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The Nation

AIDS Scare at Tiny College Shakes Town

Health: S. Dakota officials say dozens, maybe hundreds, have been exposed to HIV at campus. A basketball player is charged with spreading the virus.

April 30, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HURON, S.D. — Here they are, college students from big cities in Texas and Florida, Michigan and Arizona, living in a frozen farm town where the most lively clubs around are the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

They are young and feel invincible. And they are bored.

So, many students at SiTanka Huron University party just about every night. They dance. They drink. And in an endless, reckless game, they pair off--for a night or for an hour--with a new face. Or, when there are no more new faces, with a familiar one.

Sure, they've learned about condoms and AIDS in high school and again--several times--at college. "But, being drunk.... And your hormones are so raging," said freshman Tony Dawkins. "It's just like, oh, forget about it."

Forgetting is impossible now.

Nikko Briteramos--a freshman and a friend--was led into court Monday in a blue jail jumpsuit, charged with five counts of intentionally exposing his new girlfriend to AIDS through unprotected sex after learning late last month that he was infected with HIV.

His hands were cuffed in front of him and shackled to his leather belt. He was not permitted to talk to the two dozen friends who came to show support. He is facing the possibility of 75 years in state prison.

Briteramos has given health officials the names of at least 10 other women with whom he has had unprotected sex in recent months. Two have tested positive for HIV. Those two have listed 50 recent partners between them.

Authorities say there are dozens, quite possibly hundreds more, who may have been exposed to the deadly virus through the web of sexual contacts that linked many of the 400 students on this small private campus--and some "townies" in the community beyond.

"It's just pretty much everybody gets drunk and looks for someone to hook up with. But there's a very limited pool, so you just go around and around," freshman Matt Ratliff said as he gulped some milk in a beat-up dorm hall that smelled of marijuana.

Through Sunday, at least 135 people had been tested. Some results may not be back for weeks.

The open promiscuity has stunned many in this conservative churchgoing community of 12,000. It also has laid bare tensions between locals and the university.

A fixture in Huron for 120 years, the university--now owned by the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe--is welcomed for the scores of jobs it provides. But there is an undercurrent of unease, too, because at least half of the undergraduates come from out of state, recruited for the Screaming Eagle athletic teams and given scholarships to cover the $9,500 annual tuition.

Many of these outsiders are black. Many come from big cities. On both counts, they're viewed with suspicion in this wide-open Plains state that, outside of the Native American reservations, is virtually all white.

The AIDS scare has only fueled those doubts. "This is indicative of things that happen in the big city. We import them because we import people from the big city," said Al Farrell, 62, who taught business at the university for years.

A few old-timers openly tag black students as the source of most trouble. But there are many more in town who say they welcome the diversity. Many African American students say they have encountered little racism here.

Still, there is an undeniable clash of cultures when kids who have grown up in Chicago or Fort Worth set down roots in Huron.

The downtown strip is hopping compared to most small Midwest towns--but it's hopping with farm machinery outlets and clip 'n' curl beauty salons. There's a full calendar of cultural events, but they're along the lines of the state bridge championship, the Kiwanis Club variety show and the Huron gun club shoot. The bowling alley is about as good as it gets for a young person's night on the town.

So students tend to do a lot of complaining that there's nothing to do except party in off-campus apartments.

"There's only, what, 21 or 22 streets in Huron?" said Wildmike Pata, a wrestler from West Palm Beach, Fla.

For all the grumbling, however, students often come to view Huron as a haven, far from the violence and temptations they grew up with in rougher cities. "I didn't hear my first police siren here until January," marveled Tony Dawkins, 18, a freshman from Benton Harbor, Mich. Briteramos' arrest shattered that trust in Huron as a world apart.

The 6-foot-7 basketball star found out he was HIV-positive in late March when he attempted to donate blood.

Under South Dakota's confidentiality rules, no one would have known of Briteramos' infection had state health officials not stopped by his dorm on Thursday to interview him about his sexual partners. He answered the door in his boxer shorts and refused to let them in--asking them instead to meet him in a nearby bathroom to talk, prosecutor Michael Moore said.

One of the health officials stayed in the hall and saw a young woman scurry out of Briteramos' room, Moore said. He was arrested that afternoon.

Prosecutors allege that Briteramos had sex with the woman at least five times since learning of his HIV infection--including the day of his arrest. She has not tested positive for HIV, but it can take up to six months for the virus to surface.

In South Dakota--and in 20 other states--it is a crime for individuals who know they are HIV-positive to engage in unprotected sex without informing their partners.

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