"THE AIDS GIRL"

THAT'S HOW RONDA CRACE WAS KNOWN IN PRESCOTT AFTER DRUG COPS INVADED HER HOME. AGAINST ALL ODDS, SHE'S REBUILDING HER REPUTATION

It was a gorgeous, autumn afternoon on Mount Vernon Street in Prescott, with only a hint of the mile-high winter to come.

Located up a hill from the northern Arizona city's bustling downtown, the street presented an attractive slice of Americana. Youngsters frolicked in yards of the street's spacious old homes. Seasonal flowers bloomed everywhere.

Everything seemed in order. Everyone seemed safe.
But what was to happen there on September 18, 1991, would shatter the already troubled lives of the man and woman who lived in the two-story Victorian house at 145 South Mount Vernon.

Yavapai County sheriff's deputy Clinton Lee knocked on the front door that day at about 3:55 p.m. "Police officers," he announced loudly. "We have a search warrant."

Within seconds, a thin, haggard-looking man opened the door. Lee and about ten other officers from the Prescott Area Narcotics Task Force--known as PANT--barged in. The narcs ordered the man, 34-year-old Robert Christian, to lie face down on the floor. They looked for Christian's housemate, Ronda Crace, but she was at work.

After a few minutes, Lee allowed Christian to sit on a couch in a parlor. He handed the man a copy of the search warrant that had authorized PANT to raid the home.

The warrant was a mind-blower: It alleged that Christian and Crace had conspired to "commit homicide by transmitting the fatal disease AIDS" to Prescott-area teenagers. And it claimed the pair had involved the unnamed youths "in a drug offense."

How did PANT know this? The warrant said Clinton Lee had spoken with an anonymous phone caller the day before. The caller--Lee didn't specify gender--said Christian and Crace had been smoking marijuana with "several" high schoolers inside their home a few days earlier, and had been "in conversation" with the youths about amphetamines.

According to the warrant, PANT officer Wayne Wright also had received anonymous phone calls the day before from two people who'd alleged much the same as Lee's caller. Both of Wright's callers said they'd met the pair in a Prescott AIDS support group and that Christian was wanted on arrest warrants in five states.

Wright's callers added another detail that made PANT gasp.
"The callers said that Christian and Crace were offering drugs to the teenagers present in exchange for sex with them," Lee's affidavit for the search warrant read. "A life-threatening set of circumstances exists for the teenage children present at the residence. . . ."
Clinton Lee rushed over to the Yavapai County courthouse after he filled out the search warrant. Superior Court Judge Richard Anderson quickly rubber-stamped it. An hour later, PANT agents donned rubber gloves, strapped on their guns and drove en masse to Mount Vernon Street.

Sitting in his parlor, Robert Christian agreed to answer Lee's questions. Yes, he admitted, he had full-blown AIDS. Yes, he had marijuana in the house, but it was for his own use only; he smoked it because it eased the pain of his terminal illness.

But no way--never!--Christian told Lee, had he lured teenage kids into a sex-for-drugs scheme.

At 5:10 p.m., 28-year-old Ronda Crace returned home from her job as a secretary for a Prescott accounting firm. She soon told Clinton Lee she was HIV-positive, though she didn't have full-blown AIDS. Yes, she knew there was marijuana in the house. Lee then fired the zinger at her.

"He said, 'Aren't you mad you have AIDS?'" Crace recalls. "Doesn't that make you want to give it to other people?' I said, 'No! Are you people sick?' I should have been drinking a beer and watching a ball game, but instead they were accusing me of being this pervert. I had visions of being dragged into the town square."
PANT's search uncovered about three ounces of marijuana. The narcs also seized computer disks, home videotapes, a journal, a photo album and condoms.

"The fact that Christian had condoms in his possession," Clinton Lee said in an interview with a defense attorney, "would indicate to me that he possibly was involved in being sexually active with someone."
Lee arrested Crace and Christian and booked them into the Yavapai County Jail. The two were charged with possessing marijuana for sale and with possessing drug paraphernalia--a bong and roach clips--but not, however, with conspiracy to commit murder by infecting teens with HIV.

Christian spent four days in jail and Crace three before they made bail. But their release pending trial provided only a momentary respite. On Sunday, September 22, 1991--four days after the Mount Vernon Street bust--the minor pot case became something far bigger.

That morning, the headline of the lead story in the Prescott Courier flabbergasted readers: "ARREST HERE INVOLVES SEX, DRUGS, AIDS, KIDS." A smaller headline read: "Sex-for-Drugs Swap Alleged Against Pair With HIV Virus."

The story listed the names and address of Robert Christian and Ronda Crace, the "couple" whose "alleged sex and drugs activity is thought by police to involve several high-school-age juveniles of both sexes."

The allegations frightened and infuriated the community of 30,000 and then the rest of Arizona after the story hit the Associated Press.

"I remember talking at a Little League game," says Laurie Boaz, a Prescott mother of a young child. "My feeling was, those animals should die a slow, painful death. Of course I believed it. It was in the newspaper, right? It took me a long time to think any different."
But she and others in Prescott would learn that evidence of the "sex-for-drugs swap"--the justification for the raid and outing by newspaper of Christian and Crace--didn't exist.

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