Behind the Velvet Rope

by Alafair Burke

This summer, former bouncer Darryl Littlejohn was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal murder of 24-year-old graduate student Imette St. Guillen.  Imposed consecutively to a separate 25-year-to-life sentence for kidnapping a Queens woman, the judgment guarantees that Littlejohn will never be free to victimize another woman again.  But behind the evolution of one criminal case, and even beyond the life of the beautiful young woman whose face temporarily emblazoned the front pages of newspapers and the sides of light poles in New York City, is a cautionary tale for all women.

Today’s women have learned lessons from the crime victims of previous decades.  No hitchhiking.  No late-night shortcuts through darkened alleys.  Check the peephole if you’re going to open the front door.  Walk through the parking lot with alarm key in hand.  And no rides from strangers, even ones as handsome as Ted Bundy.

But then that photograph of another missing woman reminds us: Despite the usual precautions, sometimes we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  Imette St. Guillen found herself in a predator’s path when closing time came at the Falls Bar, an upscale Soho tavern with brown leather banquettes, dark wood accents, and a menu featuring Kobe-beef and lobster burgers.  She’d celebrated her birthday with a girlfriend, but when her friend headed home, she remained behind alone.

Soho’s Falls Bar, where Imette St. Guillen came across killer Darryl Littlejohn

Nine months earlier, eighteen-year-old Alabama high school student Natalee Holloway disappeared near the pristine white sand beaches of Aruba.  She’d been celebrating spring break with her classmates at Carlos’n Charlie’s, a Caribbean Vegas-Meets-Disney hotspot, before leaving alone with three young men she’d just met.  

Four months after St. Guillen’s murder, eighteen-year-old New Jersey student Jennifer Moore was abducted from the West Side Highway.  She’d been drinking with a friend at Guest House, a Chelsea club described by New York Magazine as an “intimate” and “posh boite,” where a patron sporting “sunglasses and stilettos (and exhibiting a good deal of flesh)” might “step out of a canary-yellow Lamborghini” and “snag a reserved table for bottle service.”  But Jennifer Moore had neither a Lamborghini nor a driver to meet her at the curb.  She was a passenger in her girlfriend’s illegally parked car, which the city first ticketed, then towed, and then refused to release to the girls because of their intoxication.  When her friend passed out at the impound lot, Moore walked off alone.  Her accused killer, drifter Draymond Coleman, still awaits trial three years later.

Guest House’s offers private bottle service. Grey Goose goes for $350.

Currently the search continues for missing 25-year-old Laura Garza, who was last seen leaving the club Marquee at 4 am on December 3 with a convicted sex offender named Michael Mele.  The New York Daily News described Marquee as “ritzy” and Mele as “flashy, often decked out in expensive clothes and driving a sports car.”  Prosecutors are considering indicting Mele for murder, even if Garza’s body is never found.

Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and Pete Wentz have all been spotted at club Marquee

I can’t be the only one who sees a trend.  

In the opening scene of my novel, Angel’s Tip, Indiana college student Chelsea Hart is celebrating the final night of spring break at Pulse, a hot-ticket club in the Meatpacking District.  A few hours and several drinks later, her friends are ready to call it quits, but Chelsea stays behind to have one last drink.  Joggers find her body near the East River the next morning.

The media widely reported that Angel’s Tip was based on the murder of Imette St. Guillen.  However, that opening scene could have been based on any one of the same scenes I see repeating every weekend in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan: some young woman — dressed to kill, drunk out of her mind – splitting off from her friends.  The friends looking back with a worried expression.  The girl assuring them she’ll be fine.  

It’s easy for me now – married, in my late thirties – to shake my head with wisdom.  To dole out advice to my female students.  To write about this.

But I remember.  I remember being those girls.  Sometimes I was the one begging my friend to come home because I couldn’t hold myself upright anymore but couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her alone.  And sometimes I was the stumbling drunk, so sure I could look after myself, so certain the guy I’d just met was worth the late night.  

I was lucky.  So were most of my friends – not all of them, to be sure, but even those survived.  And then there are the women like Imette St. Guillen, Jennifer Moore, and most likely Natalee Holloway and Laura Garza, who don’t.

I want to be absolutely clear here.  This isn’t about blame.  No one asks to be victimized, and women don’t bring this onto themselves.  This summer’s murder of Eridania Rodriguez demonstrates that we can only control so much.  The working mother disappeared not from an A-list nightclub, but from the eighth floor of the secured skyscraper she was cleaning.  Her body was found in an air duct four floors up.  An elevator operator has been charged with her murder.  Predators exist.  Like bolts of lightning, they will occasionally strike.

But although lightning may be hard to predict, it is not random.  Neither is crime.  Why does a generation of women who lock their doors, check peepholes, and carry alarm keys continue to wander off alone at closing time?

Because we feel safe.  In a darkened alley or an empty parking lot, we know to put our guard up.  We know to be street smart.  But our preferred nightlife spots change all that.  The red velvet rope.  The discerning doorman perusing the waiting crowd, selecting those fortunate enough to enter.  The so-called VIP lounges that provide yet another layer to the selection process.  The eighteen-dollar martinis.  Bottle service for the truly pampered.  The alcohol allows us to fall further into the fantasy.  And in the fantasy, everyone in the club is “in the club” – beautiful, upscale, safe.  

But that bouncer doing the screening could be Darryl Littlejohn.  The cute guy you’re dancing with could be Michael Mele.  The man who helps you hail a cab at 4 am could be Draymond Coleman.    

