By Alex Tresniowski
November 17, 2003 12:00 PM

Thomas Lister just had to know: What was in the briefcase? Even here, aboard a cruise ship bound for Alaska, his boyfriend Ronald Hill had his ever-present briefcase, and finally Lister couldn’t stand the mystery any more. After Hill left for a massage, Lister opened the case and found, among other papers, a doctor’s note revealing that Hill was being treated for AIDS—something Lister claims Hill flatly denied at the start of their affair five months before. “I went into shock,” Lister says of that day in July 2000. “I couldn’t even pick myself off the floor.”

The discovery was even more startling because of his lover’s occupation: Hill was a San Francisco health commissioner and AIDS activist. Not long after learning of his partner’s condition, Lister, now 38, got more bad news: He discovered that he was HIV positive. But instead of simply getting angry, he decided to get justice. Lister filed a police report and pressured investigators to prosecute Hill for violating California’s HIV-disclosure law, which makes it a felony to intentionally expose someone to HIV through unprotected sex. In September, in one of the first such cases in the state’s history, Hill, 46, was indicted for not disclosing his HIV status to Lister and another sex partner; his trial is set for Nov. 14. “What Hill did rises above being irresponsible and reckless,” says Erin Gallagher, an investigator for the San Francisco D.A. “Hill used his position to gain the trust of innocent victims.”

Winning the case against Hill won’t be easy, however. Prosecutors must show that he intended to infect Lister. “It’s a very high threshold,” says former California state senator Richard Rainey, who drafted the HIV-disclosure law in 1996 and reluctantly folded in the intent clause after AIDS groups insisted on the additional protection. Making Lister’s case even more problematic: Hill didn’t try to hide his condition from the community. “We all knew he was HIV-positive; he was very public about it,” says Roma Guy, vice president of San Francisco’s health commission. Peter Fitzpatrick, the San Francisco public defender representing Hill (who declined to comment for this article), says, “His known public persona was for having HIV. To have someone say ‘I didn’t know’ is unbelievable.”

That, however, is exactly what Lister is saying. When he first connected with Hill on a gay personals Web site in 2000, the Vancouver native had only recently given up his dream of singing on Broadway and moved back to San Francisco, where he took a marketing job at an Internet start-up firm. “I wasn’t up on local politics,” Lister says. At their first meeting, at Hill’s Mediterranean-style home in the Castro district, “I felt this instant chemistry,” says Lister, who began dating Hill exclusively and discussed moving in with him. “I felt this was someone I could trust.”

Though Lister says he is cautious with new partners and regularly had himself tested for HIV before meeting Hill, he admits to having unprotected intercourse with Hill one time before asking him point-blank about his HIV status. (Hill, according to his attorney, denies he and Lister had unprotected intercourse at all.) When Hill—who had been appointed to the health commission after working as a mortuary director early in the AIDS crisis—claimed he was HIV negative, says Lister, “I never questioned it at all.”

After making his startling discovery on the cruise, Lister decided not to confront Hill until they were home. Finally he showed Hill the document. “The letter from his doctor was very specific that he was being treated for AIDS,” says Lister. “But he just denied it.” The two stopped seeing each other, and in October 2000 Hill resigned as health commissioner amid allegations he tried to pass a bad check.

Besides the police report, Lister filed a civil suit and won a $5 million judgment in 2002 after Hill failed to contest it. (Hill says he never received notice of the suit.) Arrested in September 2003, Hill, who has had full-blown AIDS since 1996 and according to his lawyer is now very ill, spent two weeks in jail before his release on medical grounds in October. “I’m humiliated,” Fitzpatrick says his now-destitute client told him. “There’s nothing more that can happen to me.”

Since discovering his own illness, Lister has made it a crusade to encourage frank discussion about the disease, sharing his story at AIDS events. “You can’t get rid of HIV,” says his mother, Dena Smith, 73, “but he’s trying to do something good so other people will be aware.” Late in September Lister’s condition worsened, and he had to start taking several medications daily. “For the first time he broke down and cried to me, because he’s afraid,” says his friend Christina Burg, 32. “It makes the death sentence so much more real.”

Lister says therapy has helped him get over his anger at Hill. But he has no regrets about pushing hard for Hill’s arrest and, he hopes, conviction. “This is a matter of accountability,” he says. “What he did to me was wrong.”


Lori Rozsa in Tampa and Melissa Schorr in San Francisco