NEW ORLEANS Maria Treme considers herself a very strong and free-spirited person. She participates in the World Naked Bike Ride, likes to suntan in the nude and has no hang-ups about sex.
But nothing could have prepared the 30-year-old New Orleans woman for what she experienced July 1.
'I woke up, I had bruises, I didn't know where they came from and I immediately knew I was roofied because I know how much I had to drink, I know how much I can drink and there was zero memory, nothing,' Treme said. 'Absolutely nothing.'
Treme has decided to come forward and share her story with WWL-TV, both to expose the dangers of roofies and other date-rape drugs, and to shed light on the New Orleans Police Department's continuing struggle with properly investigating sex crimes.
WWL-TV has a policy to not name the victims of sexual assaults, but made an exception in this rare case in which an alleged victim came forward and asked to have her story told.
Treme's month-long nightmare began at a dreamlike location, The Country Club, a Bywater hot spot so hip right now that A-listers Beyonce, Jay-Z and Solange went swimming in the club's pool on July 21. On June 30, Treme went there in the daytime to sunbathe naked at the clothing-optional pool and drink margaritas with a girlfriend.
After five quiet hours and a paltry $36 bar tab, she blacked out.
What happened in the nighttime hours after that, Treme had no idea when she woke up the next morning. She did, however, wake up to find bruises on her inner thighs and a lubricant by her bed that she'd not seen before.
She also found that her car and car keys were gone. She called a friend who took her to The Country Club (pictured below) , where she was able to piece together bits and pieces by reviewing some of the club's surveillance footage with the concerned and supportive club manager.
What she saw on the video and heard from eyewitnesses shocked her. She had signed another, much larger bar tab. She saw herself waving at people, shouting at the bartender. And she was told she had sex with one man in the pool, another in the sauna and went home with another, wearing only a towel.
'I want the person who put the roofie in my drink,' she said. 'The problem is, so many people had sex with me apparently... am I gonna say all of them raped me because of the one guy? I mean, I'm kind-of of the opinion that if there's three innocent people and one that's not, I'm not gonna take down the three innocent people because this one person wants to be a sicko, you know?'
Sex crimes counselors and other experts say that what's commonly known as a 'roofie' after the name of one drug, Rohypnol, but actually a catch-all term for several different types of date-rape drugs is a big problem in New Orleans.
'In New Orleans, we know we have a culture of drinking for a lot of folks, so what we see is a lot of people here do get drugged,' said Leah Foster, director of Trauma Recovery Services at New Orleans Family Justice Center.
Foster said drug-related rape is not necessarily on the rise, but is more in the public eye lately, particularly after former Saints star Darren Sharper was accused of drugging and raping women in New Orleans and in four other states.
Sharper faces formal charges in California and Arizona, investigations in Louisiana and Nevada, while the case against him in Florida was dropped in May.
But unlike the Sharper cases, which focus on women who were allegedly put to sleep by drugs, some date-rape drugs can have the effect that Treme believes she experienced.
'A lot of drugs that are used to facilitate date rape have actually the effect of just making the person who was drugged unable to remember what was going on but they might be functioning, walking around, talking,' Foster said.
And that can make finding the perpetrator even harder.
'That's where it gets tricky because, I mean, I saw myself on video walking out of there, laughing and waving to the bartender, stumbling out of there, and, you know, this guy's drunk, I appear to be drunk and I just don't think it would be right for me to say everybody raped me,' Treme said.
With the voluminous videos The Country Club kept and turned over to police, it would appear that Treme's case could have strong evidence. But that's where things started going wrong again for Treme,and she is angry at the NOPD.
After reviewing some of the evidence with her, The Country Club called the police. NOPD says it got the call at 2:21 p.m. on July 1. Records show that an officer responded at 3:25 p.m. and called sex crimes Detective Keisha Ferdinand at 4:08.
Treme says Ferdinand was very professional and gathered a lot of evidence from the videos, from the club's staff, from other witnesses and even back at Treme's apartment in Mid-City. But the NOPD didn't take Treme to Interim LSU Hospital to get a rape kit and toxicology screening until about 8:30 that night.
Treme's medical records, which she turned over to WWL, show that the four-plus hours of exams and blood tests didn't start until 11 p.m.
'When the (nurse) told me the half-life of a roofie, I checked the time and I said, 'It's almost 24 hours,'' said Treme's friend Sebren Strother, who accompanied her all day July 1. 'I'm thinking, 'It's not gonna be in her system.' And if it's not in your system, well there's the evidence. Your case is closed. They could see someone drop something in your drink and you can't prove anything. There is no evidence.'
Foster says everyone should know that getting to the hospital is the most important thing.
'That's the number one thing that people have to know is that if you have any reason to believe that you were drugged and assaulted then you should go straight to the hospital,' she said.
