The Nelson County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control took starkly different approaches to policing last year’s Lockn’ Music Festival, testimony revealed at a May 16 hearing in Richmond, which concluded the state agency’s investigation into whether the festival should lose its license to sell alcohol. While ABC agents videotaped a topless woman and documented more than 100 alleged incidents of people using drugs—mostly smoking pot—the Nelson Sheriff’s department took a more relaxed approach and saved scathing criticism for the ABC.
“We knew people were going to smoke dope, we knew they were going to drink beer,” said Captain Ron Robertson with the Nelson Sheriff’s Office. “That happens at every festival I’ve been to.”
The four-day music festival at 5,000-acre Oak Ridge estate last September was attended by 25,000 people who flocked to see performances by musicians such as the String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Phish lead singer Trey Anastasio, and Furthur. While there were no alcohol citations and Nelson County Sheriff David Brooks described the festival as having “little to no problems” in a post-event press release, an ABC disciplinary complaint claims violations were widespread. At an initial hearing in Lynchburg on April 30, testimony focused on videotaped evidence of nine alleged drug offenses. The ABC complaint against Lockn’s concessionaire, Best Beverage Catering, also claims prohibited conduct—the topless woman—and that concert lighting wasn’t bright enough to discern possible criminal behavior.
Unlike his fellow law-enforcers at the ABC, who had earlier testified they only observed but did not arrest lawbreakers because of the potential for rioting, Robertson expressed no such qualms about officer safety in the large crowd. He said he and his deputies responded numerous times to calls from festival security and made seven major drug arrests.
Robertson testified that the Nelson County commonwealth’s attorney had advised officers in his department to use their discretion to address those in possession of small amounts of pot. “We could have overrun the court system and absolutely bogged down Nelson County courts,” said Robertson, who acknowledged under questioning from ABC attorney Elizabeth Flournoy that state law does not permit such officer discretion.
At least one ABC agent seemed to take a more aggressive law enforcement stance, Robertson testified, describing an encounter at a festival tent in which he characterized ABC Special Agent Matthew C. Layman’s behavior as that of “a storm trooper or Gestapo agent.” Said Robertson, “I didn’t like the way he talked or acted,” but said he told Layman he’d still back him up.
Robertson wasn’t the only one whose testimony painted Layman’s festival enforcement style as over-zealous.
Lockn’ festival director Nigel James, whose 32 years in music festivals includes work with the legendary Bill Graham Presents, testified that things got off to a rocky start at a pre-festival security meeting with Agent Layman. “He walked into my personal space and started shouting that there was going to be a riot and people would be stabbed,” said James. The ABC agent said bands like Widespread Panic would bring drug users, testified James.
“I did not get in his personal space,” said Layman on rebuttal. “I did not refuse to shake hands. I did not intimidate him.” Layman also said he didn’t remember specifically saying to organizers that festival-goers would be “raped, murdered, or stabbed,” although he later acknowledged he could have said it.
James did not witness the nine incidents of alleged drug use documented in ABC photographs and included in the complaint, he said, but did not seem surprised that some people had smoked marijuana. “It’s a music festival,” said James. “I saw the occasional person using marijuana.”
“Did you take any action?” asked ABC hearing officer Clara Williamson.
“No,” answered James.
Security consultant Roger Stephenson, who teaches courses on entertainment security and worked for 26 years as a Norfolk sheriff’s deputy, was hired by Lockn’ as a liaison to the ABC, and he said he’d encountered Agent Layman in Virginia Beach when Stephenson worked as public safety director at Verizon Amphitheater.
After the hearing, Stephenson said he wasn’t surprised by the testimony describing Layman as aggressive.
“He did the same thing in Virginia Beach,” he said. “I’ve testified at two ABC hearings, both of them brought by Layman. I think he has his own agenda—also known as an abuse of power.”
Layman declined a request for comment on the Lockn’ camp’s allegations of bias. ABC attorney Flournoy said she was “shocked” at the allegations. “I felt, frankly, it was mudslinging,” she said.
Dim lighting during the festival is another charge that threatens Lockn’s ABC license. Agent Layman showed a two-minute video he made during the Friday night, September 6, Zac Brown concert. The illumination, he said, “was not enough to see how old [audience members] were, if they were intoxicated or committing other crimes.”
Security liaison Stephenson testified that additional lights had been added in the porta-john area after Layman said the lighting was insufficient. Stephenson also said he had no problem seeing individuals during the show. “You cannot light a concert like a baseball field,” he said.
The third charge against Lockn’ is prohibited behavior—a topless woman sunbathing in a field Saturday afternoon. Agent Layman said he immediately noticed the prone female and made a video of the violation. He observed the woman for 10 minutes, and called in other agents to witness the prohibited behavior.
“Her areola was completely exposed,” testified Layman. “The licensee should have seen her and taken action.”
Lockn’ witnesses testified they were unaware of the unauthorized sunbathing, but festival organizer Dave Frey said another topless woman attempted to come in with body paint on her top half, and was not allowed to enter.
The claim of ignorance is not a valid defense, said the ABC’s Flournoy.
“[ABC] regulation does not require proof of knowledge,” she said. “It does require proof the conduct was allowed.”
Along with the “periods of pitch blackness” during the concert and the documented drug use, “We ask the hearing officer to consider revocation for those reasons,” said Flournoy.
“Someone could streak through a facility and its license could be revoked,” countered Lockn’ attorney John Russell. He also noted that the ABC had no written guidelines on the number of watts required for illumination. “It seems to my client like a ‘gotcha’ moment, with no feedback and no standards,” he said.
He pointed out that even the 100-plus incidents of drug use alleged by the ABC were a small percentage in a crowd of 25,000. “We did what we could on-site to manage conduct,” he said.
Russell also spoke out about Layman’s “potential bias about the bands” playing at Lockn’. “The perspective of Agent Layman was that there were going to be drug users and maybe he went out and found them,” said Russell.
If the license is revoked, festival goers would still be allowed to bring their own alcoholic beverages. That would be unsafe because organizers would be unable to control the drinking, said Lockn’ organizer Dave Frey, who vowed to appeal should the ruling favor revocation. He said he wants Lockn’ to be like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, showcasing Nelson breweries.
And Frey questioned the use of ABC resources at Lockn’ to threaten what could be an economic boon for Nelson County, “especially since nothing about this has anything to do with alcoholic beverage violations.”
The hearing came the same week that ABC Chief Operating Officer Curtis Coleburn announced his retirement. Last year, the ABC came under scrutiny when sparkling-water-carrying UVA student Elizabeth Daly was arrested by agents. She’s filed a $40-million lawsuit against the state.
Hearing officer Williamson said she would issue a written decision on Lockn’s license as soon as possible.