Police are investigating a spate of recent incidents in which gay men may have been drugged and robbed in Hell's Kitchen, including two who died. The crimes have rattled the city's gay community at a moment when it was already on heightened alert to threats and violence. Last month, a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing at least five people and injuring 25 others. Michael Hill, host of "Morning Edition," spoke to City Councilmember Erik Bottcher, who represents Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea and the West Village.
Michael Hill: Councilmember, thank you for being so patient and joining us once again.
Erik Bottcher: Thank you.
You're welcome. What can you tell us about the reported drugging and robberies in Hell's Kitchen?
So earlier this year, two men, Julio Ramirez and John Umberger were both found dead in separate incidents, and they were initially believed to be overdoses, but later it was discovered that their bank accounts had been accessed and that thousands of dollars had been transferred out. Their deaths are now being investigated as homicides by the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney's office.
A recent story in the New York Times included anecdotes from several other gay men who believe they experienced similar drugging at gay bars. What are you hearing from your constituents?
Well, there's a great deal of concern and the authorities do suspect that these might be connected. And my office, we've been in frequent contact with the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney's office, and they have repeatedly assured us that they have full teams of investigators on this case. We demand justice in the deaths of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger, and we want the people responsible for this to be brought to justice.
Some of the men who spoke to the Times recounted that they felt like police blame them for taking drugs or didn't take seriously their stories of being drugged. What's your take on how police are handling this?
There have been some very upsetting accounts of the initial reactions of officers at the precinct level, and this just reinforces the need for us to retrain these officers and make sure that everyone in the police department needs to know that if someone comes to you with incidents like this, you have to take it extremely seriously and not dismiss it. There's been incidents in the past where people have reported incidents that might have a hate crime motivation, and the police have not referred those to the hate crimes task force, which they're supposed to do. This is not a new issue. It's something that I've been encountering for many years in my interactions with NYPD and it's something we really need to address at the highest levels.
Are bars taking any steps to try to help keep patrons safer? What can people do to keep themselves safe?
So we've been out in the community. We were out just a week or or so ago. We were out at the bars in Hell's Kitchen distributing safety tips to people going out. Those include: let your friends know where you're going and who you're going with. Watch your drink. Don't leave your drink unattended. These are things that people really need to keep in mind while the police are investigating this case. It's so important that we have the information we need to keep ourselves safe while this is being investigated.
City Councilmember Erik Bottcher represents Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea and the West Village. Councilmember, as always, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much and happy holidays.
The headline of this story has been updated to better reflect the content of the story