Where and how: Cases of sexual assault in Steamboat are often facilitated by drugs or alcohol

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the first half of 2019, 11 cases of sexual assault were reported to the Steamboat Springs Police Department, and in a typical year, there will be anywhere from 12 to 30 reports, according to Detective Sam Silva.

“When you’re dealing with a number that small, it can be hard to point to trends,” Silva said.

But that doesn’t mean patterns in locally reported sexual assaults don’t exist. In talking to professionals who are the first to respond when an assault is reported and to those who have been supporting survivors for years, it is clear that the presence of alcohol and/or drugs in cases of sexual assault is a predominant issue in Steamboat Springs.

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“As far as alcohol and drugs being involved (in cases of sexual assault), the rate is extremely high,” Silva said. “Very few sex assaults happen between two sober people.”

“For the most part, alcohol is the drug used most frequently (in cases of sexual assault) — that’s across the nation,” said forensic nurse Patty Oakland, who also serves as social change advocate for Advocates of Routt County. “We are on that track as well.”

Silva said many of the people who report sexual assault initially believe the assault was drug-facilitated, meaning someone slipped a drug into their drink without their knowledge. 

In these cases, police often review video footage from the venue, often a bar, during the night in question, Silva said. They’ll watch to see if anything was put into a person’s drink, and they’ll count how many drinks are consumed.

“More often than not, (the memory loss) is a matter of being self-induced, ingesting so much (alcohol) that they don’t remember the night,” Silva said.

But if someone has had too much to drink and hasn’t said “no” to a sexual encounter, it doesn’t mean it’s a “yes,” either.

Under Colorado law (18-3-402-b), if an “actor” knows that the victim is incapable of appraising the nature of the victim’s conduct and there is sexual intrusion or penetration, it’s sexual assault. It’s proving whether the victim was incapable of the appraising that’s especially tricky.

“It’s vague, but that’s what’s written in the statute,” Silva said. “If the victim is unconscious, that’s clear cut. The gray area is when the person is walking and talking and acting pretty normally beforehand. You can black out and still be acting normal, but that’s hard to prosecute.”

There are also local cases of drugs being placed into people’s drinks, Silva said.

Data collection

Advocates of Routt County has been working to collect more data on the subject of sexual assault and has developed a survey called “Good Night Out.”

As of early June, they had gathered approximately 163 responses with a goal of collecting 500 by the end of the year.

Advocates plans to take the survey to more local events in the coming months and to expand their surveying outside of Steamboat Springs to greater Routt County.

The survey is also available online at

“(Druggings) kind of go in waves, especially if there’s one or two people slipping drugs to a lot of people,” Silva said. “We’ll get a spike in (these cases), then it goes quiet for a while.” 

GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, is one of the more common drugs local police find circulating in cases of what many refer to as “date rape” — a term Silva calls outdated. GHB is an odorless, colorless central nervous system depressant that might cause sweating, nausea, confusion, hallucinations, amnesia, sluggishness and loss of consciousness.

But gathering data about how many drug-facilitated sexual assaults actually take place in Steamboat can be difficult.

“Drugs go through people’s systems really quickly, so they’re generally undetected,” Oakland said.

For example, GHB has a half-life of 30 to 60 minutes, and detecting GHB in urine is difficult after 24 hours.

“In most cases of drug-facilitated assault, it usually takes a few days for someone to look back and say, ‘I think I’ve been drugged,'” Oakland explained.

And by then, all traces of the drugs will have passed through the survivor’s body, leaving no evidence behind.

If a person suspects they were drugged but no assault took place, Silva still encourages them to report the possible drugging to police. And if someone thinks they saw someone’s drink being drugged, Silva recommends the person keep the glass that might have been drugged and call the police. Testing a glass is the easiest way for law enforcement to find evidence of a drugged drink.

In most cases of sexual assault, the victim and perpetrator know each other.

“Generally, almost all local cases of sexual assault are associate-based,” Silva said. “It’s not a stranger.”

“It’s not usually someone grabbing you in a bar or alley or breaking into your home,” Oakland said.

Oakland also reports that she sees an equal number of locals and tourists seeking services after an assault, and during December, the demand for Advocates’ services increases.

“Holidays usually bring more stressors,” Oakland said. “Just like we see an increase in suicide attempts around the holidays, we also see an increase in sex assaults.”

The rise also includes cases of domestic violence, child abuse and drug-facilitated sexual assaults. 

Around major events, such as Music Fest in January and WinterWonderGrass in February, Oakland also sees more people seeking services after sexual assault.

“That’s because there’s more of a population in town at those points,” Oakland said.

Oakland and Silva agree these trends are generalizations and not rules.

“I think the key is that it can happen anywhere to anybody,” Silva said. “Sexual assault doesn’t discriminate.”

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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