being convicted of forging drug prescriptions and had been indicted on a second charge, possession of cocaine. A warrant had been issued for his arrest, and it seemed almost certain that his probation would be revoked and he would face a prison term.

Now Jack and Doris Adkisson, who lost eldest son Jackie in 1959 when he was accidentally electrocuted, face another funeral.

The public wonders why all of this tragedy has befallen them but cannot know what the parents and sole surviving son Kevin must feel.

For all the shocking problems and disappointments, there were just as many signs that this was a close, loving family.

In the fall of 1987, Jack and Doris sat in the breakfast room of their East Texas ranch house and shared years of memories and feelings for their sons. Those memories seem even more meaningful now.

"We've always believed the best times are when you're doing something special with your kids," said Jack, a football and track star at Dallas' Crozier Tech and Southern Methodist University who, like Doris, grew up in East Dallas. "Doris and I used to go watch them in little track meets. People would say, `Your boys sure are lucky to have you here to watch them.' Heck, Doris and I were the lucky ones.

"One night I arranged to have the main event first at the Sportatorium. You just don't do that, but I did it because I wanted to see David play in a bi-district basketball game. I got there to see the last five minutes.

"Today, too few parents find time to do things with their kids. A father will give his son a $10 bill and say, 'Go out and see a movie.' We've gotten away from what America was built on - the family. But the joy of living still is family-oriented if people just realize it."

The couple recalled fondly each son's special characteristics as a small boy. Kevin's great sense of balance and natural athleticism. David's quiet, gentle nature. Kerry's keen curiosity. Mike's striving for perfection and wanting to please everyone. Chris's admiration for his big brothers while coping with his asthma.

But Jack's feelings for Kerry were different from his feelings for the others.

"Kerry came along 11 months after we lost Jackie, and it was like he was Jackie reincarnated," he said. "I guess I got closer to him than any of the boys. Maybe it was because he was the only one who got serious about throwing the discus. I was delighted, because that was my event. I worked with him every afternoon. He'd throw five or six discuses and Doris would shag. He didn't throw until his junior year, but he was as good as any prep thrower in the country."

As a University of Houston freshman in 1980, Kerry was good enough that coach Tom Tellez believed he had Olympic potential, probably for 1984 in Los Angeles.

"He threw 187 feet as a freshman and that was impressive, considering the conversion to the heavier college discus," Mr. Tellez said. "Kerry had all the makings of a national and possible international champion. We had two NCAA discus champions at UH, and he had the potential to be better than either of them."

But no one ever learned how good he might have been. Kerry became discouraged by the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and soon joined David and Kevin in the wrestling ring.

For a few years, the Von Erichs truly lived the exciting life of the rich and famous. Then David, the most charismatic of the brothers in the ring and the centerpiece of their show, died. The boom years faded, and the hard times set in.

For Kerry, the disappointments and the setbacks mounted. Until Thursday, when he must have decided there was only one way to end them.