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  Jamestown and the Story of 'Nushawn's Girls'

    Nushawn Williams
Many in Jamestown, N.Y., are furious that Nushawn Williams received only a 4- to 12-year sentence for infecting at least 13 girls with the virus that causes AIDS. (AP)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 1999; Page C1

It has been two years since Andrea last gave herself to Nushawn Williams. She has traded the drugs and the parties and the jail cells for a room in her mother's middle-class house. Her belly is eight-months swollen, and she likes to hide it beneath a red Mickey Mouse T-shirt, with matching Minnie Mouse shorts. There is a portable crib waiting in the corner of her mother's living room. And in the kitchen, taped above the immaculate counter tops, a bright pink sign reads: "Take your pills, Andrea!"

Andrea – who asked that her last name not be revealed – is 19 now, and she has a new boyfriend named Angel, and they are thrilled to have a baby on the way. She is happy, after a lifetime of unhappiness. And she is furious. Furious at Williams, the man who infected her – and 12 other young women in rural Chautauqua County – with HIV. Furious that he received only a 4-to-12 year sentence for his actions. Furious at herself for taking the risks she took with a drug dealer from Brooklyn, a man she never even loved.

"If I could take back one moment in my life," she says, "it would be the moment I laid eyes on him."

Andrea's life until that point was a disaster: She had been violent since childhood, in and out of counseling, in and out of jail. She was first hospitalized for mental problems at age 9. She started having sex at age 10. By 16, she was in a juvenile home in Lansing, N.Y., where she stayed for a year and a half.

Then she became one of "Nushawn's girls," as the young women now are commonly known here. Nushawn's girls: Four have had babies, two more – including Andrea – are pregnant, and none are sick yet, unless you count the sickness that is regret. The youngest was 13 when she met Williams, the oldest in her mid-twenties. Andrea was 17. He wooed her the way he wooed many of the others: He bought her nice presents. He told her she had pretty eyes. He took her to parties. He let her move in.

He also treated her like a possession, according to Andrea, slapping her around if she so much as went to the store for a soda without his permission. Andrea says, "I hated having sex with him." She says he had sex with other women while she was with him. Still, she stayed for a while. Because it was exciting. Because he made her feel special, if only for a moment.

"There are Nushawns in every city waiting for girls like Andrea," says her mother, Wendy. "This is about frustrated lives festering with all sorts of problems. Once you are hopeless, and have no more dreams, then you don't give a damn about what you do to yourself. You live for the moment."

When the Williams story made national news in October 1997, it became, as one AIDS educator described it, "a teachable moment." What happened here was supposed to serve as proof that AIDS can happen to anyone, anywhere. Jamestown – a small city of 34,000 in western New York – could be Anytown, U.S.A., and the young women your sisters or neighbors or friends.

Only things are never that simple. Jamestown is anytown – complete with its prejudices, class distinctions and growing pains. As a result, Andrea and the others are not anyone. They are Nushawn's girls: 13 young women living with the consequences of a decision – the decision to have sex with Williams – that has marked them for a lifetime. Marked them in more ways than one.

"What I heard around town," says Jamestown Mayor Richard Kimball, "is a part of the bury-your-head-in-the-sand philosophy we have here. ... People say, 'It's just some of that poor white trash, not kids who are productive members of our community. It happened to them, it didn't happen to us.' "

This, then, is a story not just about Jamestown but about the legacy of AIDS. What Jamestown can show is that – no matter the place, no matter the people – AIDS still brings denial, displacement and blame.

Health Alert

It was Oct. 27, 1997, when Richard Berke, the county health commissioner, held a news conference to announce to the world that Chautauqua County had been home to a one-man HIV epidemic named Nushawn Williams. In this county of 141,000, there had been just 60 reported cases of full-blown AIDS since 1981. So when several teenage girls popped up HIV-positive in a short period of time, the health department took notice.

It took a while to trace them back to Williams. He used so many aliases – Face, Shyteek, Headteck, Shoe – that it wasn't until Berke got to the sixth girl that he realized the connection. It's a connection he probably couldn't have made if Chautauqua were a bigger county, with more clinics and more HIV cases and more counselors. But it's a rural county, where Jamestown and the other main city, Dunkirk, make up half the population. It's a place where Berke didn't have to walk more than few hundred yards to talk to the judge who let him publicly reveal Williams's HIV status by deeming Williams a "public health risk."

