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A night they can't remember, at one of the country's most popular LGBTQ+ bars

Investigation with The 19th News Los Angeles Abbey Gay Bar West Hollywood LA California Restaurant Nightclub LGBT events

Many maintain that The Abbey in West Hollywood is the site of the most disorienting experience of their lives.

Editor’s note: This story is co-published with The 19th. It contains descriptions of sexual assault and druggings. One of the reporters who worked on this investigation had a disorienting experience at The Abbey years ago.

One of her last clear memories of that night was of a barback handing something to the bartender. Yvette Lopez recalled looking to her right before taking the first sip of her drink. Another barback was sitting there with a plastic cup with a lid on it.

“He cheers me and we had the drink, and I don’t remember anything after that,” Lopez testified in a deposition.

The next thing she remembered was being doubled over in an alley. Lopez heard a man say to her, “Don’t throw up,” according to her police report. She then blacked out again.

The next time Lopez came to, she was looking up at a woman she didn’t know. The woman was comforting her and an ambulance was on the way.

That was November 27, 2011. Lopez and her girlfriend had gone to The Abbey — a popular gay bar in West Hollywood, California — before having a disagreement about moving to New Mexico and separating. Lopez walked to the back of the club alone, where a bartender offered her a free drink. That’s when Lopez’s nightmare began.

The police report from that night alleged that Lopez couldn’t immediately recall her girlfriend’s last name or phone number, even though the two had been dating for about a year. She was found in a park adjacent to The Abbey by two women who called the police. “Lopez was too intoxicated and does not remember how she got to the park from the bar,” the report said.

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Photo Caption: Lopez walked to the back of The Abbey alone, where a bartender offered her a free drink. That’s when Lopez’s nightmare began.

About a year and a half later, on April 3, 2013, Lopez (identified as “Yvette Doe”) and another anonymous woman and her husband sued The Abbey for $10 million for each woman. In their lawsuit, the women claimed that during separate incidents, Abbey employees served them drinks with “rape drugs” and then sexually assaulted them.

This is the first time Lopez is using her real name publicly in connection with the case. The lawsuit she and the anonymous couple filed is the only known legal action against The Abbey alleging that a staff member drugged and assaulted a patron. The following year, in 2014, the lawsuit was amended to include four other alleged victims who claimed that they, too, had been served beverages containing “rape drugs” by Abbey employees. The four, whose last names were not disclosed in the suit, consumed the drinks but were not assaulted, according to court records.

In the years that followed, Lopez's case seemed to languish. The West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station made no arrests.

Lopez settled her lawsuit out of court in spring 2015. No updates were published about the status of the suit and the deal bars her from talking about the terms of settlement. In a written statement to The 19th, The Abbey said it would not discuss specific lawsuits, but “settling a lawsuit does not necessarily indicate any wrongdoing.”

For more than three decades, The Abbey Food & Bar has functioned not just as a club, but as a community center, town hall and queer refuge. Democratic presidential hopefuls like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg and other politicians have appeared at the storied institution. When it first opened in the 1990s, The Abbey became a hub for AIDS advocacy groups like ACT UP to gather, organize and educate. When survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting gathered a year after the deadly 2016 attack in Orlando, Florida, to remember the victims and raise money, they did so at The Abbey.

And yet, many people say The Abbey is the site of the most disorienting — and sometimes traumatic — night of their lives.

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Photo Caption: When Haely White’s Instagram post about her suspicions of being drugged at The Abbey went viral, the bar was quick to respond.

On August 3, 2021, Los Angeles-based comedian Haely White posted on her Instagram that she had gone to The Abbey, ordered a drink and then blacked out.

“Friday morning I woke up with a busted nose, lip, black eye and felt like I was dying,” White wrote. In her post — which has since been deleted — she referenced Yelp, Tripadvisor and Reddit comments from other patrons claiming that bartenders had drugged them and old news articles about Lopez’s lawsuit. White speculated that a bartender may have drugged her.

