Buzz kill: ABC claims illegal drugs abounded at Lockn’ music festival

Lockn' promoter Dave Frey said the ABC didn't notify him of the numerous alleged videotaped violations at the festival in Nelson County. Photo: Lisa Provence Lockn’ promoter Dave Frey said the ABC didn’t notify him of the numerous alleged videotaped violations at the festival in Nelson County. Photo: Lisa Provence

The Lockn’ music festival’s food concession contractor faced three charges at an April 30 disciplinary hearing at the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control office in Lynchburg, but time ran out before testimony could be heard about the topless woman or the dim lighting that threaten the festival’s ABC license. Instead, the six-hour hearing only covered one charge encompassing more than 100 incidents of alleged narcotics violations videotaped by undercover ABC agents.

“It was just everywhere,” said ABC Special Agent Matthew Layman, who oversees Nelson County for the agency and testified at the hearing about the alleged drug offenses at Lockn’.

The four-day music festival was held over Labor Day weekend on the 5,000-acre Oak Ridge estate in Nelson County and was attended by around 25,000 people, who came to see musical acts that included Widespread Panic, Phish lead singer Trey Anastasio, and Further, a band with former members of the Grateful Dead.

The ABC’s Layman said Lockn’s concessionaire, Best Beverage Catering, was issued a license that allowed beer and wine to be sold in a 23-acre area inside the horse track. No outside booze could be brought in. Nine ABC agents armed with video cameras and covert pager cameras went undercover to sniff out and record illegal activities, Layman testified.

While Nelson County Sheriff David Brooks said there had been “little to no problems” at Lockn’ in a festival press release days after the event, ABC agents painted a different picture.

Layman and other agents documented approximately 145 alleged narcotics violations during the three days they were there, and he picked nine incidents that he considered “the most egregious” to enter into evidence, describing them as those in which alleged offenders made no effort to hide their activity and security personnel took no action to stop it.

The first photo, taken from the videos, depicts a woman holding and lighting what Layman described as a marijuana pipe. “I could smell the strong odor of marijuana,” he said.

The reefer madness continued as additional undercover video revealed festival-goers passing around what Layman said appeared to be—and smelled like—marijuana. Layman scoffed at suggestions from Lockn’ lawyer John Russell that the people could have been smoking a legal substance, citing his 15 years experience in law enforcement.

He wasn’t the only agent finding evidence of suspected drug use. In addition to spotting men smoking from a multicolored pipe, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Stephanie Rhodes heard a young man behind her saying, “What is this?” as another guy handed him a pill. Because of the loud music, Rhodes testified she only heard “tongue” and “make you feel.”

“How do you know that wasn’t legal pills?” queried Russell.

“If I was taking Advil or aspirin, I wouldn’t put it under my tongue and dance around,” answered Rhodes.

The head of the Lynchburg ABC office, Steven Baffuto, testified that on Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, he notified Lockn’s lawyer at the time that an administrative violation report would be filed and expressed the agency’s concerns about the drug use and lack of illumination, which made it even harder for the agents to discern possible illegal acts.

Baffuto also testified that it was his decision to keep his agents undercover. “I didn’t want to put my agents in a position where they could get hurt,” he said. “There could be a riot and no way of getting help.”

When asked to describe the crowd, said Baffuto, “I hate to admit it, but for the most part it was an easy-going crowd, laid back. There were no riots. What individuals were doing, we wouldn’t allow in other restaurants. That was the problem.”

Although the ABC agents are authorized to arrest violators, they were there only to observe and report, confirmed Layman. They did not advise the offenders of Virginia law, interview witnesses, collect evidence, or notify festival security.

He did, however, notify Best Beverage Catering of the numerous violations he’d seen. “They brought it to our attention and we dealt with it as fast as we could,” said Rob Fisher, who works for Best Beverage.

 Lockn’ promoter Dave Frey testified that no one from the ABC told him of the incidents they were videotaping and claimed he would have taken care of problems if he’d known about them. He said the hired security firms had been instructed to report drug-related incidents to the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, but said he was not satisfied with the performance of one of those firms.

 “The county prosecutor told them to use their best judgment,” said Frey. “If it’s a minute amount, he said to tell [the offenders] to stop and to crush it up. If it’s a larger amount, arrest them.”

Following Frey’s testimony, ABC hearing officer Clara Williamson decided there wasn’t enough time to cover the lack of illumination and the prohibited conduct charges. Some hint about the latter comes from the ABC’s administrative narrative, which describes Special Agent Layman videotaping a topless woman sunbathing in the grass in the licensed area Saturday afternoon. Four other ABC agents also observed her, said the report, which reminded that display of “any portion of the breast below the top of the areola” is prohibited.

 The hearing will be continued on May 16 in Richmond.

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