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82-year-old ex-wrestler charged in nursing home death

MINNEAPOLIS — During his glory days as a pro wrestler, Verne Gagne shared the spotlight with other burly men in trunks, guys with names like Killer Kowalski, Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher and Baron Von Raschke.

But all of that seemed well in the past until just weeks ago, when authorities say Gagne, 82 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, apparently body-slammed a 97-year-old fellow patient at the suburban nursing home where they both lived, causing the man’s death.

Bloomington police are investigating, but not even the victim’s widow wants to see the dementia-stricken Gagne prosecuted.

‘‘It’s been so hard on both families,’’ said Greg Gagne, Gagne’s son and a former wrestler himself.

Helmut Gutmann, a former cancer researcher who suffered from dementia himself, died Feb. 14, about three weeks after breaking his hip in the confrontation. Authorities ruled his death a homicide.

Police said there was no clear indication of what set Gagne off, and neither man could remember the incident afterward. Behavior and personality changes are common as Alzheimer’s progresses, and victims of the mind-robbing disease can become agitated.

Like others with the disease, Gagne had all but lost his short-term memory, while his recollections of long-ago events were vivid. But whether he was suffering a flashback to his days in the ring, as some have speculated, is anybody’s guess.

Police said they plan to forward the case to prosecutors by the end of the week for possible charges. Gagne, who has since turned 83, has been moved to another institution.

Joseph Daly, a former prosecutor who is now a professor at Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, said he doubts Gagne will be charged. State law prohibits prosecuting anyone who is too mentally deficient to understand the proceedings or offer a defense. Daly said that would appear to apply to Gagne.

‘‘It’s a tragedy for the man who was killed, it’s a tragedy for the man’s family, but it’s equally a tragedy for the family of Verne Gagne,’’ said Daly, who has warm memories of Gagne from his youth.

In the ring, Gagne (pronounced GAHN-yuh) drew on his background as a college wrestling champion in the 1940s, and typically finished off opponents with his trademark ‘‘sleeper hold’’ — a headlock that appeared to make the beaten man pass out.