Other wrestlers used Benoit's doctor for prescriptions

PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. -- Dr. Phil Astin III.

The doctor to professional wrestlers. The doctor charged by the federal government with overprescribing drugs.

The name clicked with Tyrone Police Det. Dean Johnson as he heard and read the news about the grisly deaths in June of professional wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and young son in neighboring Peachtree City, another suburb about 45 minutes south of Atlanta.

When it did, Johnson flashed back to a 911 call from 16 months earlier, one that rang in to the Tyrone Police Department late in the morning on Feb. 16, 2006.

That call led Johnson to a house trailer in town, where he found Michael Durham, a former pro wrestler known in the ring as Johnny Grunge, lying on his side and clogging the narrow hallway. Durham, 349 pounds globbed onto a 6-foot frame, was partially clothed in dark velour pants with an elastic waistband and a white sock on his left foot. His arms and shoulders were covered with tattoos.

He was 40 years old, and he was dead.

The autopsy report attributed Durham's death to heart disease and obesity, and cited a significant condition of "acute toxicity of carisoprodol and hydrocodone" -- a potent mix of muscle relaxants and narcotic painkillers.

Inside the messy trailer, Johnson found two empty prescription bottles carrying Durham's name. One was for 120 tablets of carisoprodol, a muscle relaxant marketed under the brand Soma. The drug had been prescribed by an obscure country doctor, and Johnson passed the physician's name along to the Composite State Board of Medical Examiners in Georgia.

Phil Astin III.

"His name was on the bottle," Johnson says. "It all came back with Benoit."

Durham and Chris Benoit had been close friends. They were among a number of wrestlers who were patients of Astin, the 52-year-old Carrollton physician arrested July 2 by Federal Drug Enforcement agents on seven counts of overprescribing medications to at least two unidentified patients. Although none of the charges spells out a specific relationship to the Benoit deaths, investigators seized files from Astin's home and office in the days immediately after Benoit killed his wife and young son and then committed suicide.

In an affidavit filed in federal court in July, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent said Astin had prescribed a 10-month supply of anabolic steroids for Benoit, and that Astin had supplied controlled substances, including steroids, that were found in Benoit's home.

Federal prosecutors are expected to bring additional charges against Astin, who pleaded not guilty and is free on $125,000 bond. A pretrial conference is scheduled Tuesday in Atlanta. The U.S. magistrate judge in the case ordered him to surrender his medical license.

Manny Arora, who represents Astin, acknowledges that the doctor treated "several" wrestlers in a practice that typically saw 20 to 25 patients a day. Arora, though, says he is unsure whether Durham was among them.

But according to pharmacy records obtained by ESPN.com, Durham routinely filled prescriptions written by Astin, a graduate of St. George's University in Grenada. In the 13 months prior to Durham's death, Astin wrote prescriptions for Durham for the purchase of nearly 4,000 painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety tablets.

"The doctor should have never given him anything," says Penny Durham, who was legally separated from her husband and in divorce proceedings at the time of his death. "He had asthma. He had an enlarged heart. He had sleep apnea. And he was overweight. He wasn't even wrestling. Why would he be giving this guy a muscle relaxer?

"I mean, he was giving it to him like candy."

Penny Durham has retained an attorney to pursue a possible wrongful death suit against Astin. An attorney representing the parents of Benoit's wife told ESPN.com he is weighing a similar action on behalf of the family, though they likely will wait until the criminal case against Astin is resolved.

Astin, through his attorney, declined comment for this story.

Here are a few highlights gleaned from the pharmacy records related to the investigation of Durham's death:

• There were at least 11 doctors who wrote prescriptions for Durham, but none prescribed pills in the copious quantities that Astin did. Almost all of the prescriptions filled under Astin's name -- 28 of 33 -- were for 120 tablets. The most filled under another doctor's name dating back to 2000 was 90; most were for 60 tablets or fewer.

• One of the early prescriptions filled under Astin's name, on Feb. 14, 2005, was for 120 tablets each of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, the painkiller hydrocodone and the muscle relaxant carisoprodol. On March 3, 2½ weeks later, Durham filled another prescription for 60 carisoprodol. Four days later, he filled a prescription for yet another 60. All at the same pharmacy.

