Acrobat who died in fall lacked safety gear

Times Staff Writers

Before Roberto Valenzuela launched into his daredevil acrobatic act in the upper reaches of the Circo Hermanos Vazquez big top, ringmaster Jesus Vazquez issued his standard dramatic warning to the circus audience: “A screw that loosens or a cord that breaks could be fatal.”

But as the popular Mexican circus performer took his act before hundreds of adults and children in South El Monte on Monday night, the warning took on tragic meaning.

Valenzuela was performing a series of maneuvers while dangling from two 26-foot-long red cloths when equipment connecting cables to the material broke, sending the performer hurtling headfirst to the ground.


He was killed instantly.

The circus was founded in Mexico City in 1969 and employs about 30 animal trainers, clowns and acrobats.

The company followed Latino population growth in the United States beginning in the mid-1990s, starting a troupe based in Brownsville, Texas, and playing dates in that state and California.

Officials from the state workplace safety agency Cal/OSHA and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department launched separate investigations into the accident. State investigators recovered bolts and other materials that apparently fell from Valenzuela’s rigging.

Agency spokesman Dean Fryer said a preliminary inquiry has found that the circus may have violated state laws by allowing Valenzuela to perform stunts without equipment to protect him from a fall.

Circus officials confirmed Tuesday that Valenzuela had no safety netting or harness during his performance and it appeared that shackles connecting cables to his cloth strips failed.

State investigators said they were told by circus officials that Valenzuela, 35, was an independent contractor, which appeared to preclude the state from taking regulatory action against the circus.


“Our responsibility is to safeguard employees on job sites,” Fryer said. “Under the law, we only have jurisdiction where there is an employment relationship as opposed to a contractual one.”

Cal/OSHA could take action, he added, if it determined that circus officials dictated aspects of Valenzuela’s performance.

Circus officials said the accident was the first in their 10 years of operating in the United States. State records show the company had no previous record of any workplace incident or violations. It was also a rare circus performer death in California.

County officials on Tuesday offered grief counseling to the hundreds of spectators, especially children, who witnessed Valenzuela’s death, which took place about 6:30 p.m. Monday. The circus was having its final performance at the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area as part of its Southern California tour.

Witnesses said circus officials abruptly ushered patrons out of the big top after the accident, which upset many children in attendance.

Abraham Altemimi told KABC-TV Channel 7 that it was his 9-year-old daughter’s first visit to the circus -- and perhaps her last.


“They were running from different directions ... trying to get people out of the circus,” he said. “She was terrified. It was horrible. I cried after that.”

On the circus website, fans and friends left their condolences for the acrobat.

“I had the blessing to be there on Sunday the 29th to see the last successful performance and today I feel dismayed by what happened,” Lupita Luna Jimenez of Pico Rivera wrote in Spanish. “I could see that every one of you prayed for God to bless you and protect you before your performance. You risked your lives in every show.”

Members of the troupe were in mourning Tuesday, though they dismantled the big top in South El Monte and moved on to Panorama City, where on Friday they were scheduled to begin a new series of performances.

“I can feel the sadness in all my colleagues,” said Vazquez, the ringmaster and a member of the family that owns the circus. “But the show must go on.”

A native of Veracruz, Mexico, who lived part time in Brownsville, Valenzuela had been performing acrobatics for 10 years, the last four with Circo Hermanos Vazquez.

Fellow performers described him as a quiet, humble man who was a devout Catholic and regularly prayed to La Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos, a revered patron saint in Mexico.


An avid dancer, he traveled with his small dog, Casimiro, and whenever possible went to the gym where he perfected his sculpted physique.

Circus officials said Valenzuela went through his normal routine, which involved setting up and checking the rigging used to hoist him into the air. Clad in red trunks, he was lifted about 15 feet off the ground via the drapes that were attached to cables.

Vazquez said he had just given the audience his dramatic introduction when he saw Valenzuela fall to the ground.

At first, everyone looked, believing that Valenzuela was only hurt. But when a firefighter hired by the circus to provide medical aid began attending to him, it soon became apparent that he had suffered serious head injuries.

State officials said they could not recall a similar incident in California in the last decade. And despite the hype about “death-defying” feats, circus deaths appear to be rare.

In 2004, a circus performer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fell 30 feet to her death on a concrete floor in an accident similar to the one in South El Monte. In that case, which occurred in Minnesota, Dessi Espana, 32, was twirling on long chiffon scarves when they loosened, sending her to the ground.


Don Curtis, president of the Circus Fans Assn. of America, said that because of safety measures, it is rare for performers to be injured or killed.

“The circus is a place where performers live dangerously every day,” Curtis said. “That’s part of the attraction to the public.”

Times staff writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.