Death, Money and Megaraves
When 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez died from an Ecstasy overdose in June, her mother was in disbelief. "I was supposed to be planning her sweet 16 party," she told a television reporter. How could the teen possibly have died after joining a throng of 80,000 cheering young concertgoers at a rave sanctioned by some of Los Angeles' top elected leaders?
One of Sasha's friends told the Weekly she took only one pill before attending the Electric Daisy Carnival, held in June at the publicly owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. While baffled friends and family tried to grasp her death, attributed by the L.A. County Coroner to "complications of ischemic encephalopathy" due to MDMA intoxication — in short, vital oxygen deprivation — a curious phenomenon emerged among young rave participants: They went online to discuss their views that their favorite drug, Ecstasy, or MDMA, couldn't be to blame.
In one online rave discussion group, called Plurlife, a reader named Maler wrote, "Someone sold her bunk shit."
Another commenter, General Rowdy, explained, "Trust me on this she chugged a liter of water while being dehydrated that put her whole system out of whack which resulted in her falling down and hitting her head which then resulted in people walking over her."
Twenty years after the first American raves were organized in California, bringing young people a bright new paradigm outside rock & roll rebellion and hip-hop bravado, L.A. politicians have endorsed supersized versions of the parties. But the huge, uncontrollable crowds have led to an increasing number of deaths and hospitalizations.
As the events have grown from small, illicit — but usually safe — warehouse affairs to massive, officially approved, commercial experiences, mayhem has followed in Los Angeles, but not in the nation's other largest cities.
Raves in New York's Central Park and Miami's Bayfront Park don't send nearly as many young people to the hospital. The Bay Area's deadly experience at the Cow Palace last spring led local authorities to ban megaraves.
The government-hosted megaraves are emerging as a unique Los Angeles phenomenon: vast, officially backed places for young people to party, drop Ecstasy and sometimes die. Four major parties each year rent out the two biggest rave venues in the nation, the Coliseum and the Sports Arena.
The megaraves are nothing like the more modest, nonpermitted warehouse raves, which, ironically, many Coliseum commissioners — including L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — oppose. But now all raves, even the smaller ones, might suffer, thanks to the Coliseum Commission's inability to control mobs at the Coliseum and Sports Arena.
Last week, California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a San Francisco Democrat, introduced legislation to ban raves on public property and require that private events be licensed.
Ma cited the deaths at Electric Daisy and the Cow Palace: "In June a 15-year-old girl died and over 100 people were hospitalized. If I was on the [Coliseum Commission], I would not have made the decision to do this again." And she slammed the "big money" that's driving public officials to push for mass events at L.A.'s two huge, taxpayer-owned venues.
"One of the things that's most impressive is the volume of patients all coming at one time," says Marc Futernick, director of emergency services at downtown's California Hospital Medical Center, which received about 70 medical transports from Electric Daisy. "It has been horrible every year."
Brian Johnston, chief of emergency services at White Memorial Hospital, recalls, "I took care of an 18-year-old girl who suffered a heart attack ... drug-related ... exactly a year ago" after the annual New Year's Eve party at the Sports Arena, known as Together as One, where a raver died from an overdose of Ecstasy, cocaine and heroin.
The event returns to the Sports Arena on Friday, Dec. 31, with up to 45,000 young partiers expected.
Johnston says the megaraves tax the entire system and put "everyone at risk." He's seen it all in his ER in Boyle Heights, but he's stunned by the screaming, delirious kids and young adults who fight off the nurses and doctors — the opposite of the love response that makes "E" so popular. "They have to be restrained and put to bed, and they need one-to-one nursing," he says.
Most recover, but after Together as One last year, a 17-year-old with a core temperature of 108 suffered "continuous convulsions for several hours," he says. "He was hospitalized with damaged muscles, liver failure, brain damage, kidney failure."
Then last spring, about a month before Sasha Rodriguez died in the hospital, two people at the Cow Palace died from Ecstasy intoxication. Anthony Mata, a 23-year-old Santa Clara auto mechanic, was one victim. Raver Trung Nguyen, a 25-year-old UC Davis grad at the same party, died later at a hospital from her suspected E overdose.
Mata's father, Dan Mata, told a local TV news outlet, "It just seems like every time we hear about these types of rave parties, nothing positive comes out of it."
Soon after that, at the Electric Daisy Carnival, in the publicly run L.A. Coliseum, all hell broke loose. Footage of dozens of young people rushing barriers, some getting bloodied and badly hurt, emerged on YouTube. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wanted to know why the event was allowed by political leaders who oversee the Coliseum.
