John E. du Pont, 72, the multimillionaire sports patron who killed an Olympic wrestler in 1996, died in prison Thursday morning.

A nurse found du Pont unresponsive in his bed at 6:55 a.m. at a prison in Somerset County, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections said. He had been ailing and died of natural causes in the hospital unit, she said.

Du Pont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years for third-degree murder in the killing of David Schultz, the father, husband, and Olympic gold medalist whom he gunned down on Jan. 26, 1996.

Nancy Schultz, who witnessed her husband's shooting, said du Pont's death brought some relief to the couple's son, who was 9 then, and their daughter, who was 6.

"He was kind of the bogeyman for my children in some way," she said Thursday. "Sometime he was going to get out, and we had no idea what his behavior was going to be."

She said of du Pont's legal defenses and appeals, "He kept making excuses. . . . He never just said, 'I'm sorry I did it.' "

A great-great-great-grandson of Eleuthere Irenée du Pont de Nemours, founder of the Wilmington chemical company, du Pont was best known before the killing as a sports patron.

A sports arena at Villanova University bore his name. (It has since been changed.) He transformed Foxcatcher Farm, his 800-acre Newtown Square estate, into a world-class athletic training facility. Wrestlers housed their families there while they trained. Schultz was one of a dozen wrestlers living there in 1996, preparing for that summer's Olympics in Atlanta, his wife said.

Their host had become known by then for wild behavior.

"We were all predicting something like this would happen," said Martha du Pont, his sister-in-law, after the killing. "He has been walking around with loaded guns for a number of years. It has been very frightening."

Wrestlers told of being ordered to chase ghosts from the walls and shoot Nazis from the trees. Du Pont threatened athletes with guns during his angry outbursts.

Nearly 15 years after the shooting, his motive remains unclear. He shot Schultz, 36, three times with a .44-caliber revolver during an argument outside Schultz's home on the estate grounds. Du Pont then holed up in his mansion for two days, emerging only when police cut off his heat that freezing weekend.

"The negotiators kept telling him they didn't know how to turn the heat back on," remembered Newtown Township Police Chief Dennis Anderson, who led some of the 60-plus SWAT team members staking out du Pont's property. "He got mad and said, 'Then I'll do it myself.' He walked out himself. That's how arrogant he was."

Du Pont's fortune allowed him to hire a "dream team" of defense attorneys, recalled U.S. Rep.-elect Patrick Meehan, who led the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted du Pont.

Dennis McAndrews, brought in as a special prosecutor to help handle the case, recalled a bail hearing that lasted more than 10 hours instead of the typical five minutes.

Du Pont's mental state - doctors diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia with delusion, and he abused cocaine and alcohol - formed the core of his defense.

He initially was found incompetent to stand trial. He was treated for five months at Norristown State Hospital before the case resumed, said Thomas A. Bergstrom, du Pont's attorney for the trial.

"In all honesty, John was pretty ill back then," Bergstrom said Thursday. He added, "You never knew if he was understanding what you were trying to do for him."

In 1997, a Delaware County jury convicted du Pont of third-degree murder - guilty but mentally ill.

Joseph McGettigan, the lead prosecutor, said Thursday that 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. . . . And a good man died because of it."

McGettigan, now first assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, said du Pont's death in prison was poetic justice: "He did in fact get the life sentence he deserved."

After the conviction, du Pont filed numerous appeals, including one seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. He also requested hearings for pardons, parole, and medical treatment outside the prison system.

"It is like nothing we have ever seen in terms of resources that a criminal defendant was able to bring to a serious case," said William R. Toal III, the Delaware County assistant district attorney who handled du Pont's appeals.

Du Pont lost his latest appeal in November. A federal court rejected his claim that his lawyer had not investigated whether a motion-sickness drug could have exacerbated his mental illness.

In prison, du Pont taught citizenship and history classes to help inmates earn high school equivalency diplomas, one of his lawyers told The Inquirer in 2003. For years, he also served as a scorekeeper, timekeeper, and referee for prison athletic events, but gave it up in 2002 after a hip replacement.

In 2009, du Pont was moved to SCI Laurel Highlands, known as the state prisons' geriatric facility, said Sue Bensinger, a Corrections Department spokeswoman.

He shared a room with three other ill inmates who need 24-hour nursing care, said Betsy Nightingale, public information officer for the facility.

The Schultzes' son, Alexander, now 24, remembers Christmas dinners with du Pont when the family lived on the estate and riding his bike past du Pont, who never seemed able to remember the boy's name.

Interviewed Thursday, he offered another fresh memory: of being called home early from school to find TV news vans and police cars crowding the roads of the estate.

Alexander Schultz said he had come to know his father through stories told by friends. "As I get older, I'm getting to know him . . . and I really miss having him being around more as an adult than I think I did as a child."

After the murder, Nancy Schultz formed the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club to support amateur wrestlers. She lives in California with Alexander and Danielle, who is 21 and competes in horseback riding.

"She's the only Olympic hopeful for this generation," joked her brother, who is studying finance at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. "I'm not a grappling genius like my father. I was intimidated by the legacy. . . . It's another thing when he's a martyr on top of it."

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