Aaron M. Laxton

Advocate | Writer | Social Commentator.

How College Wrestling Star "Tiger Mandingo" Became An HIV Scapegoat

“Everyone wanted a piece of him, until he had HIV.”

posted on July 7, 2014, at 9:00 p.m.

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — In January 2013, a white male college student in Missouri noticed a profile on a gay mobile hookup app for a black guy with ripped abs and a chiseled chest with the username “Tiger Mandingo.”

“I am more into white guys, but I like black guys,” the student told BuzzFeed. He connected with Tiger because he was “gorgeous, he had great legs, and he was well-endowed.”

The student at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles quickly recognized that in real life, Tiger Mandingo was also a student at his school: Michael Johnson, a recent transfer student on Lindenwood’s wrestling team. They hooked up later that month in Johnson’s dorm room, where, the student said, Johnson told him he was “clean.” He gave Johnson a blow job.

Johnson invited him to go out sometime, but the student got busy and “didn’t have time for that.” They didn’t hook up again until early October.

This time, they had anal sex without a condom. “I let him come in me,” the student said. He wanted bareback sex, he said, because Johnson was “huge,” “only my third black guy,” and — as he said Johnson told him yet again — “clean.”

The student said he has barebacked with multiple “friends and ex-boyfriends,” situations in which “we trusted each other. I mean, I don’t just let anybody do it.” Yet he also said he had bareback sex “with people I barely knew.” In those cases, he said, “I knew they were clean,” sometimes just “by looking at them.”

The student’s nonchalance changed when he described a call he got from Johnson a few days after their second hookup: “He calls me and he said, ‘I found out I have a disease.’ And I asked, ‘Is there a cure?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I got pissed. I had asked him several times, and he’d said he was clean, and I trusted him! And I got mad at him, and then he got mad at me for getting mad, and then he said, ‘I gotta go.’”

That same day, Oct. 10, Johnson was pulled out of his class and led away in handcuffs by the St. Charles police. He was later charged with one count of “recklessly infecting another with HIV” and four counts of “attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,” felonies in the state of Missouri.

Johnson has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, public defender Heather Donovan, allowed BuzzFeed to interview Johnson in jail with her present, under the condition that he not answer questions about his case. Asked later to respond to a detailed list of points raised in this article, including whether Johnson always disclosed his HIV status or ever had intercourse without a condom after learning he had HIV, Donovan wrote that “neither Michael and I feel comfortable answering [BuzzFeed’s questions] at this time since his case is still pending.”

News of Johnson’s arrest, coupled with reports of more than 30 videotaped sexual encounters on Johnson’s laptop, rocked St. Charles and lit up local broadcasts and international headlines. It’s been erroneously reported that Johnson has also been charged for making the tapes, but he hasn’t. The videos, like the sex acts themselves, might have been consensual. Julie Vomund, spokeswoman for St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, wrote to BuzzFeed that the “St. Charles County Cyber Crime Unit is still working to fully review the videos to identify the people involved and at this time we have not determined if those on the video gave their consent to be filmed… there is still the possibility in the future to amend charges with additional counts.”

Lindenwood University urged anyone who’d had “intimate contact” with Johnson to get tested for HIV, and many did. The student Johnson had sex with went to St. Louis Effort for AIDS for an HIV test, which came back negative, as did subsequent tests. He didn’t press charges himself. Still, he said, “he infected someone with HIV. Without medication, that person could get AIDS, so he’s slowly killing someone. It’s a form of murder, in a sense. I hate to say it, since he’s a nice guy.”

With few exceptions, judgments around the internet concurred: Johnson was a predatory “monster” who was intentionally “spreading HIV/AIDS.” A typical comment on Instagram proclaimed him the “Worst type of homosexual: a strong one with HIV.” Overtly racist blogs, like Chimpmania.com, labeled him an “HIV Positive Buck.”

The only question more important than how Johnson became both a media flashpoint and morality tale is why. The nasty racial tone the story took is not surprising, given Johnson’s charged nickname, his white sex partners, and research in Tennessee that shows the law punishes black men more often (and more severely) for HIV-related sex crimes than it does white men.

Clearly, failing to tell one’s sexual partners that one has HIV is irresponsible and unethical. But even if that’s what Johnson did, he is hardly the only one keeping such information to himself. A 2004 article published in the medical journalTopics in HIV Medicine reviewed 15 studies on disclosure conducted over a dozen years in the United States. It found a wild variation in how often HIV-positive people disclose their status to partners, ranging from as much as 89% of the time to as little as 42%. A 2012 study published by AIDS Care found that 69% of HIV-positive gay men disclose their status to their sexual partners.

Then, too, many people with HIV simply don’t know they have the virus. In 2011, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among young gay and bisexual men aged 18 to 24 who were infected with HIV, less than half knew that they had it. Johnson’s partners also carry responsibility, because relying on someone to say they are “clean” is a foolhardy strategy to avoid contracting the virus.

This is a message that a college — a place full of young and sexually experimenting students — needs to drive home, repeatedly. Yet, while Lindenwood University facilitated HIV testing, it conducted little education on how to avoid getting the AIDS virus in the first place.

Indeed, the community around Johnson — his sexual partners, many of his fellow students, and his university — turned a blind eye to HIV until it had the perfect scapegoat: a gay, hypersexual, black wrestler with learning disabilities who went by the nickname Tiger Mandingo.

But up until his status became known in a very dramatic way, Johnson’s body had been quite popular, for a myriad of uses, in that very community. As Carolyn Guild, the prevention director of St. Louis Effort for AIDS, put it, “Everyone wanted a piece of him, until he had HIV.”

