The Aids Predator

A street kid from Brooklyn, Nushawn Williams is accused of infecting scores of women with HIV, including at least nine girls in one small town. An exclusive look at the tangled world that made him--and why his victims fell prey to the man called Face.

THE WAY HIS NEIGHBORS ON THE streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., tell it, Nushawn Williams has never had it easy. Their charges: His grandmother smokes crack. He has no idea who his father is. His mother has prostituted herself and even made his little sister turn tricks in front of their apartment in order to support her drug habit. And his uncle, the man of the house, is in and out of jail. This is the home life that friends say produced Nushawn J. (JoJo) Williams, a 21-year-old who may have exposed more than 100 people to HIV. ""His mother used drugs and his grandmother used drugs,'' says a neighbor. ""His own mother was trading off his sister, at 13, to grown men so she could buy crack. So you can see what kind of family they were.'' The Williams family denies those allegations. Says Williams's mother, Denise: ""My family don't play that.''

Wherever the truth may lie, the news that health officials in a western New York county had accused Williams as the likely source of a mind-boggling number of HIV infections in both Jamestown, N.Y., and New York City brought the clan together at the Lincoln Avenue home of Delores McRae, Williams's great-aunt. Williams's mother, grandmother, cousin and uncle were nervous, angry and defiant as a pack of journalists congregated outside. Inside, the family paced the long halls in the basement of McRae's prewar apartment. Two of the five drank 40-ounce St. Ide's beers. ""I'm sorry for what my grandson did,'' said Eleanor, 58, ""and I'm glad he's locked up so he can't hurt anyone else.'' Diane Fields, 43, Williams's second cousin, was in a bleary-eyed rage. She wore a white Le Coq Sportif sweat suit and three gold chains, one of which holds a two-inch gold dollar sign. ""We stand by him till we die--that's our family,'' she said. ""The parents of them girls should've taught them to keep their legs closed, or use condoms.'' JoJo's great-aunt said the week had been traumatic for everyone. ""If my great-nephew did something wrong, he has to pay the price. But we're not gutter people. We all grew up in the church. If he gave that virus to somebody, it hurts. But he got it from somebody.'' Williams's 36-year-old mother held a newborn granddaughter and fought a combination of guilt and indignation. ""I feel like I'm going crazy,'' she said. ""This s--t's even worse than death. We would've been much better [off] if he'd died.''

Harsh words from a mother about a son, but she is far from alone in her fury and confusion. Two cities--New York, where he learned the arts of sale and seduction, and Jamestown, where he plied both--are struggling to understand the scope of what Williams has allegedly wrought. He is now in jail on Riker's Island after pleading guilty to selling crack. But the worst may be soon to come: officials believe that he knowingly spread HIV through unsafe sex--and prosecutors may charge him with crimes ranging from reckless endangerment to attempted murder. (Williams's lawyer, William Cember, says that ""they are allegations, and everyone is jumping to conclusions. But it has to be played out in the courts.'') In interviews with Williams's family, neighbors and friends, NEWSWEEK has pieced together a portrait of a deeply disturbed young man who was failed at every turn by the very institutions--family, social-service agencies--that were supposed to protect him. Williams's family even believes that he was infected with HIV by an employee of a halfway house for troubled youth. ""I'd say to [Williams], "You're ruining yourself,' and he'd just smile and say, "I know, I know','' says Cheri Mapson, a neighbor and pediatric AIDS researcher who has known Williams since he was 5. ""But how could he really know he was ruining his life when his life had always been a ruin?''

Williams, who was born in 1976, spent most of his childhood in Apartment 5C in the Radcliffe. Though the six-story building boasts a marble entryway, columns and gilded ceilings, it has seen better days. So has the street it faces: Eastern Parkway, the lower-middle-class main boulevard in the ethnically mixed Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. (The Williams clan paid the rent with welfare checks.) JoJo dabbled in basketball, but his main interest was rap music. He was in classes for the learning-disabled at PS 161 until he dropped out at around the age of 14. He strolled the tree-lined streets singing and rapping, telling people that he'd be famous one day. If he was dealing, he never looked like he was high, neighbor Ted Fleary says, just poor and, at times, desperate. More than a half-dozen neighbors say they gave Williams and his sister food when they were obviously hungry. But he was always hustling, looking for work or scheming. ""He was a busy little guy, always on the go,'' says George Boatswain, a retired United Nations guard who lives in the Radcliffe. Sharon Huggins, a large Caribbean woman who has known Williams since he was 6 years old, remembers him as being very polite. He called her Ms. Sharon, she says--and stole her mother's car.

