The cases were weeks apart and eerily similar: Two young men at popular New York City gay bars. They each left with at least one mysterious person. They were both found dead. Both of their bank accounts were drained.
And they may not be the only ones.
More gay New Yorkers are coming forward for the first time with accounts that share notable similarities to the unexplained deaths this spring of Julio Ramirez, 25, a social worker, and John Umberger, 33, a political consultant.
The biggest difference so far: They survived.
NBC News spoke to two people who described harrowing experiences that seem to broadly fit the pattern of what happened to Ramirez and Umberger.
“It sounded so eerily similar to what happened to me,” Tyler Burt, 27, said about Ramirez’s death. “I was like, ‘I’m lucky to be alive.’”
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Burt and a student at New York University believe they fell victim to a larger string of robberies and assaults that police are investigating. Their stories also mirror a troubling detail that Ramirez’s and Umberger’s families have only suspected — that they felt like they were drugged before they were robbed.
The New York City Police Department said that the city’s medical examiner is still determining the official causes of Ramirez’s and Umberger’s deaths. There have been no arrests. Police would not confirm whether Burt’s or the student’s cases were a part of their ongoing investigation.
The NYPD provided a statement on Friday reiterating that police and the district attorney’s office are investigating “several incidents where individuals have been victims to either robberies or assault,” in which some but not all are members of the LGBTQ community. NBC News could not verify that the men’s experiences were connected to the string of robberies and assaults.
Meanwhile, the gay community in the country’s largest LGBTQ city awaits answers.
John Pederson, 55, says he was robbed in similar circumstances in 2018 and, combined with the recent reports, the experience has left him shaken.
“Part of it’s like, am I crazy?” Pederson said. “Women are so aware of this as a thing that happens. I don’t think gay men would ever suspect that this could be done to them.”
No memories and emptied bank accounts
In December, Burt — who reached out to NBC News on social media after recent reports regarding the two deaths — was walking home from a night out with friends when he stopped at The Boiler Room, a popular gay bar in Manhattan’s East Village, for one last drink by himself. Sitting alone at the bar was the last thing Burt says he remembers before waking up the next morning in his apartment confused.
Burt said he woke up lying on top of his bed with all of his clothes and shoes on and his phone missing. He then noticed that his personal laptop, iPad, headphones and wallet were also missing. Using his work laptop, he discovered that was just the beginning of what would amount to roughly $15,000 of stolen belongings and funds. The person or people who robbed him accessed his checking account, overdrafting it to pay off his credit cards and then using them to buy three new iPhones that morning.
Burt, who reported the incident to the police the day after the encounter, said he believes an assailant used his unconscious face to unlock his iPhone and bank accounts using the Face ID feature. He said he believes that the person or people who robbed him also slipped him some sort of drug, knocking him unconscious and causing him to black out.
“I don’t think I was drinking nearly enough to have zero recollection. Also, that’s never happened to me before,” Burt said, adding that he had a total of three to four drinks over the course of four hours. “I’ll go out and I’ll get home and be like, ‘Oh, gosh, I don’t remember getting home,’ or, ‘I don’t remember leaving,’ or something like that because I drank a lot, but I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember a single thing after I had that drink, which has just never happened to me in my life before.”
The father of a New York University student, who spoke to NBC News on the condition that his name not be published out of fear of putting his son in danger, said that his 21-year-old son also believes he was targeted by men with similar motives on April 8, less than two weeks before Ramirez’s death.
He said that his son, who also requested that his name not be published, told him he was leaving The Q bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the same bar Umberger was last seen at, with three men he had just met that night. The four of them, he said, had planned to go back to his son’s apartment to meet a friend who was already there. The man — who connected with NBC News through Linda Clary, Umberger’s mother — said his son and his son’s friend believe they were drugged at some point after returning to the apartment with the three unidentified men. The father said that his son and his son’s friend believe they were drugged because of the sudden nature of their blackouts and loss of memory coupled with the robbery.