• On Nov. 21, 2005, Durham filled a prescription for 120 tablets of the painkiller oxycodone, a drug so widely abused in central Appalachia about five years ago that it drew national attention and earned the nickname "hillbilly heroin." Six days later, Durham filled another for 120 tablets of the same narcotic painkiller; and yet another for 100 tabs on Dec. 15, 2005.

• On Feb. 15, 2006, the day before he died, Durham's last prescription -- No. 180093 -- for carisoprodol was filled at his favored pharmacy, the CVS on Lexington Circle in Peachtree City. It cost $67.59. That was one of the two empty bottles, with Astin's name printed on the labels, found by Johnson in the trailer and shipped to the state crime lab as evidence.

Eric Zinck, who describes himself as Durham's "best friend," says he made the trek to the drugstore for Durham's last refill. Zinck, too, was one of Astin's patients.

ESPN.com has learned that Zinck has been subpoenaed to appear Oct. 2 before a federal grand jury in Atlanta that is considering additional charges against Astin. The grand jury previously heard witness testimony Sept. 4.

The 37-year-old Zinck has been a fringe player on the wrestling scene. He dabbled as a referee, and at one time was manager of Public Enemy -- the tag team featuring Durham (Johnny Grunge) and the late Flyboy Rocco, who died of a heart attack in 2002. During the divorce proceedings from Penny, Durham stayed in Zinck's trailer. The trailer where Johnson, the detective, found Durham's body.

As Zinck recalls the hours leading up to Durham's death, Durham returned to the trailer late in the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2006, after a visit to his ill mother in Louisiana. He was sore and tired from the flight, Zinck says. Durham was having money troubles, and he was upset about his pending divorce and missed his two young boys.

"When he got to the house, he said, 'I got a prescription to pick up,'" Zinck says. "I think he had already had a few Somas [carisoprodol], anyway. There was no way I was gonna take him to the pharmacy [in that condition]. So I drove to the CVS in Peachtree City, walked in, walked up to the counter and said 'I need to pick up a prescription for Michael Durham of Somas.' I got them and walked out. Didn't ask for ID. Didn't ask who I was."

They had dinner and watched television, and then Zinck went to bed. The next morning, his then-girlfriend, leaving for her job at a children's daycare facility, stumbled over a passed-out Durham in the hallway. When Zinck checked on him, he found the wrestler had a weak pulse but thought he'd sleep it off, as he always had before.

"Somas, that was his drug of choice," Zinck says. "I mean, he took them to forget life and not to feel any pain. I'll be honest: I'd seen Michael take 120 Somas in a day -- that's in a day -- and survive. I just think the stress of everything -- his body, his personal life -- got to him."

Steroids and pro wrestling have been linked publicly in recent years, but prescription meds -- addictive stuff like Soma, Xanax and Percocet -- are the dirty little secret of the wrestling crowd, which by some accounts has seen more than 100 of its participants die before the age of 50 in the past decade. In the ring and on the TV screen, wrestlers earn their living with their pumped-up, cartoon-like bodies. But away from the raucous arenas, as they deal with real-life aches and pains and the grind of the road, they often rely on narcotic painkillers and mood-altering drugs.

Lex Luger, another of Astin's patients, says many wrestlers become addicted to a "toxic cocktail" -- a concoction that includes alcohol, muscle relaxants and painkillers. Astin prescribed the painkiller hydrocodone for Luger for a hip ailment likely to require surgery this fall, but those prescriptions didn't come in an inordinate amount, he says. Nor, Luger says, did Astin ever discuss steroids with him.

"He is a good old guy," says Luger, 49.

Back when he was active on the wrestling circuit, Luger says, he came close to overdosing on pills and alcohol "probably dozens of times." Back then, Luger's chaser was vodka and orange juice.

"Mine was Coors Light," Zinck says. "I would have three or four Coors Lights in the morning, my painkillers, my Somas and my Xanax. That was my thing. That is how you started the day to crawl out of bed.

