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Hell's Kitchen Gay Bars React to Attacks on Queer Men

Hell's Kitchen Gay Bars React to Attacks on Queer Men

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Several men were arrested following the deaths of two men who were allegedly drugged and robbed.

Bar operators in Manhattan's heavily gay Hell's Kitchen neighborhood say they're taking steps to protect patrons in reaction to the killings of two men last year.

A Manhattan grand jury earlier this year issued an indictment against several suspects in the 2022 deaths of 25-year-old social worker Julio Ramirez and 33-year-old journalist John Umberger. Ramirez’s body was found in the back of a taxi after he left the Ritz Bar and Lounge with some men on April 20, 2022. The social worker’s family said about $20,000 had been taken from his bank accounts. His death was due to “acute intoxication by the combined effects of fentanyl, p-fluorofentanyl, heroin, cocaine, lidocaine, and ethanol," authorities said.

The following month, Umberger became the victim of a similar attack after he was last seen exiting the Q with two unidentified men. He was found dead in his apartment several days later, also with about $20,000 stolen from his account and several credit cards maxed. A medical examination found the same cocktail of drugs in both victims' systems. Both deaths have been ruled homicides that were facilitated by drugs.

Gay nightlife in Hell's Kitchen remains vibrant, but bar owners are increasingly aware of the need to keep patrons out of danger. The Advocate recently spoke with several of them.

Many venues, including the Ritz, have put up posters in front of their bars asking patrons to “take care of your property, particularly mobile phones, wallets, and bags.” Others, like Mickey Spillane's and DBL, are taking matters into their own hands.

“I’ve got three bartenders and seven bouncers in nine hundred square feet. You don’t get much more secure than that,” the 14-year owner of both bars, Richie Friendly, tells The Advocate. “You can’t get away with anything in my bars. We all gotta work together here. See something, say something, right?”

Michael McGrail, one of the partners who opened Thirst Bar on 10th Avenue in March of 2022, says, “Our staff has been notified by the New York Restaurant Association on how to handle things like the sort of robberies and druggings we’re seeing in the neighborhood.”

Also, he notes, a meeting was hosted by the U.S. Department Homeland Security and the FBI following several incidents of brick-throwing that occurred last fall at a newly opened bar in the neighborhood, Vers. Both Homeland Security and the FBI had informed club/bar owners about the recent uptick in anti-LGBTQ violence. “One of the major things they advised us is that it’s crucial all patrons know where the exits are within the establishments,” McGrail says.

There were four incidents of brick-throwing at Vers in October and November, says owner David DeParolesa. “That sadly coincided with the shooting in Colorado," he says. "That really heightened our awareness of safety as a queer establishment.” The bar increased the number of security cameras installed around the perimeter, among other steps. “We realized there was a pattern in these attacks," he says. "We worked with the local precinct to increase police presence as well. And internally, we created a new safety protocol. We definitely have more awareness than we did prior.” A suspect has been charged in connection with these attacks and is awaiting trial.

DeParolesa also says the New York Police Department's LGBTQ office and the New York City Anti-Violence Project have come to the venue with flyers and posters that offer patrons information about the recent uptick in druggings in queer spaces. “We’ve tried to make our staff as aware as possible to watch patrons' drinks,” he says.

The indictments against five suspects were announced April 18. Jayqwan Hamilton, 35, Robert DeMaio 34, Jacob Barroso, 29, Andre Butts, 27, and Shane Hoskins, 30, are accused of "robbing individuals outside bars and nightclubs by drugging them in order to steal their cell phones, credit cards and other personal identifying information, causing the death of two victims, Julio Ramirez and John Umberger," says a press release from the Manhattan district attorney's office. "The defendants are also charged with a conspiracy to commit these robberies."

They are all charged with robbery in the first degree and conspiracy in the fourth degree. Hamilton, DeMaio and Barroso are each charged with one count of murder in the second degree; Hamilton and DeMaio are charged with a second count of murder in the second degree.The defendants are also charged with various counts of identity theft and grand larceny. There are other victims besides the two who died, authorities said.

"According to court documents and statements made on the record in court, from March 2021 to July 2022, the defendants conspired to forcibly steal property from their victims using dangerous substances," the press release says. "They offered substances to people exiting bars and nightclubs, intending to incapacitate them or to otherwise inhibit their ability to perceive their surroundings. The defendants would then steal cell phones or credit cards from their victims in order to make unauthorized purchases and money transfers. The defendants then divided the proceeds between themselves." Authorities have said the crimes were motivated by greed and the victims were not targeted for being gay.

“Our entire city continues to mourn the tragic losses of Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Umberger,” District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in the release. “In addition to the pain their deaths have caused for their family and loved ones, I know that many other New Yorkers have feared for their own safety when going out to meet up with friends. I am grateful to our professional and dedicated team for their hard work, along with the detectives at the NYPD who were outstanding partners throughout this entire investigation. If other members of the public believe they have been the victims of similar incidents, I encourage them to call our help line at 212-335-9040.”

The D.A.'s office has an ongoing investigation into a separate string of fatal overdoses, which resulted in the indictment of Kenwood Allen in December.

Last week, New York City's Mayor Eric Adams office announced a new program to support LGBTQ+ victims of crimes following these drugged robberies.

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