Rash of drink-spiking incidents goes unchecked by police in Charlottetown
Advocate says she left dejected after reporting 17 alleged druggings to police
The first thing that roused suspicion was the timing.
Eleven of the alleged druggings happened between 2010 and 2011.
Then, there was the community. Many incidents took place within the same wide network of friends and acquaintances.
Charlottetown, a quiet provincial capital of about 40,000 people, is small. But eight of the victims were in their 20s and involved in the city's music scene.
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And, most troubling, many of the same locations kept reappearing in report after report: Baba's Lounge, Hunter's Ale House, and house parties, all located within the same six-block radius downtown.
Seventeen reports of drink spiking on P.E.I. were written in emails and messages and given to a local woman in the spring of 2021. The complainants believe that drinks were spiked with Rohypnol, a tranquilizer described as up to 10 times more potent than Valium. She pledged to them, only one of whom had reported to police a decade earlier, that she'd take these stories to police, hoping actual investigators might be able to act.
She did so this past June.
But despite the similarities she saw and the severity of the alleged crimes, she would leave the station disappointed that day.
Small community, hidden secrets
The woman who gathered the stories, P.E.I. musician Kinley Dowling, carries the burden of wondering how a community so small has hidden such damaging secrets for more than a decade — and she has spent months wondering whether the perpetrators are people she knows.
"It really kind of turned my world upside down, realizing that in this beautiful community [where] we live, that horrible things like this can happen," Dowling said.
In Charlottetown, in the early 2010s, parties were often big and wild. It was not unusual to see someone passed out at a house party or outside a bar. The average party-goer might not have imagined the person could have been drugged.
That may have been the case for anyone who passed by Complainant #5. She recalls having only four drinks at an Indie Pop Night event at Baba's Lounge in Charlottetown in 2011, when she felt herself losing control of her legs and realized she needed to leave. She managed to get herself out of the bar and hid in an adjacent empty lot, drifting in and out of consciousness, before calling a taxi when the sun came up.
And who knows what two patrolling officers thought when they came across a woman in a field, in the middle of the night, screaming for help in the fall of 2010? She had attended a Finger Eleven concert at the UPEI campus bar earlier that evening. She remembers seeing the band, but doesn't know how she got to the field a kilometre away, in the opposite direction of her home.
At least three of the accounts of alleged druggings led to sexual assaults, according to the stories filed to police, which have been reviewed by CBC News. Another three of the stories led to medical intervention — either trips to the hospital or a call to paramedics.
Chillingly, some people don't know whether they were sexually assaulted — or what happened at all — because they blacked out. One woman describes being at a party, then waking up naked in an overflowing bathtub at home, with her purse hung on the bathroom door handle. She doesn't think she would have been able to get home by herself. She has always wondered: Did someone put me there?
She'll probably never know, but she wanted the police to know.
Advocate turned conduit
Dowling won a 2018 East Coast Music Award for her song Microphone, which she wrote about her own prom night sexual assault. Since telling her story, she has become an advocate and voice for survivors of sexual violence.
That same year, a woman messaged Dowling to say she had been drugged years before.
She described being at a party and suddenly not being able to stand up, despite drinking — at most — half a bottle of wine. She says she blacked out soon after and woke up in her boyfriend's bed, and still doesn't know what happened that night.
She has since filed a police complaint.
"When she sent me that email, that kind of changed everything and I just wanted to help her find justice for what happened that night," Dowling said.
Then, over time, she heard more stories. She posted on social media, asking anyone with a story about being drugged to send it to her. Within a week, she had gathered the 17 stories.
'A pretty discouraging day'
Dowling went to the Charlottetown Police Station on June 18, 2021. Tucked in her backpack was a file folder full of the stories.
She was accompanied by two women: a friend who was also a lawyer, and Jane Ledwell, the executive director of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
"I always try to be hopeful, but it was a pretty discouraging day for sure," Dowling said.
She says they met with Det./Cst. Tara Watts of the Major Crimes Unit, who listened to the women and reviewed the complaints before telling them police would not be opening an investigation.
Ten of the 17 complaints were anonymous, but seven people had attached their names and were willing to speak with police directly. Two of the complaints were submitted on behalf of friends. The other 15 were first-hand accounts.
I was hoping for something to come from it, not a kind of pat on the back.- Kinley Dowling
The women say they were told the crimes had happened too long ago, and getting enough evidence for a charge — let alone a conviction — would be hard. They were also told any victim who wanted police to investigate would need to contact police herself.
Ledwell and Dowling say Watts sent them home with a list of resources for people who have experienced sexual violence.
Dowling said she appreciated learning about the resources, but wasn't satisfied with the police's decision not to investigate — or even call the people who had agreed to attach their names to their stories.
"I was hoping for something to come from it, not a kind of pat on the back," Dowling said.
In fact, no investigation by Charlottetown police has led to the charge of "administering a noxious substance" in the last 20 years. Acting Deputy Police Chief Jennifer McCarron says that since 2001, there have been 16 complaints (including the two investigations Charlottetown Police Services opened in October) but no charges were ever laid.
Several complainants who spoke with CBC News said they felt dismissed and not taken seriously because they didn't hear from officers after Dowling and the other two women visited the police station.
Conduit turned investigator
Dowling believes the similarities and connections in the accounts she gathered suggest more than just a small-town scene. She thinks they could be related.
When police refused to investigate, she started trying to do it herself, with the help of a handful of friends.
