In Defense Of… Vince McMahon in the Death of Owen Hart

Bringing the truth to the wrestling fan!

A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com

Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!

Intro

Some dame walked into my office and said…

That first dame was Patrick Kelly, who first walked in in May 2005. Phatpat said:

I did not see the show personally, but it is an interesting situation from both an emotional and business point of view. Owen Hart’s death. The case I want to see defended is Vince’s initial decision to keep the show going and then the ongoing decision to keep the show going after JR made the announcement.

And then there was the man who I know no longer reads me, but will get a plug anyway, in one MATTHEW Roberts:

Defending McMahon in the case of Owen Hart’s death.

Well he had some other words, but I’m holding them for personal use, much like those of regular Brad McLeod who said:

With all the discussions back and forth on the subject (I got into it today) how about a Defense of Continuing Over The Edge ’99 after Owen died.

After announcing the case (the first time) Charlie Sword threw in:

Kudos to you for taking on a crazy tough task in defending Vinnie in the death of Owen.

As did Lost Soul who said:

[D]efending [V]ince in the death of [O]wen??? [G]ood luck with that, you have convinced me before, but [I] dunno about this one.

Luck! Ha, I don’t need luck! I just need… the truth.

Why this?

Owen Hart is my favorite wrestler of all time. Period. I appreciated everything this man could do in the ring, and was always upset that he never got the chance to be a World Champion. I respect everything about him.

Vince McMahon I hold in a much lower regard. As an NWA/WCW mark, I automatically despise him. I really don’t enjoy “sports entertainment” and think Vince more lucked into much of his success rather than created it (see: Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, the Rock). Not saying he does not work hard (because he does), I just don’t think he’s as good as he thinks he is.

That said, there are times when Vince McMahon is right about what he does. Just because I do not like him, that does not mean I am going to let that blind me to the truth. Sometimes, Vince himself needs a defense (see: sexually harassing a tanning salon girl), and this is the place he gets it.

Vince McMahon, you and I might never get along in real life or philosophy, but when you need a defense, this is the place to come. And this time, you deserve it.

Vince Killed Owen

Let’s just get right to it. The accusation is that Vince killed Owen Hart through his actions by forcing Owen to do a stunt that (a) he did not want to do, (b) was not safe, and (c) was not part of his job. As a matter of fact, in Marc Ciampa’s inflammatory article about the death of Owen Hart in June 1999 he wrote this:

Stu, along with the rest of the Hart family believed that Owen may have been a sacrifice for Vince McMahon and his constant need to better his competition, World Championship Wrestling. “Frankly, wrestling was getting so far out and my poor brother Owen was a sacrifice for the ratings,” said Owen’s sister Ellie.

A sacrifice? That would mean that there was INTENT to kill or cause harm. There was no intent here; we are talking about a tragic ACCIDENT. Word choice during this emotional time led people to say incredibly incriminating remarks that were eventually picked up by the rest of the wrestling community and the general media. Listen, I cannot stress this enough: the death of Owen Hart was an accident. To suggest anything otherwise is a fallacy. But we’ll get back to that in a second.

The question at the moment is: if it was an accident, who caused it?

For that, we first go back to Rajah’s account of Owen Hart:

In the early months of spring in 1999, Jeff Jarrett and Owen Hart had been building a reputation as a strong tag team, with Debra as their manager. Management had planned the team to eventually split up, and Owen [began] to lust after Debra, infuriating Jarrett, which would in turn plant the seeds for a bitter and very personal feud.

Owen, happily married in real life, didn’t want his young children to see him cheating on his wife every Monday night, so he outright refused the angle. It was an honorable, if stubborn decision.

The result, was that Owen was saddled with the Blue Blazer gimmick. It was a persona he’d donned early in his career as a glorified jobber, and one he was forced to revisit. It was punishment for declining a well thought out angle, orchestrated to humiliate Owen, who has to don a superhero persona and spend much of his time mimicking the wrestlers in WCW.

