Rave Robbers

Feds Steal the Fun From Nightlife

It looked like any other vigil: Flowers and candles littered the sidewalk, handwritten screeds and love letters for the lost friend covered the door. People gathered around and took photos, hugging each other and bidding farewell. A few cried, and some danced to the music booming from a silver car parked at the curb.

But this vigil wasn't for a dead rock star: It was for a club—Twilo—which, after a three-year battle with the city, was finally shut down on May 24 when the State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled that the city did not have to renew its cabaret license. The closure capped a tumultuous year for the club: Last July, 21-year-old James Wiest died of a drug overdose at Saint Vincent's Hospital after a night spent partying at the venue. His mother, Linda Wiest, is suing Twilo. And earlier this year, allegations arose that the club's security personnel were instructed by management to hide OD'd patrons in a small back room, and that the club hired on-site private ambulances, allegedly to avoid alerting 911 and the NYPD. The city had had enough.

While the notion of 40 or so folks mourning the loss of a club is more than a little overzealous, the attendees would do well to shed their tears for what may soon be the biggest casualty yet: the superclub, the trademark of New York nightlife.

Just a few weeks after Twilo shut its doors, its rivals, the Limelight and the Tunnel, also faced possible closure when owner Peter Gatien—no stranger to Giuliani's unrelenting war on clubs and ghastly "quality of life" campaign—had his clubs' liquor licenses revoked by the State Liquor Authority. Though Gatien was granted a stay of revocation on June 21, he has filed for bankruptcy, owing $1 million to the Limelight landlord and $700,000 to the Tunnel landlord, as well as $3.5 million in federal, state, and city taxes. He is now looking to get out of the business. "At this point, you feel like you're playing Russian roulette when you open a nightclub," says Gatien.

Still, with the Canadian club-owner facing possible deportation based on his 1999 guilty plea to grand-larceny charges, cheating the city and state out of $1.3 million in taxes, Gatien says that the Tunnel's landlord is not keen on keeping it a nightclub. "[The city] goes after larger clubs," says Gatien. "They get more press out of it, and the busier you are the more exposed you are."

If the Big Three—arguably the largest and most famous of New York's dance music halls—are all shut, they will leave a massive void that might not be filled. In baseball, they'd call this a home run.

Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who heads the city's Multi-Agency Response for Clubs and Hotspots, did not return repeated phone calls asking for comment, but recently told the Associated Press, "We've been closing these little buckets of blood for about three years and paralyzing them."

"No one wants to open up a new venue, the rope has been set so high," says promoter Matt E. Silver, who organized the electronic-music tents for the last two Woodstocks.

Most disturbing, however, is a renewed, national campaign against nightlife. If Giuliani's weapons for fighting clubland are frustrating and archaic, like his enforcement of the 1920s Prohibition-era "cabaret law," which limits movement by more than three people without a license, the new national strategy is even more daunting. Giuliani and his successor will no longer need to rely on such local laws. The remainder of New York's increasingly anorexic club scene now has an even bigger demon to deal with: the feds.

In January, as part of the DEA's new Operation Rave Review, promoter James D. Estopinal, a/k/a "Disco" Donnie, and Robert and Brian Brunet, part owners of the State Palace Theater in New Orleans, were indicted under a 1986 "crack house" statute created to target drug dens where owners "knowingly and intentionally" allowed drug use to take place. The feds claimed that the sale of overpriced bottles of water (which keep a person on Ecstasy from dehydrating) and the presence of drug-information groups like DanceSafe and on-site private ambulances (like Twilo used) were evidence that the State Palace Theater operated as a crack house. In March, the indictments were dropped when the prosecution believed at least two of the three defendants would plead guilty.

"If the government is right about what the law means, it would cover so much of what goes on in the country. You could apply it to colleges and dorm rooms," says Graham Boyd, head of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Litigation Project.

The law carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Last month, the Brunet brothers' business, Barbecue of New Orleans, Inc., pled guilty and was fined $100,000. Estopinal, 31, did not enter a plea, and continues to throw parties, to the feds' dismay. "I wouldn't be the one being put on trial," says Estopinal. "It would basically be the rave scene on trial."

Not surprisingly, both sides claim victory with this decision. "I am satisfied with the outcome," says Al Winters, assistant U.S.attorney and lead prosecutor in the New Orleans case. Will Patterson of the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit agency formed in response to the crack house case, says the Brunets' plea agreement illustrates the numerous holes in the law. "The effect of the law is hard to determine. The DEA has gotten a pretty pathetic plea deal—no jail time, no individual named, basically a dummy corporation that took the fall and gave them their legal precedent," says Patterson.

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