So Berke held his news conference. Officials papered the county with posters bearing Williams's likeness and the message "Health Alert." And chaos hit.

More than 1,400 individuals – many of them teenagers – flocked to local clinics for testing. One teenager, Amber Arnold, told reporters that she had been Williams's girlfriend for a year, and then declared, "I won't let him die alone." Another teenager handed out condoms to his classmates on the front lawn of the high school.

Williams had identified 48 sexual partners to Chautauqua County health officials. Of those 48, 41 were eventually tested. Thirteen turned up positive – seven infected by Williams before he knew his own HIV status, according to Berke, and the other six afterward. One man also is believed to have been infected by one of those women. And one baby, thus far, has been born with HIV.

Amber Arnold was arrested for selling crack cocaine shortly after she received her test results, and has spent the last year in jail. She says she does not have HIV. Andrea wasn't so lucky.

Andrea left Williams after just one month and fled to nearby Dunkirk. Arnold tracked her down there, and – according to Andrea – beat her up in a fit of jealous rage. Andrea moved to Rochester, N.Y. Along the way, she heard a rumor that Williams was HIV positive. She got tested.

Andrea was in a courtroom in Rochester, being arraigned on trespassing charges, when Chautauqua County health officials found her and explained her test results. Afterward, she did something totally out of character – she called her mother. The two met at a Bob Evans restaurant. They talked. They cried. And Andrea came home.

Looking for Trouble

Andrea talks openly about what has happened to her life since that moment, but most of the girls want their privacy. A few gave interviews right after the story broke and discovered that it branded them in this small community. Another young woman shared details of her life, then backed away from being quoted because, she said, "people figure out who you are and then they treat you like [expletive]."

The information about them, then, is sketchy. Berke does not have specific data that he can release about the women or their backgrounds, but he has reached a few conclusions from his work in teenage sex education.

"They probably fit the profile of the people we've been having trouble reaching all along," Berke says. "Because of the chaos in their own lives – kids who are up all night, alcohol, abuse, all kinds of situations – the message may not be making it. Or the message may be making it, but it's not all that relevant to their life."

According to Berke, a few of the women passed through Williams's world briefly, met him "just at a party one night." Others, like Andrea, lived in it daily. Out of her mother's house, living mostly off the streets, she considered her address "Second Street," which is where you go in Jamestown if you want to find trouble.

Shanequa – who would not give her last name – lived in that world, too. When she recounted her experience with Williams to the Buffalo News, she spoke of watching Williams beat another one of his girlfriends for sport. She talked about drugs and parties and rampant sex. She talked, too, of the low self-esteem that characterized her crowd.

"At times he made me feel good," she said. "It was the same with everyone down there. They needed that good feeling."

Shanequa refuses to blame Williams for her predicament. She herself had unprotected sex with someone after she found out she was HIV-positive, and didn't inform her partner. In that, she is not alone.

Neal Rzepkowski, who works at the Chautauqua County AIDS clinic, knows nine of the 13 women and currently is treating five – including Andrea – on a regular basis. Rzepkowski, who has been HIV-positive since the early 1980s, understands the women's refusal to talk publicly about their situations. He does not necessarily understand the choices many of them have made in the aftermath.

According to Rzepkowski, two of the young women he treats have brought their new boyfriends in for counseling. Another, though, confided in him that she had not informed her new partner of her HIV status. She told Rzepkowski that she always uses condoms. Then one day she called him, crying. "Condom broke!" she told him. He told her to tell her boyfriend the truth. She refused.

"I said to her," Rzepkowski recalls, " 'So you're mad at Nushawn for having sex with you, and now you're doing the same thing?' "

Then there are the babies. Four born, two on the way. The one who has tested HIV-positive was born to a young woman who is "still an adolescent herself," according to Russ Tilaro, who is the head of the local AIDS Coalition. Tilaro, who also is HIV-positive, says the girl didn't know her own HIV status until after the baby was born.

One of the new mothers told the Buffalo News that her boyfriend knew she was HIV-positive but "wanted to have unprotected sex just once." He left her after she discovered she was pregnant. Another one of the women, Rzepkowski says, seriously considered abortion until her mother talked her into keeping the baby. And then there is Andrea, whose pregnancy was planned.