In a small visitation room at the St. Charles County Department of Corrections, Johnson walked in wearing an orange jumpsuit but no handcuffs. He had a broad smile and an easy, gregarious manner. In person, he didn’t seem like the predator portrayed in the news.

But after seeing his own mugshot in the media, even Johnson admitted, “If I didn’t know that person, I knew I would be very shocked and scared.”

His mother, Tracy Johnson, told BuzzFeed, “This is not what his childhood friends, his brothers — the people who had a hand in raising him — wanted for him.”

Johnson was born in 1991 in Indianapolis. He is the youngest of his single mother’s five sons. He didn’t know his father. Both Johnson and his mother said that he has dyslexia and was enrolled in special education.

Johnson knew from a young age that his best shot for success was via his athletic body. While he flirted with other sports, he liked wrestling partially, he said, because unlike “a team sport, you can’t point the finger at another person … you can only point the finger at yourself.”

Sports was also an arena where his learning disabilities wouldn’t matter. By high school, Johnson dreamed of parlaying his successful wrestling career not just into a ticket to college, but to the Olympics and professional wrestling.

“I always identified as gay,” Johnson said, but “my mom wasn’t ready,” and she urged him to stay in the closet. (Johnson’s mother stressed to BuzzFeed that she was “afraid for him” if he were to tell people he was gay when he was “too young.”) Johnson added that his Christian “faith made me want to fight to be straight.”

And Johnson said he “wasn’t sure whether I would be accepted in the wrestling community” if he came out, given all the grinding and pinning of sweaty teen boys eager to prove their masculinity.

So as a teenager, Johnson presented as straight, becoming “Tiger” the wrestler after he started wearing what he calls his “lucky tiger shirt” to matches. But he also started publicly exploring his identity as a gay man by walking in ballroom drag house balls in Indianapolis. Joining the House of Mizrahi, he was very “butch” and walked a style known as BQ (“Butch Queen”) Body. To the unfamiliar, it looks more like a bodybuilding competition than traditional drag. Here’s Johnson walking in a ball in St. Louis in 2013, just weeks before his arrest:

The word “mandingo” entered the American lexicon with the release of the 1975 blaxploitation flick Mandingo, a film so violently over the top, it makes Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 homage Django Unchained or even 12 Years a Slave look like models of restraint. Mandingo is about Mede, an ethnically West African Mandingo slave played by heavyweight boxer Ken Norton. (This reflects theMerriam-Webster definition of Mandingo: “a member of a people of western Africa in or near the upper Niger valley.”)

Mede is bought to fight other slaves to the death, as well as to be the stud to impregnate his master’s female slaves. This scene is responsible for the widely held misnomer, revived by Tarantino, that a “Mandingo” is a slave who fought to the death, and that such a thing actually happened in history. It did not; no plantation owner would risk losing a strong — and therefore valuable — slave.

The black male Mede is blackmailed by the mistress of the plantation, Blanche, into having sex with her. If he won’t, Blanche said, she’d cry rape and the master would kill him. Mede complied; Blanche got pregnant; their baby was killed; Blanche was killed; and then the master killed Mede by shooting him and pushing him into a cauldron of boiling water with a pitchfork. (Writing about the book on which the film is based, Roger Ebert noted that the master then “goes on to boil Mede down into soup, which he pours on the grave of the unfaithful wife.”)

So, why would a black college student choose to call himself Tiger Mandingo?

Johnson answered this question sheepishly, proclaiming no knowledge of the film. He said a black friend added “Mandingo” to “Tiger” in high school, but refused to tell him what it meant.

“I was a gullible person, I guess, naive,” he said. He made Tiger Mandingo his online name because he thought “there was a brave black slave fighter, he’s got the title of Mandingo.” He said there’s “nothing negative about it,” as “I know what it means to me — a black slave that’s a fighter. I consider myself a fighter.” He used it on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and even MySpace.

The other meaning, Johnson acknowledged, is “a black man who is hung.” In a ballroom drag YouTube show called The Barbecue, recorded in 2012, Johnson isasked by the hosts, “Tiger Mandingo, what made you choose that name?” He answered, “I heard about the definition of Mandingo,” which he said, “came from Africa, and in Africa, big dick, Mandingo!” This is, almost verbatim, the Urban Dictionary definition.

Being Tiger Mandingo won Johnson many admirers. With social media, Johnson experimented with sexually charged outlaw and slave motifs using his well-toned body:

Kimber Mallet, an adjunct Photoshop instructor at Lindenwood, visits Johnson every other week and is the only person from the university who Johnson said has come see him in jail. A 57-year-old straight white woman, she was initially turned off by pictures of Tiger Mandingo in the news. But then she realized the pictures were on “gay dating sites” (they’re all over general social media too), “where everyone has alter egos and sexy torso shots.”

“Young, stupid, and reckless,” she asked, “or criminal?”

It’s a good question. After all, no one presents themselves exactly the same way on LinkedIn as they might on Grindr or Facebook. But there is perhaps no better word than “Mandingo” to encapsulate how black male sexuality, especially regarding interracial sex, has historically been criminal (and always been suspect) in America.

There’s a racial dynamic to who is prosecuted for exposing others to the virus and how they are sentenced, research shows. A study published in the journalAIDS and Behavior, looked at 10 years of HIV prosecutions in Nashville. It found that “Persons who were black were more likely to be convicted of criminal HIV exposure related to a sexual interaction than persons who were white,” and that “individuals who were black received significantly longer sentences than those who were white.”