She requested surveillance footage from bars on the nights of the alleged druggings. She and others have tried to ascertain who was at which parties through photo albums on social media, to determine whether the same people were at different parties, in an effort to narrow down potential suspects.
"It was like, I'm going to do as much work as I can because I have the time to do it, and I really wanted something to come of this," she said.
'You can't be the police'
The subject of date-rape druggings was percolating just below the surface of daily life in Charlottetown. Rumours were spreading about incidents and who might have been behind them.
Chelsea Van Tol was at Hunter's Ale House on July 30, 2011, when she says she was drugged and assaulted, waking up on a lawn between the bar and her home in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Charlottetown.
She went home, drew a bath, and says she found her body bloodied and bruised, with chunks of hair missing. She did not file a police complaint — she was aware she'd had multiple drinks the night before. Plus, she had washed herself and thought all forensic evidence of sexual assault would be gone.
I think we should be honest about the fact that it's a very difficult process that often re-traumatizes survivors on many, many levels.- Kharoll-Ann
She thinks about the night regularly. What had happened when she blacked out?
So when she heard the rumours about druggings in Charlottetown, she was filled with anger and a sense of injustice. Without hard evidence, she posted the name of someone another complainant suspects was responsible for their drugging.
CBC News spoke with 13 of the 17 people who shared their stories with Dowling, including Van Tol. There is no concrete proof in any of the reports that connects any one person to the selling or administering of Rohypnol.
The person she named called the police.
Two officers showed up on Van Tol's doorstep and told her it was illegal for her to harass the person online.
"You can't be the police," officers told Van Tol, she recalls.
"Well, you're not being the police," Van Tol retorted.
The next day, she received a cease-and-desist letter from the person's lawyer.
Van Tol is unrepentant, saying she chose to publicize the issue of drugging in Charlottetown to make people pay attention. She believes the justice system is broken.
To her, true justice would be an accused person's life "having to irreversibly change because of what they did, like how their victims' lives irreversibly change."
'They want to be heard'
Van Tol is part of a growing phenomenon of people who've experienced sexual violence and choose to disclose what happened to them online.
"They want support. They want to be heard… They want to tell their truth on their own terms." said Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a PhD student in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Ottawa, who studies how public disclosure has played out in Quebec.
But calling people out online is not without risk. In Quebec, an anonymous Facebook page called "Dis son nom" ("Say His Name") let people name alleged abusers. The creators of the page were sued for $50,000 by a Montreal man who claimed he was being defamed.
Souffrant said survivors of sexual violence should not be deterred from going to police, but added that the system is poorly equipped for handling this type of crime.
"I think we should be honest about the fact that it's a very difficult process that often re-traumatizes survivors on many, many levels," she said.
She said sex crimes are "basically decriminalized" because survivors either choose not to report them or because police investigations fall short of meeting the legal bar needed to secure a conviction.
'Extremely difficult to investigate'
In an email to CBC News on Sept. 9, Charlottetown Chief of Police Brad MacConnell wrote that the force was unable to investigate the allegations collected by Dowling because the individual victims needed to report their stories themselves.
"In order for our police agency to initiate a criminal investigation, a formal statement would be required from the complainant(s)," he wrote. "It was also explained that it was up to each individual complainant/victim to report to police if they wished to do so.
"Charlottetown Police Service takes all incidents of sexual assault very seriously," he wrote.
But in a follow-up interview with Acting Deputy Chief Jennifer McCarron on Sept. 15, she said there's nothing preventing police from calling the seven people who included their names on the accounts they sent to Dowling.
She also said that police didn't investigate the allegations presented on June 18 because they were too old.
"With the passage of time, at best, this would be extremely difficult to investigate and get a conviction," she said. McCarron said that investigating druggings is difficult. The burden of proof is high — especially when it comes to proving who put a pill in a drink.
Justice systems aren't well equipped to deal with sexual violence. And they're particularly badly equipped to deal with stories about drug-assisted sexual violence.- Jane Ledwell
"Justice systems aren't well equipped to deal with sexual violence. And they're particularly badly equipped to deal with stories about drug-assisted sexual violence," said Jane Ledwell.
"I think that we need to be more imaginative as a community and in what tools we provide to community services, to police, to health officials to follow up from sexual violence. The options are just not meeting the needs of survivors."
On November 5, Charlottetown police announced they are investigating two cases of alleged druggings, and warned women in the city to watch their drinks.
Those druggings are in addition to the 17 allegations gathered by Dowling.
Investigator to artist
Six months after going to Charlottetown Police Services, Dowling does not think police will change their minds and start investigating.
"I'm just trying to help the people that were taken advantage of and for them to get justice and to find out really what happened. And I was just hoping that the police would help in finding the actual facts of those, without community members having to do it themselves," she said.
What's left for those wondering how to move forward, knowing that it is unlikely there will ever be criminal charges against whomever is responsible for the druggings?
Souffrant, a survivor herself, said justice can look different for different people. For some, she said, it involves working as an activist in their communities, talking to counsellors, and confiding in friends. For others, it's confronting their abuser and helping that person understand the consequences of the abuse.
Dowling says she's considering using her skills as a songwriter to create art to honour the stories she collected.
No matter what, she says, she's going to keep fighting to help her community heal.
There are resources and supports available to anyone who has experienced sexual violence:
Rise P.E.I. / Phone or text: 902-218-6143
P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre / Call: 902-368-8055 or 1-888-368-8055
Here is a list of sexual assault centres, crisis lines and support services elsewhere in Canada.
With files from the CBC reference library.