Epidemic or Hoax?

updated 03/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1992 01:00AM

THE FIRST ANYONE IN BOGATA, TEXAS (pop. 1,421), knew that there might be a problem at tiny Rivercrest High School was last October. Dona Kay Spence, a local health care worker, was quoted by the nearby Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune as saying she was counseling six Rivercrest students who had tested HIV positive. The school board, upset that it hadn't been told first, summoned Spence to a closed meeting just before Christmas. She would not break federal and state laws by releasing the names of the students, she told them, nor would she discuss the delicate question of how the teens had contracted the virus. AIDS had found a new population of victims, she said. It wasn't just homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts in the big cities who were being infected. Low rural kids were at risk as well.

Not until Valentine's Day did Spence's disclosure reach the attention of the national media. Yet when it did, it sparked nervous concern across the nation as Americans wondered about the implications for their high school, their children. But how true is Dona Spence's alarming report? Is it really possible that a tiny rural high school in the northeast corner of Texas could have an HIV rate six times higher than the national average?

The answer is not clear. Although Spence, 40, swears she has seen what she calls "proof" that the six cases exist, some people suspect she may be exaggerating the case to win grants for a new AIDS center she is opening in Mount Pleasant. She has made several inconsistent statements about the situation. Furthermore, PEOPLE has learned, she seems to have concocted important parts of her résumé. Spence's findings are now being reviewed by the Texas Department of Health, and she is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's district office in Beaumont. But officials are still not dismissing her claims altogether. "We have no doubts that HIV infection exists among the high school age group in Texas," says Doug McBride of the state health department. "At this point we have no reason to question her credibility."

Spence, an "AIDS/HIV case manager" for a nonprofit social services organization, says the six Rivercrest cases are just the beginning. She claims she is privately counseling a total of 36 HIV positive teenagers from the area. All 36 brought their test results to her, she says, and she then verified the results with their testing agencies. None of the cases included drugs, she says, and only two were the result of homosexual activity. Instead she blames rampant teenage heterosexual sex. "He knew we had sexually active college kids, but all this business on the high school level will surprise some people. It shouldn't."

Reaction to Spence's allegations among the cotton farms and cattle ranches around Bogata was immediate. At two boys varsity basketball games in February, some of the visiting players declined to participate. Two other schools refused to allow their junior varsity teams to play the Rivercrest Rebels at all. And when the Rebels girls basketball team took the floor at Chisum High School in nearby Paris, Texas, their opponents chanted, "HIV! HIV! HIV!" Says Rivercrest senior Patches Raines, 17: "They wouldn't even shake hands with us because they said we were all infected with AIDS."

Until the controversy, AIDS education in Rivercrest consisted mainly of encouraging abstinence. But now the school is showing films and distributing pamphlets on the subject. "I handed out literature so the faculty could become familiar with it," says Rivercrest Principal Ray Miller. "I told them, 'Tell it like it is, because they need to know this.' Hopefully the kids will use more caution." So far, though, teens are not buying condoms—at least not locally. "I haven't sold a condom in a week," says Bogata's lone pharmacist, Bill Buckman.

Many people in the area have their doubts about Dona Spence. They wonder why the identities of the six students are not generally known in a town where gossip moves at the speed of light. "Bogata is such a small town. You say something today, and tomorrow everyone knows," says Shelia Burns, who has two kids in Rivercrest.

More troubling to school officials is the lack of independent confirmation that the 36 HIV cases exist. "It all comes back to one person—Dona Spence," Miller says. "The town and general public are not 100 percent convinced in their minds that the information is 100 percent accurate."

Suspicious school officials in nearby towns point to the AIDS center that Spence is planning to open on her own April 1. If the area is perceived to have a high incidence of AIDS, they argue, it would be easier for her to obtain public or private funding. U.S. Attorney Bob Wortham of Beaumont is also concerned about this point. He launched an investigation last week to see if Spence falsified any data when applying for state or federal funds.

Spence has also made statements damaging to her own credibility. For example, she originally stated there were four HIV-positive students at Mount Pleasant High School and three at Paul Pew High School in nearly Omaha. Now, she says, the youths in those areas are only "school age"; she doesn't know if they attend school or not. And The Dallas Morning News reports that she initially said the HIV cases were discovered when the teens donated blood. She has since changed that explanation, the paper says, contending that they were tested privately in such cities as Dallas, Texas or Shreveport, places where they could be assured of anonymity.

But her most glaring inconsistencies deal with her résumé. Initially, Spence told PEOPLE that she obtained a nursing degree from the City College of San Francisco before entering the Air Force in 1972 as a nurse. Indeed, an advertisement in a local newspaper listed her as a registered nurse. She also claimed that she transferred to the Army, achieved the rank of captain and served two Vietnam tours at a military hospital—she could not remember the name—in Saigon. While there, she claimed, she won a Purple Heart for catching a piece of shrapnel when somebody "tossed something that exploded over the wall outside while I was helping with a gurney." She added that her military background cannot be verified, since her service records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Official records do not support her claims. The Air Force says she served as an airman, not a nurse, for five months in the early '70s. City College of San Francisco records show she attended classes for one year but never received a degree. The Army Personnel Center in St. Louis says she enlisted in Oakland in 1981 and was on duly for only 11 months, achieving the rank of private first class. She was not an Army nurse, records show, but rather a "medical laboratory specialist." She was stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J., not in South Vietnam (which fell to the Communists in 1975). And no documents show her winning a Purple Heart. There was a fire in the St. Louis records center, but it was in 1973 and destroyed only files before 1960.

Spence now admits she has only a "nursing background" and was never a registered nurse. She says she was under medication for breast cancer when interviewed by PEOPLE and was confused. "I promise you," she says, "I am not a hoax, and neither are these [36] individuals."

Spence's interest in AIDS began when her husband, Gary, a San Francisco—area department store window designer, became infected with the HIV virus. They decided to move to her native Texas in 1988, she says, because she thought the blood supply there would be less tainted. Gary died a year later. Since then she has worked for the Ark-Tex Council of Governments, which services a nine-county area in Texas.

Spence vehemently denies her findings arc false or fraudulent. "I haven't fabricated anything," she says. "Nothing. Those figures are taken from people who really do exist. This is not a hoax with these kids." She would not ask the infected teens to speak to PEOPLE—even under the cloak of anonymity. "I just can't put them up to save my neck," she says. "I don't want to ruin their lives."

It may be several weeks before the Texas Department of Health determines whether Spence is telling the truth. If she has perpetrated a fraud, it will be a particularly cynical hoax. However, the consequences are more ominous if her findings are correct. It will mean that AIDS has made an open grab at a whole new group of victims.

JOE TREEN
KENT DEMARET, JOSEPH HARMES, BOB STEWART, ROSIE CARBO in Bogata, and bureau reports

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