The NOPD defended its decision to gather more evidence before taking Treme to the hospital. A police spokesman said that's standard procedure for such an investigation.
But even if Treme had gone straight to the hospital when she woke up, it was already more than 12 hours after her memory had gone blank, and it may have already been too late.
Ginesse Barrett, a forensic nurse at Interim LSU Hospital's SAFE unit, says predators have a powerful tool to commit almost a perfect crime. GHB, also known as Liquid X, can be made at home in liquid form, only stays in the victim's system for six to 12 hours and can drastically lower one's inhibitions.
'Many scenarios, when you describe it to me, definitely sound like it could be GHB, but it's very difficult to prove because by the time you show up at the hospital to get your toxicology tests done, it's going to be out of your system,' said Barrett, whose unit sees about 21 sexual assault patients every month.
'Even when you do get a positive, it's not necessarily the smoking gun in a case because you have to prove that you didn't intentionally ingest it,' she added.
Perpetrators can also feel emboldened by the New Orleans Police Department's poor reputation for handling sexual assault cases.
The number of reported rape cases in New Orleans is far below any other U.S. city with a major crime problem. Plus, the city's inspector general sampled 90 sex crimes reported to NOPD in 2013 and found that nearly half of them had been mischaracterized as lesser offenses.
Chief Ronal Serpas has acknowledged the problem by making major changes in the sex crimes unit. Advocates and other observers say it is improving, but more details from Treme's case suggest that the problems persist.
Treme says she didn't hear from NOPD for three weeks. Then, as soon as WWL-TV asked about
the case last week, Treme got a phone call from Ferdinand.
'She was irate and angry,' Treme said. 'And she said, and this is a quote: 'You are making the New Orleans Police Department look very bad.''
Feeling uneasy about meeting Ferdinand alone, Treme brought attorney Aubrey Harris with her to NOPD Headquarters. By law, she has the right as a victim to have an advocate present when interviewed by police. But Ferdinand sent Treme an email refusing to let anyone else attend their meeting.
'Ms. Treme(,) as I explained to your attorney due to the confidential nature of your investigation(,) I am unable to speak with anyone else regarding your case,' Ferdinand wrote.
Harris said she's handled many rape cases and never before had such a problem accompanying a victim to a police interview. She said state law affords both victims and suspects the right to have counselors present, but the NOPD now says a lawyer doesn't qualify as an approved advocate to accompany Treme to her meeting with detectives.
'Frankly, they are affording criminal defendant more rights than victims by handling it this way,' Harris said.
UPDATE: On Friday, Harris said NOPD reversed its position and agreed to let her attend a meeting in the late afternoon between investigators and Treme.
What's more, Treme believes NOPD has repeatedly failed to gather evidence from her stolen car, which was recovered by a towing company 10 days after the incident. A fax receipt shows Rudy Smith Towing Services sent NOPD the make, model, VIN Number and license plate number of her car on July 10. But the police apparently didn't check if it was stolen, because the towing company said it later found out from the state the car was stolen and called NOPD to inform them on July 24.
Treme didn't learn the towing company had her car until she got a letter in the mail from Rudy Smith on July 25, by which time her bill to retrieve it had ballooned by several hundred dollars. It took her calling NOPD that day to get officers out to the tow lot on July 28, at which point they saw someone's cell phone, air freshener and bolt cutters inside. But the police never collected it as evidence.
'We're leaving and I say, 'Are you gonna take that evidence?' And he's like, 'Oh, you don't have keys to the car. We can't get in it,'' Treme said. 'I'm thinking, 'Pop a lock! You can't get in the car? There's a cell phone right there, bolt cutters right there, fingerprints.' I mean it's a cell phone! Who knows what's in that cell phone? And they're like, 'Call us back when you get keys.''
NOPD says its investigation has already determined that the car theft and sexual assault were
completely unrelated, but a department spokesman declined to say how that was determined. Treme is convinced the two events are related because she suspects someone took her keys from her purse inside the club and knew which vehicle was hers because she doesn't have a remote-access device on her keys.
Treme is now left trying to raise about $700 to get her car back and the bill is growing by almost $20 a day.
She said she has received a lot of support from women friends who say they had similar things happen to them and are cheering her bravery. But Treme is also getting criticized from those who want to blame her open lifestyle, and from those who say she should file charges against anyone who had sex with her because the law defines sex with an incapacitated person as rape and the stress is mounting.
The police spokesman said the department wants to keep working with Treme and feels the sex crimes unit is making progress in the investigation, but needs her to meet with detectives to fill in some blanks and connect them with other witnesses.
Sarah Ney, The Country Club's vice president and attorney, said the club has very strict rules against sex on the premises and works hard to protect its clients. It fired one of its security guards last month when he posted a video to Instagram of two club patrons having sex on the sidewalk outside the club. Ney said the club is eager to help the police with the investigation of the incident July 1.