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Promoters wary after Missouri music festival bust

Jimmy Tebeau figured a shuttered youth camp deep in the Missouri Ozarks would be the perfect venue for his Grateful Dead tribute band — and to host other touring musicians and thousands of free-spirited fans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jimmy Tebeau figured a shuttered youth camp deep in the Missouri Ozarks would be the perfect venue for his Grateful Dead tribute band — and to host other touring musicians and thousands of free-spirited fans.

Since 2004, his 350-acre campground — named Camp Zoe — has featured performances from his own band, the Schwag, as well as top acts such as the Roots and Los Lobos.

But the music recently stopped at Zoe, and now the dreadlocked dad — once considered a savvy impresario among concert promoters and festival organizers in the lucrative improvisational music world— is accused of being a purveyor of an illicit drug scene.

The Zoe, located about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis, staged its last concert on Halloween of last year. The federal government sued Tebeau in November 2010, hoping to seize the campground and nearly $200,000 in profits from his Schwagstock concert series, when his own band performs.

A four-year investigation by the state Highway Patrol, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service found "open sales" of cocaine, marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy, hallucinogenic mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food at Camp Zoe in a Middle East bazaar-like atmosphere where drug vendors shouted sales pitches to passers-by along campground roads and walking trails, according to court documents. Undercover agents made more than 100 drug purchases.

Tebeau declined to discuss the case, on the advice of his lawyers. But his lawyer, Emmett McAuliffe, calls the federal action an overzealous reach that could establish a troubling legal precedent — not just for music festival promoters, but other business owners in the sports and entertainment industries. The civil action is on hold pending the criminal case.

"It's unprecedented. It's inequitable. They're putting a burden on him that no one can fulfill," said McAuliffe. "Is there any concert promoter in America that would be completely free of the knowledge that there might be drugs being used at his event? Any football team owner?"

The June 17 complaint accuses Tebeau and camp workers of being in the "immediate area" and taking "no action to break up or prevent these known gatherings" and seeks a civil asset forfeiture under a federal law that forbids business owners from "profit(ing) from or make available for use" for drug-related activities.

The Ozarks land is valued at $600,000. A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan declined comment.

Highway Patrol Sgt. Marty Elmore, a spokesman for the district that includes Tebeau's Shannon County property, said his agency routinely saw a surge of illegal activity on Schwagstock weekends since Tebeau took over the property in 2004. Arrest records from a series of safety checkpoints at a highway intersection several miles north of the campground show nearly 1,000 felony and misdemeanor drug arrests as well as underage drinking citations, seat belt violations and other offenses.

"Certainly, when Camp Zoe was in full swing, we did experience a large number of drug arrests and a lot of drug activity," Elmore said.

But a Nov. 1 raid of the campground by an estimated 80 federal agents and local law enforcement — one day after the "Spookstock" Halloween festival — yielded no drugs, McAuliffe said: "Not a single (marijuana) roach."

Tebeau hired private security guards to work festivals, but his efforts to recruit off-duty sheriff's deputies and state troopers were unsuccessful, according to McAuliffe.

"If there were a problem from lack of safety at the camp, there were many other ways the government could have gone about making the camp safe," he said. "They could have made whatever drug busts they wanted to make."

News of the Camp Zoe bust spread quickly in the jam band scene, a genre that has driven the nationwide revival of summer music festivals such as Tennessee's Bonnaroo and Coachella in the southern California desert.

Few festival producers and concert owners contacted by The Associated Press were willing to speak publicly about the incident. But Rebecca Sparks, promoter of the annual High Sierra Music Festival in northern California, said the industry is keenly watching the Missouri case.

"It's definitely chilling," she said. "I'm anxious to see how it all shakes out."

At the same time, Sparks noted that "each festival is unique, and has its own relationship with local authorities." In the case of High Sierra, now in its 21st year, that's meant a working relationship with a local sheriff's department after a more tumultuous stretch several years ago when Sparks said concert-goers were targeted for arrest.

"It did give us pause, but we didn't go running for cover," she said of the Missouri case.

Tebeau, who lived on the seized farm with his wife and two young children, returned to St. Louis but lives mostly on the road, performing five to six nights a week on a tour both with the Schwag and in another group headed by Melvin Seals, a one-time Jerry Garcia collaborator.

He admits that in hindsight, a band name synonymous with low-grade marijuana was not the wisest choice.

"If I was going to do it over again, I'd probably pick a different band name."


Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at .