Some medical professionals said the casualties were like those seen in war. The city of Los Angeles got cold feet after that, canceling a big Halloween event scheduled at the city-owned Convention Center.
The Coliseum Commission then began grappling with new regulations and security strategies. But that's been tricky, because the same pols are avidly pushing to maintain their long reign over the government-backed megarave scene.
Electric Daisy promoter Pasquale Rotella ultimately hired government relations and strategic communications firm Englander Knabe & Allen to help his event survive a grilling by the commission. Commission member Don Knabe's son, Matt Knabe, is a principal at Englander. The commission essentially decided Rotella's raves could go forward, but his Electric Daisy event must be approved beforehand.
"I'm opposed to an outright ban," Supervisor Knabe told fellow commissioners. Young people were dying, but money was being made, too.
The Coliseum Commission won't disclose how much it reaped from rave fees last year. But the money has turned straitlaced politicians into scolds who wave off the warnings of concerned medical professionals.
"We are under financial stress this year that we were not under last year," explains commission President Barry Sanders, who backs the raves, speaking at the board's December meeting. But Coliseum Commissioner Rick Caruso, developer of the Grove, warns, "I do think it's morally wrong to have these events. What amazes me is that with all the good intentions of trying to make them safe ... the likelihood of somebody getting hurt or dying is very, very high."
But Rotella scored a PR triumph at the hearing. The officials, who had never been to raves, began calling them "festivals." Then they voted unanimously to continue embracing them.
Los Angeles Coliseum Commission president Barry Sanders, a bow tie–wearing Wagner fan with cozy ties to City Hall (he heads the L.A. Recreation and Parks board), declares: "It's clear from attendance that hundreds of thousands of Angelenos enjoy these events."
Patrick Lynch, the Coliseum's general manager, says the events are "really starting to go very mainstream."
On one level, that's true. The mainstreaming of electronic dance-music culture through trance-infected hip-hop, television dance competitions and video games such as DJ Hero has served as a gateway to rave culture and given it hundreds of thousands of young Los Angeles adherents.
But these massive events, using taxpayer-owned venues and city-paid police, are, in fact, going "very mainstream" almost nowhere but Los Angeles. Here, the market for them is huge. According to a recent Journal of the American Medical Association report on Ecstasy, "The number of [Los Angeles County] residents citing MDMA as their primary drug of choice at the time of entry into drug treatment increased by 650 percent ... during 2005-2009."
Eighteen-year-old Bianca (she didn't want her full name used), a rave regular who attended the Electric Daisy Carnival, says, "Being surrounded by so many people who share the same ideas as you is a great feeling."
But some rave veterans are beginning to sound an alarm.
Marcus Gaede, 27, from the slightly older crowd that's outgrowing E, is an electronic dance-music aficionado. He became an anti-Ecstasy crusader after coming across a dying girl at the 2007 Halloween rave Monster Massive at the Coliseum Commission-controlled Sports Arena, near USC.
Gaede and his wife were strolling down an unlit walkway at the rave at about 2 a.m., and found 20-year-old Michelle Yuenshan Lee of Irvine passed out.
"For over 35 minutes we were waiting with a security guard for medical attention," he says. "Her mouth was, like, wired shut and she was, like, choking on the water. She was going to drown. ... As the drugs kept taking more effect, she started having seizures."
Gaede describes what appeared to be a gross mishandling of the gravely ill young woman, with screwups by responders that added at least one hour to saving her. Lee died of drug intoxication, including MDMA, five days later.
"It took them forever to get her from the lemonade [stand] outside to an ambulance," Gaede says, "because they didn't want to parade her through a bunch of people. So they took her through some back ways."
Many rave veterans doubt that the outsized parties that have outgrown the scene's underground, anti-establishment roots, can be made safer. "A party like that is definitely all about, 'What can we score here,' " says DJ Jeff Black, who has performed at the smaller, underground events, such as Moontribe parties, that the graying politicians on the Coliseum Commission view as the real problem.
Jason Bentley, music director at KCRW and a 20-year proponent of electronic music, disagrees, saying, "I don't believe the rave scene is especially unsafe compared to other large-scale events."
But Black says a unique mob mentality, such as at Electric Daisy, where 160,000 attended over two days, arises: " 'We need a chick, we need a bag of pills, we need to jump the fence.' It scares me that that many people can go to something like that. It's actually horrible."
Veteran L.A. rave promoter Tef Foo, who got his start promoting raves and techno clubs 20 years ago, says dangerous drug use has subsided. But at L.A.'s government-backed raves, "They lease out booths to concession people — the guy who sells the T-shirts and the glow-in-the-dark items and all that stuff," he says, and many booth operators are "the source of drugs."
