2 AIDS ACTIVISTS ACCUSED OF STALKING
They admit late-night calls to S.F. officials and reporters but deny making
By Charles Ornstein
Los Angeles Times 29 Nov. 2001
AIDS demonstrators have always been provocative during the two-decade
epidemic: interrupting important speeches, chaining themselves to furniture,
placing a 35-foot balloon-like replica of a condom on a U.S. senator's roof.
But even some old-time activists say two prominent San Francisco protesters
and their supporters have gone too far.
On Wednesday, San Francisco law enforcement officials agreed. Police arrested
Michael Petrelis and ACT UP San Francisco spokesman David Pasquarelli on
charges of criminal conspiracy, stalking and making terrorist threats against
newspaper reporters and public health officials. The pair, who are allies,
are accused of calling reporters and health officials at home repeatedly past
midnight, making threats and leaving obscene sexual messages. Together, they
are charged with 27 felonies and misdemeanors.
Both men have acknowledged making or encouraging late-night calls, sometimes
using foul language, but have denied making threats. They cite the need for a
"new phase of activism" to combat what they call false public health studies
and biased news articles that have scared the gay community and discouraged
"I did not make any death threats. I did not make any bomb threats," Petrelis
said. "Was I using abusive language? Well, yeah."
The men were held in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Petrelis has acknowledged publicizing the home phone numbers of top officials
at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And, on
posters and the ACT UP San Francisco Web site, Pasquarelli's group has
superimposed swastikas and other Nazi insignia on a picture of a top San
Francisco public health official, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, calling for his
"There's a level of activism and provocation that's appropriate at times,"
said Steve Gibson, an AIDS prevention worker in San Francisco and former ACT
UP activist in St. Louis. "The recent events cross that line."
Gibson, who was arrested in the early 1990s for disrupting a speech by
then-President George Bush, has received phone calls from both activists at
his home accusing his organization of misusing federal money.
"The goal when I was an activist was to get the federal government to respond
to a crisis among gay men that the government had been ignoring," said
Gibson, of STOP AIDS, a nonprofit group. "The goal was never to prevent the
conversation from taking place."
Funds Are Being Misspent, Group Says
ACT UP San Francisco, a breakaway group not affiliated with the national ACT
UP, believes AIDS is caused by the side effects of HIV treatment, rather than
the human immunodeficiency virus itself.
Petrelis, who is not a member of ACT UP San Francisco, disagrees with those
views but shares the group's belief that federal AIDS funds are being
misspent on frightening, sexually graphic prevention efforts.
Pasquarelli said, "These people's phone numbers and their work numbers and
their fax numbers are being circulated as enemies of gay people."
Recipients of phone calls said they are scared.
"We're watching you," said one voicemail message saved by Jeff Sheehy, a
press officer for the AIDS Research Institute at UC San Francisco. "Your name
is on the list of enemies of the homosexual community. We're out here on the
streets and we're going to make sure that you don't open your mouth again to
"I don't know what to do," Sheehy said. "I'm afraid to go to work."
Chronicle staff members obtained a restraining order against the two
activists earlier this month. Separate orders were served Wednesday covering
Klausner, director of STD prevention and control in San Francisco; Eileen
Shields, spokeswoman for the health department, and Michael Shriver, the
mayor's AIDS advisor.
At the Chronicle, callers threatened five reporters and editors in telephone
calls to their homes in the middle of the night, according to court
documents. Several of those people have unlisted phone numbers, and the
callers sometimes mentioned the names of spouses and children, the documents
"When people are threatened at home in the middle of the night, their
families are threatened, that extends far beyond a reasonable response" to a
story, said Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein.
CDC officials, who also have received late-night calls, said the tactic
serves no useful purpose.
"I don't know what this is about other than diverting people's attention from
important preventive work," said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, a top CDC
The wave of phone calls and restraining orders began after San Francisco
launched a syphilis awareness campaign last month, citing a significant
increase in the number of cases among gay and bisexual men.
Klausner immediately began receiving threatening phone calls at home. Callers
asked his wife and his nanny if they have syphilis, according to court
papers. After four days of calls at the end of October, Klausner changed his
home and work telephone numbers, his e-mail address and fax numbers.
"They're anarchists. They're criminals. They're not logical people," Klausner
said. "Unfortunately, they're powerful because the Internet has amplified
their ability to communicate around the world."
Klausner said he has long drawn criticism from Petrelis and Pasquarelli, but
the tone has changed in the past four weeks. "They've been turning it from
somewhat of a professional attack on someone's positions or scientific work
to a personal attack on someone's family."
Criticism of Klausner intensified after the publication of this month's issue
of Washington Monthly magazine, which quotes him discussing the possibility
of quarantining AIDS patients who refuse to practice safe sex and have
infected 20 or more people.
"Gay people are scared and terrorized by the health department in San
Francisco, and they want that stopped," Pasquarelli said in an interview
Tuesday. "I believe sounding the alarms and holding public officials
accountable are definitely within the rights of Americans here. The gay
community has been under a microscope by health officials for almost two
decades now and the level of hysteria is out of control."
Known for Provocative Tactics
ACT UP San Francisco members have resorted to provocative tactics in the past
and have clashed repeatedly with federally funded AIDS prevention groups. A
year ago, a jury convicted Todd Swindell and Pasquarelli of disturbing the
peace for spraying Silly String and throwing paper at the city's public
health director, Dr. Mitchell Katz, in August 2000.
Swindell, Pasquarelli and three other members of ACT UP San Francisco were
ordered by a judge to stay at least 100 feet away from 24 employees of the
AIDS service group Project Inform. That three-year restraining order arose
from an incident in April 2000 in which ACT UP members allegedly threw
pellet-like objects at Project Inform's founding director and yelled
obscenities at him.
ACT UP stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. It began in the late 1980s
in New York City as a way to get more research and treatment funds to combat
AIDS. ACT UP San Francisco broke away from the national group in 1990, and
Pasquarelli took over several years later.
In 1996, an ACT UP San Francisco member dumped kitty litter and feces over
the head of San Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen.
That triggered a three-year restraining order involving the foundation's
employees and offices.