He's Gone: As Schwagstock founder Jimmy Tebeau enters federal prison, should other music-festival organizers worry about on-site drug use?

He's Gone: As Schwagstock founder Jimmy Tebeau enters federal prison, should other music-festival organizers worry about on-site drug use?
Jennifer Silverberg

Anybody who has ever attended Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, Sasquatch or other major summer music festivals understands that drugs are an inescapable part of the experience. Many people enjoy the show sober. Others stick to alcohol. But inevitably there are thousands of people stoned out of their skulls, on every hallucinogen under the sun. It has been that way since the Woodstock era, when "sex, drugs and rock & roll" was a to-do list as much as an ethos.

So on November 1, 2010, when federal agents swarmed Camp Zoe, a 330-acre campground and festival venue in rural Missouri owned by the frontman of a Grateful Dead tribute band, their big announcement after four years of undercover investigation was less than shocking: People at a jam-band festival called Schwagstock were buying, selling and consuming marijuana, mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy and other drugs.

Who knew, right?

Photograph by Jennifer Silverberg

Location Info

Map

Zoe Campground & Amphitheater

Highway 19 at Sinking Creek
Salem, MO 65560

Category: Music Venues

Region: Outstate MO

The more alarming revelation was that Jimmy Tebeau, the man federal prosecutors aimed to hold responsible for the drug activity, was not actually a drug dealer. He was the venue owner, concert promoter and lead singer of the Schwag, the festival's headlining act. Federal prosecutors contended Schwagstock was "an illegal drug haven, with its music as a side offering."

"We didn't view this as a music-festival prosecution," says Richard Callahan, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. "We viewed it as somebody who was using a festival site to promote illegal drug sales and profit off of that. We thought there was a difference between a music festival with incidental drug use and a drug festival with incidental music. We believe in this case it was the latter rather than the former."

At first prosecutors weren't sure what charges to press against Tebeau. They used asset-forfeiture proceedings to take his land and freeze his bank accounts (see "Shakedown Street," published in the February 3, 2011, issue of Riverfront Times). Finally, six months after the raid on Tebeau's property, they accused him of "maintaining a drug involved premises" — a violation originally intended to punish landlords who lease houses to crack dealers.

One long-time friend describes Tebeau as "a low-key guy who doesn't like a lot of confrontation," but the 45-year-old with a bushy red beard and long dreadlocks is still indignant about being charged under the so-called Crack House Statute.

"That's not me at all," Tebeau says. "We're talking about a 330-acre campground, and I'm putting on music festivals. I'm paying for the sins of others. Some people were ingesting some drugs at the property and selling drugs, which I wasn't affiliated with in any way, shape or form."

Last June Tebeau reluctantly accepted a plea bargain. Had he gone to trial, he faced the possibility of a nine-year sentence. The government possessed overwhelming evidence that he at least tacitly allowed certain drugs to be bought and sold at Schwagstock (marijuana, hallucinogens and ecstasy were allegedly OK, while crack, meth, heroin and others were off-limits) and profited handsomely from the popularity of his festival as a result. The plea agreement explicitly states that the government could not prove Tebeau himself ever bought or sold drugs.

Prosecutors say the circumstances of the case are unique, but civil-liberties advocates warn that targeting a musician and venue owner sets an ominous precedent for festivals and concert sites nationwide. Tebeau is believed to be the first artist or festival organizer ever imprisoned for widespread drug use at a music festival.

"Club owners should be fearful," says Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group working to reform American drug laws. "There is precedent of government overreach with this statute, implicating core First [and Fifth] Amendment concerns."

Abrahamson and others wonder when the government, having targeted Tebeau, will next decide that drug use at a concert has crossed the line from open secret to something that deserves punishment. How does one prove that fans are drawn to a summer festival for the party and not the music? And could the organizers of a mega-festival like Bonnaroo be next?


See Also:
- Best Old Band - 2006 - The Schwag

- Schwag frontman Jimmy Tebeau says Camp Zoe is an idyllic campground for weekend hippie jam fests. Federal prosecutors beg to differ. (February 2011)

- Schwag Frontman Jimmy Tebeau Faces 30-Month Sentence on Guilty Plea (June 2012)

- Schwagstock's Jimmy Tebeau Gets 30-Month Sentence for "Drug-Involved Premises" (October 2012)


Tebeau is exactly what you'd expect from a guy fronting a band that promises to "preserve and perpetuate the vibe and music made popular by the Grateful Dead": He is a cheerful old hippie through and through. But his keen business acumen is at odds with the fun-loving-stoner stereotype.

In 1997 Tebeau (pronounced tee-boh) began organizing Schwagstock festivals at campgrounds in rural Missouri. The events were a showcase for his band, the Schwag, and they gained a steady following among Deadheads and Haight-Ashbury revivalists from around the Midwest. The gigs were profitable, but Tebeau wisely recognized that a substantial chunk of his change was lost to the rental fees he paid to the host venues.

On April 8, 2004, the bandleader tapped his savings and borrowed money from family members to purchase Camp Zoe, a sprawling tract of land squarely located in the middle of nowhere: about 80 miles southeast of Fort Leonard Wood near the tiny town of Eminence. Formerly the site of a church youth retreat, the property borders the Ozark National Scenic Riverways near the Current River.

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