NEW YORK - Julio Ramirez died in the back seat of a taxi in April after he left a popular gay bar in Manhattan with a group of men. They stole his wallet, phone and ID before they abandoned his body in the car with a distressed cabdriver.
One month later, John Umberger was found dead in an Upper East Side town house after he and a group of men left another popular gay bar just three blocks from the last place Ramirez was seen alive. Surveillance footage showed Umberger sandwiched between the men as they guided him into a car.
The Police Department and many in the LGBTQ community at first regarded the deaths as isolated drug overdoses: men who partied too hard, quotidian tragedies in a gay nightlife scene that has roared back to life as the coronavirus pandemic has waned.
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 Department's homicide unit.
The deaths of Ramirez and Umberger came at a fraught time for the city's LGBTQ community, which emerged from the pandemic into the jaws of an outbreak of mpox (formerly known as monkeypox), a landscape of struggling and sometimes shuttered bars and an increasingly hostile national political climate.
They have also spread fear and rumors, while starting a broader conversation about similar attacks that have quietly plagued the city's gay nightlife for years.
"Nobody thought it was a crime initially. They had just thought he had taken something," said Carlos Ramirez, brother of Julio Ramirez, 25, a social worker last seen leaving the Ritz Bar and Lounge in Hell's Kitchen in April. Carlos Ramirez said that when he heard about his brother's death, "I knew somebody had given him something and he did not know they had."
A spokesperson for the Police Department said it was investigating a number of robberies in Hell's Kitchen, where many of the attacks have been clustered. Police said they did not know if Julio Ramirez and Umberger were targeted because they were gay, and they have not said if they believe the men's deaths and other nonfatal attacks are related.
Some men who said they were drugged have struggled to convince police that they were the 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 awoke on the floor of a midtown Manhattan hotel, he said, and found that $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," 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 police.
"At that time, they didn't seem like they were interested," Alarcon said.
There have been arrests connected to a series of similar robberies in Manhattan, but none of the charges in those cases involve the drugging of victims. In one, a patron left the Ritz on May 14, about three weeks after Ramirez's death, and later reported that his phone and wallet were missing and $2,000 had been transferred out of his bank account.
The Police Department did not respond to questions about whether the defendants in those cases were linked to the deaths of Ramirez or Umberger, who was drugged at the Q, a bar three blocks from the Ritz. Umberger's family said the arrests were not related to his death, and Carlos Ramirez and other victims who spoke to The New York Times said they had received no updates from police.
In addition to the families of Ramirez and Umberger, the Times has spoken to five men who said they were drugged at gay bars in the city - including the Eagle, the Boiler Room and the 9th Avenue Saloon - and then robbed. The Times has also spoken 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 bar attacks, the men said they were drugged by people they did not remember meeting. When they awoke, they discovered that someone had gained access to their phone using its facial recognition technology while they were unconscious. The thieves then used apps to empty their victims' bank accounts and max out their credit cards. Some also stole cash and valuables.
Many substances used as so-called date rape drugs remain in a person's system for only a short time, making them difficult to detect on drug tests. One drug, GHB, is not included on most routine drug and toxicology tests at all, according to the Justice Department. 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 had no memory of taking, and his doctor suggested he had been drugged with GHB.
At the police station, he said, the officers treated him skeptically.
"They asked me if I had been assaulted, and I was like, 'Getting drugged is assault,'" he said. "It seemed like they thought being drugged wasn't even a possibility. They said, 'Maybe you were, but that isn't really relevant to the robbery.'"
Burt said he received no updates from police until last week, when they told him there were no developments in his case. The Police Department did not immediately respond to questions about its initial treatment of Burt and Alarcon.
Gay bars hold a special place in LGBTQ culture. They act as community hubs in a way that bars with primarily heterosexual and cisgender clienteles do not.
Now that the pandemic has eased, many new bars have opened. City Council member 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 the LGBTQ community feels embattled on a number of fronts.
In the past two years, state legislatures nationwide have introduced hundreds of bills targeting transgender people and drag performances, according to LGBTQ advocacy groups.
Conservative political and media figures have accused LGBTQ people of "grooming" children, a homophobic trope that conflates homosexuality with pedophilia. And last month, an assailant killed five people and injured 18 at an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In addition, many gay bars are in or near midtown Manhattan, which has been transformed by pandemic-era economic collapse and acts of 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 is an uneasy, unhinged quality to the neighborhood," said David DeParolesa, the bar's owner.
Julio Ramirez went to the Ritz, on West 46th Street, on April 20 and left in a taxi with three men around 3:15 a.m., said his brother, Carlos. The men left him in the cab a short time later and the driver soon realized he was unresponsive. He was pronounced dead roughly 90 minutes after he left the bar. By the time his body was identified, someone had taken money out of his accounts, his brother said.
The next month, 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, Clary said, they told her that her son was robbed on the street, then did 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 opened. 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.
An initial toxicology report provided to her by the medical examiner showed cocaine, lidocaine and fentanyl in his system, she said.
More reports of attacks have surfaced. A 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 was afraid his attackers could return to his apartment.
The last thing he said he remembered was hugging a friend goodbye and turning back to his half-finished drink. He awoke the next morning facedown on the floor of his apartment.
Both he and the floor were covered in vomit, his eyes were uncontrollably spasming, and his phone and wallet were gone, he said. He later discovered that $11,000 had been stolen.
Surveillance camera images show a man he did not recognize leading him into his apartment building, past his superintendent and up the stairs.
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