The Justice Department's campaign to use federal crack house laws against rave club owners took a serious hit this week when jurors in federal court in Florida declined to convict two Panama City Beach club owners targeted by state and federal law enforcement officials. Club La Vela bills itself as the nation's largest nightclub, with the multi-tiered playpen accommodating thousands of people. In addition to holding numerous raves, it is a significant live music and performance space, having hosted such events as the VANS Warped Tour, the Skoal ROAR tour, World Championship Wrestling and even the Bay Watch Talent Search. Brothers and co-owners CEO Patrick Pfeffer, 31, and general manager Thorsten Pfeffer, 30, were charged with conspiring to use the club, or allow it to be used, for the use and distribution of drugs. If convicted, they faced up to 20 years in prison, fines and the possible forfeiture of the club.
But after six weeks of testimony, it took the jury only 75 minutes to come back with "not guilty" verdicts on all counts. Coming after a New Orleans crack house prosecution that ended with a whimper instead of a bang -- federal prosecutors settled for a consent agreement wherein the club owners banned glow sticks and similar items, and even that settlement was blocked as an appeal winds through the courts -- the decision in the La Vela case strikes a major blow against federal prosecutors hoping to use the tactic in their war on the rave culture, which in their minds is indistinguishably linked with ecstasy use.
The nightclub, opened in 1996, quickly drew the attention of local authorities, and undercover officers sent into the club reported repeated drug use and sales. In 1997, it gained the dubious distinction of being the first club raided under Florida's new Anti-Rave law. The 1999 "Operation Heat Rave," unleashed by the Florida Office of Drug Control and the state's sheriffs, spotlighted La Vela, and in April 2000, local law enforcement officials raided the club with great fanfare, but found no drugs.
That didn't stop Bay County Sheriff Guy Tunnell from using a post-raid press conference to demonize the Pfeffer brothers and the club as a place to groom drug consumers. Tunnell pointed to the presence of underage patrons (there legally) and a "lackadaisical" attitude toward drug use that, he said, made it likely that young people would be exposed to drugs. "They were raising them to come back and buy their drugs later," he claimed. He also attempted to tar the brothers with numerous drugs seized over the course of a three-year investigation centering on La Vela, but failed to provide any link between the drug seizures and the Pfeffers. (Neither did prosecutors during the trial. The Sheriff's Department refuses to comment on those claims now.)
Despite Tunnell's show for the reporters, state charges against the brothers fizzled. But the feds picked up the ball, and in June 2000 a federal grand jury indicted the club and the brothers under the federal crack house statute, a heavy-handed weapon crafted during the late-1980's drug hysteria designed to go after property-owners actively involved in ongoing drug sales. The indictment marked only the second time US Attorneys had sought to use the crack house law against rave clubs, and while law enforcement officials in Austin had been making similar threatening noises, the disappointing State Theater case in New Orleans and the La Vela fiasco may quiet them down.
During the trial, federal prosecutors and their witnesses painted a lurid portrait of orgiastic excess and open drug use. Assistant US Attorney Greg Miller told the jurors the club was little more than "what could only be described as a full-service drug shop." He also accused the club of promoting raves, which he described as parties that promote and enhance drug use, citing "chill out" rooms, where overheated patrons could cool off, as evidence. And while various undercover police, club patrons and employees testified that drug use did occur at the club, Miller was reduced to waving around glow sticks as he failed to provide any evidence that the Pfeffer brothers conspired to engage in drug sales at the club or negligently allowed them to take place.
While defense attorneys conceded that drugs were present at times and even admitted that Patrick Pfeffer had a personal fondness for ecstasy, jurors were apparently swayed by some hard numbers. La Vela attorney Todd Foster told the jury that the club grossed $2.5 million in alcohol sales and $3.2 million from cover charges in last year. "That's where they're making their money," he said in his opening argument.
In his closing argument, Prosecutor Miller told the jurors he had only to show that the Pfeffers had entered into some sort of agreement to use the club to distribute drugs, not that they had profited from drug sales. "At the end of this case," he said, "I'm going to ask you to return a verdict that is consistent with the evidence, consistent with the truth and consistent with justice."
Much to Miller's chagrin, they did just that.