I will highlight part of that for you:

[H]e outright refused the angle…

He refused the angle? Everything I have read about Vince with Owen Hart was that Vince FORCED Owen into the stunt that took his life. Forced, huh? If Owen could refuse an entire storyline, then why could he not refuse a PPV stunt? It seems off that Owen would have the power to stop one thing yet not another.

Also, this article makes some rather large jumps in judgment, including that his decision was honorable and that the Blue Blazer was a glorified jobber. I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with these statements, but the truth is that these opinions of Owen Hart’s actions and characters have been spread as the absolute truth and not the opinion it is. The same can be said that the Blue Blazer gimmick was designed to humiliate Owen. If that was the case, then why was he scheduled to win the Intercontinental title the night of his death? By Rajah’s own volition:

[A]t “Over the Edge” 1999, he was booked to win the WWF Intercontinental Title. After that, Owen was booked to break free of the Blue Blazer gimmick, and would go onto be called “The Game”, and enter into a program with Edge.

Read between the lines. There was a plan to go with the Blue Blazer. Let us not forget that several other wrestlers were dressing up as the Blue Blazer as part of a running joke. Not everything in the WWE is designed to be a serious contest. Some things are meant to be comedies and create a break from the tension. Although this role was not normally associated with Owen, that does not mean it was not his responsibility when it was assigned to him.

So Owen accepted his role as the Blue Blazer and every angle and stunt that went along with it. Before the Kemper Arena, Owen had performed the stunt several times. On top of that, others had also done the same or similar stunts, from Shawn Michaels to Sting.

Speaking of Sting, who did the then WWF bring in to set the stunt up? Why none other than Bobby Talbert! Who’s Bobby Talbert you ask? Why he’s the man who helped rig Sting’s rafter jumps for more than a year. Here was a man with a lot of experience who Vince brought in specifically to help Owen make sure nothing would go wrong.

The main reason for bringing in Talbert was because Vince did not like how Owen looked after he repelled from ceiling in St. Louis at Survivor Series 1998. After landing, Owen fumbled with all of the locks on his harness which took several moments and looked awkward. To alleviate this, Vince brought in an expert in Talbert and charged him with finding a better solution.

In turn, Talbert bought a quick release harness from Amspec, Inc. and attached it to his rigging. Keep that in mind. Back to our Rajah article:

Bobby requested that Owen would rehearse the stunt, seeing as how the two had never worked together before. Owen declined. It was clear that he hated the stunt, and didn’t want to do it for any more times than it was necessary. It is reported, that Owen tried to persuade management [that] being lowered from the rafters wasn’t essential to his character in the days leading up to the pay-per-view, only for Vince McMahon to insist otherwise.

As Owen was eating his lunch with friends, and Bobby Talbert was [taking] Hart through the protocol of the new quick-release system, Steve Taylor, the WWF’s VP of Event Operations, interjected and told Owen he would have to do a dry run. Owen was reassured the equipment had been thoroughly tested earlier in the day, as Talbert had successfully lowered a 250-pound sand bag, and his assistant Matt Allmen, in two earlier attempts.

Owen was [scheduled] to turn up to the middle of the arena to rehearse the stunt at 2pm. But, unbeknownst to anybody, he [snuck] out of the arena to catch some fresh air, and didn’t return until 3.30pm. It was clear he left to avoid having to practice the stunt, and thought his absence would go unnoticed and management would quickly forget their orders.

But they didn’t. And they weren’t happy with Owen either.

The test run went perfectly, right up until Owen landed, when Owen inexcusably forget Talbert’s earlier specific orders. He didn’t pull the release cord, which caused a few WWF officials to get visibly annoyed at Owen. He was asked to do the whole thing again, but declined, and avoiding any potential argument, he walked forcefully back to his locker room.

Let’s go through the facts. First, Talbert did the proper testing on the equipment with both a sandbag and a person. He then wanted Owen to do a test run, but Owen refused! Again, Owen refused! I find it odd that Owen is sometimes able to refuse and sometimes not. And here again, Owen went to management to try to persuade them out of doing the stunt. Why did he not use his power of refusal as before?

