Update 11/17: Think you were drugged? APD wants to hear about it. Find APD contact info and responses to this column here .
The rumors were everywhere. On Facebook. On Craigslist. At the coffee shop. Young women were being drugged at downtown bars. Someone was slipping them "date rape drugs," like the sedative Rohypnol or party drug GHB. They weren't being sexually assaulted. But someone was making them sick. It seemed like the stuff of urban legend.
A 26-year-old student e-mailed to say she had been drugged in the fall. She said she went out with six friends. They split three pitchers of beer. All her friends left except for one. She ordered another drink before heading to the dance floor. A little later, she started to feel sick. She told her friend they needed to go home. The last thing she remembers is walking down the sidewalk on Fourth Avenue.
"I woke up on my neighbor's couch, covered in vomit with a busted lip," she said over the telephone.
She was groggy. She didn't remember how she got home. Her friend said she went from tipsy to wasted in a matter of minutes. Wasn't she just really drunk? She said no.
"It's completely different," she told me.
Another e-mail came from a 24-year-old woman who said she had been drugged in May. Over the course of an evening, she had five drinks and a tequila shot. Then she collapsed in a bathroom.
"I lost complete control over all my limbs and couldn't walk. Both my friends, who are a few inches shorter than I, were carrying my not-so-small frame for more than 10 blocks till we landed at a friend's place downtown," she wrote. "The memory flashbacks of that night are of me lying there, thinking, 'Oh, I can't really move or talk.' "
She said she knew her tolerance for alcohol and she hadn't had too much. Something felt different. Possibly, but I wondered: who hasn't underestimated the effects of alcohol? Especially when it comes to that last tequila shot. Especially in your 20s, after a night of drinking.
One of the women put an ad on Craigs-list asking if other people had been drugged. She said she had more than a dozen responses. And I kept hearing rumors. Young women told me about having a number of drinks over nights out downtown. They described loss of control over their limbs. Unexpected intoxication. Seeing double. Passing out. The next morning, splitting headaches and fatigue. They knew their tolerance, and it seemed out of the ordinary, they said.
But if someone was drugging women, what was the motive? None of them had been sexually assaulted. All of them were out with friends, not in date situations. Most of them had more than a few drinks before getting sick. Was there really some late night bar patron slipping women drugs just for kicks? Maybe there were assaults I hadn't heard about.
Jennifer Meyer, supervisor for forensic nursing services at Providence Alaska Medical Center, is in charge of a staff of nurses who collect evidence in sexual assault cases. I asked if she'd seen more cases lately where a stranger had slipped something in a drink. She said no.
Most of the time sexual assault victims know their attacker, she said. Alcohol alone is a far bigger factor in sexual assaults than drugged drinks, she said. She estimated that of the assaults she'd helped investigate, about 20 percent of victims suspected they were drugged. But that didn't mean all of them had been, she said.
"Alcohol, if you have enough of it, certainly mimics the date-rape drugs," she said.
Often it's hard to tell what happened, she said. Drugs metabolize quickly. By the time women wake up and report the assault, it can be too late to test.
"It happens, it's a known situation," she told me. "It's just extremely difficult to prove."
Sgt. Ken McCoy, supervisor of the special victims unit at the Anchorage Police Department told me he has seen very little evidence of sexual assaults involving date-rape drugs. For a few years they tested every rape victim, but had no positive results, except for one woman who said she took the drugs, he said.
"We have victims who present to us all the time they believe that was a factor," he said. "In a large majority of our cases, it appears that alcohol was the overwhelming factor."
If someone suspects their friend has been drugged at a bar, they should get them to the hospital and get tested right away, he said. They should also call the police.
John Pattee, the head of the Anchorage Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant, Retailer's Association, owns The Gaslight and The Avenue bars and has been in the industry for more than 20 years. The rumors concerned him. He planned to ask his staff to keep an eye out for people messing with women's drinks. He told me he has heard about women being drugged from time to time, but it has never been substantiated.
"I believe it's happened. Absolutely," he said. "Just how often does it happen? I don't know."
In some cases, he said, it appeared women had been drinking too much and thought they were drugged. Or they felt embarrassed after a night of heavy drinking and didn't want to take responsibility. Maybe they were young and they blacked out for the first time so it felt like something out of the ordinary happened.
It was hard to say for sure what was going on. I believed the women when they said they felt different than usual. But for each of them, there was plenty of alcohol involved. It seemed, at least in some cases, the drinks were the most logical culprit.
Then I heard from a woman in her late 30s who said she thought she was drugged in January. She'd been at a work function with a friend. She estimated she had four or five drinks over the course of the evening, and then around midnight went to a bar downtown. She and the friend stayed until the bar closed, and she had three more drinks. When she was signing the tab, she said, she felt strange.
By the time she made it into a cab, she was "really out of it," she said. She knew the cab driver. She'd met him at a bar a few weeks before. He'd asked her for her number, and she'd given it to him. He dropped off her friend. When she got home, he helped her out of the cab, she said. Then, she said, he followed her in and assaulted her.
"When he started doing things to me I couldn't sit up. I couldn't even reach him to try and push him away," she said. "I could not get back up."
Soon she blacked out, she said. She woke up several hours later because she was vomiting. She felt groggy and embarrassed. She didn't immediately go to police. She washed her sheets. She took a shower. Her case went cold, she said, because of lack of forensic evidence. Did she think her attacker drugged her? She didn't know. Maybe it was someone else. What she did know: He was looking for a woman who was vulnerable.
I thought about that. Nothing any woman does means she asked to be assaulted. All the talk about slipping things in drinks obscures a larger issue: Just drinking more than a couple beers in a downtown bar is risky for women. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. It's easy to forget how vulnerable we can become.
When we aren't aware of our surroundings, when we're obviously intoxicated, we become targets. That happens all the time, usually not because of a mystery drugger, but because of alcohol. For most of us, alcohol intake is something we can control.
We should all keep an eye on our drinks. We shouldn't leave them when we go out to smoke or head to the dance floor. It's possible someone could slip us something.
But in a world where men still regularly prey on women, what is most likely to keep us safe is keeping an eye on how much we drink in the first place.