ROLLING THROUGH BABYLON (PART ONE)
Ed LeBrun was the heart and soul of Greensboro’s surging supersonic rave scene before three young men, all of whom knew LeBrun and attended his events, murdered him in the early morning hours of August 16, 1999.
When Babylon opened downtown in 1994, LeBrun’s frenzied First Friday parties brought down the House, booking world renowned DJs “” Diesel Boy, Andy Hughes, Bad Boy Bill, Frankie Bones, Ani (On-E), Bobble, Derrick Carter, Keoki, Sven VÃ¤th “” who held thousands of hyperactive, jumped-up, sweaty club kids from as far away as Florida and New York in a thrall.
Besides promoting First Friday parties, LeBrun owned Spins Records & Tapes, the Triad’s dance music roundhouse. LeBrun was an essential conduit for ravers around the world, thanked on dozens of seminal dance music releases. William Shea was a manager there, and after Lebrun’s death he posted this on a message board: “No, Ed did not start the scene in NC. What he did do was take it to the next level. Folks from all over the east coast, New York, Florida, Washington, Georgia, you name it.
Literally thousands of people at those events, some driving hundreds of miles to pack into a dirty ass warehouse to see a few local DJ’s. It was absolute madness, the coolest thing I had ever experienced. From there to Babylon and First Friday, one of the longest running monthlies on the east coast. Longer than Buzz, Fever, NASA. DJ’s would cancel gigs to come to Babylon because they loved playing there. They could count on good sound, good lights, a good crowd.”
Chris Kennedy worked at Spins and remembers, “It was the go-to spot for upcoming rave flyers, mix tapes, rare vinyl and many other things that reflected our culture. Mix CDs that were legal and released under a label were rare, simply because many of the records used samples that were unlicensed. This made the culture feel different and unique because having tunes to listen to outside of the party was next to impossible unless you went to Spins. He sold the legit Technics 1200s (record turntables) and did a great deal of special ordering for a lot of the DJs: Music that was next to impossible to come by any other way than knowing someone who had access to the many different independent record companies, most of them overseas.”
“Suddenly, parties evolved from the first Friday of a month to a complex lifestyle you’d affix your relationships, career and clothes around. And when any of these elements began to chafe, well, then you simply removed them,” said James Counts, a flyer designer for the monthly parties.
At 2:30 a.m. doors would open for underage ravers. Parents would drop their teens off at the club, presumably unaware of the goings on inside. Ed’s friend Shaun O’Connor pinpoints when things turned sour. “This younger crowd came in like ’97, ’98. You had a bad bunch of people going around that would come in from out of town, make themselves look real cool and sell a bunch of fake drugs. They’d be there for like an hour, sell all their drugs and leave. You’d never see them again.
Greensboro tightened up after that and became more cliquish.”
Soft spoken with a shy smile, LeBrun began promoting electronic music nights in the late 1980s at Kilroys before expanding into larger, more exotic locales that only a select few were privy to. “We had to meet someone in the UNCG parking lot on Aycock in order to get a flyer with the directions.” That’s how Kennedy rolled, “You only really saw most of these people at parties because we all came from different walks of life and from different areas in and around the state. It was like leading a second, secret life that you really cared a lot more about than work or school. Ed managed to rent the [train] Depot in downtown Greensboro on a few occasions. For one of the last great Depot parties, Ed brought in some talent, Fred Gianelli of the Psychic TV crew, to completely blow our minds. Before they clamped down on security it was a miniature techno utopia for us.”
LeBrun’s First Friday jams elevated Babylon, the only nightclub downtown in the mid-1990s, to mythic status.
“We never had any fights, no guns, people weren’t getting stabbed “” it was all about peace and love, unity and respect. And yeah, we did drugs. We did a lot of drugs. But Ed was a pioneer, not in facilitating drug use, but a pioneer in bringing music that most of the modern world didn’t know about and sharing it with everyone. It changed people’s lives,” said Mike Marion, a bartender at Babylon.
