Golden Oldies #7: The Gang That Terrorized the 1990s East Coast Rave Scene
And the Article That Led to its Demise
(In 1998, Details magazine asked me to write an article about B.T.S., a Brooklyn-based gang of thieves and drug dealers terrorizing the East Coast rave scene. DEA agent Scott Seeley-Hacker read the article and infiltrated the group. Federal prosecutors used my story as a blueprint to successfully prosecute leaders of the gang, who went to prison. This story originally appeared in the December, 1998 issue of Details.)
Up until the moment the gang leader broke off our conversation in mid sentence and dashed across the club to pull a knife on a bouncer, the interview was going swimmingly. For weeks, I’d been on the trail of the notorious gang known as B.T.S., a.k.a. Born to Scheme, a.k.a. Brooklyn Terror Squad, a.k.a. Beat the System, the one-hundred strong crew that has wreaked mayhem at raves up and down the East Coast. “Violence has become a major problem on the scene because of B.T. S.,” reports one raver, a small-time Ecstasy dealer who says she has been robbed by the gang so many times that she knows some members by name. “A lot of older ravers won’t go to parties anymore because B.T.S. has taken over. They’ve ruined it for everyone.”
I first saw B.T. S. in action at Back to the Future, a midsize rave held in July at the Manhattan club Down Time. The event’s promoter had left a plea on the recording ravers had to call for the location of the party: “Please, everyone bring a positive vibe. Come to dance, come to listen to phat beats, come to meet some people. Don’t come to rob people and feud n’ fight and all that bullshit.”
Naturally, B.T.S. ignored it. They hid in the shadows, but the gang members were easy to spot. Unlike the dopey-looking ravers stumbling about in a daze, the B.T.S. crew were sharp-eyed, dressed like label-conscious street kids. A couple of hours past midnight, just outside the jungle room, they staged a fake brawl. As the larger members pretended to take swings at each other, the smaller ones crept up behind distracted partygoers and picked their pockets or snatched their gold chains and beepers before crouching low and disappearing down the back stairs. In one corner, a messed-up raver waved a hundred-dollar bill in the air trying to attract the attention of a drug dealer and make a buy. Two B.T.S. toughs jumped him from behind. Moments later, on the first floor, another callow night crawler clutched his head and cried out to his friends, “I got beat! I got beat! They robbed me!”
When the club finally emptied out in the wee hours of the morning, the signs of B.T.S.’s handiwork were obvious: The dance floor was littered with items from purses and backpacks the gang had stolen and dumped such as driver’s licenses, photos, lipstick, and mascara.
A week later, I managed to hook up with a duo of fresh-faced B.T. S. foot soldiers from Gerritsen Beach — Skil One, Dope Star, and Seat — who promised to introduce me to the top dogs who run the gang. The one I wanted to meet most was a shadowy figure called Chameleon, reputed to be the mastermind behind the entire operation. Skil One and company told me he’d probably be at a party B.T.S. was throwing that weekend at Planet 28, a cramped, low-key hole-in-the-wall on the edge of Manhattan’s garment district.
As I walk into the gloomy club, its walls covered with panels of the gang’s graffiti, my stomach is gripped with a mix of anticipation and fear. Everybody who is anybody in the B.T.S. ranks — at least those who aren’t in jail — are here, slapping each other on the back, showing off tattoos and knife wounds, and dancing furiously to thundering techno.
The unexpectedly upbeat vibe is greatly enhanced by the copious amounts of Ecstasy and strong green acid the gang members are popping, as well as the ketamine and crystal methamphetamine they’re snorting off the backs of their hands. The closest thing to a disturbance is a small, ferocious-looking “dust bunny” from New Jersey stumbling around, offering blow jobs in exchange for bumps of K.
In the corner, next to the bar, Era, a stocky B.T. S. old-timer with blond hair and blue eyes, tells me that at least a few of the stories I’ve heard about B.T.S. have been blown out of proportion. Yes, they sell hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fake drugs. Yes, they beat up and rob “candy ravers,” naive, colorfully dressed partiers tripping on Ecstasy. But no, they don’t sell the bogus E that killed twenty-year-old college student Jason Williamson at a rave in April. “You’d think we were murderers,” another B.T.S. member scoffs, “but all we do is rob people.”
