It's noon on Thursday and Put-In-Bay is being invaded with bachelor and bachelorette parties and folks looking to spin away from regular life with a little help from the bottle. It's about to be Christmas in July — the island's busiest weekend — and the hordes are starting to arrive for a few days of good drinking.
Four 20-something guys from western Michigan just stepped off the ferry and on to Put-In-Bay for the first time, heading down the tiny island's bar-lined main street. They're following their buddy to the hotel where they'll all jam into one room to sleep — pass out, really — for the next three nights. Each guy lugs the essentials: two of them have Busch Light cases resting on top of their rolling suitcases, one's carrying a Coors Light case by the flimsy cardboard handle, another's hauling a big red cooler.
"It's that asshole in the blue's bachelor party," jokes one of them, pointing to the guy across the street.
When asked what their plans are, he responds, "You're looking at them." The group laughs, eyeing the booze. "We're going to make some bad decisions."
They might be chatty later, but right now they don't feel much like talking to a writer. "I'm sober right now, so there's a problem," says the guy with the chinstrap beard.
Minutes later, three late-20-something women from Pittsburgh are standing at the same spot on the bustling street, also first timers here. They're lost — sunglasses and sandals on, bags around their shoulders, suitcases and booze in hand — unsuccessfully trying to locate the hotel they booked months ago so they can kick off the weekend.
"We heard about Put-In-Bay from other people who like to drink a lot," jokes Kristen, explaining they have no idea what Christmas in July really entails, but it's why they're here for the next three days. The ends of a beer bong are popping out of her duffle bag, but she doesn't seem to mind.
One of them is dragging the handle of a noticeably heavy blue four-wheeled cooler down the sidewalk: "Lots of beer," Leeanne explains, "but we did put water in there for hangovers." The other interrupts: "And Fireball and vodka and...."
They eventually find their way down a not-so-obvious path toward the hotel through an alleyway next to Mr. Ed's, the bar attached to hotel, and Mist, a fenced-in pool bar where Top-40 remixes are already blasting loudly. "This is exactly what we wanted!" one exclaims. They heard about some rumors of druggings on the ferry ride over, and despite thinking it's kind of "scary," their enthusiasm isn't dampered.
Shortly after checking in to their rooms, the group is quickly back down to the bustling Mist, bathing suits on and water bottles filled with booze in hand. The bouncer stops them and inspects their bottles — it's a bar, after all — so the girls quickly chug the contents and toss the empty bottles in the trash before finding their way to the lounge chairs between the pool and the bar. Their first hours at Put-in-Bay have started right.
But, this summer, it might not end right.
Since May, there are have been at least a dozen documented incidents of people suspected of being dosed with date-rape drugs at Put-In-Bay bars, with no arrests. In that time, there have been at least three reported rapes of drugged or heavily intoxicated women and only once — when police came upon a 27-year-old Mentor man in the act, with several eye witnesses who spotted him tackling her to the ground — has somebody been arrested so far. On Saturdays this summer, EMS has had to regularly transport girls from the popular pool bar Mist to the hospital after someone slipped date-rape drugs into their drinks.
Put-In-Bay has a problem and the three women from Pittsburgh have planned their weekend right in the epicenter of it all.
Just a 60-mile drive west and a short ferry ride from Cleveland, Put-In-Bay feels like a completely different world. For such a small island (it's less than one square mile, and counts fewer than 400 year-round residents) it's many things to many different people.
It was first inhabited by Native Americans hundreds of years ago but, like most land in the country, it was taken over by white settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry used the island as a naval base, taking advantage of its ideal location in Lake Erie to help defeat the British. Perry's a big deal on the island: the massive (and phallic) 352-feet tall "Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial" stands on the east side, and his famous "don't give up the ship" slogan can be seen on flags and T-shirts all throughout the island.
Its economy is nearly entirely based on summer tourism and real estate for families buying summer lodges.
During the week, it's full of multi-generation family vacationers who book the summer houses long in advance — it's a perfect spot to bring the kids on their summer break. All over the island, families whiz by on rented golf carts heading to and from the main downtown drag, Perry's Cave, the Heineman's winery, the docks, state parks, and other family-friendly attractions. Day trippers are there, too, coming either on the ferry or their own boats, docking on the north side of the island.
But on the weekends, the demographics and culture shift abruptly. Starting on Thursday afternoons, ferries load up with young people who couldn't care any less about the family-friendly tourist traps of Put-in-Bay spread throughout the island in a weekly invasion of Spring Break. They're coming to drink and make some mistakes with the thousands of strangers in search of the same thing.
