RALEIGH N.C. – Former Olympian Antonio Pettigrew, a sprinter stripped of a gold medal after admitting to doping, was found dead in the backseat of his locked car early Tuesday.
Authorities said they are unsure if his death was accidental or a suicide.
Chatham County Sheriff’s Maj. Gary Blankenship said Pettigrew’s car was found parked to the side of a bridge. Blankenship said there was evidence that the 42-year-old Pettigrew had taken sleeping pills and there was no sign of foul play.
“Obviously we don’t know if it was intentionally or accidental at this point,” Blankenship said of the cause of death. “We might not ever know.”
Pettigrew’s death was confirmed by the University of North Carolina, where he was an assistant track coach. His body has been taken to Chapel Hill for an autopsy. Toxicology results aren’t expected back for at least four weeks.
Pettigrew’s wife reported him missing from their home in Apex, located just outside of Raleigh in Wake County, a little after midnight early Tuesday morning, according to Wake Country Sheriff spokeswoman Phyllis Stephens.
Blankenship said two friends discovered Pettigrew’s car after retracing his route between home and the North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, where he had spent four seasons.
“He appeared to be sleeping, but he was unresponsive to them,” Blankenship said.
Authorities in Chatham County located just south of the “Triangle” region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill responded to a call around 3:15 a.m. and entered the car before pronouncing Pettigrew dead at the scene. Blankenship said investigators will likely talk with Pettigrew’s family members and friends in the coming days to try to gauge his frame of mind.
Pettigrew was part of the 1,600-meter U.S. relay team that won the gold medal in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But the International Olympic Committee stripped the team of the medals two years ago after Pettigrew admitted doping during a trial against former coach Trevor Graham, who was convicted of lying to federal investigators about his relationship to an admitted steroids dealer.
“The entire track community is in shock,” said Ato Boldon, a sprint analyst for NBC Sports and four-time Olympic medalist from Trinidad and Tobago. “He’s one of us. When we lose one of us, the entire track fraternity feels it very, very personally. Forty-two years old is way too young to be gone.”
At North Carolina, Pettigrew focused on sprints, hurdle and relays. He graduated in 1993 from St. Augustine’s in Raleigh, where he was an all-American and won four NCAA Division II championships in the 400-meter dash.
In the months following Pettigrew’s 2008 admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs, North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour said he talked extensively with Pettigrew as well as contacting members of the track community and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency before announcing that Pettigrew would remain with the Tar Heels.
In a statement from the university, Pettigrew said in August 2008 that his actions were “100 percent wrong” and that he appreciated getting a second chance.
“I have an obligation and duty to speak out against the use of banned substances,” Pettigrew said. “I want to play a role in teaching people, especially young athletes, to know that the negatives far, far outweigh the benefits these substances may give you.”
Baddour said Tuesday that Pettigrew lived up to his commitment.
“A fair question in all of that is if he wasn’t here, would you hire him in an interview and hiring process if you had that information?” Baddour said. “And the honest answer is probably not. The competing part of that was we had observed him firsthand. He was very remorseful, was very open and honest about what he had done, and the people we talked with confirmed that.
“I do not regret the decision at all, but I’ll go back and say I still view it as one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
Pettigrew is survived by his wife, Cassandra, and a son, Antonio Pettigrew Jr.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.