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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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In a cell in the west wing of the Basseterre prison on the West Indies island of St. Kitts, behind lava-brick walls rimmed with coils of concertina wire, Bertil Fox is melting away in the Caribbean heat. Of the two-time Mr. Universe, a former bodybuilding prodigy who was once the Mozart of muscles, all that appear to retain their former size and shape are the mole below the right side of his lower lip and the gap between his two front teeth. Fox has lost his armor, the blood-filled sinew of those days during which he waged the battle for the perfect bulge—for the ribbed striations and popping vascularity that were his hallmarks. A sculptor bereft of his tools, he now wraps towels over the prison bars and pulls on them to exercise his once diamond-cut back.

He does push-ups for his arms. He lifts buckets filled with water for his triceps and his delts. But anabolic steroids, the Wheaties of most pro bodybuilders, aren't served in prison along with the chicken and the rice. So the 270-pound man they used to call Brutal Fox is just a 205-pound Bertil.

He has even lost the timbre of his voice. Facing him behind a sheet of perforated Plexiglas in the narrow visiting room of the prison—a bastille built in 1840 to entertain captured pirates—one has to press an ear against the barrier to hear him speak. "Everybody here is lonely for freedom," Fox, 47, says. "So am I. I've never been in prison before. I'm locked up all day. I come out to shower in the morning and come out to shower at night. I work out in the cell. That's all there is to do. I've never been in trouble in my life. Overnight, I'm a monster."

In the last eight months Fox has gone from being the Arnold Schwarzenegger of St. Kitts to being the island's O.J. Simpson. On Sept. 30, 1997, he allegedly shot and killed his former girlfriend, model Leyoca Browne, and her mother, Violet, in Violet's dress shop on Cayon Street in downtown Basseterre. He was charged with double murder and imprisoned without bail. During a four-day trial in February, Fox, facing a possible sentence of death by hanging, testified that the shootings were an accident that occurred when he struggled with Violet over his pistol. His best friend, Edmund Tross, testified that Fox had admitted the killings to him and to an associate without making any claim of self-defense. "He said he had shot Leyoca and her mother," Tross told the court. "He said Leyoca's mother was pushing him out the door. At that point he pulled out the gun and started shooting." A seamstress at the dress shop also gave testimony incriminating Fox. Nevertheless, only the nine-member jury ended up hung. Fox faces a retrial in the near future.

While news of the killings and the subsequent proceedings riveted St. Kitts and Nevis, a two-island nation of 41,803 souls, it also sent chillingly familiar reverberations through the insular, narcissistic subculture of hard-core bodybuilding. It's a bizarre world of beetle-browed loners with eggshell egos who are engaged in an obsessive quest for self-mastery; of men posturing before wraparound mirrors, casting illusory reflections of strength, masculinity and virility from which hang, metaphorically, their steroid-shrunken testicles; of cartoonish characters chiseling and tanning and oiling their hairless bodies to camouflage impoverished self-esteem; of fat-free, high-protein starvation diets that can heighten the irritability and anxiety brought on by steroid abuse; and of all those needles and vials and pills—whole families of anabolic steroids, hormones and diuretics, insulin and speed. Not even Wrestlemania achieves such a triumph of illusion over substance.

This subculture offers unusually fertile soil for aggression and, in some cases, deadly violence. Now that bodybuilding is being considered for inclusion in the Olympics, it will come under increasing scrutiny by the international athletic community. Studies have shown that the ingestion of large quantities of anabolic steroids-many bodybuilders take up to 3,000 milligrams a week, 500 times more than the male body produces—can trigger episodes of violent rage in certain people. Researchers who have studied both bodybuilders and the effects of steriod abuse agree that these athletes seem more inclined to extremely violent behavior than performers in any of the more conventional sports, including college and pro football, where steroid abuse has also been widespread. Murder in muscledom isn't uncommon. Fox isn't the only bodybuilder doing reps in jail these days.

Former amateur bodybuilding champion Gordon Kimbrough, 35, trains clients by telephone from Mule Creek State Prison in lone, Calif., outside Sacramento, where he's serving 27 years to life for the first-degree murder of his fiancée, Kristy Ramsey, with whom he won the 1991 USA pairs title. Meek and shy when not on steroids, Kimbrough, according to a family member, becomes short-tempered and violent when using them. On June 20, 1993, after Ramsey told him in their San Francisco apartment that she'd had sex with another man and that the wedding was off, the 250-pound Kimbrough struck his 137-pound fiancée on the chin, wrapped an electrical cord three times around her neck, tying it in a knot, and stabbed her twice in the throat with a paring knife. He spent the night with her corpse while trying to kill himself by injecting into his neck a prescription diuretic, Lasix, and a household cleanser, Lysol. When police found him the next morning, with Ramsey lying at the foot of their bed, Kimbrough was holding a large kitchen knife to his throat and muttering, "She found someone else, another guy." He surrendered quietly.

Kimbrough is one of two prominent former bodybuilders in the California prison system. John Alexander Riccardi of Venice, Calif., has been on death row in San Quentin since 1994, after a jury convicted him of the '83 murders of his estranged girlfriend, Connie Hopkins Navarro, and her best friend, Sue Marshall Jory.

It was in the gyms of Santa Monica that Riccardi built his quads and abs and started seeing Navarro, a former cheerleader at Santa Monica High. They dated for more than two years. But then Navarro ended the relationship, and Riccardi's behavior toward her grew increasingly malicious and bizarre, according to prosecutors. Afraid to go home, Connie sometimes stayed with her former husband, James Navarro, who later testified that Connie said Riccardi once raped her at knifepoint and another time kidnapped her for a few hours. She also claimed, according to prosecutors, that on another occasion Riccardi handcuffed to a toilet the Navarros' 13-year-old son, David, who would later become a guitar player with the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers. According to James, Connie was about to seek a restraining order against Riccardi when, on March 3, 1983, he broke into her West Los Angeles apartment and shot her and Jory (who just happened to be visiting) in what LAPD detective Lee Kingsford described as "a jealous rage."

Connie's body was found half-stuffed into a linen closet. Riccardi fled town. An L.A. homicide detective conducting the manhunt placed an ad in Muscle & Fitness magazine, appealing to readers for help in finding the missing gym rat. Riccardi wasn't captured until eight years later, in Houston, after a viewer spotted his mug on America's Most Wanted.

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