Within the Uptown's gorgeous confines, a New York DJ named Joey Beltram takes over the turntables. (He's one of ten DJs for the night, three of whom are internationally known.) Speakers are cranked so high the beats rattle exit doors on the balcony. Fifteen moving lights, including a spectacular laser prism, scan the partiers below. A glammed-up DJ stand features pyro effects shooting into the air on Beltram's left and right. Glowsticks float in the hands of kids from Lawrence, Omaha, Springfield, St. Louis and, naturally, "816" and "913," who dance on the main floor, rest on the balcony and skip through the halls.
So April buys another ticket, because even at $25, it's simply an event not worth missing.
At about the same time as young April's misfortune, Joe Cummings steps outside to the same sidewalk. Unlike April, he does not have to fear the venue's staunch re-admittance policy, because the 22-year-old Cummings is the mastermind behind tonight's show -- which, coincidentally, is called "Mastermind."
Cummings has spent the night running here and there, a clipboard tucked under his arm and a stern, business-like look tightening his face. Now, with three hours left to go, he decides to step outside and get away from the demands of orchestrating a first-class event. He wears a flashy, short-sleeved, button-down shirt, black, printed with scattered orange and white Oriental symbols, and black slacks with blindingly white cross-trainers. A large gold crucifix hangs around his neck.
It is 11:30 p.m., Saturday, October 6, and for the first time in fifteen hours, Joe Cummings relaxes.
But he's not completely out of the water yet. His headliners, a New York duo called the Atomic Babies, are driving in from South Carolina and still have a good two hours to go. But at this point, it's clear that nothing catastrophic is going to happen, and this brief moment becomes one of historical significance for the young promoter.
So Cummings stands outside, actually sets his clipboard on the ground.
That's when April the Rock Star walks down the sidewalk and stops in front of her host for the night.
"Hey Joe," she says, then quickly notices the look of uncertainty on his face. "Do you remember me?"
"Uh ... no," he admits awkwardly. All night, people have been thanking him or extending some kind of "welcome back" sentiment, and although hundreds of kids in the area's dance scene recognize his face, he can't possibly remember all of theirs.
"April," she says, without a hint of insult. "The rock star." April goes on to explain how she mistakenly exited the Uptown Theater only to find that she would have to repay to get back in. So she will repay, because she wants to get back in, but she thought she would mention it.
Now Cummings squirms a bit, because he feels he needs to explain the venue's strict policy, since he is, after all, the man in charge. He apologizes and says he would get her back in for free if he could, but he can't.
She says it's no problem, then jovially changes the subject. She asks him how the big night is going for him.
"Good," he says blandly.
But then, in his moment of relaxation, he thinks again about her question. "It feels good," he says. "There was a lot of scrutiny on me going into tonight, coming back from last year, with the Red Barn.""Oh yeah," April says, suddenly remembering the last event Cummings promoted. The one that landed him in jail, put his mug shot on the news and brought him no small amount of legal trouble. "How long has that been?"
"One year," he says without pause. "One year, one month and one week."
The Red Barn rests just off Oldham Road in the forest belly of Swope Park. It's an old, two-story red barn that sits parallel to the serpentine road above, where a weathered sign advertises its availability for "banquets, receptions and private dance parties."
Built in the 1940s, the Red Barn became the site of loft parties as early as the 1950s, says its current owner, Al Roberts. It changed hands several times in the following decades; by the end of the '70s, it had undergone a series of interior renovations that turned it from a horse stable into a banquet hall.
Although it has been the scene of lively frat parties, it's more often used for wedding receptions. So when Joe Cummings approached Roberts about staging an elaborate dance party there in 1999, Roberts was skeptical. The young promoter soothed Roberts' fears by encouraging him to attend the event and witness Cummings' professionalism firsthand. Roberts was sold, and a business relationship was born. Over several months, the Red Barn became a reliable refuge in Kansas City's erratic dance scene.
