LEOMINSTER, Mass. — Ask Roger Lavoie what he considers to be his closest call, and he will tell you about the escape from the Gravestone of Fire at the Barre Sportsman’s Club.

He had been invited to commemorate the club’s reopening and was going to perform one of his signature feats of escape. The Gravestone of Fire involved shackling his hands and head into a stockade from which he had to free himself before a pile of gunpowder ignited beneath his face.

Ironically, the reason the club was being reopened was because it had just been rebuilt after a fire.

“I went there, but I had been drinking, I was smoking some marijuana. I wasn’t quite as on my toes or as sharp as I should have been,” recalled Lavoie, who is in his early 70s.

Typically the escape took about 25 seconds, which was enough time for him to pick both pairs of handcuffs. He’d pretend to struggle through the first pair to build suspense, which meant the fire would usually burst into a 6-foot-tall blaze just seconds after he got free of the second pair of cuffs.



“But this time they jammed, and I couldn’t wiggle it loose…” he said. “I lost my mustache, my beard, my eyebrows, my eyelashes. I was burned all over, and when I got home my wife said to me, ‘I told you.”‘

Burned-off facial hair is just one of the prices you have to be willing to pay as a professional escape artist.

It’s been decades since Lavoie’s escape in Barre. His mustache has since grown back, but there are also other, more significant changes.

A Leominster native who spent much of the first half of his life in and out of jail, he now credits God for helping him turn his life around, a story he recounts in his new book, “I Escaped to Tell You … The Story of Mister Escape.”

Before his 22 years as a professional escape artist, Lavoie led a life of crime that saw him imprisoned for nearly a decade in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. While he didn’t go into a lot of detail, he did admit to stealing a car and having had issues with drugs.

Not surprisingly, it was this continued experience of being locked away that inspired him to pursue a career in escape artistry.



“I always ended up incarcerated, and locks were final. Once you hear that iron door clang shut, you’re locked in that cell,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to open them without keys … I said that I wanted to be able to hear that ‘click’ and know I’m free.”

At the behest of a Fitchburg-based escape artist named Norman Bigelow, Lavoie enrolled himself in a lock-and-safe school, eventually graduating as a certified locksmith.

“I thought he was crazy,” said Lavoie’s brother, Robert. “All of it kept us worried. Probably 50 percent was being worried about him hurting himself during an escape and 50 percent was worrying about him being bad and getting locked up long term.”

Over the course of the next 20 years, Lavoie embarked on a career that saw him traveling from town to town, trying to find new scenarios from which to escape.

He once locked himself inside a trunk with a 10-foot boa constrictor. At a show in Turners Falls, he escaped from an oil drum filled with a collection of angry tarantulas. He also performed underwater escapes, sometimes jumping off bridges with a ball and chain secured to one ankle.



For his first public performance, he escaped from a straitjacket while hanging upside-down from a crane, 60 feet above the ground.

He even performed on television several times, once as a guest on “Good Morning America,” and did some escapes for charitable events. He escaped from a jail cell at the Gardner Police Station in less than two minutes to raise money for the United Way, an accomplishment he refers to as the highlight of his life.

All the while, Lavoie’s encounters with the police continued, though he never used his talents to break the law.

“There was one time that I was arrested, and they knew I was an escape artist, so they stamped ‘escape risk’ in red ink all over my papers,” he said. “After that I wouldn’t tell them I was an escape artist.”

There were also the times in which Lavoie couldn’t get free, even when he tried.


He once dropped the shim he was using to pick the locks during an underwater escape in a pool in Greenfield and had to be pulled from the water by a lifeguard.

“He’s been through a lot, maybe more than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Philip Cebula, a pastor at ExcelChurch in Leominster. “There have been the broken marriages, he’s had children who have suffered or even died, all of these different crises when he was locked up and couldn’t be out to even attend a funeral.”

Lavoie said a pivotal moment in his life was when he was participating in a contest in Gardner. At the time, he had a standing bet with any law-enforcement officer, locksmith or fellow escape artist to find a pair of handcuffs from which he couldn’t break free. He would promise to pay $100 if he couldn’t do it, but if he did escape he would get to keep the handcuffs.

When a Gardner police officer challenged him to break out of an antique pair of shackles handed down from his great-grandfather, Lavoie couldn’t resist.

But when he was nearly free, he realized that he was having a change of heart.

“I could see this expression on his face of him realizing he was about to lose his family heirloom. I’m looking at him as I’m about to finish and I realize I couldn’t keep this guy’s cuffs,” he said. “I realized that I could actually feel for the authorities after all the times they put handcuffs on me.”



Lavoie said he was able to build on his experience with the Gardner police officer and started caring more for others.

If you ask him, he’ll tell you that his greatest escape of all came in 1994, when a religious awakening made him give up on crime and bad habits once and for all. He’s since retired from escape artistry and joined the ExcelChurch of Leominster.

“It’s been a 100 percent change,” said Robert Lavoie. “He even brought me a Bible one day about 20 years ago and before you knew it, he had me going to church too. He’s had a fantastic turnaround.”

His past behind him, and his career at a close, Lavoie now spends his days helping set others free.

As much as “I Escaped to Tell You…” is the book of an escape artist’s life and the faith he eventually found, it’s also intended to be a guide for others to break free from whatever chains them down.

“I want that book to get into the hands of convicts, felons, inmates – male or female – anyone who can’t break that cycle of being locked up,” he said. “The reason I wrote the book was to educate the public to the fact there is always hope, no matter where you are.”

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