The evidence leaves Rzepkowski discouraged. "I think maybe some people got the message, but I have a problem when I educate these people and end up with six pregnant," he says. "Nushawn's people – the majority of them – are continuing to be sexually active, putting people at risk, putting their babies at risk. That's amazing."

It's not so amazing to Heather Watts, a medical officer at the National Institutes of Health who specializes in pediatric and maternal AIDS and has treated numerous pregnant women who are HIV-positive. Watts says that the average rate of infection from mother to child is 25 percent, but that it can be reduced to 5 to 8 percent with proper drug treatments, and in cases like Andrea's, where the mother has a low level of the virus in her blood, it can be as low as 2 percent.

"Many make informed decisions," Watts says. "I think it's analogous to genetic diseases before we had the more sophisticated tests. It's a powerful pull, the desire to procreate. People take risks."

Ask Andrea why she wants a child and she says, "In case I get sick." Ask her to elaborate and she says, "You know, so I have something to leave behind." Mostly, though, Andrea refuses to talk about the possibility of getting full-blown AIDS.

Her denial is not uncommon. Two of the other young women have stopped taking their medication. One cut off contact with her doctors after she had a baby, and the baby tested negative, according to Rzepkowski. "She's not sick enough, so she thinks she doesn't have to do anything," he says. The other simply drifted away.

Rzepkowski shares these details – without using names – because he believes the problems Williams left behind will only grow unless the whole community, the young women included, acknowledge the depth of the problem. He also does not like the way Nushawn's girls have been stereotyped.

"Look," he says, "these girls are not all the same. Some had bad childhoods, but not all. Some are upper middle class, some are not. Some are quite pretty, others, well, eh. Some are blond, some are brunet. Some are low intelligence, others are very smart and going to college. There's a lot of variety. You can't classify them."

But much of Jamestown has classified them. It makes them easier to ignore.

Mired in the Past

To understand why the people here look at Nushawn's girls the way they do, Mayor Kimball says, it is necessary to understand Jamestown. Located in a county known for its wineries and the highbrow Chautauqua Institute, Jamestown once was a major furniture-manufacturing town with wealth that still is evident in the graceful homes and fading mansions that branch off Main Street.

These days, though, much of the industry is gone, and the people – one-quarter of whom are elderly-like to dream of the Jamestown that once was rather than the town it has become. The route to Andrea's house tells its own story: Take Main Street out of downtown, and turn left at the intersection where chain restaurants have replaced the once-cherished outdoor market. Pass the warehouses – most of them empty now – and drive up Swede Hill, home to two of the houses where Williams dealt drugs during his stay in Jamestown.

The sex-education instructors here preach abstinence in the public high school. There was no mention of condoms, or how to use them, before Williams, and there is no mention of them now. Kimball says that most parents in Jamestown don't want to recognize that their children are having sex, even though the statistics – particularly the teen pregnancy statistics – make it obvious that they are.

"The attitude of 'Just Say No' obviously isn't working for us," Kimball says. "Condom distribution?" He cringes a little at the question. "God, I hate to be quoted as saying there probably ought to be but, well, there should at least be education about where to get them. Let's teach them how to have safe sex."

There were a few concrete changes that came out of what happened here. Youth outreach programs were formed and a daylong teen summit held, and there are plans for a teen center. People no longer go through the back basement door to get to AIDS Community Services in the old mansion at Fifth and Main streets. AIDS is no longer a secret here. But it's still a curse.

"The people here have absolutely no concern for these girls and have done no follow-up," Tilaro says, bitterly. "What they're trying to do now is change the laws. They're being reactive rather than proactive."

Much energy has been directed toward passing laws that will make it easier to punish the Nushawn Williamses of the world (Williams pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape and one count of reckless endangerment). But Kimball says there still are lessons to learn or, as he put it, "we're going to have another Nushawn Williams in Jamestown."

Kimball describes a frustration here that stems from the departure – most often, for college – of what people here consider the "good kids," kids who tend to get jobs elsewhere after graduation and don't return. Those who stay, by contrast, are often those labeled white trash, a name that refers as much to behavior as economic status. According to the cliche, white trash kids do drugs, drop out of school and get dead-end jobs – if any jobs at all. They are kids who wind up in jail or on "Jerry Springer" talking about their mixed-up lives.

