Former prosecutor says DA's felony charges won't stick

By Tanya Pampalone

The San Francisco Examiner 30 Nov. 2001

Although District Attorney Terence Hallinan said he plans to prosecute controversial AIDS activists Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli on each of the 15 felony counts they are charged with, one local expert said the two men will walk free.

Former federal prosecutor Jerrold Ladar said it is unlikely the pair will be convicted of any of the felony counts they are charged with, which include criminal conspiracy, stalking and making criminal threats.

The activists were arrested Wednesday as they left a San Francisco courtroom and are each being held on $500,000 bail.

While the charges facing the men could add up to eight years in prison, Ladar, who has watched the criminal justice system in San Francisco for more than 30 years, said he expects the felony counts will be reduced to diversion or to misdemeanors because no one named in the cases was physically injured.

The tactics of Petrelis and Pasquarelli have disturbed many in the AIDS and public health community for years. But in the past month, the harassment has escalated.

The two have sent mass e-mails with the home phone numbers of local and federal public health officials and reporters and editors from the New York Times and the Bay Area Reporter, resulting in a spate of harassing, obscene and threatening phone calls-- and even death threats, according to at least one government official.

Court documents say a bomb threat was made to the Chronicle earlier this month, which has been attributed to their campaign. The renegade activists said they believe articles about the rising number of syphilis cases among gay men in San Francisco and the rise of unsafe sexual practices among gay men are inaccurate.

Ladar, now a criminal defense attorney in private practice, admitted that the atmosphere in San Francisco has changed since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center -- especially on the alleged bomb threat.

Now, he said, "people are scared and judges react to that." But even with Sept. 11 attacks, he doesn't expect that the two will do hard time. "(Hallinan) is not the only one that has yelled about these kinds of offenses," he said.

While the DA might genuinely desire to pursue all the counts, once all the facts are in it could be difficult to pursue all the counts, he said. The men were arraigned on all charges Thursday and pled innocent, according to assistant District Attorney Machaela Hoctor.

Hoctor secured 10 criminal stay-away orders to protect Chronicle reporters and DPH employees, although temporary restraining orders, which are issued in civil court, were already in place.

The stay-away order prohibits Petrelis and Pasquarelli from having contact with the victims through mail, phone, or a third party other than an attorney. It also bars them from coming within 150 yards of them and orders them not possess any weapons.

A bail hearing will be heard today, but Hallinan told The Examiner on Wednesday that the DA's office isn't planning to budge on the bail amount. In addition, the University of California, San Francisco said it would file temporary restraining orders in the next few days on behalf of at least five employees to protect them from Petrelis and Pasquarelli, according to Marcia Canning, UCSF chief campus council.

Canning said faculty and staff in the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and the AIDS Research Institute have been victims of harassment by the men.