MetroFocus: May 18, 2023

At least 43 incidents of druggings have been linked to robberies in and outside Manhattan nightclubs since September 2021, involving a mix of both straight and gay NYC bars, and both heterosexual and LGBTQIA+ people. Tonight we share the story of one of those victims, and his mother, whose relentless pursuit of justice helped crack the case.

Tonight, Linda Clary shares the story of how she conducted her own investigation to catch the killers of her son, John Umberger, a DC political consultant in town on business, who was drugged and robbed after leaving a NYC gay bar, before authorities ruled his 2022 death a homicide. Then,while healthcare systems were overwhelmed due to the pandemic, individuals most at risk for substance abuse and addiction were isolated and cut off from resources. That has exacerbated New York State’s already severe overdose crisis. At the core of this crisis is a shocking rise in opioid-related deaths: 16 New Yorkers die every day of an overdose. That’s 1 person every 3 hours. Over the next year, MetroFocus will be bringing a series of stories on how New York is changing the way it does things here in and around the city to save lives. Tonight, Special Correspondent Christopher Booker explores how a federal policy change has allowed the state to pursue a Harm Reduction strategy that encompasses everything from the widespread distribution overdose drug Naloxone, to the expansion of needle exchange programs.


At least 43 incidents of druggies have been linked to robberies inside and outside Manhattan nightclubs.

One of the major breaks in the case, the mother who conducted her own investigation to catch her son's killers before authorities ruled her death a homicide.

MetroFocus starts, right now.

This is MetroFocus with RafaelPi Roman, Jack Ford, and Jenna Flanagan.

The Peter G Peterson and Jones can Cooney fund, Bernard Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, and by Jody and John Arnhold, the doctor Sohn foundation, estate of Roland Karlen.

Jenna: Good evening and welcome to MetroFocus.

Drugged, robbed and left for dead after a night out in New York City, authorities say this tragic series of events led to the murders of two men who were at gate nightclubs last year, traumatizing the community.

Over a dozen other people reported being targeted and in the past few weeks, five men were indicted in connection with the case.

The final suspect was arrested in mid April.

The group is accused of befriending their victims, plying them with dangerous drugs, and stealing thousands of dollars from their bank accounts.

Authorities say the alleged crimes did not appear to specifically target gay men.

But this happened around Hells kitchen, Manhattan neighborhood, with many LGBTQIA+ residents.

A political consultant was one of the victims who lost his life.

Hi mother, -- his mother, Linda Clary is here tonight.

She conducted her own investigation and has since started a foundation to carry his legacy encouraging other victims to come forward.

Thank you so much for joining us on MetroFocus.

Thank you for having me on and caring about the story.

Jenna: Absolutely.

First, I want to get your take.

Especially as a mother, what was it like when you first heard about what happened to your son?

Well, it was a series of what happened, meaning when I was first called, John was missing.

We were all trying to find him and when I was called to be told that they had found him and John was dead, it was horrific, it was presented to me as if John sat on a bed and fell over and was tying his shoe and died.

That seemed odd.

As the conversations with the detectives in the 19th precinct continued, we kept asking, where is his phone.

There were all things that happened with his phone.

Even being on Facebook and Instagram and having read text messages even though he never responded.

The fact that he did not have his phone on him, we quickly learned the credit card 10 maxed out, so the police initially presented to us that oh, John must've gone out to a club, run into some bad people and they robbed him, and he got drugs and was so depressed he came home and took them that did not measure up with how John would've handled that situation.

So, it has been an unraveling.

As we did our own detective work retracing his steps, established certain things, seven of us came to New York, met with the detective in the 19th precinct.

After having to wait two and half hours and being put in the complaint room he had a different perspective after we lined everything out and pointed out some things including the fact that John never got in the last cab ride he ordered.

That help give them -- helped give them a different perspective, homicide detective was assigned to a different case.

It unfolded as we have gone along.

Jenna: Once a homicide detective was assigned to the case, give me your take on what seems like the recent developments.

Well, I am very thankful that these arrests have been made.

The men have been arraigned, and they are right now, in jail and off the streets.

They cannot hurt anybody else.

Given the evidence that is in the indictment, you will see the most critical piece of evidence is a -- this is very difficult to say -- there is a video recording of my son dying, and the gentleman reporting it, and snickering in the background.

