Tomb Raiders

Sifting through the bones of an infamous Halloween rave bust

Amid the corporate accounting scandals and a pitched national defense debate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) found the time on June 18 to introduce his own vital bill to Congress. The R.A.V.E. Act ("Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy," S.R. 2633) would prosecute party promoters, club managers, and landlords for the use of MDMA (or Ecstasy) on their watch or their property, with potential penalties of up to $250,000 and 20 years prison time. (See "Generation Ecstasy Comes Down," August 21, 2002.) It seems fair to say that Biden's bill was set in motion 10 years ago this weekend, when Grave Rave--a Halloween party thrown in Wisconsin by four promoters, including two from Minneapolis-- was busted.

It was, in fact, the biggest bust in American rave history, with 973 arrests and fines of $325 apiece. The organizers were fined $3,000 each. When roughly half the ravers refused to pay these penalties, however, the charges and fines were dropped. Still, whenever a Midwest rave promoter speaks of the security and insurance precautions they take at their parties, they inevitably mention Grave Rave, either by name or as "that huge bust in Wisconsin."

What's ironic is that MDMA was in abundant supply at the party yet went virtually unnoticed by the police. Fewer than 10 cans or bottles of alcohol were found, according to a statement released shortly after the bust by Milwaukee Police Chief Philip Arreola. Also seized: 44 marijuana pipes, 81 small cylinders of nitrous oxide, and assorted pills. MDMA, however, is not mentioned.

Flyer from the ill-fated Grave Rave
Flyer from the ill-fated Grave Rave

"Back then, Ecstasy wasn't even on the law-enforcement radar," says journalist and former rave promoter David J. Prince, a Chicago native who covered the bust for Urb magazine. According to several partygoers, the police overlooked thousands of dollars in Ecstasy and LSD. (The Milwaukee Police Department did not return City Pages' calls requesting comment.)

"When we went back to clean up after the bust, we must have found 10 grand worth of [Ecstasy] stuffed into the cracks of the walls," says Michael Vance, one of Grave's promoters. "I remember one guy walking out with an entire bottle of Ecstasy. The cops asked what it was, and he said, 'Vitamin C. It's chewable.' And the cops said, 'Oh, Okay.' They had no idea."


Within a couple of years of raves' introduction in England, the outlaw parties had made their way to Los Angeles and New York. "Raves had started in the Midwest not even a year before Grave," says Tommie Sunshine, a Chicago electro DJ and producer who was one of the early scene's most ardent participants. In that brief time span, though, Sunshine was one of many who caught the utopian bug.

"Back then," says Vance, "you'd have a Friday-night pre-party--the Grave pre-party was massive; there were about 300 or 400 people--then the rave on Saturday, and then there'd be an after-party on Sunday. You'd just party all weekend."

"At that point, we didn't even think it was a culture," says Sunshine. "It was just something we did: 'Oh, it's Saturday night, let's get in the car and drive to a rave in another town.'"

At that point, it was ravers who did most of the traveling; promoters mostly stayed home, throwing parties in their own towns. Grave, however, was different--a Milwaukee party thrown by out-of-towners, including Madison native Vance, West Bend's Robin Bott, and Minneapolis's Bobbie Reiss and DJ ESP Woody McBride.

"I had been playing around the Midwest," says McBride, "and there was sick mental energy going on in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois--very different from what was going on here. I had helped with some parties in Madison," McBride continues, "but I had never done a full-on illegal rave."

Up to that point, says Vance, the Milwaukee police had been tolerant of local parties. "I'd dealt with cops at [Madison parties] Rave-E's and Alice in Raveland---they were just making sure that nobody was drinking. At Alice, I was tripping my balls off when the sheriff showed up, and I came out and had my arm around one cop's shoulder, and they were cool. Grave Rave was even better organized than those parties, and I was sober, so I thought I could take care of any problems with the police."

"When we rolled up there from Chicago, the buzz on the street was that it was gonna get busted," says Tony Duffy, who oversaw the event's vendor kiosks. "But that was the norm. No one took it seriously or considered that it would really happen."

Grave Rave took place in a warehouse located next to a brewery in Milwaukee's Third Ward, and was divided into a main dancing area and a chill-out room. Somewhat prophetically, the warehouse also housed a scale model of a jailhouse for department training. "It freaked me out when I saw it, but a couple weeks after the bust it was really funny," says Vance.

The promoters rented the building, claiming they were shooting a music video there and throwing a wrap party afterward. In keeping with the Halloween theme, they built a haunted-house façade, which occupied one of the warehouse's corners, surrounded by dead leaves and a white picket fence that Vance had found discarded in a Madison field. Two spigots jutting out from the façade poured Gatorade and Kool-Aid, and volunteers handed out Halloween candy from the false door.

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