The Victims' Stories

SHE KNEW HIM AS ""FACE'' AND thought he was cute. ""He was like, "What's up, baby? You look so good, you are so pretty'.'' This was sometime in October 1996, a month after Nushawn Williams was told he was HIV-positive. Andrea Caruso was 17, a pudgy little blonde with a long history of emotional problems and a devastating lack of self-esteem. ""I wanted love and he showed me love. He made me feel like I was the princess of his castle,'' she told NEWSWEEK. Three weeks later Andrea became one of the many young women in and around Jamestown, N.Y., to sleep with Williams, a smooth-talking, small-time drug dealer from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Their liaison, laced with drugs and marred by frequent brutality, lasted until early January 1997; in May, Andrea was diagnosed HIV-positive. She says she doesn't think about Face much anymore--but when she does, the rage boils over. Andrea says she now thinks of him as ""the Devil.''

Nushawn Williams's legacy of death, disease and tragedy will last for years. Arrested and convicted of selling crack to a New York City undercover cop, he is being held under suicide watch at Riker's Island, the mammoth city jail near La Guardia Airport. In a few weeks he will be turned over to authorities in Chautauqua County to be prosecuted as a modern-day Typhoid Harry--to face charges that he knowingly infected six women, including a 13-year-old girl, with the AIDS virus. The true number of his victims is almost certainly higher. According to state and local public-health officials, Williams had sex with up to 43 women in Chautauqua County and at least 28 more in New York City. Although he is certainly not the first sexually hyperactive HIV carrier to make headlines, he may be the first person in the United States to be publicly identified and criminally charged with spreading AIDS. ""This appears to be precedent-setting,'' says Dr. Robert Berke, the Chautauqua County commissioner of health.

It is also a disaster for Jamestown and surrounding Chautauqua County, a mostly rural community of 142,000 in far-western New York state. Jamestown, a down-at-the-heels industrial town 400 miles from New York, once seemed remote from the grim realities of AIDS, but it is remote no more. News of the mini-epidemic, which until last week had been a closely held secret because of the confidentiality provisions of New York state law, prompted an invasion of out-of-town reporters and television crews. It stunned parents, many of whom seemed unaware that at least some teens in their town were dabbling in drugs and high-risk sex. It revealed widespread ignorance of the facts about HIV and prompted tough questions about whether the schools and the community had done nearly enough to teach its young people the facts of life in the age of AIDS. And it caused something close to panic among the scores of young women who had been reckless enough to hang out with Williams and his friends. ""Since this all happened, they're like, "Oh, my God, what did I do?' '' one teenager said. ""They are all just really, really scared.'' Fully 625 people showed up for voluntary HIV testing at the county health department last week--proof, as Berke said, that news of the contagion hit the county ""like a bomb.''

Nobody knows exactly what brought Nushawn Williams to the town, but it is clear that he soon established himself as a relentless seducer of women. He had charm and, to a generation mesmerized by gangsta rap, a menacing form of glamour. ""He was from the big city,'' says Tonya, 18, who lived with Williams but says she never slept with him. ""Anybody from out of town gets a lot of attention around here, and he got a lot of at- tention from the girls.'' Williams sold pot and crack from a variety of shabby apartments and claimed to be a member of the Bloods. He wore the right clothes--Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, Pelle Pelle--and showered his girlfriends with little luxuries. ""He was It--everyone wanted to be a part of him,'' says Sherry Wright, who lived next door. ""He had his own place, drugs and alcohol, and it was a place to have fun.'' Wright, who is married and the mother of eight children, marveled at the constant parade of local girls who flocked to Williams's door. Some were runaways and street kids, but others apparently came from stable homes. ""The girls I've seen going in and out of his house were from all different backgrounds,'' Wright said. ""Some of these girls had beautiful cars, like Corvettes.''

Only a few of his victims have come forward to tell their stories, and most of them have insisted on maintaining anonymity. The youngest, a ninth grader at Jamestown High School, said Williams pursued her for nearly a year before she had sex with him. ""I didn't like him at first,'' she told the New York Post. ""But about November or December [1996] he was pretty good.'' This girl said she had relations with Williams several times during a romance that lasted about a month, and that he never used condoms. Then he left town and she began hearing rumors he was HIV-positive. ""I didn't take much notice,'' she said. ""I didn't feel sick or anything like that.'' She began to feel sick in the spring. ""I remember getting a rash all over my body. I felt sick all the time and somehow I knew I was positive,'' she said. She got an HIV blood test in July--and the result was positive. ""I was crying even before I was tested because I knew--I just knew,'' the girl said. ""When I told my mother, she cried a lot. I have cried a lot, too.'' Asked what she would do if she saw Williams now, the girl reportedly said, ""I would kill him.''

Others, like a 17-year-old interviewed by the New York Daily News, talked of wanting to kill themselves. This girl said she and her older sister, who is 19, were both infected by Williams. The 19-year-old said she was disarmed by Williams's predatory charm. ""At first he did a lot of sweet-talking,'' this woman said. ""If I wanted something he would get it for me. I used to braid his hair a lot. I could talk to him about a lot of stuff I couldn't talk to other people about.'' She said she considered asking him to wear a condom when they became intimate, but didn't. ""I didn't want him to think I thought he had something,'' she said. ""I figured, "Hey, it's not going to happen to me.' Wrong.''

