Janice Trahan felt she was finally making a fresh start. After a turbulent 10-year affair marked by four abortions and numerous threats and hollow promises from her married lover, the Lafayette, La., mother of two seemed at last to have made the break. Sure, she had been feeling a bit sick lately; that dull pain behind the eyes had brought her to her doctor for tests, whose results she would be getting this morning in January 1995. But Trahan had a new boyfriend, Jerry Allen, and was looking forward to their future together. It was then that Dr. Wayne Daigle walked in and gently began delivering the news there is no good way to break: Trahan, a registered nurse, had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
But worse was yet to come. When Trahan, then 32, tried to imagine how she might have contracted the disease, she could find only one explanation. She told Capt. Jim Craft of the Lafayette police that she believed she had been inoculated with HIV by Dr. Richard Schmidt—her decade-long paramour, her sometime physician and the father of their young son Jeffery. “He made a lot of promises he didn’t keep,” Trahan would subsequently testify during Dr. Schmidt’s trial for attempted second-degree murder. “But he kept one—that he would kill me.”
If the attraction between Schmidt and Trahan ultimately turned deadly, it started more simply, in 1984, with an affair between coworkers at Lafayette General Hospital. Schmidt, a married gastroenterologist with a thriving practice and three children, was popular with his patients, though nurses sometimes made fun of his comb-over hairstyle. Yet the 36-year-old Metairie, La., native and former Marine apparently looked just fine to Trahan, 21, a married nurse with an infant son. “At first, everyone thought he was a good guy,” recalls Elus Brasseaux, husband of Trahan’s older sister Becky. “He was the perfect gentleman.”
In time, Trahan, the youngest of four children of a local bricklayer and a homemaker, divorced her husband and moved out of their mobile home into an apartment with little Justin. Schmidt continued to live with wife Barbara and their kids but was very much a part of Trahan’s family—even joining them regularly for Sunday dinner. “He told us many times that he wanted a family with her, that he was definitely leaving his wife,” says Becky Brasseaux. “But there was always an excuse.”
Months turned into years. By 1989, Trahan told police, she had become pregnant three times. Each time, she said, Schmidt—who has declined to speak with PEOPLE—persuaded her to have an abortion. (She later had a fourth abortion.) Whenever she brought up the subject of seeing other people, she says in court papers, Schmidt reacted with anger and threats. “He was very intimidating,” Trahan testified at a 1996 hearing. “He was obsessed, jealous, controlling, volatile.” The relationship, Schmidt’s attorney Michael Fawer conceded in court, was one “in which each party wreaked emotional havoc on the other.”
At one point, according to Trahan, Schmidt vowed that “he would make sure that no man would ever want me.” Says her sister Becky: “I remember how terrified she was. She said many times, ‘He’s going to end up killing me and possibly himself.’ ” When, in 1988, Trahan finally began seeing other men, Schmidt tried to intimidate them as well. According to Gene Guidry, a salesman who dated Trahan in 1990, Schmidt called him and “in a threatening tone made the suggestion that I not see Janice anymore. It was like he was telling me she was his possession.”
And in effect, Trahan was. With his promises—and threats—he kept persuading her to take him back. Even the humiliation of the doctor’s refusal to let her put his name on their son Jeffery’s birth certificate in March 1991 didn’t do the trick. “I was weak,” Trahan would tell the court. “I loved him. I wanted us to be a family.” By the summer of 1994, Trahan finally realized that was never going to happen. Upset when she began seeing suitor Barry Bleichner, Schmidt took an apartment—but by July was back with his family.
Though the lovers broke up that month for the last time, Schmidt continued to stop by Trahan’s home twice weekly to administer shots of vitamin B-12. According to Trahan, she was in bed on the muggy night of Aug. 4, son Jeffery beside her, when Schmidt arrived. In the faint light from the bathroom, she could see him standing over her with a syringe and telling her it was time for another B-12 shot. Despite her sleepy protests, Trahan said, she felt a needle prick in her left arm.
That shot would be Trahan’s death sentence, contended Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes at Schmidt’s trial. According to the prosecution, the “diabolical” injection contained blood tainted by both HIV and the virus causing hepatitis C—which Dr. Schmidt had drawn that week from two different patients.
In support of his case, Stutes introduced a notebook logging all blood samples taken by Schmidt’s staff. The only two that did not have stickers showing they had been sent to labs were drawn on Aug. 2 from Leslie Louviere, a hepatitis C patient, and on Aug. 4 from AIDS patient Donald McClelland. Then Stutes presented a pair of medical experts who testified to the similarities between genetic material from Trahan’s HIV and McClelland’s.
Despite the defense’s attempts to challenge these conclusions with its own experts, and Barbara Schmidt’s testimony that her husband had been at home on the evening of Aug. 4—she couldn’t account for 20 minutes during her bath—the jury took only four hours before returning with a guilty verdict. “I believe he’s a very disturbed individual,” juror Roy Ellis said to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate of Schmidt, who did not take the stand. “He destroyed many lives, including his own.”
Since February, when he received the maximum sentence of 50 years at hard labor, Schmidt has been confined to the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. Schmidt, who surrendered his medical license in March, “doesn’t say much,” reports Lafayette Police Capt. Guy Hawkins. “He reads all the time.” Like his fellow prisoners, he is allowed only 50 minutes with visitors each week. Every Tuesday night, either his wife or one of his three children shows up. Schmidt, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, has filed an appeal. But his next day in court is more likely to involve one of the three civil suits filed against him—by former patients McClelland and Louviere and by his ex-lover.
Still trying to recover from the stress of the trial, Janice—married since March 1996 to Jerry Allen, a manager of oil-field-related projects—”takes it one day at a time,” says her sister Becky. She continues to work, when her health permits, as a manager at Lafayette General, and tries to help her two sons with their homework and to attend her 16-year-old’s baseball games. “Often I told her when she was trying to break up with Richard, ‘There’s a special person out there for you, Janice, just be patient and look for him,’ ” says Brasseaux. “And for her that special person is Jerry. She’s very blessed to have him.”
Carlton Stowers and Ellise Pierce in Lafayette and Michael Haederle in Albuquerque