John E. du Pont, an eccentric millionaire sentenced to prison in 1996 for the murder of an Olympic wrestler, died in prison Thursday morning. He was 72.

Du Pont was found unresponsive in his cell in Somerset County at 6:55 a.m., said Sue Bensinger, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Dupont died of natural causes, she said.

Du Pont was convicted of third-degree murder after he gunned down Olympic wrestler David Schultz outside his home in January 1996. Schultz's wife and the estate's head of security witnessed the shooting. Schultz, a 1984 gold medalist, was living in a house on du Pont's rambling Newtown Square estate, which he had fashioned into a world-class wrestling training facility.

The motive for the slaying remains unclear.

Du Pont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison. He had been incarcerated since May 15, 1997, Bensinger said. She said du Pont had been ill for some time.

"He did in fact get the life sentence he deserved," said the lead prosecutor on the case Joseph McGettigen.

McGettigen, now first assistant DA in Philadelphia, called the case a "sad example of the corrupting influence of money."

Du Pont "was in many aspects, surrounded by enablers who enriched themselves while allowing him to act on his screwy, mean-spirited, and evil impulses," McGettigen said. "And, a good man died because of it."

Thomas A. Bergstrom, du Pont's attorney for the trial, first met his client in the Delaware County jail.

"He liked that I was a former Marine," said Bergstrom, who remembers the case as professionally fascinating but tragic in every aspect. He has not seen his former client in over 10 years, he said.

"In all honesty, John was pretty ill back then," said Bergstrom. Initially du Pont, who was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with delusions, was found incompetent to stand trial, he said. After five months of treatment at Norristown State Hospital, du Pont was well enough for the trial to commence.

"He thought he was the Dali Lama at times," Bergstrom said.

What made the case difficult was du Pont's inability to effectively communicate with him, said Bergstrom.

"You never knew if he was understanding what you were trying to do for him," Bergstrom said.

Last month, du Pont lost his appeal to be found "sick rather than bad" in the slaying of Schultz.

In 1997, a jury had two choices: to find du Pont not guilty by reason of insanity or find DuPont mentally ill but guilty of third degree murder.

The judge instructed that a defendant who is "sick rather than bad" is legally insane; a defendant who is "both sick and bad" is guilty but mentally ill.

The jury decided du Pont was "both sick and bad." The judge sentenced him to up to 30 years.

du Pont's appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals claimed his attorney had not investigated the possibility that a motion sickness drug he had been taking could have exacerbated his mental illness rather than cocaine as the prosecution had argued. If the jury had been swayed, du Pont argued he might have been found "sick rather than bad."

Th

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or at jfarrell@phillynews.com