Raving Mad

Washington County sheriff's deputies descend on a campground full of electronic-dance enthusiasts, who say their civil rights were trampled

Jul 25, 2001 at 4:00 am
At approximately 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, Jim "G.G." Laughlin was toasting marshmallows over a barbecue pit with his 7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Laughlin, an electronica DJ, was scheduled to spin records later that evening, during the second night of a weekend-long electronic-music festival held at a private campground in Potosi, Mo. Laughlin and his children had never gone camping as a family together, and they were having a great time. Suddenly he noticed a helicopter flying close overhead; Laughlin assumed it was just a news crew, checking out the scene. About 10 minutes later, however, Laughlin and his kids got a rude surprise. According to Laughlin, "Eight to 10 cops came walking down the hill toward us, hands on their guns, yelling at everybody to come to the center of the area, to come out with their hands in the air. My daughter was crying and saying, 'I'm never going camping again!' My kids thought we were being invaded by another country." Police ordered everyone at the campground to put their hands on their heads and march single file into a large pavilion, where other suspects were waiting. All told, an estimated 150 people were detained, both staff and partygoers, for about two-and-a-half hours while the police methodically searched their pockets, wallets and purses -- and, in a few instances, their hair and shoes. Laughlin maintains that police ignored his rights: "They just said, 'Stand up. Do you have anything that you don't want us to find?' I said, 'I don't have anything, and I don't consent to this search.' They didn't answer that. They didn't just pat me down; they reached in and pulled everything out of my pockets, looked through all my stuff and then handed it back to me. They did this to everybody."

After the police finished searching all the people, they moved on to the cars, including Laughlin's Thunderbird. "The [police] were instructing the dog to sniff around, and, as they always do when they search your car, they completely trashed it. It just looks like someone threw things all over the place. I even wrote this down afterward: One cop said, 'We've got to find shit in this car; we're not finding shit in this car.'" (To its credit, one of the dogs did discover a bag of McDonald's french fries, which it promptly devoured, in Laughlin's back seat.)

Arthur Cook -- a spokesman for the local chapter of DanceSafe who was there to educate partygoers about drug safety, safe sex and hearing loss -- confirms Laughlin's version of events. When Cook first noticed police officers coming toward the party, he demanded to see their search warrant. The police refused to show it to him. During the search, Cook and a colleague read from a card they'd received from the American Civil Liberties Union, explaining their rights as suspects. "The police were directly commenting that we do not have these rights," Cook says. "No one at the event that I know of consented to any search. The police were even pulling over cars that were driving down the street, saying that the search warrant included the right to search their cars.

"They made the comment that the fire trucks were there because they thought we were going to start firebombing them!" Cook says incredulously. "If these people knew anything about the rave community, they'd know violence is not an issue. They really pulled stuff out of the air to get this search warrant, and I think it proved a point that they only arrested three people [on misdemeanor drug-possession charges]."

Although no one at the Washington County Sheriff's Department was willing to comment on the case -- the man who told us they had no comment refused even to give us his name -- Radar Station did obtain a copy of the search warrant and the officers' affidavits, which describe the signs of drug activity allegedly witnessed the night before the raid, when the two officers went to the party undercover. Although no one at Radar Station has a law degree, it doesn't take a Johnnie Cochran to poke holes in these documents. In his affidavit, Officer Charles LaLumondiere says he received a telephone call from the owner of the property, Ronnie McRaven, on July 14, alerting him to the "Rave Party." Yet, elsewhere in the same affidavit, LaLumondiere claims that he and Officer Doug Tuning received the call from McRaven and then went undercover to the first night of the party, on Friday evening, which was July 13. In any case, according to Jeff Weinhaus, who was selling water at the event and who found the venue for party organizers, McRaven has "sworn on the Bible" that he never called police; Cook also has a statement from McRaven to that effect.

Both LaLumondiere's and Tunings's affidavits and the warrant itself, signed by Judge Kenneth Pratt of the 24th Judicial Circuit, are not only rife with syntactical and logical absurdities ("The subjects at the party where [sic] wearing dust masks, sucking on pacifiers, and sucking on Vick's inhalers, which is evidence of the use of the drug called ecstasy, in that the use of ecstasy cause [sic] grinding of the teath [sic] and the need to use pacifiers") but based on premises that are shaky at best. No part of the warrant authorizes police to search the people and cars on the property. The documents raise more questions than they answer: Why didn't the undercover officers arrest the lawbreakers they allegedly saw on Friday evening, when they had access to actual evidence, rather than wait until Saturday, at an hour when no self-respecting beat-lover would be present, much less rolling on E? Why did they believe they'd need more than 20 police cars, two fire trucks, two ambulances, a paddy wagon, a prison bus, five K-9 units and a helicopter? What gave them reason to believe that the water being sold at the event for $2 was laced with ecstasy, as Officer LaLumondiere's affidavit alleges, when anyone who knows the first thing about ecstasy will tell you a single hit usually goes for $30? Although we hesitate to imagine the cognitive workings of the Washington County Sheriff's Department, we can't help but wonder why they thought they were about to make the bust of the century. Imagine their disappointment when all the evidence they discovered, despite their gestapo tactics, were tiny amounts of marijuana, one unidentified pill, a bit of a white powdery substance and a photo album containing a picture of someone who may have been smoking marijuana.

The ACLU is looking into legal action against Washington County authorities. "We received a copy of the warrant, and we are very concerned about the reports and allegations of police conduct on Saturday night," says Denise Lieberman, legal director for the Eastern Missouri branch of the ACLU. "We have concerns that police may have overstepped their authority in executing the warrant in this case. We're concerned that attendees' rights may have been violated.

"The other reason we're concerned about this, and the reason our national office is so concerned, is that it's indicative of a pattern of police activity nationwide against so-called rave parties that is based more on stereotypes about people who listen to a certain type of music than it's based on actual probable cause," Lieberman continues. "The report of this incident on Saturday night is a perfect example of that, where you have only a few arrests. It's dangerous to allow stereotypes that link music that people like with certain activities to be used as probable cause; it's just another form of profiling."

On careful consideration of the facts, the shakedown in Potosi suggests that law-enforcement officials are as ignorant of the law as they are of the dance-music scene. No doubt fueled by half-truths perpetuated by the hysterical, sensation-mongering media, the sheriff's department apparently believes that the end (breaking up a "Rave Party") justifies the means (cavalierly disregarding the constitutional rights of some 150 people). No one is arguing that the electronic-dance community is drug-free, of course. Radar Station has personally witnessed drug use at so-called raves. We've also seen drug use at wedding receptions, rock concerts, business meetings, cocktail parties, float trips, foreign-film festivals and monster-truck rallies. Detain and search 150 people at the ballgame, and you're likely to make a few minor drug arrests. Maybe you'd get infinitesimally closer to winning the unwinnable war on drugs, but you'd also be living in a police state.