Ecstasy Crackdown

  • Nearly three years after her daughter's death, Phyllis Kirkland still visits her grave every day. She drives over from the Monroeville, Ala., dentist's office where she works. She weeps. Jillian was only 17--"a beautiful 17," her mom chokes--when she died from a drug overdose after a sweaty night of dancing at the State Palace Theatre, a nightclub about a four-hour drive away, in New Orleans.

    Jillian's August 1998 death crushed her mom, but it may also change how the U.S. government fights its war on drugs like ecstasy. Jillian's overdose--the coroner can't say precisely from what--and the sad 16 days she clung to life at Charity Hospital enraged doctors there. Federal agents began investigating, and in January a grand jury indicted three of the men who ran the club under a novel application of a 1986 law called the Crack House Statute. It prohibits maintaining a property "for the purpose of...distributing or using a controlled substance." Congress wrote the law to go after sleazebag landlords who let dealers and addicts hide the crack trade in slums. This is the first time prosecutors have used it against a nightclub, and drug enforcers and club owners across the U.S. are watching the case.

    What's new about this drug-war strategy is that it does not require the government to show that the defendants--brothers Robert and Brian Brunet, who managed the State Palace, and Donnie Estopinal, who promoted its raves--were actually selling drugs. And so far, the government has offered no evidence that they were, though investigators have been digging for well over a year.

    Rather, U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan plans to argue that the defendants looked the other way as druggies turned the State Palace into a kind of crack house for club drugs. Cops say it was a place where partiers could easily score hits of ecstasy and acid without getting hassled by club staff, and where the staff encouraged the pharmacological festivities by selling rave-culture gear such as glow sticks and pacifiers. These are silly fashion accessories for many ravers, but they can be drug-related too: glow sticks stimulate dilated pupils; pacifiers relieve the teeth grinding associated with ecstasy.

    The Brunets and Estopinal say they did everything they could to keep their parties sober. They and their A.C.L.U. lawyers also argue that those who provide music should not be blamed for its devotees' crimes. But the case raises an important question: Given that the use of ecstasy continues to soar, is there any way to stop club drugs without stopping the raves? Could music be to blame for what happened to Jillian Kirkland?

    Before he ever heard of Kirkland, before he became a nationally known promoter and way before an attorney showed him photos of the prison he might call home if he loses his case, Estopinal was a frat boy at Louisiana State University. In the early '90s, according to friends--the defendants wouldn't talk on the record--Estopinal, now 31, was waiting tables, trying to decide whether he really wanted to be an accountant. Co-workers started taking him dancing. Dance music was enjoying a revival, having shaken off disco excesses and borrowed harder beats from underground. Estopinal fell in love with the dance renaissance and began having parties at a stinky fish-processing warehouse. By 1995, cops were closing him down for illicit booze sales and noise, but he knew he could draw thousands of fans of the new music. He turned to the State Palace to help legitimize his work.

    The State Palace is a musty old gem on Canal Street, a crowded esplanade bordering the French Quarter. The Palace started life in 1950 as a cinema, but after the Brunets leased the space in 1992, it was turned into a concert venue. Robert and Brian Brunet managed it day to day; their dad Rene helped run the family's 88-year-old New Orleans entertainment company. Robert, 36, and Brian, 33, booked mostly mainstream acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and the Beastie Boys. When Estopinal told them in 1995 that he could pack their club with dancers, the family was skeptical.

    The first dance drew just 900, but by 1999, up to 4,300 were paying as much as $35 each to attend raves lasting from 10 p.m. till dawn and beyond. Even so, Rene says, the parties never generated a majority of club revenues, in part because Estopinal spent so much on artsy flyers and DJs like Britain's Paul Oakenfold (who can charge $25,000). On most nights conventional rock, not electronic music, blasted from the club's stage. Regis and Kathie Lee taped their show there each January. In 1998 their taping came days before Estopinal's "Attack of the 50-Ft. Raver Zombies" party. If the State Palace was a crack house, it was an awfully nimble and elaborate one.

    As a manager, Rob saw little downside. The dancers didn't fight or break limbs like alt-rock's moshers. Instead, they created a warm atmosphere, welcoming overweight teens, 30-year-olds toting Powerpuff Girls backpacks, nerds who hated their college Greek scene. Some would drive for hours from Alabama or Arkansas. They would tell Rob that the events had changed their lives. No Dave Matthews fan said that.

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