Published Saturday, March 29, 2014 | 4:03 p.m.
Updated Saturday, March 29, 2014 | 4:06 p.m.
Many years ago, in the days when I was still in “the condition” and the Desert Inn was still open, I sat at the bar of a hotel called ... the Desert Inn.
This was the last weekend the hotel was open to the public, as Steve Wynn had purchased it for some far-flung resort concept he’d been working on. Le Reve, it was to be called. He later changed the name to Wynn Las Vegas.
Late that evening, a buddy and I were quaffing cocktails at the Starlight Lounge, moving from the bar to the blackjack tables and back. At one point, two women sauntered over and started talking to us in a very seductive manner, asking with apparent curiosity where we were from and why we were at the hotel. We dumped a few rolls of quarters into the video poker machines (this was long before paper-operated games were installed in casinos), and I slalomed back to the tables.
Moments later, I heard my friend yelp, “Look! I am not paying you for sex!”
Those playing blackjack shot glances toward the bar, then to me. “I guess,” I said, “he is not paying her for sex.” Luckily, someone in our party yanked my buddy from that bar and any potential depravity.
I thought of that night as I talked to John Popper of Blues Traveler a couple days ago about the saga that left him unconscious and in his skivvies in a Mandalay Bay hotel room on the night of March 20. Flying solo, Popper had checked into the hotel and sidled up to the bar at The Hotel when a woman he had never met engaged him in flirty conversation.
Popper, who turns 47 today, doesn't fully recall what happened in the hours afterward. He does know that he woke in his room, stripped to his underwear, a bottle of tequila placed on a nearby table, and missing $2,500 in cash and his Rolex Presidential for which he paid $19,500. Early Friday morning, officers from the Metro Police force had responded to a grand larceny call at the hotel.
Popper’s theory, somewhat sketchy as it is, is that he was the victim of a roofie job by a prostitute at the hotel. Simply believes his drink was “dosed” and that he was fleeced, the victim of a classic “trick roll.”
“I remember going to the bar, and at some point it became obvious that this person was a prostitute,” said Popper, who is maintaining his sense of humor in the face of what was a potentially lethal episode. “But I was not looking for sex. It would be one thing if I were trying to have sex, but that didn’t happen. There was no sex. She did not even have the courtesy to at least have sex with me.”
Popper said he was “pretty drunk” when he walked into the hotel.
“I could have been just drunk, but I really doubt that,” he said. “It felt like I was coming down from ecstasy — or acid. You ever do acid? That feeling that it just ebbs away and comes back and you have that feeling the next day. That’s how I felt. It was not like just being drunk, and I have no memory of a lot of it.”
When I suggested the obvious — that Popper was fortunate he was still around to tell convey this saga — the harmonica great concurred.
“I could have had people cut me up and serve me as a cannibal meal,” he said. “I could have wound up with (an adult sex toy) shoved (into an orifice). I could have wound up with my credit cards and phone missing. But what happened was I walked into the hotel under my own steam and, suddenly, the lights went out.”
Popper also said he was hardly the first would-be John to be targeted in such a way.
“A guy from hotel security said 90 ninety percent of prostitutes don’t actually have sex; they just roofie the guy and put them to bed,” he said. “I don’t know if that is true. Maybe he was just trying to make me feel better.”
To be fair here, this all is not to suggest that Mandalay Bay is any particular haven for such activity. This could have happened anywhere on the Strip, or off the Strip, or even at a locals’ pub in Las Vegas. Sex-for-money interactions, and the practice of rendering an individual incapacitated at a bar or nightclub, are not uncommon in any tourist destination catering to adults.
This has become accepted practice: You have got to be aware of how your drink arrives to you from your bartender, no matter your social or celebrity strata.
Metro is investigating the matter. Over the past few weeks, Popper and the whole Blues Traveler band have been busy working on new music, with artists such as Gavin DeGraw, The Plain White T's, 3OH!3 and J.C. Chasez turning up in the studio.
It’s an important moment in Popper's career, as he is newly under representation by Seth Yudof’s UD Factory in Las Vegas and chugging toward a career resurgence. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Blues Traveler's terrific Grammy Award-winning album, “Four.”
With that backdrop, maybe there’s room for a new song. Something inspired by a close call in Vegas and a missing timepiece.