Fallout From Lightning in a Bottle Drug Busts Reaches L.A.
About 15,000 people crowded Lake Skinner Regional Park each day for the music and arts festival Lightning in a Bottle.
PHOTO BY AARON GAUTSCHI
Los Angeles residents who attended the Lightning in a Bottle music and arts festival (July 11-15) in Riverside County and were arrested in a sophisticated sting for passing weed and party drugs to other friendly "attendees" — actually Special Investigations Bureau cops — are raising a stink after being slapped with serious drug charges and huge bond amounts.
Several dozen guys were hauled to the Southwest County Detention Center near Temecula after an undercover operation by SIB, a task force of the Riverside County Sheriff's Station, whose alleged nasty tactics, slurs and push for fairly extreme criminal charges have left attendees and their families crying foul.
Some of the 58 arrestees, almost all men under 30, tell L.A. Weekly their troubling experiences followed a similar arc:
The attendee is hanging out at a campsite, or near a stage, when approached by another attendee. That guy asks him for some weed, molly or cocaine — not unusual at a festival. The affable festivalgoer freely offers the drugs but the stranger surprises him, stuffing $20 to $40 in cash into the attendee's pocket or hand — or even tossing the money at him.
Then, uniformed officers materialize from nowhere — and the happy festivalgoer is arrested and jailed, where, after an unpleasant night or two or three, he faces a steep bail approaching $30,000.
Stephan Gregory, 25, of Los Angeles, says a guy approached him Saturday, July 13, asking for moon rocks. Gregory didn't know about moon rocks, but eventually gave the persistent stranger an ecstasy pill. "After [the undercover] stuffed the money in my pocket, I had that feeling, like, 'The jig is up,' and I told my lady friend to walk faster."
But suddenly, Gregory says, the cop began "yelling at me, and then I was tackled." Confined in a police unit, he says, "The police officer that tackled me bragged to his buddies how hard he hit me. I played football, and they hit me harder than I've ever been hit playing football."
Gregory was hauled to jail, where he cooled his heels for 30 hours before he could post bail to escape his mellow weekend–turned-disaster.
Most arrested were charged with "sales of a controlled substance" — a more serious offense than mere possession.
Many bails were set by the Riverside Superior Court judge in Temecula at upward of $30,000, and detainees had to pay 10 percent of that.
Various reports say the country lock-up was so stuffed with Lightning in a Bottle festivalgoers that the jailers had to spring a lot of them early — the jail could not process the SIB-crackdown detainees fast enough.
The dramatic, even ugly manner in which the undercover operation was executed has raised charges of overkill. Online forums are filled with cries of entrapment.
Legal authorities say entrapment probably did not occur here, but the arrestees still may have a legal argument against the Riverside County district attorney.
"It's not entrapment to ask for a drug or offer an opportunity for someone to commit the crime," says Bruce Margolin, an L.A. attorney specializing in marijuana and drug laws. "It's only entrapment if they use tactics that would convince an otherwise law-abiding person to commit the offense."
Those arrested had illegal drugs, so the entrapment defense doesn't fly. Even "if you've got a medical recommendation," Margolin warns, "it doesn't mean you can give or sell drugs to a third party."
But Travis Loerzel, 22, says he was aggressively prodded by the undercover cop into offering up his drugs. He spent two days in jail for the crime of "selling" Xanax, a prescription drug.
"The officer I dealt with was very persistent and really pushy," Loerzel says. Loerzel's parents co-signed on his bail. But he's angry that he may now have a serious arrest record, saying, "I don't want to go down a drug dealer."
According to Margolin, defense lawyers representing those arrested should argue that such guys were otherwise law-abiding people tricked into selling.
Carey Caruso, a local lawyer defending one of the arrested men, says, "I think there's a big difference between a defendant soliciting someone asking, 'Do you want drugs?' as opposed to someone coming up to a defendant and saying, 'Hey, do you have any drugs?' "
The Riverside County Sheriff's deputies tell the Weekly they found Lightning in a Bottle to be largely positive. One called fans "mellow, nice and respectful."
That's not how festivalgoers saw the deputies: They say the police were hostile and aggressive, and that they called festgoers "hippie ravers" and "brain-dead retards."
Riverside Sheriff's spokesman Albert Martinez could not respond to specific allegations or arrests. He also declined to say why the Special Investigations Bureau was deployed to Lightning in a Bottle, but noted that those arrested were breaking the law.
He said in an email, "The Lightning in a Bottle event draws many individuals including families with their children. ... Our objective is to make sure that everyone is able to enjoy the event in a safe manner."
Lightning in a Bottle publicist Russell Ward counters: "We don't condone drug use, nor the breaking of any laws; in fact, our festival has a long history of positive relations between the necessary law enforcement presence and the festival attendees. We had no reason to believe this year would be any different, but hearing the reports of how people were treated and handled has us concerned."
Lightning in a Bottle organizers, who spent more than $80,000 on law enforcement for the event, moved from Orange to Riverside county this year.
The root of this scenario may lie in the fact that in June, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department received a $175,000 grant from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration earmarked for SIB, which carried out the sting at the festival.
According to San Jose-based lawyer Cameron Bowman, once a specialized agency like this receives such a grant, there is "a great deal of pressure within the agency to justify their existence."
In other words, to spend the money. Says Bowman, "The main way that they justify their continued existence and funding is by arrests."
This is not the first time the tactics of the Special Investigations Bureau have come into question. According to a February 2013 article in the Temecula Press-Enterprise, an undercover officer was accused of targeting an autistic high school student during an ongoing drug investigation at area schools.
Posing as a student, the agent befriended the 17-year-old boy and, according to the boy's parents, pressured the boy to get him marijuana and the boy's prescription drug, Clonazepam. Capt. John Pingel, head of SIB, told the paper he was not aware that a student was targeted.
"On the one hand," Bowman reflects, "law enforcement has a legitimate interest in keeping people safe at any festival. On the other hand, music festivals are where people go to have fun in a way that maybe wouldn't be as accepted in a normal 9-to-5 world. It's always weird to me when law enforcement jumps in and starts making a bunch of arrests for drug offenses that everyone at that festival is not being bothered, or made unsafe, by."
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