By midnight on August 25, 2000, more than 500 partiers had arrived for "Tune In," the ninth installment in Cummings' monthly barn extravaganzas. They walked up a steep set of stairs and forked over $18 a person. The wood-paneled banquet hall had been transformed into an orgy for the senses. Rays of programmed lights pierced the darkness and illuminated the crowd as a seismic sound system boomed under the hand of a DJ called Shadow Runner. When the mostly 16- to 25-year-old patrons arrived at the top of the stairs, three or four workers checked for various banned substances ranging from the obvious (weapons, drugs, alcohol) to the seemingly innocuous items associated with Ecstasy use (candy, pacifiers). Cummings remembers that his staffers emptied bags, pushed on the toes of shoes, felt around the cuffs of socks, patted shirts and pants and looked inside cigarette boxes.
The searches -- as well as fliers advertising a drug-free atmosphere -- proved ineffective. Ecstasy (and its knock-off variants), LSD, cocaine, ketamine and opium seeped through the check and circulated around the dance floor. Amid the fury of lights and sound, by way of sly transfers, the covert market of rave commerce was open for business.
To the side of the entrance and just off the dance floor, Larry and Patti Cummings, Joe's parents, maintained the legitimate end of that market. They sold water ($1) and glow sticks (two for $5) to young people wowed by the 47-year-old couple's role in "Tune In." It seemed as if another Red Barn event was running smoothly and successfully. Around midnight, though, Larry Cummings spotted an unusual development from his water-and-glow-stick post. A group of SWAT-geared police officers was swelling at the door.
Across the room, Shadow Runner had finished his set and the midnight DJ prepared to go on. Beats pounded from the speakers during the changeover, so most people didn't notice officers slipping by toward the DJ booth.
Police took over a microphone and announced that the night was over. Soon the lights came up, and officers herded the massive crowd into a single-file line toward the exits.
Hundreds of people left calmly, as they'd been instructed. A few impromptu protesters stood up on chairs, shouting "Let us dance!" in mild defiance. Closer to the doorway, each person looked into a hand-held video camera operated by a policeman.
Outside, it looked as if a tornado had scattered all of the metro area's police cars around the Red Barn. Floodlights greeted members of the crowd as they filtered into the parking lot. Camera crews from KSHB Channel 41, KCTV Channel 5 and WDAF Channel 4 scavenged the lot, collecting sound bites from Captain Patty Conway of the narcotics unit and Floyd Mitchell of media relations. "We're inside these rave parties," Mitchell told reporters, explaining the role of his undercover agents. "You may not know who we are, and that's how we want it. We're there to make sure that everyone selling drugs, we take them down."
Uniformed officers mingled in the parking lot with plainclothes cops. Roadblocks shut down Oldham Road just east of the barn. Undercover officers waited nearby and looked on as the long line of people continued to pass under a blinding light. Occasionally, one of them would see a person who had sold drugs earlier in the night, and that person would be whisked from the line, hog-tied and made to sit on the ground. Seven people were arrested for selling drugs.
Back upstairs, police had already confiscated the door money and combed the barn for more. Officers then confronted Larry and Patti Cummings and demanded the rest of the till. Patti handed over a green duffel bag, but officers argued it was several thousand dollars short. She remembers one officer yelling, "Where's the money? Where's the rest of the money?" Patti, a stranger to shakedowns, says she reached into her pockets and produced four quarters. The cops told her to put it away.
Officers then wanted to know about the party's organizer. Larry and Patti told them about their son Joe, who was nowhere to be found.
Joe Cummings was in the driver's seat of his white 1996 Lexus when the storm hit the Red Barn. He was headed for a Holiday Inn eight miles south of the party to pick up his headliner, a house DJ from Detroit named Terrence Parker. But before Cummings reached Bannister Road, he got a call from his cousin, who had been working as a parking lot attendant and had seen the police convoy approaching. The next call came from his sound man and one of the DJs, Travis T, who relayed a message from the officers: Come back immediately. Within the next few minutes, he got a few more calls from people inside the barn. Calls piled up on Cummings' voicemail. He dialed Parker at the hotel and told him the news, then headed back toward the barn.
