This place seems ridiculous
State Police troopers James Custer (left) and James Garlick block access as the Fayette County Drug Task Force, along with assistance from the state police, raided the Church of Universal Love and Music on Saturday. (John F. Brothers/Herald-Standard)
BULLSKIN TWP. - In what some officials were calling one of the most significant drug busts in Fayette County history, four teams of law enforcement officers raided the Church of Universal Love and Music in Bullskin Township Saturday.
During a weekend event dubbed "Funk Fest" at the eccentric and eclectic church, multiple units from the Fayette County Drug Task Force raided the compound, sending shocked parishioners literally running from the grounds.
"At this point, we have confiscated a large amount of contraband and made multiple arrests," Fayette County District Attorney Nancy D. Vernon said Saturday night, as multiple police vans loaded with suspects arrived at the Uniontown Police Department shortly before 10 p.m. "There have been at least 20 arrests made and we have multiple truck loads of confiscated drugs and paraphernalia."
During the raid at the church on Bear Rocks Run Road in Acme, Vernon said that officers discovered "pounds and pounds of hallucinogenic mushrooms, tons of marijuana and more than 1,000 smoking devices." She said it will take time for officers to make an accurate inventory of the confiscated items. Officers had to attach tow-behind trailers to police cruisers to remove the contraband. She said four separate "head shops" at the church where drugs and drug paraphernalia were being sold were also raided.
Additionally, Vernon said the 36 officers who conducted the raid found prescription medication being used illegally, more than $5,000 cash and other illegal drugs.
Ironically, one of the concert headliners during the weekend festivities is a band called DRUGS, who feature the song "Strung Out."
Vernon said that law enforcement officials from around the county, including task force members from Uniontown and Connellsville, as well as the state police vice unit and the Fayette County Sheriff's Department, participated in the raid. Fayette EMS Tactical Medics and the Connellsville Auxiliary police assisted at the scene.
Task Force Detective Ryan Reese said the raid began at 5 p.m. as officers executed multiple search warrants at the church.
Vernon said the raid was the result of an ongoing investigation during which undercover officers made multiple drug purchases.
According to Vernon, undercover officers infiltrated services at the church in May and July.
She said that officers discovered concert vendors at the site selling drugs and drug paraphernalia.
During undercover operations at the site, Vernon said officers purchased acid and other illegal drugs and found vendors selling everything from marijuana-laced brownies to "Whippet balloons" which are filled with nitrous oxide and then inhaled.
Earlier this year, Willie Pritts, the church's founder, settled a property dispute with the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board on the condition that drugs were not permitted on the premises and underage drinking was to be forbidden.
Following the settlement, the church resumed holding musical church services on Pritts' property after more than a three-year hiatus.
The hiatus came after the board denied Pritts' requests to either rezone his land to hold concerts or grant him a special exception to do so.
After years of squabbling with the board, Pritts and the church filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county, the board and other officials. Amongst his claims were that the county infringed upon his right to religious freedom when it denied his requests.
The case was settled in March, and while the settlement agreement does not address the sincerity of the church's beliefs, it did give Pritts $75,000 and permission to have six weekend, and six Saturday concerts on the church's land, which includes this weekends "Funk Fest."
Conditions in the settlement also included limiting church attendance to 1,500 people for any given event.
Vernon said it was not immediately clear how many people were in attendance during Saturday's raid.
"I am very proud of the task force and the officers who participated in this raid because they risked going into a situation where they didn't know if there would be 300 people or 1,500 people," Vernon said. "Now, I hope to present this raid to the county to help take the steps necessary to halt this church's operation."
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