Former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer Trinka Porrata, a rave-drugs expert who has testified in lawsuits against venues and promoters, is among the most outspoken critics of government-hosted raves and taxpayer-paid policing.
She says she's seen security guards let partygoers in for a cash bribe in return for not checking their backpacks. She taped video footage of "drug deal after drug deal" inside a Coliseum rave, and estimates that about 85 percent of rave crowds are taking Ecstasy or other drugs.
Charles Fox Haskins, an electronic-music producer who's been going to parties since his midteens, says, "When you have that many thousands of people, it turns into mob structure. Is this fucking Ringling Brothers?"
The Coliseum Commission is made up of nine political appointees who are granted the prestigious posts by city, county and state elected officials, including the governor. A half-dozen security guards in formal jackets waited outside the last commission meeting, where members' cars, including Caruso's Rolls-Royce, were parked.
Current members Caruso, Knabe, Parks, Sanders, Yaroslavsky, David Israel, Fabian Wesson, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Jerome Stanley and nonvoting executive Lynch have become key proponents of the nation's biggest raves.
Nothing in the United States comes close to Electric Daisy's record-setting attendance of 160,000. Miami's big, annual daytime party, the Ultra Music Festival, had 100,000 ticket buyers in March.
Commission president Sanders, one of the most outspoken backers of government-driven raves, argues that similar events are "at the Hollywood Bowl" — a white wine–and–picnic basket venue that would never allow a rave.
Sanders is muddling together two different realities: the 18,000-seat Bowl, which rarely sends concertgoers to the hospital, and two huge venues in which several Hollywood Bowls could be neatly tucked, and where youths are dying with regularity.
Most of the commissioners have never been to the raves, which attract a crowd younger than most of their own children.
The politicos' ignorance about megaraves plays a key role in their embrace of the events. Essentially, the oldsters on the Coliseum Commission think county-backed megaraves are concerts, just bigger. And some of them bristle as the deaths and bad PR mount on their watch. L.A. City Councilman Parks, the former LAPD chief of police, who supports the government-backed events, is so defensive now that he stops people in midsentence if they call them raves.
"Not raves," Parks told the L.A. Weekly after a commission meeting in November. "Coliseum doesn't do raves." he intoned, "Raves by definition are underground, illegal events."
The former chief says, nostalgically, that when he was top man at the LAPD at the turn of the millennium, "People were saying the identical things about groups like Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones. ... It's been going on at concerts since there were concerts."
But MDMA is a different drug — and this is a different scene. Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon told the Weekly in November that raves are a different beast when it comes to enforcement, crime and problems. Crowds approaching 100,000 at USC football games at the Coliseum need about 125 officers; they generate few arrests and hardly any hospitalizations. A rave at the Coliseum or Sports Arena requires a boost of 360 percent in officers assigned, or about 450 cops — almost all due to drug-related crises and crime.
On rave nights, Gannon shifts nearly one out of every three officers normally assigned to the high-crime communities south of the 10 freeway over to the Coliseum. This New Year's Eve, with a huge rave set for Friday at the Sports Arena, taxpayers will be footing the $200,000-plus bill for all those badges.
Gannon told the Weekly he shared his findings with the Los Angeles County rave task force, whose work was integral to the Coliseum Commission's decision making on raves. The task force was made up of medical experts, promoters, ravers, DJs and police. He says he wasn't invited back.
The task force gave the commission and the county Board of Supervisors a list of recommendations, most of which the commission adopted. The new rules, like keeping out 16-year-olds, are binding only for the Coliseum and Sports Arena.
White Memorial's Johnston, who served on the county's rave task force, says his warnings and those of other medical professionals were shoved aside. Yet, he says, "I did not hear one other physician raise their voice in support of raves — not one."
Johnston and other docs understand something that Sanders, Parks, Knabe, Yaroslavsky and the other commissioners don't seem to grasp: Many new, young ravers don't comprehend the dangers of Ecstasy, displaying a level of ignorance that's a big change within the rave culture. Jonathan Fielding, who runs the county Department of Health, says, "Over the last four or five years, concern about Ecstasy has gone down. You have a new generation of people who haven't learned from the prior one."
The University of Michigan this month reported, "Ecstasy use — which fell out of favor in the early 2000s as concerns about its dangers grew — appears to be making a comeback this year, following a considerable recent decline in the belief that its use is dangerous."
According to that report, "Monitoring the Future," Ecstasy use has nearly doubled among the nation's 10th-graders, meaning 15- and 16-year-olds, after fading in the mid-'00s.