White’s post set off a firestorm of accusations against the renowned club. Over the next few days, allegations were posted across social media from people who claimed they, too, had been drugged at The Abbey or knew someone who had been drugged there.

White’s post found its way to Lopez, who scrolled through the accusations on her phone, devastated and angry to see that her case had changed nothing — but relieved she was no longer alone.

More than 70 people interviewed by The 19th over the course of three years reported going to The Abbey and drinking well under what they felt was their usual limit — in some cases consuming only soda or water — and experiencing disorientation to varying degrees or losing consciousness.

In some cases, these patrons provided medical documentation of hospitalizations, photos, text messages, videos or contacts for companions who cared for them, which were all reviewed by The 19th as a part of its investigation. Reporters also interviewed Abbey bartenders and other staff, West Hollywood City Council members, toxicology experts and law enforcement officials in an effort to capture a full picture of the culture and allegations at the bar.

Public records indicate that elected officials and law enforcement officers were aware of allegations of druggings at The Abbey dating back to at least 2016.

Years of allegations

The 19th has investigated claims of druggings and sexual assault at The Abbey that go back as early as 2007 and extend to as recently as last summer, though only seven of these claims, which include the anonymous woman’s husband, have resulted in a lawsuit.

Actor Briana Venskus, known for roles on “Grace and Frankie” and “The Walking Dead,” told The 19th that she had two strange experiences at The Abbey and stopped going there a decade ago.

In 2008, Venskus got one drink and “did not feel good almost immediately after,” she said.

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Photo Caption: During an afternoon brunch at The Abbey with her girlfriend and another couple, Venskus felt so sick and disoriented that she asked her girlfriend to take her home.

“The next thing that I came to, I was in the bathroom throwing up,” Venskus recalled. “I wrote off the first time as me just being an idiot.”

It wasn’t until a second incident in 2013 that Venskus shifted the blame from herself. Older and more settled in the city, Venskus went to The Abbey for an afternoon brunch with her girlfriend and another couple.

“We got a drink and I immediately, within … a couple sips, just started to get this really weird sort of vertigo-type feeling,” she said.

Venskus felt so sick and disoriented that she asked her girlfriend to take her home.

“I'm an adult, I know how to handle my liquor, and that's just not my reaction,” Venskus said.

Venskus never reported the incident to The Abbey or law enforcement. All three people with Venskus that day corroborated her version of events in interviews with The 19th. The Abbey said it had no record of this incident and went on to say that “anyone who believes they are a victim of a crime should report it to the police.”

Few of those interviewed by The 19th reported their incidents to police. Several, however, said they tried to alert Abbey management to suspicions that their drinks had been spiked.

In July 2021, patrons reported a cluster of incidents. On July 3, Amy Valencia said she drank four shots at home with friends before going to The Abbey. She arrived at the bar tipsy, “but I wasn’t in a bad place. I was just vibing,” she said.

When her friends went up to the bar to order drinks, Valencia asked them to get her a glass of water. She drank it quickly but said it tasted “a little weird.” She began gagging and rushed to the bathroom.

“I slowly started to feel dizzy and shaky, and I was slowly losing control of my body,” she said. “I was sweating … and I just completely collapsed on the floor.”

Paramedics were called, and Valencia was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital less than a mile from The Abbey.

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Photo Caption: When her friends went up to the bar to order drinks, Amy Valencia asked them to get her a glass of water. She drank it quickly but said it tasted “a little weird.” She began gagging and rushed to the bathroom.

Uninsured, scared of hospital bills and knowing she did not purposefully ingest drugs, Valencia said she declined drug testing in the emergency room. Medics took her blood alcohol level instead, which came back as zero — verified by The 19th through documents provided by Valencia. Valencia said her doctor was baffled.

