Why Is It So Hard to Catch Drink-Drugging Assholes?
Koren Shadmi

Why Is It So Hard to Catch Drink-Drugging Assholes?

Monica Kenyon noticed something disturbing during Friday happy hour last May at Fig, the farm-to-table restaurant inside Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar Hotel. Over a cheese and charcuterie plate at her table, she watched as a man seated across the way awkwardly pulled out a small black vial and emptied its liquid contents into his date's wine glass just after she'd gotten up to go to the restroom. Kenyon, in a state of disbelief, told her companions what she'd just seen, and the three women devised a plan: Her girlfriend, Sonia Ulrich, went to the bathroom to find the victim and warned her not to drink the wine, while her other friend alerted the server. The server then looped in the manager, who contacted security to review the surveillance footage.

The sequence of events played out like an elaborate setup from the reality show To Catch a Predator, the suspense reaching a climax as the servers made excuses to stall for time before the cops arrived. When the Santa Monica Police Department burst through the door less than an hour later, they whisked away the suspect, Michael Hsu, who was later charged with administering drugs with the intent to commit a sex crime, as well as the drink, which was tested for the presence of narcotics. The 25-year-old's preliminary hearing was scheduled for Nov. 16; he is pleading not guilty.

"The thing that we were blown away by," Ulrich says, "is how many people came up to us [at Fig] and said, 'Thank you, this happened to my sister,' or 'This happened to my roommate,' 'This happened to me,' and at a bar, at a club, at a barbecue."

The story went viral on social media, notable for its supersleuth narrative and, sadly, as an anomaly among suspected druggings in bars. People who believe they've been unknowingly drugged often are too ashamed to call the police — and when they do, their stories aren't always taken seriously. It doesn't help that alleged victims have no memory of the alleged crime, making it difficult to report the facts. Because many tranquilizers disappear from the system within a matter of hours, an accurate drug test sometimes requires a near-impossible task: submitting to it while still under the influence.

The Fig incident is just one of several alleged druggings in Los Angeles in recent months. In March, actor Rebel Wilson tweeted that she believed she'd been drugged "at a trendy club" after feeling tired and disoriented from sipping just a third of her drink. She wrote that she managed to get home safely but woke up feeling as if she'd been "hit by a truck" — and advised women to be careful with their drinks at bars and clubs.

Three months later, actor Kate Berlant tweeted a warning to her 20,000-plus followers claiming that she knew of "at least 7 women who have been roofied" at a Silver Lake bar. She ended the tweet with two words in all caps, "BE VIGILANT." Other allegations against the bar began to surface on Twitter. Several reviews that mentioned "roofies" were reported for violating Yelp's terms of service and later scrubbed from the site.

In late June, a former employee of the bar anonymously told the Los Feliz Ledger that she quit after observing a pattern of patrons being drugged on the property. The bar's co-owner denied the account to the publication, attributing it to a disgruntled employee who had been fired. In an email to the Weekly, a spokesman for the bar said its owners have since held meetings with LAPD and sent undercover agents to investigate potential predatory behavior. "To date, neither we nor the police have been able to find any 'drugging' or other illegal activity," he wrote. "Regardless, we continue to take the issue seriously and will do whatever we can to ensure this kind of activity does not happen at our bar."

Berlant declined to elaborate on her tweet, but she put the Weekly in touch with a friend, who described attending an invite-only party at the bar's private-event space in April. The woman (who asked not to be named, for fear that it would harm her professional reputation) says the last thing she remembers is setting her drink down on a bistro table to dance. She says her friends drove her home after she collapsed and vomited. She says she never thought to call the police or get a drug test — an oversight she now acknowledges could have lent credibility to her account.

"It was really painful for me," she says. "I definitely lost a few friends over this situation, because there were certain people that treated me in ways [that made me realize], 'I don't want to be friends with you any longer if you're going to make light of this.'"

Sometimes it can takes years and a flood of women coming forward with high-profile accusations before a drug-facilitated sexual-assault case lands in court. Bill Cosby has been accused by more than 50 women of sexual assault — much of it assisted by sedative drugs like Quaaludes — dating back to the 1960s. The allegations, in which some of the women described blacking out after being given a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, only became public within the last 15 years, and it wasn't until last year that Cosby faced his first criminal charge. The comedian, who once joked about drugging women in a stand-up routine, has denied any wrongdoing.

It's rare to catch a criminal in the act — and even more rare when bystanders successfully intervene. But the Fig story showed that such druggings aren't just a scary relic of the 1990s underground-club scene; they might even happen at an upscale restaurant near the beach. In the absence of verifiable cases, there's also a dearth of information about what to do and how to report suspected druggings when they might have happened. What exactly are these drugs, why are they so invisible, and how did they become so widely misunderstood?

Trinka Porrata first encountered the little white pills known as "roofies" — slang for Rohypnol, otherwise known as the sedative flunitrazepam — while working in LAPD's narcotics division near USC in the early 1990s. "They weren't really illegal in California yet, and my boss said, 'Hey, go write some legislation to fix it,'" recalls the retired officer, who's now based in Mesa, Arizona.

