Police investigate death of actor who hanged on stage

Police in Greece have launched an investigation into whether the hanging death of a young British actor playing Judas in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was an accident or suicide.

More than 600 spectators, including young children, were left shocked and distressed when they saw the body of Anthony Wheeler, 26, dangling from a prop rope at the open-air show in the scene where Judas takes his own life.

Mr Wheeler had been working at the same show at the Sani Beach hotel in the Halkidiki peninsula for the past three three summers, and was experienced at his act. He was supposed to suspend himself from a scaffold on the stage and free himself when the lights went out. It has been reported that he had failed to take the normal precaution of attaching a safety harness which could have saved his life during the performance on Sunday.

Nikos Vassiliadis, a coroner at nearby Salonika, said: "We know the death was a result of strangulation by rope. It is either an accident or a suicide, but that is for the police to decide".

He added that tests were being carried out to ascertain whether there was any physical ailment which could have caused Mr Wheeler to forget to attach the harness.

Andreas Birner, sales and marketing manager at Sani Beach, said that Mr Wheeler had a new girlfriend and did not appear to be depressed. He said: "Last year he was on his own, but this year he had a girlfriend. Her name is Nicole and she is German. Obviously she is depressed, and she has gone back to Germany.

"The coroner's report has been delayed because of the police inquiry, but we hope it will be out soon"

Dimitris Hatziyannakis, manager of Sani Beach, said: "We don't know how it happened. He had worked for us for three years. You can imagine the pandemonium when it happened. There were people screaming and crying and the other actors were terribly shocked. He was a pleasant, hard-working person and popular with his colleagues."

As the audience, many in tears, were hurriedly cleared the show's director tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate Mr Wheeler. A number of the guests, mostly from Britain and Germany, were taking part in the musical in minor roles.

Mr Wheeler, a single man, was a member of a company of around 25 performers who appeared at a number of hotels in the resort area. One hotel official said: "We have had telephone calls from England from people who had known him in the past. They are very upset to hear the news."

British Embassy officials in Athens have been in touch with Mr Wheeler's family, who live near Banbury in Oxfordshire. They are waiting for the return of his body, which would follow the presentation of the coroner's report. Charles Bird, head of the political section at the British Embassy in Athens, said: "We have extended our sympathy to the family of Mr Wheeler. We are in regular touch with the Greek officials. Officially we have been told that death is due to strangulation."

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