A month later, when White posted about her suspicions that she was drugged at The Abbey, Valencia saw her own incident in a new light. She called The Abbey and asked for help getting security footage. She said she talked to a manager named Todd Barnes, who told her the bar erases security video after two weeks. Barnes did not respond to requests for comment. The Abbey said it does not share video with anyone other than law enforcement and did not further address its protocol for handling footage.

The night after Valencia’s alleged incident, on July 4, 2021, a woman who asked to be identified only as Julia had a similar incident at The Abbey. Julia had one drink at home and said she felt “completely sober” when she got to the bar. She ordered two shots within five to 10 minutes of each other, drinks she said she received directly from the bartender.

“And then within, like, 15 minutes [of the second shot], I have no memory of the entire night,” Julia said. “I ended up regaining consciousness at 4:30 in the morning, just covered in vomit.”

Julia woke up in her friend’s bathtub. She had no signs of injury or assault, but she felt certain she had been drugged. That morning, she called The Abbey to report the incident.

“I think I was roofied at your bar, and I'd love to talk to you about it,” she said she told the person who answered the phone. Julia said an employee took her number and promised to call her back, but she never heard from anyone at The Abbey. The Abbey declined to comment on Julia’s allegation.

Indifference or resistance from managers and police

The Abbey says that in its more than 30 years in operation, there has never been evidence to suggest staff members have drugged patrons.

“If we had any evidence that one of our employees or staff had drugged someone, we would terminate them immediately, report it to law enforcement, and stand with the victim by working with law enforcement on any investigation into the crime,” the bar said in a written statement to The 19th.

Still, four former employees told The 19th that customers and staff alerted Abbey management to possible druggings at the bar on many occasions.“It was happening,” Alex Mackey, a former bartender and employee of The Abbey for a decade, told The 19th about druggings. “It was happening, and the majority wasn't happening by the staff.”

In its written statement, The Abbey said: “If management or security were ever aware of any person, patron or staff spiking a drink, they would be immediately removed from The Abbey, turned in to law enforcement and never allowed back at The Abbey.”

Another former employee reported fielding calls from customers who were concerned they had been drugged at the bar. The staffer, who declined to be identified because of a nondisclosure agreement with The Abbey, said management counseled staff to explain that the club served strong drinks.

The Abbey did not address the former employee’s claim, though the sentiment appears to be reflected in its written statement to The 19th. It said: “When anyone reports a crime to The Abbey, including suspected druggings, we ask them to file a police report immediately. We are well known for our cocktails. For some people, 1 drink is more than enough. Ultimately, it is up to individuals to know their limits.”

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Photo Caption: The Abbey says there has never been evidence to suggest staff members have drugged patrons, yet four former employees told The 19th that customers and staff alerted Abbey management to possible druggings at the bar on many occasions.

Time and time again, alleged victims said their efforts to report to The Abbey, elected officials or police were met with indifference or resistance. In at least five cases, alleged victims said they had gone to police only to be discouraged from filing a report because they didn’t have hard evidence like a toxicology report.

In a statement, the captain of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, William Moulder, said: “We take all allegations of sexual assault, and related crimes, very seriously. We are dedicated to helping victims. If anyone has concerns about the service or response from the Sheriff's Department, they should contact a Sheriff’s Supervisor at the Station (either a Sergeant or Lieutenant) or contact me.”

One person who said she received a resistant response was an attorney, who went to the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station on August 8, 2021, to report that she had been drugged a month prior. The attorney asked to remain anonymous to protect her career in government.

According to the attorney, she arrived at The Abbey sober with friends on July 4, 2021, the same night as Julia’s reported incident. She had a vodka soda and watched her drink closely, she said. Thirty minutes into her second drink, she could no longer stand, so her boyfriend ferried her out of the club. On her way out, she fell, scraping her palms so badly that a scar remained a month later. She rode home unresponsive, involuntarily knocking the car’s shifter into manual sport mode, her boyfriend later told her. Upon arriving home, she vomited into a plastic bag for 10 minutes before passing out.

