Electric Zoo Founder Once Ran Mega-Club Shut by City After Fatal ODs
RANDALL'S ISLAND — The founder of the music festival where two people died of apparent drug-related causes on Saturday once ran a Chelsea nightclub that the city closed after accusations it acted like an Ecstasy emporium, played a role in two fatal overdoses and hid scores of unconscious patrons in a secret room without medical care.
In 2009 Miami promoter Mike Bindra, 44, and his wife, Laura De Palma, created Electric Zoo, the annual Labor Day weekend extravaganza at city-owned Randall's Island. Their company, Made Event, canceled the festival's remaining shows on Sunday after the two deaths and 31 arrests on charges varying from the sale and possession of drugs to disorderly conduct.
Bindra was once the general manager of Twilo, one of city's most popular dance clubs, which became a target of law enforcement agencies during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration.
The West 27th Street hot spot — owned by impresarios Steve Dash and Phil Smith — drew the unwanted attention after two fatal overdoses inside of two years. The first occurred in 1998 when NYU student Bridgette Murray overdosed on the Ecstasy she took there.
After the co-ed's death, the city filed a public nuisance lawsuit in Manhattan Civil Supreme Court to shutter Twilo, accusing it of operating as drug den and being the scene of multiple arrests.
But the city lost the case, and techno music and drugs apparently kept flowing.
In July 2000, Johns Hopkins University student James Wiest collapsed on the club's dance floor after taking Ecstasy and later died at St. Vincent's Hospital.
Wiest's mother later settled with Twilo and its associates for $250,000 after claiming in a lawsuit that club security dragged her unconscious son into a back room, where they left him without care for as long as three hours. The lawsuit also claimed that club officials later called a private ambulance.
City officials said the club used private ambulances to avoid police involvement.
"It is ludicrous," the city's then Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington told the New York Times in an April 2001 interview. "People are overdosing and the fact they put an ambulance outside a nightclub should be enough to establish that nightclub should be closed."
In October 2000, Twilo security guard Joseph Murray was arrested for hiding three unconscious patrons in a dark room while paramedics searched for them in the club. Bouncers had stymied the emergency responders by twice telling them no one needed medical attention, according to court records.
Murray told investigators that he had put two of the patrons in the room because his superiors instructed him “to hide those people,” court records show. He eventually pleaded guilty to obtructing government administration.
In fall 2000 the city again tried to close Twilo by refusing to renew the club's cabaret license. The move led to another court battle, but in May 2001 an appellate court ruled in the city's favor, shuttering the club after six years of operation.
During the legal battle, Joseph Murray filed an affidavit supporting the city's case, claiming he saw scores of patrons dragged into a back room and later taken by private ambulance to hospitals.
"During the three years that I have worked on security inside Twilo, I have seen at least 100 instances in which unconscious or semiconscious patrons have been placed in the safe area by security and left there," he said in his affidavit.
Bindra was never charged with any wrongdoing in his role as Twilo's manager.
Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Electric Zoo festival, said that Bindra did not oversee security at Twilo when the fatal overdoses occurred.
"Mike was only involved in booking talent and promoting, not operations," Friedman said.
He added that the head of security reported directly to two other general managers.
However, during his days at Twilo, Bindra frequently discussed in news stories the security measures the club had taken to crack down on drug use.
"We're trying to make it difficult to sell or even do drugs on the premises," he told the New York Times in a 1999 interview. "We want people to come here to dance, not to sprawl out on the floor and be a big mess. Sure, the security can be an inconvenience, but then again, so is living in Manhattan."
In an affidavit he submitted during the 2000 lawsuit against the city, Bindra also detailed the extensive lengths Twilo took to the combat the sale of drugs.
"I am also well informed of the extent to which this business has spent money and effort to successfully ensure that the allegations cannot be repeated," he said.
"We are the most professionally operated and safest caberet of its type in the city of New York among them, businesses with allegations of drug dealer employees, shootings and stabbings; yet we alone are faced with closure," he added.
Bindra has been organizing concerts and shows for the past two decade. He and another Miami entrepreneur, Henri Pferdmenges, also ran TriBeCa club Arc, which closed after two years in 2004.
Pferdmenges is currently suing Bindra in Manhattan Federal Court, claiming he was an early investor in the Electric Zoo festival and accusing his former business partner of cheating him out of his share of its profits. Bindra has denied the allegations.
Jeffrey Russ, 23, and Olivia Rotondo, 21, were the two festival attendees who died Saturday, according to police. The cause of both deaths appear to be linked to MDMA consumption, also known as Molly or Ecstasy, officials said.
A spokeswoman for the city's medical examiner said further toxicology reports and tissue studies were pending to determine the exact cause of death.
Made Event leased the space for the Electronic Zoo festival through the Randall's Island Alliance, the nonprofit conservancy that maintains the city-owned grounds.
The city Parks Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.