No, there is no doubt that management and Vince did persuade Owen to do the stunt. They wanted it done, and they wanted it to look good. But at the same time, they brought in an expert to help out. They wanted Owen to follow his lead and directions.

What did Owen do? First, he refused to show up to rehearsal. How could he not be afraid of the repercussions of leaving the arena for an hour and half and yet be afraid of the repercussions of not doing the stunt at all? These inconsistencies make me question the conclusions that Rajah, Ciampa, and others have come to.

Not only that, but read this line again:

Owen [forgot] Talbert’s earlier specific orders.

Owen forgot specific orders? Might it be that Owen was not paying attention to his directions, directions designed to keep him safe? Might Owen Hart be in the wrong for not following directions on a stunt he agreed to do?

And what of the stunt? Why was a “wrestler” like Owen doing a stunt like that anyway? From MSNBC in May 1999:

McMahon said WWF wrestlers will stop performing the aerial move that killed Hart, but said other stunts will continue.

“Stunts like this are performed at major sporting events on a routine basis in Hollywood,” he said. “We compete with Hollywood for entertainment.”

McMahon is right. The WWE is not a wrestling organization. TNA is a wrestling organization. ROH is a wrestling organization. ECW and WCW were wrestling organizations. The WWE, as I stated above, is “Sports Entertainment.”

Vince was not just in competition with WCW, he was also in competition with all of Hollywood and Television (and additionally today the Internet, Satellite entertainment, Podcasting, DVDs, etc…). Because of that, he did want to have wrestlers take on additional roles. Would the Undertaker exist if not for wanting someone to take on a role beyond a wrestler? Would the Rock & Wrestling Connection have ever happened?

Owen was just another person in a long line asked to go above and beyond the normal call of his vocation. And he chose to go along with it. There was no forcing. No one pushed Owen off the top of the Kemper Arena. As a matter of fact, he lowered himself. Back to Rajah:

Not wanting to be late, Owen briskly negotiated the catwalk, taking a right turn and walking along a narrow pathway for 30-feet. Now at the center, directly 100-feet or so below was the WWF ring. Surrounding that, were around 18,350 fans who were watching on as Al Snow fought Hardcore Holly for the WWF Hardcore Title. But Owen, could simply not let himself look down, because he had been afraid of heights his whole life.

Owen began to get ready. He took his costume out of his bag and began to get dressed, but didn’t put on everything until he hooked himself into the harness. Chief rigger Talbert made sure Owen was correctly fitted and helped him position his awkward cape[,] too, that had been [strangling] Hart in rehearsals.

Once Talbert attached the rope to the lowering mechanism, the lights were dimmed, and Owen was seconds away from his descent. He had trouble properly positioning himself onto the scaffolding before getting a final helping hand from Talbert’s assistant. For a couple of minutes, Owen hung there, in the air, floating. He was holding onto the railings as Talbert made sure not to release him until he got his cue.

No matter how much you think you love somebody, your instinct is to step back when you see a pool of their blood edge up too close… Similarly, when a tragedy occurs, it’s easier to move away and forget, than it is to stick around and help clean up the mess.

As the backstage interview of the Blue Blazer was airing, Owen extended his elbows away from his body and tried to once again [maneuver] his cape.

It was then that Owen accidentally triggered the quick-release. And it was then, that Owen fell 78 feet to his death, screaming all the way down, until he violently landed on his left side, shattering his left arm and causing fatal internal injuries, as the audience watched on in horror.

First off, what is with the “inside Owen’s head” stuff? I am not Owen, nobody is Owen, and nobody was with him to hear his thoughts. We do not know what Owen was thinking up there. Even his supposed fear of heights comes into question. Who suggested this? Post hubris, several members of the Hart family said Owen had a fear of heights. Why did this not come out before?

