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A Death in Desert Haunts Rave Scene

Music: Promoters and devotees say the incident during Dune IV was just an aberration. But victim's mother wants to put an end to the all-night parties.


Faces are buffed raw by gusts of wind and sand. Hair has gone white with dust. It's dark, it's cold, and they are three hours from home in an uninhabited desert outpost. It's 6 a.m. and no one has slept a wink. Yet the ravers insist that "it's all good."

But it was not all good. Not this time.

An estimated 5,000 people answered the call to Dune IV, a desert rave held earlier this month at the Torres-Martinez reservation near the Arizona border for 12 hours of heart-pounding, soul-vibrating revelry.

Aptly located near the town of Mecca, the site drew a devoted congregation of ravers, a community defined and inspired by its progressive house and trance music.

But one raver never made it home. John Abel, 24, a vault librarian at Fox Sports West, died in a canyon two miles northwest of the reservation sometime in the morning of June 7 as the all-night rave was winding down. His friends last remember seeing him about 4:30 a.m. and later assumed he was in his tent taking refuge from the elements.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 19, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Dune IV rave--A story in Wednesday's Life & Style about the reaction to a death at a desert rave misstated the location of the all-night party. Mecca, the town nearest the Dune IV rave, is between Indio and the Salton Sea.

"We were having a great time," said one friend, who didn't want his name used. "We came for the music and to camp out. It sounded like a great way to spend the weekend." While the friends had attended large dance parties in Hollywood several times, this was their first desert rave. And if Abel's mother, Elizabeth Abel, has her way, it will be their last. Shortly after learning of her son's death, Elizabeth Abel publicly stated that she will begin a campaign against the all-night dance parties.

"If there is anything Beth can do to stop these things, she's going to do it," says John Abel's uncle, also named John Abel.

The Riverside Sheriff's Department learned of Abel's disappearance June 8, according to Det. Mark Wasserman, and soon had a search party scouring the desert. By Wednesday morning, the search party included roughly 60 investigators and volunteers, a plane, a helicopter, the desert search and rescue team, mounted posse units, deputies in all-terrain vehicles and a bloodhound. But it was Abel's family who discovered his clothing in a pile more than two miles west of the rave site. The hound picked up his scent and led the search team to Painted Canyon, a rugged area of sandstone cliffs and valleys, where they found Abel's body later Wednesday evening. He had apparently fallen 40 to 50 feet onto a ledge.

Original reports that he died from a broken neck have been retracted. A toxicology report is pending. Wasserman and Abel's friends believe he may have taken a combination of LSD and psilocybin "magic" mushrooms, which are not generally considered lethal on their own, according to medical experts.

While drug overdoses are not uncommon at raves, this is the first death to occur on the premises of a legal rave held by an L.A. promoter. The news broadcasts and tabloid TV shows were quick to vilify raves, often portraying them as "deadly teenage orgies of sex and booze," as did "Hard Copy."

"The counterculture is always an easy target," says photographer Ray Klein. Klein attends area raves and parties every week, documenting club culture for Lotus and other dance music magazines.

"These things have such a potential to positively transform the lives of so many people, it put some of us in despair to see the negative commentary on the community," says Lotus Editor John Kavulic.

Many promoters complain that accidents, even deaths, occur at concerts and in various sports, but nobody shuts them down.

"It's safer to rave than go skiing," says promoter Ben Wilkins, one of seven friends who put the Dune event together as a nonprofit venture in the name of good vibes. L.A. has been host to these enormous dance parties in warehouses and open spaces since the "Summer of Love" redux in 1988.

But the essence of the movement began thousands of years ago, says Wilkins. "There have always been people who danced around a campfire all night. Dancing is a form of ritual meditation. From an anthropological standpoint, we are participating in what tribes have been doing for centuries," he says. "It's just that technology has advanced and we can have amplified sounds and nice lights."

Ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget has written extensively on music and trance, what he calls the state of mystical absorption. Rouget posits that any music that induces trance is essentially dance music, repetitive beat-based sound that can be found in shamanistic rituals from Siberia to the Ainu in Japan and the Native Americans of the Southwest.

Research has shown that loud sound affects the autonomic nervous system, increasing the heart rate and releasing adrenaline into the system. The combination of music, dancing and adrenaline often induces ecstatic, life-changing episodes for the raver even without drugs, many ravers say.

But this explanation doesn't sit well with Abel's uncle. "Doesn't that sound like a cult?" he asks.

Klein argues otherwise. "Nobody's being forced to go--and nobody's being forced to stay," he says.

And no one is being forced to take drugs.

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