Monday, March 11, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
MESQUITE -- Few will ever know the rush Butch Laswell craved.
It wasn't enough that he held the world record for the highest jump ever atop a motorcycle, having already cleared 41 feet.
He wanted more -- 10 feet more -- a height that drew thousands of spectators Sunday to Si Redd's Oasis hotel-casino about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The professional stuntman promised to make good on his dream by leaping above the resort's skywalk bridge.
And in a fleeting few seconds, a seemingly perfect launch saw the native Las Vegan leap to his death after easily clearing his 51-foot-high goal but drifting off course and missing the landing ramp by about a foot -- a disaster experts are blaming on the wind.
Laswell landed the Honda CR500 on its wheels at 3:35 p.m., but the fall's momentum sent him sliding on his right side, cracking his helmet, as throngs of spectators rushed toward his limp body, screaming in horror.
Paramedics rushed Laswell by ambulance to meet an incoming Flight for Life helicopter along Interstate 15, but he died at 4:39 p.m. at University Medical Center, a nursing supervisor said. Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren, a Las Vegas neurosurgeon, was at the jump and accompanied Laswell on the helicopter.
"It doesn't matter how good you are or what kind of bike you've got," said Eddie Williams, a close friend and training partner of Sherman DeWayne "Butch" Laswell, 38. "When you're up that high, the wind has total control."
Early-morning gusts had the otherwise calm Laswell stressed hours before the jump, Williams said. On Saturday, Williams and Laswell added a few feet of launch and landing ramp for safety.
"He trained the past week out at Overton doing the same height. He was making it no problem," Williams said. Standing outside the crew's hotel room, Williams pointed to the American flag crackling just yards away from the takeoff ramp in the 20 mph southwest wind.
"Butch wanted to back out because of the wind, but there was so much pressure. The people putting on the show, the agents, all the people watching. He thought if he backed out, no one would understand. He thought they would hate him."
More than 5,000 flawless ramp-to-ramp jumps already in his career had heightened the daredevil's confidence. Sources said he was to make a mere $3,000 for Sunday's jump, money he would eventually funnel back into the bike as he had with the small bit of cash other stunts had won him.
Oasis personnel were unavailable to confirm the prize money.
Yet Sunday's challenge was especially threatening: Laswell wasn't able to see the 12-foot-wide landing ramp until after he cleared the bridge, placing critical importance on the precision of his takeoff from the four-foot wide, 23-foot-long launch ramp.
"He put on a damn good show. He always has," said longtime friend Paul Frieze after wheeling the motorcycle, its frame bent, into the crew's hotel room. "But we all knew he could fall sometime, and we all knew about the wind."
Laswell designed the ramps used Sunday as he had the past 28 years after his first attempt to leap the family car on his motorcycle at age 10, friends said.
After years spent racing motorcycles, he began captivating audiences four years ago as one of four featured riders in Splash II's "Globe of Death" stage show at the Riviera hotel-casino.
Laswell lent his talents at steel building to help construct the globe used in the show, which runs twice each night, seven days a week, finding the stuntmen riding upside down inside the sphere amid a flood of laser beams and pyrotechnics.
Ruffy Mugica, stage show manager, said Sunday night's shows would be canceled in honor of Laswell, and tonight's shows would include a moment of reflective silence.
"It's the most quiet I've ever seen it around here before a live show," Mugica said Sunday evening, moments after hearing of his friend's death on the television news.
"More than half of our people were out at Mesquite today to see the show, and the rest of us who couldn't make it were waiting to see it on TV," he said. "We all feel it; he was part of our family. The show's hard enough to do night after night. With this, it's just too painful."