DJ Mr. Bill spun Progressive House at Babylon and remembers, “We had the biggest scene on the east coast, bigger than D.C., we were bigger than Atlanta. Between Baltimore and Orlando. Greensboro was the spot.”
Ground zero for ecstasy, Babylon was a hotbed of substance abuse. Young people huddled along the hallways and cuddled up in the more mellow upstairs lounge. A male student who frequented First Fridays revealed to the Duke Chronicle why he was the archetypal Babylonian, “The music is a mirror of your roll. Even if you aren’t rolling, it’s a mirror of what you feel like. When the music’s pumping, you feel like you’re gonna fly. You stop, and breathe and then it builds. If it kept going without a pause, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. I go and have guys massage me and girls kiss me at the same time. You completely leave the rest of the world. On the dance floor you focus on people’s eyes. I feel like I can see through them. I don’t know what people’s lives are like outside of the rave. But inside, everyone’s always happy.”
It was a good four years after Babylon opened that police learned to identify ecstasy. One fan and friend of Lebrun’s remembered the club scene: “We had a good time for a long time getting away with doing a lot of things we should never have been getting away with doing, and we did it right under the nose of the police department.”
DJ Mr. Bill remembers, “I was out of town, but my girlfriend told me about this the next day “” the staff and the owners one night decided to have fun and locked the front doors. They took turns DJing, the staff was on the floor, some got naked, some didn’t. It was like a party of five, more or less. My girlfriend was dancing butt naked on the little platform under the disco ball. She was like, ‘I’ve got the whole place to myself!’ I’m kicking myself ’cause I missed it. I asked her, ‘What’s that all about?’ ‘Oh, they do that all the time.'” “So all of a sudden 16-year-old Jeremy, who was hanging out with gutter punks and going to Ska shows, meets two people from the Dixie, and Shaun O’Connor, and starts raving his ass off,” said Jeremy Elliot, a patron of the club scene in the ’90s. (The Dixie was a very well-known 100-year old downtown apartment complex that was just bulldozed a couple of months ago.) “They referred to me as a rave baby. Because we were under 18 we had to wait until 2:30 to get into Babylon. But they would go until 5 or 7 a.m. sometimes, unleashing all these kids with big pants and huge pupils on Elm Street as the straights were trying to go to work.”
But there was an added element of danger for Ed LeBrun: His proclivity for inviting straight, high schoolaged boys to his home for a lesson in drinks and drugs, which would often lead to sex.
LeBrun’s friend Shaun O’Connor recalls a Spins employee warning, “‘One day one of these guys is going to kill you.’ And Ed, shrugging it off as Ed normally did with things, ‘Eh, yeah, that’s not gonna happen.'” In 1999, Shaun O’Connor would join LeBrun for early dinners at Fuddruckers on Wendover where Babylon bartender Mike Marion was a manager. After one of those meals, Mike joked with busboy and recent Ragsdale High grad Zachary Grimes about being one of “Ed’s boys.” Grimes assumed, wrongly, that his boss found out about the sexual encounter he’d had with LeBrun two years earlier. Mike Marion recalls that exchange, “Yes. It happened. I said it. It was rumored that Ed had encounters with young men. So in that conversation where we were talking about Ed and his parties. I told Zac that I had recently been in his home. Zac nodded his head and stated that he had been there before and ‘hung out’ with Ed in the past. I gave him that wink and a smile saying, ‘Oooohhhh, you’re one of Ed’s boys.’ I didn’t dwell on it or even think about it after that. I didn’t realize that it bothered him at all. He didn’t let it show. He just smiled and said, ‘Naw man, nothin’ like that.’ And that was the end of it.
“(Zachary) was cool, but there was something about him that struck me as wrong. We got into this conversation … he liked to break into cars and steal stereos. It didn’t matter what a fun guy he was to be around, he had a darker side.”