What the Tennessee research shows is hardly new. Black men have often been severely punished for having sex in America, especially when they’ve had sex with white people. Anti-miscegenation laws, outlawing marriage or sexual relations between different races, were enforced in America from before the birth of this nation until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967. The last anti-miscegenation law was not struck from the books until 2000, when more than 40% of Alabama voters cast their ballots to keep the law in the state constitution.

Outside the courtroom, in the thousands of recorded lynchings of black mendocumented by the Tuskegee Institute, about 1 in 4 were triggered by the alleged sexual assault of a white woman. (In this context, Robert Gibson wrote in The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880–1950, “the broad Southern definition of rape … include[d] all sexual relations between Negro men and white women.”)

Johnson was not the only person who enjoyed the role-playing — his persona had no shortage of willing white sex partners in St. Charles who wanted to be “seeded” by a strong black bull — but he is the only one facing the law because of it.

That’s because prosecutors have in their possession what they consider a smoking gun: On Jan. 7, 2013, Johnson signed a form like this one from the state of Missouri, acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with HIV. From this date forward, any time he had sex with someone without disclosing his HIV status, he would have been committing a felony.

But his mother, Tracy Johnson, said, “No one told him, ‘Before you sign this legal document, you need to get counsel. This is a legal document, and if you go against this legal document, you can be incarcerated,’ and be given years in the penitentiary if he is dishonest about his medical situation.”

Johnson’s defense could well come down to a case of “he said, he said,” as his mother put it, with “Tiger Mandingo” on trial against a bunch of white college students as to whether he said he was positive before they had sex. Johnson’s attorney wouldn’t comment on this, but his mother said he told her, “‘Mama, I told people I was HIV [positive] … and they wanted me anyway, because of who I am.’ So in a way he feels kind of used.”

It’s not a promising position for a semi-literate, poor defendant represented by a public defender. Johnson’s defense will be all the harder because, while the state has a signed statement from him, he doesn’t have signed statements from any of his sex partners saying they knew he was HIV positive.

This may sound preposterous, but it’s not unheard of in the era of laws that criminalize failing to inform sex partners that one has HIV. Aaron Laxton, a social worker and HIV activist in St. Louis who has the virus himself, said he knows positive people who do make such records. Some will ask their partners to sign a disclosure form like this one before they have sex; others, Laxton said, “will whip out their phone and record video of their partner” giving consent.

Laxton said he personally doesn’t need to take such steps. For one, “my status is well-known,” given that he’s totally open and has made a couple hundredYouTube videos about it. But Laxton bluntly admits that he has has a safeguard Johnson doesn’t.

“I’m white.”

While Johnson kept Tiger Mandingo and his BQ Body wins on the DL, his body was quite visibly successful in the wrestling world. He won the Indiana State Wrestling Championship in 2010, his senior year of high school.

“Many colleges would have liked to have had him but academically it was not possible,” Jim Ledbetter, who coached Johnson in high school, wrote to BuzzFeed. “Therefore, he ended up at Lincoln Junior College in Lincoln, Illinois.”

“From the time that I met Michael, I didn’t think I could have a more dedicated and committed wrestler,” wrote Ledbetter, who has visited Johnson in jail. “His attitude, respect, hard work, and friendliness” made him a coach’s “dream.” (Johnson described Lebetter as “a role model” who stood in for the father he didn’t know.)

Johnson got his associate’s degree at Lincoln College and came in first place at the National Junior Wrestling Championships in 2012. He then was recruited to wrestle for Lindenwood University in St. Charles.

The Missouri suburb’s 91% white population is radically different from St. Louis’ majority-minority demographics just 30 miles away, its strip malls and tract houses a stark contrast to the post-industrial blight of St. Louis’ depressed Mississippi River banks.

According to its mission statement, the private university “has a historical relationship with the Presbyterian Church and is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” It has a pretty campus — but Lindenwood’s master’s programs areranked 658 out of 684 universities by Washington Monthly. According to U.S. News and World Report, it accepts 66% of all undergrad applicants, but only 23% of those who enroll graduate within four years.

Where Lindenwood shines is in Division II collegiate athletics. The Lindenwood Lions have won national championships in many sports, including wrestling. Johnson was recruited by the wrestling program and enrolled in the university with a sports scholarship, despite the fact that everyone interviewed by BuzzFeed who knows Johnson well (including his mother) expressed their concern that he can barely read or write.

“Reading is very hard and spelling is very difficult,” Johnson said. “When I look at a chapter book, I get more sleepy the more I read.”

The phrase “chapter book” might be expected from a first-grader, but not a college student. It fits, however, with the simple prose and visually driven natureof Johnson’s social media presence, as well as with a recent writing sample, reviewed by BuzzFeed, that lacks correct grammar, spelling, and syntax. Johnson was painfully aware of his learning disabilities: He said he would stutter when he tried to “read off a paper” in class, worried that he’d “miss words” and “people would look at me and say, ‘Oh, he’s so big and he can’t read.’”

Akil Patterson, a Maryland-based wrestling coach who volunteers with the gay advocacy group Athlete Ally, also struggled with reading disabilities as a student. After Johnson’s arrest, Patterson organized letters of support and flew to Missouri to visit him at his own expense. “Sometimes,” Patterson said, “I imagine what I might have been able to do to help this kid before he got into this situation.”

