It’s midnight and I’m standing in line outside of Plush, the Philadelphia hip-hop nightclub where Rian Thal worked before she was shot dead last month in the stairwell of her luxury apartment building.
The line, comprised entirely of young black men and women, is stared down by bulky private security officers in black SWAT-style uniforms, prominent handguns and billy clubs holstered at their hips. One of the hard-faced officers explains that the security here is provided mostly by off-duty cops and correctional officers. Usually there’s also a police car or two parked directly in front, but not tonight.
The same way a black kid at a rich white prep school can become a star because he looks different, so too could Thal coast upward on her head-turning “who’s that?” celebrity.
It’s nearly impossible to believe, but before she was murdered, this was the territory of Rian Thal, a young blonde with a slight frame and pixie smile who grew up in a wealthy suburb a world away from this nightspot. When police found Thal’s body on June 27, they also found four kilos of cocaine and $100,000 in her apartment, to the astonishment of many who knew her. Last week, police charged 40-year-old drug dealer Will “Pooh” Hook with orchestrating Thal’s murder.
The case, still unfolding, becomes more cryptic by the day, partly because of the wildly varying reports of who Thal really was—everyone you ask seems to think she was somebody different.
Ask the police, and they’ll tell you she was a big-time drug trafficker who was neck deep in the game for years before finally getting in over her head. Ask her friends and work associates, and they’ll swear up and down she was a self-made mogul whose honest work ethic helped her rise through the ranks of the entertainment world, from bartender to trendsetting socialite.
Her parents knew her as their popular daughter who had attended a good Jewish private school in the wealthy Philadelphia suburb where they lived. And years later, a judge would meet her as the young woman who complained that her house-arrest ankle monitor, earned after a drug possession charge, was interfering with her work at a gentlemen’s club.
But perhaps the answer to the question of who Thal really was at the end of her tragically short life is known best to a group of people who aren’t talking: the clubgoers of the Philly hip-hop scene. For these people, in the gray space where the entertainment world and the drug world intersect, the life of Rian Thal is a closely guarded secret when outsiders like this reporter come nosing around for clues.
Plush Nightclub, which Thal promoted for, is not what one would call upscale. It does not recall the lush imagery of MTV rap videos, where elite profilers sip Champagne and whisper sweet nothings to supermodels while money rains down from above. The crowd at Plush tonight is rough around the edges; there are a lot of tattoos signifying corner-drug-crew affiliations, low-drawn, flat-brimmed baseball caps, and oversize undershirts. And just maybe, that’s the reason Rian Thal was brought on board—her RiGirl Productions party-planning company was known for attracting the cream of the entertainment crop to unlikely places.
For Thal to end up working for a place like Plush is not as crazy as it sounds. In the club and drug world, where race, class and cred make their own rules, Thal’s white skin, blond hair, and perky demeanor made her a natural standout. The same way a black kid at a rich white prep school can become a star because he looks different, so too could Thal coast upward on her head-turning “who’s that?” celebrity. In a place like Plush, she could be an “It” girl.
Because if there’s one thing Plush is not, it’s perky. The first thing that hits you when you walk in the door is the wall of moist heat generated by the hundreds of bodies packed onto the small dance floor. After just a minute, beads of sweat already stand out on your forehead. After another minute, you realize there’s no point in wiping them away because they reform as quickly you can mop them. It’s not long before your clothes are entirely soaked.
The room has all the ambience of a high-school gymnasium converted for a dance; the walls are brick and cinderblock painted a garish orange-red, and at the head of the room is a platform that barely qualifies as a stage where heavily tatted dudes in wifebeaters mill about, some holding microphones and rapping along with the music, some just taking up space. The music is so loud that you have to scream directly into someone’s ear for them to hear you. The crowd loves the down and dirty vibe that prevails; booty bounces to the beat of Juvenile’s “Back Dat Ass Up.”
When the song ends, one of the wifebeater boys onstage calls out: “If you ladies got some good coochie, bring it on up here!” Girls’ hands go up around the room, as if to say, “I got it, but you ain’t gettin’ it.”
There’s a second, smaller room with a bar where shots of Henny and E&J are doled out in plastic cups. There are high, cushioned benches along the wall where ladies sit, adjusting their makeup. There are no velvet ropes, no VIP spaces for high rollers. The floor is plain white tiles like you’d find in someone’s kitchen. Plush is aggressively democratic in its grittiness.
Not surprisingly, nobody’s interested in talking to the one white guy in the place who’s looking for information about the girl who used to work in the club and just got killed over four kilos of coke. Some of these people have likely been recently ambushed by homicide detectives asking similar questions. Heads shake silently and hands wave in my face indicating that nobody here has anything to say about the murder.
Other attempts to dig deeper into the life of Rian Thal have yielded little; her family and friends that weren’t involved in drugs or hip-hop deny that the woman portrayed in the media as an underworld heavyweight is the same person they knew. Friends insist that she was a workaholic gymrat who never touched anything stronger than a sip of Grey Goose. This, despite Thal’s previous conviction for attempting to smuggle methamphetamine into the country from Amsterdam and, in a separate incident, getting caught ditching a bag of coke during a raid on a strip club where she used to work.
The only response to a number of emails and MySpace messages sent to hip-hop promoters and artists around the city came from Breigh Marquisette, owner of Get it Girl Promotions. Marquisette says she was a friend of Thal’s who had worked alongside her in the Philly hip-hop party scene and visited her home a number of times. (I was unable to verify this.) Marquisette says she’s been involved with the drug dealers who are welcomed in the entertainment industry, a business she describes as a cash-driven, off-the-books enterprise.
“I began as a bartender and eventually became a promoter. At an earlier point in my career, I was very closely affiliated with drug dealers and the ‘dark side’ of the entertainment industry. Being a young, attractive female in this industry made it easy for me to get close to the ‘ballers.’"
She laid out a hypothetical scenario describing how things might progress from this point, taking a girl from the ‘burbs deep into the drug game.
“A young, attractive female might get to know a drug dealer through the club scene. He might let her sell some weed, cocaine, or ecstacy [sic] pills to make herself some extra money. It might escalate into driving large amounts of drugs or money to a specific location. Eventually, this drug dealer might put her up in an upscale condo and all she has to do in return is keep a safe full of his drugs.”
But, Marquisette insists, she’s only speaking hypothetically; due to her close connection to Thal, she refuses to comment on the murder. “It would be disrespectful and distasteful for me to discuss her and her situation directly.”
Which leaves us with the strangely stilted and still-unexplained story of a hardworking girl who seemed to live multiple lives, one of which got her murdered for four kilos of coke and $100,000 that she just happened to have in her closet. If the whole truth were only as simple as her friends make it seem, she might still be alive today.
Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer and social worker from Philadelphia. He blogs about his experiences on the frontlines of urban poverty at Phawker.com.