Supervisor Yaroslavsky tells the Weekly he hears the concerns of medical professionals loud and clear. "One of the stakeholders we heard from was emergency room doctors who say they prepare for one of these events like they prepare for a 6.5 earthquake."
But Yaroslavsky and his commission colleagues hold to the "harm reduction" theory that if kids are going to do bad things, adults should be there to supervise and catch them when they fall. "What I'm inclined to do is to de-rave the raves, and take as much of the rave aspect out of the electronic-music concerts and emphasize the music," Yaroslavsky says.
Some of America's first ravelike events happened in Los Angeles in 1989 and 1990. British expat Steve Levy and his brother started a series of parties called Moonshine (later the name of their record label) in 1989 and expanded to a 1990 series called Truth, later held at the Park Plaza Hotel.
By 1992 raves had morphed into legitimate parties at L.A. clubs like the Palladium and Prince's former Glam Slam. One promoter even threw a party at Knott's Berry Farm. That event, K-Rave '92, foreshadowed some of the problems at Electric Daisy Carnival — gate-crashing and rowdy crowds.
But raves mostly flew under the radar until the late '90s, when electronic music inspired a slew of legitimate, DJ-driven tours sponsored by magazines and tire companies. In August 1999 a car carrying five teenagers home from a rave in the Angeles National Forest plummeted off a hillside, killing all five. The teens had been on drugs, including Ecstasy and methamphetamine.
Anti-Ecstasy crusader Gaede says, "I haven't seen so many car accidents in my life" as when he was leaving a Together as One party a few years back.
But at least the all-night parties allow some people to sober up, former officer Porrata says. Shutting them down at midnight, as Yaroslavsky has proposed, would thus be a bad idea, she says — another example of how out of touch the Coliseum Commission members are.
In the early '00s, Rotella became a principal in a venue, Qtopia, that was a haven for ravers. The Weekly documented in 2003 how dealers peddled Ecstasy inside and outside the venue. Qtopia soon joined the superclub revolution and cleaned up its act, offering VIP accommodations and closing its doors at 4 a.m.
But before long, raves were huge again. And, at some point, Rotella and his supporters stopped calling them raves and started calling them "electronic dance music festivals."
The attraction was electric. "There's a much greater interconnection with technology and mobile media," says producer Haskins, "and for people who have a sense of hating their situation — job, school — there is this portal to another world and social interaction. It's an escape for a group of friends at these seemingly lawless circuses."
There is also "a sense of community, a sense of belonging," KCRW's Bentley says. "It's not about staying in your seat. It's not about limits. It's about possibilities. ... And I wouldn't want to deny a young person the opportunity to feel that somehow."
April's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, normally a critic's wonderland of alternative rock and electronic-music titans, was awash in underage raver girls in bikini tops and glow accessories. They were there to see Tiësto, perhaps the world's most popular trance DJ, as well as Deadmau5 and Kaskade.
The Indio, Calif., event drew 225,000 people over three days — a record — and saw gate-crashing and dangerous pushes as crowds tried to exit at night, largely because of an influx of new, inexperienced, underage ravers.
Perhaps Coachella's difficulty in coming to grips with a new wave of fans was a warning and prelude to June's Electric Daisy Carnival. City fire paramedics could barely keep up with nearly 200 emergency medical "transports." And Sasha Rodriguez, 15, died at California Hospital Medical Center days later. The event's age limit was 16. But a source who worked the party told the Weekly he did not see IDs being checked.
Then in early November, an 18-year-old USC student who had attended a ravelike Halloween festival fell six stories from a USC campus residential hall. Jackson Roddy reportedly had taken Ecstasy. He underwent several surgeries at California Hospital Medical Center, where he spent weeks recovering.
In response to all the bad news, L.A. defenders of raves have begun taking the harm-reduction approach preferred by Yaroslavsky: Young people on Ecstasy, they say, are safer at a publicly owned venue like the Coliseum or Sports Arena, with all those police, paramedics and, now, drug-education messages.
"We have people on 54th Street, they would find a building under construction and they would have a 'flier party' there every weekend," Councilman Parks said in November. Having legal festivals at the Coliseum, he says, is a better way.
"We're in the business of renting out the Coliseum and putting a high level of safeguards on these events," Parks says. "We don't know that the commission, the police and the promoter can totally be responsible for what happens."
Parks calls it "very unfortunate that a 15-year-old passed away, but I don't know if it's been verified that the consumption was done at the Coliseum. ... We cannot substitute ourselves as the parents."
Yaroslavsky says the harm-reduction proposal is the answer. There will be an "in-your-face campaign from the moment they step on Exposition Park property to explain to people and inform people what the risks are that are associated with this," he says.