Getting back to the party wasn't easy. Police had barricaded Oldham Road and wouldn't allow Cummings to pass. When officers finally communicated by radio with police at the barn, they gave Cummings a presidential escort.
His reception at the barn was less stately. When he got out of the car, officers ushered him inside and told him to sit on the floor, where his parents and eleven other workers formed a silent circle. Police told the group to sit quietly while they continued to search the barn. Officers collected each person's name, address and reason for involvement with the party, then snapped his or her photo. After thirteen names were called, only Cummings remained seated. Officers took his photo and asked about the rest of the door money. With more than 500 people paying $18 each, there should have been at least $9,000 on site, they reasoned. But nearly $8,000 -- the exact amount would later be disputed -- was missing. Cummings, who directed them to a drawer with another $100 in cash, said they had it all.
Officers walked the twenty-year-old down the barn's stairwell and outside to a surveillance van. A detective asked Cummings about the door money, but let Cummings keep the roughly $1,200 from presold tickets he produced. For nearly 45 minutes, Cummings sat in the van as the detective told him he was under arrest for operating an illegal party.
"Are you aware of illegal narcotics' being sold and consumed during your parties?" she asked Cummings.
"Yes," he replied. "But if we catch people doing drugs, we throw them out of the party. And we search people from head to toe when they come inside. If we think that someone is a troublemaker, then we throw them out."
It was an honest admission -- one that would torment Cummings three months later in a Johnson County jail cell.
Joe Cummings grew up the younger of two sons born to a third-generation railroad employee and a homemaker. Larry and Patti Cummings say that early on, Joe shared a work ethic and selflessness with his older brother, Mike. But whereas Mike grew more introverted, Joe quickly set out on a social path that would merge his two passions in life: business and music.
By his junior year at Grandview High School, an antsy Joe Cummings had obtained an internship with Premium Financing Specialists, a national finance company with an office in south Kansas City. His boss, a marketing analyst named Mike Keegan, started Cummings off with clerical duties but quickly saw Cummings' potential and pushed more important jobs his way.
"He didn't have any fear," Keegan recalls. "He was that kind of guy who would go out and tackle a project. It didn't matter what it was or how big it was."
Cummings loved money. He knew there was cash to be made even in the confines of a public high school; he'd seen fellow Grandview students occasionally selling candy to raise money for sports programs. So he approached the school's administration about doing the same when the athletes weren't fundraising.
A few months later, Cummings had employees dealing all things sugar and sweet for a share of the profits. The candy racket, he says, brought in hundreds of dollars each month.
Around this time, Cummings was also immersing himself in his creative interest. Since middle school he had listened to classic and mainstream electronic music, but it wasn't until high school that he experienced the epiphany that made him a serious fan when a friend took him to a rave at a warehouse near 20th and Grand Avenue.
He kept going to the underground parties, some in warehouses and others at Gee Coffee, Olathe's now-defunct music club. In particular, the neo-disco sounds of house music impresarios such as Bad Boy Bill and Alex Peace sparked his enthusiasm. Terrence Parker would later become a favorite, as would a St. Louis spinner turned Kansas City regular named DJ Nitro.
Inspired by the escapist atmosphere of these parties, Cummings wanted to get involved any way he could. He started to run music at weekend house parties. Hoping to make the occasions more rave-authentic with sight and sound stimuli, he gradually added lights to the mix. It was nothing fancy at first -- lamplights and a cheap strobe -- but other kids started calling for his work at their own parties.
Before his parents realized these lighting gigs were more than a simple hobby, Cummings had started to buy more sophisticated equipment with a larger goal in mind.
"The next thing I know," says Larry Cummings, "Joe's buying expensive lighting and says, 'I'm going into business.'"
With the help of brother Mike, Cummings officially stepped into Kansas City's swelling dance scene with his company, Thunder & Lighting. In time, he would brighten events in Omaha, Topeka, Springfield and St. Louis. And Cummings, always in favor of being his own boss, got into promoting as well. In 1998, at the end of his last year of high school, he put on an audacious Senior Skip Day party, one that mushroomed into a citywide festival. Students from fifteen area schools converged on Minor Park, where they danced to live DJs and ate Gates barbecue. The gathering grew so large that police had to close the park to traffic.
