Ecstatic Fall

Jason Ayers sat in the VIP lounge of New York City's premier techno club, marveling at his luck.

On any other Friday night, Ayers would be working in his cramped, rented bedroom in Tempe, or maybe minding his budget at a nightclub.

But 48 hours ago, he got on a plane to New York. And now everything he wanted was free.

A luxury room with butler service at the St. Regis Hotel? Free.

Limousine rides to nightclubs? Free.

Tablets of high-quality Ecstasy? Free, if he so desired.

In the Twilo lounge, as a famous trance DJ spun nearby, Ayers smiled and glanced down at his hand. He was holding a top-shelf drink, also free.

It was as if he had some sort of Midas touch -- where suddenly everything he wanted, everything he held, was granted to him by a benevolent guardian.

The guardian was Ayers' new employer, Safari Media. And as best as Ayers could figure, his sole responsibility to Safari that weekend in return for all this generosity was to ride around in a limo with some DJs.

Safari Media was a Tucson-based multimedia company. In the last year, Safari had established a major presence in the Valley's underground dance scene (more like purchased a presence, Ayers' friends sniffed). After Ayers did some impressive lighting effects for one of its parties, Safari hired Ayers full-time to work for its Tempe music division.

At first, Ayers was a bit wary. The 27-year-old had slaved for a multimedia start-up before and wasn't eager to go back to sleeping under a desk and eating fast-food dinners over a computer keyboard.

But Safari Media, well . . . Safari Media was something else entirely.

Safari had a music division office on Baseline Road in Tempe, but Ayers never went there. Instead, he worked from home with the computer hardware the company gave him. A free computer, he was told, was pretty much standard for Safari employees. So were executive-level salaries, cell phones, shopping sprees and American Express cards. Ayers had seen co-workers pull out their corporate Amexes at grocery stores, hair stylists and department stores.

For the New York trip, Safari had flown about 20 employees to produce a show at the Sound Factory nightclub. The show, held the night before, had been a disaster. There was virtually zero promotion. The supposed headliner, famed German DJ Oliver Lieb, never got on the plane. By all employee accounts, only a few hundred clubgoers showed up for an event that cost Safari tens of thousands.

Such an embarrassing turnout and financial loss would have devastated many event promoters. But Safari's owners, a seemingly omnisexual, party-centric couple named Mark and Maryanne "Mare" Chisholm, seemed unconcerned. The very next night, the Safari party moved on to Twilo, where everybody was raving it up as if their show had been a success.

On the limo ride to Twilo, Ayers had a chance to talk with two co-workers. One was a girl from investor relations, one a girl from multimedia sales. Both were rolling on Ecstasy and gabbing away with dilated-pupil sincerity. The employee from multimedia sales gushed that she was so happy for Ayers' department, the music division. It was so great Safari was making money somehow. Safari had so little real capability for e-commerce design, she confided, that sometimes she felt like a referral service for other multimedia companies.

That was news to Ayers. And once he got to Twilo's VIP lounge, he told his friend and music division co-worker Ryan Jeffs. Together they shook their heads and laughed -- Safari kept getting curiouser and curiouser.

Even as a newcomer, Ayers knew Safari's music division wasn't even close to profitable. Most Safari shows were so lavishly overproduced, he says, "they were doomed to lose money even before we opened the doors."

So Ayers and Jeffs nodded their heads to the trance beats, thinking.

The girl had raised an interesting question.

And the same question later blew apart Safari Media & Music with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by the Arizona attorney general and the Arizona Corporation Commission.

The question was this: If the music division wasn't making money, and the multimedia division wasn't making money . . . then where was all this money coming from?

Chisholm residence -- Tucson -- July 22

From the street, the Chisholm home seems perfectly -- almost deliberately -- dull. It's set in a pricey but unremarkable suburban neighborhood in east Tucson. It has a modest gravel yard and a Ford Explorer in the driveway.

As the Chisholms return home from dinner and approach the house, even a ferocious thunderstorm doesn't disturb the illusion of normalcy. The sky flashes like a strobe light, imported planned-community trees topple left and right, and, still, their home seems a drab domestic harbor from a literal dark and stormy night.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd