Warning: This story contains disturbing details of sexual assault. A list of resources for people who have experienced sexual violence appears at the end.
It’s been nearly 12 years since Shawna Perry, 31, watched in disbelief as police closed her case despite the medical examination and rape kit she says found evidence of foreign DNA and drugs in her body.
A decade later, she still has questions about her case and how it was handled. For nearly three weeks, she’s been trying to access her police file — without success.
“[It] feels like no one is too interested in helping,” she recently told CBC News.
In addition to Perry, two other Island women — Rebecca Shepherd and Maddy Duffy — say they reported to police that they believed they had been drugged, and that their experiences dealing with Charlottetown Police Services left them feeling dejected and humiliated.
The women are speaking out following a CBC News investigation that showed police decided against investigating 17 reports of drink spiking, many of them from 2010 and 2011, that were presented to them in June 2021.
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CBC News also revealed that no one has faced criminal charges for drink tampering in relation to 16 reports separately brought to Charlottetown police over the last 20 years.
Since the investigation was published, 18 people have spoken to CBC News or disclosed on social media that they believe they were drugged on P.E.I. The majority of those complainants said they didn’t report to police, in part because they didn’t believe the police would be able to help them.
CBC News sought to speak with Charlottetown Police Services about the dozens of official and unofficial reports, as well as the allegations in this story made by the women who came forward to CBC about their interactions with the force, but received no reply to those requests.
On Wednesday, when Charlottetown Police Chief Brad MacConnell was reached directly by phone, he said it was not a good time, and asked that an appointment be scheduled with his assistant, before hanging up. The subsequent request for an appointment has not prompted a reply.
‘My whole life kind of changed’
Shawna Perry says she’s worked hard to forgive the man responsible for what happened to her in 2010, and has built a life in Summerside, P.E.I., that includes a husband, two children and a successful business.
She has forgiven — but she hasn’t forgotten.
Perry was finishing a bartending shift at the downtown bar Velvet Underground in January 2010. She says a small group of friends suggested they have a couple of drinks at her Brown’s Court apartment after closing.
She says five people shared two bottles of wine.
She made it to bed, and the last thing she saw before blacking out was the face of one of the two men who had been in the apartment, looking at her from the hallway.
Because there were substances found in my tests, I thought that would play into my favour. I thought they were going to help.– Shawna Perry
Perry’s former roommate, who spoke to CBC News, said she arrived home the next morning to find the place in disarray. Her irritation turned to fear when she saw Perry.
Perry said she woke up feeling like she’d been hit by a car; there was blood splattered on her bedsheets and on her pajamas. She says she had vaginal lacerations so severe they would later need to be stitched up by a gynecologist. Her arms were bruised. Her lip was bleeding.
Her roommate took her to the hospital for a rape kit.
‘I don’t feel like I’m being heard’
At the hospital, Perry said medical staff took pictures, did swabs and gathered blood and urine samples. She says the test results showed drugs in her system. She’s not sure of the name of the drug, but said the doctor explained it was a type commonly used in cases of drug-assisted sexual assault.
“Because there were substances found in my tests, I thought that would play into my favour. I thought they were going to help,” she said.
After being discharged from the hospital, she and two officers went back to Perry’s apartment. The place was untouched from the night before. Perry worried that the alcohol and wine glasses in the sink would make police not take her case seriously.
“I just had that feeling, that gut feeling that, you know, this isn’t going to go far and I don’t feel like I’m being heard and they’re not taking anything I’m saying seriously,” she said.
Perry says a male officer asked her what she had been wearing. The question made her feel uneasy; she says she felt like she was being shamed. She showed him the black skirt and grey V-neck shirt she wore to tend bar. He wrote it down.
She says the officer wanted to know whether she had invited the two men in attendance to stay in her apartment. She said she’d told one of them that he could crash on her couch so that he didn’t drink and drive.
“But he wasn’t asking anything about a potential violent sex crime or anything about the potential of somebody putting drugs in my body,” she said.
If anyone would have walked into my apartment that day, it was very clear that a sex crime had been committed.– Shawna Perry
“If anyone would have walked into my apartment that day, it was very clear that a sex crime had been committed.”
Perry says one of the men at her apartment that night admitted to having sex with her, but told police it was consensual.
She says police asked her if she had ever said no or pushed him off her — but she says she couldn’t remember what had happened, because she had been incapacitated due to the drugging.
At her final meeting with police, she was told that police knew she had drugs in her system, and knew she had sex. But they were unable to link the two things, or to link the man to the drugging.
“That broke me for a very long time. My whole life kind of changed,” she said. “I felt very worthless. I felt very expendable and that I didn’t matter to anybody.”
Perry says officers closed the case on a Wednesday, and on Monday, she dropped out of university. She said the sexual assault, and the way it was handled by police, caused her to fall into a deep depression.
Police interaction was ‘absolutely humiliating’
Maddy Duffy was at Craft Beer Corner in Charlottetown watching live music and having a few drinks with friends on Aug. 8, 2019, when she blacked out.
She later learned from friends and family that she had taken off from the bar — something out of character for her. Her partner, who spoke with CBC News, described turning his back and then discovering she was missing.
Her family and friends spent the night looking for her. They called the police to report her missing. She says the surveillance footage showed her behaviour: she broke into a shed on University Avenue, lay outside for some time and vomited on her dress.