She said it took time for her to come to the conclusion that she was likely drugged, so a month passed before she went to make a police report. After being told it’d be an hours-long wait to file a report because too many detectives were out in the field, an officer told her that “‘druggings happen all the time at clubs all across L.A.” and “there was no actual assault.”

“I had to tell him that under the California Penal Code, drugging in itself is a crime,” she said.

About 20 minutes later, a detective came to take down her report, she said.

Later, she said she contacted the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station to get an update on her case. A detective told her that her report had never been filed. The detective did not respond to The 19th’s calls for comment.

Edward Ramirez, who was captain of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station from 2019 to 2022, said that he didn’t know about the woman’s case and that it was department policy to document allegations into reports.

“What I do want to say to you, to the public, is if this happens to anybody, I would like to offer my sincerest apologies,” Ramirez told The 19th.

The idea that police have told alleged victims that they need evidence of druggings could prove problematic. Identifying drugs used to spike drinks can be difficult if not impossible, experts told The 19th.

Cedars-Sinai, the hospital closest to The Abbey, doesn’t test for most drugs that are used in sexual assaults, Dr. Sam Torbati, the hospital’s ER medical director, said at a West Hollywood City Council meeting in January 2022.

“[Patients] want to know what they were poisoned with … and we’re not able to often tell them exactly what’s in their system,” Torbati said. “Medically speaking, most drugs that are used to poison patients … are drugs that the body metabolizes.”

In other words, those drugs tend to process out of a patient’s system before a doctor can test for them.

According to Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant medical director of the California Poison Control System, sedatives like Valium, Ambien, Unisom and GHB can all produce similar sensations when ingested, and all of them can cause the loss of consciousness or memory. The effects of sedative drugs like GHB are markedly different from alcohol, he said.

He said such drugs are the most likely culprit when people with a tolerance for alcohol are suddenly rendered incapacitated by one or two drinks.

“In my experience … the ways that it could be something else, where it wasn't someone who was trying to hurt you, would be if you were already on a medication that is one of those kinds of medications that you strictly cannot take with alcohol,” Rangan said.

West Hollywood's alcohol-soaked nightlife

The city of Los Angeles stretches over 501 square miles. Nestled like an island in the middle is the two-square-mile city of West Hollywood. West Hollywood residents elect their own city council and can’t vote for the L.A. mayor. The city’s law enforcement officers are contracted through the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in partnership with 80 other L.A.-adjacent cities like Beverly Hills.

Despite its compact size, West Hollywood has an outsized impact on Los Angeles and the country as a whole. Los Angeles Magazine noted that after residents elected a majority-gay city council in 1984, it became known as the country’s first gay municipality.

The city today claims that more than 40 percent of its 35,000 residents identify as LGBTQ+. WeHo, as inhabitants affectionately call it, is the epicenter of L.A.’s queer nightlife, with dozens of gay bars, clubs, sex toy stores and community services like HIV testing. The city has about 58 alcohol outlets for every 10,000 residents, nearly four times the rate of Los Angeles County as a whole. There are more than 300 active retail liquor licenses in West Hollywood, according to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. In 2013 and 2020, the city had the highest “alcohol outlet density” in Los Angeles County, per an analysis by the county Department of Public Health.

The most popular of those retailers is The Abbey, according to Ramirez.

The Abbey’s website boasts that it has twice been voted the best gay bar in the world by MTV. In 2017, the club let viewers peek into its celeb-studded world in an E! reality TV series, “What Happens at The Abbey,” which followed staff for a seven-episode season.

The city’s pulsing nightlife comes with costs. Of all the cities in Los Angeles County, West Hollywood ranked in the highest tier in four of five categories of alcohol-related harms tracked by the county’s Department of Public Health in 2013, including violent crimes, vehicle crashes, emergency department visits and deaths. In the department’s 2020 analysis, it was still in the highest tier for violent crimes and deaths.

