AIDS Activists Arrested

By Tanya Pampalone

San Francisco Examiner 29 Nov. 2001

Controversial AIDS activists Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli dodged a bullet in a San Francisco courtroom Wednesday, only to be surprised -- and arrested -- by plainclothes police as they walked out the door.

Officers handcuffed the men after the postponement of a hearing that would extend a restraining order to bar the renegade activists from contacting and harassing public health officials and Chronicle employees.

The men are being charged with criminal conspiracy, stalking and making criminal threats, and are being held on $500,000 bail. They could face at least eight years in prison if found guilty.

Pasquarelli, who is a member of ACT UP San Francisco, the group that believes that HIV does not cause AIDS, was arrested wearing a black T-shirt with florescent pink writing that read "AIDS IS OVER."

As he was led away in handcuffs, ACT UP members shouted, "AIDS is over" and "ACT UP."

The 34-year-old is being held on seven felony counts and four misdemeanors, including two counts of violating the temporary restraining order violations, according to Reginald Smith, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.

Petrelis, 42, is facing eight felonies and 11 misdemeanors, Smith said.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan said he plans to prosecute on each count and will "fight to retain the bail."

We are talking about terrorism here," he said. "These people have terrorized health department officials... all kinds of organizations devoted to fighting AIDS have been intimidated for years."

Hallinan said the victims of the attacks have been afraid to leave their homes and that Petrelis and Pasquarelli made the public servants lives miserable by calling them and telling them to "watch their back."

They continued to do this despite restraining orders, warnings and having been convicted of other misdemeanor offenses, Hallinan said.

Michael Guingona, Pasquarelli's attorney, said the police and the DA are going overboard with the arrest, the excessive bail and the numerous felony counts.

"These kinds of heavy-handed tactics are being used by the DA to secure members of ACT UP who are espousing a message that the establishment doesn't want to hear," he said.

The tactics of Petrelis and Pasquarelli have disturbed many in the AIDS and public health community for years. But in the past month, the two have sent mass e-mails with the home phone numbers of local and federal public health officials, as well as 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 that the Chronicle received a bomb threat earlier this month, which has been attributed to the men's campaign.

The 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.

ACT UP member Michael Bellefountaine believes that the charges will be reduced. "They may be annoying, but they are not terrorists," he said. "These are protesters... there is a clear distinction. This is heavy handedness by the system to get back at them for being annoying."

But many in the mainstream AIDS community say the arrests are long overdue and celebrated the news Wednesday.

"AIDS workers all over town are breathing a sigh of relief," said Martin Delaney, the founding director of Project Inform, whose group has suffered the brunt of Pasquarelli's and Petrelis' attacks. "They have been doing things like this in the community for years. We tried to tell reporters how bad it was and I guess they got a taste of how bad it was." Petrelis and Pasquarelli both have restraining orders barring them from contacting numerous AIDS and health workers.

Chronicle attorney Joshua Koltun said the threatening phone calls to reporters and editors "were designed to affect public policy and affect the reporting."

According to court documents, the calls to Chronicle staffers began in early November, after staff writer Christopher Heredia wrote a story on the rise in syphilis rates in San Francisco.

"These are thick-skinned journalists that get calls all the time," Koltun said. "This is part of a concerted pattern... they were making it clear that (Chronicle employees) should fear for their lives."

The phone assaults were allegedly stepped up after an article in the Washington Monthly said DPH head of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention and Control Jeffrey Klausner had considered quarantining gay men who have "infected 20 different people and still refuse to use condoms" as a possible way of slowing HIV infections.

Klausner later said that this reference was taken out of context.

ACT UP members and Petrelis, who claims to not be a member of the group -- but works frequently with them -- have harassed Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt for many years.

"These people have waged a campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence and I'm glad they are finally getting their just desserts," Jones said. "I used to think they were just stupid but now I'm convinced that they are just evil."