A Los Angeles County judge ruled on Monday that there was enough evidence to bring to trial a man who allegedly was caught trying to drug a woman at an upscale Santa Monica restaurant last May. Judge Leslie Brown made the ruling at Airport Courthouse following an hours-long preliminary hearing that had been delayed for months — owing in part to the defense team’s successful efforts to dismiss a majority of the charges.
Michael Hsu, 25, was cleared of all counts except for one: felony poisoning. Authorities say he attempted to slip MDMA into his co-worker’s drink without her consent. He could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Hsu, wearing a gray suit and tie, remained silent for the duration of the hearing.
Hsu’s dramatic arrest at Fig restaurant inside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard came after a witness said she saw him dump a vial of liquid into a woman’s wine glass. That witness then devised an elaborate plan with two other women to intervene.
The case — and its remarkable example of bystander intervention — fueled dozens of national news headlines, inspired a viral Facebook meme and was the subject of an L.A. Weekly cover story last November. Prosecutors at the time declined to reveal details about the then-ongoing investigation, including the results of the toxicology test they conducted on the woman’s drink. But a clearer picture of the crime and the events leading up to it began to emerge at the hearing after testimony from witnesses and members of the Santa Monica Police Department.
Based on her interviews with the woman, Detective Nicole Sierra portrayed Hsu as being so persistent that he pursued the woman to the point of obsession, often ignoring her refusals outright or imposing on her plans without invitation. By the time they sat down for happy hour together at Fig restaurant, he’d already booked a horseback riding trip for them in Temecula for the following weekend, Sierra testified. He wound up behind bars instead.
Hsu and the woman (whose name we’re withholding to protect her identity as an alleged victim of sex crimes) met in the summer of 2014, when they were hired at the same company within a week of each other, according to Sierra’s testimony. They became friends and a year later began having sex, according to Sierra, though they were never exclusive. The following year, when the woman met someone else at work — her eventual boyfriend — she began to distance herself from Hsu, Sierra testified. The detective said that’s when he got even more aggressive.
Defense attorney Joshua Ritter rejected this characterization, arguing that the woman never explicitly told Hsu that she wanted to stop sleeping with him or even that she no longer wanted to hang out with him. She had, Ritter pointed out, willingly agreed to go out for drinks with him at Fig that Thursday night. They'd previously stopped at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Santa Clarita, according to Sierra.
The two had just ordered a bottle of red wine at Fig when the woman got up to go to the bathroom, surveillance footage from Fig restaurant showed. That's when Monica Kenyon, seated at a table nearby, said she saw Hsu empty a vial into his companion's wine glass. Kenyon's girlfriend, Sonia Ulrich, then followed the woman into the bathroom to warn her about what Kenyon had seen, the two witnesses recounted separately from the stand. “'I know this sounds really weird, but [we] saw someone put something in your drink,'” Ulrich recalled telling the woman. “She didn’t move, her eyes got big, and her mouth was open,” Ulrich said, describing the woman’s reaction as stunned.
Once the woman returned to her table with Hsu, she “played it off like nothing had happened,” Sierra testified. But according to Sierra: “She started to think to herself, her car is parked at his house, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? How am I going to get home?’” The detective went on to say that within an hour — during which time the woman resisted drinking the wine despite Hsu’s attempts to clink glasses with her — the police showed up, arrested Hsu and confiscated the drink. When they searched him, they found three glass vials in his front pocket: One was empty, another contained a liquid and a third was filled with liquid plus a granular substance at the bottom, according to testimony given by Officer Adam Berry.
The substance in those vials was later identified as MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy — not exactly one of the so-called “date rape drugs” commonly associated with drug-facilitated sexual assault. Hsu’s defense team seized on this, arguing that the crime could hardly be considered a poisoning when it involved a tiny amount of a drug with a reputation for making people feel really, really happy. (Of course, it’s also known to act as an aphrodisiac.)
This may not have been the first time Hsu slipped the woman ecstasy, according to Sierra. The detective testified that the woman told her in an interview that she’d felt “amazing and on top of the world” after having a drink with Hsu before attending an Oh Wonder concert, leading her to believe in retrospect that drink may have been spiked; the woman said that the next day she remembered feeling nauseated. When the two went to see The Chainsmokers on another occasion, she recalled having “that same amazing feeling … a perfect mellow and relaxed state,” Sierra quoted her — so much so that she even jokingly asked Hsu if he had drugged her.
She “described having an amazing time,” Ritter argued. “The expected effect [of ecstasy] would be that she would be happy, not that she would be injured.”
The judge wasn’t buying it. “If you put ecstasy in your drink, that’s fine because it makes you happy?” he said, slapping his hand down on the bench in disbelief. “Just because it makes you happy does not mean that it doesn’t cause harm.”
The unusual nature of the case illustrates the complexities inherent to allegations of drugging — and the ways law enforcement sometimes fails to understand such crimes. Experts on drug-facilitated sexual assault say any number of substances — not just GHB, ketamine, Rohypnol and others frequently described as “roofies” — could be administered to a victim with the intent to take advantage of him or her.
The district attorney’s office initially charged Hsu with 20 other criminal counts in relation to the Fig incident and others; many of the charges were far more serious than the one that so far has stuck. They included eight misdemeanor counts of secretly videotaping or photographing the woman in a state of undress without her knowledge, seven misdemeanor counts of videotaping or photographing a different woman for sexual gratification, two felony counts of sexual penetration by a foreign object and one count each of misdemeanor sexual battery, felony administering a drug with the intent to commit a felony and felony assault with intent to commit a felony.
Some of those charges stem from evidence collected from Hsu’s personal electronic devices and were dropped after his defense team convinced a previous judge, Upinder Kalra, that the devices had been seized without a proper warrant.
Hsu has been free on $350,000 bail since last June; his next court appearance is scheduled for March 13.