Los Angeles County provided funding for the public health firm Institute for Public Strategies to study and address alcohol-related crimes and deaths in West Hollywood. The report, presented to the city council in 2017, made 15 recommendations for steps the city could take to help prevent excessive consumption.

In an interview with The 19th in 2021, Ramirez said he reviewed reported sexual assaults in West Hollywood for the last three years and found that half of the incidents — 10 out of 20 — had “a nexus to” The Abbey. From 2016 to 2021, 13 of 30 rapes reported to police in West Hollywood that began with allegations of druggings took place at The Abbey or its adjoining bar, The Chapel, according to data provided to the West Hollywood City Council by the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.

In six of those cases, victims blacked out and were discovered elsewhere — in an unknown car, at a motel, on the streets or in an alley. Two woke up in a hospital. One victim was found in the bathroom at The Abbey. According to police, only one case was filed with the district attorney; the rest had no results due to lack of evidence or victim cooperation.

The Abbey declined to comment on this data. Ramirez said he wasn’t surprised that so many incidents could be traced back to The Abbey, because it is the busiest nightlife spot in the city.

“I base that on the law of averages,” he said.

Dean Ambrosini, a staffer at the Institute for Public Strategies who worked on the West Hollywood study, said it was a “fight” to get city council members to pay attention to alcohol-related incidents.

“When we first released our report (on the perception of alcohol-related harms in West Hollywood) to the council, it was not particularly well received,” he said.

City Council Member John Heilman said he has heard multiple reports of druggings not only at The Abbey, but at bars across West Hollywood, and would have acted if he believed the bar was a specific concern. He highlighted the council’s efforts to educate residents about monitoring their drinks and to “not take drinks from strangers.” In 2022, the city launched an initiative to hand out free drink-spiking test strips to businesses and patrons.

John D’Amico, who served on the council from 2011 to 2022, was alerted to sexual assaults at The Abbey, he confirmed in an interview with The 19th. The UCLA Rape Treatment Center contacted him about three separate assaults during his time in office, including at The Abbey, he said.

In November 2017, D’Amico shared a tweet to his personal Facebook page. The post warned women about recent druggings at The Abbey. “All my ladies who like to party in WEHO pls be safe @ The Abbey,” it said. “Yes, Safety first,” D’Amico wrote above his post. “No matter where you are never leave your drink unattended.”

D’Amico said he had no evidence that incidents at The Abbey were systemic during his time in office. “I have to say that that's never come to me,” D’Amico said.

In its written statement, The Abbey said it was never informed about these incidents: “Neither John D’Amico nor the UCLA team reached out to us. We would have participated in any investigation by law enforcement by providing them footage, security logs and anything else we could.”

In a written statement, West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne said the city has a number of programs to support safety at entertainment venues.

“Very importantly, Bystander Intervention Training from the UCLA Health Rape Treatment Center Santa Monica assists our Sheriff’s Deputies in more sensitively responding with a trauma-informed approach,” she said. “We’re continuing to work with our local Sheriff’s, Block by Block Security Ambassadors, and business community to ensure a proactive approach to reducing incidents, and to make sure that victims, when crimes do occur, can safely come forward and are taken seriously when they have allegations.”

A legal battle with The Abbey

When Haely White’s Instagram post about her suspicions of being drugged at The Abbey went viral, the bar was quick to respond. In an August 6, 2021, post on its Facebook page, it said, “We can find no evidence that suggests one of our staff members spiked a drink,” sharing screenshots of a conversation with White that describes security footage of her leaving her drink unattended. The company referenced past lawsuits against it, saying they were “usually a demand for payment.”

“Starting today, we will begin filing our own defamation lawsuits against people who make online claims that are contradicted by our security footage and investigations by law enforcement,” the post read.

Presented with camera footage of her unattended drink and under threat of a lawsuit, White reached a legal agreement with The Abbey to publicly apologize for blaming staff for her suspected drugging. Online commenters accused White of fabricating the story to gain attention. With confusion over the incident brewing online, White posted the following day that she simply wasn’t sure what happened.

