The old warehouse on South Fourth Avenue was a rarity for Phoenix, and not just because it's a cavernous old building in a city that has so few of them. What really made it unusual: It was a place to rave in a town where raving is hard to do.
The kids called it "Boo's Warehouse," after the building's manager, 61-year-old Michael "Boo" Booher. And for months on end, neighbors say, Boo hosted raves that packed 'em in by the hundreds.
It was quite the scene, but like all scenes without the proper permits, it was destined to come to an end. Two weeks ago, the Phoenix fire marshal caught wind of a rave called "Bloodfest 3." When the party went off, even after the Fire Department's warnings, they shut it down.
And what the fire marshal found at the scene was scary enough to give even the most laid-back parent a coronary.
We're talking eerie special effects, with cobwebs and skulls adorning the walls. We're talking hundreds of kids, many distinctly underage fire officials estimate more like 14 and 15 years old than 17 ready to party the night away. Most frightening of all: The party was set to happen in an old building with only one exit and those flammable cobwebs just about everywhere.
Fire-prevention specialist Brian Scholl was there. He realized almost immediately just how dangerous the warehouse was.
"I've been doing this six years," Scholl says. "And this is the worst thing that I've run into. The place is just not safe. You've got only one exit and these scary little stairways. I was afraid to walk on them, and that was with just two people ahead of me."
Take a panicky crowd during a fire, Scholl adds, and those "scary little stairways" suddenly become much, much worse.
But while the Fire Department's shutdown that night is hardly shocking, plenty about the bust at Boo's Warehouse is.
For one thing, while the Phoenix Police Department accompanied fire officials to the scene, the cops issued zero citations and arrested nobody. In fact, a police spokesman says, they didn't even write up an incident report despite all those underage kids. (The kids, according to the chat rooms at www.azedm.com, ended up partying in the desert.)
This is much different than busting a homeowner for throwing one loud party. There's a reason that the fire marshal takes this stuff so seriously: It would take only one cigarette to spark a tragedy like that at the 2003 Great White concert in Rhode Island a fire, a panic, and 100 people dead.
Yet neighbors allege that underage raves were a fixture at the warehouse. Helen Hestenes owns the Icehouse just across the street and has hosted some raves, too, although hers are strictly legal. Hestenes says that she and her staff have witnessed no fewer than 24 unlicensed parties at Boo's site in the past year.
And here's the funny part. Hestenes isn't the warehouse's only neighbor. Next door is the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Seriously. The warehouse is at Jackson Street and Fourth Avenue. The Fourth Avenue Jail, where deputies process arrestees at all hours of the day and night, sits directly across the street.
But there's no record indicating that anyone in the Sheriff's Office did a thing to question why there were hundreds of underage kids next door, sporting angel wings and sucking lollipops. (Not surprisingly, Captain Paul Chagolla, the sheriff's spokesman, didn't get back to me with a comment.) Instead, it took Hestenes to get the city's attention and she's now facing retribution because the rave kids aren't exactly thrilled about their party being busted. The sheriff's deputies apparently chose to look the other way.
And that might be very funny. After all, despite the obvious danger, no one's died.
But there's one big problem.
Boo, the nice old dude who let the kids party at the warehouse, is a convicted child molester.
In 1998, Michael L. Booher was charged with molesting a 7-year-old girl in Pima County. Court records indicate he coerced the victim, who happened to be his girlfriend's daughter, into urinating on his genitals. The clincher for Tucson detectives: Booher's girlfriend, horrified to learn about what had happened, said that particular act was something he'd asked her to do, too. Booher pleaded guilty, served four years in prison, and was released in 2006. He's now a registered sex offender.
When I finally managed to reach Booher just hours before press time on Tuesday, he acknowledged his criminal record but insisted there had never been an incident since he began allowing raves at the warehouses. "I haven't done anything and I haven't thought of doing anything," he says.
But still, I think it should be obvious: This is exactly the kind of guy you don't want hanging around a bunch of cute high school girls tripping on Ecstasy!
