Naked City

SXSW Counterfeit Bust

On May 2, the Austin Police Dept. charged five people in connection with the production and sale of counterfeit South by Southwest Music Festival wristbands during last March's event. According to Detective Andrew Perkel and Howard Williams, head of APD's high tech/financial-crimes unit, Marc Ridgway printed the wristbands in cooperation with Chad Holt; and Jessie Miller Jr., Jonathan James, and Vu Minh Nguyen sold and distributed the wristbands at a steep discount from the Festival's $115 price. Police believe some counterfeits were also sold on eBay. The men face felony charges of forgery, trademark counterfeiting, and engaging in organized crime and could receive two to 20 years in prison. Police said the men were friends, three of them members of a band called Frunttbutt. As of press time, four of the men were in custody, but Jonathan James remained at large.

Festival organizers and police recovered about 275 fake wristbands but believe a total of 4,500 were printed by Ridgway at Aztec Custom Printing, where he was a former employee. (Police say Aztec was unaware of the counterfeiting and has cooperated fully with the investigation.) How many wristbands were illegally sold or distributed is uncertain, but Williams said the 4,500 wristbands represented potential sales of $500,000.

Chronicle Editor Louis Black, a founding partner of SXSW, noted that the counterfeiting was the first major incident of its kind in the festival's 17-year history. "It's difficult to estimate the precise financial impact of the counterfeiting," Black said. "At SXSW we try to employ 30 people with benefits year-round, and with the downturn in the economy during the last two years, senior staff have taken salary cuts, and we've had to cut a couple of positions. So when people steal from the Festival, they're not stealing from visiting New Yorkers or supposedly rich Festival sponsors. They're stealing from local people with jobs in Austin."

According to Williams, workers at Festival venues heard rumors of numerous counterfeit wristbands, found a few, and then confiscated many at various venues on the last night of the festival. "We have reason to believe that the same people may have done this on a smaller scale last year," said Williams. He declined to discuss the details of the case against the alleged counterfeiters. "They were very good counterfeits," he added, "but once you knew what to look for, they were readily identifiable." Black said SXSW will continue to work with the police on methods to prevent similar incidents in future years.

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