Initially developed as a sleeping aid by a Swiss pharmaceutical company in the 1970s, Rohypnol was used by doctors as a sedative during surgery, and later became popular on the streets as a party drug. In Los Angeles, it was sold in the Rampart area by Crazy Riders gang members, according to Porrata, and was favored among heroin users. Kurt Cobain reportedly had taken 50 Rohypnol pills when he slipped into an overdose-induced coma a month before his death in 1994. By that time, roofies were no longer just a recreational drug willingly consumed by users — they had become a mechanism for carrying out assaults against unknowing victims.

In 1997, the bill Porrata helped draft became law, making roofies an illegal, Schedule IV controlled substance in California (they already had been illegal nationwide), just a year after Congress signed legislation making it a serious crime to use Rohypnol as a tool for assault.

While the pills became increasingly tough to find in Los Angeles as a result of that legislation, another drug was surging in popularity: GHB. Developed as an anesthetic in France in the 1960s, GHB (short for gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) followed a similar trajectory as Rohypnol, eventually landing on the club scene and becoming a tool for predators.

Porrata was at a club night in Hollywood investigating the use of Rohypnol when she accidentally stumbled on GHB. "Somebody passed around a milk jug of clear liquid, and all these idiots drank out of it," she says. It nearly killed several of the clubgoers that night, causing a panic among police and paramedics, who had never heard of the drug, Porrata says.

"I was in the office that day my boss said, 'Who knows what GHB is?' and I said, 'I do,'" she recalls, despite the fact that she knew little beyond its name. "'Good. You're the department expert and your press conference starts in 10 minutes,'" she remembers being told.

But in the years that followed, Porrata became just that — a department expert on GHB and sexual assault — and a nationally recognized educator on so-called "date rape drugs," a term that fails to acknowledge the reality of their usage. "'Date rape drugs' is a news media term, but professionals use it, and it drives me nuts, because it has nothing to do with a date," she says. "Drugs don't know whether or not you're on a date, and they don't care."

More than 50 drugs, including GHB and ketamine, often are mislabeled "roofies." The blanket term has come to describe any substance that can be used to take advantage of someone with the intent of committing a crime: any offense from robbery and credit card theft to rape and homicide.

Porrata is convinced that of these substances, GHB is the most dangerously misunderstood. "It's still an invisible drug, so it's hard to test for it," she says, noting that it stays in the bloodstream for a mere four hours and is detectable in urine for just 12. Because it's still common for police agencies to test blood rather than urine, she says, "Unless the person is actively under the influence from the time you draw the blood, you're not going to find anything."

Porrata says law enforcement suffers from a fundamental lack of knowledge and absence of protocol when it comes to GHB. "You can be a narcotics expert and not know anything about these drugs," she says, listing the substances that LAPD officers are more commonly concerned with busting for trafficking: cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines. "It's a whole other field of expertise."

Why Is It So Hard to Catch Drink-Drugging Assholes? (2)
DONFIORE / SHUTTERSTOCK

It's part of the reason she now runs Project GHB, a nonprofit that was founded in 1998 by two California parents shortly after the overdose death of their 27-year-old son. Initially launched as an educational project for addiction prevention, Project GHB now works to educate and train law enforcement and medical personnel nationally about GHB- and drug-facilitated sexual assault.

Through her outreach, Porrata often finds that not only do police agencies fail to identify GHB but also many officers don't believe people who say they were drugged — leading to cases in which a victim might be charged with a DUI while her assailant goes free.

She also is working to educate would-be victims by urging them to do something that may seem near impossible: If you think you've been drugged, don't go home and sleep on it. "I want you at the nearest hospital or police station and I want you screaming, 'I want to pee in a bottle now, and I want it held for forensic purposes,'" she says. "Obviously you're not going to be in any condition during that time to say, 'Oh hello, I think I was drugged,' but at the moment that you recognize it or your friends around you [do], I want you to think ahead of time."

LAPD does not maintain statistics about the use of predatory drugs such as GHB in relation to sexual assaults, according to Detective Sharlene Johnson in the Robbery Homicide Division, Special Assault Section. "It's not like back in the day, where it's like roofies are the drug of choice," she says. "Now there are so many types of drugs that when mixed with alcohol have the same type of effect — and how quickly a lot of the drugs get out of a person's system makes it really difficult to identify."

Broader statistics about drug-facilitated sexual assaults are incredibly scarce, relying on studies that are small in scale and with much of the data varying wildly due to low rates of self-reporting. One of the more ambitious of those studies, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007, estimated that 2.7 percent of U.S. adult women have been victims of drug-facilitated rape at some point in their lives. That percentage nearly doubled when researchers accounted for alcohol and/or drugs that victims had voluntarily consumed. The substance most likely to have been involved in rapes wasn't GHB, ketamine or Rohypnol — it was alcohol.

