Robot-skit blast death probed * Ohio man dies before 8,000 at Arena after device on his chest explodes.


The state medical examiner's office is investigating the cause of death of a man who was killed in front of 8,000 spectators at the Baltimore Arena when a pyrotechnic device strapped to his chest exploded.

Robert J. Murphy, 36, of Painesville, Ohio, was performing a skit with a two-story-tall robot at a "monster truck" show at the arena Saturday night when the accident occurred. He was rushed to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he died on the operating table about 45 minutes after the 10 p.m. accident.

Most of the crowd watching the show, which was nearly finished, was apparently unaware of the accident, said an event sponsor and a spokeswoman for the arena.

The U.S. Hot Rod Red Man All American Pulling Series continued to its completion after the accident. The skit in which Mr. Murphy appeared was canceled for yesterday's final show.

Ned A. Walliser, event director for the U.S. Hot Rod Association, which sponsored shows in Baltimore on Friday and Saturday nights and yesterday afternoon, said Mr. Murphy's act was not part of the truck-pulling competition. Rather, the act was an added feature of the shows, provided under contract by a company based in a suburb of Cleveland.

He said the act, which included Mr. Murphy in the role of an "evil" alien fighting with "good-guy" Vorian, a jet dragster that transforms into a fire-breathing robot, is provided by Exhibition Jet Cars Inc. of East Lake, Ohio.

"He just did it as a hobby," Mr. Murphy's wife of 11 years, Janice, said in a telephone interview last night. "He never indicated there was any problem or danger."

Mrs. Murphy said that the jet dragster was driven by her brother, Robert Roach of Mentor, Ohio, and that her husband began performing with the show two months ago to help Mr. Roach.

Edie Brown, a spokeswoman for the arena, said the hot rod association has put on shows in Baltimore for the past seven years without a serious injury. She said the robot act appeared in the truck show at the arena two years ago.

"It is a very popular show," said Ms. Brown, who noted that fewer than 10 people asked for refunds yesterday when they found out the robot act would not be performed.

The Baltimore police homicide unit said the pyrotechnic device, used to shoot off sparks during the mock fight between alien and robot, exploded. Police said the detonation shot a quarter-inch thick piece of sheet metal, used as a protective shield, into Mr. Murphy's chest, puncturing his liver.

A spectator who was at the show with his wife and two children called The Sun yesterday and said he was offended by repeated exhortations by the announcer, who he said encouraged Vorian to kill the alien, played by Mr. Murphy.

"The traumatic thing about it all," said the man, who refused to give his name, "is that they had a ton of kids in the arena cheering for the death of this alien creature. They really got the kids making a lot of noise."

Bruce Goldsarb, who attended the show Friday night with his wife and 4-year-old son, said he also was offended by the robot, who he said asked the audience, "Should I waste him?" referring to the alien.

"That phrase stuck in my mind," he said. "It's like something they would say in Vietnam. It was completely inappropriate for that kind of audience."

The act involving Vorian began about 9:45 p.m. and lasted about 15 minutes. Vorian starts as a jet-car racer capable of traveling 200 mph. It carries 15 pounds of propane, 60 gallons of hydraulic fuel, has seven on-board computers and is powered by a 12,000-horsepower engine.

The car is driven into the center of the arena, which is lighted only with spotlights. As the crowd chants "Vorian" over and over, the car transforms into a two-story-tall robot.

Through an electronic voice, the robot directs an anti-drug, pro-homework message at children in the audience.

It is then that an alien, called Rytar, enters the arena and tries to debunk Vorian's positive message. Mr. Murphy played the part of Rytar.

According to Mr. Walliser, Vorian tells the audience: "My system prevents me from killing any form of life. But I can strip him of his power. Children, do you want me to strip him of his power?"

The audience answers yes, and Vorian and Rytar engage in a simulated battle, performed using sound effects.

"This is not a John Wayne gun-fight type of deal," said Mr. Walliser.

He said Mr. Murphy had a device on his chest that threw off sparks to simulate being hit. "I saw something out of the ordinary at the end of the show," he said. "He fell. I thought he stumbled and tripped. But he didn't get up."

He said no one was on the arena floor when the accident occurred, and other workers didn't notice something was wrong.

With the house lights still off, an ambulance on standby for the event took Mr. Murphy to the hospital.

Anyone with a videotape of the accident is urged to call Baltimore Police Officer Tony Petralia at 396-2606.

Two weeks ago, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., a "monster truck" bounced out of control and crashed into a crowd during a show, killing an 82-year-old man and injuring seven spectators.

That show, also sponsored by the U.S. Hot Rod Association, involved different performers from those appearing at the arena this weekend.

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