September 26, 2016

SLC Punk

Former LDS Missionary unveils Salt Lake City’s drug trade. A local musicians’ story of Sex, Drugs and…..Mormonism?

SLC Punk Movie PosterTom Bennett isn’t exactly a punk rocker, but he carries the persona. He brands tattoos and wears rocker’s apparel with a disheveled hair style. From Tom’s appearance one might never guess he was once a Mormon Missionary. Tom served two years on a Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah– bearing his testimony and teaching lessons, Tom shared his passion for his LDS faith to all who would listen. The same outgoing and passionate demeanor that made Tom a successful missionary, later made him a lot of money as a drug dealer. But Tom’s experiment with selling drugs ended less successfully than his LDS Mission.

Today Tom is on probation. However, he hasn’t let his run in with the law affect his passion for life and music. Bennett is the frontman for a popular Salt Lake City electro band, “Sex on the Run”. The band brings the energy and attitude of a punk rock band, but to the tune of infectious electro dance music. Similar to the characters in 1998 independent film SLC Punk, Tom is a key player in Salt Lake’s music scene, and also like the film’s characters, he has lived in city’s drug world.

According to Tom, there is a side to Salt Lake City that a majority of Utahns have no idea even exists. He speaks of a side where drugs are as available as hamburgers, music is played at the loudest volume bearable and every night there is a drove of people starved to party. This society thrives long after rational Utahns go to sleep. Tom has toured the country playing music in numerous bands and has passed through some of the U.S.’s largest cities. But Bennett says the Salt Lake party scene is more than just underrated, it’s wilder than most cities.

“If you go to work during the day, you see a side of Salt Lake that’s very real, but if you go out after dark, you can see a side that is a totally different place,” said Bennett. “There are a lot of drugs and there’s a lot of clubs. So whether you want to just go out for a drink or you want to see the wildest stuff you can imagine, it’s all here in this 20-block area.”

Tom’s drug use didn’t start in Utah. As a teenager living near Atlanta, he experimented with drugs until he had a near death experience. The ordeal influenced him to embark on a search for truth and spirituality. Tom turned his live around 180 degrees and converted to the LDS Church. He served a full mission in Utah and afterwards returned to Atlanta. Tom said he learned a lot on his mission, but his continuous truth seeking eventually drove him to stray from the church and move onto new endeavors again on the opposite end of the religious spectrum.

Sex on the Run

“I’ve read the 26 discourses. When I was on my mission I would go from ward to ward giving talks. I researched it a lot. It’s gotten to the point where ‘the more you know, the more you ask questions,’ so I’ve just stopped asking and I don’t believe in anything at all” said Tom, who still studies religions including various forms of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. “I met a lot of polygamist families on my mission, which is different that the mainstream Mormon culture, but it’s not different from the early Mormon culture and I found the discrepancy from early Mormonism to what is has become, to be unsettling.”

As a missionary, Tom probably never imagined he’d be back in Utah under the circumstances he’s under now: probation. After returning to Utah, Tom became a DJ at various SLC clubs and he saw the drug trade right in front of him. He felt that he was missing out on easy money. “People always asked me for drugs, I usually had them, so I figured: sell them,” said Tom. Just one month after selling drugs in Salt Lake nightclubs, Tom was caught at a UTA TRAX stop with cocaine and $800. Tom said, “I didn’t want any trouble with the officer. He asked me if I had drugs and I told him. I’m now in a program called Drug Court through Salt Lake County.”

Now sober, Tom was willing to take us into Salt Lake City’s hidden drug world to uncover the process of taking drugs from outside of the Country and putting them into the hands of local drug dealers. According to the DEA website, the Drug Enforcement Administration, made 184 drug related arrests in 2008, dropping from 258 in 2005. Also, police seized 18.2 kgs of cocaine in 2007, which has slightly risen from 17 kgs since 2001. So are drugs less prominent in Utah, or are they just harder for law enforcement officers to find? Tom took us to a place where we could see for ourselves.

I was surprised when Tom directed me to park on Regent Street in downtown Salt Lake City –no, not West Valley or Rose Park, places that many Utahans might first suspect, but a location just 20 yards from main street. Tom began pointing saying “sometimes here, there, over there…” as he identified locations where drug exchanges took place. “It was all ran by the Mexican Cartel,” Tom said, “I never saw them.” The Mexican Cartel smuggles drugs into the country and then sells them to dealers in large U.S. cities. The more the seller buys, the cheaper the price. Tom said if he bought enough, he could easily double his money in a matter of hours after he bought the drugs. But it was the process of buying those drugs from the Mexican Cartel that most fascinated me.

We veered off of 200 South, entering into a caved alley. Faint red lights barely illuminated the damp alley that appeared more like an underground tunnel. Tom pointed to a hidden area behind a dumpster and an oil barrel where he says he would leave $1,000 for the Mexican Cartel. “You’d just leave it here, wait a few hours and then you’d get a text message that told you to go pick up your drugs. You’d go back and they’d be wrapped in blue cellophane.”

Tom shows us a hidden alley where many of Utah's drug trades happen.

From Central and South America, to Salt Lake City, and now in Tom’s hands, the entire drug process operated on the honor code. I found it remarkably ironic to learn how trustworthy and reliable drug dealers are, but as I listened to Tom, I realized this was a form of organized crime, a system that can only operate on such high levels of trust. Following this design, Tom made a few thousand dollars in a matter of hours. He said he only wanted to play a small part of the picture, just enough to buy equipment for his band. But once he got going, Tom was often pressured in becoming a larger player in the drug trade. “I sometimes wonder how much money I could have made, but it was scary all the time,” said Tom. “I was never the gangster type, I never wanted to carry any weapons, but it could have easily gotten that way if I had done what other people had wanted me to do.”

Tom noticed the more he sold the more he began using and the more his health suffered. “My roommates pounded on my door one day and said, ‘you know, you’ve been in here for a month.’ They brought me out and I weighed like 97 lbs. They brought me to the hospital and were like, ‘you’re going to die if you carry on like this,” said Tom. “That’s why I’m glad I got arrested. Now my sobriety is forced, it’s better.”

As we left the alley, Tom says he was able to give up all the money, because the risks were just too high, risks of legal ramifications and of the deathly consequences. Tom stated bluntly, “it kills you.” He continued telling stories of his travels, music and expressing his love for Salt Lake City.

At age 27, Tom says a lot of musicians seem to die at his age, so he feels lucky to be in rehab. He will continue with his music, playing in Sex on the Run and DJing at local clubs. He doesn’t recommend selling drugs, but encourages people to “pursue what makes you happy, even if you make mistakes along the way.” He recognizes mistakes, but negates regrets in the belief that all of life’s experiences are valuable, good and bad.