When Joanne Archambault began supervising the sex crimes unit of the San Diego Police Department, in 1993, she compared her notes with the agency's existing research on sexual assault and quickly realized the information was not only outdated but also inaccurate. In the 1970s, most of the cases being reported to the department involved strangers, she says. But that began to shift over the next two decades, thanks in part to increased reporting and a growing cultural awareness about sexual assault. By the 1990s, a majority of the reported assaults involved acquaintances or family members, and that's still the case today, an overwhelming number of studies show.

"I recognized that our training and, culturally, our idea about what sexual assault looked like did not keep up with reality," says Archambault, who retired from the force in 2003 to found training organization End Violence Against Women International. "I knew that law enforcement wasn't doing such a great job, and I wanted to see that change."

Archambault ended up rewriting the national sexual-assault investigation policy for police and revising California law enforcement training, which became the standard across the country.

But the broader challenge beyond police training, Archambault says, is reforming a culture that tends to blame the victim, especially when there's little more than an accusation to suggest that a crime has taken place.

"So many people do not understand the realistic dynamics of sexual assault, so they think that many, if not all, sexual assaults are false reports," she says. "When you get to judges and juries, then you're dealing with a real lack of comprehension of rape culture: 'Well, the broad went out and got drunk. Well, she got what she deserved.' You've got that mentality to deal with."

Katharine Tellis, a criminal justice professor at California State University Los Angeles, set out to investigate those biases in a 2012 project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Through interviews with 52 LAPD detectives, 24 L.A. County Sheriff's Department detectives and 30 attorneys from the L.A. County District Attorney's Office, she found that nonstranger sexual-assault cases were the most frequently reported but the least likely to be prosecuted due to a lack of corroboration. This was especially true when drugs or alcohol were involved, and particularly when the victim had no memory of the assault.

"Often when victims are saying they were date-raped, they drank too much or thought they were slipped something and woke up in a hotel room," said one of the L.A. County Sheriff's detectives in the anonymous survey. He noted that without surveillance tapes showing the victim physically incapacitated, it's often "not enough to articulate she was assaulted."

Others candidly admitted to their own prejudices against the victim or pointed to flaws within the training and reporting process. "I asked her, if she didn't remember the concert, how do you know you didn't consent to sex," one LAPD detective said, describing his questioning of a sexual assault victim. "You go through hell: Make the report, undergo the exam, feel disgusting. Often I feel we victimize the victim more than the suspect does."

Even when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, it's not always enough to convince a jury. "A victim that drinks or does drugs, jurors do not like them. They feel like they knew what they were getting into," one L.A. County deputy district attorney said, recalling a case in which the victim tested positive for GHB. "We sent her to a bar with [undercover] LASD detectives. She got the suspect to say, 'I had to knock you out.' We played that for the jury. It took them two hours to come back not guilty."

Another anonymous attorney with the D.A.'s office was even more frank about the problem: "Unless you change the mores of this country, it is going to be so difficult to convict in date rapes in this country. If a girl has 12 shots of tequila and passes out, it's OK [to rape her] if he [the suspect] just says she wanted it."

Cases involving the administering of drugs with the intent to commit a crime are among the most difficult for law enforcement to prosecute. In 2013, a civil suit was filed against West Hollywood bar the Abbey by patrons who alleged they had been drugged and raped by a bartender. Last month, their lawyers filed a request to dismiss the case. (Attorney Brian Kabateck said via email that "the case settled on confidential terms.") In 2006, KCRW DJ Chris Douridas was arrested outside Circle Bar in Santa Monica after witnesses said they saw him slip a substance into an underage girl's drink and then carry her out to his car. The victim was sent to the hospital. (In an email to the L.A. Times at the time, he maintained his innocence.) After an investigation by the L.A. County District Attorney's office, Douridas was charged only with felony possession of cocaine, to which he pleaded no contest.

The incident at Fig in Santa Monica, however, presented the perfect storm of evidence, and the district attorney jumped to press charges. Not only were there several eyewitnesses and a suspect in custody, but they also had surveillance footage from the restaurant and the contaminated drink itself. The district attorney's office has not yet made public the type of drug allegedly used.

When Ulrich, one of the witnesses, got home that night, she wrote a lengthy Facebook post explaining what had happened: "Don't roofie someone on our watch," it read. Within 24 hours, the post had been shared more than 120,000 times. It was picked up by BuzzFeed, Time, The New York Times and dozens of others. Hundreds of comments began to roll in.

Why Is It So Hard to Catch Drink-Drugging Assholes? (3)
Facebook

"So many of the comments were saying that this happened to them. It wasn't just in this country, it was worldwide," Ulrich says. "Across the world, this resonated. Which is terrifying, if you think about it."

Close friends and complete strangers began to weigh in, breaking their silence sometimes for the first time, many of them echoing the same refrain: They were at a party, it was someone they knew, they didn't think they could go to the cops because they didn't remember anything and didn't have any evidence.

If nothing else, the post helped validate other people's experiences — experiences some had been too afraid to talk about and others thought could never happen to them. It showed that a drugging can happen anywhere and, maybe most alarmingly, at a frequency that no data can illuminate.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Ulrich says it doesn't take much to intervene as a bystander. "We just said something. That's all we did."

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