GUEST CONTRIBUTION: LASWELL by Tim Howard
We discussed the wind and he walked away, I thought he was coming back with the microphone to cancel the jump but then I heard him speeding toward the ramp… Doug Mac Valley
Overton NV is a small desert community originally settled by Mormons during the late 19th century. Between Lake Mead and Valley of Fire State Park, it is now a busy interchange on I15 between Vegas and St. George UT. This is where Butch Laswell spent his formative years.
Growing up, Sherman Dwayne “Butch” Laswell idolized Evel Knievel. As a youngster he was always building ramps and jumping over things with his bicycle. He received his first motorcycle as a teen and began desert racing. Butch became an accomplished desert racer, but his passion remained stunts. During his late teen years, he maintained a burgeoning career on the racing circuit and pursued his dream as a showman. Laswell barnstormed across the Southwest performing wheelie shows and jumping various vehicles using homemade ramps. In 1981, he took it to another level.
Between the Muddy and the Virgin Rivers, adjacent to Overton, is the 1900’ high Mormon Mesa. It was here in April 1981 that Butch Laswell’s motorcycle showman side hustle became a full-time vocation. On the mesa, he jumped his bike 180’ breaking the world’s long-distance jump record. For the next fifteen years Laswell built a career as a jumper. There were appearances in TV programs and commercials. The newly nicknamed Leapin’ Laswell performed around the globe. He had a stint in a Vegas strip hotel revue. There were more world records. In the early 90’s Butch created his own niche by focusing his jumps on height rather than length. In 92 he established the record for the highest ramp to ramp aerial jump at 41 feet. During this period Laswell completed over 5000 jumps without incident.
In 1976 William “Si” Redd purchased the Western Village truck stop in Mesquite NV. A windy, dusty desert town situated on the Arizona border about eighty miles from Vegas, Mesquite had no casinos at the time. Redd converted the truck stop into the town’s first- the Peppermill Resort. Mr. Redd and his wife felt that Mesquite could be the next Palm Springs. Several years later they expanded the casino and changed the name to Si Redd’s Oasis. Another expansion followed in 1995. This added a pedestrian bridge across Mesquite Blvd. In 1996 it was announced that local boy made good Laswell would attempt to jump the bridge. The planned jump would break his personal best and current world record of 41’ high for a ramp to ramp jump.
It has been said that Redd spent $100K to create and promote the event. Rumor has it that Butch was paid three grand. Friends of Laswell would later say that he wasn’t doing this jump for the money. The Guinness Book of World Records would be on site. Two film crews were working the event. The local crowd was expected to be sizable. This could make The Original Motorcycle High Jumper a household name.
The Oasis pedestrian bridge is 38’ high. The approach ramp was 4’ wide, landing ramp 12’ wide. The ramps, built by Team Laswell, were very steep- 27’ high at a 45-degree angle. The plan was for Butch to hit the approach ramp at 75 MPH. It was estimated that the apex of the jump would be 51’ breaking Laswell’s standing record by 10’. The distance across was approximately 100’.
March 10, 1996 was a windy day in Mesquite. With so much riding on this event the last thing Team Laswell wanted to do was cancel or postpone. Butch warmed up the crowd by performing wheelies up and down the boulevard. This served two purposes- stalling a raucous crowd and confirming the bike’s worthiness. Planned jump time was 3PM. Laswell continued to stall waiting for a break from the desert wind. As the afternoon wore on, the alcohol-fueled horde began to heckle Team Laswell. At 3:38PM Butch accelerated toward the approach ramp. It was later estimated that he was traveling at least 85MPH instead of the planned 75MPH. This may explain why it appears that his apex was 65’ instead of the intended 51’. Video of the event clearly shows a nearby American flag fully unfurled in the wind. Spectators report it appeared Butch was trying to coax the bike sideways while mid-air. He missed the landing ramp by several feet and crashed to the pavement from six stories high. When the bike hit the street, his throat and chest impacted the handlebars.
