Revokn’: ABC hammers Lockn’ with harshest penalty

Photo: Tom Daly Photo: Tom Daly

More than two months after hearing evidence regarding violations at last year’s Lockn’ Music Festival, the Virginia Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control has issued a ruling in the case, and it’s bad news for the Nelson County event’s organizers.

“…only one penalty is appropriate,” wrote ABC hearing officer Clara A. Williamson, as she recommended the harshest possible penalty against the young festival: revocation of its liquor license. As previously reported, despite the revocation ruling, this year’s event featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson and other big name acts will go on with liquor sales unhindered during the appeals process.

The ruling, issued July 30, recaps the highlights of the case: that undercover ABC agents reported witnessing at least 100 incidents of drug use and photographed or videotaped at least nine; that the 23-acre licensed area was insufficiently lit; and that multiple ABC agents videotaped a topless woman sunbathing in the licensed area. The complaint alleged that neither festival organizers nor Lockn’s concessionaire, Best Beverage Catering, took sufficient action when notified of alleged violations occurring among the 25,000 festival attendees. Williamson cited testimony from ABC Special Agent Matthew Layman, that the “blatant” drug use was “the highest incidence of drug use he’d ever seen in his career” and that numerous of Lockn’s hired security guards and festival staffers witnessed the drug use and did nothing.

Williamson recounts one incident videotaped by agents in which three men passed around a marijuana pipe while two female security guards stood approximately seven feet away. “As the wind blew toward them, they could be seen sniffing it,” Williamson wrote. “However they made no effort to investigate or stop this activity.”

ABC agents’ accounts of the festival conflicted with those of the festival organizers, a security consultant and even Nelson County Sheriff David Brooks, who described the event as having “little to no problems” in a press release the day after last year’s festival concluded. Unlike ABC agents, who were at the festival undercover because they feared for their safety, according to testimony, Nelson Sheriff’s deputies made seven felony arrests without incident and confiscated between $7,000 and $10,000.

Williamson substantiated the drug use and insufficient lighting charges but dismissed a third charge regarding the topless woman, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that festival organizers were aware of that illegal behavior.

“We are absolutely appealing,” said Lockn’ organizer Dave Frey, who explained that the ABC’s full four-person board has 30 days to affirm or overturn Williamson’s revocation recommendation. If the board upholds the revocation, Frey said the appeal will leave the agency’s purview and become a civil matter heard in circuit court, most likely, said Frey, in Nelson County.

Frey said that regardless of the liquor license outcome, the festival is committed to remaining in Nelson. In fact, they’ve purchased a 385-acre property just south of the 5,000-acre Oak Ridge estate where the festival is held. The purchase of that land, with its large road frontage, Frey said, will streamline traffic entering and exiting the event and means those who are camping out will be within 5/8 a mile of the stages—a “game changer” from last year when the most remote sites were more than a two mile journey.

And new land wasn’t the only news Frey shared. Lockn’ organizers are planning a second music festival, this one featuring big name country music acts, for next year.

As for the upcoming event, Frey said he’s not worried about conflict with ABC  particularly since Special Agent Layman will not be there.

“We have a different agent who’s been helpful and thoughtful and is kind of pretending like all this stuff isn’t happening,” said Frey, noting that he and other Lockn’ staffers are working with local law enforcement to ensure a safe and law-abiding event. “We’re not anticipating issues,” he said. “We don’t encourage anybody to break any laws.”

Lockn’ Music Festival is slated for September 4-7.

Story updated with Dave Frey interview Friday, Aug. 1 at 4:37pm