(NEW YORK) — A grieving mother’s fight to find answers about the death of her son has helped to shed light on a suspected rash of druggings and robberies affecting New York City’s gay nightlife scene.
Linda Clary’s 33-year-old son, John Umberger, was found dead in June after he was last seen walking out of a midtown Manhattan bar with two strangers. Umberger, who was visiting for work from Washington D.C., was out earlier with his friends, but was at the bar alone.
“It’s the worst phone call that any mother can ever get and ever want to get,” Clary told ABC News. “It’s the greatest pain and anguish of anything.”
Someone using Umberger’s phone and credit cards stole more than $20,000, Clary said. Lidocaine, a numbing agent, and fentanyl were both found in his system, according to police.
“Detectives presented it as, it looked like a drug overdose, and that perhaps John had gone out to the bars and had been robbed and was so depressed, he took a bunch of drugs,” Clary said.
Refusing to believe her son had done that to himself, Clary flew from Atlanta to New York, where she leaned on police and started talking to the media. Her phone started ringing from others with similar stories, many of whom have survived their ordeals.
Six months before Umberger died, Brian Luke says he was targeted by two men in a different part of the city.
“I feel like I was targeted, probably because I was alone and probably because I was already a bit drunk when I arrived at the bar. And my memory from that point is pretty fuzzy. I can’t say for sure whether or not they drugged me,” Luke said.
Luke says they stole his phone and wallet, and then made a long list of charges to his credit and debit cards — in all, about $20,000. He doesn’t feel ashamed that he took the men into his home, but says the police weren’t as understanding.
“I think they did some level of due diligence to look into what I had reported, but I don’t think I was taken quite as seriously as I would have hoped,” Luke said.
Oscar Alarcon tells a similar story. He says, more than two years ago, he went out to a bar in the same neighborhood where Clary’s son was last seen. He later woke up confused in the lobby of a nearby hotel with no memory of what happened.
“I went to the police. They never took me seriously. They made me feel like it was my fault, like I did it to myself,” Alarcon said.
Then in April, just outside the same gay bar that Alarcon went to, 25-year-old Julio Ramirez was seen getting into a cab with three unknown men. The three men disappeared, and Ramirez spent the last moments of his life alone in the back seat of the cab, according to authorities. He was a beloved social worker, and his death would bring people marching in the streets.
“People have been hurt. People feel scared and afraid, and this has gone on too long, because it is clear to me from people who have reached out to me, this has happened since 2018,” Clary said.
Despite her initial concerns, Clary added that she’s thankful for the New York Police homicide detective who’s now working the case.
New York City police declined comment to ABC News, citing that they’re dealing with an ongoing investigation.
Police have said it’s not just gay men who are getting targeted and that they know this is happening in both straight and gay nightclubs across the city.
After months of worry across New York, they say they’ve now arrested six men who are facing grand larceny, identity theft, assault and other charges. They also said that more arrests are coming.
There are many who believe that the police investigation wouldn’t have gotten this far without Clary’s help.
“Thank God for Linda. That’s what it says about her tenacity. Her strength was exactly what we needed and her conviction was what was needed here in this city,” said community organizer Christopher LeBron to ABC News.
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