CARROLLTON, Ga. - They promised the World's Largest Country Music Festival. Instead, many complain it was the world's largest country music fiasco.
Promoters of the Chattahoochee River Country Music Festival told people they had country music superstar Alan Jackson under contract when they really did not… admitted they promised they had money to pay people when they really did not… and left a lot of Georgians feeling like they really got fooled.
"It's a joke," said Ken Nettles. He insisted it was originally his idea to stage a huge country music festival on the banks of the Chattahoochee at Bouckaert Farms in Fulton County. They brought in two local promoters who claimed they could help pull off the event: Andy Turner and Jason Benson and their company called Celeb-scene.
They talked about attracting at least 120,000 people.
"It was going to be huge," Nettles remembered. "Three-day thing where you don't have to go home. You can spend the night. Whoever seen that in a country music festival?"
Stormy Curtis served as a personal assistant for one of the promoters.
"At first, Alan Jackson was his partner," she said. "That they were going to do his 25th anniversary. Tell everybody! But do not write it down."
But her boss apparently did. In an email providing references to also run the Atlanta Film Studios in Paulding County, Andy Turner wrote, "Celebscene is currently contracted to work with... Alan Jackson in the Chattahoochee River Country Music Festival."
Turner agreed to sit down with FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.
Travis: Did you ever have Alan Jackson signed to perform?
Turner: No, he never was signed.
Travis: This was December 15, 2014. He wasn't under contract then, was he?
Turner: No, we were talking to him.
Travis: But this says currently contracted.
Turner: No, the verbiage there is not accurate.
Andy Turner said he doesn't remember sending that email. And he said the music festival was never Ken Nettles idea. Regardless, Turner and Benson never completed a deal to stage the festival at Bouckaert Farms and Nettles was left behind.
Without big name artists like Alan Jackson, the promoters decided to make the concert free... and promised refunds for any advance tickets.
Months later, what was supposed to be the world's largest country music festival wound up attracting -- by police estimates -- only a few thousand people at the old VFW fairgrounds in Carrollton. What the promoters left behind was thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, angry vendors and now a criminal investigation. But the promoters put the blame squarely on a word that's synonymous with country music festivals - beer.
Co-promoter Jason Benson also agreed to meet with the FOX 5 I-Team.
Benson: At the time we didn't know that people were going to be sneaking alcohol in.
Travis: Basically you're saying that all of these problems stem from the fact that you just didn't sell enough beer at your festival. You really thought the numbers were going to result in being able to pay everybody off and make a profit on this?
Benson: Yeah. Absolutely.
But the promoter's biggest sponsor sued Benson and Turner before the music festival even began calling it an "epic failure." Atlanta Beverage Company paid $300,000 to be the "exclusive official malt beverage and wine sponsor" but then demanded their money back a week before the concert when they realized promised artists like "Miranda Lambert/Carrie Underwood" and Alan Jackson were never signed to perform.
The promoters admit they had no money to pay some of the BBQ contest winners. Some of the bands that did perform never got paid.
And then there was the carnival.
Palmetto Amusements was supposed to be there for 10 days, but pulled out after the second night. They tell police Benson tried to fool them into thinking he'd wired a second payment by showing them bank documents that were actually from the first payment.
Benson also left a debit card to reserve rooms for the artists at the America's Best Value Inn in Carrollton. But when the manager ran the card for the more than $7000 worth of charges, it was declined.
That started a Carrollton police criminal investigation, even though Benson says he'll pay it out of his own pocket once he's certain the bill is accurate.
Both promoters denied stealing any money or committing any crimes.
The GBI became involved now after allegations surfaced that Carroll County commissioner Tommy Lee lobbied the city of Carrollton to provide services for the festival, without disclosing that he had invested as much as $50,000 in the venture.
Commissioner Lee told the FOX 5 I-Team he did not directly or indirectly support the festival financially at all and says he told the GBI the same.
But that's not the answer we eventually got from one of the promoters.
Travis: Is Tommy Lee financially involved in this project?
Benson: Tommy Lee never gave me any money.
Travis: Did Tommy Lee give money to somebody who gave you money?
Benson: Uh, to my understanding, yes he did.
No word on how long the investigation might take.
"If I'm any of the people who's owed money or who've got a contract and didn't get paid, I'd be angry," agreed Andy Turner. "Just like they are."
"Do you think this is the end of your music festival promotion career?" Randy asked Benson.
"Uh, I believe so," Benson answered.