Also, we look at the footage today and say the audience reacted in terror because we react in terror knowing what has happened. From our previously mentioned MSNBC article:

“We thought it was a doll at first,” said Robert McCome, 15. “We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke.”

And from Wikipedia:

The crowd, believing that this was “part of the act” (Ross stating repeatedly on TV that it was not), cheered with a standing ovation as Owen was carried out.

You can see from these examples that the audience thought it was the show, that there was shock but not terror. The terror comes from after the fact, ex post facto, not from what actually happened.

Hold on to that thought for a bit. For now, back to the events at hand.

Follow this pattern. One: Talbert and his assistant had the responsibility of making sure Owen was strapped in and properly secure. Amspec had the responsibility of selling quality equipment to the specific needs of this stunt. Owen had the responsibility of following Talbert’s orders.

Yet, Amspec’s equipment failed. Owen did not follow Talbert’s orders. Talbert and his assistant did not keep Owen under control and safe.

And what of Vince McMahon?

He was trying to run a show, and had hired people to do work that he knew he could not do. He had entrusted others with his vision, and at that point it was well out his hands.

And the death of Owen was just the beginning.

The Settlement

After Owen’s tragic accident, the lawsuits began to fly. From the Stamford Advocate in October 2003:

Three weeks after the fatal fall Hart’s family sued the WWE, Lewmar, the city of Kansas City and 10 other defendants.

No waiting, no thinking, just suing, right away.

It took a while, but the WWE and the Harts settled out of court for $18 million in November 2000. Now, just because the WWE settled does not mean that Vince was admitting guilt. Sometimes, parties settle with people who make outrageous claims because it is cheaper to pay them off them to spend the days in court. Time in court for someone like Vince McMahon literally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.

Also take into account where the money went to. From the Kansas City Star in November 2000:

The terms of the settlement call for Martha Hart, Hart’s widow, to get $10 million; the children, 8-year-old Oje Hart and 5-year-old Athena Hart, to get $3 million each; and Hart’s parents, Stu and Helen Hart, to get $1 million each.

Basically, the money went to Owen’s wife and his children. Do you think that Vince and company perhaps did want to make some type of payment to just help out the family for a long while? Is it beyond reason that Vince may have agreed to the settlement not only to end it quickly, but to try to end the suffering of the Hart family and support them for years to come?

Then again, the WWE was not even paying all of it. Back to the article:

The settlement amount is being paid by the World Wrestling Federation and its insurer, TIG Insurance Co. The WWF, a publicly held company, said in regulatory filings last week that it would take a $7 million charge in the wake of the settlement amount from the companies that manufactured and sold the equipment involved in the accident.

So the WWF was insured for a good portion of the $18 million and only had to pay $7 million. But they were not stopping there. The article states:

[Judge] Long approved the settlement over the objection of the manufacturer of Hart’s trigger-latch shackle, Lewmar Inc., which argued that the settlement could impair its ability to defend itself against the WWF’s claims for reimbursement.

Both Lewmar and Amspec Inc., which sold the shackle to Hart’s stunt rigger, were among the defendants originally sued by the Hart family. The family, however, dismissed both companies from the case in April.

The dismissals came after Lewmar and Amspec reached settlements with the Hart family calling for a mutual release of claims. Notably, the settlement’s did not call for Lewmar or Amspec to pay any damages.

In court documents, the WWF has questioned whether those settlements were reached in good faith, and Long has yet to approve them. The WWF is concerned that the settlements will prevent it from recouping the settlement proceeds from Amspec and Lewmar.

And they had to question it with good reason. In the article it states:

An additional impediment to the WWF’s efforts to recover the $18 million arose Monday, when Amspec filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Van Nuys, Calif. The bankruptcy petition lists the WWF and the McMahons as contingent creditors.

