By Alex Forbes
Jean has never needed to worry about her eldest daughter too much. “Lauren’s always had a good head on her shoulders,” she told me over the phone from her home in Worksop last week. But in the early hours of last Thursday morning, she was woken by a phone call from an unknown number.
In the confusion it was difficult to understand exactly what was going on. But Jean just about managed to grasp that her 26-year-old daughter had been found half-conscious and babbling, strung across the pavement on West Street, one of Sheffield city centre’s busiest night spots.
A couple who found Lauren had desperately pleaded for her to give them any kind of personal information: a name, an address, a friend they could contact. The only thing she could say was her mum’s phone number — Jean had been writing on her arm since she was just eight years old.
After putting down the phone Jean immediately jumped in her car and sped down the A57 towards Sheffield. When she arrived, Lauren was still senseless, lying opposite Player’s nightclub, surrounded by a group of girls. She had no purse, no phone — no possessions whatsoever.
She could have been forgiven for being cross, but Jean says the thought never crossed her mind. Parents know their children better than anyone else, and this simply wasn’t the Lauren she knew. “It was so out of character,” she told me. “I knew something must have happened.”
That night, Lauren had gone out for drinks with her friend Holl and around 15 other colleagues from their office. Needing to be at work by 9am the next day, she didn’t plan on drinking very much at all. The group visited three venues: The Common Room and Forum on Division Street; and finally Tiger Works on West Street.
At Tiger Works they ordered two ice buckets containing bottles of VK (an alcopop containing around 1.1 units per bottle). The bottles were all left unsealed at the side of the room to be shared amongst the group. “And that’s literally the last thing I remember,” Lauren told me. Any further details of her night, she learned from colleagues.
It was several hours later that a group of strangers found Lauren’s friend Holl, completely dazed and huddled in a cubicle of the Tiger Works bathroom. Managing to acquire some basic information, they were able to put her in a taxi, which took her back to the hotel where she was staying the night. Two employees were so concerned about her that they called an ambulance.
Holl was kept under observation overnight before leaving the hospital at 9am the next morning. Doctors agreed that she had most likely been spiked but elected not to give her a drug test. Less is known about what happened to Lauren. According to those she was out with that night, she had simply “disappeared.”
Lauren’s disturbing experience came just weeks after South Yorkshire Police announced that they would be reexamining all reported allegations of drink spiking from the past six months as part of a renewed effort to get to grips with the problem. Chief Inspector Stuart Walne said in August that the incidents would be looked at again in detail in an attempt to build a picture of the people responsible.
Over the past few months, local media in Sheffield have reported on a series of incidents in the city. In August, The Star reported on a 20-year-old woman who had to be given CPR and taken to hospital after being spiked at Sheffield’s Bassfest music festival. And in another incident, a couple who went out in Sheffield city centre woke up in Rotherham with absolutely no memory of what had happened.
More recently, Yorkshire Live reported that staff at several Sheffield bars and nightclubs have expressed concerns about a significant increase in cases of drink spiking. According to the article, in a period of just three weeks, five of the 19 waiters at Turtle Bay had been spiked while on nights out in Sheffield. It goes on to say that managers at the Leadmill are now so concerned about the spate that customers are being offered cling film to cover their drinks.
Nationally, a Sky News investigation from 2018 found that reports of drink spiking more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. In the forces that replied to a Freedom of Information Act request, 1,039 spiking incidents were recorded in 2017 alone. However, due to underreporting and the fact that the Home Office does not yet record data specifically for spiking, this number is thought to be a vast undercount.
South Yorkshire Police say some offenders are believed to spike drinks as a kind of twisted prank. Others do it to steal money and possessions or to assault victims physically or sexually. The most common substance used is alcohol, followed by the “date rape” drug Rohypnol and the party drug GHB.
After speaking to Jean and Lauren, I also spoke to the owner of Tiger Works. She said that in light of recent concerns, the bar has taken new measures to keep customers safe, including hiring extra staff to patrol the venue and look out for suspicious behaviour. New CCTV cameras have also been installed, and all blind spots are now covered.
But for Lauren and Jean this is cold comfort. On Thursday morning, Lauren awoke to find herself in her childhood bedroom, with no memory of how she got there. She sat at the kitchen table with her mum, contacted Holl and her other colleagues, and tried to put the pieces together of what had happened the night before.
After Jean realised that Lauren and Holl had probably been drugged, she was outraged. But her efforts to find the truth have so far been met with suggestions that Lauren must just have drunk too much. “Telling my mum that she’s just mistaken isn’t very sympathetic,” says Lauren. “It’s not nice to think that something could have happened. Or even that something actually did happen, and I don’t remember.”
As well as promising to reexamine incidents, South Yorkshire Police have also recently issued new guidance to help people in Sheffield protect themselves against drink spiking. This includes never losing sight of your drink and not drinking something that you haven’t seen prepared. They also advise that people should be especially vigilant if they are drinking with strangers and keep an eye on their friends.
But for Jean, raising awareness seems to be the only option she has left: “I’m telling you this so someone else’s mum doesn’t have to go through the same experience I did.”
Journalism students from the University of Sheffield are also calling for more action on spiking on West Street, such as the introduction of safe spaces and a “Street Angel” scheme. For more information on the Claim Back West Street campaign, see the Steel City Courier story here.