Citing federal privacy issues, Lindenwood would not release Johnson’s grades. As for his reading ability, Lindenwood counsel Eric Stuhler wrote in an email, “We see no basis for an assertion that Mr. Johnson is functionally illiterate,” as “he obviously graduated from high school and completed two years at a community college. If either of these institutions perpetrated a fraud upon our university by falsifying his credentials and transcripts, perhaps you should investigate them.”

Far from home in St. Charles, Johnson made the wrestling team his family. But one wrestler, who spoke with BuzzFeed at length on the condition that he remain anonymous, said that while Johnson “had a good personality” and was “at times the center of attention,” he also never quite fit in.

“He took the bus!” the wrestler said, incredulous that Johnson didn’t “have a car or fly” to visit Indianapolis. Asked about showering with a gay teammate, he said Johnson had “never showered with us — and he was the only black guy on the team, so if he’d showered, everyone would have noticed!”

The wrestler said the team assumed Johnson was straight because “he was easily approachable to girls and stuff — and some of the guys were like, ‘What the fuck? This guy is taking all the girls!’”

The wrestler said no one on the team had “really interacted with a gay person” before Tiger, which is what they called him. When word trickled out that Tiger was gay, “he wasn’t shunned from the team,” the wrestler said, but he did “know of one teammate that didn’t want to practice with him anymore,” and “no one was volunteering to wrestle with him, either.”

Like so many others, the wrestler noticed Johnson’s poor academic abilities: “I did believe that [Johnson] couldn’t read, or has a really bad reading level.” The wrestler said the team’s graduate assistant acted as a “handler” who would “lead Michael around campus, and help him out with things.” He explained, “If there was business to take care of in an office, the GA would go and grab him and take him to clear up the problem, because if Tiger did it himself, the problems wouldn’t be resolved.” (The coaching staff did not respond to direct requests for comment from BuzzFeed. Stuhler said wrestling graduate assistants would “help students out” with administrative issues, but would not speak to what they did with Johnson specifically.)

Johnson said he considered his fellow wrestlers to be his closest friends at Lindenwood, yet not a single teammate has made the 1-mile trip to visit him in jail. “That does show, I think, some poor character on our team,” said Johnson’s former teammate. After the Lions were told of Johnson’s arrest, they “focused on the year ahead,” he said, and it was as if Johnson “had never been here.” (Asked about this, Johnson said, “I don’t blame anybody. I just think it’s sad.”)

The wrestler said “there was much more to Michael than the current light the public has upon him,” but he does think his former teammate should be prosecuted.

Why do “people around the poverty line,” the wrestler wondered philosophically, “continually choose to infect one another [with HIV]? It’s because they get selfish pleasure in one aspect, they’re selfish and greedy for that short pleasure that takes them to another place, because of all the pain they’ve had to deal with.”

Johnson, he said, must have had a lot of demons. But he could have “kept the HIV to himself. Instead, he decided to be selfish and to infect others.”

On Oct. 7, Johnson had a “non-custodial interview” with St. Charles Police, according to the prosecuting attorney’s probable cause statement. He had no lawyer present. The police took Johnson’s laptop with them. (According to Erik Lawrenz, public information officer for the St. Charles Police, the computer was seized with a warrant that day, but was not searched until after a warrant was issued specifically to do so, on Nov. 19. Lawrenz said that Johnson’s cell phone was also seized, though on an unrecorded date and without a warrant. He said it had not yet been searched. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that warrants are required to search cell phones.)

“Michael is very trusting and very naive,” said Meredith Mills, a friend from Indianapolis who met Johnson when her stepson played soccer with him and considers him part of her family. “I’m sure he didn’t know if he was doing anything that was criminal.”

By Oct. 9, the day before Johnson was arrested, it’s unclear if the magnitude of his fate was clear to him, but he seems to have known that the shit was about to hit the fan. He posted on his Facebok wall:

The next day, Johnson was in Kimber Mallet’s Photoshop class. Mallet wrote to BuzzFeed:

“a man came in and said he needed to see Michael outside the room and told him to bring his backpack. I was waiting for Michael to return before continuing my lecture. One of my students who had a view of the hallway told me that he did not think Michael was coming back, that he was taken away in handcuffs.”

Johnson’s “contract” as a student at Lindenwood University was terminated that day.

At first read, the probable cause statement appears to be pretty damning to Johnson. It states that Johnson had sex with someone identified as “DTL” on Jan. 26, 2013, a few weeks after his diagnosis. “Approximately a month later, victim DTL became seriously ill and sought medical treatment at Mercy Hospital where he was diagnosed with HIV and Gonorrhea.”

But in closely examining this document, as well as who did what at various times, it becomes apparent that several parties — the St. Charles Police, Johnson’s sex partners, and even Lindenwood University — can’t blame Johnson alone for their actions or inaction dealing with HIV.

First, the police: According to the prosecution, “DTL,” the first of five people charging Johnson, waited several months, until the end of May, to say he’d had sex with him. More disturbing, though, is that the police, incredibly, then waited more than four months before talking to and arresting Johnson.

During this time, Johnson had sex with more people, including one identified in the prosecutor’s own statement and two interviewed by BuzzFeed. If the state of Missouri “considers HIV to be a lethal weapon,” as professor Jeffrey McCune of Washington University in St. Louis put it, why did police know Johnson was using that “weapon” for months without stopping him?