You see, Amspec knew the WWF and Vince was in the right and that they had lied and sold faulty equipment that could not do the job it was purportedly designed to do. In order to protect itself from litigation, it went into bankruptcy protection and listed the WWF and the McMahons as creditors, even though the lawsuit had not been launched yet. But it would not work out for them. From the Stamford Advocate article mentioned above:

Before settling with the WWE, the Harts dismissed the other defendants, including Lewmar, which had reached its own settlement with the family. The agreement did not call for Lewmar to pay any damages, although the WWE alleged that Lewmar had liability insurance of $50 million.

WWE questioned whether the settlement with Lewmar had been reached in good faith. The WWE’s protest stemmed from its concern that the settlement would bar it from seeking reimbursement from Lewmar. Under Missouri law, a defendant cannot seek reimbursement from a co-defendant who reaches a good-faith settlement with the plaintiff.

After a hearing on that issue last year, Long, an out [of] state judge who presided over the original case, ruled that there was “overwhelming evidence” that the settlement was marked by fraud and said WWE’s case against Lewmar could proceed.

Additionally:

World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. has settled its lawsuit against the British maker of a harness whose premature release led to the 1999 death of wrestler Owen Hart in a fall at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.

The case in which the Stamford, Conn.-based pro wrestling organization sought to recover $18 million from Lewmar Inc. went to trial three weeks ago in U.S. District Court at Kansas City and was expected to last at least two more weeks.

The jurors applauded Tuesday after Craig O’Dear, an attorney for WWE, announced that the parties had agreed to the settlement on Monday. A gag order imposed by Judge Douglas Long Jr. prohibits attorneys for the parties from talking about the case, but jurors interviewed later by The Kansas City Star said the agreement called for Lewmar to pay WWE $9 million.

The wrap-up? The courts found that the WWF and Vince McMahon were not in violation nor responsible for the death of Owen Hart. The manufacturer and sellers of the harness equipment were primarily responsible.

The Show Must Go On

Yet, despite not holding responsibility for the death of Owen Hart, Vince McMahon is responsible for having the show go on.

Now, we have already covered the fans in the arena. They were unaware that anything they were seeing was not in the script. Let’s go back to another quote from the MSNBC article:

“It was still tons of fun,” said Barry Bickel, 21. “But that just dampened the whole thing.”

The show was still a fun show. It did its job of entertaining the audience. But more than that, the severity of Owen’s injuries were not known.

During the autopsy, it was revealed that brain functions had ceased six minutes after the fall. But at the same time Owen still had pulse and respiratory functions. For all those who could see, he seemed alive, though badly injured. It would not be until an hour later that he would be pronounced dead. The show had been going on for a while beforehand.

And it is not like this is without precedent. On a live episode of WCW Thunder Rick Steiner hit Buff Bagwell with a bulldog off the top rope, a move he had done a thousand times. This time, something went wrong, and Bagwell broke his neck. He was temporarily paralyzed and in the ring for twenty minutes, yet the show went on.

Years earlier, Owen Hart himself set up Steve Austin for a piledriver, a move he had done a thousand times before. This time, something went wrong, and Stone Cold broke his neck. He was temporarily paralyzed and Owen literally pulled him on top of himself for the win. Yet despite the scary injury, the show went on.

Injuries happen in and out of the ring, but the show has always gone on. There was no reason to believe Owen was dead or was going to be. No one even knew how far he had fallen from. Everyone in the arena was watching the screen, not watching the ceiling. For all they knew he had fallen from about twenty or thirty feet. And we already knew that it was possible to survive that. From Marc Chiampa’s previously mentioned diatribe:

People should have noticed that he was beginning to take things a little bit too far when wrestler Mick Foley (aka “Mankind”) fought a cage match several months ago despite a separated shoulder. Another incident included Foley being body slammed from the top of a “cell” fifteen feet into the middle of the ring on a pile of thumbtacks.

Not to mention the matches that had happened between Edge and Christian and the Hardy Boyz. Hard hitting bumps were more common at that point in time. It was reasonable to believe that this was just another one, and that Owen was made of tough enough stuff to get up from it eventually.

The true extent of Owen’s injuries and the actual cause of his death were not revealed until months after the incident. How was anyone to know he was dead in that ring when it took doctors months to figure out what really killed him?