Williams's mother, a short, slender woman who looks younger than her son, never played much of a role in raising Williams and his younger sister, Moniqua, 17. Neighbors say Denise prostituted herself to make money to support her crack habit--and that she allegedly later prostituted Moniqua. Hansford Fleary, Ted's brother, and Akiyah Demendonca, a neighbor who has long known Williams and his family, remember once shooing away Denise, Moniqua and a john from the basement of his building. (Denise denies that she and her daughter were ever involved in prostitution.) The job of raising the family fell to Williams's grandmother Eleanor, though in time she proved unable to keep the family together, in part because of her own alleged drug problems.

Since he was a little boy, Williams (his neighbors called him JoJo and his family called him Nushawn) often found a safe haven three doors down at the small, tidy apartment building owned by the elderly Fleary clan. Hansford Fleary said Williams was polite and watched basketball and football on television. Evelyn Fleary, Ted and Hansford's sister, would make him chocolate cakes and sweet-potato pie. Williams apparently appreciated finding even a temporary home. Despite often going around hungry and in threadbare clothes, he wrapped up a used blouse and gave it to Evelyn for Christmas one year. ""JoJo fell between the cracks,'' Evelyn says. ""It's horrible what he did. But he had two sides. It was such a surprise because he seemed to have such a soft heart. We'd give him food or something because we felt sorry for him.''

When Williams was 16, Eleanor called family court and asked juvenile officials to put her increasingly troubled grandson in a halfway home. Friends say he had begun setting fires in the abandoned building next door and robbing nearby whorehouses at gunpoint. ""I didn't want him to be on the streets,'' Eleanor says. Family members believe that an employee at the group home infected Williams with HIV. Eleanor remembers meeting a man who gave her grandson expensive tennis shoes, clothes and money. ""He was going on like he was Nushawn's big brother,'' says Diane Fields. After a year, Eleanor reclaimed her grandson from the home because he wasn't behaving any better than he had at her house. When he discovered last year that he had become infected with HIV, Williams said he knew how he got the virus. ""Nushawn told me [that man] gave him the germ,'' Fields says. But the man from the group home apparently wasn't Williams's only HIV-infected acquaintance. Before his grandmother sent him away, Williams--who had a habit of floating from place to place whenever home life became unbearable--sometimes flopped at a nearby crackhouse. Neighbors say the house's owner would exchange room and board for sex, especially with young men.

The only vaguely stabilizing influence in Williams's bleak life was his great-grandmother Thelma Cooper, who died of cancer four years ago at 78. She dressed her great-grandchildren well and made sure the family went to church. Williams would meet her at the Nostrand Avenue subway stop, half a block away, whenever she was returning from errands. ""She was the backbone of the family,'' says a close relative. ""When she went, things went haywire.''

In 1993 Williams, then 17, robbed Force Records owner Collin Lawrence at gunpoint and shot him in the left hand with a .380 revolver, Lawrence says. Lawrence, whose record store is around the corner from Williams's old building, frequently gave him spare change and food; the born-again Christian didn't press charges after the shooting: ""I said, "Let God do his work'.'' A year later, however, Williams was charged with hacking a man to death with a machete in a fight over a woman. Though he served a year in jail, he was ultimately acquitted. Back on the street again, Williams started house-hopping. One of the first places he flopped was the old crackhouse.

He soon had some familiar company on the local drug scene. His grandmother Eleanor was also smoking crack, neighbors and neighborhood junkies say, and in the summer of 1995 she lost the $400-a-month, one-bedroom apartment at the Radcliffe (the building's superintendent says he believes that the welfare checks stopped coming); she then moved in with her sister, Delores. (Eleanor denied, tearfully, that she had ever used crack.) At the same time, Williams's cousin Diane moved to a crackhouse above the corner market down the block from their old apartment, according to an elderly junkie named Premier, who says he spent many nights there with Eleanor and a half-dozen other middle-aged crack smokers. The market's owner confirmed that Eleanor was a regular at the crackhouse.

Williams's friends say that, not surprisingly, he became disgusted with his family. ""He was bitter at all of them,'' says Williams's friend Christopher Dames, 30. Williams continued to deal drugs after beating the murder rap, but he expanded his market to Boston, Buffalo, Rochester, Virginia and western New York burgs like Jamestown, which, his family says, he discovered when he met a girl from there at the Albany Houses project in Brooklyn. His partner in what never amounted to more than small-time dealing was Brian Jones, 30, whom Williams had met at the old crackhouse. Jones says he and Williams would chop up big rocks of crack, load them into little capsules and miniature zip-lock bags and hit their markets.