All of them have prior criminal records.

I believe the streets of New York are much safer.

People are safer with these people not being out amongst the general population.

I am so grateful because detective Randy Rose and the other detectives like Joe Cowan and Scott Williams who worked with him on the case have made such a difference.

Detective Rose was the one who started ticking -- digging and realized after going through the evidence, the same people were responsive for -- responsible for Julio Ramirez's death.

That was critical.

And Rose's unwillingness to give up.

He is a very good detective, not only is he good at his job, but he is committed, and he cares about victims, and doing his job.

Jenna: This has not been determined to be hate crime.

Yet, a lot of that has the do with the language in the weight hate crime is determined -- the way hate crime's are determined.

This has left a lot of people, particularly in the LGBTQIA+ community legitimately shook.

They should be.

They were the targets.

These men, specifically, sot targets in the gay -- sought out targets in the gay community.

They saw them as being lucrative targets and vulnerable, and they prayed upon them.

That, to me, is why it feels like a hate hate crime, even though it does not meet the legal definition of a hate crime.

It is something everyone should be concerned about, and work towards being more aware and careful, and protective of one another.

Jenna: Of course.

Initially, the reports were that this was driven by simple greed.

That is why people are being targeted.

It does seem, I guess, may be questionable that both victims were gay men and this was around Hells kitchen.


I am confident there are other victims that have not come forward.

My hope is that other victims who did not come forward for a variety of reasons will feel empowered to come forward.

Those are obviously living victims.

So, we have the living victims, and we have the victims who died, like Julio and my son.

It is a concern.

I believe there are more cases out there.

Even if they did come forward, perhaps they have not been categorized.

This would be something I would say to NYPD, you have a $6 billion budget.

I know you are stretched.

But surely, especially with the additional money the mayor is putting forth, there should be some collaborative efforts from a data perspective to know what is going on in every precinct, and to be able to track to similar cases -- track similar cases.

This has been going on for some time in the city, it seems, based on the data.

Jenna: Let me ask you this.

We know that, unfortunately, your son is no longer with us.

The way I described him in the intro was as a political consultant.

What a news story describes is such a fraction of the individual.

Can you tell us about your son?

Oh, yes.

John was a larger-than-life character.

I received last week a two-page letter from his doctor, general practitioner, that only saw him four times.

When he saw the article in the Washington Post, just wanted to write me and say, I'm so sorry for your loss, and talk about how he remembered John and how he lit up his office when he came in, and was so kind.

John was described in one article, in the Washington Post, in a city that seeks to exclude people, John never wrote to anyone off, and never excluded anyone.

John had a variety of friends.

I've never seen someone have so many best friends, a variety of interests.

John was someone who knew a lot about a lot of people -- things.

We discovered he was collecting these antique side rules.

They kept coming in, even once he passed, he had ordered on eBay.

He was also a Gyro kinesis instructor.

He took a personal interest.

He believed in picking up the phone or seeing someone in person, rather than sending a text.

You know, he brought joy.

He could get the impossible done.

As his boss said, unfortunately, it is going to take three people to replace John in his role.

Jenna: That is an incredibly heartbreaking and difficult situation, you have found purpose, your foundation.

Can you tell us about that?

I am very proud to say there are -- or there is an executive board of seven, but there are 50 board members.

So many of John's friends have wanted to be involved.

We're focused on carrying on John's legacy in making a difference in the lives of individuals, but specifically in five areas, safety, wellness, innovation, support, and scholarship.

With what is going on, the focus has been safety, with spreading the word, you cannot let one another go out alone.

You think you are safe, but you really -- there are safety in numbers.

Stick together.

You may -- we have all done it, I have done it and I am much older.

But you cannot go home with someone in a group of people you meet in a bar that you've never met before.

We live in a crazy world right now.

It is just not safe.

Do go back to old school of not doing the face ID on your phone.

As someone said, if someone is attacking you, or drugging you, and getting your phone, and then realizes they cannot get into it, you don't want to get to that point.

Take these other safety measures.

Especially in line with this conversation, when we look at support, there are three specific areas of support in that John was a product of a surprise pregnancy for me.