And what would have happened had Vince suddenly stopped the show? He would have opened himself up to litigation from everyone who bought a ticket or ordered it on PPV. Though what happened to Owen was a tragedy, it does not stop Vince from having to deliver his final product. If he did not do that, the flood gates would be open. Even if all were dismissed, the time and money it would take fighting them would do the damage anyway.

No, the choice was simple but hard. The show had to go on. Not just for the money, not just for the fans, but because it made sense. Because it was what was always done. Because it was what was expected. Because the show does go on.

Martha Hart: Ultimate Martyr

Still, the animosity towards Vince and the WWF over the death of Owen Hart has only increased with time. Despite the fact that courts of law have found Vince and company without fault, there is one voice that has kept antagonizing them. And that voice is Martha Hart, widow of Owen Hart.

Mike D’Amour wrote in the Calgary Sun:

Hart family members are expected to be at the Raw is War event and are expected to be discussing a new business deal.

“There is that rumour and I believe it’s true,” Martha Hart told the Sun.

“If anyone from (the Hart family) were to go to the show it would be disrespectful and disgusting.”

The article continues:

Smith Hart, who trains wrestlers, told the Sun he has no hard feelings about the WWF and will indeed be ringside tonight.

The family patriarch Stu Hart told SLAM! Wrestling on the CANOE website that he would be open to meeting with the WWF.

“I have no axe to grind with Vince,” he said.

“I haven’t been officially invited yet, (but) if he wants me to be introduced … I’d say, ‘please, Vince, if you get a chance, just for old times’ sake, give me a plug.’ “

That bothers Martha.

“Whatever their motivation is, it’s hurtful to me,” she said.

So Martha continues to lament how horrible the WWF is, yet everyone else in the Hart family has forgiven them. Granted, she has a strong emotional attachment to the issue, but her judgment has to be called into question. Says the conclusion to the article:

There were also rumours Owen’s brother and wrestling legend Bret “The Hitman” Hart would be coaxed out of retirement by the WWF.

But Martha said the idea was out of the question.

“I talked to Bret a few days ago and I can tell you he would never have anything to do with the WWF.”

We know that not to be true, either. Bret sure enough went back to Vince for his DVD. He may not be in the ring (yet) in 2006, but he has something to do with the WWF. Martha’s ability to judge events and people is surely in question.

Beyond that, what is Martha’s motivation? She had already won her court case, yet she continued (and continues) to attack the WWE and Vince.

The answer lies at Owen’s funeral.

During her speech, Martha promised one thing: “a day of reckoning”. She is still out for revenge against the WWE and Vince, no matter what the facts say.

And that is simply how many people react. In many ways I want to react that way, too. Owen Hart, as my favorite wrestler, makes me want to attack someone for his death. But the facts of this case compel me to realize he played a greater role in his own death than I ever wanted to admit before.

One last walk down the tunnel

Owen Hart’s death was a tragedy broadcast around the world. Because of this, and what Owen meant to so many people, we are ready to lash out at the first person we see, and that person is Vince McMahon. But Vince is not the one who holds the blame. He was just a man running a show, a man who entrusted others to carry out his vision. But a faulty piece of equipment, an overconfident stunt coordinator, and an over-antsy Owen Hart caused his death. There are so many inconsistencies and beliefs, but very few genuine facts. Those facts were fought in court and Vince and the WWF won on all fronts.

Vince did decide the show must go on, and looking back it seems questionable. But it was the correct decision for everyone involved. It’s easy to look back with all the facts and say things should be different. It’s a lot harder to be sitting in that big chair and making the decision without any facts and knowledge at all.

Owen Hart led a remarkable career, and it’s sad that his legacy to the world is his death. But let us not drag an innocent man down with him. Vince has done enough horrible things in his life that he is guilty of. But in this case, he is an innocent man, and deserves to have that recognition.

The defense rests.

