His greatest wish was to escape from the water chamber that ended Harry Houdini’s life. His signature feat was wriggling out of a straitjacket and chains while dangling by his feet from a rope hung over busy city streets. But Sam Ross wisely decided to put his skills on hold while on ice at the Umatilla County Jail in August of 1980.
Ross, a 25-year-old escape artist, traveled with a portfolio of newspaper clipping detailing his daring escapes in places like Richmond, Va., Atlantic City, N.J., Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego and more. He began experimenting with escapes at the age of 15, and wriggled out of his first straitjacket two years later in Boston. After three years in the Navy, Ross began a swing through the country in 1978 and 1979, startling passersby with his death-defying stunts. Newspapers were always given a heads-up before the performance, though he was foiled from an escape try on Hoover Dam when a story was published in advance and the Bureau of Reclamation put the kibosh on his plans.
“People think it’s crazy for some reason,” said Ross. “I don’t know why; it’s normal to me.”
But normal took a back seat after Ross was introduced to heroin in San Diego in 1979. A life of crime followed to support a $100-a-day habit, including petty thefts in Las Vegas and Reno, then felony thefts of silverware, guns and a car from a home north of Pendleton. Ross turned himself in to San Diego police after ditching the car and fencing the stolen goods. He was returned to Pendleton and sequestered in the Umatilla County Jail’s maximum security section — with an extra heavy chain and padlock added to his door for good measure.
“When he listed his occupation, he said ‘escape artist,’” sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Campbell said. “So naturally we put him back there. What else do you do with an escape artist?” Ross was eventually moved to a lower security part of the jail with other prisoners.
So did he try to escape? “I’m just gonna do my time and get it over with. ... Try and get myself straightened out,” Ross said. His post-jail plans included a Halloween stunt to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, where he would be outfitted in a straitjacket, 50 pounds of chains, arm and leg shackles, and hung by a rope 30 feet over swords. The rope would then be set alight, giving him about 60 seconds to make his escape.