I was blessed to have parents who stepped in, and saw me through it, and who could help financially and otherwise.

We want to support a young woman in a crisis, who wants to keep her child.

Provide, support stability in all areas for her to make that choice.

Then, support for anyone who was afraid to come out and be who they are.

It -- they don't have family that will support them.

We want to support them.

We are looking to partner with other organizations to do that.

That is a really important thing to me.

I'm thankful John was who he was.

He was openly gay.

John was so talented, because he was gay.

Because, no straight man could have done what John did.

He just had so much going on.

So it was a blessing.

I want other people to understand that about themselves.

Then, when we look at the people involved in John's death, who I believe killed my son, the system failed to them.

They came out of the project, they have turned to a life of crime.

We want to help from an educational perspective in providing educational programs and opportunities for people to not make the choices these other people did.

Those are significant areas.

You can find out more at jacu

Jenna: Linda Clary, I want to thank you so much, for all of the reasons you laid out in the foundation that you started and the beautiful way you're carrying on your sons legacy.

Thank you so much for joining us on MetroFocus.

Thank you.

It would be an honor to be back anytime.

Thank you for including me.

Jenna: Absolutely.

Nearly every measure the overdose crisis continues to worsen.

In New York 16 people die every day from an overdose, one person every three hours five years ago it was one person every eight hours.

For the first time ever, the federal government has begun to fund and promote harm reduction as part of the ongoing efforts to combat what has become a relentlessly tragic situation.

For those who have dedicated themselves to pushing back against this brutal epidemic, this change has released millions of dollars and opened up a new set of response tactics, from the widespread distribution of the overdose drug Malaak sewn, to the expansion of the needle exchange programs.

Over the next year we will bring you a series of stories on how New York is changing the way it does things in and around the city to save lives.

Christopher Booker has our story.

The number one message that we always give is never use alone.

That is the number one harm reduction strategy.

If they hear anything else, never use alone.

If you use alone there was no one there to respond if you overdose.

For a New York State employee to speak openly about how individuals should approach their drug use is a change to the type.

Four Mayor Brewster, the new Commissioner for harm reduction, a frank and honest conversation is long overdue.

We know that will always use drugs.

So, if we know that people are always going to use drugs, how do we get them to use drugs as a safe list possible and recognize that every life has value and who should do everything we can to save the life?

The very first of its kind in New York, Brewster will spend much of the next year visiting rehabilitation centers helping facilities like this one with their distribution, Fentanyl testing, and needle exchange efforts.

She is meeting with twin County recovery services in Hudson, New York.

Making sure the moms have it, and know how to use it.

Having these conversations, knowing their kids are using opioids, being ready with it just in case.

Born during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, harm reduction played a crucial role in HIV infections among drug users.

As it spread through the community, activists in major cities launched clean needle campaigns.

In San Francisco, the city's AIDS foundation, created a mascot.

Bleach man.

Cleaning a needle is easy.

It kills the AIDS virus.

Harm reduction has been used for decades.

The term is often used as any federal response.

For the first time, the Biden administration used the term in last year's budget.

The inclusion comes as research continues to point to the efficacy of the approach.

30 years of research shows that users of syringe service programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment at three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who do not use SSP's.

How important was it to have the Biden administration to use the term?

It was huge.

For the federal government to say the word and then to fund it.

As part of the $42.5 billion budget for the national drug control agencies, the budget earmarked millions of dollars to improve access to build needle exchange programs and distribute Fentanyl test strips.

Those still struggling, I want you to know that I see you.

We need to do everything we can to really help keep people alive.

This doctor was appointed commissioner of New York's office of addiction services answer boards -- and supports by the governor.

You have been in this position for a year, where would you say things are like in New York, in where you'd like to achieve?

We are in the worst opioid epidemic on record.

16 people die every day of overdose.

This is involving mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles, neighbors, coworkers.

There's no place that this doesn't touch.

I think that there is no family or individual that this does not touch.

she has been working in addiction services for decades, she says the addict -- adoption of harm reduction strategies is crucial.

There is evidence across the world that shows harm reduction efforts are effective.

This is also, using a data-driven approach, and evidence-based strategies, that is what we need to be doing.

This is a medical condition.

We need signs to guide our work.

