Highway patrol drug check greets fans on way to fest

Inspections an effort to curb crime this weekend

As thousands of revelers began pouring into Lawrence for one of the nation’s biggest outdoor popular music festivals, the Wakarusa Festival’s promoter complained Wednesday that police had jerked the welcome mat by setting up a three-day check lane to stop drivers as they exited Interstate 70.

It’s an aggressive anti-drug effort that police said was to ensure safety, and to which most drivers responded positively.

But festival promoter Brett Mosiman called the move “a big overreaction” that sent the wrong message to tourists.

“We create this amazing festival and we sell tickets in all 50 states, and the second everybody gets here, they get met by a police state,” he said.

That conflict aside, thousands of festivalgoers and vendors have been streaming into town all week in anticipation of good times at Clinton State Park with a four-day line-up that features more than 80 bands. Local businesses were stocking extra ice, water and beer as they geared up for an estimated 15,000 fans per day, including people like Marcus Ottmers, 28, of San Antonio.

“These shows just enable us to keep our sense of community – to put the vibe out there that it’s OK to take a stand, be a little different and hold your ground,” he said.

Check lane

Starting Wednesday, the Kansas Highway Patrol set up a checkpoint to stop incoming drivers exiting off the westbound Kansas Turnpike at the Kansas Highway 10 interchange. The lane continued all day Wednesday and was expected to last until about 1 a.m. today, then resume at 8 a.m. and last until early this afternoon.

“We’re making a lot of drug seizures, checking a lot of vehicles,” said Highway Patrol Lt. Kirk Simone, who was supervising the check lane Wednesday afternoon, with an estimated 16 officers on the scene.

He said officers were asking for license and registration, checking for obvious violations and watching for signs of drugs or impaired drivers. In cases involving small amounts of drugs, he said, officers were simply confiscating the items instead of arresting people. Calls made to the highway patrol regarding the number of arrests and vehicle searches were not returned as of late Wednesday.

Wakarusa Festival by the numbers

¢ 300 portable toilets
¢ 15,000 expected to attend per day
¢ 84 bands listed as performers on the festival’s Web site
¢ 80 private security guards on the grounds
¢ $53,316 to be paid by festival organizer Brett Mosiman to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for patrols at the festival, up from $23,660 last year
¢ 16 estimated police officers Wednesday afternoon at a Kansas Highway Patrol check lane at the exit of westbound Interstate 70
¢ 50 golf carts used by festival workers

The check lane, and an accompanying patrol to put extra officers on Kansas Highway 10 and U.S. Highway 59, was funded by a federal High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area grant. The exact amount spent on the effort won’t be known until it’s finished, according to the highway patrol.

Agencies involved include law enforcement from Johnson and Douglas counties, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI.

Promoter Mosiman said he’d been working with law enforcement in recent months to resolve concerns but was surprised by the check lane.

“It’s like you’ve got the opposite of the red carpet for our visitors,” he said.

Simone, however, said he’d been met with few negative comments on the side of the road.


Inside the festival grounds, preparations have been under way all week.

At a trailer in a shaded area backstage, Cesar DuBois, of Lawrence, the festival’s creative coordinator, was busy working on his designs for six giant sunflowers with heads made of bicycle wheels that will spin in the breeze. He planned to cover the flowers’ petals with reflective tape and shine spotlights onto them that would reflect onto the ground.

He also built an 8-foot-tall abstract “WakaMan” that will be posted near the entry gate.

DuBois said he goes for a mesmerizing effect, with the understanding that some of his audience members will be under the influence of exactly what the highway patrol was trying to keep out of the grounds.

“There’s a lot of tripping hippies, and they love it,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’re at an amusement park or something, instead of just seeing a show.”

Production manager Jereb Carter, of All Phases Production in Rico, Colo., is one of two people charged with overseeing logistical operations of the festival – such as electricity for the stages, a fleet of 50 golf carts and three, 500- to 1,000-gallon water tanks that will be refilled twice daily. He said a big difference between this year’s festival and last year’s would be an increased focus on illegal vending in the campgrounds surrounding the festival.

“People are out there illegally vending grilled cheeses,” he said.

One employee on site is in charge of nothing but checking all 300 portable toilets all day, with a cleaning truck following him around.

“He basically gets to the last one, and goes back to the first one,” Carter said. “He knocks. He opens the door and he radios the guy in the truck, ‘It’s dirty.'”

Gary Thomas, of Tulsa, Okla-based GT Security, is in charge of a crew of 80 security guards who will specialize in securing the festival’s perimeters, watching for unsanctioned vending and checking credentials. He said working with the mellow fans at Wakarusa is a welcome change from working at hard-rock concerts, where things can easily get violent.

“If people need help out here, other people will actually help them,” he said.

Citywide impact

At Glass House Liquor at Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive, Daniel Ayala, 23, was expecting to do big business – probably four times what he normally does.

“It’s great for business,” he said. “We brought in all sorts of the microbrews. The hippies dig that stuff.”

Dozens of festivalgoers could be seen lingering downtown this week, including Mike Hollis, 18, of New Paltz, N.Y., who sat in an alleyway putting new strings on his guitar with friend Joe DiPietro, 20, reading a philosophy tract nearby. The two are traveling across the country all summer and said they were looking forward to seeing acts including The Disco Biscuits and Deep Fried Pickle Project.

“I was surprised to find Lawrence,” Hollis said. “I didn’t think any towns like this existed in Kansas.”