NUSHAWN WILLIAMS WAS A MAN OF a dozen aliases—and almost as many faces. To those who came up with him in the bleak streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights section, he was Jojo, the troubled oldest child of a crack-addicted single mother. To the teenagers he befriended in Upstate's Jamestown, N.Y., to which the smalltime drug dealer and stickup man repaired in 1995 after beating a murder rap, he was Face, all swagger and slick patter. Residents of the more desolate reaches of The Bronx, where he was arrested in September for selling $20 worth of crack to undercover cops and then assaulting them, knew him as Shyteek Johnson, a homeless panhandler who spent his days smoking dope and having sex with hookers. And to a surprising number of women along the way—little girls, really—the dread-locked 21-year-old was something else.

"He was different. No one had ever treated me like he treated me," says Andrea Caruso, 18, reminiscing about the romance that began over booze and marijuana at a mutual friend's house in Jamestown last fall. "He stuck up for me and made sure nothing happened to me." During the three months that Caruso, an only child estranged at the time from her divorced mother, shared a series of ramshackle houses with him, she says Williams showed her a sweet side. Once he bought her a bouquet of red roses. He gave her jewelry and clothing. And in June, five months after their breakup, Andrea discovered he had given her something else: HIV

Nushawn Williams may well prove, literally, a lady-killer. Officials in Upstate's Chautauqua County announced last week that he had infected at least 9 people, ranging in age from 13 to 22, with the deadly virus that causes AIDS. And as authorities continue to track the dozens of partners around the state with whom they believe Williams intentionally had unprotected sex following his own HIV-positive diagnosis in September 1996—as well as those partners' subsequent contacts—they warn the grim toll could climb much higher.

"He's not a monster—this guy is worse," says Robert Berke, the Chautauqua County health commissioner, whose department investigated the case and won court approval to make Williams's identity public—the first time New York State's strict HIV confidentiality law has been breached since its enactment a decade ago. "He is the epitome of someone who is a sociopath. He has damaged hundreds and hundreds of lives. We have the devil here."

The news brought an early frost to this rural region, 400 miles northwest of New York City, an area of dairy farms and small country towns where residents pride themselves on the purity of the water in Chautauqua Lake and Jamestown High School's award-winning Red Raider Marching Band. Since 1981 the county (pop. 141,000) has recorded only 59 AIDS cases. Says Dennis Vacco, New York's attorney general: "Chautauqua County is probably one of the most unlikely places in America for this to have occurred."

But grape arbors and rustic farmhouses offer no defense against the equal-opportunity scourges of the '90s, drugs and disease. In fact, to disaffected teens in Jamestown—a faded industrial city of 35,000, many of whose furniture factories and mills closed before the birth of Lucille Ball, the area's most famous former resident—Chautauqua's tranquillity can seem suffocating. "The majority of kids are so involved—they're in sports, in choir, they're studying and going off to college," says Joseph Gerace Jr., the Chautauqua County sheriff. "And then you've got a handful of people who are lost." Observes January Delaney, 18, a former acquaintance of Williams's and single mother of a 2-year-old girl: "There is really nothing to do here but party and sleep around."

In one respect, though, Chautauqua's confines proved a blessing. "In a metropolitan area we never would have been able to catch this guy," muses Andrew Goodell, the county executive. "It was because we were a small and quaint community that it became apparent there was a problem." Bells began sounding this summer, says Health Commissioner Berke, when an alarming half-dozen new cases of HIV were reported within five months. Although the unusual cluster of victims—all young girls—suggested that one person might be responsible, it took extensive epidemiological leg-work, complicated by Williams's aliases, to confirm the supposition.

The investigation gained momentum with the identification of Williams's youngest victim. Because of her relatively limited sexual history—she was just 13 at the time of their month-long affair—authorities were able to determine that Williams was her only HIV-positive partner. This was a key piece of the puzzle they needed to help pinpoint the source of the other girls' infection. On Oct. 17, Chautauqua prosecutors charged Williams with statutory rape of the 13-year-old. And they eventually hope to have him indicted on counts of first-degree assault and reckless endangerment for each girl he infected after discovering his HIV status.

Although these contemplated charges could add up to considerable prison time, Williams has seemed happy to boast of his conquests. Yet some family members say he's getting a bum rap. Diane Fields, who visited her cousin at New York City's Rikers Island jail, claims Williams honestly didn't think he was infected, believing instead that Chautauqua counselors told him he had HIV because they were colluding with local officials who considered him a troublemaker.

Last week, Williams's scheduled Nov. 3 sentencing on the Bronx crack charges was postponed a month so he could undergo a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. Meanwhile those who knew him continue to offer their own, often surprising assessments. Many times "we'd feed him dinner," says former Jamestown neighbor Wayne Wright, 26, a dairy worker who was just tested for HIV along with his wife and eight children because they once cleaned Williams's wounds after a fight. "I let him use my car. He just didn't seem like a bad guy."

And no one had more faith in Williams than some of the girls he slept with. "He seemed so nice," says Alicia Alexander, 17, who believes Williams infected her. Even when he sometimes became violent, such girlfriends as Andrea Caruso were willing to turn the other cheek. "I thought I loved him," she explains. "I felt so bad about myself that I wanted to make sure I had pleased him."

Her story is heartrending, but hardly unique, as Jamestown has been forced to realize during school assemblies and town meetings the past several days. And the town's new understanding comes with a warning. "This is not just us, this is everywhere," says Sheriff Gerace. "If this is happening in an area like ours, it can happen in your backyard."

PAM LAMBERT
JULIA CAMPBELL and MICHELLE YORK in Jamestown and ANTHONY DUIGNANCABRERA and NATASHA STOYNOFF in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Julia Campbell,
  • Michelle York,
  • Anthony Duignan-Cabrera,
  • Natasha Stoynoff.