MAYVILLE - It was the worst public relations nightmare the city of Jamestown and Chautauqua County could have imagined.
Print and television media swarmed the Hall R. Clothier building in Mayville, and Sheriff Joe Gerace - on the job only two years at that point - was inundated with interviews from as far away as Japan.
One man allegedly infected 13 women, 11 of them from Chautauqua County, with HIV; the virus leads to AIDS in most cases.
A test done by the state Department of Health confirmed Nushawn Williams had HIV, then allegedly passed it on to unknowing victims.
More than 1,000 area residents are believed to have flocked to health clinics in Dunkirk and Jamestown. Schools in Jamestown began information sessions on the dangers of HIV, and state lawmakers pushed for tougher legislation.
Williams, who also goes by the name Shyteek Johnson, became public enemy No. 1 in southern Chautauqua County seemingly overnight.
However, John Nuchereno, Williams' attorney, stunned many Tuesday when he said Williams never had the virus during a State Supreme Court hearing in Erie County. The announcement was based on a new court-ordered test.
"Nushawn just accepted the truth that he had the virus," Nuchereno told the OBSERVER. "Everyone just took for granted that the tests done were accurate. The test they used, it's presumed you're positive (with HIV). It said do not reach a diagnosis based on the test.
"Bottom line: The test had a lot of false positives."
Williams pleaded guilty in 1999, three years after accusations first surfaced, to reckless endangerment and statutory rape. The Bronx native was sentenced to four to 12 years in state prison by County Court Judge John T. Ward.
His prison term ended in 2010. However, Williams remains at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden under civil confinement law.
Nuchereno said a sample of Williams' blood was sent to the Core Electron Microscopy Facility at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Gregory Hendricks, a cell biologist at the university, concluded Williams did not have the virus, Nuchereno said.
When contacted Wednesday by the OBSERVER regarding the HIV test result, Hendricks said he could not talk and hung up the phone.
The state Attorney General's Office had no comment on the case. Nuchereno said a civil trial to determine whether Williams will remain in prison is scheduled to begin shortly.
Prosecutors with the Attorney General's Office, though, have questioned the veracity of the recent HIV test result, as did officials who assessed Williams in the mid-1990s.
"There were multiple tests done, and with those tests, more were done," said Dr. Robert Berke, former county health commissioner. "Plus the fact he's been tested often and has been taking medication for it. So I don't know where this is coming from."
Nuchereno, meanwhile, said his client has not shown signs of being infected.
"Everybody, including him, believed the original test results," he said. "Now lo and behold testing is much improved. We made sure to use a neutral site."
Worldwide attention on Chautauqua County when the news broke in 1997 was immediate, and largely toxic in nature. In fact, then-Jamestown Mayor Richard Kimball Jr. called on area residents to write to several national publications after numerous stories portrayed the region as a cesspool for drugs, sex and miserable weather.
"At the time, it was like being in the middle of a very bizarre, almost unreal situation," Berke said in 2007. "No sleep. All these crazy people running around from the national media."
Said Gerace, "It was the kind of news we didn't want Chautauqua County to get."
State Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-C-I-Chautauqua County, was county executive at the time, and believes the region has been able to restore its image. The negative publicity, he said, should have been overshadowed by authorities who were quickly able to link women who became infected to Williams.
"Well the irony is that Chautauqua County took strong steps to removing him and getting him out of circulation," Goodell said Tuesday from the Assembly floor. "It was the hard work from people here who were able to put him behind bars."