"Oh man, it's so different on the weekend," says Branden, a 28-year-old Cleveland native who's working for the season as a bartender on the island he vacationed on with his family as a kid. "During the week, you get a lot of day trippers who come up to the ports — there's a lot of people. But the weekends are just crazy — people come up here specifically to party and have a good time, you know?"
Over the past decade or so, the island's downtown area transformed dramatically.
"It's crazy how its blown up," says Branden, pointing in the direction of all the bars. "It used to be just a main street with a few bars: the Roundhouse, Beer Barrell. The Boardwalk was just a little fish shack, pretty much, and now it's a monster that has four different restaurants and a bar. There was only like one pool over by the airport a long time ago, and now there's like 12 pool bars all over."
So many of the weekenders only think of Put-In-Bay for its weekend party scene, without any idea that there's more to the island than the daily cycle of overpriced booze, pickup attempts and crushing hangovers.
"I've had people tell me that they've come up here three times and never even left the pool bar," Branden jokes. "There were some kind of bro-ish dudes in here the other day, saying, 'Oh my gosh, why are people bringing their kids to Put-In-Bay?'"
Two guys in their twenties walking into Mist around lunchtime on Thursday boil down the typical weekend agenda with aplomb. "We wake up hungover, then we detox, go get lunch at different places, then get our buzz on, again, like we're about to do after this, then take a nap, go out for dinner, and then we go out. Rinse and repeat."
The Mist pool bar is situated just off the main strip, flanked by Mr. Ed's Bar & Grille — a modern clubby bar with live music throughout the day and DJs at night, which boasts the slogan "Nobody's ugly after 2" — and the two buildings of the Commodore hotel, where people book rooms long in advance to be in the center of the weekend action. Mist, Mr. Ed's, and the hotel are owned by local businessman Ed Fitzgerald (not that Ed FitzGerald), and are operated by the same management. On warm, sunny days, Mist will begin to fill up around noon, and for the next six hours or so, guys and gals lay out in lounge chairs or stand in the pool's waist-high water, bellying up to the bar, dancing along to the constant drone of Rihanna, Iggy Azalea and other Top-40 hits.
Fitzgerald's businesses are at the center of the bar scene and the center of Put-In-Bay's drugging and rape problem.
In early May, a trauma nurse at a southeast Michigan hospital called Put-In-Bay police to report a woman was raped on the island that weekend. According to the police report (where the victim's and suspect's names have been redacted), the nurse relayed the story: a Mr. Ed's manager asked a female bartender to have drinks with him after work on a Saturday. Once out with him, she lost consciousness, only to come-to at 2:30 a.m. with her boss on top of her, yelling at her to "take her fucking clothes off." She told him no, the report says, and that she was on her period. But he pulled down her pants, pulled out her tampon, and had his way with her. The police report says the woman declined to pursue charges because she didn't want to lose her job, but that turned out to not be true.
An Ottawa County Sheriff's Office detective had been working on the case and last week issued a 34-page report to Ottawa County prosecutor Mark Mulligan, who will decide whether to press charges, as first reported by the Sandusky Register. The report documents the graphic details of what happened to the woman, the psychological trauma the woman has dealt with since the attack, and summaries of a recorded phone call she had with the man, as well as interviews with co-workers and friends who were around that night, and how his DNA matched with DNA found on her underwear.
The report also brought to light two other instances where the manager had been suspected of drugging at least two other bartenders on the island. The bartender he allegedly drugged last summer said she had two shots with the man and then couldn't remember anything the rest of the day, only to wake up naked in a hotel shower, with him standing over her thinking she was dead. Witnesses recalled how the man whisked the woman to a hotel and refused to let let anybody else in the room to check on her. The other drugging incident reported was an employee of another bar who was served two shots by the man at Mr. Ed's only to realize something wasn't right with how she was feeling. Her last memory was texting her boyfriend to come pick her up. The next day, according to the person who relayed the story to the detective, the manager came by "with a posse of 10 guys yelling at her about spreading rumors" and that "he had a reputation to uphold and that she just couldn't handle island drinking."
The suspect's identity is redacted in the report, but some non-police sources provided his name. The 32-year-old manages both Mr. Ed's and Mist, and was spotted still working there last week.