A year later, Cummings threw his first official party, advertised with a black-and-white flier and dressed minimally in the $2,000 worth of lighting he had accumulated so far. More events followed, but Cummings continued to invest mainly in Thunder & Lighting, and his business grew. He worked receptions, graduation parties and other small events. He and Mike passed out business cards and found a significant amount of work through word-of-mouth. Soon, the two were operating the lights at many of the area's rave parties.
The endeavor turned lucrative for the underage entrepreneur. Cummings still lived with his parents, but his father was on disability after a body-wrenching career fixing railroad cars. Now Cummings could help out by paying his own bills, buying his own car and funding his own college education.
Cummings decided to pursue a degree at UMKC. His interests were already varied, from business and accounting to physics and aerospace. But Cummings sought an even broader education during the fall semester of 2000 -- which started days after his Red Barn arrest.
Cummings enrolled in a criminology class taught by Jack Tobin, who immediately took notice of his new, recently criminalized student.
"There were just several things [that set him apart]," Tobin says. "First, he had his hair bleached blonde. He had it kind of frosted on the tips. He always came to class dressed up, what I would have to call dressed up. No sweatshirts or anything. Dress shirts and pressed pants. He communicated pretty well. He was a good student."
From Cummings, Tobin learned about the inner workings of Kansas City's dance scene. It took an entire underground business community to put on these often illegal dance parties -- one that required sophisticated sound and lighting personnel as well as promoters willing to invest several thousand dollars against the risk of going bust. West Bottoms warehouses and vacant downtown buildings were turned into de facto clubs that brought in thousands of young people. Colorful fliers advertised the events and directed ravers to hotlines and Web sites with address information listed only on the day of the event. If a promoter could regularly book a legal venue such as the Red Barn, he could make a substantial amount of money -- more than $100,000 in a year if nothing went wrong.
Almost everything about the rave scene came as a surprise to the instructor. But few things shocked him more than the amount of Cummings' legal bills following the Red Barn raid. "I nearly fell off my chair," Tobin says. How was Cummings going to pay them? "He said, 'I have to do another party.'"
In the Red Barn, Cummings had stumbled upon what seemed to be the perfect venue. It was isolated, so the loud music wouldn't disturb neighbors. Its sign said the barn could be rented out for banquets and private dance parties. So what if no wedding reception featured a wall of speakers that made the curtains vibrate with each beat? So what if no family reunion ever sent steam billowing out of the barn's windows as if the place were on fire? So what if no frat party ever hosted nationally renowned DJs or showcased a rig with thousands of dollars' worth of moving lights?
Just to be certain everything was on the level, Cummings says, he contacted officials with the city's regulated industries department, who told him his Thunder & Lighting business license plus a vendor's license (for the water and glow sticks) would be sufficient. With that bureaucratic blessing -- later a point of contention -- came the rebirth of the Red Barn as the home of monthly dance parties sporting names like "Fuel," "Psyche" and "Illuminosity."
"There were people who went to parties and then there were people who just went to Red Barn parties," says Mike Bradshaw, a local DJ and promoter with Echobass Productions. "The reason it got so popular was because it was consistent. It was the only place where you could hear cutting-edge electronic dance music and it would never get busted. The sound would never go out, the lights were cool, and it was always in the same place. There wasn't anyone trying to force-feed Blink-182 or Destiny's Child. When the word got out, naturally it exploded."
And Cummings was there to collect. Red Barn parties routinely drew as many as a thousand people. At $15 to $18 a person, with the lighting already paid for, he could drop a few thousand dollars on DJs, another couple thousand on sound and flashy fliers, several hundred for the venue itself, and still come out as much as $10,000 ahead each time.
"It seems to me the reason the Red Barn was able to operate for so long without interference from the police is because [the police] were fattening the hog," says one rave insider, echoing a common conspiracy theory. "There's money to be made with any leg of promotion, and there's money to be made throwing parties -- a lot of money. Joe is very shrewd, and I think they picked up on that right away."