Hours later, she regained control, and went to a friend’s home in downtown Charlottetown.
“At that point, I was in shock,” Duffy said. “All I knew was that I needed to get back home.”
It made me feel like I was some wasted girl that didn’t have any responsibility, that does this every weekend. But in reality, we know that’s not true.– Maddy Duffy
Her father took her to the hospital, fearing Duffy might have been drugged and sexually assaulted.
After reviewing surveillance footage, Duffy says police ruled out the possibility that she had been sexually assaulted. Video footage showed she was alone during the time she can’t remember.
Duffy says at the hospital, she was told she could not go to the washroom since she should have a toxicology test done, to determine whether she’d been drugged.
When police returned, Duffy said they told her they had good news: She had not been assaulted, she was “just a bad drunk.”
“[It was] humiliating, absolutely humiliating. It made me feel like I was some wasted girl that didn’t have any responsibility, that does this every weekend,” she said. “But in reality, we know that’s not true.”
To get herself out of the situation, she asked if she could use the washroom. The officer said yes. When she returned, the ER doctor asked her what had happened, and why she had gone to the washroom, since the doctor had still wanted to do the test.
Duffy says she still lives with the uncertainty over whether she had been drugged.
“I feel like it was a bit premature of them to close that investigation. I feel like since I wasn’t sexually assaulted, which was a relief to them, obviously, that they felt, ‘OK, case done, whatever’ … I feel like they majorly missed the mark in not thinking that I still could have been drugged,” she said.
“Every time I go out now, there’s always that thought that it could happen again.”
Case closed and ‘tied with a ribbon’
In the fall of 2020, Rebecca Shepherd was shocked to receive a series of Snapchat messages from an acquaintance she hadn’t heard from in 10 years.
The messages suggested that sex acts occurred between Shepherd, the acquaintance and another man while she was impaired. She believes this happened in 2010 or 2011, because that is when she knew these men.
Shepherd is a recovering addict. She was addicted to opiates at this time, but said her drug use never caused her to black out. She says she has no recollection of these events from about a decade ago.
When Shepherd countered that what the acquaintance was describing was sexual assault, he responded that it had been consensual.
Shepherd, now 29, believes the messages show a drug-assisted sexual assault had been committed. Wanting help to get to the bottom of it, she went to Charlottetown Police with screenshots of the conversation.
I hope in the future, others in situations similar to mine or anyone seeking help from police don’t receive the type of conduct, behaviour, and disrespect I’ve been shown.– Rebecca Shepherd
Shepherd’s emails show that despite seeking an update almost weekly, she did not receive a reply from the investigator for six weeks.
The officer apologized for the delay when he did respond. He also informed her the case would be closed since, in addition to her having no memory of the incident, he had interviewed the two men. He said one did not remember the incident, and the other said it was consensual.
Upset by the lack of communication she had experienced, Shepherd requested a conversation with the officer’s superior.
Shepherd shared her notes from that call with CBC News. She wrote that the superior said the officer felt “he closed the case and tied it with a ribbon in these eight weeks.”
An email from Shepherd to the investigator about her experience summed up her sentiment, concluding, “I hope in the future, others in situations similar to mine or anyone seeking help from police don’t receive the type of conduct, behaviour, and disrespect I’ve been shown. Being ignored like I don’t matter, not worth a second thought.”
In recent weeks, all three women requested access to their own police reports. Initially, all of them were told separately to arrive at the police station during work hours with their identification in order to access their cases.
Since then, each of them has been told she would also need to write to the chief of police in order to access her file.
Shawna Perry has found the process of trying to access her file and deal with police difficult.
“It’s been emotionally exhausting trying to get the police to co-operate with me and it’s draining my energy,” she said, noting she is on the brink of giving up.
In November, following CBC’s report on drink spiking, Rachael Crowder, executive director of the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, said the organization met with Chief MacConnell shortly after the report was published.
“He expressed interest in developing a collaborative relationship with the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre to address the concerns of survivors of sexual violence that have been raised recently in regards to the reporting of drugging-related sexual assaults, as well as other reporting concerns in the past,” Crowder said at the time.
In an interview from September, the acting deputy chief of the Charlottetown Police Services, Jennifer McCarron, said it’s difficult to investigate drink tampering, in part because of the memory loss. She also said often, there is no forensic evidence, and even when there is, it’s difficult to prove who put the drug in the drink.
“We’re trying to hold people accountable, but we have to have the evidence to back it up,” McCarron said. “To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person put something in someone’s drink, I think that’s where the investigation gets extremely difficult.”
Difficult, but not impossible. Other Maritime jurisdictions have seen charges laid for drink tampering, known legally as administering a noxious substance.
Since 2001, 59 charges have been laid in New Brunswick, and 125 have been laid in Nova Scotia.
The Fredericton police service, which oversees a city of 59,000 people — about 20,000 more than Charlottetown — says it has received six complaints in 20 years, and two led to charges.
Two officers from the Charlottetown Police Service, McCarron and Det./Cst Tara Watts, are set to appear in front of the P.E.I. Standing Committee on Health and Social Development on Dec. 10 to discuss the issues and challenges surrounding investigations into drink tampering on the Island.
There are resources and supports available to anyone who has experienced sexual violence: