Drugs, Death and Robbery put New York’s Gay Community on edge

At first the men’s deaths were treated as overdoses until tens of thousands of dollars were found drained from their bank accounts.

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Julio Ramirez died in the backseat of a taxi in April after leaving a popular Manhattan gay bar with a group of men. They stole his wallet, phone and ID before leaving his body in the car with a distressed taxi driver.

A month later, John Umberger was found dead in an Upper East Side townhouse after he and a group of men left another popular gay bar just three blocks from where Mr. Ramirez was last seen alive. Surveillance footage showed Mr. Umberger pinned between the men as they led him into a car.

The police and many in the L.G.B.T.Q. society first viewed the deaths as isolated drug overdoses: men partying too hard, repeated tragedies in a gay nightlife scene that has roared back to life as the coronavirus pandemic has eased.

But the men’s families soon discovered something more sinister: Credit cards in the men’s names were maxed out and their bank accounts drained of tens of thousands of dollars. Now their deaths are being investigated by the police homicide unit.

Sir. The deaths of Ramirez and Mr. Umberger came at a busy time for the city’s L.G.B.T.Q. community emerging from the pandemic in the jaws of a monkeypox outbreak, a landscape of struggling and sometimes shuttered bars, and an increasingly hostile national political climate.

They have also spread fear and rumours, while starting a wider conversation about similar attacks that have quietly plagued the city’s gay nightlife for years.

“No one thought it was a crime at first, they just thought he had taken something,” said Carlos Ramirez, brother of Julio, 25, a social worker who was last seen leaving the Ritz Bar and Lounge in Hell’s Kitchen in April. Mr. Ramirez said that when he heard about his brother’s death, “I knew somebody had given him something and he didn’t know they had.”

A spokesman for the police department said it was investigating a series of robberies in Hell’s Kitchen, where many of the attacks have been clustered. The police said they did not know whether Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Umberger were attacked because they were gay, and they have not said whether they believe the men’s deaths and other non-fatal attacks are related.

Some men who said they were drugged have struggled to convince police they were victims of a crime and not just irresponsible partygoers who took someone home and blacked out.

Oscar Alarcon, 33, said he was drugged at the Ritz in March 2020. He woke up on the floor of a Midtown hotel, he said, to find $2,000 had been transferred from his bank account using the PayPal and Zelle apps on his phone.

“I don’t remember what happened there,” Mr. Alarcon said, referring to the Ritz. “I don’t remember how I left. Then I just woke up in a strange hotel lobby.”

He filed a police report but said he never heard back from the police.

“At the time, they didn’t seem like they were interested,” Mr. Alarcon said.

There have been arrests connected to a number of similar robberies in Manhattan, but none of the charges in those cases involve the stunning of victims. In one, a patron left the Ritz on May 14, about three weeks after Mr. Ramirez’s death, and later reported that his phone and wallet were missing and that $2,000 had been transferred from his bank account.

The police did not respond to questions about whether the defendants in those cases were connected to the deaths of Mr. Ramirez or Mr. Umberger, who was drugged at the Q, a bar three blocks from the Ritz. Sir. Umberger’s family said the arrests were unrelated to his death, and Carlos Ramirez and other victims who spoke to The New York Times said they had not received any updates from police.

In addition to the families of Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Umberger, The Times spoke with five men who said they were drugged at gay bars in the city — including the Eagle, Boiler Room and 9th Avenue Saloon — and then robbed. The Times also spoke to a man who said he was robbed and held captive inside his apartment for several hours by someone he met on the dating app Grindr.

In each of the barrages, the men said they were drugged by people they didn’t remember meeting. When they woke up, they discovered that someone had accessed their phone using its facial recognition technology while they were unconscious. The thieves then used apps to drain their victims’ bank accounts and max out their credit cards. Some also stole cash and valuables.

Many drugs used as so-called date-rape drugs only stay in a person’s system for a short time, making them difficult to detect in drug tests. One drug, GHB, is not included at all in most routine drug and toxicology tests, according to the Department of Justice. It is also used recreationally by some in the gay community.

Tyler Burt, 27, was robbed of more than $25,000 after he was drugged at the Boiler Room in the East Village last December. A drug test came back positive for cocaine, which he did not remember taking, and his doctor suggested he had been drugged with GHB.

At the police station, he said, the officers treated him with skepticism.

“They asked me if I had been assaulted and I thought, ‘Being drugged is assault,'” he said. “It seemed like they thought being drugged wasn’t even an option. They said, “Maybe you were, but it’s not really relevant to the robbery.”

Mr. Burt said he didn’t receive any updates from police until last week, when they told him there were no developments in his case. Police did not immediately respond to questions about its initial treatment of Mr. Burt and Mr. Alarcon.

Gay bars have a special place in the L.G.B.T.Q. culture. They act as community hubs in a way that bars with a primarily heterosexual and cisgender clientele do not.

Now that the pandemic has subsided, many new bars have opened. Councilman Erik Bottcher — who represents much of the city’s gay heartland in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and the West Village — called it “a golden age of nightlife.”

The deaths come at a time when L.G.B.T.Q. society feels embattled on a number of fronts.

In the past two years, state lawmakers nationwide have introduced hundreds of bills targeting transgender and drag performances, according to the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy groups.

Conservative politicians and media have accused L.G.B.T.Q. people of “fostering” children, a homophobic trope that conflates homosexuality with pedophilia. And last month, an assailant killed five people and injured 18 at an L.G.B.T.Q. bar in Colorado Springs.

In addition, there are many gay bars in or near Midtown Manhattan, which has been transformed by the pandemic’s economic collapse and high-profile street crime. VERS, a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, had a brick thrown at its window four times in October and November.

“There’s an uneasy, inappropriate quality to the neighborhood,” said David DeParolesa, the bar’s owner.

Mr. Ramirez went to the Ritz on West 46th Street on April 20 and left in a taxi with three men around 10 p.m. 3:15 a.m., said his brother, Carlos. The men left him in the cab a short time later and the driver quickly realized he was unresponsive. He was pronounced dead about 90 minutes after he left the bar. When his body was identified, someone had taken money out of his accounts, his brother said.

The next month, Mr. Umberger, a political consultant visiting from Washington, D.C., went to the Q, on West 48th Street, said his mother, Linda Clary. His body was found five days later on the Upper East Side.

When police first contacted her, Ms Clary said they told her her son was robbed on the street, then took drugs at home and overdosed. But when she saw that more than $20,000 had been withdrawn from his accounts, she traveled to New York from her home in Georgia.

After she showed detectives the suspicious withdrawals, a homicide investigation was launched. Later, she said, a detective described to her surveillance footage that showed her son being led by two men into a car outside the Q.

A preliminary toxicology report given to her by the medical examiner showed cocaine, lidocaine and fentanyl in his system, she said.

More reports of attacks have surfaced. One man said he was drugged in July at the 9th Avenue Saloon, a bar just around the corner from the Ritz. He spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because he feared his attackers might return to his flat.

The last thing he said he remembered was hugging a friend goodbye and returning to his half-finished drink. He woke up the next morning face down on the floor of his apartment.

Both he and the floor were covered in vomit, his eyes were spasming uncontrollably and his phone and wallet were gone, he said. He later discovered that $11,000 had been stolen.

Surveillance camera footage shows a man he did not recognize leading him into his apartment building, past his manager and up the stairs.

Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.