Around four in the morning, a compact, hard-muscled twenty-seven-year-old in a white fishing hat, an expensive-looking crewneck, and jeans with a hairbrush sticking out of the back pocket enters with his girlfriend, an exotic dancer who looks like a young Ellen Barkin. He’s immediately surrounded by fellow gang members rushing to greet him. A few moments later, he struts up to me with his entourage. “You’re the guy from Details, aren’t you?” he says. “I hear you want to talk to me.”
Chameleon doesn’t deny his gang’s exploits — he’s in a mood to brag. He tells me he earned his nickname by changing outfits as many as six times a night. “I’ll go to a club or a rave wearing something nice and flashy — like a loose-fitting Sergio Tacchini warm-up suit and a matching hat. I’ll sell a couple pills of E and K, until I spot somebody else selling, and I’ll jack them for their money and their drugs, y’know what I’m saying. Then I’ll go into one of the back rooms and I’ll change.”
“Underneath the sweat suit, I might be wearing a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. I’ll take my hat off and let my hair down or tie it up in a ponytail. I’ll go back out on the dance floor and sell the drugs I just stole. After an hour or two, I’ll rob somebody else and go to the bathroom and change again. Under the jeans, I’ll be wearing a nice pair of shorts or something. Under the shirt, I’ll have a tank top. I’ll also put on a different hat. I store the spare clothes in a tote bag, then hand it to a member of my crew, who gives me my other tote bag with a new outfit in it.”
Afterward, Chameleon and his boys rent a suite at a fancy hotel and party away some of the loot.
Lately, though, he says, he’s been trying to stay in the background. “I send out my younger kids with some money, and they buy drugs to find out who’s selling what,” he says. “Then they come back and my second string goes out — twenty, thirty, forty deep. The younger kids go around the room pointing out the drug dealers and we just go in — wham! wham! wham! — through the whole party. We’ll grab somebody, five guys hold him, one guy goes into his pockets and takes everything, and we disperse back into the crowd. It takes about two seconds. We occasionally get resistance — then twelve B.T.S. members dive in. Some kids try to run, but there’s really no escape.”
In the middle of our interview, out of the corner of his eye, Chameleon spots a Planet 28 bouncer trying to shake down Era. Chameleon’s face goes cold. And in a second he’s across the room, with his butterfly knife pressed against the bouncer’s throat. The bouncer backs off, reluctantly removing his hands from around Era’s neck.
Moments later the bouncer is back, with a half dozen other security guards. The insults fly back and forth — “punk motherfucker,” “pussy boy”! — and the confrontation escalates into death threats. Just when it seems an all-out brawl is about to break out, a shout goes up among B.T.S.: “Everybody out. We’re gone.” The standoff continues outside on the sidewalk, where the club’s manager holds back his bouncers and begs B.T.S. to leave.
Later that night, at a nearby after-hours party, Chameleon looks sick — not surprising, given his 24/7 hedonism. (In fact, a few hours from now, he’ll check himself into a hospital and be diagnosed with walking pneumonia.) “We’re not as bad as we used to be,” he says between hacking coughs, trying to downplay the incident at Planet 28. “We’re not grabbing everybody like we used to. We’re tired of the bad vibes.”
UNTIL RECENTLY, gang violence has been more closely associated with the braggadocio and street litanies of hip-hop than the smiles and utopian mood of the rave scene. But just as the Hell’s Angels went to love-ins to prey on ’60s hippies, just as Woodstock gave way to Altamont, today’s blissed-out teenagers make attractive targets for a pack of predators like B.T.S. Ecstasy’s empathy-inducing effects are great in theory — but only if the person you’re sharing your soul with isn’t looking to knock you upside the head and jack your backpack.
“The rave scene today is largely made up of young, middle-class kids from good families with money,” explains Chameleon, who told me he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. “These kids are spending a hundred dollars a night on drugs. A pill costs twenty-five, bags of crystal twenty. You get a rave with six thousand people and there’s a lot of money to be made — a fucking ton of money
“And it’s my money,” he adds with an evil grin.
Though ravers like to portray B.T.S. as a group of parasitic latecomers, the New York rave scene first took root not among downtown trendies or suburban hedonists, but shirtless street kids from New York’s outer boroughs. Frankie Bones, the DJ who originally brought rave culture from the U.K to America with his early-’90s Brooklyn Storm Raves, traces the roots of B.T.S. back to rowdy Brooklyn street gangs like the Kings Highway Boys, the Avenue U Boys, and the Bay Boys. “The older neighborhood gangs used to come to my early parties looking for trouble,” he remembers. “B.T.S. comes from that same Brooklyn mold.”