Those who knew Williams well say he had a vicious temper and a habit of beating his girlfriends. ""Everybody knew how he treated girls,'' Tonya said. ""But they all thought it would be different when it came their turn.'' Andrea Caruso, who admits she liked dating ""thugs,'' said Williams was ""a control freak.'' ""One time he got me really high, smoking weed . . . and there was another guy lying next to me,'' she says. ""Face came and picked me up by my hair, put me up against the wall and pulled me off the ground by my neck. He said if he ever saw me with another guy again, he would kill me.'' She also said that as time went by, their sexual relationship turned rough. Then Williams would turn on the charm, telling her, ""I'm doing this because I love you. You know I love you.''

But 18-year-old Amber Arnold, a high-school dropout who went with Williams for about a year, is still loyal, even though she knows Williams was repeatedly unfaithful during their time together. ""I loved him once, and just because he has AIDS doesn't mean I'm not going to be his friend,'' she told NEWSWEEK. ""I've got to be his friend.'' Arnold has been test- ed for HIV once--the result was negative--and is now waiting for the results of a second test. (Health officials routinely urge at-risk patients to be tested several times because the first test isn't always conclusive.) ""I could have it,'' she said. ""I was like the second person he was with up here. And I was with him through all of these girls. But I don't feel it--if something's wrong with me, I'm gonna know.''

The trail that led to Nushawn Williams was the product of months of patient detective work by the Chautauqua County health department. Contracting HIV through heterosexual sex is hard to do, and HIV infections among young women are rare. From tracing Williams's sexual contacts, Berke and his staff already knew that the out-of-towner had infected three women before he knew he was HIV-positive. Then, between March and August, six more young women turned up as positive. ""We had a 15-year-old, a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 21-year old and then a 13-year-old, and my staff is starting to wonder what's going on here,'' Berke says. Williams was a suspect because caseworkers were coming across his name in interviews with HIV-positive women. He then showed up on the ""contact lists'' of all six of the new HIV cases--although two didn't know his name. How many more cases were out there? ""Not knowing where he was, we felt there might be some little girl in Binghamton or Yonkers who would be the next victim--and that she was in imminent danger, based on our information about his modus operandi,'' Berke said.

The health department went to court to go public with the case and got the go-ahead on Oct. 16. The result was the medical equivalent of an FBI Wanted poster--a mug shot of Williams, a list of his known aliases and a blunt statement about the risk of contracting HIV. Although local cops expected a manhunt, Riker's Island reported the same day that Williams was in its custody. Meanwhile, the number of those exposed to the AIDS virus because of Williams continues to go up, and Berke is concerned that the number of confirmed positives will rise as well. The current total is 10: nine women and one man, who got the virus from one of Williams's conquests.

Now Chautauqua County District Attorney James Subjack has the task of prosecuting a case that may well set a precedent in criminal law. Subjack says the charge won't be attempted murder: no one has died, and Williams arguably did not intend to kill anyone. Although most states have laws that make knowingly infecting another person with HIV a felony, New York doesn't. As a result, Subjack says, the most likely charge is first-degree assault. Williams could be charged with six counts, one for each victim. He could also be charged with two counts of statutory rape, for the 13- and 16-year-old victims. If convicted on all counts, he could go to prison for the rest of his life. ""It scares me to think this kind of thing can happen in Chautauqua County,'' Subjack says. ""I have a 16-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, and I can only tell my children "You can't do this, the stakes are too high.' But even when we have fatal consequences, it doesn't seem to sink in'' with many teens.

The larger issue is public policy. Although it is clearly a one-in-a-million situation, the Williams case could reignite the controversy over confidentiality in HIV reporting. Williams was a communicable-disease specialist's nightmare--an irresponsible and possibly irrational HIV carrier. Despite the fact that he was fully informed about his blood test, he continued to have wildly promiscuous sex and seems never to have used a condom. Nevertheless, his identity was kept secret under a New York state law designed to protect the privacy of HIV patients. This law, passed during the height of the 1980s AIDS scare, was heavily influenced by concerns among homosexual activists that the AIDS epidemic would lead to a backlash against gays. It was also based on the common-sense notion that publicizing the names of HIV-positive patients would drive the epidemic underground. Both arguments are strong, and the fact that AIDS did not explode into the general population has broadly vindicated those who supported a noncoercive policy. But some Jamestown residents are angry the public wasn't informed sooner. Berke says he pushed the investigation as hard as he could and that going public sooner could have jeopardized the case.

The weird part is that Williams apparently ignored the warning that he was HIV-positive. Last week Amber Arnold went to Riker's Island to see her former lover. When she asked him point-blank why he didn't tell her he had the AIDS virus, he said he had never believed it. Williams said he thought health officials were lying when they told him, in September 1996, that his HIV test had come back positive. ""He thought they were lying to him to run him out of Jamestown,'' Arnold said, adding that Williams knows he is infected now. She said he cried twice during her visit and said he was ""sorry for all this.'' But it is too late for apologies.