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Man Arrested in Killings That Terrorized Manhattan Gay Bars

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It was the fifth arrest connected to a series of druggings and robberies that killed two men last year.

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The marquee of the Q bar is lit over a darkened doorway.

The Q bar in Hell’s Kitchen was one of the bars where victims were targeted in the robberies.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Liam Stack

A man whom the Police Department described as a leader of a gang that perpetrated a series of robberies and killings at Manhattan gay bars has been arrested, law enforcement officials said on Tuesday.

The man, Jayqwan Hamilton, 35, of Brooklyn, was arrested on Monday and charged with murder, grand larceny and other crimes in connection with the killings of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger, two men who were drugged at bars in Manhattan, robbed using facial recognition technology on their phones and later found dead of overdoses.

Law enforcement said the motive for the killings was financial, but the murders nevertheless terrorized the city’s L.G.B.T.Q. population, for whom a small number of well-known bars often function as de facto community centers. They also drew attention to the prevalence of deadly and easily obtainable drugs in New York’s nightlife.

“The source of this crime was clearly rooted in greed and total disregard for the victims,” said Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference on Tuesday. He added, “We want to send a message to the L.G.B.T. community: We understand the trauma you experienced during this time.”

The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, encouraged people to contact his office if they believed that they had been drugged in a similar fashion while at a bar or club.

“Nobody should have to worry about their safety and well-being when enjoying Manhattan’s vibrant nightlife, and this investigation sends a clear message that we have no tolerance for this type of deadly conduct,” Mr. Bragg said.

The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, encouraged people who believed they had been drugged at bars or nightclubs to come forward.Credit…Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

Mr. Hamilton’s arrest comes after four other men — Jacob Barroso, Robert DeMaio, Andre Butts and Shane Hoskins — were charged in connection with the crimes in recent weeks. William Alford, a lawyer for Mr. Hamilton, declined to comment on Tuesday.

James Essig, the Police Department’s chief of detectives, said on Tuesday that the investigation hinged in part on two videos that investigators found on Mr. DeMaio’s phone. The first video showed Mr. DeMaio and Mr. Hamilton inside the Upper East Side townhouse where Mr. Umberger’s body was found.

In the second video, “the victim is seen on the bed, apparently unconscious, in the same pose in which he was later found deceased,” said Chief Essig.

Last April, Mr. Ramirez, a 25-year-old social worker from Queens, was drugged at the Ritz, a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, and left with a group of men who abandoned his body in the back of a taxi on the Lower East Side roughly one hour later, his family said.

One month later, Mr. Umberger, a 33-year-old political consultant, was drugged at the Q, a gay bar near the Ritz, and was found dead five days later, his family said.

The families of both men discovered that money had been taken from their accounts after they died. Last month, the medical examiner said both men were killed by similar drug cocktails that contained fentanyl.

Linda Clary, the mother of Mr. Umberger, said she was “delighted and grateful” that Mr. Hamilton was in custody.

Linda Clary, the mother of John Umberger, waiting on Tuesday for the arraignment of Jayqwan Hamilton, who has been charged in her son’s murder.Credit…Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

Carlos Ramirez, a brother of Mr. Ramirez, also expressed gratitude “for the N.Y.P.D. and the district attorney for what they’ve been able to do.”

“I just hope that they get the convictions and justice prevails,” he said.

According to the indictment unsealed on Tuesday, prosecutors said Mr. Hamilton and the other defendants targeted people they saw drinking in bars and would “administer dangerous and illicit substances to them for the purpose of causing their incapacitation.”

Prosecutors said the assailants then stole phones, credit cards, identification documents and other property “once those individuals were further intoxicated and incapacitated to the extent that their ability to perceive events became diminished, and that they were unable to recall or recount those events.”

The indictment also describes several other crimes that were not previously disclosed by the police, including the drug-assisted robberies of at least three people who prosecutors say were targeted by Mr. Barroso, Mr. Hoskins and Mr. Butts before and after the murder of Mr. Ramirez.

Mr. Hamilton appeared at his arraignment in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Tuesday.Credit…Pool photo by Gabriella Bass

According to internal Police Department documents viewed by The New York Times, investigators have identified two similar robbery patterns targeting men at New York bars. The documents said the assailants appeared to be motivated by money and not bias, and that attacks took place at establishments that catered to both gay and straight patrons. In December, another man, Kenwood Allen, 33, was charged with murder in connection with two fatal druggings on the Lower East Side similar to the ones involving Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Umberger in Hell’s Kitchen.

The killings of Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Umberger led other New Yorkers to come forward with stories of being drugged and robbed at gay bars in the city. The Times has interviewed more than a dozen others who survived similar attacks at L.G.B.T.Q. nightlife establishments in Manhattan.

At first, the police viewed the deaths as accidental overdoses, but they opened an investigation when the victims’ families discovered the missing funds. Several gay men who told The Times they had been drugged said the police did not take their claims seriously.

When asked on Tuesday if the police response had been influenced by bias, Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell said, “Categorically no.”

Michael D. Regan contributed reporting.