Woman drugged and raped in Byron Bay
SHE woke in a strange house completely naked. Her phone, clothes and handbag were all missing. She had no memory of the night before but her body showed signs that something terrible had happened.
For Sheridan*, a petite 36-year-old, it had started as an exciting but normal night out to celebrate her friend's birthday on Friday, January 19, in the idyllic tourist haven of Byron Bay.
The group watched the sunset at Main Beach before having a drink at the Rails pub. As a local, it was a familiar trail for a night on the town.
Sheridan has told police she and her friends each had "a tiny dab" of powdered MDMA at the beginning of the night but no one was badly affected by the drug.
Her last memory was having a beer in the smoking section at the Northern Hotel, right in the middle of the main street of Byron.
She had told her friends at 9pm she was going to go home soon, so when she disappeared, no one was alarmed. One of her friends had tried to call her at 10.34pm.
She cannot remember what happened but witnesses saw her running out of a back door near the 24-hour bakery into the carpark behind Jonson St about 10.30pm.
She was completely naked.
Another naked woman also ran out.
Four men soon followed and tried to bundle Sheridan into a car.
Such a scene would shock in a TV crime drama, let alone in one of the country's most famous tourists hot spots.
But local police and medical officials are worried it is a horrifying example of a growing trend of predators targeting vulnerable women.
Sydney jewellery designer Nour Issa, 35, from Potts Point, had just arrived in Byron Bay with her fiance on the night Sheridan was assaulted.
They had checked into their holiday house and gone in search of a meal. They came across Sheridan in the carpark.
"She came out of one of the doors, I have never seen anything like it. She and another girl were jumping up and down naked, laughing and then really scared, mixed emotions. Then there were four guys trying to get her in a car," Ms Issa said.
"I wanted to save her. So we put her in the car and took her to where we were staying. The other girl ran off.
"She fell asleep on my shoulder and I could not wake her so I knew she was drugged. She would not wake up, the sleep was so deep."
Ms Issa put Sheridan to bed.
"I woke at eight on Saturday morning and I have no idea where I am, I'm naked, no possessions and no memory of the night. Fresh clothes were laid out for me," Sheridan said.
"I gave her a kaftan to go home. We didn't know anything about this girl, but two days later she returned the dress," Ms Issa said.
Feeling panicked, Sheridan went home and had stomach cramps and vomiting. By Sunday, the cramps got worse and angry bruising started to appear on her inner thighs and vagina. With horror, she realised the mental blackout hid a hideous crime.
"The bruising came out and the stomach cramps were getting worse so I went back to the hospital - I had tests done at the hospital and an ultrasound which reveals a 'ruptured ovarian cyst on a background of traumatic sexual intercourse' - I told them I think I have been spiked and assaulted," she said.
Sheridan did not go to police at first. She got back in touch with Ms Issa to piece together what had happened that night.
"It's been a rollercoaster of emotions and that feeling everyone is going to blame me. I'm so angry and it's such a violation, it's a horrible feeling and I never thought this would happen to me, but it's an evil place after dark," she said.
Sheridan and Ms Issa are both concerned for the other woman.
"I feel very guilty, super guilty about the other girl, she looked so scared but she ran and hid away," Ms Issa said.
"The fact that there was another female who may have gone through the same assault has made me decide to make an official report," Sheridan said.
Tweed Byron crime manager Detective Chief Inspector Brendon Cullen said police were investigating but the time delay in reporting the incident and a lack of CCTV footage had hampered the case.
"We don't have forensic evidence, it wasn't taken at the time of the assault so we are desperately relying on members of the public to come forward," he said.
Byron Bay's popularity with tourists make such cases extremely difficult for police. A million visitors a year descend on the otherwise small town.
Queenslanders make it their weekend getaway, and flights from Melbourne and Sydney are packed with bucks' nights, hens' nights, football club celebrations and conferences.
Backpackers from all over the world stay for months. Venues such as Cheeky Monkey's hold ladies nights with cheap or free alcohol and wet T-shirt competitions. Sun, alcohol and drugs are Byron staples.
But the fun and frivolity can cover a darker side. According to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures, Byron Bay has double the state average of non-domestic sexual assaults, and double the amount compared with its neighbouring shires Tweed and Ballina.
Dr Blake Eddington, the emergency medicine specialist at the Byron Bay Hospital, says sexual assaults happen at least once a week in peak tourist season.
"We see young women who have been separated from friends and intoxicated and they come in after having been found by a bystander after being sexually assaulted down on the beach, or elsewhere. In holiday season we see it at least once week," Dr Eddington said.
Police know some are opportunistic assaults on drunk tourists, but they also suspect there are predators who target intoxicated women.
There have been 17 reported rapes in the past 18 months in Byron Bay. Last year an intoxicated British woman who wandered down to the beach was the subject of an attempted sexual assault by a man in his 40s.
A passing tourist made a citizen's arrest and the matter is now before the courts.
"It's a party town, people come to party. They come here, get intoxicated and the next thing they don't want to happen happens. Many of these crimes are by other tourists, the majority we investigate relate to other tourists," Chief Inspector Cullen said.
"Alcohol and drug taking puts you in a vulnerable position, I'd never blame the victim, but if you take advantage of someone who is intoxicated, they are not capable to consent and it is a crime."
Police know most victims do not come forward. Chief Inspector Cullen said medicos usually see more victims than police because often shame stops them reporting incidents, especially if drugs or alcohol are involved.
"It's wrong, but there is a lot of shame involved and it makes victims less inclined to go ahead," he said.
Police know drink spiking goes on but they have never prosecuted a case.
"It's difficult for us to police that one, it a cautionary tale, don't leave your drink unattended for personal safety," Det Cullen said.
Any witnesses can call Byron Bay detectives on 02 6665 9499 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
*Sheridan's case is currently under investigation by police so we have given her a pseudonym