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SDGLN exclusive: Accuser in HIV-infection case speaks out for the first time

SAN DIEGO, California — In an exclusive interview with San Diego Gay and Lesbian News (SDGLN.com), the original accuser in a case alleging that Thomas Guerra intentionally infected him with HIV has come forward for his first on-the-record interview. In it, he sheds light on the facts of the case and gives media covering the story a much-deserved reprimand.

When the accuser isn’t the accuser

You can be forgiven if you thought the accuser had already given multiple interviews to San Diego television stations. However, SDGLN has learned that the person speaking out on TV and via Facebook, Andrew Latham Staples (aka A. Latham Staples and Latham Staples), is not a party to the case. He is neither the claimant nor an alleged victim. He is a former boyfriend of Guerra who has been deceiving the media and exploiting the surrounding attention.

In statements to local media, Staples said he was speaking out, in part, because he had just been made aware of the allegations against his ex-partner. In fact, Staples told one TV reporter that he was just hours away from proposing to Guerra.

After reviewing dozens of pages of court documents leaked to the media, SDGLN has learned that Staples knew about the allegations against Guerra more than a year ago, not recently. Also, a video obtained by SDGLN makes it clear that Staples was present when a San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy served the warrant for Guerra’s arrest in the case in April 2014, and additional court paperwork shows that Staples signed the bail bond for Guerra’s release later that day.

SDGLN has also learned that it was Staples’ roommate who first alerted news outlets about the highly publicized case, but only after Staples and Guerra had broken up. Because the accuser of record was unwilling to speak to the media before now, it was Staples who seized on the opportunity.

The resultant noise from Staples’ media tour de force has distracted from the real facts of the case and, much to the chagrin of the real accuser, an opportunity for a more substantive discussion on the issues surrounding HIV may have been lost amid the salacious reporting.

The hookup

The accuser -- whose identity SDGLN has agreed to keep confidential because of privacy concerns and because the media typically protects the identity of victims of alleged sex offenses -- says he first met Guerra in April 2013 via Grindr, the GPS-based social/hook-up app.

“He was nearby,” the accuser said, “and we chatted about hooking up.” After meeting in person and spending the afternoon together, the accuser says he and Guerra talked at length about the subject of their HIV status and Guerra said he was HIV negative.

“He went into this detailed explanation about how he had been in a relationship for three years, and that it had ended nine months before. He said he worried his ex-boyfriend might have cheated on him so he had gotten tested since the relationship ended and tested negative.

“He said that during the nine months after the breakup he didn’t have sex with anyone because he was living with his parents in the rural Central Valley [in California] and didn’t have a car. His options were limited.”

The accuser said it was the combination of that detailed, plausible explanation along with Guerra’s charm and apparent innocence that led to a fateful decision.

“We had unprotected sex for the first time in my life outside of a committed monogamous relationship,” he said. “It was on Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm. I wanted to believe that he had my best interests at heart and that I could trust him.”

The accuser says having unprotected sex with Guerra as a hook-up and outside of a monogamous relationship is an outlier in his sexual history, and that he is confident he was HIV-negative prior to having sex with Guerra. As proof, the accuser said as he had been tested less than 30 days before the encounter and had no sex partners since before the test window.

“I have several HIV test results that show I was clearly negative before he infected me,” he said.

In fact, the two men would visit the San Diego County STD Clinic on May 1, 2013 for what’s called a “P24” or “Architect” test. This test requires a blood draw and takes a week to process. It can determine if a person has been infected with HIV as soon as 14-days after initial exposure.

Seroconversion

Within 14 to 21 days following an initial exposure to HIV, the virus begins attacking the body before an immune response can be launched. During this window, four out of five of those exposed begin to experience flu-like symptoms (Acute Infection Syndrome), the severity of which varies from patient to patient.

“It began 14 days to the hour of the original exposure,” he said. The symptoms were so severe the accuser would later visit an urgent care facility on May 7, 2013.

While at urgent care, even though the accuser had an unsafe sexual encounter two weeks prior, no HIV test was performed. That was in part, the accuser acknowledges, because he didn’t bring it up with his doctor.

“I was definitely not as educated as I should have been,” he said, “but the fact that they had run several other tests and nothing showed up should have led them to ask about sexual behavior to at least perform a viral load test for HIV.”

Instead, he was sent home with penicillin. “There’s something wrong with that,” he said.

In what may have been a bitter twist, the accuser said Guerra was taking care of him while he was sick. Looking back, the accuser said “I think that may have even been a part of the ruse.”

Testing positive and staying together

On May 8, the accuser received his HIV results and they came back negative. On May 9, one week after the P24 test, the accuser dropped Guerra off at the STD clinic to get his results. For Guerra, the results came back positive.

“He flipped out and cried,” the accuser said. “He said he was in shock because he didn’t know how this could possibly happen to him.” The accuser said that Guerra also wondered aloud if his status would affect his relationship with his sister or his ability to visit his nephew and niece. In hindsight, the accuser believes that too was a strategic move. “It was a ploy not to talk about the results with her.”

Fearing the worst, the accuser went to his primary care doctor for a viral load HIV test (the early test) the following day. One week later, on May 17, 2013, the accuser was notified by his doctor that the test’s results were back and that the viral load number was above the upper threshold of 500,000 copies per mL, which indicated an extremely recent infection. The accuser was now HIV-positive.

