Skip to main content

Ecstasy crackdown

cover image

Will the feds use a 1980's anti-crack law to destroy the rave movement?

Nearly three years after her daughter's death, Phyllis Kirkland still visits her grave every day. She drives over from the Monroeville, Ala., dentist's office where she works. She weeps. Jillian was only 17--"a beautiful 17," her mom chokes--when she died from a drug overdose after a sweaty night of dancing at the State Palace Theatre, a nightclub about a four-hour drive away, in New Orleans.

Jillian's August 1998 death crushed her mom, but it may also change how the U.S. government fights its war on drugs like ecstasy. Jillian's overdose--the coroner can't say precisely from what--and the sad 16 days she clung to life at Charity Hospital enraged doctors there. Federal agents began investigating, and in January a grand jury indicted three of the men who ran the club under a novel application of a 1986 law called the Crack House Statute. It prohibits maintaining a property "for the purpose of...distributing or using a controlled substance." Congress wrote the law to go after sleazebag landlords who let dealers and addicts hide the crack trade in slums. This is the first time prosecutors have used it against a nightclub, and drug enforcers and club owners across the U.S. are watching the case.

What's new about this drug-war strategy is that it does not require the government to show that the defendants--brothers Robert and Brian Brunet, who managed the State Palace, and Donnie Estopinal, who promoted its raves--were actually selling drugs. And so far, the government has offered no evidence that they were, though investigators have been digging for well over a year.

Rather, U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan plans to argue that the defendants looked the other way as druggies turned the State Palace into a kind of crack house for club drugs. Cops say it was a place where partiers could easily score hits of ecstasy and acid without getting hassled by club staff, and where the staff encouraged the pharmacological festivities by selling rave-culture gear such as glow sticks and pacifiers. These are silly fashion accessories for many ravers, but they can be drug-related too: glow sticks stimulate dilated pupils; pacifiers relieve the teeth grinding associated with ecstasy.

The Brunets and Estopinal say they did everything they could to keep their parties sober. They and their A.C.L.U. lawyers also argue that those who provide music should not be blamed for its devotees' crimes. But the case raises an important question: Given that the use of ecstasy continues to soar, is there any way to stop club drugs without stopping the raves? Could music be to blame for what happened to Jillian Kirkland?

Before he ever heard of Kirkland, before he became a nationally known promoter and way before an attorney showed him photos of the prison he might call home if he loses his case, Estopinal was a frat boy at Louisiana State University. In the early '90s, according to friends--the defendants wouldn't talk on the record--Estopinal, now 31, was waiting tables, trying to decide whether he really wanted to be an accountant. Co-workers started taking him dancing. Dance music was enjoying a revival, having shaken off disco excesses and borrowed harder beats from underground. Estopinal fell in love with the dance renaissance and began having parties at a stinky fish-processing warehouse. By 1995, cops were closing him down for illicit booze sales and noise, but he knew he could draw thousands of fans of the new music. He turned to the State Palace to help legitimize his work.

The State Palace is a musty old gem on Canal Street, a crowded esplanade bordering the French Quarter. The Palace started life in 1950 as a cinema, but after the Brunets leased the space in 1992, it was turned into a concert venue. Robert and Brian Brunet managed it day to day; their dad Rene helped run the family's 88-year-old New Orleans entertainment company. Robert, 36, and Brian, 33, booked mostly mainstream acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and the Beastie Boys. When Estopinal told them in 1995 that he could pack their club with dancers, the family was skeptical.

The first dance drew just 900, but by 1999, up to 4,300 were paying as much as $35 each to attend raves lasting from 10 p.m. till dawn and beyond. Even so, Rene says, the parties never generated a majority of club revenues, in part because Estopinal spent so much on artsy flyers and DJs like Britain's Paul Oakenfold (who can charge $25,000). On most nights conventional rock, not electronic music, blasted from the club's stage. Regis and Kathie Lee taped their show there each January. In 1998 their taping came days before Estopinal's "Attack of the 50-Ft. Raver Zombies" party. If the State Palace was a crack house, it was an awfully nimble and elaborate one.

As a manager, Rob saw little downside. The dancers didn't fight or break limbs like alt-rock's moshers. Instead, they created a warm atmosphere, welcoming overweight teens, 30-year-olds toting Powerpuff Girls backpacks, nerds who hated their college Greek scene. Some would drive for hours from Alabama or Arkansas. They would tell Rob that the events had changed their lives. No Dave Matthews fan said that.

But wasn't some of the love and unity at the raves chemically generated? Sure. Raves sprang from underground, and drugs were always part of them. For a decade now, electronic-music fans have been protesting that they are creating a culture as valid and vital as the scenes that appeared around jazz in the 1930s or folk rock in the 1960s. And drugs were surely an integral part of those worlds. "It is no secret," TIME noted in a 1943 article, "The Weed," "that some of the finest flights of American syncopation owe much of their expressiveness to the use of a drug."

