Vince McMahon stands accused of covering up the alleged rape of a WWE wrestler—who later died by apparent suicide—at a military base in Kuwait and of sexually harassing her, according to legal documents and people who knew her. John Laurinaitis, a former WWE executive and McMahon’s co-defendant in an explosive civil sex trafficking lawsuit, is also implicated; his lawyer objected to the use of the term “cover-up,” but confirmed that Laurinaitis knew about the rape allegations and said “most upper level management” did, contradicting WWE’s claim that executives were never made aware of them.
In a sworn affidavit her lawyer released in 2019, after her death, former wrestler Ashley Massaro said that she was injected with a paralyzing drug and raped by someone representing himself as a U.S. Army doctor while on tour with WWE in Kuwait in 2006. Massaro also said that top executives at the company, including McMahon and Laurinaitis, told her not to talk about the incident and agreed to not talk about it themselves, in part to preserve the company’s relationship with the military.
“He told me not to let one bad experience ruin the good work they were doing,” Massaro said of McMahon in the affidavit.
VICE News can report for the first time that the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service opened an investigation into Massaro's allegations in June 2019. That investigation was closed in January 2020, according to an NCIS spokesperson. Further information, they said, could not be immediately released, as it would need to be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the years since the affidavit was released, new information had come to light to corroborate some of Massaro’s claims and cast doubt on WWE’s subsequent denial even before the statement from Laurinaitis’ lawyer. Paul London, a former WWE wrestler who dated Massaro when they were both with the company, has also since said that Massaro was herself a victim of McMahon’s sexual misconduct. The allegations appear in a new light following the filing of a civil lawsuit accusing McMahon and Laurinaitis of raping a WWE employee and McMahon of covering it up by strong-arming her into signing a non-disclosure agreement. (Both have denied the allegations.)
“I’m not surprised by any of it,” London said of the recent claims against McMahon on a podcast released last week. He compared WWE to NXVIM, the cult led by now-convicted sex trafficker Keith Raniere.
Are you a current or former female WWE wrestler with a story to tell, or wondering if there’s a point to speaking out? Contact reporters covering sex trafficking at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra security, download the Signal app to a non-work device and text us there at 267-713-9832. Confidentiality assured.
“Any allegations that Mr. Laurinaitus helped to cover up an alleged rape allegation is an outright lie,” wrote Laurinaitis’ lawyer, Edward Brennan, in response to questions about Massaro’s allegations. “Johnny, like most upper level management at sometime became aware of the allegations and ensured all proper WWE protocols were followed, including privacy for the alleged victim. We object to the use of the term cover up as no such plan or plot ever took place to hide or assist in the alleged rape.”
A spokesperson for TKO, WWE’s parent company, declined to comment, and a lawyer said to represent McMahon did not respond to requests for comment. Neither McMahon nor Laurinaitis is now associated with WWE, with McMahon resigning as chairman of TKO the day after the sex trafficking suit was filed.
Massaro’s road to WWE stardom was far from traditional—and, she said in her affidavit, rife with mistreatment from the start. In 2005, she was cast in the Diva Search, a reality competition of sorts that aired as part of the company's flagship Raw program. As the winner, Massaro received a WWE contract and—despite being, she would later say, completely untrained—immediately joined Raw as a wrestler. (While wrestling has predetermined outcomes, working with another wrestler to safely execute even basic maneuvers requires intense training.) Over the next three years, she performed as a wrestler and valet—a woman who accompanies a male wrestler to the ring—and represented the WWE brand as a Survivor contestant and Playboy model before being released in 2008.
In 2016, Massaro joined a lawsuit brought by a number of former wrestlers against McMahon and WWE, seeking damages related to the effects of traumatic brain injuries they said they suffered while wrestling. According to a filing in that suit, Massaro said that she had been sexually assaulted in Kuwait and that Ferdinand Rios, a WWE doctor, had reported the incident to “WWE executives who soon thereafter met with Massaro to apologize for their negligence but persuaded her that it would be best not to report it to appropriate authorities.”
In a filing the next month, WWE called the claim a “stale and baseless allegation” and denied Massaro had ever reported a sexual assault to anyone affiliated with WWE, saying she had been heard telling others that the doctor “had done an inappropriate pelvic exam.” (As headlines at the time about doctor Larry Nassar molesting hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment would have made clear, this can itself be a form of sexual assault.)
A judge dismissed the case in 2018, after which plaintiffs’ lawyer Konstantine Kyros, whom the judge had sanctioned and ordered to pay WWE’s fees, filed the first in an ongoing series of appeals. Asked for comment, Kyros provided a link showing he has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear an appeal—it has previously declined to do so—and noted that Massaro’s affidavit was made under oath to a federal judge.
The matter sat there until May 2019, when Massaro died; while authorities declined to publicly state the cause of death, it was reported—and her survivors have not disputed—that it was by suicide. Subsequently, Kyros published in full the sworn affidavit Massaro had signed in November 2017, in which she detailed the allegations about her rape and WWE’s response; it can be read in full here.
In the affidavit, Massaro describes events that she says took place on a 2006 WWE tour—the year is incorrectly given as 2007 in the document—of U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait on which she and several other performers and staffers took part. (None could be reached for comment.) Suffering from dehydration, the statement says, she was taken to a military base, where she was given an IV and left alone. After a couple of hours, a man representing himself as an Army doctor and a woman in fatigues, she said, appeared, administered another IV, and took her to another room.
(Massaro, according to a source with knowledge, was taken to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, where the clinic would have been staffed by Navy, rather than Army, personnel. This would explain why NCIS handled the case even though Massaro said the rapist purported to be an Army doctor.)
“The woman guarded the door,” the statement says, “while the man proceeded to inject me with a drug that caused me to be unable to move my body or to scream. The man then proceeded to violently rape and sodomize me. I was completely helpless to defend myself against this attack as the drug he injected rendered me temporarily paralyzed. Despite being unable to control my movements, I remained fully conscious for every second of the attack.”
Eventually, the statement says, a WWE staffer began banging on the door; the man and woman covered her with a quilt and left the room, and the staffer carried her away and brought her back to her hotel room. The sequence of events given in the statement, including Massaro falling ill, going for medical attention, and then being brought back to the hotel, is broadly consistent with the one described in a 2006 blog post published on WWE’s website by Jimmy Hart, one of the performers on the tour.
Massaro, the statement says, was not in position to have a rape kit taken, and did not report the incident to authorities; she told fellow performers about what had happened, but told them not to report it to anyone. After she returned to the U.S., though, Ferdinand Rios, the WWE doctor, questioned her about the incident. She agreed to tell him what had happened as long as he didn’t tell anyone else; subsequently, though, the statement says, he informed McMahon, and she was summoned to a meeting with McMahon, Laurinaitis, WWE production chief Kevin Dunn, and other men she didn’t recognize but believed to be company executives or lawyers.
(Dunn, who left WWE last month after more than 40 years of serving as one of McMahon’s loyal right-hand men, could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for TKO did not provide contact information for a representative for Dunn when asked.)
“Vince,” the statement reads, “led the meeting with these men and asked me to recount what happened in Kuwait. Then he said it was not in the best interest of the WWE for me to make the information about my attack public. I was still completely traumatized at that point and I just agreed. It was clear that there had already been a conversation and that they had reached a decision on their own prior to consulting with me as this was not a debate but rather Vince instructing me to keep this confidential.
“Vince did at least apologize for what I went through, but then stressed that if I disclosed this incident it would ruin the relationship between the WWE and the US Military. He told me not to let one bad experience ruin the good work they were doing.”
In a statement issued after the publication of the affidavit, WWE denied its claims.
“At no time was Vince McMahon or the management of WWE ever informed by Ashley Massaro or anybody else that she had been sexually assaulted, drugged, raped or sodomized by a military doctor with a nurse standing guard while on a goodwill tour in 2007 to U.S. military bases in Kuwait,” read the statement.
“At no time was there ever a meeting with Vince McMahon, Kevin Dunn, John Laurinaitis or other company executives in which she told them of such a claim and was instructed to keep it quiet."
According to what Laurinaitis says—which is corroborated by an interview given last fall by Rios, the doctor—that statement was not true. A TKO spokesperson declined to comment on whether WWE stands by its denial.
A paradox of pro wrestling is that for all the secrecy surrounding its inner workings, there is a remarkable amount of media in which insiders freely discuss them, an entire ecosystem of podcasts and streams where current and former performers discuss how things actually work, what people are really like behind the scenes, and what they saw during their careers. As part of that ecosystem, Massaro’s story has been kept alive in the years since her death by wrestling fans and media, and also by people who knew her.
On one of these podcasts, Cafe de Rene, hosted by former WWE wrestler Rene Dupree, Paul London discussed Massaro last year. London and Massaro were linked together both off- and on-screen in her time with WWE, as the two dated and she also served as his valet. At the time the podcast was recorded, McMahon had recently returned to WWE after resigning in the wake of Wall Street Journal reporting about secret non-disclosure agreements he’d signed and allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against him.
“I do remember specifically many times when she would be crying to me because Vince was propositioning her to fly on the jet with them,” he said. “Kevin Dunn, Bucktooth Bucky, would be telling her that she has to fly on the jet with them, or every now and then, she was at the—they would always put the divas up at the tv hotel or whatever, [McMahon] would be knocking on her door and trying to get her to answer. I’m shocked this Vince stuff is just now coming out.”
London described WWE as “an onion of destitution” in another interview on the same podcast just over a week ago. “It’s a really disgusting onion full of just layers and layers and layers. As you say, what’s known in the wrestling business is, believe none of what you hear and half of what you see, so there’s always that weighing on one thing. But of course I’m going to believe my girlfriend at the time, especially when I can see her physically shaken and disturbed.
“She was a good actress, but she wasn’t that good an actress.”
A representative for London did not respond to an email; a TKO spokesperson specifically declined to comment on London’s implication that McMahon had harassed or coerced Massaro. (Kyros, Massaro’s lawyer, suggested that her career ended at least in part because she rejected McMahon’s advances on the Banfield Podcast this week.)
Last September, Audible released a podcast called Ashley vs WWE, in which people who knew Massaro offered new corroboration of claims made in the affidavit. Some of this was less specific, such as her cousin saying she’d intimated that someone had attempted to rape her, her best friend saying Massaro had told her that a doctor did something to her and that it was swept under the rug, and an unnamed source saying Massaro had told them that she’d been sexually assaulted and urged by WWE to keep it quiet.
More specific new information reported by the podcast, though, contradicts WWE’s past denials. Reporter Isobel Thompson talked to London, who described Massaro feeling trapped, frightened, and preyed upon when McMahon and Dunn would pressure her to fly on the company jet or when McMahon would come knocking on her hotel door at night. He said that she had told him she was raped after returning from Kuwait, and that she had met with WWE executives who told her not to say anything about it.
Thompson also reached Ferdinand Rios, the WWE doctor whom Massaro told about the rape and whom she said reported it to McMahon, according to the affidavit.
Rios, who did not return a message left with his office, confirmed to Thompson that while the details are a bit unclear in his memory due to the passage of time, he does remember that Massaro told him about the rape after returning to the U.S. from Kuwait. “I spoke with her and she told me a little bit about it,” he said. He further said that it was fairly widely known within WWE at the time. “Those that went would tell those that didn’t go that this happened,” he said.
While he said he does believe Massaro’s story, his recollection differs from what’s recounted in the affidavit in one key particular. While she stated that he told McMahon about the incident, he remembers that it was common knowledge and a subject of gossip, and that he approached Laurinaitis about it—only to find he was already aware.
“He already knew and no one wanted to give me any further details about it,” said Rios. “I had nothing to do with it, they said. So, it was just sort of a shock. You know when you’re restricted from saying anything else.”
(“At some point Johnny heard about the allegations in general, i.e. that Ms. Massaro claimed she had been assaulted in Kuwait,” wrote Brennan, Laurinaitis’ lawyer, in an email. “As to when McMahon found about the allegations, Johnny has no idea as to when or whether.”)
“She was extremely special,” London said of Massaro, speaking of her to Thompson. “I felt extremely fortunate to be in her life and to have her in my life.”