On the trail of the Nitrous Mafia

Summer concerts are jamming to the familiar hiss of “hippie crack”

"These people are evil," says Don Bryant, a retired Army captain and emergency medical technician who also vends T-shirts at shows. During a recent Bonnaroo festival, he says, "One guy with a $5 balloon of nitrous came crashing through my booth, being chased by a guy with a knife. He almost took out my daughter, who is a little baby."

Scott Percival, a Boston police officer who serves as a security guard for the Gathering of the Vibes, says he was once offered $10,000 by a dealer to look the other way, and he recalls stumbling onto one beaten-up and unconscious seller lying in the parking lot, pockets empty. "He was selling nitrous, and the other guys came in and took him out. It happens all the time," he says.

"It's a big-time problem," echoes Dennis O'Connor, a Hartford police officer who confiscated 25 tanks outside a Phish show last year. Forced to play a four-day game of Whac-a-Mole, the guards at festivals move in on one dealer with a tank, and another pops up on the other side of the park.

For concertgoers, the most dangerous risk of nitrous is the potential for users to pass out and hit the pavement. "I've watched so many young people crack their heads and face open that I have personally stopped providing emergency first aid," says Bryant, the EMT. "I've seen them fall and bust out all their teeth. I've seen them fall and hit glass."

Pointing to a scar on his chin, one fan elaborates on a recent nitrous experience in Pittsburgh. "My last thoughts were, 'I need to sit down right now,' and the next thing I know, I wake up in a pool of blood with five people surrounding me."

Last year a festivalgoer turned up dead at Gathering of the Vibes. Within days the jam-band blogosphere lit up, hurling accusations at the Nitrous Mafia, with claims that the victim was beaten with a tank, sprayed with gas, and burned alive. Weeks later, a toxicology report ruled that he died from a simple drug overdose, but the episode was still a black eye for festival promoter Ken Hays, who came under fire from Bridgeport authorities for failure to control the scene. Despite confiscating about 100 tanks, the security guards at Vibes proved no match for the gas mob.

"We were overrun," admits a security executive.

Despite the scandal, Hays eventually won his months-long battle to bring his festival, born out of Jerry Garcia's death, back to Bridgeport. (The event is scheduled to run from July 29 to August 1.) He has instituted a zero-tolerance balloon ban this year and is working with the Bridgeport police force and City Council to make the possession of nitrous oxide illegal in Bridgeport's public parks. He says he hopes legislation will be enacted before the festival, though the parks commissioner isn't sure it can be enforced.

The guards aren't sure either. "People just don't know what's going on," says Marshall Rodriguez, the owner of the security firm in charge of the backstage area of Vibes. (Indeed, two cops interviewed for this story referred to the gas as "helium.") A few years ago Rodriguez almost shut down his business after one of his guards was pistol-whipped and another threatened at knifepoint by nitrous dealers at a festival in West Virginia. "You got a group of guys who are coming in...[making] money they're willing to go to great lengths to protect, even if it means hurting somebody, even if it means hurting security," he said. "It's just starting to get out of control."

INSIDE A DIMLY lit roadhouse in Nowhereseville, Massachusetts, "Sean" has agreed to talk about his time as a member of the Nitrous Mafia, provided his real name isn't used and the venue isn't named. Twenty-four years old, Sean sips a bottle of lager and speaks in a raspy whisper. His dreadlocked hair spills over his Grateful Dead visor and down his back, and a green bandanna hangs loosely from his neck. A self-described hippie, he was considered a valuable member of the Mafia because he blended in at festivals.

Sean explains that the Boston ring of the Nitrous Mafia is made up of about 16 members split into two units, with the entire operation run by the Rhode Island kingpin, Dmitri—the guy slamming the tank against the wall in Williamsburg. With the help of false paperwork, gang members fill up tanks of various sizes at a local nitrous shop, which is a kitchen-supply store called New England Fountain in Burlington, Massachusetts. (The store's owner, Paul Abramo, says he's aware that some of his customers might be illegal dealers, but it's impossible to regulate: "We try to make sure they're a business, but beyond that, it's really out of our control.")

During festival season, gang members are able to fill 40 nitrous tanks at a time for $75 each, says Sean. Members of each unit split 30 percent of the profits, while the remaining 70 percent was funneled back to their bosses.

The Philadelphia ring is larger and split into several sub-crews who know each other but operate independently, says Sean. "The Philly guys are more reckless," he says, and more prone to violence and intimidation. "They operate without a code of honor. They were the first kids I saw bringing guns to the lots and putting fuckin' shit to people's heads." The Philadelphia don, who owns his own nitrous supply store and has several workers underneath him, is less apt to show up at festivals himself, says Sean. "He's a fucking nut job," he adds, noting that even Dmitri is deferential to him.

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