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Beech Council Hears Best, Worst of Gnarnia Festival, Including Festival-goer Found In Newland Dumpster

By Jesse Wood

Photos by Denna Miller

Aug. 14, 2012. At a regular Beech Town Council meeting on Tuesday with standing room only, more than 60 people filled the council chambers, primarily to listen to remarks regarding Festival of Gnarnia, which took place at Beech Mountain Resort last weekend.

Of the nine residents who spoke about last weekend’s festival on Beech Mountain Resort, which was riddled with copious amounts of drugs from a small percentage of attendees, only one person spoke against Festival of Gnarnia coming back to the mountain.

Larry Miller, an unsuccessful Beech Mountain Town Council candidate last fall and resident of the area, said he was initially for the festival and was glad that it happened from an economic standpoint. Although, he wasn’t personally impacted by the festival, he said that if he was in the “impact zone” close to the festival, “three days of this crap would be enough.”

“Had I been, I’d be pissed,” Miller said, who countered one sentiment that some locals should just leave for the weekend if they didn’t want to be around the festival with “that’s a poor response.”

Miller added, “In the end, it didn’t affect me, but we should try to keep it from happening again.”

Photos by Denna Miller

Other residents spoke about the economic benefits that the thousands of attendees brought to the Town of Beech Mountain, and they mentioned the large percentage of young people who weren’t arrested by the cops or charged with drug usage.

“This was nicest group of people,” Bill Elder said. “Only problems we had was the police department, overzealous, holding up traffic and stopping cars that had no problems with drinking and drugs.”

More than one person said the festival was the closest thing they had seen or heard of as a “police state.”

One older resident of Beech Mountain, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was pulled over while driving on the mountain during the festival weekend and got into a minor argument with the officer, who asked, “Why did you put your foot on the break?” (Another resident’s son was stopped three times and incurred no charges after borrowing his father’s Volkswagen Bus.)

During the meeting, he pointed out that the Gnarnia visitors left the rental houses clean and even tipped the housecleaners, which is unusual for visitors to do on Beech Mountain. He lives five blocks from where the music was being played in the resort, saying the music didn’t bother him or his wife.

This resident talked about growing up during the days of the “hippies and beatniks” and called the activity of the young kids “gray matter.”

Photos by Denna Miller

“I am old enough that I came up with the hippies and beatniks. I’ve seen them clean up their acts, go to work, be successful and move into the village,” he said. “All of these people will eventually grow up, change, doing what we did in our youth, which creates life experiences. It’s gray matter.”

He added, “I’ve been up here for 30 years, seen changes on the mountain, changes in the population. Every change I love. If we stay static, we don’t change. There’s no excitement in life.”

Mary Frisbie harped on that previous point, saying the Beech Mountain community should keep an open mind, so that the area stays “vibrant and vital.”

To loud applause, Margaret Jenkins said, “We don’t want to have a fortress mentality, we want to have a community mentality.”

Erin O’Hare said she spent some time in and outside the festival talking to the festival-goers who initially talked about “what a great place Beech Mountain” was when they arrived to the area.

“Talking to me, they said, ‘They want to come back and ski,’ that they found this little gem,” O’Hare said. “Then on Saturday night on the way out, they said, ‘They will never come because of the way they were treated.’”

“We’re known for extending gracious southern hospitality for our guests,” she said. “We didn’t do that this weekend.”

For Festival at Gnarnia, there are more than two sides to the story. Some felt that law enforcement was “overzealous,” and law enforcement felt that the only reason the festival was considered a success in many people’s mind was because of its dominate presence.

Referring to all of the positive comments spoken at the meeting, Council Member E. Rick Miller said, “Either they didn’t hear about it or they were not aware of it. There is another side of the story. Reports will show that this wasn’t a hunky dory thing.”

Beech Mountain Fire Chief Bob Pudney called the campsites at the festival a “third-world country” and said that if his staff needed to help someone within the camping area, his staff didn’t enter without police escorts.

He mentioned the 13 medical transports – an amount that was more than of all of last year’s calls, he said. Three of those were “combative” people who suffered seizures and needed to be restrained and transported to the hospital, and the ten other transports were either people who overdosed or were unconscious.

Photos by Denna Miller

Also, he mentioned one young woman who attended the festival, and hours after she was released from the hospital, she was found unharmed in a dumpster in Newland.

