Man Who Billed Himself As Escape Artist Dies In Halloween Stunt

FRESNO, Calif. - An escape artist who modeled himself after Harry Houdini died in a Halloween stunt when tons of dirt and wet cement collapsed the coffin in which he had locked himself.

Joseph W. Burrus, 32, who called himself ``Amazing Joe,'' died yesterday at Blackbeard's Family Fun Center, police Lt. Roger Enmark said. The exact cause of death was not determined.

About 150 people, including some relatives, watched as aides frantically dug at the dirt and cement to try to rescue Burrus from the artificial grave.

Before the stunt, Burrus said he considered himself a successor to the great escape artist Houdini, who died Oct. 31, 1926.

``I consider myself a master of illusion and an escape artist. I believe I am the next Houdini and greater,'' Burrus said. ``To me, that is what an escape artist is: to put myself in an impossible situation and get out of it.''

Burrus volunteered to do the stunt to benefit The Third Floor, a drug rehabilitation program, program manager Charles Lewis said.

``He told me he had perfected this act and said he was a recovering addict and wanted to do this show as a benefit,'' Lewis said.

Burrus was handcuffed, wrapped in chains, locked inside the coffin, lowered into a 7-foot-deep grave and buried.

Aides had lowered the coffin halfway when Burrus knocked on the sides to tell them the chains were choking him, assistant Sean Henderson said.

They opened the casket so Burrus could loosen a chain around his neck, then locked it again.

Aides shoveled about three feet of dirt into the hole. A cement truck poured another three feet of wet cement into the grave.

``As soon as we finished and the truck pulled away, the whole thing dropped. The cement busted the coffin. It buried him alive,'' Henderson said.