SAN FRANCISCO AIDS DEBATE LEADS TO CRIMINAL CHARGES
By Greg Winter
New York Times 24 Dec. 2001
San Francisco -- With a shudder and a sigh, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of
the San Francisco Department of Public Health watched as the argument over
combating H.I.V. grew ever more caustic and intensely personal.
Posters portraying him as a Nazi were plastered on telephone poles.
Internet chat rooms filled with references to Dr. K-K-Klausner and his
nefarious plan to quarantine infected gay men. Newspaper advertisements
denounced him as a "raving homophobe," bent on closing sex clubs and adult
bookstores where the disease could be spread.
Dr. Klausner, who is director of the department's program for sexually
transmitted diseases, might have taken it all in stride, he says, for the
sake of a robust political dialogue. But when critics started calling his
home, spewing obscenities at his wife, any pretense of a debate quickly
gave way to criminal charges.
"When the threats get physical, when they get violent, when they're not
attacking my data or my position but my family," he said, "that's when it
In a case that tests the line between political expression and personal
threats, two advocates for people with AIDS have been charged with more
than 30 counts of harassing, stalking and threatening nearly a dozen city
health officials, researchers, newspaper reporters and their families over
Accused in the criminal complaint of besieging city officials with
statements like "we're coming to get you," David R. Pasquarelli, of the
advocacy group Act Up San Francisco, and Michael A. Petrelis, a longtime
advocate for gays, face more than 10 years in prison, if convicted.
Since their arrest last month, the two have been held in lieu of a total
bail of $1.1 million, which prosecutors say mirrors the severity of the
charges, but the defendants' lawyers denounce as exceptionally high.
"Why are they doing such overkill with these guys?" asked Stuart Blumstein,
Mr. Petrelis's lawyer, who maintains his client's innocence. "If I wanted
to be completely cynical, I would say the people in power are getting
Even in this city of political hyperbole, where differences of opinion
between policy makers and advocates often escalate into personal feuds, the
intimidating phone calls -- and, to a lesser degree, the heavy response to
them -- have shocked advocates and politicians, many of whom are former
Terence Hallinan, the San Francisco district attorney who boasts of his
rambunctious years as an activist before being elected to the City Council,
has likened the phone threats to an act of terrorism, while Representative
Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation
to see if any federal laws were violated as well.
"Stalking is a form of mental terrorism," said Reginald Smith, a manager in
the district attorney's office, adding that the case would have been
handled just as aggressively before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Politicians and advocates have had such a visceral response, parties on
both sides of the debate say, because the threats began with an issue that
deeply concerns so many here: sexually transmitted diseases, particularly
among gay men.
This fall, the San Francisco health department announced an alarming
increase in syphilis among gay men, citing an almost tenfold rise in the
number of cases from 1998 to this year. The increase led the department to
believe that gay men were more readily engaging in risky sexual behavior
than in earlier years, confident that advances in medications would
ultimately protect them.
While some used the statistics to preach safe sex, Mr. Petrelis and Mr.
Pasquarelli, and other Act Up members, took the figures to task, saying
they had been concocted to keep federal money flowing into the city.
The acrimony intensified when an interview with Dr. Klausner in The
Washington Monthly discussed coercive means of preventing H.I.V., including
quarantining infected men who repeatedly have unprotected sex, without
mentioning that neither he nor the San Francisco health department
advocated those methods. The author of the article, Andrew Web, later
clarified the omission, but the rift had already formed.
Science writers at The San Francisco Chronicle also drew ire, members of
Act Up San Francisco say, because their articles included the controversial
figures, without questioning their reliability.
"I'm always happy to discuss that with anybody, but I'm not going to
discuss it with someone who calls my house in the middle of the night and
threatens my children," said Carl T. Hall, one of three reporters listed as
victims on the criminal complaint. "They told me they were going to hunt me
down, that I was in their sights. I don't know what that's got to do with
the merits of our coverage."
The incident stands in stark contrast to the tenor of AIDS activism in
recent years. As recognition of the disease has widened and medications
have significantly prolonged patients' lives, much of the controversy and
outlandish tactics that once characterized AIDS protests in New York and
elsewhere has ebbed, giving way to bicycle rides and fund- raisers to find
Mr. Pasquarelli and Mr. Petrelis did their fair share of spilling fake
blood on researchers and booing their political foes, their lawyers say,
but they have never been convicted of a felony.
"He's oftentimes controversial, oftentimes loud and rude, but he's always
solidly within the First Amendment," Mark R. Vermeulen, Mr. Pasquarelli's
In an e-mail message to advocates, Mr. Petrelis listed the home phone
numbers of government officials and urged his allies to barrage them with
calls protesting "Dr. Josef Mengele KKKlausner and his call for
quarantining gay men with HIV."
National AIDS workers, including members of Act Up, distanced themselves
from the tactic in a petition, but also condemned the seriousness of the
charges against the two men and their high bail as a "clear message" that
"activists must beware."
At a preliminary hearing last week, where prosecutors added four felony
charges and five misdemeanor charges against Mr. Pasquarelli, Judge Perker
L. Meeks of Superior Court upheld the bail. The trial will resume in late