"We all relied on the stuff on a daily basis. It got to a point to where it is like being in a car accident every night. You get in that ring and deal with that. Your body is sore. You're either on an airplane or traveling five or six hours in a car. Or you're staying in a hotel room. You rely on the painkillers because they are addictive; and even when you don't hurt, your body craves them. And we all had a doctor that was giving them to us with no questions."

Zinck, who is cooperating with federal investigators in the case against Astin, estimates that more than 20 wrestlers had seen Astin in recent years, although he doesn't speak to the amount of prescriptions Astin provided others. He first saw Astin in 2003, but stopped after Durham died last year.

To get to Astin's office, Zinck says he and Durham regularly drove 45 minutes from Peachtree City to Carrollton. The same was true of Benoit and his wife, Nancy, a former wrestling valet and manager. Luger says he and others trekked even further from a north Atlanta suburb for Astin's services.

When Chris and Nancy Benoit died, they both had traces of prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs in their systems.

A toxicology report revealed that Benoit had high levels of testosterone in his system, and authorities found steroids in Benoit's home. Astin's attorney, however, insists that the doctor was not a source of illegal steroids for pro wrestlers. Arora suggests a legitimate explanation: The wrestler nicknamed "The Canadian Crippler'' had a hormone disorder that permitted the prescribed steroids.

Arora argues that Astin is miscast as a doctor to the stars, contending he didn't make an inordinate profit dealing with the wrestlers. Rather, Arora portrays his client as a friendly, accommodating second-generation physician who lives with and tends to his elderly mother. Astin's brother and late father, who at one point also had his license suspended by the state board for overprescribing painkillers, both headed the local county health department at different times. Another brother is also a doctor.

"If it is not for Benoit, Astin probably never gets -- you never hear that name," Arora says. "He is just a small-town doctor going about his practice, and nobody ever hears about him."

Nevertheless, Astin appears to have embraced the celebrity that occasionally filtered through his office about 40 miles west of Atlanta. Luger describes him as "a little star struck." According to Zinck, Astin and his staff enjoyed interacting with the wrestlers. They snapped pictures and appreciated autographs, and they occasionally called for tickets when shows came through Atlanta.

Most office visits with Astin lasted 15 or 20 minutes, Zinck says, and the doctor mixed personal banter in with his examinations. Zinck says he paid $75 a visit, in cash. Most prescriptions came with three refills, he recalls.

Asked whether the doctor warned him to be careful with the medications or to keep things hush-hush, Zinck says, "No, he just prescribed what he thought we needed. Or if we asked to go up in the medication, he didn't question it. He just went up in it."

Zinck believes the ease with which medications were prescribed played into his own addiction, saying "It's a big role, because if you can't get them, you're either gonna have to go to rehab or find another doctor or deal with it another way."

Astin, say both Zinck and Penny Durham, wasn't the first doctor to provide the wrestlers with their easy prescriptions.

Zinck says he went through rehab for substance abuse prior to becoming an Astin patient in 2003. Earlier, he says, his source for prescription meds was Dr. Robert Howard, who worked for a pain management clinic in Peachtree City until he, too, was busted by the feds for overprescribing. Penny Durham confirms that her late husband also was a patient of Howard. And Zinck says Nancy and Chris Benoit also saw Howard as patients, adding, "Most of the old WCW locker room were patients."

Howard died in prison within the last three years, according to Cathy O'Neil, a former assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted the case against Howard.

"He was overprescribing," O'Neil says. "There was some question whether these people ever needed to be on the drugs or not."

But O'Neil notes that authorities didn't track each of Howard's patients, and that they were unaware he had prescribed drugs to athletes.

Penny Durham knew about her late husband's demons. She witnessed the dark side of his Soma addiction and his earlier steroid use, but she says she didn't have a clue about Astin's alleged role in his life. She didn't become aware of Astin, she says, until more than a year after her husband's death -- and after she attended the funeral for her friend, Nancy Benoit -- when investigators showed up at her door with the doctor's name.

"Unfortunately, it took three very good friends of mine to die in such a bizarre way in order for the guy to be revealed," she says.