In an email, Lawrenz wrote that “this case was thoroughly investigated as quickly as possible. Due to the complex legalities of obtaining medical records and personal information, as well as attempting to identify potential cooperative victims, the evidence needed to present a solid case to the prosecuting attorney’s office took time to compile. Without that information there was not enough probable cause to arrest Johnson prior to October 10th, 2013 and ensure a solid case to prosecute.” (In a subsequent phone call with BuzzFeed, he said, “We can’t just take someone at their word” in a case like this and stressed the need not to “violate any victims’ rights or suspects’ rights.”)

Next, Johnson’s partners: As one community HIV advocate put it, “It really burned me that the statements said that Michael didn’t use condoms… NEITHER DID THE OTHER GUYS!”

Johnson’s lawyer declined to say whether he’d informed his partners he has HIV and rubbered up, but even if he didn’t, why is Johnson alone to blame for having mutually consensual bareback sex?

“Our public health laws are often framed around the idea of a ‘well’ person being protected from those dangerous ‘sick’ people, rather than the desire to improve societal health for everyone,” wrote Sean Strub, executive director of the Sero Project.

Or, as Kyle Hanten, a bar manager at the St. Louis bar Rehab, put it more directly, “If you hook up with someone and you both choose to have unprotected sex, whatever happens is on both of you.”

Then, Lindenwood University: Gay Lindenwood students are easily found in large numbers on Grindr or Manhunt, but gay sexuality is not embraced openly on campus, according to interviews with several gay students. As recently as 2010, Lindenwood refused to allow a gay-straight alliance to use the word “gay” in its name; it went by the Spectrum Alliance instead for years. It now is calling itself the Lindenwood University Gay-Straight Alliance, though Stuhler, the Lindenwood attorney, described the name change as “informal.”

After Johnson was arrested, the university urged everyone “who may have had intimate contact with Michael L. Johnson to seek medical advice right away.” But while the university promoted HIV testing after Johnson’s arrest, prevention measures seem nearly invisible. As of last fall, condoms were not freely distributed on campus, nor are they available (even for sale) in the student health center.

“As we train our students to become responsible adults, the procurement of inexpensive commonsense personal health items is currently left to the students,” wrote Stuhler. “Condoms are readily available at retail establishments adjacent to the campus.”

After several lengthy exchanges by phone and email with BuzzFeed, Stuhlerwrote, “The availability of free condoms is not related in any manner to this story. It seems that no amount of additional information about HIV would have deterred his behavior. Mr. Johnson is responsible for what he did and that is where the responsibility lies. Sensible persons will not accept placing the blame elsewhere. If convicted, HE will be responsible for these crimes.”

Finally, many members of the Lindenwood community: They hold an attitude that HIV was not a threat until Tiger stalked onto their campus. Student Marvin Bird III called Johnson “worse than Hitler!” He put people on their death bed, he charged. But there is something else, he said: “Now when I get with a girl, in the back of my head I have to worry, was she with him? Or was she with someone who was with him?” Another student articulated nearly the same verbatim gripe to BuzzFeed, and both were cheered on by male bystanders as they said so — as if HIV, let alone unwanted pregnancy, had not been an issue until Johnson came to town.

But it had been in town — not only in the usual ways, but in one spectacularly sensational way. In 1992, a phlebotomist named Brian Stewart apparently wanted to get out of paying child support for his infant son, Brryan Jackson. So he took HIV-infected blood from the lab where he worked and injected it into his son, infecting him. Stewart is now serving a life sentence for that crime.

What Johnson did, a student said, is “the same level for me. You’re taking away one of the only freedoms that they have, and you’re killing them.”

Equating Johnson with Stewart makes those who freely chose to bareback with a man they barely knew as pure and innocent as a baby. It infantilizes Johnson’s partners.

There were a handful of people at Lindenwood who considered the idea that Johnson wasn’t the only responsible party in this mess. But for the vast majority who spoke to BuzzFeed, Johnson was the one and only person to blame. He was the scapegoat.

One of the strangest turns in the story of the black, gay student wrestler is that Johnson said he is the legal father of this child.

Even though he is named Michael Naimir (Naimir means “tiger” in Arabic), clearly, this white, blond baby is not Johnson’s child. And yet, Johnson told BuzzFeed he signed a birth certificate saying he was the infant’s father, who was born two years to the day before Johnson’s arrest. (Asked about this, his lawyer wrote to BuzzFeed, “with regard to Mr. Johnson’s ability to understand documents, I will be hiring someone to evaluate him to let me know their opinion.”)

Johnson said he worked out before he left the hospital that the baby couldn’t biologically be his, but “I wanted him to leave the hospital with a father’s name on his birth certificate.”

Johnson said the mother was “my high school sweetheart” before he had decided he was only going to be with guys, and he “didn’t want to be the kind of guy to say, ‘Just because the baby is white, I’m not going to say that this isn’t my son.’ I grew up without a father, I don’t want him to not have a father.”

Mallet said when she learned this, Johnson emerged to her as more than “Tiger Mandingo.” It showed her that “he is a like a very sweet 12-year-old. This is not a monster.”

The day the news broke about Johnson’s arrest, it was all hands on deck at St. Louis Effort for AIDS, as a flurry of Lindenwood students traveled to there to get tested. Guild, the organization’s prevention director, reached out to Lindenwood about visiting the campus, so students wouldn’t have to travel and so they could discuss prevention.

“No one even got back to me,” she said.

Steuhler said the university couldn’t determine if anyone got back to Guild. But another speaker reached out to Lindenwood, and his invitation was accepted.

It was Brryan Jackson, whose father had tried to kill him as a baby by injecting him with HIV. Like Johnson, Jackson was born in 1991. Now an adult, he had nearly died of AIDS when he was 5. The disease caused him to lose the majority of his hearing. But otherwise he is in good physical health, and he has founded a nonprofit called Hope Is Vital.

