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Howard County assessing security after two die at Merriweather concert

ConcertsMusicLaw EnforcementAssaultConservationLocal Government

Howard County officials say they are investigating security and screening procedures at Merriweather Post Pavilion after two concertgoers died and 19 others were sent to hospitals during an electronic dance music festival over the weekend.

The deaths of two young men, ages 20 and 17, who attended the daylong concert called the Mad Decent Block Party were the latest tragedy for the nationally renowned amphitheater in Columbia that has been drawing major musical artists for nearly 50 years. In April, a concertgoer was accidentally run over; police said he was lying in a grass parking lot.

The numerous medical emergencies at Friday's music festival again cast a light on the connection between dance music and MDMA, the drug known as Ecstasy or "Molly," which investigators suspect was widely used at the concert. The drug has been linked to deaths at other electronic dance music events nationwide.

"The loss of two young lives at an entertainment event is tragic and not something we typically see in Howard County," said Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn, who added that police would be speaking with Merriweather officials about preventing further deaths.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said he met with public safety officials Monday and asked them to investigate and to review practices at the popular concert venue, which can hold nearly 20,000 attendees.

Family members of one of the two concert goers who died said they believe he had a toxic reaction to a drink handed to him by another concertgoer.

The family of Tyler Fox Viscardi, 20, of Raleigh, N.C., said they do not know exactly what caused Viscardi to suffer a medical emergency but said he was attending the festival with friends.

"We are devastated by the sudden loss of our beloved Tyler," Viscardi's family said in a statement to WJZ-TV. "He was the victim of a terrible mishap. … According to his close college friend who was with him, the afternoon was hot and he drank water that was given to him by others who were in the area. We believe that this contained a substance, unbeknownst to him, to which he had a toxic reaction."

Autopsy results are pending for Viscardi and the 17-year-old, whose identity police did not reveal. Police are awaiting test results to determine what substances they and other concertgoers who fell ill might have ingested, Llewellyn said.

Merriweather officials believe they took proper security precautions but said "it is unfortunately difficult to protect fans from their own actions, particularly if committed before they enter the venue," said Audrey Fix Schaefer, spokeswoman for I.M.P., the amphitheater's operator.

Attendees were patted down, she said. People who showed signs of being under the influence of an illegal substance were turned away. Backpacks, food and beverages were confiscated; empty water bottles were allowed to help concertgoers stay hydrated. Purses were searched.

Police became involved when illegal substances were found, she said.

Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., alluded to drug use at the concert in a statement he issued on Monday mourning the victims.

"I wish that ending this new drug abuse epidemic, which is everywhere, was as simple as eliminating the type of concert people like to go see," he said. "But that wouldn't solve this problem any more than stopping the drug problems in the '60s by ending rock concerts back then, or the violence at some rap concerts by stopping all of those. We need to work on convincing kids that those pills they put in their mouth could kill them."

Doug Williams, 29, of Columbia attended the "outdoor rave" and said that it seemed as if more younger attendees were under the influence of drugs or alcohol than at past concerts he attended, including last year's Mad Decent festival.

"There was quite a few kids laying in grass, their pupils dilated," he said. "They really can't stand still. You can tell. If you were there, you would've looked at the crowd and, 'Oh yeah, a lot of kids that shouldn't be here. They are wasted out of their minds.' "

He said he saw EMTs carry a concertgoer out on a stretcher and wished Merriweather security had been more focused on young people who appeared drug-impaired than on looking to stop people from smoking marijuana.

He said the number of younger concertgoers raises a larger concern: "How can all these young kids find their way to this concert and do this?"

Republican Howard County executive candidate Allan H. Kittleman said elected officials need to respond to the deaths. He said he had begun meeting with substance abuse experts and hoped to study techniques to prevent similar problems.

Democrat Courtney Watson, Kittleman's political opponent, said Howard County Police Chief Gary L. Gardner assured her Sunday that he was "conducting a strong and thorough review to make sure the Police Department is doing everything it can to prevent this kind of tragedy."

"A lot of times, our kids don't know what they're getting into," she said. "We need to do absolutely everything we can do to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

Last year, Rolling Stone magazine named Merriweather Post Pavilion the fourth-best amphitheater in the country and the top concert venue on the East Coast. Since opening in 1967, the 40-acre amphitheater has hosted the likes of Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan and current stars such as Robin Thicke and Vampire Weekend.

In recent years, county officials have called for major upgrades to the aging venue, and in May, Howard County government and the venue's owner, Howard Hughes Corp., agreed to a five-year, $19 million renovation plan.

Howard County police cited 50 people for underage drinking at the concert. One attendee was arrested for assaulting an officer, another for a domestic assault and a third for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, police said.

The arrests included Lucas Casey, a 19-year-old college quarterback at the University of Rhode Island and an Atholton High School graduate, who faces five criminal counts, including second-degree assault, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a law enforcement officer, state court records show. Rhode Island suspended him from the football program indefinitely pending the outcome of the charges, university athletic director Thorr Bjorn said.

The Mad Decent Block Party was founded by the DJ Diplo and included several prominent electronic dance music acts.

Over the past few years, law enforcement and health officials across the country have been seeing a resurgence in the use of a purer-grade Ecstasy known as Molly, a club drug that gives users a warm, loving feeling that raises the body temperature and can cause dehydration.

A 24-year-old California man overdosed on Ecstasy at the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas in June while two people officials say ingested the drug died at the Electric Zoo festival in New York City in 2013.

Missi Wooldridge, executive director of the group DanceSafe, which promotes health and safety within the electronic music community, said the genre shouldn't be blamed, but instead the lack of education and resources for young people about MDMA.

"Think about any large-scale event where you get a lot of people together and you have to manage everyone's health and society," Wooldrige said. "This could happen anywhere, really. I think the issue is made up of young people and they have a lack of information and resources that they need to make the decisions."

Hospitals in the Baltimore area are seeing a rise in MDMA overdoses, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Over the past year or so, we're seeing a significant increase in the use of Ecstasy in the Baltimore area," said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gary Tuggle of the Baltimore office. "It's becoming an increasing public hazard. They don't realize how dangerous this stuff is."

Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore will be hosting the Moonrise Festival this weekend, where several electronic dance music acts are scheduled. Organizer Evan Weinstein said he has been working closely with city officials and emergency responders to make sure all precautions are taken. Among them: The event will have free water stations.

"With the planning of Moonrise for this year, safety has been our No. 1 focus from the beginning," he said. "We're reassuring everyone that this is a safe event, and we're doing everything that we can to make it safe event and keep it a safe event."

At an annual anti-drug seminar for incoming freshman on Monday, Mike Gimbel, a former Baltimore County substance abuse prevention official, warned Towson University freshman football players about the dangers of MDMA. He said the biggest concern is that the drug is being mixed with other drugs and users aren't aware of what they're ingesting.

"You might not even know what you're getting," he said. "This is the worst I've seen in 30 years."

Baltimore Sun reporters Wesley Case and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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