As a wrestler's wife, she had been friends with Nancy Benoit since 1994. The families spent a Thanksgiving together; and she carries snapshots of Nancy and Chris Benoit, clad in pirate garb in her kitchen at Michael Durham's 34th birthday party. The Benoit's son, Daniel, played with her two boys.

The friendship had cooled in recent years, as Chris Benoit's wrestling star rose to where he was earning more than $1 million a year. Penny Durham says she occasionally ran across Nancy Benoit at the local gym, but they'd stopped seeing each other socially. Penny Durham blames Chris Benoit for blunting the relationship; she describes him as a control freak who kept his wife away from her friends.

"Face it, it is a crazy lifestyle," she says about the wrestling scene. "And they had problems like most people do in marriages. Chris was just indifferent. You could never figure him out. He was on the strange side. The guys used to call him Houdini because you'd be talking to him, you'd look away and he would be gone.

"He was an introvert. He was very quiet. And I just think that Chris held a lot of stuff in. Then, when Mike [Durham] and Eddie Guerrero both passed, he lost two of his closest friends, people he'd been able to talk to."

Guerrero, who died of heart failure in November 2005, also was linked to steroids and painkillers.

In the case of Durham, his marriage began to crumble as Benoit's career expanded and his own wrestling star as Johnny Grunge faded. He struggled to find work. His health worsened and his girth expanded. Already burly, he'd put on nearly 100 extra pounds by the time he died. His waistline ballooned to 56 inches.

And he brought his drug addiction home.

Numbed by muscle relaxants, Durham would occasionally pass out, according to his wife and Zinck. In his prime with World Championship Wrestling, Durham earned $300,000 a year; but in the last few years of his life, he couldn't foot the bill for a rehab facility. He tried detoxing on his own, but it never worked.

"I mean, he would be with the little guys and then he'd be passed out,'' says Penny Durham, referring to her two sons. "I'd come back home from Wal-Mart and he'd be lying on the floor. It was just a crazy life. It was a life that nobody should live unless the wife is like that. And then you both are doing it, and you could care less about it."

Michael Durham's father in-law tried bringing him into his carpet installation business. Again, the addiction got in the way.

"I'll tell you one incident where he was driving [the van], weaving all over the road," recalls Art Bordeau, who now shares his suburban Atlanta ranch-style home with his grown daughter, Penny, and her two sons. "I took the wheel and pulled over. When he got out of the vehicle, he fell on the ground and couldn't get himself up. He weighed about 400 pounds. No way I could get him up. This was the middle of the day. I wouldn't let him drive after awhile."

And the other workers, Bordeau says, wouldn't even get in the van with Durham.

By all accounts, the wrestler known as Johnny Grunge wasn't using steroids, at least not in his later years. But early on, according to his wife, he succumbed to the competitive pressure and went on a steroids cycle for almost two years.

She says he showed her the doping paraphernalia back then -- the steroid vials, as well as the needles and syringes he used to inject himself.

During that period, Penny Durham says, another dark side occasionally appeared, when Michael became far more aggressive than usual. Her nice, sweet husband would turn menacing and ugly.

"He'd be doing steroids and he'd drink a couple beers and then he'd want to beat the bar up," Penny Durham recalls. "I was just sitting there eating at the bar, having a couple beers; and then he just looked at me and said, 'If you ever go out on me, I'm gonna kill you like Nicole Simpson.' I'm like, 'What?' I just smacked him in the face. And then he came after me. And I did run. And he grabbed my leather [jacket] and ripped it in the parking lot. I guess the bartender had called the police and they showed up and gave me a ride home. I should have learned then, right?"

Says Bordeau, Michael Durham's father in-law: "He was such a nice guy, until he got hooked on drugs."

Phil Astin III wasn't the only source of those drugs. But in the last year of Durham's life, when he was downing copious amounts of painkillers and muscle relaxants, records indicate his primary prescriber was the country doctor with the name a Tyrone detective recognized 16 months after Durham's death.

The telltale signs include an empty bottle found near the cold body of Johnny Grunge.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.