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"It's a sore on the scene," says Kevin Calabro, a Brooklyn-based publicist for jam bands. "It's been taken over by dirtbags and Mafia punks. It used to be, in the old Dead days, that some hippies got their hands on a tank, and it was a mellow and loose kind of thing. Now it's become some dirty-ass shit that's too easy to abuse."
"These people are evil," says Don Bryant, a retired Army captain and emergency medical technician, who also vends T-shirts at shows. During a recent Bonnaroo festival, he says, "One guy with a $5 balloon of nitrous came crashing through my booth, being chased by a guy with a knife. He almost took out my daughter, who was a little baby."
Scott Percival, a Boston police officer who serves as a security guard for the Gathering of the Vibes, says he was once offered $10,000 by a dealer to look the other way, and recalls stumbling onto one beaten-up and unconscious seller lying in the parking lot, pockets empty. "He was selling nitrous, and the other guys came in and took him out. It happens all the time," he says. "It's a big-time problem," echoes Dennis O'Connor, a Hartford police officer who confiscated 25 tanks outside a Phish show last year.
Forced to play a four-day game of Whac-a-Mole, the guards at festivals move in on one dealer with a tank, and another pops up on the other side of the park. "It's frighteningly organized," says Richards, of Umphrey's McGee. "They know how to hide and get out of a scene very quickly. I've witnessed them set up for 10 minutes and make thousands of dollars selling balloons. And as soon as security and police converge on a location, they're gone. They disappear. They think things out very clearly about how they're going to escape certain situations."
For concertgoers, the most dangerous risk of nitrous is the potential for users to pass out and hit the pavement. "I've watched so many young people crack their heads and faces open that I have personally stopped providing emergency first aid," says Bryant, the EMT. "People will crack themselves open. I've seen them fall and bust out all their teeth. I've seen them fall and hit glass. They fall like flies all over the place. It's a sad thing." Pointing to a scar on his chin, one fan elaborates on a recent nitrous experience in Pittsburgh: "My last thoughts were, 'I need to sit down right now,' and the next thing I know, I wake up in a pool of blood with five people surrounding me."
Last year, a festivalgoer turned up dead at Gathering of the Vibes. Within days, the jam-band blogosphere lit up, hurling accusations at the Nitrous Mafia, with claims that the victim was beaten with a tank, sprayed with gas, and burned alive. Weeks later, a toxicology report ruled that he died from a simple drug overdose, but the episode was still a black eye for festival promoter Ken Hays, who came under fire from Bridgeport authorities for failure to control the scene. Despite confiscating about 100 tanks, the security guards at Vibes proved no match for the gas mob.
"We were overrun," admits a security executive. "We weren't counting on the amount of nitrous they would bring in." Kevin O'Brien, the marketing director of last year's Vibes, says he was offered a bribe of thousands of dollars by a nitrous dealer named "Crispy." The firm Security Operations Consultants, one of five security companies that worked the festival, was the subject of an FBI investigation for allegedly failing to turn over tanks and drugs taken from concertgoers to the police.
Despite the scandal, Hays eventually won his months-long battle to bring his festival, born out of Jerry Garcia's death, back to Bridgeport. (The event is scheduled to run July 29 to August 1.) He has instituted a zero-tolerance balloon ban this year and is working with the Bridgeport police force and City Council to make the possession of nitrous oxide illegal in Bridgeport's public parks. He says he hopes legislation will be enacted before the festival, though the parks commissioner isn't sure that it can be enforced.
The guards aren't sure, either. "People just don't know what's going on," says Marshall Rodriguez, the owner of the security firm in charge of the backstage area of Vibes. (Indeed, two cops interviewed by the Voice referred to the gas as "helium.") A few years ago, Rodriguez almost shut down his business after one of his guards was pistol-whipped and another threatened at knifepoint by nitrous dealers at a festival in West Virginia. "You got a group of guys who are coming in . . . [making] money they're willing to go to great lengths to protect, even if it means hurting somebody, even if it means hurting security," he said. "It's just starting to get out of control."
Inside a dimly lit roadhouse in Nowheresville, Massachusetts, "Sean" has agreed to talk about his time as a member of the Nitrous Mafia, provided his real name isn't used and the venue isn't named. Twenty-four years old, Sean sips a bottle of lager and speaks in a raspy whisper. His dreadlocked hair spills over his Grateful Dead visor and down his back, and a green bandanna hangs loosely from his neck. In a few minutes, he will take the stage as a guitarist for one of the bands playing tonight. A self-described hippie, he was considered a valuable member of the Mafia because he blended in at festivals.