“The New York rave scene has always been about hardcore Brooklyn,” concurs Fly, another B.T.S. member. “That’s how shit goes down in this city. These people come from New Jersey and Connecticut and think it’s all about peace and love. They don’t know what they’re stepping into in New York.”
In many ways, B.T.S. has less in common with traditional street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips than with British “love thugs,” the soccer hooligans who took over Ecstasy dealing at raves in the U.K. in the early ’90s. B.T.S. has no rites of initiation — new members don’t get beaten in and can leave without fear of retaliation. They’re not tied to a specific ethnic group or neighborhood — the gang is a veritable Benetton ad of Asians, blacks, Latinos, Italians, and Irish, with members in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. And there’s no formal set of rules, other than one that forbids screwing over fellow members. At the end of the night, the crew don’t pool their loot; everyone keeps what he’s scammed for himself, though they all chip in to bail out members who get arrested.
Seemingly, the only requirement for joining B.T. S. is a talent for crime. “You have to have a skill to join,” explains Chameleon. “Like a good head for scheming. Or be a good runner — someone who doesn’t get nailed by security Or a good con artist like a young kid who buys the drugs and says to the dealer ‘Yo, can you hook me up? Can I get your phone number?’ Then when he gets the number, he calls him and goes to his apartment and kicks the fucking door in and takes everything.”
Recently, the gang has begun exporting its mayhem all over the East Coast — they’ve hit raves in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and all the way down to Florida. In September, fifty B.T.S. members flew down to the 16,000 person Zen Festival rave near Tampa, where they sold enough bogus drugs to walk away with about $4,000 each.
In April of 1997, they invaded a rave at the Washington, D.C. Armory. “Will you Brooklyn kids please stop fighting?” the promoter pleaded on the microphone. “Will B.T. S. please stop robbing people?” The answer was no. “We wrecked shop,” boasts the aptly named Kaos, a beefy B.T.S. enforcer with close-cropped dark hair. “I even had cops robbing kids for me! I swore I was a promoter and pointed out all the drug dealers [and said they’d stolen my money]. The cops were taking their money and giving it to me.”
In June, they turned the Funky Monkey party at Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom into “B.T.S. central,” as one raver put it. The scene was more like a British soccer match than a rave. Sporadic fights finally culminated in a massive free-for-all on the dance floor. The B.T.S. dealers were so brazen, they peddled their wares in full view of security guards, who were apparently too scared to intervene. “B.T.S. basically acted as house dealers,” recalls one of the featured DJs, Odi of Digital Konfusion. “They totally controlled the party.” Their greed was so boundless that they sold drugs to the same people they later robbed. Even little, barrette-wearing raver girls were battered mercilessly
But assaulting and robbing ravers may not be the worst crime B.T.S. has committed: Friends of Virginia Tech student Jason Williamson think the crew is also guilty of murder. Williamson attended the April Foolz II rave at Mount Airy Lodge, a holiday resort in the Poconos, earlier this year. It was a suffocating crush of nearly nine thousand bodies packed together like psychedelic sardines — a perfect setting for B.T.S. to conduct business.
In the hardcore room, Williamson befriended a group of kids from Brooklyn. One of them gave him a free Ecstasy pill, according to Sean Choudry and his girlfriend Carla Ringquist, Virginia Tech friends of Williamson’s who were with him that night. After swallowing the bogus Ecstasy — which a nurse later told Ringquist was actually a mix of drugs that included a horse tranquilizer — Williamson ran outside, where he collapsed on the ground and had a seizure. At four in the morning, after medics tried to stabilize his condition, he was rushed to the Pocono Medical Center, where he lapsed into a coma. “All of his organs exploded inside of his body,” says Ringquist, who described the doctors’ bandaging her friend from head to toe like a mummy. Early Monday, Williamson’s parents, who had rushed to their son’s bedside from Virginia Beach, gave doctors permission to pull the plug on his life-support system.
Choudry and Ringquist say they saw half a dozen other ravers in the medical center’s intensive care unit. “There was some indication that at least a couple of those ravers took the same drug,” says Sgt. Donald Fernbach of the Pennsylvania State Police. “But I did not find any evidence of an individual specifically intending to poison another person to death. If we had, we would have conducted a homicide investigation.”
“Jason was a newcomer to the scene who thought everybody could be trusted,” Choudry says. “B.T.S. are murderers. They knew the pill was bad.”
“That’s an absolute lie,” replies Chameleon. “We’re not looking to kill anybody, we’re just after the money and the drugs.”
As of now, the New York City Police Department isn’t even keeping tabs on B.T. S. “At this point,” says a public information officer,” we don’t have anything on them.”
“USING THE TERM ‘GANG’ about B.T.S. is a bit misleading,” says Frankie Bones. “It’s much more loose-knit.” The group started out in the early ’90s as a neighborhood graffiti crew, a bunch of friends who hung around a homemade recording studio in the basement of a travel agency in Brighton Beach, a shabby seaside resort that’s the Russian mob’s home-away-from-home. The original members were a Vietnamese immigrant named Soak; his right-hand boy, E.S.; the owner of the studio, Kaos; E.S.’s little brother Era; and Miss Melody, the only female founder. Originally, B.T.S. stood for Bomb the Subway, and initiates are still expected to tag walls and compile black books of their illustrations. Later, B.T.S. stood for Born to Survive, when several of the members were homeless.
The godfather of the gang was Soak. B.T.S. members told me he’s now finishing up a two-year jail term for robbing $20,000 from the safe of a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn; when he completes his sentence, the government will try to deport him back to his homeland. “Soak always held everything together,” remembers Mr. Lover, a B.T.S. veteran who looks tougher than his small stature might suggest, thanks to a broken nose. “Things are falling apart a little bit, now that he’s not around. It was easier two or three years ago, when the younger kids were younger. Now they’re getting older and they have their own minds.”
In 1992, Miss Melody, an exotic-looking Italian-Irish-black-Cherokee woman from Sheepshead Bay, took the crew to check out one of Frankie Bones Storm Raves. “There were no kids robbing each other back then,” recalls E.S. without a trace of irony. “It was all about dancing and having a good time.” Miss Melody agrees: “There were no ulterior motives. Now every raver wants to be a drug dealer.”
As the rave scene grew, the crew hit on the idea of selling fake drugs to gullible suburban kids. One weekend, Mr. Lover remembers, he and Soak hit a rave in Connecticut with hundreds of packs of breath mints that looked exactly like some green-speckled Ecstasy that was going around at the time. They sold out — at twenty dollars a mint.
“Before I found the mints,” says Mr. Lover, “me and Soak used to sit in his basement and spray-paint hundreds of white tablets.”
Another time, he recalls fondly, he and Soak went to Boston with eighty bags of Epsom salt which they sold as crystal meth, and two hundred niacin tablets which they passed off as Ecstasy. Not one of the customers complained. Instead, says Mr. Lover, they kept coming back for more, pestering him for his beeper number. At the end of the night, he found himself in the bathroom surrounded by a bunch of pretty girls as he cut up huge rails of Epsom salt. “I was telling girls ‘Bring your friends over.’ I was sniffing with them — I didn’t give a fuck.”
Another favorite scam is selling incense as “Red Rock opium” — a con that has worked so well that kids come in from out of state to buy a “drug” that B.T S. made up. Mr. Lover sometimes travels to parties in Connecticut, where he charges $1,200 for a pound, $400 for a quarter, and $150 for an ounce. “When they find out I have ‘Red Rock,’ the stupid motherfuckers fight with each other over whose house I should go back to. ‘Come to my house. No, come back to my place.’ Even the people who figure out it’s fake still buy from me because they know they can double their money by selling it to some other stupid raver.”
“I USED TO BE CRAZY,” Chameleon tells me. We’re in the basement of a downtown club, where the gang leader is dealing hits of genuine Ecstasy to baggy-trousered beat fanatics. “I got shot twice and stabbed twice. I had my index finger sliced off by a big black guy with a machete who was trying to rob me buying pot.” But the charismatic gang leader wasn’t always a criminal.
At the age of eleven, he ran away from his comfortable home in Queens to Florida, where he learned to ride horses from his grandfather, a professional jockey, but his racing career came to an abrupt end at the age of nineteen when a horse fell on his upper back during a race at Belmont Racetrack. Temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, he had to wear a steel cage on his head for six months, with four bolts screwed into his skull.
