Is the Gorge safe? Trouble and violence mar popular concert venue and campsite
Known to many concertgoers as “Heaven’s Amphitheater,” the popular Gorge Amphitheatre venue and campsite sits at the bellybutton of Washington state and the Columbia River sweeps by in the distance behind the stage.
“Going to the very top of the hill and just looking down and seeing this massive, massive venue in its entirety … you can see the Gorge, you can see the canyon — it’s just beautiful,” said Shannon Rydeen, who lives in Spokane. “And the sunset there, just as it starts going down, is one of the most beautiful things that you can see on this side of Washington.”
Rydeen works at a big-box store and has attended Gorge concerts nearly half a dozen times.
Hundreds of thousands of concertgoers like her attend concerts each summer ranging from electronic to the Rolling Stones. The venue is about 150 miles east of Seattle, and this year Dead & Company, The Lumineers and even massive stars like Dave Mathews Band are returning to once again wail on the river.
But now — with a double murder just weeks ago, and two more shot and injured — the Live Nation-owned venue must overcome a deepening reputation for danger with even its biggest fans. June’s deaths at the campground are only the latest violence in a series of serious incidents. A look at the history reveals a steady flow of injuries, sexual assaults and drug-related deaths at the Eastern Washington venue. Concertgoers say there’s inadequate security.
Frosting of security
When you enter the Gorge Amphitheater and campground, concertgoers say there’s a frosting, or veneer, of security that greets you – it’s visible but not effective if there are major problems, concertgoers say.
The wait to get into the campground can last hours. K9 units sniff the outside of cars, RVs and campers up ahead in line, Rydeen said. Security workers ask carloads of campers if there is anything they want to declare like drugs or weapons.
“The experience I had really, people are in and out of their cars, like they’re walking around,” Rydeen said. “Not everyone is with their cars, with it off in that heat.”
The campsite’s website says no marijuana, illegal drugs or firearms are allowed. However, campers and concertgoers say there’s little to stop them.
“You can’t guarantee that somebody isn’t going to bring a firearm or a weapon of any sort into that place,” said Tony Angelo. From Kennewick, Angelo has been going to the Gorge for more than a decade and says he feels fairly safe. “As far as going into the venue itself there are plenty of security — but out in the parking lot it’s hard to say.”
When two people with two dogs approached the car Rydeen was in, she said the search wasn’t thorough.
“They’re just walking up to everyone and saying they’re gonna search for any drugs or guns,” Rydeen said. “All they did was walk the dog around the car. Never once were we asked to open our doors. They [the dogs] are very reactive to noise and sound. These supposed gun dogs were reacting to service animals and lunging at them.”
We reached out to the security company, 365 K9 Detection, that provides the K9 services for the Gorge Amphitheater. According to the company’s website, the family-owned firm specializes “in canine scent detection of narcotics, explosives and firearms.” Tuesday afternoon, the company’s manager called to say he was traveling in Texas and wasn’t available to comment for this story.
The website also said: “Our company currently serves several large concert venues in the Pacific Northwest. We perform bomb sweeps, locate narcotics, and act as a deterrent for illegal items / activities on private property.”
“Kids in T-shirts”
We reached out to Crowd Management Services – known also as CMS – several times. The slogan on its website is: “Protect the fun.” The company, based in Portland, Ore., runs operations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The Senior Vice President, Dave Christiansen, declined to comment in an email, saying: “By policy all contact with media must be done through Live Nation.”
We also reached out several times to Live Nation, the owner and manager of the Gorge venue, whose media team said to contact the North Central Washington Special Investigations Unit.
On its Twitter account, @thegorgeamp did release a statement saying: “As of now there are no changes to the show calendar and the next show is slated for July 7. As we move forward, we will continue to partner with local authorities regarding security plans as we always have.”
From some audience observations though, the venue’s security staff appear largely young, few and under-equipped.
Rydeen said some of the security staff that deadly weekend – and at other events they’ve attended – appear to be young teenagers.
“They’re the only people willing to work for that wage and the length of shifts,” Rydeen said. “It’s really just a train wreck for security.”
One incident really stuck with them: “Seeing a 15- or 16-year-old girl, working for Live Nation, getting screamed at by a man, 240-pounds,” Rydeen said. “How is she supposed to protect herself from someone who outweighs her, is bigger than her? How is she supposed to properly do her job when she has nothing to protect herself, no way to communicate to other staff members?”
Senator Judy Warnick [R-Washington] said she has a relative who is ex-military who has worked security at the Gorge for years. He told her there were some 27,500 people at the Gorge that fatal weekend. There are metal detectors to get into the venue, but the campground is more porous.
“He said it’s been safer and safer all the time,” she said. “My cousin said they talk quite a bit about what happens with an active shooter — What happens? How would you handle an active shooter? —They had talked just that morning about it, not knowing that this is something that would take place that afternoon or that evening.”
Still, concertgoer Rydeen said many of the security officers are far away from other workers at the large venue, and she added that sometimes they appear to not have walkie-talkies. Rydeen says the venue needs more people at each checkpoint.
“Wristbands are not checked, it’s not enforced,” Rydeen said. “When you have a massive group of people, people just tend to walk on by. There are one or two people trying to enforce it — but really not able to enforce it because they don’t have the right amount of hands for the job.”
Live Nation contracts with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office to provide law enforcement services. Based on the crowd profile, the anticipated numbers, and the event’s history, a certain number of deputies and officers are scheduled for each show. If the Sheriff’s Office can’t schedule enough deputies, it asks other agencies to help fill the open slots. These officers may be in uniform or in plainclothes.
On the evening of the deadly June 17 shooting at the Beyond Wonderland show, there were 20 law enforcement officers from five agencies there, said Grant County Sheriff Public Information Officer Kyle Foreman.
“The Grant County Sheriff’s Office does not engage in site security measures such as searches of vehicles, or vehicle or concertgoer security screenings,” Foreman wrote in an email.
But, Rydeen said the day of the shooting, it was chaotic and scary and few are claiming responsibility.
The Grant County Sheriff’s Office said this is a private venue and it isn’t in charge. The venue said its security team is in charge. The security team said Live Nation is in charge. It’s a wheel.
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to make choices about the venues and crowds they enter and keep themselves safe, said Chris Loftis, Communications Director for the Washington State Patrol.
“The terrorists have already won if you’re afraid, if you’re terrorized,” he said. “We have to rely on our systems, our law enforcement … But we have to rely on ourselves as well. That feeling with the hair on the back of your neck: are you in a safe spot or not a safe spot? Do you need to make a change? Do you need to get out?”
Live Nation contracts with CrowdRX for medical services, a large-scale mobile medical provider that pulls in huge semi-trailers to venues — basically mobile clinics. CrowdRX employs emergency physicians and The Gorge also contracts with airlift companies, to quickly move injured or sick people that need more serious care.
“We are incredibly proud of the bravery and professionalism demonstrated by our first responders and event medical teams who provided emergency medical services to those in need,” a spokesperson for CrowdRX wrote in an email.
People who are in too bad of shape for the on-site team, and not critical enough for a helicopter, go to Quincy Valley Medical Center’s six-bed emergency department. That’s “not a short trip” — about a 20-minute ride down the road, said Glenda Bishop, CEO of Quincy Valley. Often in the past, once concertgoers find themselves at the hospital they can’t find a way back to the venue with their friends, she said.
Still, things have improved for her hospital since Live Nation began contracting with medical service providers and the airlifting services several years ago, she said.
“Live Nation has made considerable progress that has relieved a lot of the pressure on our medical service,” Bishop said. “We will always see increased volumes in the summer, and we expect that. But it’s manageable. The calendar, it’s released publicly. We can anticipate the needs. It’s a marked improvement that we’re grateful for.”
Tax revenue for the Gorge Amphitheatre brought in about $4.6 million in state and local taxes to Grant County, about 10 years ago — that’s the last time an economic study on the Gorge’s impact was conducted, said Brant Mayo, executive director of Grant County Economic Development Council.
In a dusty, sage-studded county, where server farms rule and where Moses Lake is the largest town, the amphitheatre brings in a lot of money to gas stations, hotels and restaurants, too. More than 400,000 people went to the Gorge in 2013, but the venue has grown since then.
“The Gorge is a huge economic driver for our county, they’re a great partner [Live Nation], it’s a huge asset to our area,” Mayo said.
Senator Warnick said at the beginning she wasn’t sure the venue would take hold.
“There was a new hotel built in George, a new one in Quincy,” she said. “But the expenses have been higher not only for law enforcement, but for our medical community — the small hospital has been just overrun with people that have had issues with heat or overdose and that sort of thing.”
WSP’s Chris Loftis said we’re living in a more violent society these days. More security, hardened security will be needed at junior high school football games and even school plays, he said.
“We’re living in a more conflicted society, we’re living in a society where conflict and the threat of violence is more expected,” he said. “Think of your own lifetime, things that you used to be able to walk up to, think of the airport gate. I’m afraid that we’re going to be seeing more and more of that hardening.”
Loftis said to be viable, the venue has to be safe and people have to feel OK about coming back. But, Loftis said, it’s ultimately up to the individual, or family, to make decisions on crowds to be a part of or venues to visit. Consumers might want to closely monitor how safe they feel and how much security is present in a particular venue.
“School shootings are something that has become more and more regular in our lives,” he said. “With the regularity of that risk, will come a regularity of precaution.”
With hundreds of thousands of concertgoers at the Gorge every summer season, Senator Warnick said: “Things are going to happen, because people are not taking responsibility for their own actions.”
She said her daughter goes sometimes and then sends pictures afterward.
“You know, I’m a mom,” Warnick said. “I want to make sure my children and grandchildren are safe.”
When pressed if she would go or if she would like her family to go, Warnick said it depends on the players.
“I went to a Beach Boys concert, and Willie Nelson. Some [concerts] are more apt to have irresponsible behavior than others,” she said. “I think there are so many people, and it’s such a remote area — they’re doing everything they can to make it safe.”
Angelo, from Kennewick, said he plans to take his 11-year-old son to Dead & Company in just about a week for the pre-teen’s first Gorge concert.
“I don’t think you can live in fear,” he said. “You could go to the grocery store and there could be a shooting. Or you could walk outside your front door. The fact that it was up there, with a mass amount of people, is concerning.”
For their part, Rydeen said they lost their mother to stage-4 cancer. Then it was the pandemic. They got really depressed. After all that, electronic dance music or EDM events at the Gorge helped them heal, they say.
“There is always going to be a possibility of a shooting,” they say. “And I don’t want to live in fear and be afraid of going back to a place that I find so special and hold so dearly to my heart, because of one terrible human being.”
The people who go to the Gorge form a unique and, usually, a respectful community, Rydeen said.