Williams started dressing for success. He grew Elvis-like sideburns. He wore jewelry and the finest threads--Versace, Timberland boots and bubble jackets, Guess? And when he was dealing, he was always flashing a ""knot roll,'' street for a wad of cash larger than a fist. Williams's slick dress, reserved charm, big, intense eyes and chiseled good looks made an alluring package--one of his many aliases is Face. ""He's a charmer,'' Jones says. Jones was always amazed by how women would lose their minds over Williams. If he asked for a $100 sweat suit, they bought him a $100 sweat suit. Jones watched Williams go through scores of one-week relationships. ""He was like the player of the year,'' Jones says. ""He had all the girls.'' When Williams was dealing in New York City, Jones claims, he would sometimes use drugs to augment his charm. ""He'd give them $5 before they had sex,'' Jones says, ""they'd do some drugs, have sex with another capsule of crack sitting out, and he'd give her the crack when they were done.'' Jones doesn't doubt the number of women that Williams told health authorities he had slept with. Jones himself can count more than 50. He recalls hanging outdoors with Williams once when a woman in her late 20s got out of a car. ""Watch me get her,'' Williams told Jones before walking up to her and getting her phone number. About a week later she knocked on Jones's door asking for JoJo. ""Two minutes is all it takes him,'' Jones says. ""He was that swift.''

For all his outward cool, however, there was always a sense of sadness and danger lurking just beneath the surface. ""We'd go to parties, dance, smoke pot, go roller skating,'' Jones says. ""But when it came down to it, JoJo was a loner. He went through hard times growing up. He needed a way out. He had to hustle [deal drugs] because he was the kind of kid who had to worry about eating if he didn't.'' He always wore a straight face, and his friends say that when he was smoking marijuana, he'd sink into himself and rarely utter a word. ""That boy was pretty smart in some ways,'' Jones says. ""He could make up a rhyme off the top of his head.'' Williams rarely talked to Jones about his family, and he had no apparent heroes. What he did have was a temper--or bravado. He carried a 9mm handgun and would tell Jones, ""If anyone gets in your way, we'll blast 'em,'' Jones says. When Jones caught his girlfriend in bed with another guy, Williams's first, measured response was, ""You want the gun?''

Repeating a pattern from childhood, Williams never stayed in one spot for long in his late teens. Beginning in 1995, after he got out of jail and had met the girl from Jamestown, he started shuttling back and forth between Chautauqua County and New York City. (He usually took the bus; it cost $40 each way.) Williams tested positive for HIV in September 1996; he reportedly learned he was infected after seeking treatment for venereal disease in August. Williams's relatives knew, too. His mail was forwarded to his cousin Diane Fields at the crackhouse above the market; she finally opened the Health Department letters when she hadn't seen Williams for several weeks. It was during this period that, officials believe, he began spreading the virus.

In late January of this year Williams showed up at the apartment in the notorious Albany Houses--the local home of the Bloods street gang--that Jones shares with his sister and mother. A pool of urine sits in the elevator that lifts visitors 12 stories to the linoleum-floored, one-bedroom apartment. Here, among sparse furnishings, a couple of baseball trophies, a few skinny kittens and a spectacular view of lower Manhattan, is where Williams, already looking gaunt, lived the last time he freely cruised New York City.

Williams was shot in a gang-related robbery outside Jones's apartment building in early February. Not long after recovering, Williams was showing off his battle scars back in his old neighborhood. ""He said, "You don't believe me?' and he lifted up his shirt and showed us the scars,'' Ted Fleary says. Williams was different after the shooting, Jones says. ""I'd say, "What's up?' and he'd just be, like, "I'm just trying to make it'.'' It proved to be a tough struggle. In September he was arrested in the Bronx on charges of selling crack to an undercover detective. Williams had just pleaded guilty and was being held when investigators in Jamestown discovered that the local trail of HIV cases led to him.

Now scores of police, health officials and the girls whom Williams may have infected are trying to understand how one young man could cause so much pain. Jones thinks he knows why his old friend might have done it. ""I'm feeling that he was thinking, "If I go down, I'm taking somebody with me','' he says. Williams once made that very remark about dying in a gun battle. ""People were terrified of him,'' said Andy Charlery, who also lives on the fifth floor of the Radcliffe, as he sat slapping dominoes with friends outside the building one evening last week. ""He was a real, real bad guy.'' Why? The best answer may lie within the walls of the Radcliffe, in Apartment 5C--the rooms in which Williams was raised in chaos.