Sitting in the fire station over the weekend in the middle of one of those nights, Pudney said he was extremely concerned because Avery County didn’t have one available emergency vehicle. If a Beech Mountain local would have had a heart attack, he said, then a helicopter would have had to been called to help. The whole community, he said, was put at risk.

Pudney said that he usually doesn’t spend his time defending law enforcement because fire departments and police departments are like “water and oil,” but in this case law enforcement performed its job well.

“I believe and I submit, that because of strong and visible law enforcement, had they not been on every street corner, pulling over every vehicle, this festival would not have been a success,” Pudney said.

He said that the organization and planning by the promoters of the festival was “inadequate,” adding that the organizer of the festival, Bowie Van Ling, who spoke before the town council on Tuesday, was “untruthful” with what he told the board.

Van Ling stood before the board. He seemed tense and was emotional, very displeased at how law enforcement acted on the mountain. He said that he had artists of the festival who were pulled over four times. He talked about “horror stories,” which he didn’t describe. But he did say law enforcement officials were “beating” young kids to the ground.

“What is this? Are you kidding me? This was unnecessary,” Van Ling said. “This is how you treat your guests.”

At the festival, N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement arrested more than 100 people and charged more than 250 people with drug and alcohol violations. Along with ALE, the Beech Mountain, Boone and Banner Elk police departments and Watauga and Avery sheriff’s departments, total arrests are estimated at 160 and charges at 300.

Before the meeting, Beech Mountain Police Captain Jerry Sturbyfill said his officers had the least amount of arrests or charges of all the agencies involved.

The drug presence didn’t surprise the officers, but the mass quantities of the drugs did. Heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, Marijuana, pills, psychedelic mushrooms, large tanks of nitrous-oxide and much, much more were found. The confiscations amounts haven’t been announced, yet. 

But in a press release sent out by ALE yesterday, the amounts from four trafficking arrests were listed in deatail: 

Brandon Bielen, 26, of 915 W. Lawson Road, Fayetteville, Ark., was arrested for trafficking nearly 64 grams of cocaine and trafficking more than 900 dosage units of MDMA.

Derrick Oyster, 22, of 11645 SE 161st Court, Ocklawaha, Fla., was arrested for trafficking 41 grams of MDMA.

Jeffrey Brown, 43, of 2002 Mountain Place, Louisa, Va., was arrested for trafficking more than 100 dosage units of LSD.

Joseph Collins, 22, of Los Angeles, Calif., was arrested for trafficking more than 100 dosage units of LSD, trafficking more than 450 dosage units of MDMA and trafficking Oxycodone.

After the public hearing, Council Member Alan Holcombe said, “As for as the police is concerned, we do not control ALE. They were planning on coming here. Same thing with Watauga and Avery. We can’t control them. They do whatever they want.”

The chance of a second annual Festival of Gnarnia is still up in the air – to attendees, organizers, residents and town officials. With the amount of police activity, many attendees on social media and online forums said they wouldn’t come back to this festival. And to some, even those in favor of another festival, that’s a good thing.

During the public hearing, Bonnie King, who is in favor of another festival said, “From what I am reading … the trouble makers, the ones up here doing the worse, don’t want to come back, so that’s a good thing.”

Beech Mountain Mayor Rick Owen commented that he doesn’t want this to become a divisive issue. He said he met a lot of nice people, too. He said he wasn’t passing judgment one way or another, but added, “This wasn’t just kids smoking pot on the side of the hill and drinking beer.”

“Some were trafficking hard-core drugs,” Owen said.

Initially his fears for the festival were noise and traffic. However, that changed quickly and those two fears turned out to be his least concerns. He said that the organization of this festival was worse than could be imagined.

“Anybody that thinks this was a professionally-run operation is on the long road to hope,” Owen said, adding that the “fire and police” made this a success.

He said the festival didn’t go great, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

He mentioned that he didn’t think this way about all festivals in general – just Gnarnia in particular, and he maintained that any decisions wouldn’t be made hastily – and that dialogue would remain open.

“If one festival is not appropriate, it doesn’t mean others aren’t appropriate,” Owen said.

So a festival on Beech Mountain this type of year is a good thing, but is Festival of Gnarnia the right festival for the community of Beech Mountain?

What do you think?

See past articles about the festival weekend – one includes detailed arrest reports with charges as well from ALE: