Two men arrested in string of gay nightlife deaths

Robert Demaio was arrested in connection to the death of John Umberger.
Robert Demaio was arrested in connection to the death of John Umberger.
Lloyd Mitchell

Two men were arrested for allegedly carrying out a series of druggings — some fatal — of gay men leaving queer bars and nightclubs in Manhattan dating back to last year, according to NBC News and the NYPD.

NBC News reported Robert Demaio, 34, turned himself in on April 3 — two days after another suspect, 30-year-old Jacob Barroso, was arrested and charged with murder along with nearly a dozen other counts. Both suspects were arrested for their alleged roles in what the NYPD describes as a citywide robbery pattern involving individuals who have drugged people before stealing their money.

Police have been searching for the individuals responsible for the deaths of 25-year-old Julio Ramirez, who died last April after leaving the Hell’s Kitchen gay bar known as The Ritz with some unknown men, and 33-year-old John Umberger, who died in May after leaving The Q nightclub — also with unknown men. 

Demaio was hit with murder, robbery, grand larceny, identity theft and conspiracy charges. Barroso, who was arrested on the Lower East Side at 9 a.m. on April 1, faces three counts of robbery, two counts of grand larceny, four counts of conspiracy, and an identity theft charge. Police are also looking for 35-year-old Jayqwan Hamilton.

The NYPD did not immediately respond to a question asking which victim was allegedly associated with the specific suspects, but NBC reported that Demaio was charged in connection with the death of Umberger as well as a different incident involving an unidentified victim who did not die. Similarly, Barroso’s arrest was tied to Ramirez’s death and a separate case involving a victim who survived, according to NBC.

In both cases, attackers allegedly used the facial recognition software on the victims’ phones to access their bank accounts and steal money. Last month, the Office of the New York City Medical Examiner said the two men died by homicide with “drug-facilitated thefts.” The medical examiner found “acute intoxication” with the combined effects of “fentanyl, p-fluorofentanyl, cocaine, lidocaine, and ethanol” in the bodies of Ramirez and Umberger, and heroin was also found in Ramirez’s system.

On his last night alive, Ramirez, who was a social worker, left the Ritz with unknown men and was seen entering a cab, where he was later found dead on the Lower East Side. Umberger was found dead June 1 inside the apartment of conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is known for its work to advance anti-LGBTQ hate. Umberger worked for the American Center for Law and Justice.

Demaio and Hamilton were spotted on surveillance video footage entering Umberger’s apartment, according to NBC, which cited law enforcement sources.

The pair of homicides represented two of 17 similar incidents under investigation as part of a citywide robbery pattern involving individuals who have drugged and killed people before taking their money. A Manhattan grand jury last month indicted six suspects tied to the crime pattern targeting the nightlife scene in New York City’s LGBTQ community. One of the suspects, Andre Butts, 28, who was allegedly tied to Ramirez’s death, allegedly used Ramirez’s credit card to purchase two pairs of Nike sneakers for $544 in the hours after Ramirez was found dead.

Umberger’s mother, Linda Clary, texted Gay City News expressing her gratitude for NYPD Detective Randy Rose, who she said cracked the case that exposed the rings of gangs targeting New York City’s nightlife. DeMaio and Barroso were remanded without bail at a hearing on April 3.

“We are so thankful for this decision and the hard work of Detective Rose, and the many others involved,” Clary wrote, stating that she is relieved. “We will proceed with the next steps.”

Heather Cassell contributed reporting to this story.