After the Trial

Hung Jury

IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VS. VINCE MCMAHON IN THE DEATH OF OWEN HART, VINCE HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF OWEN HART AND FOR BEING HEARTLESS AND UNPROFESSIONAL FOR HAVING THE OVER THE EDGE PPV CONTINUE.

If there was a chance I could lose a case, you would think it would start with this one. But with 84.9% of the vote, Vince McMahon in the Death of Owen Hart was found:

NOT GUILTY!

All I can say is… wow. I never, not for the life of me, thought I would get a Not Guilty with that high of a percentage. I honestly did not think I could have gotten above a 65%. I’m very happy that I did so well, and just hope the naysayers out there do not give up. I only get to become a better writer when I get challenged, so if you think something is off, I want to hear about it. Hell, even the people who vote not guilty sometimes tell me something is off.

Response

About two months after the original article was released, I got an e-mail with the subject line of “I’m sure you were expecting this..”. For the first time ever, someone directly involved in one of these cases reached out to me, but the person was not exactly a happy camper. Despite the subject line, I was not expecting to hear from Bobby Talbert himself, the man who did the rigging for the stunt:

Your article on Owen Hart was just brought to my attention… You should do more research[;] there are a few points at which you prove you are not and were not directly connected to this case… The calling me an “over confident stunt rigger” [is] not only untrue but lends another fact to show your ignorance in this case. I will give you credit for the amount of reading you did.. You seem to have [overlooked] a few points… you never mentioned that [L]ewmar had 2 prior accidents resulting from the faulty snap shackle which they not only knew about and didn’t say anything, but also had an engineer who redesigned it so that the machining process could never produce this problem.. You also [mentioned] that Owen was still breathing and had a pulse, Did you not read any of the EMT’s reports that stated the FIRST EMT to arrive immediately started CPR.. You don’t start CPR on a person with an existing pulse that is still breathing……. [Although] your article made some valid points, you missed a few as well… It’s seems like an [over-zealous] writer like yourself would be inclined to be truthful and accurate and not so quick to point fingers and name call…. good day to you sir[.]

I was taken aback and had to think quite a bit on this response. And due to this, my own schedule, and the backlog of e-mails I had yet to respond to, it took me a good six months to reply:

Dear Mr. Talbert,

Sorry for my delayed response. Your correspondence got buried in my files and I have not had the opportunity to revisit it until now.

First to your point, you do need to understand my work. In Defense Of… is an anthology series and, as such, I do not have the time to research every single detail of a case. My points are more general in that I am trying to establish that those who have “over-reacted” to a subject at least see the other side of the equation. In this case, I was defending Vince McMahon against people who said he was responsible for Owen’s untimely passing and his actions after the fact.

Not once did I EVER proclaim that I am in way associated with you, Vince McMahon, the Hart family or anything to do with the case. It should be quite obvious that I am an outsider and have claimed so from the beginning. As an outsider, I was doing research on the material that was readily available, from [first-hand] accounts to reporters on the scene to my own experiences. For this case, I did about twenty hours of research, but to do more would go well beyond my capabilities.

So yes, you are correct in that I did not read the EMT’s reports, nor did I personally interview anyone else involved. These articles I write are not my [full-time] job and I cannot devote my entire life to a [single-issue case], no matter how personal it may be to certain parties. I am sorry if certain points were left out or other areas could have been more thoroughly explored, but that was not the intent of my article.

I try to be as truthful and accurate as possible, but you need to read more carefully. I spent a good deal of the article talking about the prior accidents from the faulty snaps and the salesman who sold them not being totally honest. You were overheated because of one off the cuff comment that may or may not have been out of line and read what you wanted to read, not what was actually there. For most of the article, I do defend you as a competent stunt rigger who did a lot right but whose directions were not followed. You skipped all the complimentary things said about you and focused on one negative comment.

In response, I ask you take your own advice and do more research before you start name calling. I understand if you are upset with me and I hold no qualms about it. I wish you the best of luck and continued success in your career in life. Good luck out there.

