SI Vault
the Muscle murders
William Nack
May 18, 1998
When Bertil Fox, a former Mr. Universe, was arrested for double homicide last year, he became only the latest accused murderer among hard-core bodybuilders, whose subculture is a volatile mix of fragile egos, economic hardship and anabolic steroid abuse
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May 18, 1998

The Muscle Murders

When Bertil Fox, a former Mr. Universe, was arrested for double homicide last year, he became only the latest accused murderer among hard-core bodybuilders, whose subculture is a volatile mix of fragile egos, economic hardship and anabolic steroid abuse

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Fueled by these substances that permit them to exercise more rigorously and recover more quickly, bodybuilders pump iron to make their visions of themselves come true. Through countless reps, they work on each muscle group. In the argot of bodybuilding, bulging arms are guns; lats spread into wings; legs become wheels. Bodybuilders want each muscle, distinct and defined, to impress the eye in its size and detail, and they exult in the onionskin look of dry hardness and in those infinitesimally striated fibers. This is called looking ripped and shredded and cut. As one builder, Samir Bannout, a former Mr. Olympia, likes to crow, "I was so cut, you could see my kidneys pumping."

"They want to take up as much space in the universe as possible," says Klein, who spent seven years in California gyms researching his book. "That's their reason for existing. The more space they can take up, the more worthy they feel they are."

The price they pay for this chemical sculpting is high. Not only are the drugs expensive—some bodybuilders spend as much as $5,000 a month on them—but the physical and psychic costs can be incalculable. No one knows the long-term effects of making all those weird molecules cavort together in the body, but there's no doubt that steroids alone, taken in such gargantuan doses, can turn some psyches into razors. "You take a couple of tabs of Anadrol and tell me you don't feel aggressive," says former serious bodybuilder John Romano, who writes a column called "Rage" for Muscular Development magazine. "If you thought you couldn't bench-press 405 pounds last week, you know you can press it this week. These murders don't surprise me at all. When I was using 1,000 milligrams a week, I dragged a guy out the window of his car for cutting me off in traffic, and I'm usually a calm man."

Many bodybuilders have experienced what Harrison Pope, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a student of anabolics, calls the "manic syndrome" that can attend steroid abuse. The symptoms, according to Pope, include "euphoria, expansiveness, grandiose feelings, decreased need for sleep, irritability, racing thoughts, pressured speech, reckless behavior and aggressiveness."

Joe Bucci, a former Mr. World, has felt the side effects of steroid and hormone abuse. "Testosterone gives you a more animalistic approach to training, and you start to take it out on people who get in your way," he says. "You're not looking to be violent, but if you already have that violent nature in you, testosterone will enhance it. Where normally you'd ask yourself, 'Should I smack this guy or shouldn't I?' now you just smack him because he's in your way."

Bucci recalls the day eight years ago when he was working with 485 pounds in weights and he saw a man dressed in "a little pink outfit" standing before him, watching him intently. "The pink was making me feel not strong," says Bucci. "It was somehow neutralizing my desire to lift the weight. So I politely asked him, Will you please move out of the way? I need to lift this heavy weight, and I wouldn't want it to fall on you.' He said, 'I'll stand anywhere I like.' So I do a set, and he still doesn't move. A friend of mine goes to him and tells him, 'You better move, because he's serious.' The guy still wouldn't move. In the middle of my set, in a 'roid rage, I jumped up and punched him in the jaw. Blood was all over the gym. The gym owner, being a fanatic bodybuilder, kicked the guy out and let me stay. So it's a sick sport, what can I tell ya?"

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that all hard-core bodybuilders murder people. "What we are talking about here is the lunatic fringe," says Klein. But the violence has been prevalent enough at the sport's highest levels to raise questions about its causes. Domestic violence among bodybuilders is unusually widespread; the murders of Ramsey and McNeil represent merely the extremes of it. In a 1996 interview in Flex magazine, 1984 World Amateur Champion Mike Christian admitted to having physically abused his longtime girlfriend and blamed it on steroids. He said that anabolics affected 80% of his fellow muscleheads psychologically. "Ask their old ladies," Christian said. "They're the unsung heroes of this sport. Nobody really knows what they go through."

But abuse of steroids and testosterone alone doesn't explain the murders and the high levels of tension and aggression that suffuse serious bodybuilding. "A fundamental streak of antisociability also marks many of the bodybuilders," says Klein. "They lack a developed way of handling competitive failures." Their massive physiques may "broadcast invulnerability and confidence," Klein continues, but they "leave the internal psychological structure weak. Rather than admit to vulnerability, big men can almost believe in their images and hence avoid dealing with issues of insecurity, hurt and the like."

Since the early 1950s studies focusing on why bodybuilding appeals to some people have revealed central themes. According to Klein, the majority of bodybuilders got into the sport as a reaction to feelings of weakness and inadequacy rooted in childhood. They might have had dyslexia or bad acne, or maybe they stuttered. Many were short or skinny. They had sand kicked in their faces at the beach. They emerged from adolescence feeling inferior and often came to adulthood as loners unable to socialize and make lasting friends. "Bodybuilding has a neurotic core," Klein says. "In all the cases I observed, there was some phenomenon, some perceived shortcoming—like shortness—that created this downward spiral of self-esteem."

In the gym and through the chemicals, bodybuilders can bury all those feelings of inadequacy under muscle, mounds upon bulging mounds of it. Every human being compensates for his weaknesses, but the building of hypermuscles is compensation in the extreme, and it provides a particularly weak cover. The old inadequacies still lurk close to the surface. Bodybuilders are easily deflated and angered by suggestions that they look "small" or "smooth." (In the weeks leading up to his death, Flanagan had taunted Frederick by saying he was "ugly" and "washed up.") Many builders suffer from what Pope calls muscle dysmorphia, a condition akin to anorexia nervosa. Looking in a mirror, an anorectic sees "large and fat." A dysmorphia bodybuilder sees "small and skinny." Thus telling a builder he looks small is as unsettling to him as telling an anorectic she looks fat is to her.

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