Authorities foresee more attacks linked to potent 'date rape' drugs Memory-robbing crimes require new police work

May 03, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Nurses and police, who once examined rape victims for signs of physical trauma, are learning how to identify the aftereffects of a new weapon -- two powerful drugs that knock victims unconscious and wipe away their memories.

Though the "date rape" drugs -- Rohypnol and GHB -- have received national attention, few cases have emerged in Maryland. But that hasn't stopped law enforcement agencies from developing procedures to strengthen prosecutions.

"We'll eventually start seeing these cases," said Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon. "We want to be ready. We want to help lock the criminals up."

The easy availability of the drugs and their powerful effects, including memory loss, worries authorities, who have quietly been testing for the sedatives for about a year.

Victims can't remember

Rohypnol, a powerful sedative like Valium, can be purchased legally in Mexico and other countries.

GHB, gamma hydroxbutrate -- known on the street as Grievous Bodily Harm -- can be made with ingredients found at health food stores and an Internet recipe.

Though detectives and police have received memos and some training about "date rape" drugs, Howard County prosecutors say more concrete measures are needed for gathering evidence because victims of these drugs often can't remember what happened.

In Howard County, three rape victims have been tested for Rohypnol in the past year and a half -- including a 17-year-old Columbia boy whom police accuse British soccer star Justin Fashanu of assaulting.

Anne Arundel County police have tested five victims during that period, and counselors at a Baltimore hospital have sent at least a dozen victims' urine samples for analysis. None has tested positive for the drugs.

The only known instance of a successful prosecution in the region involved a Virginia man convicted in October in Prince William Circuit Court of giving Rohypnol to a 15-year-old girl and then raping her.

Maker offers free testing

The national attention focused on Rohypnol spurred its manufacturer, La Roche, to offer free testing of rape victims about 18 months ago.

Across the country, police and counselors have sent almost 800 urine samples to a lab in Mississippi at La Roche's expense. Only five have come back positive for Rohypnol, but 42 samples tested positive for GHB, and 40 percent of the samples -- from 46 states -- contained multiple substances, such as alcohol, cocaine and marijuana.

"What we're seeing isn't really Rohypnol," said Gail R. Safian, spokeswoman for La Roche. "It's women using a lot of different recreational drugs, then losing control of the situation."

'The weapon is invisible'

But local officials and counselors say that for every person tested, there are dozens of potential victims who never seek help

"These drugs are the ultimate tool for the rapist," said Lt. Terry Katz of the Maryland State Police Criminal Intelligence Division. "The victim's memory is erased. No gun, no knife. The weapon is invisible."

And victims must be tested quickly, sometimes within 12 hours, because the drugs vanish quickly from the body.

"They can't even wait for a day," said Cheryl DePetro, executive director of a Howard County nonprofit center that counsels sexual assault victims. "It's hard to say how many have been victims of these drugs. We've only been looking for symptoms for the last few years."

Rohypnol, which is used to treat severe sleep disorders in 80 countries, is illegal to sell in the United States. Its possession in Maryland is considered a misdemeanor, police said.

But authorities say they are slightly more concerned about GHB, which is legal in Maryland and can be concocted at home.

"That's definitely a flaw in the law," said Katz of the state police. "If someone uses it to rape someone, though, they will be charged."

Often taken knowingly

The drugs aren't used just as weapons. At raves and parties across the country, teen-agers use the sedatives to enhance their highs, causing a "twilight hazy feeling," police said.

But that doesn't assuage victims' advocates, who say rapists take advantage of the drugs' effects, preying on those already under the influence of narcotics.

Carole Kimmell, coordinator of the sexual assault forensic examiners program at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, said about 75 percent of her victims test positive for alcohol and other drugs.

Kimmell said Mercy submitted about a dozen samples to the Mississippi lab; some showed other sedatives, like Valium, a cousin of Rohypnol.

"Rapists want to get someone who's the most vulnerable," Kimmell said. "Yes, these victims have been drinking and doing drugs. But that doesn't excuse a rapist. Look at the law."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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