Watch out: growing thefts at music festivals are out to harsh your mellow

Watch out: growing thefts at music festivals are out to harsh your mellow

MusicMay 12, 2017 By Lindsey Kline

Tessa Leigh was jumping, clapping, and shaking her hips to the beats of GRiZ. As she danced, her plastic cup full of beer swished and swayed, and all her precious gadgets rattled around at the bottom of her CamelBak.

Unfortunately for Leigh, at that happy moment she’d become a prime target for an ill-intentioned group of pickpockets. One of them approached her back with a pocket knife, stealthily slashed the bottom of her canvas pack, and made away with a brand new iPhone 7.

At this year’s Okeechobee Music Festival, Leigh was only one of countless victims. What’s worse, Okeechobee is only one of innumerable music festivals with growing rates of robbery. At even larger events like Ultra, Coachella and TomorrowWorld (now defunct), skilled delinquents are attracting national attention to the criminal element of festival culture.

“One of the guys in my group realized his phone was missing too, and at that point, we knew we had been jigged.”

To idealistic patrons who preach empathy and community, a music festival theft epidemic goes against everything the event stands for. On occasions where a small society is living together in tented cities, sharing food and shelter, and getting high on a communal drug supply, every member strives for a sense of trust and camaraderie. But the malevolent patrons exploiting the nation’s most beloved music events reveals that such confidence in the festival community is hazardously naive.

A prominent example of this cultural deception played out at this year’s Coachella, where nearly 125,000 people packed into the California festival grounds. The event made national headlines after a 36-year-old attendee, Reinaldo De Jesus Henao, was caught carrying a backpack filled with 100 stolen cell phones. After several victims tracked the thief down using the “Find my iPhone” app, Henao was arrested on charges of grand theft and possession of stolen property.

Across the country at Okeechobee Music Festival, Justin Hunt experienced the same organized theft firsthand as he stood at center stage to enjoy Flume. “I had my phone out to record the chorus of my favorite song, and then I put it into the pocket of my dinosaur onesie. The set ended, and not 3 minutes later I realized my phone was missing,” Hunt says.

“I ran back to the spot where I’d been standing to frantically search for my phone, and I wasn't the only one,” he continues. “I talked to at least 10 people who were looking for their phones right where I’d been during the show. One of the guys in my group realized his phone was missing too, and at that point, we knew we had been jigged.”

Throughout the weekend, Hunt and his social circle heard even more stories of campsites being raided and robbed, dozens of nearby patrons pickpocketed at particular sets, and a group of professional thieves attending the festival solely to profit off the misfortune of others.

Regrettably, when reaching out to the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Department to inquire about the abundant reports of robbery, public information officer Michele Bell revealed that no arrests were made in connection to any theft. Okeechobee police officers were only asked to intervene on one occasion, she says, when MusicFest personnel wanted to trespass a young man caught with six stolen cell phones. Messages left for the Okeechobee Music Festival media relations department have so far gone unanswered.

“All the theft really sucked because at a music festival you want to love and trust all around you, but being stolen from puts a sense of suspicion in your heart.”

Although patrons were put behind bars for possession of drugs and other offenses, the absence of any theft-related arrests indicates the bandits of countless smartphones escaped the event without punishment.

As Justin Hunt phrases it, “All the theft really sucked because at a music festival you want to love and trust all around you, but being stolen from puts a sense of suspicion in your heart.”

But a sense of suspicion may be well-founded. Several studies show that festivals are hotbeds for crime, with theft and assault being the most common occurrences. Stealing especially spikes in unattended tents, with pickpocketing thieves primarily targeting cash, credit cards, cell phones and photographers’ crazy expensive DSLR cameras.

In fact, it’s estimated that one in seven festival attendees is a victim of theft, and based on an aggregate study of music festivals in the United Kingdom, approx. $250,000 worth of possessions are stolen from festivals every year.

Tierro Lee, Colorado music festival producer, admits that at large-scale events like Ultra, Coachella, or Electric Daisy Carnival, theft has become increasingly problematic. He highlights the example of TomorrowWorld in Atlanta, Georgia, where festival staff members stole patrons’ wallets and cell phones while working the event. The self-entitled “Loot Crew” then turned to Twitter, posting photos of the cash, drugs, Nikes and Xboxes the gang bought with the proceeds of their plunder.

“It’s really ironic to see that a festival’s security problems can come from the security,” Lee says via phone. “When theft is being executed by the staff, it’s a shocking wake-up call.”

When coordinating the security staff of various festivals, Lee always arranges a team of locals well-known and well-loved within the Colorado music community. “But at an event with tens of thousands of attendees, you can’t ensure the moral integrity of everyone.”

Acknowledging this shortcoming, staff members at major festivals might exploit their position as prime opportunity to pilfer. Blake Miller*, a South Florida native, admits that he once worked as festival security to snag the staff uniform and gain free entry in the event’s future years. Once inside, Miller approached attendees he caught getting high, and used his security outfit to intimidate them into coughing up their drug supply. He then distributed his hijacked drugs among friends or re-sold his loot to turn a profit. Unsurprisingly, Miller says he was never caught, likely because none of his victims wished to file a formal complaint about festival security confiscating illicit drugs.

But that apathy allows the offenders to flourish. If victims never report stolen items, festival staff and law enforcement remain oblivious to the seedy underbelly of their weekend society. To fight the scourge of crime that’s corrupting the music community, staying silent is counter-productive. It’s highly advised to report snatched phones, cameras, and cash to the first officer in sight.

Tessa Leigh, Justin Hunt, and the many other victims of Okeechobee’s theft epidemic remain optimistic about maintaining a loving culture in the festival’s future. Hunt even sees his loss as an opportunity to better care for those around him.

As he explains, “It worked out, because without my phone I was set free. I had nothing to worry about, so I would just look out for other people.”

When separated from society and submerged into another world, everyone can hope for love and companionship, but there is also a need for healthy cynicism. Music festivals, just like the rest of reality, contains plenty of opportunists out to hurt others while helping themselves.

To be on the safe side, keep your eyes open for sketchballs, look out for one another, and try not to get so high you can’t protect your precious smartphone. As they say: Keep your friends close, and keep your valuables even closer.