In April, Jackson told students at Lindenwood that he’s “a sole believer in abstinence, in waiting until you’re married. That’s what I want to do.” But he concedes that “everyone is not me” and believes the next best way to fight HIV is through education and “using a condom 100% of the time.”

Told by BuzzFeed that Lindenwood doesn’t provide condoms on campus, even after his presentation, Jackson paused, stammered, and said he was caught “by surprise,” especially considering the Lindenwood health director stood with him and said, “We offer free [HIV] testing on campus.”

Jackson said students can walk to the Walgreens across the street for rubbers, but he also said, “When we don’t provide condoms or other materials, behaviors become more deviant, or people perceive them as more deviant. … And so, when it comes to health, people can say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t buy condoms because I’m not the kind of person that uses condoms,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t get an HIV test because I don’t want to be seen as being the kind of person who needs that kind of test.’”

Does he think what Johnson did is equal to what his father did? “Both of them committed a crime,” he answered. “If they can prove that [Johnson] didn’t know he was HIV positive, then I don’t think he’s guilty. However, if they can prove that he knew, I think that is the lowest of the low.”

Guild seemed unimpressed that such a presentation would do much to combat stigma, one of the biggest obstacles in preventing HIV.

“You can inspire and story-tell as much as you want, but until an educator goes to those students and talks about sexuality — ALL sexuality,” she wrote, “stigma lives on.”

As he awaits trial in jail — which is slated for March 2015, some 18 months after his arrest — Johnson told BuzzFeed that he wants people “to know that I’m a hardworking college student, who worked as hard as he could with a disability to get to college and to try to make something of himself.”

He also wants it known that “I don’t have a criminal background,” and he’s perplexed about being locked up when he thought he “was doing everything right.”

“My dream for my life is to continue with college, get my bachelor’s degree, and become a role model for people that are struggling to be gay, just as I was struggling,” he said.

“My goal is to go to the Olympics, if that is still an option.”

Johnson has been incarcerated during a hopeful time for people who believe that, as Medical Director of Corrections Medicine for St. Louis County Department of Health Dr. Fred Rottnek wrote to BuzzFeed, “HIV criminalization does not produce positive health outcomes for individuals or populations.” In May, Iowamodified its laws that criminalize transmitting HIV. This June, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association adopted a resolution against such laws. Also in June, the Iowa Supreme Court threw out the conviction and lifetime sex-offender status of Nick Rhoades, the subject of a 2013 ProPublicainvestigation co-published with BuzzFeed.

But Johnson is unlikely to benefit from any of this. He won’t be the poster child for repealing HIV laws. No national groups have taken up his cause. Akil Patterson, the sports advocate, is politically connected in African-American, LGBT, and sports circles. But he said he “can’t get anyone to touch this case with a fucking 10-foot pole.”

And, unlike Rhoades, Johnson is not being charged with having had sex with a condom, nor does he have the benefit (as the judge sentencing Rhoades put it) to not “look like our usual criminals.”

In fact, at the St. Charles County Department of Corrections, he is no longer the notorious Tiger Mandingo. He is one of two Michael Johnsons in the jail (“sometimes they’ll bring up the wrong one,” his public defender warned when BuzzFeed was waiting to meet with him). He has started to become an invisible man, his face melting into the nearly 1 million black faces imprisoned in America.

I Am Considered an HIV Criminal

By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

March 25, 2014

"Why should I care about HIV criminalization? People who purposely expose others to the virus should face justice." This response is nothing new. By now, I am well-acquainted with answering the question. As an HIV-positive male who is living in a serodiscordant relationship, prosecution under HIV criminal statutes is an ever-present fear. It does not matter that my partner is aware of my HIV positive status or that I am undetectable and on antiretroviral therapy. Conversely, if you are living with HIV you need to be aware that HIV criminalization impacts you.

The reality is that HIV criminalization laws go directly against the ideas of reducing stigma. Publicly, we create campaigns and memes that tell us that "HIV is not a death sentence," yet 34 states have laws that say it is. It is easy for us to think that it is somehow acceptable to prosecute those who deliberately expose/transmit HIV, however, any prosecution of HIV goes directly in the face of reducing stigma. The mere accusation of transmitting/exposing others to HIV creates barriers to achieving a fair trial. This is due to the sensationalized media exposure that these cases receive as well as the lack of adequate, quality legal representation. In many cases, public defenders who serve as legal counsel do not understand the science and they lack the resources to provide an adequate defense. Additionally, in HIV criminalization cases, a jury is asked to consider statistical data and medical jargon, which for even the most seasoned advocate can be daunting. Criminalizing HIV only serves to perpetuate fear and stigma. Below are a few points to ponder as we engage in the conversation of HIV criminalization.

  1. Current laws fail to take into account new research such as HPTN 052/PARTNERS study which revealed that a person who is undetectable presents less than a 1% risk of transmitting the virus.
  2. A person convicted under most HIV criminal statutes is classified in the same category as a child rapist, sexual predator or other sex offender, which requires up-to lifetime sex offender registration.
  3. A person can be convicted of exposing another person to HIV yet other STDs and hepatitis C face no such punitive action.
  4. A majority of HIV criminal prosecutions are initiated by jaded ex-sexual partners as retaliation.
  5. Current criminal statutes were written in 1981 at a much different time in the epidemic when fear was the prevailing emotion.
  6. If we agree that HIV infection is not a death sentence, how can we justify prosecuting someone for attempted murder?
  7. In many states, a person convicted under HIV criminalization laws faces a sentence more severe than if they were to commit a more heinous crime than murder.
  8. As an HIV positive person in a serodiscordant relationship, even though my partner is aware of my status, I could face prosecution under my state's laws.
  9. In most states, an HIV positive test serves as enough intent for the sake of prosecution.
  10. There has not been a single prosecution of an HIV positive person accused of exposing/transmitting the virus to another HIV positive person.

