Mariana doesn’t remember what time it was when she got to her parents’ house. She doesn’t remember a lot from the night of July 25. What she remembers: waking up on the bathroom floor choking on her own vomit. She remembers crawling on her elbows, trying to reach a telephone.
Motown on Mondays at Bar Sue get packed pretty quickly. Mariana, 23, was dancing to soul and funk classics when the cast of Real World walked in, and it was electric. The possibility of getting on TV made people swarm near Mariana’s table, located right next to the Real World cast.
Mariana remembers that a man she didn’t recognize sat down at her table. “My boyfriend’s dancing,” she says he told her. “I don’t like to dance. I’m gay, don’t worry.”
Mariana continued to dance, but before long, she knew something was very wrong. She went outside. “My friends were leaving, and I couldn’t tell if I was really hot or just dizzy,” she says.
Mariana, and then realized she didn’t take her wallet. She had roughly four drinks over more than five hours, enough to feel buzzed, but suddenly she felt completely drunk and like she had lost control of her body. She says she had been drugged once before, two years earlier, at another Seattle bar. After the first time, she had read up on GHB, a sedative sometimes used as a “date rape” drug, and learned that it’s possible to overdose and die. “I just remember feeling for an instant sheer panic,” Mariana remembers. “Feeling that everyone was out to get me, which is not a feeling I usually feel.”
The next thing Mariana remembers is waking up on the bathroom floor at her parents’ house, where she lives. She was passing in and out of consciousness and choking. “I was trying to scream for [my parents], and I couldn’t scream. And my legs weren’t working. It felt like they were atrophied.” At that point, Mariana says she used her elbows to crawl toward her mother’s office in an attempt to reach a phone. “I remember getting there and dialing numbers and not being able to tell if there was a dial tone. And words weren’t really coming out. It was babble.”
Mariana’s memory of that night is checkered with amnesia, but her family eventually heard her make noise and found her. Her mother slept in her bed to make sure she wouldn’t suffocate on vomit in the middle of the night. “I remember, at one point, seeing myself in the mirror and thinking, ‘Why, why would someone try to kill me?’” Mariana says. “I felt like someone was trying to kill me. Why was this happening to me again?”
Mariana’s story is one of many told to The Stranger recently by people—male, female, and genderqueer—who all believe they were drugged at local bars this summer. One says her drugging resulted in sexual assault.
Only two of the 10 people The Stranger talked to filed police reports. The rest said they had doubts about whether the police would believe them in the absence of physical evidence, or whether the police would do anything about the drugging even if they had. Though Seattle police say they haven’t received an uptick in reports about drug-facilitated sexual assault, on August 4 they announced they’d be working with bar owners to address the issue.
One woman, Brittany Hurley, 25, says she had a humiliating experience with Seattle police after being drugged on June 22. After just two beers and one liquor drink—something very much within her usual range, she says—she started feeling so drunk while dancing at Q Nightclub that she could barely stand or talk.
Hurley says that a stranger later found her nearly passed out on a bus stop bench with a “guy bothering me.”
The police took her to her boyfriend’s parents’ house instead of to the hospital. She imagines that they took her there because they found that address on her person and Hurley couldn’t give them her own.
“Having the cops show up at their door and them basically telling my boyfriend’s parents that I was wasted was really traumatizing and embarrassing for me,” Hurley says. “They didn’t believe [that I was drugged], and that really messed me up.”
Seattle police say they do not have a report filed about Hurley’s experience on June 22 and could not confirm her side of the story. Detective Mark Jamieson told The Stranger that proper protocol would be to bring someone who claims they’ve been drugged to the hospital.
“We’re not going to pretend that there isn’t a gap [in reporting to police],” says SPD spokesperson Sergeant Sean Whitcomb. “That has always been a challenge with law enforcement: community trust.”
Mariana, the 23-year-old who says she was drugged at Bar Sue, says her lack of faith in the police kept her from reporting.
“We all know what happens when women go to the police with a complaint about men,” she says. Mariana says she feels like she wouldn’t be taken seriously. “I didn’t want to have to deal with the trouble of dealing with the police.”