Outside of the detective's report, the man's name shows up in an August 2011 police report after he and another Mr. Ed's employee refused to leave a Commodore Hotel room where he had followed a female guest into the bathroom and tried to kiss her and then argued with the guests in their room who wanted him out. "Upon making contact with the members of room 242, they stated they just wanted the Ed's employees to leave their hotel and leave them alone," the 2011 police report states. The manager was kicked out and "began to yell loudly and was told to keep it down or he would be sobering up at the jail."
Police and EMS have been regulars at the Mist pool bar — where he also works — this summer, having been summoned on several Saturdays for multiple reports of unconscious, unresponsive and vomiting females, incidents that EMS believed were tied to date-rape drugs slipped into their drinks, not simply the case of someone imbibing too much. Put-In-Bay EMS is very familiar with responding to the regular over-intoxication of drinkers; these people were not just that.
At 5 p.m. on May 25, police "were dispatched to Mist for a possible drugged female." They found a woman "sitting in a chair leaning over a garbage can." EMS took her to the station but there was no further investigation.
Just before 4 p.m. on July 7, they were dispatched for a drugged female at the pool, only to have one of her friends pass out at the same time EMS was treating her, stoking EMS's fears that more women have been and will be drugged: "The EMS worker informed me that it was most likely ruphy (sic) and stated there will probably be a lot more individuals getting ruphied (sic)." The police report notes "nothing further" in terms of an investigation.
Two Saturdays later, at the same time of day, they were back out there again. A woman who had been at Mist was sitting just outside the pool bar, propped up by two friends. She was "unresponsive to any attempts to get her attention." EMS placed her in an ambulance, telling police she was likely slipped rohypnol.
According to Put-In-Bay police records obtained by Scene, these occurrences are nothing new at Mist. Similar instances were reported by police and EMS during the past three summers: At least three women were suspected of being drugged there last summer. A few more instances a year before that. A few more in 2011.
The victims' names are redacted in the reports and attempts to contact them have been unsuccessful. Owner Ed Fitzgerald has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
A manager at Mr. Ed's responded to an in-person inquiry by saying, "My response at this time is no comment." Another employee chimed in, "If you want a statement, the only guy who can talk is the owner and he's not here right now, so you're not going to talk to us."
Other parts of Put-In-Bay are not immune to trouble this summer either.
On May 10, a woman reported her daughter had her pick her up because she became sick after possibly being drugged at the Fish Bowl, a bar just around the corner from Mr. Ed's. Police went to the bar, reviewed security footage, and found the name of the guy ordering drinks for her through his credit card receipt, though all that's noted in the report is as follows: "This case is still under investigation. Nothing Further."
On June 14, Todd McBride, a 27-year-old visiting the island from Mentor, was arrested for sexual imposition after witnesses say he tackled an extremely intoxicated woman running from him through the park in front of the bars, got on top of her, pulled her dress up and spread her legs. A witness flagged down the cops, who found McBride on top of her. The police report says the crying woman's speech was slurred, she smelled like alcohol, and "had no clue as to what was happening, where she was or how she got there. It was clear that she was in no shape to consent to any sex act." Police interviewed McBride, who had apparently been harassing her all night: "As Mr. McBride was being questioned he state multiple times that he knew (victim) was drunk. Mr. McBride even stated that she was drunk and he was thinking he was going to get laid."
On June 16, a 51-year-old woman reported to police she and at least four others with with her were allegedly drugged at another nearby bar, Mojito Bay, when a couple of men asked to take pictures with them. "I went from being totally normal to being totally out of it," she told ABC's Toledo affiliate. "Gosh, I don't remember most of the afternoon. The afternoon was spotty, it was so many people saying the same thing that they thought: Why did I react to alcohol that way? Not that we drank a lot, but we're experienced people, we're older, we are used to the professional scene." The Ottawa County sheriff's office is investigating this case, according to news reports.
On June 15, a 16-year-old girl was taken to a bar by an older man and allegedly drugged. When she got home, she lost consciousness and had to be flown via helicopter to a Toledo hospital. Police have security video and a statement from a bartender that a man gave her a drink there, but no arrests have been made.
On July 18, an employee of a sexual assault unit in Lorain County reported to police that she just completed a rape kit of a woman who had been raped on the island on July 12. Police forwarded it to the county.
Put-In-Bay's seclusion, the demographics of its visitors and the island's resources, or lack thereof, create a culture where such acts can not only go unreported, but uninvestigated.
Visitors often disappear after a weekend if not a single night, often driving hours back to wherever they live and out of in-person contact with law enforcement. There is no hospital and there are no doctors offices to speak of on the island, just an EMS clinic and helicopter to transport people to hospitals on the the mainland, making testing for date rape drugs nearly impossible. The drugs leave the body very quickly — by the time a victim regains consciousness and seeks help, traces of it could very likely be gone.
