George Street bartender says drug assaults not unusual

Sandy Chisholm, a bartender at a popular night spot in downtown St. John's, said for years he's heard tales of both men and women being drugged after their drinks were spiked.
Bartender Sandy Chisholm says he's heard of drug assaults in downtown St. John's for years. (CBC)

A longtime bartender at a popular night spot in downtown St. John's says for years he's heard tales of both men and women being drugged after their drinks were spiked.

"At my bar one night, I had a customer break down in tears, giving a testimonial to me about his own experience," said Sandy Chisholm. "(It was) about a male being drugged by another male staff member, them hanging out late in the bar, and then waking up in the middle of the sexual encounter."

On Tuesday, Sara Tilley said she believes her drink was laced with rohypnol or a similar drug when she was out with friends this past weekend at Distortion, a bar on George Street.

She described the next few hours as a "horrible experience," adding if she hadn't been with a group of friends, she could have easily been led away and assaulted.

Chisholm, who tends bar at CBTG's, said it's not only the customers who've been victimized.

"I've been a bartender for 23 years and I've personally been 'roofied' three times myself."

Several drugs commonly used

Roofie is slang for rohypnol, a heavy sedative which causes short-term memory loss and leaves people disoriented. 

RCMP Sgt. Steve Conohan says several different varieties of drugs have been used to spike drinks in the downtown bar scene.

In addition to rohypnol, he said drugs such as GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, and ketamine have been used to drug people.

Conohan said in addition to memory loss and nausea, the drugs can cause renal failure, heart problems, or even trigger a coma.

He noted that rohypnol, commonly referred to as the "date-rape drug," had been reformulated by manufacturers to make it harder to dissolve, and to emit a blue dye if it is dropped in liquid.

Conohan advises people who think their drinks may have been spiked to seek medical attention immediately, as some drugs can metabolize out of the body within four to six hours, making them harder to trace or identify.

"Don't be afraid to report it," urged Conohan. "By all means, come forward. Because the police may be able to do some type of follow-up investigation and what-not, and may be able to catch the person responsible."

Rarely reported

However, an RNC spokesperson said complaints from bar customers about being drugged are rare.

Chisholm speculated that's because victims are embarrassed or not really sure what happened to them.

"And quite frankly, when you go through the ordeal and you start to come around again, you just want to get home and get to bed."

Seamus O'Keefe of the George Street Association says customers who think they may have been drugged should let bar staff know. (CBC )

Meanwhile, Seamus O'Keefe, the executive director of the George Street Association, said anyone who thinks they have been drugged should tell bar staff immediately in order to get medical help.

O'Keefe added that bars with the association share information regarding suspicious activity, and alerting staff could help catch a culprit.  

"We can then engage our security cameras," said O'Keefe. "The RNC has put 14 cameras outside the bars, our members have had video cameras inside for over a decade,  and I would suspect 80 per cent of our members on George Street have closed-circuit television."

Urging vigilance

But in a nightlife district where more than 5,000 drinks can be served on a Friday night, he admitted it can be "very difficult" to ensure that every single drink is safe. 

"We need to communicate to our patrons that they need to be personally vigilant," said O'Keefe. "Don't leave your drink unattended. Don't accept free drinks from people. And if you suspect something, report it immediately."

"We need to address this head on and deal with the facts and put precautions in place to prevent this from ever happening again."

The RNC is investigating what happened to Tilley, and is urging people to take extra precautions when out socializing.