And so Kimball tries to press the point that "AIDS is non-discriminatory. ... All it takes," he says, "is one night where the football captain is with one of the so-called bad kids and then the next week it's the cheerleaders we're talking about. I try to get people to understand that."

In other words, AIDS has to happen to a cheerleader for Jamestown to consider it something truly worth fear and worry. That is not a problem unique to Jamestown. This is the legacy of AIDS: People may say, "AIDS can happen to anyone," but deep inside they're still thinking, "It can't happen to me." There's always a way to make it about someone else. Gays. Drug users. People who hang out with gays and drug users. Blacks and Hispanics in big-city ghettos. White trash.

"Maybe Andrea is middle class," says her mother, Wendy, a former teacher. "but you look at the way she's lived her life and it's easy to say, 'Look at what she's done. Look at her past.' My own brother said to my mother, 'She had it coming.' "

Worth the Risk

"My life is better since I got the virus."

Andrea is on the couch in the living room, being prompted by her mother. The house, as Wendy proudly points out, is not the kind of place where you'd expect a girl like Andrea to come from. There are pretty jars on the kitchen counters, sweet-smelling soaps in the bathroom. This is important to Wendy. It is a part of the point she is trying to make.

"My life is better since I got the virus," Andrea repeats, while her mother nods, approvingly.

This is the way Wendy sees it: AIDS is not the problem. Nushawn Williams is not the problem. The problem is what led Andrea and the other young women to have unprotected sex with Williams in the first place. The problem is hopelessness, the kind of hopelessness that Wendy believes can wind up infecting any kid, from any kind of family, in any kind of town.

"Andrea's problems started when she was 4½ years old," Wendy explains. "They started when she was sexually abused by a man who was my fiance."

Wendy says this without blinking. She will tell you, with no embarrassment, that she, too, was sexually abused as a child. She'll tell anyone – Montel Williams, the teachers in the lounge where she used to work, reporters she has just met. She even shares the details: The exam the doctors gave her daughter. The way her ex-fiance was smart enough not to penetrate Andrea, so there was no evidence of vaginal bruising.

"Moooommmmm," Andrea interrupts, clearly embarrassed. "You always do this. You make people uncomfortable. No wonder they bleep you out all the time on the TV shows. People don't want to hear about that. They want to hear me say I hate him, that he's evil."

When Andrea met Williams, there was no future. Her life was about the bottle of beer in her hand that moment, the party planned for that night, the next tumble in bed with the man who cooed about her pretty eyes and let her braid his hair. Now, she talks about her plans to attend community college, then a four-year school after that.

"I want to be a psychologist," Andrea explains. "For children."

Andrea is going to a local clinic to see Rzepkowski, whom she calls "Dr. Z," on a regular basis. She eats healthy meals. Takes her HIV medication religiously. She is as healthy as possible, so she gets angry when people ask how she's feeling. She is in love.

Andrea's boyfriend, Angel, lives at the house with Andrea and her mother. They met when Andrea and a friend offered him a ride on Second Street, and he accepted. Angel knew who Andrea was when he met her. He knew about her relationship with Williams and knew she was HIV-positive. He says he willingly stopped using condoms in an attempt to get Andrea pregnant. It took three months.

"It's like I told her," says Angel, who is 21. "I love her with all my heart and I know God is up there watching us."

Angel is quick to point out that he has less than a one-half percent chance of contracting HIV from Andrea each time they have unprotected sex – one current estimate of the likelihood of transmission from a woman with HIV to an uninfected man. In his world, that kind of risk not only seems worth it, it's not something worth worrying about. He gets tested regularly only because Andrea insists upon it. His last test was the day before he granted this interview. He wasn't sweating the results.

"I've been tested twice already, and it's been negative," Angel says. "This is just a chance that comes with life."

This is life for Angel: He came to Jamestown from Puerto Rico 2½ years ago. He was fired from his factory job a few weeks ago. When he feuds with Andrea (which is often), he stays with friends or family. He says he loves Andrea. He says he will love their baby, whether or not it is HIV-positive. He says it is a good life.

The only thing that upsets Angel is the way people talk about Andrea.

"I get mad and call them ignorant, because that's what they are," Angel says. "I look at her as if she's a human being who deserves to have a partner by her side who cares for her. "

When Andrea looks at him, she beams.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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