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A fatal toll on concertgoers as raves boost cities' income

Struggling local governments welcome large music events staged by L.A.-based promoters, but reports reveal a tragic pattern of drug overdoses.

February 02, 2013|By Rong-Gong Lin II, Paul Pringle and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

On the edge of the Mojave, music promoter Pasquale Rotella staged a rave about 11 years ago that ended with a coroner's wagon rolling down desert roads.

Five people died of overdoses and drug-related car crashes during or shortly after the Nocturnal Wonderland concert at the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County.

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The all-night party of electronic dance music was among the big raves to emerge from an Ecstasy-fueled underground of urban warehouses.

These days, raves fill fairgrounds, basketball arenas and football stadiums. Their audiences are no longer a few hundred revelers but tens of thousands.

As raves have moved into the mainstream, there have been more tragedies across the country.

Since 2006, at least 14 people who attended concerts produced by Rotella, considered within the industry the nation's leading rave promoter, and Reza Gerami, another prominent Los Angeles-based impresario, have died from overdoses or in other drug-related incidents, a Times investigation has found.

GRAPHIC: Read more about the 14 deaths

According to an analysis of coroners' and law enforcement reports from nine states, most of the deaths were linked to Ecstasy or similar designer drugs — hallucinogens tightly bound with raves.

Despite warnings of drug risks from law enforcement and health officials, the raves have received the blessing of local governments hungry for the revenue they deliver.

"It pretty well fills all the local hotels," said Judge Dave Barkemeyer, who issued a permit for a Rotella rave in Milam County, Texas. "It brings in a fair amount of commerce."

But with the revenue has come the risk of fatal overdoses.

Most of the dead were in their teens and early 20s, according to records. The youngest was 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez, who overdosed at Rotella's 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Scores of other drug-related medical emergencies and arrests were reported at some of the 64 concerts produced by Rotella or Gerami that were examined by The Times.

James Penman, the San Bernardino city attorney, said economics should never be a justification for raves. He long has urged officials to disallow the events at the National Orange Show Events Center there. Coroners' reports show that two people have fatally overdosed at National Orange Show raves.

"The city should have zero tolerance for any activity where drugs are an integral part," Penman said. "A rave without drugs is like a rodeo without horses. They don't happen."


Rotella's firm, Insomniac Inc., and Gerami's Go Ventures Inc., were among the first to bring raves to big-time venues and helped provide the model for other promoters around the country.

Rotella and Gerami are under indictment on bribery and other charges in connection with their raves at the Coliseum and adjoining Sports Arena. County prosecutors allege that the two conspired to keep a lid on their concert costs, such as expenses for security, by making about $2 million in illicit payments to a stadium manager. They have pleaded not guilty.

The son of Italian immigrants, Rotella grew up steeped in the music and break-dancing scene at Venice Beach near his family's restaurant. He developed an interest in electronic music and created the Nocturnal Wonderland concert series when he was 19.

Gerami, whose family settled in Southern California after fleeing Iran's Islamic Revolution, became a teenage record-spinner at the nightclub T.I.M.E. As DJ Reza, he was soon organizing raves across the Los Angeles area, including the Halloween-themed Monster Massive and a New Year's Eve show called Encore.

As they followed separate paths into large arenas, Rotella and Gerami stopped using the word "rave" and billed their productions as "electronic music festivals."

"There's a big difference between an illegal and unsafe event and what we're doing," Gerami told The Times in 2000.

The Rotella and Gerami productions brought safety requirements that were missing from the underground scene. Their Coliseum contracts, for example, held the promoters responsible for the protection of rave attendees against injury.

Now-routine safety measures include security patrols, standby ambulances and medical stations. More recently, Rotella's concerts have offered free water to attendees. Ecstasy overdose victims often crave water because the drug affects the part of the brain that regulates drinking behavior and body temperature. Insomniac's website warns ticket buyers that they will be prosecuted if they use drugs at the concert.

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