“The video footage that I have reviewed does not show the bartender placing anything in my drink,” White wrote. “There is an important additional detail — the footage also shows me collapsing off the seat at a booth not long after having my drink.”

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Photo Caption: Haely White, Yvette Lopez and Amy Valencia pose for a portrait together in Los Angeles.

The Abbey responded to this follow-up post by filing a $5 million lawsuit against White claiming defamation and breach of contract. The suit accused White of breaking the settlement to stop accusing Abbey employees of spiking her drink. In November 2021, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy dismissed the defamation claim, noting that previous news articles and online reviews about the bar reasonably led White to suspect she had been drugged.

But The Abbey’s breach of contract claim was allowed to move forward because the judge found that White’s apology may have been posted less prominently than her initial accusation. White is appealing and says the case has buried her in legal fees. She alleges that The Abbey has employed an intimidation campaign to damage her reputation and financially ruin her in an effort to silence others from speaking out. The Abbey declined to comment on this allegation by White.

In response to the suit, more than half of the people who agreed to be interviewed for The 19th’s investigation asked that their names or stories be removed, citing fears of legal retaliation from The Abbey.

The Abbey had also released a message exchange that its management had with White in which she acknowledged being on a date with a woman at the club, despite being married to a cisgender man.

“It led people to speculate that I was cheating on my husband and that I lied about this to cover my tracks,” White said.

White’s husband knew about the date, she said; the two were not monogamous. But she wasn’t ready to come out as queer publicly. The Abbey outed her without her consent, she said.

“I was framed as a liar,” White said, “as a ‘straight White bitch coming into our bar,’ and it felt like there was no safe space for me, within that community, within my own former community. I got to a place that was really dangerous. I was suicidal.” The Abbey declined to comment on these statements.

Yvette Lopez watched the controversy engulf White and thought back to her own alleged drugging at The Abbey. A few weeks after White posted her story to social media, a detective reached out to Lopez — she hadn’t received an update on her unsolved case in years, she said.

Moulder, the current head of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, confirmed that a suspect in Lopez’s case had been identified using DNA evidence, but no arrests have been made.

“The victim stopped cooperating with the investigation,” Moulder said in an email to The 19th, adding that a person had been identified before White’s incident.

Lopez said she stopped working with detectives because the process was retraumatizing. She said their questions echoed a homophobic and victim-blaming approach she encountered a decade earlier when investigators seemed to suggest that she invited the rape because a male friend had tried to kiss her hours earlier. Investigators seemed to question whether she was, in fact, a lesbian.

Lopez spent years blaming herself for not pushing her case further, and she wonders if she could have prevented others from suffering like she did. Dozens of other alleged victims The 19th talked to also blamed themselves.

“We are a business that cares about our customer’s [sic] safety and well-being, unfortunately sometimes we cannot save everyone from bad people or themselves,” The Abbey said in a statement. “It is also just possible that the people you have spoken to may have simply over consumed or mixed drugs and alcohol on their own, both of which can create gaps in memory and might lead to a false narrative.”

In November, The Abbey announced a sale agreement with a new owner and noted that the management team will not change.

White has never stopped hearing new stories about The Abbey. Every few weeks, it seems, a new person finds her story online when trying to make sense of their own bad night and reaches out to her. Together, these claims have created a network of support, giving voice to their experiences and making an impact each time another story comes out.

This is what White’s story did for Lopez, and what Lopez now hopes to do for others too scared to speak up.

Jasmine Mithani, Orion Rummler, Mariel Padilla and Candice Norwood contributed reporting to this piece.

Additional contributors: Abby Johnston, partnerships editor; Annelise McGough, audience editor; Clarice Bajkowski, creative director; Julia B. Chan, editor in chief; Lance Dixon, engagement producer; Lydia Chebbine, photo editor; Megan Kearney, digital producer; Rena Li, brand designer

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