CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Former boxing champion Edwin Valero, who had a spectacular career with 27 straight knockouts and flouted a tattoo of President Hugo Chavez on his chest, hanged himself in his jail cell Monday after being arrested for stabbing his wife to death, police said.
The former lightweight champion used the sweat pants he was wearing to hang himself from a bar in the cell, said his lawyer, Milda Mora.
Valero, 28, had problems with alcohol and cocaine addiction and struggled with depression. He had previously been suspected of assaulting his wife and was charged last month with harassing her and threatening personnel at a hospital where she was treated for injuries.
Valero’s 24-year-old wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera, was found dead in a hotel room half way across the country on Sunday, and police said the fighter emerged from their room telling hotel security he had killed her.
Valero was found hanging in his cell early Monday by another inmate, who alerted authorities in the police lockup in north-central Carabobo state, Federal Police Chief Wilmer Flores told reporters. He said Valero still showed signs of life when they took him down, but they were unable to save him and he died about 1:30 a.m. (2:00 a.m. EDT; 0600 GMT).
The former WBA super featherweight and WBC lightweight champion was a household name in Venezuela and had a huge image of Venezuela’s president tattooed on his chest along with the country’s yellow, blue and red flag.
A man whose fists carried him from poverty in a small town to fame, Valero’s all-action style soon earned him a reputation as a tough, explosive crowd-pleaser, and his last victory in Mexico in February over Antonio DeMarco brought his record to 27-0 — all knockouts. Venezuelans called him “Inca,” alluding to an Indian warrior, while elsewhere he was called “Dinamita,” or dynamite.
Valero had a turbulent disposition and had been in trouble with the law before, for violent incidents and problems with alcohol and drugs.
Last month, he was charged with harassing his wife and threatening medical personnel who treated her at a hospital in the western city of Merida. Police arrested Valero following an argument with a doctor and nurse at the hospital, where his wife was being treated for injuries including a punctured lung and broken ribs.
The Attorney General’s Office said in a statement that Valero was detained March 25 on suspicion of assaulting his wife, but his wife told a police officer her injuries were due to a fall. When the boxer arrived moments later, he forbade Viera from speaking to the police officer and spoke threateningly to the officer, prosecutors said in a statement.
A prosecutor had asked a court to keep Valero in jail, the Attorney General’s Office said. But a judge instead allowed him to remain free under certain conditions including that he appear in court every 90 days, said Mora, his lawyer.
Mora told The Associated Press that after the incident Valero was held for nine days in a psychiatric hospital in Merida, where he underwent police-supervised rehabilitation. She said people close to the fighter posted bail on April 7 and he was allowed to go free.
Valero’s manager, Jose Castillo, criticized authorities for failing to act more forcefully to prevent the killing.
“I asked the authorities not to let him out. He needed a lot of help. He was very bad in the head,” Castillo told reporters. “But they let him out. They were very permissive with him and because of that, we’re now in the middle of this tragedy.”
Mora, however, said of Valero: “He was the only one responsible.”
She said that the Venezuelan government had arranged for the fighter to attend a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Cuba. He had missed a flight to Cuba earlier this month and was scheduled to fly there soon, she said.
The fighter had police escorts who were charged with protecting him. But last week he slipped away from those escorts, leaving his house near Merida with his wife and saying they were headed into town, Mora said.
Valero stayed in touch with his manager by phone but it was unclear how he and his wife turned up days later halfway across Venezuela at the hotel in Valencia, Mora said.
While police suspected Valero was battering his wife, “the only person who could report it was her, and she told her family that he never hit her,” Mora said. “She wanted help for him.”
Valero also “adored his wife,” Mora said. “We were very close to him and we knew there could be this sort of outcome because when he became conscious of what he really had done, he wasn’t going to be able to bear not being close to Carolina.”
Mora described the fighter as hyperactive and said he suffered from depression. She said in jail the authorities took away his jacket and his shoelaces to prevent him from using them for a suicide attempt, and that he used his sweat pants instead.
Before his death, photographs showed Valero being led away in handcuffs, then shielding his face by pulling down his cap.
The fighter’s 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter have been staying with their maternal grandmother, Mora said.
Valero had fought mainly in Japan and Latin America because he had trouble obtaining a license to fight in the United States. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in a motorcycle crash in 2001, and until the law was changed recently, most jurisdictions refused to grant a license to a fighter who had sustained a brain injury.
He was also charged with drunken driving in Texas, and despite efforts of his promoter, Top Rank, to secure a visa for him, the U.S. government denied his application because of the pending charges.
Valero claimed his application was denied because of politics; he was sympathetic of Chavez, a fierce critic of the U.S. government. U.S. officials say they cannot discuss individual visa cases.
Valero appeared as a special guest at events hosted by Chavez and was lionized by some of the president’s supporters as a national hero, while some critics accused him of avoiding punishment for past problems due to his links to the government.
Valero’s is the third high-profile suicide of a former boxing champion in the past year.
Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello, the mayor of Managua, Nicaragua, was found dead at his home in July of a gunshot wound to the chest. A few weeks later, Italian-born former super featherweight and junior welterweight champion Arturo Gatti, a naturalized Canadian, was found strangled in the Brazilian resort town of Porto de Galinhas. His wife was arrested as the prime suspect in the death, but authorities later ruled that he committed suicide.
The World Boxing Council lamented Valero’s death in a statement, saying he had “happy years” in boxing and that his record will go down in boxing history. The council also said it hopes to help create a fund to pay for the education of Valero’s two children.
WBC president Jose Sulaiman has said Valero was replaced as WBC lightweight champion in February after he expressed a desire to campaign in a higher weight division.