This is not about morality, weakness, or strength.

It is a medical condition.

We need to approach it in that way.

What is a greater challenge, working with the community of users or with the community of nonusers, as it relates to understanding and accepting harm reduction as a policy?

We all grew up hearing the same messages in the country.

So, doctors, people who use drugs.

Those messages were, just say no.

This is your brain on drugs.

Which, frankly, it is harmful.

I think across the board it is unlearning what those earlier messages conveyed.

I got this tattoo before I got the job.

But I literally have a job that says, any positive change, it is my harm reduction tattoo.

When you look at the current landscape, how did things look to you?

in five years we have gone in New York City to one person dying one every eight hours, to one person dies every three hours.

It was important for Bidens administration to recognize harm reduction meant -- as legitimate and put money into our field.

He cannot help but be optimistic.

I have to be hopeful.

If I am not, what is that all four?

We have to think we can make change.

On December 16, the National Institutes of Health will launch research network.

The $36 million network will fund nine research projects and create one coordinating center.

It will be the first of its kind in the U.S.

For MetroFocus, I am Christopher Booker.

While the tide may be changing in the way New York is responding to the overdose crisis, for those toys spent decades on the front lines -- for those who spent decades on the front lines there is a fine line between policy.

We have more on the story.

In Queens, Janie started out with handouts at McDonald's.

Her good friend waited outside while she distributed bags filled with the overdose reversing medication and Fentanyl test strips.

We were asked not to film inside.

These are Fentanyl test strips.

Are you familiar with those?

Simmons who was an associate research scientist has a special arrangement with the manager here, who allows her to connect with the using community, who gather in and around the restaurant for privacy.

Funded through the city, Simmons started it in 2017.

McDonald's is the first stop.

Next is a nearby park.

Someone is overdosing, if you see someone overdosing --

how long have you been doing this work?

Three decades, if we include HIV prevention.

I was a researcher but I started working in opioid prevention about 2013.

Taking what you knew from your AIDS work into this, how different is that?

Well, I think I started working in opioid overdose prevention because I began to recognize the sense that opioid overdose deaths were surging, similar to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

We realized a lot of people are going to die.

I don't take drugs.

It does not matter.

You may be in a situation where you are seeing someone.

Yeah, we see everybody.

Harm reduction is about treating people like human beings.

Treating someone decently like you would anybody else, it is the kind of intervention, often a simple engagement, like offering somebody a tool that can help save their lives, it is really effective.

This approach was born from his own experience.

He has been in recovery since 1991.

Harm reduction is not a simple thing to explain to individuals.

They just don't understand what it is when you're talking about harm reduction.

Harm reduction to them is, oh you want me to stop using?

No, I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do.

I want you to use safer.

Safer is a way of saying and producing your harm.

Was there anything like harm reduction when you are using?


Other than the spiritual aspect of it with my family, taking me into a church, and letting them pray over me, that was harm reduction, as far as they were concerned, to get the devil out of you, so to speak.

what was your drug of choice?

Heroin was my drug of choice.

Though, I was not ashamed to say I used whatever drugs came my way.

But if we talk about drugs of choice, it was heroin.

when you are using, Fentanyl was not on the scene?

I don't believe it was.

It was always straight up heroin.

Would you want to carry this?


You want that?

I will carry it and see.

His experiences through the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis illustrate, even with the presence of a known infection or deadly overdose, it can be difficult to reach users.

They started to give it a name.


How do you get HIV?

We are getting it through injection drug use.

We really did not care.

We used.

Today it is the same situation.

They don't care, they use, knowing that there is Fentanyl, may be in the mix of the product they are buying.

They are still using it.

where does that leave things?

We think we have to really improve the message, right?

A way to deliver the message with enough information and forced to make them realize the danger that is involved right now.

Dangers that you did not see back then.

Dangers now.

Does the fact that New York now has an office dedicated to harm reduction, does that help your work?

We will see.

[Laughter] I don't know.

This is going to be a process.

Sometimes it takes a long time.

In the meantime, a lot of people die.

She Applause the broader adoption of harm reduction, she worries the activists, researchers, and users who are instrumental, risk being pushed aside as harm reduction becomes part of the political discourse.

For MetroFocus, I am Christopher Booker.

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