Miami-Dade County

Death of Ultra co-founder Omes leaves much unsettled

Alex Omes, a promoter and founder of the hugely successful Ultra electronic music festival, in 2007.
Alex Omes, a promoter and founder of the hugely successful Ultra electronic music festival, in 2007.

On the day he died, Alex Omes logged onto his Facebook account after midnight and posted a few inspirational messages.

He shared a verse from the Gospel of Mark. He wrote, “You get what you settle for.” And then at 2:47 a.m., the man who helped establish one of the globe’s largest music festivals in downtown Miami posted his final message to the world: “The secret of freedom is courage.”

In a few hours, the burly co-founder and former president of the Ultra Music Festival was scheduled to meet with his attorneys. He was fighting for money and for control of the event and brand, and one last day of preparation and proceedings was ahead before the case went to trial.

But he never showed. After texts and calls to his phone went unanswered for hours, Omes’ older brother rushed to his Biscayne Boulevard loft and found him dead in bed.

Omes’ unexplained death at age 43 left behind grieving friends, a 12-year-old son and fans who flock to Miami every March for a weekend of music and partying. It also threw into limbo a $33 million lawsuit involving an event now hosted on five continents.

“It was a lot he stood to be awarded. And I’m confident he would have won,” said Miami nightlife fixture Carmel Ophir, an old friend of Omes. “As far as his ongoing battles for years with the Ultra crew, I have my own views of that and feelings about that. I think what was done to him was quite tragic.”

On Jan. 12, Omes was supposed to meet his attorney, Aaron Resnick, to prepare for the two-week trial, which was to begin on the 13th. They had spent much of the previous night going over the case, which focused on Omes’ 2010 ouster as Ultra president and the value of his 300 shares — 30 percent — of Ultra Enterprises. Omes and co-founder Russell Faibisch had been locked in a legal battle for more than four years, and they were heading for a showdown.

Omes claimed in court documents his mutinous partners kicked him out of the company during a secret meeting and tried to force him to sell back his stake in Ultra for pennies on the dollar. They responded that he’d become a corporate cancer and competitor, but Omes wanted a judge to return control of half the festival to him.

“Ultra began as a vision and dream but through hard work and dedication became a business reality for Omes,” the festival co-founder stated in his 2012 lawsuit, which refers to Ultra as “one of the highest-grossing music festivals in the world.”

On March 27, the festival will return to Miami as an 18-and-older party with a series of stages and tents, live acts and DJ headliners like Avicii and David Guetta. The biggest acts performed last year on a main stage mounted with a spectacular rig of lights, video screens and pyrotechnics. Over three days, ticket sales alone grossed $18.5 million, according to Miami’s city auditor.

That kind of money was inconceivable when Omes and Faibisch first launched the Ultra brand back in 1998. At the time, Omes was publishing D’VOX, a Miami-centric electronic dance music magazine he had created using his contacts from years as a Miami promoter and bouncer at Cameo on South Beach.

Together, Omes and Faibisch came up with the idea of hatching an electronic music festival on the beach to coincide with the enormously popular Winter Music Conference. The WMC is a week-long industry networking event held every March in Miami Beach. It has drawn the world’s best DJs and producers to seminars and nightclub showcases since 1985. But the WMC and Miami in the late ’90s lacked a dance-music blowout.

So Omes and Faibisch threw their first Ultra festival on the beach around 20th Street in 1999. The “unofficial” event drew just 7,000 people. But it also attracted upper-tier talent like Rabbit in the Moon and renowned U.K. progressive house-music duo Sasha & John Digweed. It was a frantic, all-out party of sweat and flesh at a time when most of the country was still thawing from the winter.

“It was euphoric in one sense and chaotic in another,” WMC co-founder and local DJ Bill Kelly once told Miami New Times, which last month ran its own profile on Omes’ death and the fight over Ultra. “At some point, they were carrying people out of there on stretchers, right past a city commissioner they had invited. They brought him to see [the event] because they wanted to show it off.”

Ultra’s founders say the inaugural party lost money. But they came back to the beach the following year, and the crowd doubled. They moved to Bayfront Park in Miami in 2001. At its new home, Ultra helped broaden the scope of South Florida’s winter music parties to the mainland.

In Miami, drug use by attendees and the sheer volume of the pulsating event earned Ultra some high-profile enemies, like Mayor Manny Diaz, who tried to kill the party in 2003. Ultra won that fight and moved into neighboring Bicentennial Park, where the festival was able to sell 55,000 tickets a day.

Through it all, the event remained a partner with the Winter Music Conference, and together they propelled what is now branded as Miami Music Week into the center of the world of dance music. Rolling Stone magazine recently referred to the festivities as “the planet’s biggest, most candy-colored rave.”

