"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

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@body:Robert Christian died last March 31 of AIDS-related causes.
A gay man who considered himself an outcast from mainstream society, Chris--as everyone knew him--withdrew into himself after his arrest. He shut the shades at the house and kept the doors locked--not a given in still-trusting Prescott. He told Crace he feared someone was going to fire-bomb the home. He began to drink heavily.

Christian's already precarious health slipped, and he checked into the local Veterans' Administration hospital. He attempted suicide. For Christian, a private, gentle man, the pressures of living in Prescott after being outed by PANT and the local newspaper became too great. Within months after his arrest, Christian left Prescott for good.

Ronda Crace wouldn't go away so easily. With her bright, blue eyes, blond hair and rosy complexion, hers was a face of AIDS few in Prescott could fathom. Most who knew her before her arrest had thought of Crace as a vibrant, pretty woman with a boyfriend, a church, a cat, a dog and a job.

"I'm a nice little white girl who grew up on a farm and have a father who's a doctor," she says. "AIDS isn't supposed to look like me."
But it does. Women are now being infected with HIV at a higher rate than men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

After the headlines in Prescott, Crace tried to steel herself to the stares of strangers. Worse, she says, was not knowing who knew and who didn't.

"I didn't want to leave the house, but I was too afraid to take time off work," she says of her job at a downtown accounting firm. "I thought they'd fire me right away."
Ray Sigafoos, the firm's co-owner, adopted a wait-and-see attitude after her HIV diagnosis and, later, her arrest and outing.

"I wasn't going to advertise with a sign," Sigafoos says, "We employ HIV-positive people, and did you see the Sunday Courier?' But we were willing to stick with her. Ronda is the best employee I've ever had in her position. She's a very good person, and I never believed in my wildest dreams that she'd done what the police accused her of."
But Crace suspected that residents who didn't know her felt quite differently from her boss.

Passers-by regularly slowed down and gawked at the "AIDS house," as people were calling it. Some yelled ugly things out their car windows. Others just gaped before driving on. "I felt stained in this community--There's that child molester, that "AIDS girl",'" Crace says. "PANT tried to shame us out of Prescott. But I finally looked in the mirror and told myself, 'You're a valid member of this town. You haven't done anything wrong, girl. You're gonna resist.'"

Crace refused to leave Prescott. Instead, she became a walking public relations disaster for PANT, a woman whose inner strength and down-to-earth personality forced many to confront their own prejudices and fears about those with AIDS.

Shortly after the Courier "scoop," Ronda Crace hung a sign in her front yard on Mount Vernon Street.

"IT'S JUST NOT TRUE," the sign read.
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@body:And it wasn't true. None of the nondrug-related "evidence" seized at the home had shown proof of anything criminal. All prosecutors might prove in court was that Robert Christian had possessed a few plastic bags of marijuana and that Ronda Crace had known about it.

PANT hadn't staked out Mount Vernon after getting the anonymous calls, so its officers couldn't say who, if anyone, had been coming and going from the home. Neighbors interviewed after the arrests couldn't recall anything substantive about teens at the home.

In fact, PANT failed to corroborate any of the anonymous information before it raided, other than the names, address and the cars Christian and Crace drove. (The county's version of the controversial events comes from public records.)

Something else should have caused PANT to do more homework before pushing ahead. A computer check completed before the Mount Vernon raid revealed Robert Christian had no outstanding arrest warrants, despite what the tipsters had said.

But that didn't stop PANT from putting its case against Christian and Crace, such as it was, into the hands of Yavapai County prosecutors.

"Basically, we need to have someone come forward," the Courier quoted County Attorney Charles Hastings admitting the flimsiness of the case. In other words: We've raided, we've arrested, we've charged--now, please, someone get us some evidence.

Many Prescott parents had heart-to-heart talks with their teens, imploring them to tell what they knew about the "AIDS house." But no one came forward, anonymously or otherwise.

Citing pending litigation, PANT project director Dave Benner--a Prescott police sergeant--declined to comment on the raid. Speaking in general, Benner says: "Obviously, things do happen from time to time--whether they're mistakes or whether they're different views on points of law. As a result, we learn and adapt. What changes we made because of this case, if any, I can't say right nowģMDNMĮ." The county's version of the controversial events comes from public records.

In January 1992, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge James Sult threw out PANT's search warrant, saying it was "obviously invalid." The ruling meant nothing seized during the Mount Vernon search, including the marijuana, could be introduced as evidence at trial. That month, Judge Sult also dismissed the case against Christian and Crace. A week after the first Courier story, a page-one headline in the newspaper read: "No Evidence' Found to Tie Couple to Sex-Drugs Swap."

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