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The State

Former San Francisco Health Official Held in AIDS-Law Case

September 19, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a rare prosecution under a controversial AIDS law, a former city health commissioner was arrested on charges that he had purposely exposed partners to the disease through unprotected sex.

Ronald Hill was taken into custody at his home in Nevada County late Tuesday under a two-count indictment handed down last week by a San Francisco grand jury.

Two men testified that they had met Hill through the Internet; one told the panel that he had contracted HIV, even though Hill had assured him that he did not have the disease.

"It's such a relief that things have worked out the way they have. It's just still surreal to me," said Thomas Lister, a 38-year-old former brokerage manager who contracted the human immunodeficiency virus in October 2000 after a five-month relationship with Hill.

Lister won a $5-million civil default judgment last year against Hill, who fled after being confronted by Lister about HIV. Lister said he had yet to collect on that award.

If convicted, Hill faces as much as 10 years in prison. He was being held in the Nevada County jail and was expected to be returned to San Francisco this weekend. An arraignment could be held Monday, officials said.

Greg Barge, the assistant district attorney handling the case, confirmed that the grand jury last Friday had handed down two indictments against Hill. He declined further comment until after the arraignment.

Hill, a 46-year-old former nurse, joins a handful of Californians pursued under a 1998 law that prosecutors have criticized as so narrow that it hampers efforts to punish those who knowingly transmit HIV through sexual activity.

One of 25 state laws nationwide covering the spread of HIV infection, California's statute is one of only four that requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant acted "with the specific intent" of infecting a sex partner. The law has brought just one prosecution, in a 2002 Hermosa Beach case, before last week's indictment.

The indictment suggests that the San Francisco grand jury believed there was a pattern of Hill's having lied to sex partners about his HIV status and that he had intentionally tried to infect them with the disease.

Baron Drexler, who represented Lister in the civil case, said his client had sought a way to clear his name after prosecutors at first hedged on pursuing criminal charges against Hill.

"Thomas wanted to vindicate himself, to bring attention about this matter to the community," Drexler said. "My suspicion from Day 1 was that he wouldn't be able to collect but that the lawsuit was the right thing to do."

Drexler said he believed the publicity over the case had led the witnesses against Hill to come forward.

"But there was certainly plenty of evidence in Thomas' case to establish an intentional action under the statute," he said.

Lister met Hill over the Internet in 2000. During a discussion of their HIV status, Lister said, Hill gave assurances that he was disease-free. Soon, the two were having regular unprotected sex.

Months later, while they vacationed on an Alaskan cruise, Lister learned the truth. Alone in their tiny stateroom while Hill had a massage, he found a doctor's prescription that showed Hill was taking AIDS-related drugs.

In 1997, Hill was appointed by Mayor Willie Brown to the seven-member commission that advises the health department.

Officials say that, historically, one commissioner has been HIV-positive and that Hill filled that role on the panel.

Lister eventually testified against Hill at the civil trial and before the grand jury. "It was often uncomfortable, but this is the payoff," he said in an interview Thursday.

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