"THE AIDS GIRL"
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.
@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.
@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 nowMDNM." 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."
@body:But the damage had been done to Christian and Crace. That October, the Prescott Sun published a long letter from audiologist Robert Crace about his daughter's plight.
"How many young people who have contracted this grim purveyor of death will not shrink and hide in fear of senseless exposure and persecution?" Dr. Crace wrote. "These unfortunate people can no longer trust in a constitutional right to privacy. My hope is that the words 'fairness' and 'compassion' will not be as foreign to PANT and the Courier as the words AIDS and homelessness are foreign to Reagan and Bush. . . . I am outraged. . . ."
Dr. Crace says he wrote the letter because "two very good people got hurt very, very badly. What really hurt is that we had fallen in love with Prescott and planned to stay here forever. I'm still angry, very angry."
A malfunctioning heart had forced Dr. Crace to Arizona from his native Ohio in late 1988. He moved to Wickenburg, where he waited to be called by a Tucson hospital for a much-needed heart transplant. (He received his new heart shortly after Christmas 1991 and says he is doing well.)
Dr. Crace's surviving children--Robbie and Ronda--followed him to Arizona. The trio stuck together like survivors on a life raft, which, in a sense, they were.
Before Ronda was born in 1963, a brother, 3-year-old Robin, had died in an Ohio house fire. When Ronda was 16, her mother jumped off a bridge and drowned. Rosemary Crace died two days after Christmas, but authorities didn't discover her body until the river thawed out months later.
Because of unfortunate circumstances, Ronda had to identify her mother's body at a county morgue. After the suicide, she tried to remain the effervescent, popular cheerleader and good student she had always been. But, she says, the "abandonment issues" that have troubled her deeply to this day started to fester within her.
After high school, Ronda attended Miami (Ohio) University for three years. Her grades were okay, but she says she spent much of her time playing with friends and writing what she calls "bad poetry." (She didn't complete the requirements for her degree, which she says she hopes to do someday.)
On her 20th birthday, in 1983, Ronda arrived in Los Angeles. She lived with friends there, and found secretarial jobs to earn a living. She also did more than her share of partying.
"This is no excuse," she says, "but I wanted to escape me. It was easier that way. Old story, huh?"
In 1986, she married a drug dealer named Charlie. Charlie provided Ronda with an unlimited supply of cocaine, which she snorted and freebased daily. Though she left Charlie after about a year, Ronda didn't leave freebasing--a dangerously exhilarating and addicting way of consuming the drug--for some time after that.
Sadly, Ronda had to face another family tragedy. It happened during a time, Ronda says, that her mother's death was weighing heavily on her mind and she was having her own suicidal thoughts.
Ronda's 28-year-old brother, Roger, encouraged their father to "try to save my life," she says, and Dr. Crace flew to Los Angeles to be with her. While he was there, they learned Roger--a father of three--had committed suicide in the same way as had Rosemary Crace, by jumping off a bridge.
Ronda's next few years were a blur of off-and-on relationships with men and cocaine. But July 4, 1988, she says, flashing a huge smile, she did cocaine for the last time. It happened after someone beat her severely in a clash she can't bring herself to discuss. "I just basically prayed to stop and I stopped. I've never, ever, done that stuff again."
After that, Ronda says, "I finally started to like me again a little." In late 1988, she migrated to Arizona with her father and her lone surviving brother, then moved to Prescott in June 1989.
"I felt such a warm sense of community," she says. "I planned to live here for a long, long time."
Ronda found a secretarial job at an accounting firm--the one she works at today--and met a young man. The two attended church together and set a wedding date for May 1991.
In November 1990, however, Ronda asked a Prescott doctor to treat her for swollen, aching lymph glands. He took some tests, then sat down with her a few days later to report the awful results. She was HIV-positive.
Ronda says she's not sure exactly how or when someone infected her with the HIV virus. It may have been her drug-injecting ex-husband or one of the eight or nine men she had sex with in the several years after she and her husband split up. (Without testing, it may take years for the HIV virus to make its presence known. Ronda says health officials haven't informed her of positive HIV diagnoses concerning any of the men she slept with.)
She staggered out of her doctor's office and into a world that would be forever different for her. To Ronda's surprise, her brother Robbie was waiting for her. He had seen her car and stopped on impulse to ask her to lunch. Ronda fell into his arms, weeping. She had little idea what HIV meant, other than she would be dying sooner rather than later.
"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."
@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.
@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.
Last June, she formed a nonprofit organization that offers her speaking services to schools and churches. Crace calls it Hope Street Unlimited, which has a twin meaning: She moved to Hope Street in Prescott after the 1991 bust, and she strives to tell "a tragic story with a little bit of hope attached to it."
In recent months, Crace has spoken to hundreds of teens at public schools and churches in northern Arizona and in the Phoenix area. Hers is a conservative message that preaches abstinence and obeying one's parents.
But it's honest, as well, and the stacks of personal letters she has received from teenagers testify to Crace's impact.
"You changed my way of thinking totally," an Agua Fria High School football player wrote Ronda after she spoke at the school a few months ago. "At first, I wasn't sure if I could handle being there, because I felt kind of sad that you got the HIV. But as you went on talking, I realized that I was truly safe with you. I wish I had your courage."
Another student wrote: "I'm really sorry that sex gave you the HIV virus. I wish I could help you in some way, but I can't. So the only thing I can do is give you my love."