Yet he admits he's never been to a rave, where it's likely participants will find a government education effort absurd. Yaroslavsky says he might just show up to Together as One at the Sports Arena on Friday, "but my wife has to OK it."
In early December the Weekly checked out a small warehouse party on the eastern edge of downtown, in a clean, concrete-floor building near the L.A. River — the nonpermitted, illicit kind of event abhorred by the members of the Coliseum Commission, including Sanders, Parks and Yaroslavsky.
By midnight a few hundred people had showed up. Some were refugees from a "massive" that was supposed to happen at Los Angeles Center Studios west of downtown, which moved to San Bernardino after the studio pulled the plug following a routine inquiry by the Weekly about getting on the press list.
The move to San Bernardino proved somewhat disastrous, at least if you're a 17-year-old raver. Patrons complained that Winterfresh had moved too far from central L.A. Via Twitter, partygoers reported multihour waits. Promoters had to book three San Bernardino venues and spread the festivities over two days.
And 14-year-old Ayana Lopez, who attended the party, went missing until the following Monday, when she showed up safe and sound. Her mother, Ruby Lopez of Santa Ana, spoke to the Weekly that day. "I went there myself last night to look for her," Lopez says. "I saw kids halfway naked, I saw kids having sex in the parking lot. ... I was ignorant."
The unofficial and unsanctioned party the Weekly attended, Bwomp!, was a big contrast — well-behaved, civilized, with a hint of marijuana smoke in the air. Crowds of kids weren't passed out on the ground, an eerie but typical sight at megaraves. No one was taken to a hospital. No one was arrested.
Some Winterfresh refugees showed up. "We waited in line four hours and didn't get in," explains 20-year-old Jordan Bello of L.A.
To Sanders, Parks, Yaroslavsky, Knabe and the rest of the Coliseum Commission, Bwomp! — the far safer, far better–managed yet nonpermitted downtown "underground," which featured a bar for those 21 and older, DJs spinning dubstep music and a live graffiti-art installation — is the bad guy.
The politicians who say their embrace of megaraves provides safe havens for kids who would be in danger at smaller events are "full of crap — they're completely full of crap," says former LAPD narcotics cop Porrata. "Most of the kids end up laying around on the ground," she says. "There are such masses of them it's hard to even see what's going on. The vast majority of them are on drugs."
Longtime Moontribe party co-organizer Dustianne North, while loath to criticize big parties — she thinks the focus on harm-reduction is good — points to how safe the smaller events like hers are. In one rare case at a 1998 rave, a raver fell more than 40 feet down a desert cliff to his death.
ER doctors at key Los Angeles hospitals say they don't see an increase in patients from any raves — except those held at the Coliseum and Sports Arena.
North says of the smaller, unlicensed raves, "We notice [when] people are new, and when someone is acting a little out of control or not preserving their safety, it's very likely that one of us is going to walk up to them and see if we can help. It's just a very different animal. It's almost like apples and oranges to compare them."
Producer Haskins says megaraves can draw party amateurs who, after spending a couple hundred dollars on tickets, transportation and drugs, can overindulge. "If you spend so much money on something, you're going to care deeply about the return on your investment," he says. "OK, save up for months and then just go crazy."
In the Bay Area, the legendary Cow Palace this year tried out some harm-reduction measures — an 18-and-older policy, more paramedics, 100 undercover narcotics officers — and still saw two deaths and about 15 hospital transports at its May 29 rave.
And its Halloween rave on Oct. 29 featured "tightened security, increased efforts to try to prevent drugs from getting into the facility, increased medical teams here, and other precautions," says venue CEO Joe Barkett. But, "we basically had worse results." He cites 17 hospitalizations, mostly Ecstasy overdoses.
Barkett says there's no factual foundation for the "safe haven" theory. "It was felt it was in the best interest of society to have these events in places that have the best preventative measures," but after seeing the Ecstasy ODs at the Cow Palace in Daly City, he told his board of directors he was "unable to tell you with any confidence that any increased level of security or other measure will prevent these kinds of overdoses from occurring."
Barkett has been in the concert business for more than 25 years, including facilitating Grateful Dead shows. Anyone who says regular fatalities and extensive overdosing at megaraves are a normal part of mass gatherings, such as rock concerts, is wildly off-base, he says. "Most of the concerts that we have, the traditional concerts, do not result in the kind of overdoses that put people in life-threatening conditions."
Coliseum commissioner Caruso is looking northward and wondering if L.A. should just do it the Cow Palace way. "We've got ER rooms filled up by people who are using drugs," he says. "I know there's a revenue connection to this ... but it does not outweigh the risks."
Reach the writer at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.