If anyone from the Sheriff's Office had bothered to check out the pulsating dance music next door, or even just called the Phoenix Police Department to say, "Hey, something's not right here," they would have ended up talking to Boo. And you'd hope, at some point, someone would have done a background check or even a simple Google search (like the one done by yours truly) and realized they had a perv on their hands.
Apparently, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's staff has been too busy rounding up New Times executives for daring to print the truth about him and his allies, and busting all those dangerous corn vendors on the west side, to notice what's going on in their own backyard.
Hey, when "America's toughest sheriff" has a Mexican without papers or even pesky journalists in his sights, who can blame him for ignoring the giant underage rave next door?
Party on, kiddies!
After the Fire Department's bust on October 13, the heat didn't come down on the kids who'd been at the party, or the family trust that owns the warehouse, or even Michael Booher.
Scholl says that once the party was closed down, the danger had passed. "Once they agreed to shut it down," he says, "there didn't need to be an arrest." Future parties, obviously, will need permits and the warehouse would certainly need to be compliant with fire codes.
Meanwhile, a police spokesman notes that the Fire Department was the lead agency on the case. The main concern of the police was getting the kids out of there before curfew.
So, nothing much happened to the people who threw the illegal parties. Instead, the fallout has been almost entirely on Helen Hestenes.
Hestenes' Icehouse, directly across the street from Boo's Warehouse, is one of downtown's few genuinely cool venues, a rambling, nearly 100-year-old fortress once used to make and store ice for the railroads that shipped produce out of Phoenix. Today, it's used for art installations and hipster parties (including New Times' last month).
It also happens to be one of the few places in Phoenix that hosts legal raves. That means, according to Hestenes, she has to get permits and has to bar anyone under 18. Also, the fire marshal gets to check out the place before any party.
Staying on the right side of the law isn't always easy for someone in the party business. Back in 1999, in fact, the fire marshal gave Hestenes and her then-husband a cease-and-desist order after they applied for a liquor license to host an event for New Times. And the rave scene comes with its own set of challenges; Hestenes is on a first-name basis with a number of city regulators.
Hestenes, who has a teenage daughter, says she grew concerned about what she and her staffers saw across the street. When she questioned Booher about how he got around the curfew issue, Hestenes says, he responded that he made sure not to let the young ravers leave before 7 a.m., when curfew expires. Kind of like a church lock-in, only with plenty of trance music.
It was the wrong thing to tell a mom who's concerned about safety, even if that mom is someone cool enough to host raves of her own.
So, as Hestenes confirms, she contacted city officials, including the mayor's deputy chief of staff, Bill Scheel. Scheel confirms that he forwarded the message to the Fire Department.
How Hestenes' role in the bust became public knowledge isn't clear. Scholl says he and his colleagues in the Fire Department would not have revealed a source and, no doubt, the cops would say the same thing. But kids at the party angrily swarmed to chat rooms in the days after the aborted rave, reporting that someone they thought was the fire marshal had told them, "You can thank Helen for this."
In no time, Hestenes received an angry e-mail: "Thanks for breaking up our rave Saturday, you stupid bitch. Definitely never going to the Icehouse again."
The chat rooms were full of such denunciations. Ravers felt Hestenes was upset about losing business to the unlicensed scene at Boo's, a charge she adamantly denies.
"[E]veryone take note that she has no loyalty to the scene and deserves no loyalty in return," one guy wrote.
The Icehouse is already in dire straits. It's one of the few remaining arty spaces on a block that's increasingly populated by ugly government complexes, and Hestenes has trouble making enough money to keep the electricity on and the taxes paid. Recently, she learned that she faces an astonishing 85 percent property tax increase.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Criticism from the ravers has only made a tough situation worse.
"The only reason I brought this to the mayor's attention is the safety of those kids," Hestenes says.
And Hestenes can't help but note the irony of all the government scrutiny she's faced while trying to do everything by the book.
"They've been so hard on me for 17 years," she says, "and yet they just let Boo go on."