Kansas City
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Inquiry Into Wrestler's Fall Now Criminal Investigation
Christine Vendel
The Kansas City Star

Police now are conducting a criminal investigation into the death of professional wrestler Owen Hart because they wonder if the equipment he was using was appropriate for the stunt.

Hart, 34, died at a World Wrestling Federation show May 23 at Kemper Arena. He was preparing to descend into the ring when a quick release mechanism on the back of a harness he was wearing opened prematurely.

Hart dropped 78 feet to the ring below. Police initially said the drop was about 90 feet but have since revised their estimate.

"In looking at the rigging, I have a concern whether this was the safest way to do this stunt," Police Maj. Gregory Mills said of the equipment.

Mills said detectives will try to answer several questions in the criminal investigation, including:

Was the equipment right for the stunt?

If so, was it being used in the right way?

And was Owen Hart properly trained to use the equipment?

"We will be seeking expert advice to help us draw some conclusions," Mills said. "We can't say if it was right or wrong or if due caution was taken. What we do know is that in attempting to do that stunt, Owen Hart died."

Mills said the investigation is not focused on a particular suspect.

"The investigation at this point is focused on a particular set of circumstances and we have to figure out who was involved in those circumstances," Mills said.

If someone is charged in the case, the charge likely would be involuntary manslaughter, which involves reckless conduct that causes a person's death, police said. Prosecutors would have to prove the defendant disregarded a substantial risk and deviated from what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances.

The charge carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, said Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Hunt.

Hart's family did not want to be contacted, said family attorney Gary C. Robb.

The Hart family is following with interest this ongoing criminal investigation," he said. "We are proceeding with our own investigation into a civil wrongful death lawsuit."

No civil lawsuit has been filed.

The stunt that led to Hart's death was intended to slowly lower Hart by rope into the wrestling ring from a catwalk just below the ceiling at Kemper Arena. Once in the ring, Hart was supposed to trigger a quick release mechanism that would detach him from the rope.

Three workers were on the catwalk with Hart before the stunt: two stagehands from the Kansas City area and a rigger from Florida, all hired by the Wrestling Federation.

The rigger told police he connected a ring on Hart's vest to a snap hook, and connected the snap hook to a ring on the end of the rope.

Then Hart stepped off the catwalk, putting his full weight onto the rope. The rigger lowered Hart until Hart's head was about even with the rigger's knees.

The rigger told police he saw Hart adjusting his vest and "Blue Blazer" costume as he dangled in midair, waiting for music to cue his descent. The rigger said, he heard the distinctive "snap" that the quick release mechanism makes when it opens. The rigger peered over the catwalk and saw that Hart had landed in the ring below.

Experts at the Kansas City Crime Lab told Mills that Hart plunged into the wrestling ring at a speed of 50 mph. The impact ruptured Hart's aorta, causing him to bleed to death internally.

"He was not pushed and the equipment that was to lower him to the floor does not appear to have been tampered with," Mills said. "We know someone else did not pull the ring to trigger the quick release."

"It happened while Owen Hart was hanging there. He was the only one there when it happened. His fall had nothing to do with an overt act by someone else."

Officials from the Wrestling Federation did not return telephone calls Wednesday. The rigger who oversaw Hart's stunt could not be reached for comment.

Keith Woulard, a professional stunt man who lives in the Los Angeles area, said the stunt Hart was attempting was not unusual. He said, however, that when he performs similar stunts, he uses a secondary rope as a precaution.

"You release the secondary rope just before they say, Action," said Woulard, who is a member of the International Stunt Association. "Then you release the primary line when you're ready to detach from the rope."

Woulard said being suspended by a vest and rope is cramped, which is another reason to have a secondary rope. "People get restless," he said. "Why take chances?"

Another stunt man, Henry Kingi Jr., who lives in the Los Angeles area, said when he has performed similar stunts, he waited until the last minute to put his full weight on the rope.

"A few minutes in the harness is uncomfortable," he said. "It can cut the blood supply off to you if you're there too long."

Woulard and Kingi said the performer's weight is a factor in what kind of equipment to use. Heavier performers need stronger quick release mechanisms. Hart weighed about 230 pounds.

Both men said it was not unusual to have the quick release triggered by a single motion. Kingi, however, said there are different kinds of release mechanisms available.

Hart was using a tear-dropped shape mechanism that opened like handcuffs. Kingi said he prefers a three-ring mechanism.

"With the 3-ring, if you pulled the trigger out an inch, you wouldn't go anywhere," Kingi said. "You'd have to completely pull it out for the rope to detach."

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