When the two gained consciousness, the father said, his son’s phone was missing, his bank accounts were emptied using cash apps and his credit cards were maxed out. In total, the man said, about $5,000 worth of cash and items were stolen from his son. Similarly to Burt, the college student’s father said his son believes the assailants used his unconscious face to unlock his iPhone and bank accounts using Face ID. His son’s friend, he said, had her wallet stolen. The father of the college student said that his son filed a police report and that his case is still being investigated. NBC News was not able to independently verify the son’s account.
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Pederson, a freelance computer consultant who reached out to NBC News on social media after recent reports regarding the two deaths, said that on Nov. 16, 2018, he also had a similar encounter. Pederson said he was heading home from Tribeca after attending a large private party, where he had three to four drinks over several hours. While alone and hailing a cab, he said he suddenly and uncharacteristically blacked out on the street corner and was robbed.
He regained consciousness momentarily, waking up to a man shaking him violently in the back seat of an unfamiliar car, yelling, “What’s the PIN number? What’s the PIN number? If you just give us the PIN number, we’ll take you home,” he said. The next thing he remembers is being dropped off in front of his apartment building before waking up the next morning with a bloodied face and his bank account wiped out.
Pederson said that he was not feeling heavily intoxicated before abruptly blacking out, nor did he have a hangover the next morning, which he said is common for him on the rare occasions he drinks too much alcohol.
‘You would not want to wish this on anyone’
Although traumatized, Burt, the father of the NYU student and Pederson said they look back on the incidents today with gratitude that they weren’t fatal.
It took Burt about a month after the encounter before he felt comfortable sleeping in his apartment again, he said, adding that the incident prompted him to go to therapy.
“It took me a while to really process what had happened to me and how terrifying it was,” Burt said. “And then seeing stuff that’s come out — like that kid who died in May — that really could have been me. It was just one small move away from that happening to me.”
“There’s a lot of ‘what ifs,’ that I’ve gone through in my head, which is, you know, not fun to think about,” he added.
Less than two weeks after the college student’s alleged encounter in early April, Ramirez was found dead in the back of a taxi. His body was discovered an hour after he was seen leaving the Ritz Bar and Lounge with three unidentified men, according to the NYPD. His family previously told NBC News that approximately $20,000 had been drained from his bank accounts.
Roughly a month later, Umberger was found dead after he and two unidentified men left another popular Hell’s Kitchen gay bar, The Q. The unidentified men transferred about $20,000 out of Umberger’s bank accounts and maxed out his credit cards, according to Clary, Umberger’s mother.
“The pain and sorrow and horror is like nothing else,” Clary said. “You would not want to wish this on anyone.”
Burt, Pederson, Clary and the college student’s father all said they felt the NYPD did not initially take their cases as seriously as they had hoped and were, at times, unresponsive.
“It seemed like he was being reluctant to do anything that required a little bit of extra work,” Burt said of the detective on his case. “It just felt like it was not a priority at all and I was the one following up, bugging this guy, time and time again and I was just getting nowhere.”
The father of the college student who was allegedly robbed said that police stopped returning his phone calls until recently, months after the deaths of Ramirez and Umberger.
New York City Council member Erik Bottcher, whose district includes Hell’s Kitchen, told NBC News in a phone call that his office has been in contact with the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney’s office on a weekly basis since reports surfaced in May about Ramirez’s death. His office has sought to ensure that appropriate resources have been dedicated to the investigation, he added.
“It’s horrifying and infuriating that people are being preyed upon and victimized in New York City in this way,” Bottcher said. “Whoever’s doing this needs to be brought to justice.”
While the NYPD only confirmed it was looking into “several” other potentially related incidents, Clary said she was told there were at least a dozen other cases included in the investigation. She spoke highly of the current detective on her son’s investigation. But her message to the police and public officials was clear: “People, do your job.”
“Thank you for the work you do,” she added, but “I need you to work harder, and I need you to do more for the sake of your great city and for the sake of citizens that are counting on you.”