One evening in May of 1999, Grimes spotted LeBrun topping burgers with a friend at Fuddruckers. Upon seeing this, he ducked into the kitchen to share an intimate detail with a new hire at Fuddruckers. He told his co-worker about how, six months shy of his 17th birthday, he found himself in Ed’s bed after inhaling whippets and taking ecstasy for the first time, and that he’d been molested. He’d expressed a desire to assault and rob LeBrun with others at Fuddruckers, but this was Robert Reid he was speaking to. This randy, disarmingly handsome 18-year-old live wire possessed a steely gaze that barely masked an intense rage bubbling below the surface, no doubt a result of the frightening sexual abuse he endured as a young child. (Reid was adopted after being taken from his home at the age of seven following serious sexual abuse. This according to his adopted father’s statement to the judge to avoid the death penalty.)
For next three months Grimes and Reid schemed with Zac’s roommate, Fuddruckers alumni Jonathon Coffey, to discuss how they would enrich themselves at the expense of the music promoter. A Babylon habituÃ© with deep set dark eyes that reflected a Buster Keaton-like cluelessness, 19-year old Coffey was aware of Ed’s predilections. Shaun O’Connor recalls the effect Jonathan Coffey had on both sexes at the club, “Oh yeah, he was the heartthrob.”
The three Fuddruckerteers bonded over those late night talk sessions where Reid revealed himself to be a Ninja warrior, the embodiment of Joe Musashi from the arcade game ‘Shinobi.’ He boasted about being in a Chicago gang and leaving more than ten corpses on the ground. He even claimed to have clubbed his father to death when he was 11 years old because the old man reared back to punch him.
On the night of August 15, 1999, Grimes turned to Jonathan Coffey and asked, “Hey, you want to put this plan in motion?” Coffey did. Back at the apartment with Reid in tow, they filled a bag with a taser, hammers, screwdrivers and a crowbar. Grimes produced a syringe he’d filled with glass cleaner. Before heading out, everyone laughed at designated boy-bait Reid as he pranced and preened in his tight green shirt and baggy jeans meant to entice their intended. They took two cars and parked close to LeBrun’s newly built brick manse on Mayflower Drive in Sunset Hills.
Reid stepped up to the small, enclosed porch and rang the doorbell. When he explained his car had broken down and asked to come in to use the phone, LeBrun, speaking through the closed door, recommended a nearby curb market instead. Reid returned to his waiting accomplices to suggest they try again later.
The group then pulled behind a minimart on Tate Street to smoke menthols and wash down some “Mark McGwire pills” (presumed to be performance enhancing steroids) Zac had in the vehicle.
Reid worried his co-conspirators were getting squishy.
“Are we going to do this or not?” Coffey agreed to approach to the door, but only if the others were directly behind him. They outfitted themselves with rubber gloves and trash bags stolen from work, Reid also had a boot sheathed blade, a 6-foot long black shoestring and a dagger.
They rolled alongside the curb quietly, lights off, parking just beyond the driveway.
Grimes slipped panty hose over his face. Reid didn’t have a mask. Coffey couldn’t wear a disguise. His face was his in.
Answering the bell, LeBrun likely peered from the narrow windows adjacent to the entrance to see a young man he knew from the club with a brooding boy band look and plump lips. With the chain latched, he cracked open the door. Coffey threw his shoulder against it, tearing off the latch. They struggled, but the teenager was much stronger than his small-framed opponent. Within seconds, Grimes and Reid stormed through the entrance. Recognizing Robert Reid from their earlier encounter, Ed cried out, “Oh no!”
When LeBrun didn’t show up for work on August 16, 1999 his employees knew right away something was amiss. Spins employee Chris Kennedy explained, “No matter what happened over the weekend, Ed religiously came in to Spins on Mondays to do all his orders for records, mainly the vinyl for the DJ’s. When he didn’t show up to do it, that is what prompted William Shea to go by his house to check on him.”
“I, along with my boyfriend, found Ed the day he died. I found him face down on the floor in his bedroom, blood soaked into the carpet all around him. I can still vividly recall staring at his brilliant white socks while I straddled his dead body to call the police,” wrote Andy Guthrie, Shea’s girlfriend at that time, in an online forum. !
(Part two of this story will be printed in next week’s edition of YES! Weekly.)