Still, Whitcomb stressed that police want to receive reports, because multiple reports could reveal a pattern to investigate.
“Our message is, essentially, if you think this happened to you, report it, go to the hospital, get the test,” Whitcomb says. “We’ll take it from there, because we are very interested in identifying where it’s happening and who’s doing it.”
And it’s not just women who are being targeted. David Choe, a 44-year-old man, thinks he was drugged after talking to a patron sitting next to him at the Neighbor Lady on July 15. He had two whiskeys and a beer, but says he suddenly lost his motor skills. “We were making small talk, and he was showing me a tattoo on his arm,” Choe says. “He said, ‘You’re not going to fight me, are ya?’ And I just chuckled.”
Choe blacked out after stumbling home to his apartment. He also chose not to report what happened to him to the police.
On August 9, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce met with law enforcement to discuss attempted drug-facilitated sexual assault.
“I don’t think anyone really knows the true scope or scale of the problem,” Sierra Hansen, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, says.
Multiple bar owners said they’ll start implementing changes. Bar Sue, where at least two patrons have claimed to have gotten drugged, will now offer free strips that test drinks for the presence of GHB or ketamine. Brianna Rettig, the co-owner of Chop Suey, says she’s also looking into buying test strips and making sure that security is trained to look for potential predators.
“It’s been increasing around Capitol Hill for the last five or six months, and we’re just trying to do what we can to keep this from happening,” Ian Carey, co-owner and bar manager of Bar Sue, says. Carey says that he was once drugged at a local bar, too, and worries about the safety of his friends.
Some in the Seattle bar industry attribute the increased problem—or maybe just increased awareness of an existing problem—to increasing density, crowding at bars, and changing neighborhoods. (There are 70,000 new Seattle residents since 2010 according to the US Census.) Others attribute it to an increased willingness of victims to share their stories.
But some of those who believe they’ve been drugged report a disappointing response from bar owners: Logan, who is genderqueer and did not want to be identified by their last name, says they were drugged at popular gay club R Place on July 3.
Logan says they called R Place the next day and spoke to the manager on duty. “I explained to him the whole story, and he said, ‘You know, we can’t watch everybody and we tell everybody to be careful with their drinks,” Logan says. “I was so angry that I just hung up.”
Steve Timmons, the owner of R Place, told The Stranger that he had not received any messages about what allegedly happened to Logan. He said that he hadn’t noticed an uptick in reports of people being drugged, either. “I’ve heard of it over the years in the past, but not here recently,” Timmons said. “We do have quite an extensive policy on people leaving their drinks and have barbacks and bartenders pick them up. We watch that pretty closely.”
While Logan and Brittany don’t believe they were sexually assaulted, some people’s stories don’t end like theirs.
Sarah, who asked that we not publish her last name, says she’s not a huge drinker; she says she knows her tolerance with alcohol. She’s 34.
When Sarah went out with friends to the Lookout on May 10, she says that one man and his friend started hitting on them. The man went to the bar and brought them drinks. Sarah says he joked about adding roofies to them. And not long after, she says, she “never felt so out of it.”
She was going to sleep it off in her car, “and he just came up from behind me, and touched me, and said, ‘You shouldn’t drive.’”
She remembers falling over and the man picking her up. When she woke up, she says she was at his house and he was on top of her. She says that he was much bigger than she was and her legs would not move. “I was like, ‘Okay, when is this over?’” she remembers. “My brain is not working.”
Like many of the others who told The Stranger they’d been drugged, Sarah didn’t go to the police. “Because it’s not something I could prove,” she says. But she did go to her ob-gyn a week later to get tested for STDs.
It’s almost impossible to find out exactly how many people get drugged, or drugged and then sexually assaulted, in any given year. Reporting drug-facilitated sexual assault, or attempted drug-facilitated sexual assault, to police is rare. According to one major 2007 study prepared for the US Department of Justice by the National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina—a national survey of 5,000 women in college and the general population—more than one in five rape cases “involved alcohol or drug facilitation or incapacitation.” Sixteen percent of rapes were reported to law enforcement; victims of drug-facilitated rape were even less likely to report to police.
One of the pervasive myths about getting drugged is that the drug that is always used is Rohypnol, or roofies, explains Dr. Robert Middleberg, a well-regarded forensic toxicologist and lab director at Pennsylvania-based forensic testing company NMS Labs. Roofies, Middleberg says, are actually extremely rare. It turns out that all you need to “obtund” someone—the toxicology parlance for attempting drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA)—are central nervous system depressants. Along with alcohol, these compounds include everything from benzodiazepines to the active ingredients in some kinds of antihistamines. In toxicology reports he’s studied, Middleberg has discovered people drugged with sleep aids or even eye medication. And then there are the compounds being sold on the street that even forensic labs aren’t aware of.
Sometimes, predators choose compounds that are designed to flush out of a person’s system quickly, in just six to eight hours.
In 2009, scientist Janice Du Mont and her colleagues at the Women’s College Research Institute of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital published a study looking at the prevalence of DFSA. They analyzed two years of data from seven different hospital sexual-assault centers in both urban and rural areas around Toronto.
When Du Mont and her colleagues tested the women who met the screening criteria for suspected DFSA, 64 percent of the samples showed unexpected drugs in their systems. “These were drugs they had not consumed, but they weren’t the drugs that people typically think of [when it comes to sexual assault],” Du Mont says. “We didn’t find any Rohypnol, very little ketamine, GHB.”
While most of the women had knowingly used alcohol, Du Mont says, the most common things found in their system were marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, drugs they had not knowingly consumed.
Du Mont says that offering test strips used to detect GHB or ketamine could create a false sense of security. They won’t necessarily pick up on other drugs a predator could use.
So how does someone know they’ve been drugged? “For young people who aren’t used to drinking, sometimes you can’t tell the difference,” Middleberg says. But for people who do know their bodies, he says that “rapidity of action” (feeling very drunk, very suddenly) can be a big tell. “These things start to happen very quickly,” Middleberg says. “Oftentimes they feel very dizzy and lose their balance and their ability to focus.”
Because of the number of central nervous system depressants available to use, and different dosages, symptoms can range. But often, catatonia—when someone is partially aware but can’t fully control their body—is one of the signs. “One of the hallmarks of catatonia is when you can move somebody’s limbs and they stay where they are,” Middleberg says.
Indeed, nearly all of the people interviewed by The Stranger describe a loss of control of bodily functions or limbs.
This is what Veronica Dye describes feeling the night of July 29, shortly after she started drinking with friends at Bimbo’s. Dye had one happy hour beer and a full dinner before she arrived. But Dye says that she knew something was wrong after just one drink, when she stepped outside to make a phone call and started feeling extremely woozy. The person she was speaking to told her she sounded wasted.
“For some reason, I decided to walk home,” she recalls.
Dye has zero recollection of walking home. She passed out on the steps outside her apartment. Her roommate eventually found her and took her upstairs. Dye says she has a vivid memory of throwing up. And when she woke up in the morning, she found that she had lost control of her bowels and bladder in the night. “I was sick for about six hours in the morning,” she says.
A week after she says she was drugged, Dye watches the security footage from the back room of Bimbo’s on the night in question. It doesn’t reveal much. Most of her table is out of view of the security camera, and the corner of the bar she’s sitting in gets crowded at different times. She presses her fingers to her lips and watches the different camera angles, watching for anyone at the bar who was watching her.
Dye was one of the first people to post about their experience on Facebook. She tagged Bimbo’s, as well as a number of other establishments on Capitol Hill, because she says she’s had friends drugged at those places as well. The post spread quickly. She eventually decided to call the police after getting messages from multiple women who claim the same thing happened to them.
“I’m not going to tell my friends to be careful, because I know they already are,” Dye wrote. “This is a problem [where the] intention is sexual assault, and I’m damn cool with calling it out if that means someone in this city might be safer tonight with this information.”