"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

"I went home and tried to wash the virus off me," she says. "I scrubbed my bathroom with bleach. I washed my hands constantly. Could I cook for my brother and dad anymore? Could I keep my cat, Mr. Kitty? I had thought AIDS was a million miles away from me."
Crace's fianc‚ broke up with her, leaving her more depressed. Realizing she needed help, she started attending an HIV support group. At one meeting, she met Robert Christian. Crace needed a roommate, so she moved into the Victorian house on Mount Vernon Street with Chris, despite concerns about his sexual orientation.

"My personal feeling is that homosexuality is wrong," she says, "but I don't think that the homosexual is wrong. We were very different, but he was a good roommate."
Things were going well for Crace in the weeks before the September 1991 bust. Eventually, the HIV virus invades certain types of white blood cells, principally the helper T-cells, leaving a person susceptible to opportunistic illnesses that mark the onset of full-blown AIDS.

But Ronda Crace's T-cell count was holding steady, and she was feeling strong enough physically and emotionally to socialize a little. One night, she met a man--we'll call him Pete--at the Palace, a venerable saloon on Whiskey Row.

"I had been terrified that no one could or ever would love me again," she says. "But he called me and called me after we met. Finally, we went to the movies and became friends. Sometimes, I feel bad I let him fall in love with me, because I don't have anything to offer him over the long term."
The two aren't peas from the same pod: She videotapes soap operas and loves sitcoms; he's into PBS and other educational programming. She's a fundamentalist Christian; he's not.

It took Crace a while to tell Pete--a 35-year-old Prescott Valley resident--of her HIV-positive status. "I would drop hints here and there," she says. "Finally, it was got out in the open."

This happened, Crace emphasizes, long before the couple began to practice "extremely safe" sex.

Pete didn't call it quits when she broke the news.
"Once I saw her that first time, I didn't stand a chance," he says. "I've felt for a long time that we were meant to be together. That's why I haven't run away."
@rule:
@body:In light of all that has happened--her outing, the sex-for-drugs fiasco, Robert Christian's death--it strikes Ronda Crace as especially cruel that prosecutors are still fighting to reinstate the drug case against her.

"Why can't they just admit they blew this one and move on?" she says. But immediately after Judge Sult invalidated the PANT search warrant and dismissed the case against Christian and Crace, Yavapai County appealed his ruling.

"That officers were not able and still have not been able to confirm any sexual conduct on the part of [Christian and Crace] with high-school-age children is of no consequence," prosecutor Julia Stoner wrote.

It's true narcotics agents often rely on anonymous tipsters for information. And U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Reagan-Bush era made it far easier for police to use that information to obtain search warrants than during the more-liberal 1960s and 1970s.

But the law of the land still commands police to try to corroborate anonymous allegations. PANT officers had corroborated nothing except the Mount Vernon address and the kind of cars Christian and Crace drove. No one could even say for sure if the first anonymous caller--the one PANT's Clinton Lee spoke to--was the same person as either caller to Lee's colleague Wayne Wright.

That's because PANT doesn't tape its incoming calls, standard procedure, by the way, at three other Arizona drug-enforcement units contacted by New Times. "In the drug business," Lee explained, "informants usually want to remain anonymous."

Because the callers mentioned AIDS and sex-for-drugs, Lee concluded, "At that point, in my eyes, we had an emergency situation."

Yavapai County Attorney Charles Hastings won't say much about the Mount Vernon raid, which occurred, incidentally, on the same block in which he lives. "We obviously feel the police were within their bounds," he says.

@rule:
@body:It is a magnificent Sunday in late May, the morning after a monster rainstorm drenched Prescott. Less than a mile from the home PANT raided in 1991, the members of Prescott Christian Church are eating doughnuts and gulping coffee in a preservice gathering.

The church is a friendly, informal place, where the services are short enough to allow parishioners to beat the Baptists to Denny's for Sunday brunch.

Crace chats easily with members of what she calls "my church family." A teenage girl sidles up to Crace and hugs her. The pair jive lightly for a few moments. A woman asks Crace if she'll speak in late June to a Christian women's group about AIDS and her life. Sure, Crace says.

She was attending a different church in Prescott when PANT arrested her and the newspaper put her on page one. Though Crace continued to attend for a time, she says she quit because she felt uncomfortable and unwanted.

"Everyone here knows about me, and they just accept me," she says of Prescott Christian. "My pastor says Christians can be the most pious and unforgiving people."
Crace says the God she believes in recognizes her as a sinner, but loves her, anyway. She joined Prescott Christian a few months ago, not long after she told her poignant life story to its youth group.

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