Ultra and the WMC co-existed and thrived. But over time, Ultra began to eclipse the industry seminars happening in Miami Beach. As Ultra grew, so too did tensions.

Faibisch declined to be interviewed for this story, but court records show he argued that Omes was using his position with Ultra to book artists at competing events. Faibisch and Ultra’s directors also claimed that Omes killed a deal with Redbull in order to secure a sponsorship with Penthouse energy drink that earned his girlfriend a commission. They said he berated Coors beer and TACA airlines officials in separate cases, leading both to end their business with Ultra.

Omes said the real force behind the breakup was an internal dispute over whether Ultra should break off from the WMC. Omes said he was adamantly opposed to it, and that Faibisch, his brother Charles Faibisch and attorney Adam Russakoff dealt with the problem by sneakily removing Omes as president in August 2010.

Later that year, Ultra announced its first three-day event but said for the first time it would be held on a different weekend from the Winter Music Conference. That led to a war of words between the owners of the two events. Kelly said Ultra had breached its contract with WMC, but Ultra’s reps said WMC caused the situation by moving its dates up to a weekend that conflicted with the Calle Ocho festival.

Ultra sold 150,000 tickets that year. And when tickets went on sale for 2012, they sold out in 20 minutes. The following year, Ultra expanded to two weekends and sold or comped more than 330,000 tickets.

Omes, now relegated to a shareholder without any say over the event, kept hosting parties through Go Big Productions, which he founded with promoter Emi Guerra. Together, the two hosted A-list talent around Miami, including parties featuring Swedish House Mafia. They did have some friction with Ultra, which accused Omes of misrepresenting himself as an Ultra “co-owner” in the fall of 2012, a time when Go Big was promoting the eventually-canceled UR1 festival.

Omes and the Faibisch brothers continued to sue each other over Ultra and Omes’ ouster, with the first lawsuit dating back to December 2010. In 2012, the trio that continued to control Ultra moved to change the company’s articles of incorporation, requiring that any shareholders who were competing with Ultra — read: Omes — would be forced to sell or lose their shares.

Ultra Enterprises offered to buy Omes’ 300 shares for $1,200 a share — or $360,000. Court documents show that Omes disputed the amendment and argued that his shares were worth more than $33 million. Meanwhile, Omes lost another lawsuit in which he was fighting for control of the company.

After five years of legal wrangling, Omes, whom friends described as deeply religious, appeared to remain positive. And ahead of the trial, friends and family say, he was excited. According to the New Times, which attended Omes’ funeral at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach, Omes’ ex-wife Karie Omes said he sent her the following text on Jan. 11:

“Love you all so much. You are my family. And I will fight for us all until the very end. Pray for me to have the strength to enjoy life, which I haven’t for so long. I want to give [our son] Josh the very best of me.”

The morning after Omes sent that text, his older brother, Carlos Omes, tried to contact him. The elder Omes said he couldn’t get his brother to answer but figured he was busy with his attorneys.

“The lawsuit [hearing] started at 1:30 p.m.... So I gave it two, three hours. I kept calling, calling, texting and calling. Nothing,” Carlos Omes said. “Finally the attorney answered me back at 7:45 p.m. He started telling me how the case went and at one point he mentioned, ‘By the way, your brother didn’t come to court.’”

“I said ‘What?’ And started panicking.”

Omes rushed to his younger brother’s building at 81st Street and Biscayne Boulevard, and with the help of the building manager and a Miami police officer gained entry into the loft. When he saw Alex, he thought at first he was sleeping.

Even now, almost a month after Omes died, it’s not yet known what caused his death. Miami police declined to speak about the ongoing death investigation and refused to release the incident report documenting the discovery of his body. The Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s office said it may be several more weeks before toxicology results come back, and Carlos Omes has said the family isn’t ruling out foul play.

“All the investigations we conduct here have to be very thorough,” said Larry Cameron, the ME’s director of operations. “There’s a basic rule in forensics: You have to treat every case as a homicide until the information shows otherwise.”

When Omes died, his lawsuit against Ultra Enterprises was placed on inactive status, and according to Florida law will remain inactive until someone from Omes’ estate picks up the lawsuit and pursues it. If that doesn’t happen in 90 days the case will be dismissed.

But regardless of what happens, Omes’ legacy as a pioneer of Miami’s electronic dance music scene remains.

“Alex created Ultra, but he did more than that,” wrote Lainie Copicotto, a music publicist who has represented Ultra. “He created a culture for Miami that made it one of the biggest Dance and Electronic music capitals of the world.”

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