- Courtesy Apogaea, Inc
- Apogaea burners gather around the warm flames from a giant wooden squid.
At the Happy Ass Ranch, there was work to be done.
Timber Kirwan was slipping out of his shorts and into a pair of pants behind a black Toyota Tundra. Nearby, "burners" were arriving and setting up booths. The Pink Pussy Palace was coming into being.
It was time for Kirwin to get started on his geodome. Pulling up his pants, he spotted a guy in the bushes. Wearing what looked to be SWAT gear and a ski mask, the mystery man was squatting with a gun. Apparently, Kirwan surmised, the impromptu theatrics so typical of the Apogaea festival had commenced.
"Show me your hands," the bush guy ordered.
"No, show me your hands," Kirwan played along.
And then, quite suddenly, Kirwan realized the gun was real.
Now, at Apogaea, weird is welcome. But this incident undoubtedly the strangest in the festival's five-year history was more than anyone had bargained for. Participants had unwittingly walked right into a Drug Enforcement Administration raid.
Good, not-so-old-fashioned fun
The June 4 raid of Happy Ass, which took place a day before the four-day Apogaea festival began, shook the nerves of participants used to a peaceful good time. The DEA raided the grounds outside of Lake George following a months-long investigation of the ranch's owner, Gary "Skip" Vena, who was allegedly involved in a marijuana distribution ring. Pounds of marijuana and other evidence were found on the property, according to Sean Waite, the DEA agent in charge of the Colorado Springs office, and Vena has been charged with distribution of a controlled substance.
Waite confirms that neither the festival nor the ranch workers were part of the investigation. In fact, he says, the DEA was a bit surprised to find people setting up camp in the middle of the raid.
Apogaea attracts hundreds of artistically minded people. It offers a chance to live off your own resources in the woods for a few days, express yourself wildly, wear absurd costumes, and enjoy a unique bonfire. (This year, attendees sacrificed a giant squid effigy to the flames.)
The festival is an offshoot of Nevada's Burning Man festival, which attracts tens of thousands who wrap up each year's event by gathering around a blazing, man-shaped pile of wood.
The people who go to these events call themselves "burners." And there are a lot of burners these days; Burning Man has become something of a cult enterprise.
As the local offshoot has grown, it has become more organized. Chelsea Trinka, president of the board of directors for Apogaea Inc., says the festival is professional. It rents space. It pays taxes. It's fully permitted. The corporation even has a charitable arm.
It has never had any run-ins with law enforcement, she says. So this was, um, interesting.
"Too interesting," says fellow board member Lawrence Phipps.
According to Kirwan, who lives in Colorado Springs, the raid went something like this:
The guy with the gun told him to sit down. Others were rounded up until four of them were sitting in one area, while law enforcement from the DEA to the Park County Sheriff's Department searched the area and chattered over radios. An officer told them they had walked into a bust.
A while later, they were searched. One guy admitted to carrying a small amount of pot.
Then a guy with a gun told them to line up single-file and put their hands on their heads. They complied, following orders to walk to one tree, then another, then another. At each stop, they were greeted by more officers carrying automatic weapons.
Finally, they marched to a van. They were zip-tied and left in the back of the van for about 90 minutes, as far as Kirwan can guess.
They were then driven to a transfer station and photographed. Police ran background checks on them. The guy with the pot was given a $75 ticket and a summons. Then they were piled back in the van.
"[They] drive us down to Highway 24 [miles from the ranch], get us out of the van, cut the zip ties, and dump us there," Kirwan says. "Meanwhile, our vehicles are still running, nobody has any money, nobody has any keys, nobody has any phones."
Back to 'normal'
Other burners finally picked up the group. The festival footed the bill for a hotel and dinner. A total of eight burners, and likely some ranch workers, were removed from the area. Some were ticketed by the Park County Sheriff's Department for misdemeanor offenses, and one person was taken in on a prior warrant.
When the burners returned the next morning, the ranch was trashed. But life did go back to, uh, normal.
The festival opened. Barbecue was gobbled. A sacrificial car was smashed flat. The Pink Pussies did whatever it is Pink Pussies do. The squid was burned.
Of course, Kirwin had a hard time getting the opening event off his mind. He says the shake-up was frightening, but at least now he knows why it happened.
Meanwhile, Apogaea's organizers are worried. They understand this was all just a crazy coincidence, but none of it is what you'd call good PR.