The message that I have for people who are living with HIV is to know the laws in your state. Also disclose your status, then ensure that you can prove that you disclosed. Never trust that just because you are in a relationship with someone that your relationship will always exist.

The first-ever "HIV is NOT a Crime" conference will be taking place June 2-5 in Grinnell, Iowa. Please consider joining myself and other advocates as we work to address HIV criminalization across the United States. You can register and learn more about the conference at www.hivisnotacrime.com. You may also learn more about your rights and efforts nationwide by visiting www.seroproject.com.

2000 St. Louisans are HIV positive but not taking medications

For more than a dozen years, Rahjae Cooper knew his mother’s secret, although he wasn’t sure what it meant at first.

He overheard her talking on the phone to a friend. He was 8 years old and didn’t feel right asking her about something not intended for his ears.

“I never wanted to let her know, to break that trust,” Cooper said.

Last July, Cooper’s mother, Dwynise McCottrell, came down with pneumonia. She was dropping weight. She was moody, and pulling away from friends and family.

“We had an argument about her not loving me enough. Her irritability was making me feel like I was not loved.”

McCottrell turned to her son.

“I’m HIV-positive. I’m not sure how much longer I have to live.”

Three months later, at age 41, she was dead.

Today, Cooper, 22, an only child, continues to struggle accepting his mother’s death. He grew up learning about HIV in secret. He found out there was no cure but it was treatable, and that those diagnosed early can get on medication and usually lead a normal, healthy life.

That was the case with McCottrell at the beginning. But at some point, she stopped treatment — something that happens with frustrating frequency for those who work in HIV care.

In the St. Louis region, at least 2,000 people know they have HIV but have been off treatment for at least a year. That represents just under a third of the estimated 6,720 cases in the region.

When she was being treated for pneumonia, McCottrell told the doctor she was off her HIV medicine because she was feeling fine without it. Taking the pills, she got dizzy and weak, and they made her throw up.

The side effects of medication is one of several reasons people stop treating their HIV. Denial, stigma of the disease, the fear of others seeing their prescription drugs, and affordability of care are other reasons.

Depression can accompany HIV, leading to a sense of hopelessness. Some people just give up.

McCottrell had known her status since at least 1998, and shared the news with her mother, Deborah Holmes, early on.

“At that point she didn’t seem too alarmed, saying, ‘Mama, they got medications,’” Holmes said. “At the time I thought: ‘My daughter’s intelligent. I’m sure she will take the bull by the horns and do whatever necessary.’ Now I know I can’t take something like that for granted.”

McCottrell died on Oct. 28, her mother’s birthday.


St. Louis Effort for AIDS, which provides HIV testing and prevention education, is one of 13 organizations nationwide in the middle of a five-year effort to identify and bring back into the fold those who have fallen out of care. Their results are shared with Johns Hopkins University, which is studying ways to best get those with HIV back into treatment.

For three years, the St. Louis agency has worked with doctors, community outreach groups, social workers, churches and others to identify those who are no longer on HIV treatment. Of the 2,000 identified, 239 had been contacted by the end of December. Of those, two-thirds have seen a doctor.

The goal at the end of five years is to have 500 people back in care.

Cheryl Oliver, executive director of St. Louis Effort for AIDS, said the initiative has highlighted how prolonged neglect of the disease can take its toll. Forty-five percent of those contacted have AIDS, and four of them have since died.

“HIV is a manageable disease, if it is managed,” Oliver said.

But that is the struggle, she said.

There are about 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV and AIDS. And while tremendous strides have been made in the past 25 years to move HIV from certain death to a chronic disease, nearly 17,500 people continue to die annually.

“There are people who still see it as a death sentence. Others think it’s not a big deal. Both are wrong,” said Dr. David Parks, who specializes in HIV care in St. Louis. “It is a big deal, but a controllable big deal.”

The number of HIV infections in the region has remained fairly stable over the last decade, averaging 267 cases a year. But after 245 cases were diagnosed in 2011, the lowest in 24 years, the number jumped to 286 the following year.

Doctors say infections in teens and young adults continue to climb, as do infections in women who believe they are in monogamous relationships and among African-American men “who have an element of denial to their sexuality,” Parks said.

Young gay men don’t consider the disease life-threatening, seeing HIV as something akin to high blood pressure and controlled by a pill a day.

“If they have never watched a friend die of this, their behavior does not change because they don’t have those personal experiences,” said Dr. David Clifford, with the AIDS Clinical Trials Site at Washington University, part of a national research group working to develop and test therapies to treat HIV and AIDS.

It was seeing his friends die that compelled Parks, at age 31, to quit his job as a chemical engineer at Monsanto and go to medical school. He finished his residency at Washington University in 1997.

“I started practicing at the time they had something to treat with,” said Parks, now 55. Today, he sees patients not just surviving but thriving.

That’s why for those such as Parks who have devoted their work to helping those with HIV, the fall away from care is so difficult to grasp. “The common thread in all the cases is denial,” Parks said. “Denial in a human being is extremely powerful.”

