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Cover Story

See No Evil

In California's Unregulated Porn Film Industry, an Alarming Number of Performers Are Infected With HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. And Nobody Seems to Care.

January 12, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter last wrote for the magazine about the rise of Vivid Video Inc., the nation's leading porn producer.

Along the way, she also became a drug addict, and she has exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia. Today the 29-year-old former actress lives in Honolulu. There, sitting inside an AIDS clinic for homeless patients, waiting for medication, she hides her past behind an engaging smile. "I know people hate what we do," she says. "But porn stars make a lot of money for other people. If farmworkers have rights, so should we. The laws need to change."

Hours later, staring at the TV screen inside a friend's apartment, Ballowe watches a clip from a 1998 video she made for Hard Core Television and K-Beech Video Inc. It is the film in which Ballowe has alleged she was infected with HIV by an actor named Marc S. Goldberg. She was paid $10,000 for her work, but records show the check bounced just days after she learned that she was HIV positive.

As the video plays, Ballowe quietly excuses herself and walks into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Water runs into the sink, nearly muffling the sound of retching.

Ballowe's rise and fall in the business is not unusual, but her reaction is. She filed a lawsuit with the California Workers' Compensation Appeal Board against Hard Core Television, the producer of the video, and K-Beech, the distributor. Ballowe alleges that Goldberg faked a test showing he was HIV negative. Included in the lawsuit is a copy of an HIV test supposedly taken by Goldberg on March 21, 1997, nearly a year before the two actors worked together. The result is negative.

The document says the test was conducted by the Medical Science Institute in Burbank--a laboratory that filed for bankruptcy in 1995, and whose assets were purchased by Physicians Clinical Laboratory Inc. in February 1997. The document also shows that Goldberg's blood sample was taken at Northeast Valley Health Corp.'s Pacoima offices, by a physician identified only as "Martinez."

Officials from Northeast Valley told The Times that no doctor by that name worked at their facilities during this time. "We had a doctor named Martinez, but he left and moved out of the area back in 1985," says Kimberly Wyard, chief executive officer.

Goldberg could not be reached for comment despite nearly two dozen attempts to contact him by phone and in person at his home and at the video company where he works. No response from Goldberg to Ballowe's lawsuit is on file with the state. Hard Core Television and K-Beech have filed papers denying responsibility.

Ballowe's suit says that during several days of filming in Chatsworth in February 1998, the actress had sex with about 25 men--a mix of actors established in the business, would-be stars trying to get a break in the industry and adult-film fans who had been recruited at adult video stores. Most of the men showed up at the set with paperwork that declared they were HIV-negative. Some wore condoms. Others, like Goldberg, did not.

"I had known Marc for years, so I didn't make him wear one," Ballowe says in an interview. "I was going on good faith" that he was not infected. In her lawsuit, Ballowe says that K-Beech and Hard Core failed to provide a safe work environment, as required by state law. Specifically, she claims the businesses failed to "verify the health certificates provided . . . to ensure their accuracy and reliability." She also claims the companies failed "to furnish and use safety devices and safeguards for the benefit of the employee . . . with knowledge that serious injury to applicant would be a probable result."

"If I was a prostitute in Nevada, I'd still be alive," she says in an interview. "If I'd been a migrant farmworker, I'd still be alive. As it is, I'm dead. I'll be buried before I get wrinkles."

Ballowe's lawsuit has become the leading example cited by all those who argue for regulation of the industry. It was filed in 1998, at a time when, one by one, porn actresses were testing positive for HIV. Among industry veterans, those years are now known as "the dark times." In January of that year, actress Tricia Devereaux tested positive. She was followed by Ballowe in March; a Hungarian performer, who used only the stage name Caroline, in April; and Kimberly Jade in May.

"I could have given this to my boyfriend," Jade says. "Any of us could have and not known because we were getting tested only once a month, for HIV. The only thing we all have in common is Marc. But we had no idea how to prove that he did it."

Some companies, such as Vivid Video Inc. in Van Nuys and VCA Pictures in Chatsworth, insist performers bring a recent HIV test to the set and use condoms when they perform. But dozens of Triple-X filmmakers have no such requirements. Even at those that do, the rules can be easily overlooked, according to interviews with more than three dozen actresses working for various Triple-X companies.

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