The impetus for the Red Barn raid, says Kansas City Police Department Captain Jim Pruetting, came when he saw a TV newsmagazine segment on Ecstasy and other "club drugs." That program inspired Pruetting, then head of the Narcotics Division, to investigate how Kansas City fit into the national trend.
The issue, Pruetting maintains, was public safety. That's why the police invited television crews to the scene of the bust: to educate the community about the dangers of Ecstasy and the rave parties that make it available.
Pruetting says the Red Barn became the KCPD's first major undercover rave investigation because "Tune In" was the first event officers found out about early enough. Preparation for the August sting began weeks before the event, he says, and officers knew nothing about Cummings.
But some Kansas City police officers had been to a Red Barn party at least two months earlier. Documents related to the August raid show that members of the drug enforcement and street narcotics units had made undercover drug buys inside a Cummings party on June 24, 2000. That would have given them knowledge that several hundred people paid $18 each to attend the parties -- and presumably, it would have provided an opportunity to find out about the twenty-year-old running the show.
Police officials now say the Red Barn was loaded with officers on August 25 because it was the first operation of its kind in Kansas City and they wanted to be well-prepared. It was, in fact, the first drug operation of its kind. But a similar raid had taken place more than a year before. In June 1999, police made a bust that instantly became one of the more infamous events in the history of Kansas City's dance scene.
"Oompa Lumpa" took place in a building off the corner of 18th and Oak streets. The building had become a communelike home for a hodgepodge of hippies who reportedly planned to open a soup kitchen on the site but settled on parties in the meantime. A week before "Oompa Lumpa," one of those gatherings went off without a hitch. A few police officers checked out the loud party but left when organizers somehow convinced them that the non-profit soup-kitchen permit covered their activities. "Oompa Lumpa" backers hoped they'd have the same luck.
Besides a lineup of DJs that included several regional turntablists and one from San Francisco, the party advertised a fashion show on an upper level of the building. At 1 a.m., with a runway in place and music roaring from below, onlookers waited for models to materialize from behind a curtain. They expected pretty club girls with long legs, hip clothes and glitter makeup. They got robust men in blue with billy clubs.
Dozens of officers showed up on the scene. They barricaded the streets and pulled over cars that appeared to be leaving the area. A helicopter hovered overhead. A thousand people spilled out of the building. "It was a fiasco," says Echobass' Bradshaw, who witnessed the police raiding the runway. "Literally, there were thirty cop cars on the street. They were parked on both sides of the street all the way across. They were not fucking around. They were busting that party."
Within hours, the raid made news on local Internet message boards, where ravers spread personal stories about violent cops.
The reaction would be similar one year later, after Cummings' "Tune In." Rave enthusiasts hopped online and grumbled about the police's using drug sales as an excuse to attack the entire local dance scene. To members of the moderately organized Kansas City Promoters Association, the Red Barn incident meant they had to push hard for police cooperation or risk annihilation. They invited officers from the vice department and the narcotics unit to attend KCPA meetings. A couple of them accepted, including Pruetting, and the two sides discussed how to work together so parties could avoid the ax.
The meetings were a necessary step, but at the same time, some KCPA members believed the Red Barn bust was about something other than drugs. The police wanted to make a major bust, and Joe Cummings' successful run at the Red Barn collided with that goal. "They were looking for a scapegoat," says a KCPA officer known as Bpositive. "They just needed enough provocation to go in with such a hardcore way."
In the early hours of August 26, 2000, when police informed Cummings that he was under arrest, they told him it was for lack of proper permits. Cummings told the police that he had contacted the regulated industries department about licensing, but that won him no leeway. Cummings then asked the police what he needed to do about the charges. He says they told him to wait at home by the phone and someone would reach him. No one ever called. He had no idea he was a fugitive.
The Johnson County jail cell that Joe Cummings found himself occupying early last November was cold and crowded and stunk like a dead man's piss. After two hours, Olathe police yanked him out, took his fingerprints, snapped his mug shot and recorded his medical information. From there they moved him to a sleeping cell, where he spent the rest of the night with a roomful of other detainees, most of whom were drunk (one rambled on about a million-dollar bond against him).