James Goebel knows that all too well.

Twenty years ago, after getting out of the Navy, Goebel stayed in San Diego, where the St. Louisan came out of the closet. “I met guys. It was a new awakening.”

During a checkup in 1996, his doctor told him he was HIV-positive. He began taking medication — nine pills at various time of the day. He continued taking the pills when he returned to St. Louis two years later to be closer to his ailing mother.

But the pills to treat his HIV were making him nauseated. So after three years of treatment, he stopped.

“I felt better when I didn’t take them,” Goebel said. “It’s weird, but I didn’t have any symptoms.”

For more than a decade he went untreated until a gallbladder attack landed Goebel in DePaul Health Center in early 2010. A doctor told him he was HIV-positive. Goebel played it as if he didn’t know, mainly because his sisters were in the room and he had not told them about his sexual orientation, let alone his HIV status.

The health scare was the jolt he needed to get back and stay on his medications. He was put in touch with a doctor involved in the initiative by St. Louis Effort for AIDS, known as the BEACON Project, short for Barrier Elimination and Care Navigation.

“The regimen I’m on now, I haven’t missed a single dose,” said Goebel, 49, of Breckenridge Hills. Goebel said the medicine makes him slightly dizzy and queasy. But the symptoms are lessened if he takes the four pills each night before bed.

Goebel is staying on the medicine for himself — and for others, he said.

“Whoever I got it from didn’t tell me, and I don’t want to do that to somebody else,” Goebel said. Those who are HIV-positive but on successful treatment greatly reduce their risk of infecting others.


The progression of treatment has vastly improved from three decades ago, when gay men were dying quickly from a mysterious disease and Parks was among those wondering if they would be next. Many men, including Parks, experienced guilt similar to what soldiers feel when they leave the battlefield uninjured as others lay dead.

“Why him and not me? I’m in the trenches too. When is my bullet coming?” Parks said, recalling his days as a young gay man. “I don’t know how I escaped it.”

In those early days, even before AIDS had a name and no one knew what was causing it, Parks thought his skills working with drugs and plants at Monsanto could be put to better use helping find treatments for the disease killing his friends.

Before he applied to medical school at St. Louis University, he had to do something: get tested.

“If I was negative, I’d go,” Parks recalled. But if he tested positive, he would skip medical school and prepare to die.

Today, doctors who not that long ago were fighting to keep patients alive now talk of a cure.

“In terms of medical progress, it’s one of the best success stories out there,” said Clifford, with Washington University. “But it’s also a blessing and a curse. Because of the development of therapeutics, some are not taking it as seriously. But they underestimate the burden of a lifetime of taking a therapy.”

For doctors such as Parks, it’s heartbreaking to hear about those who have succumbed to a disease that so many have been able to effectively fight. There are different drug therapies available, and patients can work with their doctors to make changes if a medicine is making them sick. No longer does HIV automatically mean fatal virus.

“If I was 31 today, and still at Monsanto, would I have seen the effects of this disease that made me feel like I needed to quit my job and throw my whole self into doing this? Probably the answer is no, because people would be doing OK.”


When his mother finally told him she was HIV-positive, Cooper told her he already knew. Her look was one of surprise and relief. She told her son she stopped taking her medication in 2005 after going to a clinic for treatment and seeing someone she knew. She fled and never returned.

But after going to the doctor for pneumonia, she went back on her medication. Cooper knew his mother was fading, but he didn’t give up hope.

Cooper thought that if he could just get her to eat, his mother might get better. When she was having trouble taking her pills, Cooper cut them in half and wrapped them in peanut butter.

“I made her a strawberry shake. She was so happy at how it looked and I was so happy to see her happy,” Cooper recalled, tears on his cheeks. But she couldn’t taste it.

“I felt so defeated. I thought I’d fixed her.”

As the end neared for McCottrell, she had fallen to 95 pounds from 150 — 30 of those pounds lost in the last month. She told her mother not to call family or friends.

“She was a beautiful young woman,” Holmes said. “She took pride in how she looked. Her hair, makeup, everything perfectly in place. I don’t think she wanted anyone to see her as a person helpless or who resembled the AIDS cases of old.”

Holmes, a minister who gave the eulogy at her daughter’s funeral, shared the conversation she had with God just days before McCottrell died.

“The best gift you can give to me is to take her,” Holmes prayed.

Two months before McCottrell died, Rahjae Jr. was born — three months premature. McCottrell was able to visit her grandson in the hospital and tell him how he looked just like his daddy.

Holmes said the baby’s early arrival was God’s work, quoting from the Book of Job.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”

Holmes looks forward to her next birthday, refusing to see it as the anniversary of her daughter’s death.

“It’s a time to celebrate the day she entered eternal life. I will cherish that thought.”

Cooper, who splits custody of his son with the boy’s mother, lives in the University City apartment he shared with his mother. He wrestles with guilt, blaming himself for not getting involved earlier. For not being able to do more.

For not telling his mother all those years ago he overheard a phone conversation she had with her friend — the man who had infected her as well as two other women.

Now, all four of them are dead.

“If I had told her earlier, I think it would have helped her feel normal,” Cooper said. “To let her know that I loved her and that’s all that was important to me.”

Being open now about his mother’s HIV is the best way to save others, he said.

Despite criticism from some family and friends, he says he will keep talking about it, encouraging others who have lost loved ones to AIDS to speak out about its very real dangers.

“It will be all right,” Cooper said. “It’s not your fault they are gone. All you can control is the now.”

It’s advice he hopes to take to heart.