Chameleon was an avid club-crawler both before and after his accident, and one night at the Limelight nightclub in Manhattan, revved up on cocaine, he came up with a novel idea for a new career. “I realized the amount of money I could make selling drugs at raves. So I got a group of kids together and I showed them how to create fake drugs. Why should I spend money on E’s when I can go to Duane Reade, stick fifty Chlor-Trimeton tablets in my pocket, and go sell them?”
His new line of work was so profitable that soon he was able to move into real drugs. At the time, the scene at the Limelight was controlled by techno promoter Lord Michael Caruso. In order to ensure that Chameleon and his boys didn’t disrupt business, Caruso struck a deal to buy up Chameleon’s complete supply of Ecstasy — usually the popular brand known as “half moons” — at fifteen dollars per hit. He then gave the pills to his runners, who broke them in two and sold “half moons” for thirty dollars apiece.
Chameleon observed Lord Michael’s operation closely and soon began to imitate his most lucrative crimes. Just as Caruso ripped off drug dealers he became friendly with, Chameleon would screw over rave kids who trusted him. “I’d befriend them to get into their apartments,” he recalls, ” and I’d tie them up with their phone cord, take all their shit, and leave them sitting there.” Dealers also made perfect targets because they have large amounts of cash on hand and are afraid of the police: “I’m one of the ones that climbs through their windows at six in the morning, ties them up, and takes their safes. The most I earned for one job was $125,000, when I climbed up a drug dealer’s fire escape.”
Chameleon first met members of B.T.S. through mutual friends two years ago at a dance club called Vinyl. He sweet-talked himself into the gang’s good graces, throwing sex-and-drug parties for the members at fancy Manhattan hotels. “Chameleon spent a lot of money on those parties,” says Miss Melody “We were all ordering filet mignon and champagne on room service.”
CHAMELEON IS SOMETHING of a controversial figure within B.T.S. He didn’t grow up in the gang like most of the other key members, and he’s from middle-class Queens rather than blue-collar Brooklyn. He claims he is the leader of B.T S. now that Soak is in prison, but other members say Era — a six-two, Irish-Italian member, whom I see wearing khakis and a white shirt after coming from his day job on Wall Street — is the acting don and that Chameleon is only the boss of the Long Island branch. “Chameleon is a crazy cowboy who thinks he controls everything,” says Miss Melody “Sure, he represents B.T.S., and he’s always there to help us up when there’s trouble. But he’s only been down with us for two years. He’s older than the rest of us.”
Melody’s roommate Griz, who calls Chameleon “B.T Wannabe Prez,” says that the usurper “wants to dominate us. But B.T.S. is like a tight friendship or a family. Everyone is equal.”
“Chameleon is dogging my shadow,” complains E.S., angry to hear that Chameleon told me he’s in charge. “Chameleon is like a brother — but B.T.S. is my crew.”
The gang faces another problem that’s even larger than their leadership struggle: They may have cooked the golden goose. “The rave scene has diminished alarmingly in the last two years because of us,” admits Chameleon. “Kids are afraid to come out. That’s why we’re trying to boost the scene back up again by selling real drugs.”
Other B.T.S. members are even trying to go legit. By day, E.S. and Geo sell stocks, cold-calling potential customers from a Wall Street office. They may be switching careers just in time: The DEA is currently widening its investigation into New York nightlife, and agents have already picked up Chameleon for questioning. But he says he isn’t scared. “What happened to Lord Michael is not going to happen to me, because I’m mobile while he was in one club controlling dealers who kickback to me,” he says. “Every night of the week I’m in a different place. That’s the trick — to stay mobile and never carry large amounts of drugs personally.”
Digital Konfusion’s DJ Odi, who frequently plays B.TS. parties, says he can’t believe it but he’s nostalgic for the reign of Lord Michael — who conned and later ratted on both his enemies and his friends. (He became the star witness in the government’s unsuccessful attempt to jail the owner of the Limelight, Peter Gatien, on racketeering and conspiracy charges.) At least then, Odi says, blood wasn’t all over the dance floor. “Back in the days of the Limelight, dealers didn’t step on each other’s toes,” he remembers. “There was a hierarchy and a structure. With the disintegration of the club scene and the disintegration of the rave scene, there hasn’t been anyone with the authority to police the situation.
“That’s how a group of wild-ass kids like B.T. S. can take over.”
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