Cummings had been working lights on a slow night at Olathe's Gee Coffee. Bored, he and the event's organizer stepped outside, popped open a few Budweisers and walked around the block. Within minutes, they caught the attention of a couple of Olathe police officers who thought Cummings -- 21 years old for slightly more than a month -- looked too young to be holding a beer and shouldn't have been drinking in public anyway. After running Cummings' ID, they found that KCPD had a warrant out for his arrest. The Olathe officers took Cummings to the detention center and after a cold, rancid night in jail, released him to his parents the next day.
It would take a few conversations with his attorney before Cummings learned that the state had charged him with the Class-C felony of "maintaining a public nuisance," a crime that sounded like it had to do with noise complaints. But the "public nuisance" charge had to do with drugs, and it held a possible sentence of five years in prison.
By this time, a federal court case was brewing in New Orleans, one that involved dance parties and had made the national news with features in Time and Newsweek. Starting in January 2000, the DEA had led an investigation of three men who would be charged with violating a 1986 "crack house law" for hosting rave parties where drugs were present. Although the parties were legitimate events -- and therefore not illegal "raves" -- the three defendants were accused of allowing the State Palace Theater to be used "for the purpose of unlawfully distributing and using controlled substances." They faced as many as twenty years in prison.
The unusual charge created a mass heart attack in the country's electronic music scene. Everyone from promoters to DJs to fans worried that the case would set a national precedent and quell dance parties everywhere.
But in Kansas City, prosecutors didn't wait for a federal test case to pave the way. They used Cummings' post-bust statements to make the case that he ran the party "knowing that controlled substances were being sold and possessed" inside the Red Barn.
Traditionally, Missouri's "public nuisance" charge had been invoked to arrest drug dealers and sleazelords. Clay County prosecutors used it in May 1999 after police raided a mobile-home meth lab in Excelsior Springs. In 1996, Wyandotte County prosecutors used a Kansas version of the law to charge an absentee landlord after a man abducted and raped a thirteen-year-old boy inside a house that had deteriorated into a den of drugs and prostitution. Jackson County used the charge once against a bar owner whose business had been the site of several violent crimes.
But the law would now be called upon more often as a deterrent to Ecstasy use and rave events, Jackson County prosecutor Bob Beaird told The Kansas City Star on November 21, 2000, and Joe Cummings would be case number one. In addition to the newspaper's coverage, Cummings' name and face showed up on three local news channels. "Twenty-one-year-old Joseph Cummings pleaded not guilty to maintaining a public nuisance after hosting a rave," reported Channel 9 anchor Kelly Eckerman as a photo of Cummings' deflated mug appeared on television screens. "Police tell us the parties can be havens for selling Ecstasy."
Calls from family and friends who had seen the news flooded the Cummings household, as Joe and his parents struggled to understand what he was being charged with. To them, analogies shattered the entire case. If drugs get into a school, they don't arrest the principal. If drugs get into a prison, they don't arrest the warden. If drugs get into the city-owned Kemper Arena, they sure as hell don't arrest Mayor Kay Barnes.
Cummings' attorney, John Quinn, urged his client to relax and reasoned that no jury would decide that he should pay the price for dealers smuggling drugs into a party. The defendant began to think about it, and the more he told his story, the less he worried. Again and again, people were confused and surprised by the charges. If only one such person ended up in the jury box, the trial would go in his favor. Cummings started to feel better.
Then, this past April, his case came to a halt.
Choosing whether to take the prosecution's deal became, naturally, a business decision for Cummings: Fight the charges and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees that could be invested in Thunder & Lighting, or sign the deal and serve an easy 25 hours of community service.
The agreement required no admission of guilt, but it still sat awkwardly with the Cummings clan. "I'd rather see him go that way, prove that they were wrong, that he wasn't doing anything wrong," says Larry Cummings. "I'd just rather see it cleared completely, and the police come out and say, 'We made a mistake.' But they never would."
The new use for Missouri's "public nuisance" law made it far over the airwaves, but in a courtroom it traveled no further than a preliminary hearing.
Prosecutors will not discuss the details of Cummings' case because it was dropped. "Basically, we can file a nuisance charge if a person makes a statement that they know drugs are present or we can infer that they operate a building knowing there are drugs on the premises," says Michael Hunt, assistant Jackson County prosecutor. He adds that the charge materialized after discussions with police on how to handle rave organizers. The KCPD's Pruetting says police approached the prosecutor's office because of the sheer availability of drugs at the Red Barn -- undercover officers made thirteen buys in less than an hour. If the organizer were determined to keep drugs out, Pruetting reasons, he would have noticed such activity.
But a serious case against Cummings required a lot more evidence than that, says the promoter's attorney John Quinn, especially since police know that it's easy to sneak items past security. The charge was simply an attention-getter. "They basically wanted headline inches from Joe," he says. "They wanted to trumpet the evils of these rave parties with this charge. Well, it wasn't even a rave party."
That's a distinction police didn't make when videotaping people as they left the Red Barn. Pruetting says the officers never intended the tape to be used as evidence; instead, they would use it for training purposes. But several partiers remember the camera pointed at their faces as they left -- regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. That doesn't sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union's Dick Kurtenbach. "It's unusual," he says. "I don't think [the KCPD's] answer for that is adequate in any way."
Once prosecutors dropped the case, Cummings and Quinn immediately began trying to get back the door money seized by police. But even the amount of money officers took remains uncertain. Police reports from the night of the raid show two different sums, one totaling $2,152 and the other totaling $1,272. Either way, it falls far below what would have been generated by more than 500 people paying $18 to get in. Cummings says the police are responsible for what's missing, while Pruetting surmises that Cummings stashed it before coming back to the Red Barn.
After his case was dropped, Cummings called the city each week to check on the status of his money. But this summer, more important issues came up, and he left the phone-jockeying to his lawyer.
Cummings had DJs to sign, hotel rooms to reserve, flights to schedule, security to hire, fliers to print, a sound system to arrange, a turntable stand to design, more than $100,000 in lighting to plan and a great big gleaming and fully legal venue called the Uptown Theatre to book.
Somewhere around Columbia, the Atomic Babies, the October 6 headliners, get pulled over by a Missouri State Trooper. Their close call in arriving at the Uptown on time becomes even closer, but by 2 a.m. the Babies have made it, and they hurriedly set up their gear for a short but scorching set of improvised techno.
Then it's over. The lights come up, and kids exchange after-party information while they shuffle slowly out the front door. Right there, at the Uptown's main entrance, security guards roll up the signs that have been posted all night: NO DRUGS, NO ALCOHOL, NO WEAPONS, NO ATTITUDES.
Across the street, kids pile into Sidney's Diner to regain their hearing and refuel on hash browns and coffee. A street vendor has set up a number of hand-drawn celebrity head shots, including George Washington Carver, Elvis Presley, Snoop Dogg and Princess Diana.
A guy wearing glasses and a buzzed haircut haggles over a particular selection with the gray-dreadlocked salesman. "We've been standing here talking about this for five minutes," he says, exasperated. "In that time, your price has gone up ten dollars."
His point being: This is no way to run a business. It won't earn the vendor sales. It certainly won't land him and his cart of pencil portraits a seat at the 16th annual Entrepreneur of the Year dinner, which, as it happens, is set to take place three nights later on October 9.
In the past, the $150-a-plate dinner, sponsored by UMKC's Bloch School of Business, has honored such business leaders as Ted Turner, Malcolm Forbes and Ross Perot. This year, organizers will bestow awards on Tom McDonnell, the CEO of DST, and William C. France, CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, as well as on Barnett and Shirley Helzberg of diamond-selling fame.
And on Joe Cummings. For his Thunder & Lighting business and for his burgeoning promotions company, a special council of local business dignitaries has named the 22-year-old public nuisance the city's Student Entrepreneur of the Year.