The accuser is certain it was Guerra who infected him. “I tested negative less than a month before I had sex with Thomas Guerra with no other sexual partners in between.”

In the face of a life-altering diagnosis, the accuser had a serious decision to make.

Was he going to be bitter about the diagnosis and blame Guerra for it, or was he going to accept the diagnosis and move on? Believing that Guerra legitimately was unaware of his own positive status, the accuser said he decided to accept the diagnosis and continue what had since transitioned from just a one-off sexual encounter into a budding relationship.

Just how that relationship was defined or how it would proceed was not something on which the men apparently agreed.

“I thought we were monogamous and boyfriends,” he said. The accuser would later learn that Guerra’s definition of their relationship was quite different.

Far from being exclusive, the accuser now believes, due to videos he says that were created by Guerra of sexual encounters time-stamped during their “relationship,” that Guerra was not only physically unfaithful, but also began pursuing a separate emotionally romantic relationship while the two were still ostensibly a couple.

After three months and a pair of HIV diagnoses later, the couple would eventually split.

Building a case

In the months following their breakup, the accuser became suspicious of Guerra’s entire story and realized he had a number of tools at his disposal to begin investigating.

The accuser says that early on in their relationship Guerra asked for some software to be added to his phone that would allow it to operate outside the original specifications, commonly called a “jailbreak.” Prior to beginning the jailbreak, Guerra made a backup of his own phone on the accuser’s laptop in case any data were lost.

“I had forgotten the back-up was even there,” the accuser said. When the relationship was over, the accuser said Guerra disclosed in their last face-to-face meeting that his doctors had told him his CD4 count was low enough that they considered his condition full blown AIDS, which typically only happens after living with the virus for many years. This was inconsistent with the story he had told the accuser and he eventually remembered the back-up and enlisted special tools that would allow him to extract some of the data, particularly text messages.

The accuser says it was while reading these text messages that he learned of Guerra’s infidelity during their relationship as well as something he believes is much more sinister. The accuser says he found text messages where Guerra confirmed to others that he had been HIV-positive since 2007 and never took medication, meaning the elaborate story the accuser had fallen for earlier was a lie.

Also in the recovered text messages the accuser says Guerra appears to demonstrate a pattern of deception by knowingly exposing other HIV-negative men while lying about his own status. It is this angle that the TV reporters have exploited, the accuser said.

The accuser said he began to dig even deeper. Guerra had left a laptop at the accuser’s house after he had accidentally dropped it and it had stopped working. The accuser used his tech-savvy skills to recover all the data off the computer’s nearly non-functioning hard drive and found additional evidence of what has been described by prosecutors and the accuser as a conspiracy by Guerra to spread HIV.

“I immediately called police,” the accuser said, “and showed the visibly shocked responding patrol officer everything.”

While the accuser was busy building a case on his own without what he calls “any tangible support from law enforcement,” Guerra was beginning his relationship with Staples.

Issuing a warning

When the accuser learned of the new relationship, he says he reached out to Staples via Facebook and shared the concerns he had about what he calls Guerra’s deceptive sexual practices. The exchanges between the two men continued for some time and are part of the leaked court documents that have made their way into the hands of nearly every television station in San Diego, a leak that concerns the accuser.

The nearly 100 pages of documents not only reveal the identity of the accuser but also contain contact information, phone numbers, email addresses and entire electronic communication logs with potential sexual partners of Guerra’s.

A much deserved reprimand

“I’ve been really turned off by the media’s coverage,” the accuser said. “They’ve completely missed the point of the story.”

For the accuser, the story isn’t about Guerra as much as it is about HIV education.

“They’re so focused on making him out to be this monster, they’re not talking about the facts of HIV,” he said. “Before I was infected I was so undereducated about it. I was going along and getting tested like I thought I should be but I didn’t really know about it, not enough.”

The accuser said media have so far missed an opportunity to educate.

“I didn’t know about PrEP, or PeP or any of that. Truvada had been approved by the FDA to help prevent HIV infection since November of 2012 and I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I was not as educated as I needed to be and I think a lot of people aren’t. All of this coverage hasn’t helped change any of that.”

While the accuser wants Guerra prosecuted for purposely infecting many others, he isn’t asking for sympathy. He accepts his own personal responsibility in his infection and, he says, he’s moved on.

“I’m fine. I’m healthy. I’ve got a good job. I’ve got insurance. I’m a bright guy. I’m gonna be fine. I just want to do everything I can to help people protect themselves” he said.

A jury trial is currently set for Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. If convicted, Guerra faces up to six months in county jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

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SDGLN has been in contact with several of San Diego’s premier HIV physicians and service providers and has developed an intensive resource article on HIV facts, testing and treatment. Click HERE to read and share that story.

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(Editor's note: Articles written by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News and its contributors may not be reprinted without the written consent of Hale Media, Publisher Johnathan Hale or Editor-in-Chief Ken Williams. Any lifting of quotes or republishing of any content published by SDGLN must be accompanied by a proper link back to our original story and full credit to the author and this online media source. Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN and GLBTNN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.)