VIDEO/PHOTOS: Blue Martini probe ends, no evidence of drink tampering found

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An 11-month investigation into alleged drink tampering at Blue Martini bar in North Naples has ended, with no evidence of any suspicious activities, drugs or tampering.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Collier Sheriff’s Sgt. Bryan Sawyer said deputies, including three women and state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco investigators, worked undercover as patrons, obtaining drink samples and watching for suspicious activities by customers and staff.

In addition, he said, detectives reviewed surveillance tapes. Blood, urine, hair and drinks were tested and 150 patrons, including roughly 50 alleged victims, were interviewed, but no evidence of spiking was found at the bar and restaurant, located at 9114 Strada Place in the upscale Mercato shopping center.

“All reporters had considerable alcohol in large amounts,” Sawyer said of alleged victims, adding that no crimes occurred.

Three people made reports after arrests, he said, citing a man stopped on a drunken driving charge, a female Blue Martini employee arrested in Lee County, and a woman charged with disorderly intoxication. Sawyer said the three blamed Blue Martini.

Since late 2009, they investigated more than 50 reports by patrons who said they became ill, passed out later or inside the bar. Many believed their drinks were tampered with.

Sawyer, who headed the investigation, suggested a Daily News article about three women who filed complaints prompted similar reports. After the article in early November, he said, more than 50 others came forward.

But the initial tip to the Daily News last fall showed that bar management believed it was enough of a problem to meet with employees and urge them to watch patrons and staff.

A private laboratory analyzed hair follicles, which can show drugs for long periods, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab tested blood, urine and drink samples.

Detectives reviewed video surveillance tapes and saw no unusual activity. The video, obtained by a subpoena, was over a limited period that didn’t cover most reported incidents in 2009 and early 2010.

Evidence from patrons treated in emergency rooms shortly after the alleged spiking was reviewed, but medical staff found no illicit substances. Patients’ blood-alcohol content ranged from .117- to .228 percent; 08 percent is the level a person is presumed impaired.

Sawyer emphasized the Sheriff’s Office is not closing the door on its investigation, but will continue looking into claims of drink tampering.

“We did a comprehensive check on the reporters,” Sawyer said of the alleged victims, who ranged in age from 21 to 82 and were more than 80 percent women. “We have conducted every reasonable investigative step we could see. ... Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to come to a conclusion as to what caused the symptoms of the reporters.”

Blue Martini and Mercato officials worked closely with the Sheriff’s Office and the Mercato started a safety task force that included deputies and state Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco investigators.

The managers of all the Mercato restaurants and businesses came together to address safety issues and share tips about hiring and training employees, preparing and serving food and drinks, said Mike Hoyt, senior vice president of the Lutgert Companies, which manages the Mercato.

“If anything, the silver lining to all this is it helped us get even more focused on getting that high level of safety and comfort to our guests,” Hoyt said, adding that he was grateful the Sheriff’s Office did a thorough investigation.

“It seemed like from the beginning they were serious about digging into this,” he said.

Attempts to reach Blue Martini spokesman and attorney Richard Chosid of Boca Raton were unsuccessful. This summer, he said the allegations led to bad press that hurt business.

The crime, “slipping a Mickey,” isn’t new. It’s occurred for decades, mostly involving well-off bar patrons who later find they were robbed.

Most recently, Palm Beach Shores police headed an investigation into rich men’s drinks being spiked with Rufinol, a date rape drug, in March and April. News reports showed five men in their 50s and 60s blacked out and were robbed of money, watches and jewelry after drinking at bars in Deerfield Beach, West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Shores, Palm Beach and Boca Raton.

They said flirtatious women approached them, they drank and awakened hours later, only to find they were robbed. Police, who obtained video showing one alleged robber, believe more victims exist, but they’re afraid to come forward because they’re married.

Sawyer warned customers to watch their drinks, never leave them unattended, don’t accept drinks from strangers, watch the bartender mix the drink, and don’t drink anything with an unusual odor or taste. He cautioned that patrons should never drink beverages that were moved or suddenly have more or less liquid.

Staff writer Ryan Mills contributed to this report.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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