Nevada has seen many interesting and eccentric characters over the years. Dr. Lonnie Hammargren must be included in this group. The self-proclaimed “Neurosurgeon for the Gladiators” has led an extraordinary life. Doctor, Viet Nam vet, politician, local celebrity, and museum curator are a few of his past positions. As a physician, Lonnie has treated boxers, actors, race car drivers, and motorcycle jumpers including both Knievels and a local kid named Laswell. Lonnie met Butch at a Boulder City 4th of July parade in 1995 which Hammargren was attending in his capacity as Lieutenant Governor of Nevada and Laswell was performing at. Butch likely knew of Lonnie’s connection to the Knievels and invited him to a jump he performed on the Strip later that year.
In early March of 96 Lieutenant Governor Hammargren had temporarily been shouldered with the duties of Acting Governor while Governor Bob Miller was out of the country on vacation. Two days prior to the jump, Butch’s manager contacted Lonnie and invited him out to Mesquite to attend the event. The Lieutenant Governor tentatively agreed if he could fit it in his weekend schedule. Initially the Oasis offered to send a helicopter to pick him up which Lonnie agreed would be helpful. Later that day the hotel advised the chopper was not available due to a scheduling issue. Hammargren drove out from Vegas on the day of the event. Lonnie brought a leather suit originally worn by Robbie Knievel that had been cut off him following an accident. This was from the Doctor’s extensive memorabilia collection at the Hammargren House of Nevada History (AKA Lonnie’s home). The Doctor introduced himself to Susan Hardy who oversaw the local EMT crew covering the event. He showed her the suit and wanted to make sure the paramedics had large enough scissors in case of an emergency. Lonnie also wanted to establish that he was Laswell’s requested personal physician. According to Hammargren, she was dismissive. Lonnie then pressed the issue with Butch’s manager, Doug Mac Valley, who supposedly corrected the misunderstanding.
After the crash, the paramedics rushed to Butch. His team followed close behind and grabbed the bike which was on its side. The throttle must have stuck after hitting the ground because the engine was still screaming at high RPMs. Dr. Hammargren was behind the EMTs trying to get closer to Laswell. Lonnie would later tell the media that he was pushed aside by burly paramedics while trying to perform a tracheotomy which he felt would have saved Butch’s life. Laswell was then transported via ambulance south on I15 towards Vegas. As Acting Governor, Lonnie was forced to follow behind with a state trooper. Both Hammargren and Hardy both claim to have ordered the helicopter which met them at an off ramp away from Mesquite. Butch’s manager later stated that the flight nurse shouted to the highway patrol to “Get Hammargren out of here” however they let Lonnie board the chopper. Butch Laswell passed away moments later in route to Las Vegas.
Weeks later, the Clark County Health Department held a hearing to review the incident. At the hearing Susan Hardy provided her recollection of the day’s events. She stated that early in the day a man in a rattlesnake hat introduced himself as Dr. Lonnie Hammargren. Ms. Hardy said he asked about details of the rescue team’s plan in case of an accident but never mentioned that he was a member of the medical team. This directly contradicted Lonnie’s earlier statements to the media. Susan further stated that crowd control was poor and that shortly after the EMT’s got to Butch, they were closely surrounded by a large group smelling of alcohol and several cameramen. According to her it was at this point Lonnie requested a knife from one of the paramedics who asked him to step back so they could finish preparing Laswell for transport. It was Hardy’s opinion that it was best to remove the patient from the melee as soon as possible and get him to a trauma center. The official report from the Clark County Coroner states that cause of death was “asphyxiation due to crushed larynx.” Other injuries determined in the autopsy were released to family members only. Unofficial reports from the helicopter crew indicate that there was sizable internal bleeding. Dr. Hammargren continued to maintain privately and publicly that if he had been allowed to perform a tracheotomy, Butch Laswell could have survived.
Until recently Lonnie continued to open his home/emporium to the public every year on Nevada Day. Recent health issues have paused this long time Las Vegas tradition. The subprime mortgage crisis hit Southern Nevada particularly hard. The Oasis was a victim of its aftermath and eventually demolished. The pedestrian walkway is now a “bridge to nowhere” spanning Mesquite Boulevard. A year after the jump, Si Redd dedicated a plaque at its base dedicating the structure to Sherman D. “Butch” Laswell. Meanwhile Mesquite has enjoyed a resurgence as a golf and retirement community.
Las Vegas Sun archives
Las Vegas Review Journal archives
Deseret News archives
Neurosurgeon for the Gladiators by Dr. Lonnie Hammargren
Figure 1 Bridge to Nowhere
Figure 2 Bridge Dedication