State Palace staff members suspected that some of the ravers were taking ecstasy, but they had seen drugs at other events too: giant clouds of pot smoke would rise from reggae crowds, for instance. Still, employees say they fought to prevent drugs from being consumed on any night. How hard did they really fight? Depends on whom you believe. Employees say for big nights--rave or otherwise--the State Palace hired three off-duty but uniformed cops to assist house security guards. But after Kirkland's death, the New Orleans police department was slammed in the media for allowing officers to work off-duty at the place where she had passed out. The N.O.P.D. pulled its cops. Club workers say they then had no easy way to get dealers arrested. They say that maybe 10 times, they caught dealers and then called the N.O.P.D. or a local agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to arrest them. "But no one would ever come get these people," laments a club employee. George Cazenavette III, who runs the DEA's New Orleans office, says he can't comment on that charge. N.O.P.D. commanders deny they ever ignored calls from the State Palace.

The government is basing its allegations against the Brunets and Estopinal mostly on the work of DEA agent Michael Templeton. Cazenavette says Templeton's baby face made him a good investigator among young ravers. But the rave world that Estopinal was creating must have seemed monstrously weird to Templeton, who had come to New Orleans after being a cop in rural Johnson City, Tenn., for four years. In addition to being dances, Estopinal's parties were often wacky performance-art spectacles featuring fire eaters, trapeze artists, cross-dressers on roller skates and other assorted characters.

Mounting an undercover operation in this world without rules is horrid work for your average cop. "It's loud and dark in there. There are the strobe lights in your eyes. Ugh," says N.O.P.D. captain Steve Nicholas. "It's just not an easy thing to find these people." But Templeton found them. For six months beginning in February 2000, he went undercover to at least eight State Palace raves. He and a fellow agent were able to buy 45 hits of ecstasy and five other illegal pills. They also learned from local ambulance companies that from December 1997 to August 2000, more than 70 overdose victims were hauled from the State Palace to the emergency room--an average of about two per rave. The agents didn't arrest any of the dealers for two reasons. First, such arrests usually result in trivial convictions. Second, by last year the DEA was so frustrated by its inability to reduce the ecstasy supply that it wanted to try new strategies. In August the agency held an international conference on ecstasy, at which officials noted that for every major seizure of pills at an airport, perhaps millions more were slipping into the country. The DEA resolved to redouble its efforts to combat the ecstasy that was already circulating in U.S. cities.

The New Orleans case was apparently part of the DEA's new campaign. By going after promoters, the agency wouldn't have to waste its time on low-level dealers. And evidence that managers were running something akin to a crack house seemed to be everywhere. There were all those pacifiers and glow sticks. The bottled water on sale was also suspect, since drugs that rev the system often cause dehydration. In an affidavit, Templeton even cited dancers' moves as evidence of drug use. It's common, he wrote, "for persons involved in rave management to allow patrons to touch and massage one another to enhance the heightened sensory perception to palpation created by the use of [ecstasy]." O.K., but it's also common for people who are dancing to get funky, whether they are high or not.

To be sure, the DEA is on to something. Plenty of drug users showed up for the raves. Templeton says in his affidavit that when he went undercover to talk to Brian Brunet about working at the club, Brunet told him he didn't expect security guards to look actively for drug activity. If they found it, Brunet allegedly said, the guards usually didn't contact authorities. When Templeton commented to Brunet that getting dealers arrested would kill the party, Brunet allegedly responded, "Exactly." Templeton says that during his rave nights, numerous dealers were offering him drugs, messed-up kids were constantly vomiting, people were smoking pot openly--but "neither the security guards [nor] the management...did anything to curtail the illegal activity going on around them."

If all that is true, did the defendants break the Crack House Statute? Maybe. The law has never been stretched so far. Perhaps a jury could be convinced, but the prosecutors had hoped the case wouldn't get to that stage. They offered plea deals of a year in prison (the law carries a maximum of 20 years). But the A.C.L.U. helped persuade the defendants to fight. "Go after the people who deal the drugs," says Graham Boyd, head of the A.C.L.U. Drug Policy Litigation Project. "But you can't go after the people who provide the music--and you especially can't go after only the ones who provide a certain kind." The DEA didn't investigate other State Palace events.

In addition to the A.C.L.U., a local lawyer is helping. Buddy Lemann is the kind of charming defense attorney who wears three-piece suits, drinks martinis at lunch, writes a book about himself called Hail to the Dragon Slayer--and the kind who wins constantly and charges a lot. But the Brunets and Estopinal hope the music industry will help pay. An organization called the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund has formed in Los Angeles to raise money for them; the fund may also look into efforts by authorities to shut down raves in Chicago and other cities using local ordinances similar to the Crack House Statute. The International Association of Assembly Managers, a trade group for 1,500 entertainment venues, has filed a brief in support of the defendants. "No amount of training, security, or preparation can ... constrain any and all illegal behavior at any mass gathering," it says.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans prosecutors are digging in. They plan to file new charges against the Brunets and Estopinal after a second exhaustive investigation. The DEA's Cazenavette hints that his agents are finding serious dirt on the men. But for now, the music continues. These days the Brunets book mostly non-DJ acts such as the hip-hop duo OutKast. Estopinal still brings big-name DJs to town, though they now spin at a smaller venue. Some patrons there are surely on ecstasy, just as some of the city's many other shows attract other drugs. Charity Hospital, however, is seeing far fewer club-drug admissions, maybe one a month now. Will that improvement be permanent? Or will the raves simply return to the hidden warehouses where they got started? The outcome of the State Palace case may point the way.


Cover Date: April 9, 2001



Back to the top