I Have HIV

But I'm not telling you, babe. Happy Valentine's Day!

You might have bought or received candy this week. Or maybe flowers.

It's the most romantic holiday of the year.

But romance is decidedly not part of a defense lawyer's life. Consider this 2007 exchange between Miami Beach attorney Melisa Coyle and a middle-age Latina officeworker named Nelly about a onetime paramour named Dario Ross.

Mark Poutenis

Coyle: Would you [and Ross] talk about a future together?

Nelly: No.

Coyle: And why not?

Nelly: Because I wouldn't have a future with someone like him.

Coyle: What do you mean by that?

Nelly: Meaning that he doesn't speak English. That he's just not the kind of person that I'd consider having a long-term relationship with.

Coyle: Then why were you having a relationship with him at the time?...

Nelly: Because, like I said. It was a sexual relationship.

Indeed Nelly, age 42, got more than she bargained for. Ross, she contends, didn't say he was HIV positive. She discovered that fact from a sheriff's deputy weeks after her last afternoon delight with Ross.

Nelly, who's a paralegal, isn't stupid. (That's not her real name, by the way.) She reported Ross to prosecutors, who charged him in November 2005 with a first-degree felony termed "criminal exposure of HIV," which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

In the past, police and prosecutors haven't charged many people with the crime — it's usually reserved for prostitutes or guys with HIV who spit on cops arresting them — but lately there's been a flurry of cases in South Florida. All of them involve an HIV-positive guy and an HIV-negative woman. Not exactly Jane Eyre.

If we haven't yet spoiled your Valentine's Day, ponder the case of Eliodor Kersaint, a 23-year-old former South Beach club promoter, who was charged in April 2007 with the same crime. Cops say he didn't mention this little fact before bedding down a 19-year-old woman.

Both men go on trial in March. The similarities between the cases don't end there. Neither victim contracted HIV. And both men have lived with the disease for several years.

Then there's the case of Miguel Barrie, a 37-year-old Miami Beach man who was arrested this past January 22 for having unprotected sex with a St. Lucie woman and not disclosing his HIV status.

Why are these cases important? Because, says defense attorney Coyle, prosecuting people for not telling partners about their HIV status might discourage folks from getting tested. Ross's co-counsel, Carlos Fleites, explains, "The legislature obviously enacted this law to help prevent the spread of HIV, but the way the law is written, it actually discourages people from being tested as it only punishes those who know they are HIV positive."

Back to the love story.

Ross is a 180-pound, 50-year-old house painter. He contracted HIV around 1990 from heterosexual sex and has battled depression for more than a decade. He's not a nice guy. In 2002 he pleaded guilty to beating his then-girlfriend with the butt of a pistol and served less than a year in jail.

In late 2004, he met Nelly — and this is really romantic — through her ex-husband. They hooked up 15 or 20 times. At first, Nelly says, he wore a condom and she didn't ask about his sexual past.

During one tryst at a hotel, he told her sex "didn't feel good" with a condom. Nelly says she then asked him if he had any diseases, and he said no; she says she believed him because their relationship was "friendly and sexual."

In February 2005, Nelly let Ross use her car to go to North Carolina, to tie up some unfinished business with his ex-wife. There he was arrested for violating a restraining order his ex had taken out against him — and he called Nelly for help getting out of jail. During one phone call to the jail, a sheriff's deputy — the name wasn't mentioned in court records — let it slip that Ross was taking "lots of medication."

The next time Nelly talked to Ross on the phone, she grilled him about the medicine. He admitted having the disease and added that "having HIV nowadays was like having the common cold."

Talk about lame boyfriend excuses.

Nelly hung up and "freaked out," she says. Soon she called police, who later charged Ross.

Incidentally this whole episode happened three years ago in February, the most romantic month of the year. Last year, two other women faced the same issue after having random sex with near-strangers.

Handsome and smooth-talking, Eliodor Kersaint was known for persuading women to attend big nightclubs in Miami Beach — he was paid by the venues for each person he brought in. "[My friend] thought he was some big shot because he had a bunch of pictures of famous people on his stupid MySpace page," said a woman we will call Sarah. She would later press charges against Kersaint.

A 19-year-old Sarah met Kersaint in April 2007 through a friend. One night they went to the now-defunct South Beach club, Pearl, together and proceeded to get very "fucked up."

"I had a lot to drink," Sarah said in a deposition. She went to Kersaint's apartment on Washington Avenue, smoked some strong weed, and then woke up on a couch without her pants on.

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