Woman may have been drugged at bar
February 5, 2004
Aspen police are investigating whether a date rape drug was used on a young woman who nearly died after she passed out at a local bar.
The woman was out with friends last Tuesday night when she became violently ill, passed out and later stopped breathing at Aspen Valley Hospital. Police suspect someone slipped a drug into her drink.
Investigators are still awaiting the victim’s toxicology results, but the suspected drug is gamma hydroxy butyrate, or GHB. Police have looked into sexual assault crimes in the past that may be linked to the drug, but they say many people may not be aware of its possible presence in Aspen.
The victim, who was visiting Aspen, is a friend of Devon Wieneke of Aspen. Wieneke wrote a letter to the Times about the incident (see page 7).
Wieneke and her friend went to the Cooper Street Bar after last Tuesday’s Offspring concert in Aspen with some acquaintances. She said her friend was drinking her third drink of the night when she suddenly felt sick and then passed out in the bar’s bathroom.
Wieneke discovered her friend there five minutes later.
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“At that point we thought she was drunk, because we hadn’t put two and two together,” Wieneke said. “My roommate and boyfriend tried to pick her up but she couldn’t stand, and she kept falling down. She wasn’t responding to anything.”
The young woman, whose name is not being released to protect her privacy, vomited numerous times, and Wieneke called 911. An ambulance took the woman to Aspen Valley Hospital, where she stopped breathing a number of times and had to be placed on a respirator, Wieneke said.
After spending the night in the hospital, the woman regained consciousness and was taken off the respirator. She was discharged that afternoon and left Aspen for home last Thursday.
“We tried to reassure her, and some counselors talked to her, but she didn’t understand how someone would do something like that,” Wieneke said. “It was obviously an extremely difficult experience. The doctors impressed upon her how much worse it could have been ” they told us that if not for us calling the ambulance, she could be dead.”
Lab results for the 22-year-old victim are expected in the next week. Often an odorless, tasteless, clear liquid, GHB has been used with steroids and as a club drug for muscle relaxation. When combined with alcohol, it can result in loss of consciousness.
“It’s a nasty drug,” said Aspen-based family practitioner Dr. Kim Scheuer. “Its side effects include coma, stopped breathing, low and high heart rates, seizures, confusion and high or low blood pressure. Nausea and vomiting are very common.”
GHB is often a difficult drug for doctors to detect, as it leaves a person’s system within hours after use. Scheuer said it’s likely that if someone came into the emergency room within 12 hours of using the drug, it’s likely a urine test would show positive results.
But if a person does not remember the incident or report the crime within that time frame, it’s difficult to determine if GHB was used.
“Another problem with this is that a lot of people do not report what’s happened to them because they’re scared,” she said.
Under Colorado law, GHB is a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same classification as heroin and hallucinogens. Possessing GHB or causing another person to use it unknowingly is a felony.
“Based on national news of the drug, I think people are aware on a national level that it happens, but they might not be aware that it happens here,” said Aspen Police Detective Jim Crowley.
In the past four years, he estimated that use of GHB in sexual assault cases has been investigated three or four times.
Scheuer said in just the past six months she has heard of four suspected cases that weren’t reported to police.
Aspen Police Detective Chris Womack said the victim was very clear-headed when he spoke to her Wednesday morning, and she remembered a man who was talking to her in the bar before she got ill. She said his name was “Alec,” and he allegedly said he was from Wisconsin.
“He’s not a suspect ” just someone we’d like to talk to,” Womack said. “She said he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes.”
Wieneke said she wanted to tell her friend’s story in order to impress upon the community that GHB assaults aren’t something that escapes Aspen.
“I knew that you shouldn’t leave your drinks unattended, but in a town like Aspen we get really lax,” she said. “I’d never heard of anything like that before here, until my friends told me they had heard about similar experiences. We left our drinks on a table with a bunch of others that night, and I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been drinking beer out of a bottle, I might be in the hospital with her.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org