If you’re like me — if you’re a woman who has ever let her guard down — don’t wait until the next missing woman’s photograph is on the front page to feel lucky.   And the next time you go out, don’t press your luck.  Drink in moderation.  Stay with your friends.  And don’t fall for the hype.

26 thoughts on “Behind the Velvet Rope

  1. JD Rhoades

    Excellent advice, Alafair. As the father of a beautiful teenage daughter, I’ve struggled to try and find the balance between encouraging her to be a strong, confident and independent young woman and making her aware and careful of all the crazies out there.

    And BTW: Eighteen dollar martinis? 350 for a bottle of Gray Goose? Really? Dear Lord, are these people crazy?

  2. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for the reminder, though I don’t let my guard down much when I’m out and alone. The challenge for me, like JD, is to find the balance between creating truly paranoid children and ones who’ll be cautious and aware of their surroundings. Add to that the vision impairment one of my kids has and I think I’ve gone overboard.

    The thing about predators, as you say, is that they strike often without predictability. One night you can walk home safely by yourself. The next, well . . . I hate to think about it.

  3. TerriMolina

    I’ve always instilled the safety in numbers credo with my kids, especially the girls (and their friends). I think I’ve given them enough war stories to scare them and give them pause, but lets face it, everyone (especially teens and young adults) believes they’re invincible until something happens.

  4. Karen in Ohio

    What enrages me is the fact that men can use a woman and throw her away like a used tissue. And it’s almost always men. Then we have young women (and older ones) who have so little self-respect that they allow themselves to get drunk enough that they lose inhibitions and sense, allowing the predators to use them however they want.

    It’s a terribly sad world.

  5. Mariah Stewart

    Alafair, I read and loved Angel’s Tip, and tried to get my gorgeous, 25 year old daughter who lives in Manhattan’s Lower East side to read it, but she insists it was just another means for me to scare her (I shouldn’t have told her what it’s about, I suppose!) since I’m always citing true cases I run across in my research for my own books. She insists that she and her roommate go no where alone, and yet I know that she walks a mile home alone from work after 10 p.m. some nights, and that she walks her dog alone around their apartment complex which the leasing corp. assured me was the "safest neighborhood in Manhattan". The dog is a Jack Russell, and certainly no deterrent to anyone…and "safest" means absolutely nothing when it’s your kid. She’s thinking about moving home to go to law school when her lease is up, and frankly, I’m counting the days.
    She doesn’t go out to clubs alone – only with her roommate and several others of their sorority sisters who also moved to NY after graduation – and swears she nevers leaves with anyone, never puts her drink down and always takes a cab home…but still, I worry. The examples you cited are precisely the reasons why. I’m sending her a link to your column – there are some stories that just can’t be repeated too often.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Alafair. We can’t ever say or remember this enough. I did the exact same thing last weekend in New Orleans: "Oh, it’s just two blocks, there are plenty of people out (and they were all gay that weekend,too, but still), I know the way so well…."

    But come on. It only takes two seconds. I know better. We all do.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    It’s very sad that we can’t live the Mayberry Life with our doors unlocked and our kids running wild in the streets. It was kind of like that when I grew up in Albuquerque, but it has all changed now. My wife taught me to be more cautious – she never opens the door to a "utility service man" or any other "official" who comes-a-knockin. Our poor gas man is pulling his hair out for being denied access to the meter for so long. But I’m with her on this. I’ve read too many terrible stories. And we’re pretty darned protective about our kids. I’d like my thrillers to be based on my imagination, not my experience, thank you very much!

  8. JT Ellison

    Good advice, and such sad stories. I saw they found Annie Le’s body over the weekend. Talk about lightning strikes – she goes to work, and is killed in her building. She wasn’t doing anything dumb, or silly, or provocative. It can happen anywhere and anytime, and we all need to be more aware.

  9. Sara J. Henry

    Wonderful post. I’ve never been much of a drinker or bar-goer (ah, maybe that will have to change now that I’m novel writing full time) but when I was young my dad told me when he and his friends went out, they always, always, always had one person who agreed to stay sober all evening – probably to drive home, but it makes an awful lot of sense. It’s so frigging illogical to surround yourself with strangers and become inebriated, especially if alone – I hope your post opens some eyes.

  10. Kathy Holmes

    Interesting post. And how true – it’s so easy to blame these girls, think how irresponsible they are, but then we remember some of the crazy, unsafe things we did when we were young.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Sobering post, Alafair. After all the self-defence lessons I’ve learned, the most important is not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Easier said than done, though …

  12. Alafair

    And even the ivy-covered buildings of Yale aren’t always safe, as we’ve unfortunately been reminded again in the last twenty-four hours. My point, which I’m glad I was apparently able to get across, is that some situations create a false sense of security in even the most street-smart women. Thanks especially to those of you who passed my post on to other women. Talking about the dangers we face collectively is itself a survival strategy.

  13. kit

    you know what I find to be really un-nerving….it isn’t just women, anymore that are vunerable…it’s men as well. Especially, with the use of *roofies* or date-rape drugs…point being….being MALE, doesn’t give you a free pass any longer.
    Yes, women have always been vunerable and will continue to be….but the PREDATORS have changed and evolved.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Hmm, I thought I’d posted yesterday but I don’t see it! Anyway, great post and right on the money. I’m with Marti, I tend to point out all the ways my teenagers can get into trouble even though YES I TRUST THEM and YES I know they’re not stupid, yada yada. But you can be smart and trustworthy and still do dumbass things sometimes, and sometimes be perfectly smart and sober and still get into trouble because other people in the world do dumbass things. And predators can be sickly smart.

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