From Sundance to the slammer: FSU founder-turned-filmmaker indicted on extortion charges by FBI

Elgin James at Sundance in June, 2009. Photo via

Last month Elgin Nathan James workshopped two Hollywood scripts at Sundance. On Monday, he was in jail, indicted by the Feds on extortion charges that carry up to 20 years in prison. Late last night we heard through the grapevine that he was out on bail. Such is the life of Boston's most notorious hardcore frontman turned gang leader turned filmaker.

The headline on the FBI's press release -- which is worth reading in full -- proclaimed "Alleged Founder of Street Gang that Uses Violence to Control Hardcore Punk Rock Music Scene Arrested on Extortion Charge for Shaking Down $5,000 from Recording Artist for Protection." It's an unusually detailed document, describing a chain of events that begins with an incident on the Warped Tour in the summer of 2005 and concludes with a sting operation in February of 2006, in which a member of an unnamed band (whom the Chicago media have identified as the punk band Mest) allegedly handed Elgin $5k (in cash provided by the Feds) while under FBI surveillance. Here's a few excerpts:

On Oct. 7, 2005, the victim's band was in the Boston area and, as the victim was walking to the tour bus before the show, six unknown men approached the victim, pushed the victim to the ground, and repeatedly kicked and punched the victim, while a security guard simply watched. The victim and an individual who came to the victim's aid were both injured and the victim's band did not perform that night, fearing further attack, the charges allege.

In late October or early November 2005, James allegedly telephoned the victim while the victim was in Mokena, Ill., and the victim recorded a portion of the call. After identifying himself, James allegedly told the victim that James could resolve the victim's dispute with FSU if the victim made a payment to James; otherwise, FSU members would continue to attack the victim as the victim traveled throughout the country. James allegedly told the victim that the victim could do "the right thing" and be "on the right team" by making a $5,000 "donation" to FSU to be used for bail for an associate of James and to buy Christmas gifts for the associate's children. The victim agreed to think about James' proposal and call James but the victim did not do so, and after James called him again, the victim did not return James call ...

On Dec. 20, 2005, the victim placed a call to James and agreed to pay the $5,000 so the victim and his band would not have to worry about being harmed during their upcoming tour. After the victim returned from a tour in Japan in January 2006, the victim and James exchanged several messages and had a series of recorded conversations over the next several weeks about how to best facilitate payment of the $5,000 to James. By early February, James allegedly left the victim a message expressing irritation that the payment was not yet made and implied further harm if a payment was not made soon. When they talked again later that day and a week later, James allegedly made assurances to the victim that he would be safe during shows in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Arizona while they were working out the payment logistics. Eventually, the victim and James agreed that they would meet in person outside a venue in southern California where the victim's band was scheduled to play on Feb. 25, 2006 ...

On Feb. 25, 2006, under FBI surveillance, the victim met James outside the southern California club and handed James an envelope containing $5,000, which the FBI had provided to the victim, according to the charges. Since then, neither the victim nor any of the victim's friends have had any encounter with FSU members or further contact with James. Under federal law, the charge filed against James is attempted extortion, rather than extortion, because the victim was cooperating with law enforcement at the time of the payment.

Although the document is full of details, it provokes almost as many questions as it answers. Chief among them, there's the question of why the Feds waited over three years before handing down the indictment. Also: how does the FBI not know how old Elgin is? (They guesstimate he's in "his mid-to-late 30s.) And, if the complaitant identified in the FBI's indictment does turn out to be a member of Mest, there's an odd postscript to the story -- more on that in a minute.

In Boston, Elgin James is known for two parallel careers: as a musician, he took over as frontman for the seminal hardcore band Wrecking Crew and went on to found groups including 454 Big Block, the World Is My Fuse, the Jaded Salingers, and Righteous Jams, as well as a punk/folk solo project that's worth laying hands on if you can still find it. He was also the leader of FSU, a gang that needs no introduction for anyone who's frequented Boston hardcore shows at any time over the past 15 years. Elgin's tale (raised on a farm, brain damage, homelessness, the founding of FSU to run skinheads out of the hardcore scene, the gang's eventual expansion into a self-described Robin Hood-like criminal enterprise) has been well-documented: first in documentary-film form on the notorious Boston Beatdown DVDs, which became front-page news; later in a documentary that aired on National Geographic; and finally in a high-profile Rolling Stone feature entitled "Punk Rock Fight Club."

By the time Rolling Stone profiled Elgin, he'd moved to LA and by all accounts had cleaned up his act -- and had already attracted Hollywood's attention. Two weeks ago, Elgin was profiled by Movieline after completing a series of wowkshops at Sundance Labs's Screenwriters' Institute, a prestigious program for emerging filmmakers that has nurtured the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. He'd been invited there by the founding director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program, Michelle Satter, who nurtured the early careers of filmmakers including Alison Anders, Miranda July, and Julie Taymor. Elgin was among only a dozen filmmakers  accepted to the prestigious Directors Lab -- which produced Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs -- and he was there working on a feature called Goodnight Moon. James made a short-film version of Goodnight Moon, starring Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, in 2007, and later sold it to ThinkFilm. The feature version is reportedly in production and will star Alia Shawkat (of Arrested Development, soon to be seen in the Runaways biopic) and Juno Temple (daughter of The Great Rock N Roll Swindle director Julien). Elgin told Movieline he was also working on an as-yet-untitled project based on his own life story: "As far as Michelle [Satter] knew, I was the first person to come there with two projects."

There's great irony here, in that both Sundance and the FBI are interested in Elgin for essentially the same reasons. If James is able to stay out of jail, the FBI may have just added a few decimal places to his eventual Hollywood payday.

Of course, it's not at all clear that Elgin will beat the FBI's charge. However, there's a post-script to the FBI's version of events that may or may not have an effect on the prosecution. The Chicago Tribune's reports that Mest is the group mentioned in the FBI's indictment. A year after the incidents related in the indictment, Mest frontman Anthony Lovato stabbed a man to death in Los Angeles. According to the LA Times, "The Los Angeles County District Attorney declined to file charges against Lovato, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove the killing was not self-defense.

For now, Elgin's perched between two worlds. Will we see him in the big house or on the big screen? Post your thoughts in the comments...

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