The bartenders in the detective's report on the Mr. Ed's manager reported the suspect's been able to get away with it, so far, through intimidation, fear of retaliation and social pressure from his connected circle.
And then there's the police department. The department has only four year-round police officers. According to a 2013 Toledo Blade story, the island's police force grows to 25 on summer weekends after hiring a stable of seasonal officers to handle the bombardment of tourists. Seasonal cops mean inexperienced and young cops — all the veterans have full-time gigs elsewhere — and if you take a look at them patrolling the streets, you'll notice fresh faces, fresh buzz cuts and ill-fitting uniforms worn by young men who look like they aren't yet sure where to put their hands in resting position. Rape and drugging investigations get sent to the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office in Port Clinton.
In a recent Toledo Blade story — titled "Put-In-Bay Police Chief defends inexperienced officers" — the paper noted police chief Ric Lampela would be losing four officers next week, who will have to be replaced by "less-experienced officers" and that his "department is in competition with others for officers, he said, adding that he is impeded in his search by the job's seasonality and low pay."
The Put-in-Bay police chief and department have been under fire for other reasons in the past year.
There was the federal lawsuit filed in June by a 46-year-old man who says he was handcuffed and "brutally beaten and pepper sprayed by officers last September" simply, he claims, for asking about his son, who had been arrested for assault.
And then there were the seemingly strange and random arrests of three employees of an island hotel who "refused to provide information about the termination of another employee and would not immediately produce a final paycheck," according to a report by the Sandusky Register. The chief nor the mayor have satisfactorily answered why they were arrested. (Video of the incident was published by the paper, and it's as strange as it sounds.)
And then there was the story, just a day later in July, of police handcuffing a 68-year-old former Port Clinton school superintendent after he allegedly ran a stop sign. The man exited his car and police handcuffed him, fearing, as they said, for their safety.
Chief Lampela did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
It's understandable that visitors aren't aware of the string of druggings at the pool and elsewhere on the island — they're coming from near and far, dropping in for a few days and knowing little more about Put-in-Bay than that it's a nice place to get wild for a weekend. The Sandusky Register has done a great job covering a number of the druggings, rapes and attempted rapes consistently, but the daily paper is hardly the kind of travel-planning reading material a visitor is going to check out.
But some islanders know — it's a small island, after all, and gossip and police incidents spread quickly amongst curious and concerned employees and residents. One anonymous letter landed at Scene's offices after initial queries on Put-in-Bay.
"We believe your readers would enjoy a story about Christmas in July at Put-in-Bay," it reads. "Please come up and enjoy spending time at Mr. Ed's poolside bar Mist. Then cruise over to the Blue Marlin. After a day watching that spectacle, enjoy the rest of the night at Mr. Ed's Bar. After hours are spent at Blanky's illegal strip club/brothel. Keep your eye on your drink at all times. Be very careful while you are in these establishments. Bring your camera... People do not believe that this is happening."
Mist employees are definitely aware of it, too.
"Oh yeah, those pills," says one Mist bouncer when asked about the season-long stretch of druggings at the business he's helping protect. He's one of ten or so security members manning the pool area, checking IDs and bags, keeping an eye on everything. "It's been real big this summer, but I..." A fellow security guard cuts him off before directing questions to the "no comment" bar manager inside Mr. Ed's.
It's just before noon on Sunday and the partiers are headed home and back to real life where day drinking and swimsuit lunches aren't the norm.The bachelor parties are over, the hotel rooms are left in shambles, stories are passed around, and the number of people who say they'll never drink again are at an all-time high.
Cars line-up three lanes deep, packed bumper-to-bumper waiting up to several hours to get a spot on the ferry. Those who parked on the mainland walk up to the gate, waiting to load while toting their luggage and empty coolers, a significantly lighter haul than when they arrived.
The ferry is not kind to returning partiers on Sundays. The slight rocking as it navigates the Lake Erie waves is just enough motion to push some people from a simple hangover to the point of projectile vomiting over the side of the boat. Others just stand there — sunglasses on, sipping Gatorade — in hungover silence just waiting for the moment they can slip into their own bed.
The ferry hits the mainland dock and the cars pour out making their way through the streets towards the highways home. Then the others pour out, lugging their bags to the massive parking lots surrounding the docks. Back to regular life.
Four days later, a fresh wave of partiers, many of whom have never been to the island, will board the ferry and head toward Put-in-Bay, where the party never ends.