Crace never mentions PANT during her talks. "I don't want my kids to know, from me, at least, what the police can do with people who have AIDS," she says. "What I do is to beg them not to be standing where I am. I ask them, please, don't forget my face."
Prescott Christian's youth director vividly recalls her speech at the church. "Ronda is on the level," says Rich Bonney, who also is personnel director of Prescott's 600-employee Better-Bilt Corporation.
"How many of us are willing to hold our lives up to inspection like she is? 'I'm Ronda, I'm HIV-positive, and in all likelihood, I'll be dead in less than five years.' Everyone and everything just stops."
Aware that two-thirds of Arizona's new HIV victims last year were teenagers, the straight-talking Bonney says, "My kids are gonna know kids who are gonna die from AIDS, but it's just a concept for them. Ronda doesn't come across as a victim, but someone who screwed up in life and is paying dearly. The kids--girls and boys--see something of themselves in her."
Bonney read the sex-for-drugs stories in the Courier well before he met Ronda Crace. "I was shocked and disbelieving," he recalls. "I don't know how anyone could do this in our small town, but at first, I figured it had to be true."
After Judge Sult dismissed the criminal case, Bonney says, he had to admit to himself something had gone wrong. That wasn't easy. Bonney is a pro-police sort whom the Prescott Police Department recently asked to be its chaplain.
"Here's this person who has reached more people than many ministers," he says, "but she asked me if she could please attend our church service. She said I was liable to take heat--the 'AIDS girl' and all that crap. I couldn't believe it. In hindsight, I think there was some AIDS hysteria going on in her case. I told her, 'Come on in.'"
It's time for the 10:30 a.m. service. Crace walks up to the airy, simple chapel. She opens up her Bible, in which she has colored passages especially meaningful to her with a yellow marker. It's the Bible she says she prayed with to escape crack cocaine, the Bible stained with the remnants of flowers from her brother Roger's funeral.
Crace has warned her voice isn't her strongest virtue--she's right--but she's not shy about belting out a tune for Jesus during the sing-alongs. After one particularly uplifting number, she whispers something to her guest.
"God's love is bigger than AIDS," Ronda Crace says. "God's love is bigger than PANT."
@body:The Phoenix Suns are battling the San Antonio Spurs on a television set at Penelope Parkenfarker's, a classy joint in downtown Prescott. An avid Suns fan, Ronda Crace suffers with everyone else in the restaurant as the underdog Spurs take an early lead.
She seems as comfortable sitting on a bar stool as she does in a church pew. Crace clearly is friendly with many, many people in Prescott. But Crace and her family--her father and brother--plan to move from Prescott to a small Tennessee town in a few months. That's one reason, she says, she is telling her story in print and allowing her photograph to be published.
By way of explanation, she hands over a poem she wrote the previous evening. It says, in part:
I want to be free from my city
Take time to see things and touch them and breathe
Giving all of the life that's inside me
Praying God I won't fast have to leave
For you see, I am but a spirit
I am blessed that my life's not a lie
And if you'll allow me to leave you
I promise I'll try not to die.
Crace insists she's leaving on her own terms, not PANT's.
"Maybe I'll crawl under a rock someday, but not today," Crace says. "Try as they did, PANT didn't run me out of town. I'm not ashamed of having AIDS--it's a disease. I just want to leave the shame behind that the police and the town tried to put on me and Chris."
It's uncertain what moving will mean to her relationship with her boyfriend, Pete. "I'm gonna die and it's not gonna be pretty," she says calmly. "I feel like I care enough about him to let him go. I can't marry him, can't give him 50 years, can't go in with him on a 30-year mortgage. I don't want him to drown just because I'm drowning."
Her criminal case is on hold until the Arizona Court of Appeals rules. And now there's the matter of her civil suit.
Last September, noted Phoenix attorney Richard Treon and his associate Mike DePoli filed the suit against several law enforcement agencies, including PANT, on behalf of Ronda Crace and Robert Christian.
The suit alleges PANT "set into motion a series of unnecessary and uncalled-for events that blackened the names of Crace and Christian, and held them up before the community as pariahs to be shunned and avoided."
If her health holds up, Crace plans to visit Arizona during the next school year to talk with more teens and to do what she must in the legal arena. Crace's critical T-cell count is still in the safe area; she says she feels well most of the time. But she says she's aware that, short of a cure, she'll be bedridden with AIDS someday.
It is then, Crace says without a trace of self-pity, that she'll pull out the letters dozens of teenagers have written her.
"No matter what," she says, "I'll be able to remember how the kids rushed up to me and hugged me and made me feel good. Talking to them has kept me alive."
@body:A plainclothes narcotics officer wearing a POLICE jacket hollers into a home: "Police! Search warrant!" Guns drawn, the PANT team breaks through the front door and hits the mother lode.
What appears to be marijuana sits in a large pile on a kitchen table, next to a replica of a human skull. The narcs put a man and a woman in handcuffs and lead them away in disgrace.
Pan to a corner of the room, where two cute little children are crying. "Mama, mama," one is wailing. A PANT officer bends down to tend to the sobbing child.
An announcer intones over the scene, "PANT has been responsible for 1,800 drug arrests and for removing over $12 million of drugs from our streets."
A Prescott television station has been running this public-service announcement for a few months.
"Remember," the announcer concludes, "these people not only hurt themselves, but everyone around them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Mesa Police Kill Woman During Asperger Meltdown
- Troublemaking Teens Busted in Tempe Car Shootings
- Joe Arpaio's Headless Horse to Be Buried; Horse Group Picks Fight with State...