The AU drug raid has snared a prominent anti-gun activist.
Ben Gelt is not a typical college sophomore.
In 1999, just days after the deadly rampage at Columbine High School, Gelt made national headlines when he single-handedly organized a human chain around downtown Denver, his hometown, in the hope of blocking a National Rifle Association (NRA) convention there. He was just 18.
A few weeks later, Gelt went to the White House for a meeting with President Bill Clinton about youth violence. By that time, he had appeared on almost every major TV news show in the country, not to mention Politically Incorrect. The son of a politically prominent family in Denver, Gelt a short time later founded SAFE Students, an anti-gun group advocating safer high school and college campuses.
"Our main goal is to show the state, the country, and possibly--who knows--the world, that we can't tolerate gun violence anymore," Gelt told the Associated Press at the time.
After graduating from high school, Gelt delayed entering college for a year, opting to travel the country with rock stars and youth groups to push the issue of gun control. He was a frequent face on Capitol Hill, to the point that he was once featured on the front page of the Washington Post sparring over gun-control issues with Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
Gelt's career as a youth-activist star didn't stop when he enrolled at American University (AU) almost two years ago. Last year, he contributed to a Bush administration report on youth violence. And in February, Gelt, 20, joined Secretary of State Colin Powell at a so-called youth summit organized by Rock the Vote and MTV.
Less than a week later, Gelt would add yet another distinction to his ambitious resume: alleged drug dealer.
On Feb. 22, more than two dozen officers from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the Drug Enforcement Agency stormed the dorms at AU in a late-night raid that had been in the works for nearly two months.
What they found was a drug-sniffing dog's dream: an unspecified amount of marijuana, opium and other narcotics, tabs of Ecstasy, drug paraphernalia, and more than $15,000 in cash. By the end of the night, cops had arrested Gelt and five other students and had seized a car allegedly involved in what they deemed a significant drug operation.
The sting came as no surprise to the AU administration. According to university officials, the school had been tipped off to potential drug activity in the dorms last fall. In December, administrators requested help from local police, who then launched an undercover investigation.
The drug bust flashed as breaking news on all four local TV stations, with one police spokesperson telling reporters that the MPD had arrested the suspected "masterminds" behind a major drug ring serving not only AU but also all the other major universities in the District.
Gelt was charged with distribution of opium, a felony in the District, and spent the night in jail. Later, however, prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office changed the charge against Gelt to possession with intent to distribute marijuana, a misdemeanor. Because the threshold for a felony in the District is a half-pound of marijuana or more, it appears that Gelt, who pleaded innocent to the charges, was caught with a fairly small amount of the drug. His trial is set for April 19.
Prosecutors are less clear on why the opium charge against Gelt didn't stick. Channing Phillips, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office, says that prosecutors file charges on what they believe they can prove at the time an individual is arraigned. But Phillips notes that federal law requires a grand jury to investigate possible felony cases, and though he will not comment on whether a jury has been convened to investigate the AU drug bust, he says that further charges against Gelt could be pending.
"This investigation is very much ongoing," Phillips says.
Gelt's lawyer, Michael Valerio, declined to comment on the case.
On the basis of rumor and speculation alone, the drug bust and subsequent arrests of students have transformed AU's usually stodgy upper Northwest campus into a setting right out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
Since the raid, the campus has been rife with rumors about everything from secret surveillance by students to undercover cops infiltrating the dorms in a manner not unlike that fictionalized on the TV show 21 Jump Street.
On the fifth floor of Anderson Hall, where Gelt was arrested, a lone flier decorates the hallway, where bulletin boards have been ripped from the walls and doors. "Want more truthful info? Us, too," the sign reads. The only contact information is an e-mail address: WarOnStudents@yahoo.com.
Perhaps the most mysterious thing about the bust is Gelt himself. On a campus filled with students dreaming of political office and careers in international affairs, surprisingly few people claim to know Gelt, and virtually no one admits to awareness of his rise as a gun-control activist. Though he has been quoted by nearly every major newspaper in the country, Gelt's name doesn't come up in a search of AU's student newspaper, the Eagle, and students involved in campus politics say they had never heard of Gelt until his arrest last month.
"I didn't really know him," says Lynda Lyons, an AU sophomore who works as a desk receptionist at Anderson Hall. "A friend of mine lived with him for about a month last semester, so I knew who he was. But he never struck me as anything special. I never saw him surrounded by dozens of people or anything."
Off campus, though, Gelt wasn't just some other guy. At least one group noticed his arrest: the NRA, which made a small mention of Gelt's troubles in a recent press release noting, if convicted, he wouldn't be able to buy a gun anytime soon.
Although Gelt did not respond to interview requests, his parents, who are footing the bill for their son's defense, are talking. His mother, Susan Barnes-Gelt, is a member of the Denver City Council and has been mentioned as a potential mayoral candidate. Howard Gelt, Ben Gelt's father, is a former chair of the state Democratic Party in Colorado. Both say their son is a good kid, not the brains behind a major drug operation.
"It's ridiculous to think that Ben was a mastermind of anything like this," says Barnes-Gelt. "He's young, and he's stupid, and he's learning a terrible lesson right now, and that's it."
In the weeks since the bust, Ben Gelt, who has been banned from AU's residence halls, has quietly moved off campus. He continues to attend classes, though an AU spokesperson says the university is weighing disciplinary action against all five students, pending the outcome of the police and U.S. Attorney's Office investigations.
But Barnes-Gelt says the greatest damage to her son isn't necessarily the threat of being thrown out of AU, but rather having his reputation as a prominent youth activist thrown in the mud by local police.
"It's the most frustrating thing about this," she says. CP