Suffice to say, I never heard from Mr. Talbert again. Although perhaps I should be thankful as it would have probably led nowhere decent. However, upon re-reading my own article, I agree that I did not make my point about him well. What I was trying to say was that it was at least possible that he held some partial responsibility. Since this case was about Vince McMahon, all I wanted to do was deflect from my client and have the audience say, “Hey, aside from Vince McMahon, here are a bunch of other parties that may or may not have fault, but we should look more at them than at Vince.”

I should have been more careful with my own words and not made suppositions about his character, the same way I correctly lambasted Rajah for going into Owen Hart’s head. I am not Bobby Talbert and do not know what he was thinking as it happened, and therefore I cannot assign a mood and response to him. I still believe he overreacted in his message to me and did miss all of the defense I did of him (specifically putting blame on Owen Hart himself for not doing as Mr. Talbert instructed), but he felt the need to the defend himself against some internet reporter.

But then again, I was and am hardly the only one who questioned Mr. Talbert’s abilities and his personal liability in what happened. In May 2019, Tom Buchanan — who was with the WWE for ten years at the time of the accident and headed up the internal investigation — made a since deleted Facebook post (that can be read in its entirety here, courtesy of Jeremy Lambert of fightful.com) that included the following:

The photo accompanying this post is of sample hardware I purchased to show Vince McMahon what went wrong. This hardware is a different brand than what was used to suspend Owen, but it is functionally identical. The bottom silver piece is a “shackle” and the top silver piece is a spring-loaded “snap shackle.” The shackle was attached to a harness Owen was wearing, and the snap shackle was attached to a rope that suspended him above ring. The red line represents the rope that ran from the snap shackle to the catwalk, and the green line represents a release cord running from the snap shackle along Owen’s side to a small grip/hand release. Owen was to have been lowered to the wrestling ring and then pull the hand release which would open the snap shackle and allow him to step away from the rope. Somehow the snap shackle opened when Owen was being staged for the stunt, while he was suspended alongside the catwalk 80 feet in the air.

Initial thinking on the night of the accident was that Owen may have accidentally grabbed the release line in fear as he hung above the ring (in spite of it reportedly being securely taped to his harness), but my experimentation with the sample hardware a few days later led me to believe the heavy cape/robe Owen was wearing pressed on an inappropriately [taut] section of the release line between the snap shackle and his shoulder, and when Owen felt his robe slipping or being lifted up by the line he grabbed at the robe, which further pressured the release line causing the snap shackle to open.

It shocked me that a professional rigger would fly a wrestler with no stunt experience using just a single snap shackle without any back-up. When the rest of our crew learned how the stunt had been rigged they were equally aghast. By then our crew was mature enough that we wouldn’t have hung a tiny light fixture with a single snap shackle, let alone a human being. This accident should never have happened, and probably wouldn’t have happened if any of the WWF/WWE riggers had even a whiff of how Bobby Talbert, a newly hired independent contractor, was planning to rig the stunt. Mr. Talbert had apparently been involved in a similar stunt with WCW wrestler “Sting,” and has since had a very successful career as a Hollywood stunt rigger and performer (see his profile on IMDb).

So perhaps Mr. Talbert was being defensive for one simple reason: he had a career and reputation to protect. Whatever the truth may actually be, he certainly had an interest in keeping his name clean of any potential fault. That said, reading this, my original comments do not seem so out of line. Further, a year prior, Mr. Buchanan has also posted this now deleted comment:

There were glaring technical mistakes made by the independent rigger who was hired to produce the stunt…

So here we have one professional accusing another of incompetence, but both are highly emotional and have their own personal bias. Since the settlement with the Hart family included dropping Bobby Talbert from any future prosecution, there has never been an independent look by an unbiased court or other party.

Twenty years later and these snippets are as close to the full truth and understanding that we’ll ever get.

The original version of this article appeared on 411mania.com and can be found on jpprag.com:

Part 1 — February 8, 2006

IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED

IN DEFENSE OF…

EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED

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