A visiting American met some friendly Russians outside the Bolshoi Theater earlier this month, stopped by their home for a drink and woke up the next morning in a field outside Moscow minus his Rolex watch, money and credit cards.
The Mickey Finn they had slipped him left him with hallucinations for three days, but he was relatively lucky. One young foreign woman was recently given a drugged drink near a train station and gang-raped while unconscious, according to her doctor.
Yet in today’s anarchic Moscow, where downtown building explosions no longer raise eyebrows and all kinds of crime flourish, the marked increase in criminal drugging has raised few alarm bells.
“There are so many crimes in general that nobody cares how many cases [like this] there are,” said Yuri V. Tatarinov, spokesman for the Moscow Crime Directorate. “We have a lot of other problems.”
Yet according to the Russian and Western doctors who treat the poisoned victims, the use of Mickey Finns has increased noticeably in the past two years to become a routine hazard of life in Moscow.
“Someone will die from this soon, as it is dangerous stuff,” warned Dr. Joshua Bamberger of U.S. Global Health, an American-run clinic in Moscow.
The drug of choice for rendering victims unconscious is clonidine, a blood-pressure medication that is odorless, tasteless, fast-acting and absurdly cheap.
In the United States, clonidine is a seldom-used drug sold only by prescription, but in Russia the tablets are sold over the counter under a Bulgarian brand name. A package containing enough tablets to knock out 10 men cost 5,250 rubles last week--less than $1.20.
But the pills are slow-acting and clumsy to use, so most poisoners prefer a concentrated liquid form of the drug, said Dr. Yuri N. Ostapenko, head of the Health Ministry’s Toxicology Information and Advisory Center.
When the first clonidine poisoning cases appeared about five years ago, the toxicologist wrote to the Health Ministry and other Soviet officials asking that the over-the-counter sale of the liquid drug be strictly regulated.
Criminals, however, appear to have no trouble getting it.
“It’s been forbidden for the last three or four years, but the number of poisonings has not fallen,” Ostapenko said. “Last year, we would sometimes see five or six people a day.”
Most clonidine victims do not require hospitalization, and Russian doctors and ambulance drivers are so familiar with the symptoms by now that treatment is fairly routine. Still, the number of victims sufficiently ill to be admitted to Ostapenko’s Sklifosovsky Institute toxicology clinic has grown from 163 patients in 1993 to 205 last year.
The American Medical Center here usually sees at least one Western clonidine victim each month, sometimes two, said Dr. Katharine Allen, an internist who has noticed an increase in the past two years. Most of the patients are lone males who have been befriended by a woman or a man in a bar or club, she said. Rape is very uncommon, Allen and Ostapenko agreed, but the robbery technique has been honed to a fine art.
“I’ve seen a few people who have been beaten up,” Allen said. “It’s hard to tell exactly when it happened, because they usually don’t have much of a recollection. . . . This drug is very effective. They pass out for a good 12 hours.”
Many of the poisoners are prostitutes, or women pretending to be prostitutes to lure clients to a convenient place to rob them. Allen said one of her patients was doped by some people he met in a Pizza Hut.
“He was having a great time until they poisoned him,” she said.
The scams are infinite--and inventive, Ostapenko said. Many victims are lured from train stations or airports by people who offer them a place to spend the night. One clever poisoner posed as an Oriental healer who promised to cure obesity, Ostapenko said. He made house calls and even inserted a few acupuncture needles in his “patients” before dosing them and their dogs and burglarizing their apartments.
In the past, most victims were slipped the drug in an alcoholic drink, Ostapenko said, but now teetotalers are being poisoned with spiked coffee, tea or soda, sometimes in restaurants and cafes.
Ostapenko said at least two fatalities have been reported, but it could not be ascertained whether the deaths were directly attributable to clonidine. One Finnish victim found in a doorway on a frigid Russian winter night might have died from alcohol poisoning or exposure, he said.
But Allen said the drug depresses blood pressure, pulse and respiration, and could be dangerous to someone with a heart ailment.
“You could give someone a heart attack with this, or you could die from it if you had a heart condition,” she warned. “My advice is you shouldn’t assume in Russia that everyone you meet is going to be friendly. I would not just have a drink with anybody you meet; I would go through friends and contacts.”
The American who met his poisoners outside the Bolshoi is a 220-pound veteran of the U.S. military operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf. When one of the poisoners’ wives said she wanted to go home, it did not occur to the muscular Midwesterner to fear the slim, well-groomed and polite men who invited him along.
Minutes after drinking a shot of vodka, he realized he had been drugged.
“I pulled my pen out of my pocket, and I started to write my Social Security number on my leg because I thought this was it,” he said. “I wrote the first three numbers, and I couldn’t get my hand to write the fourth.”
He awoke in a grassy area and does not know how long he lay there, hallucinating orange lights and loud noises and trying to figure out where he was. Eventually, he began knocking on doors, and a kindly English-speaking man invited him in and eventually drove him home.
The effects of clonidine usually wear off within 24 hours, but the American, who remains deeply embarrassed about the incident and asked not to be named, said he slipped in and out of consciousness for two days and experienced hallucinations for three.
“The hallucinations were really frightening,” he said. “I didn’t know if I had suffered permanent brain damage.”
His trip to the police station to file a report was “brutal,” he said, comparing his treatment to that of a rape victim accused of bringing the attack upon herself.
“They made every accusation. . . . That I’d gone home with a prostitute. That the Bolshoi area was a gay [pickup] area and that I’d gone home with a man and he’d drugged me. That I’d gotten drunk and passed out,” he said.
He was unsure he could identify the poisoners and was afraid to try for fear of retaliation, because they had his briefcase with all his personal effects, including his addresses in Moscow and the United States.
“I’m not sleeping well, because they know who I am but I don’t know who they are,” he said. But he says the incident could have happened in any large city worldwide.
“I’m going to continue going out and meeting people, but I don’t think I’d ever go to their place again,” he said. “Definitely don’t ever eat or drink anything from anyone you don’t know.”