By Civia Tamarkin
June 27, 1988 12:00 PM

Even in free-spirited Key West, Fla., where drugs, booze and sexual adventuring are as much a part of the ambience as hibiscus and conch shells, James Mayer’s exploits were legendary. Famed as a carouser and womanizer, the 38-year-old co-owner of Sloppy Joe’s, the landmark saloon once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, was the hedonist prince of Key West’s Duval Street. Then in April, his wife, Valerie, 31, died of AIDS-related pneumonia. When word hit the streets that Mayer was the source of her infection, the saloon owner’s macho image began to take on a sinister cast.

Long a mecca for homosexuals as well as other sun-loving tourists, Key West has been particularly hard hit by the AIDS virus. Although it has a year-round population of only 28,000, the resort city has experienced 75 deaths from the disease in the last five years, giving it an AIDS fatality rate greater than New York City’s. Evidence that Mayer was a possible AIDS Typhoid Mary, spreading the plague in the town’s straight population, created a wave of anger and panic. Yet doctors and local health authorities knew of no way to restrain him. “We all know Jim Mayer is HIV-positive and has a sexually transmitted disease that is potentially lethal,” says Key West gastroenterologist Dr. James Slaff, a former AIDS researcher with the National Institutes of Health and co-author of The AIDS Epidemic. “But you can’t find the smoking gun, his blood tests, because of concern for civil liberties.”

The people of Key West, meanwhile, are growing impatient. “This is a community that lives and lets live,” says motel handyman Clay Hayes. “But when a guy like this has something more powerful than a machine gun—that could not only kill one person but hundreds through a pyramid effect—then something has to be done to stop him.”

Mayer was a colorful and roguishly charming figure in 1980, when Valerie Maloney, a spunky brunet from St. Petersburg, Fla., was introduced to him by her boyfriend. “From the first time Val met him, she fell for him hook, line and sinker,” says her mother, Fran Maloney. Despite warnings from friends that Mayer was a reputed drug smuggler who ran up debts and passed bad checks—presumably to support a $500-a-day cocaine habit—Valerie clung to the relationship. Twice she broke off their wedding plans, but when she became pregnant in 1983, she and Mayer were married. Their son, Jesse James, now 4 and evidently healthy, was born the following June, and Valerie became a housewife and mother. Whenever Mayer’s drugs, drinking and boastful philandering took him away from home, as they often did for weeks at a time, Valerie would tearfully explain his absence to friends by saying he was “on a roll.”

Then in the fall of 1986, Valerie’s father, Jack, got a phone call. “Val called me and said that both she and Jim had gone for tests at a clinic in Kentucky and that they both tested positive for AIDS,” he says. Later, Valerie showed her family and a friend the blood-test reports. Says her mother: “Valerie wasn’t ashamed, because she was an innocent victim.” Pregnant at the time of her blood test, Valerie subsequently had an abortion, but the pregnancy may have accelerated the onset of AIDS. In January 1987, Valerie’s family physician, Dr. Robert Carraway, referred her to Slaff for treatment of a digestive disorder. Given Slaff’s experience with AIDS at NIH, he was quick to diagnose Valerie’s case and called Jim Mayer to a meeting. “I had reason to believe Jim was the primary patient,” explains Slaff. “And when I gave the diagnosis, he said, ‘We don’t have a chance against this.’ I counseled this man about what it means to test positive and be at risk.”

But a few weeks later, when Mayer was hospitalized with pancreatitis, a physician’s assistant saw him lying in his hospital bed cuddling and caressing a young woman visitor named Allison Tradup. Confronted by the assistant, Mayer claimed that he had told Tradup of his positive AIDS test, says Slaff. Tradup, however, turned out to have no idea that the man she had fallen in love with a year before—and whose child she was carrying—had endangered her life and that of her baby.

A local ballet teacher, actress and singer, Tradup, 25, had met Mayer when her trio, the Fabulous Spectrelles, was performing at Sloppy Joe’s. According to another of the Spectrelles, Melody Cooper, Mayer “knew how to prey on people. He knew just what to talk to them about and what their vulnerable spots were.” And Tradup was especially vulnerable. The youngest of six children, she had grown up in Key West in a poor family with an alcoholic mother. She had won a scholarship at 14 to study with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and after two years there had joined the Royal Ballet of Santa Barbara, Calif. She returned to Key West after foot problems cut short her career, but she kept up her training and had a circle of friends who remained aloof from the wilder side of Key West. She knew nothing of Mayer’s reputation and was immediately enthralled when she met him.

“He has a brilliant mind, and he’s incredibly talented,” she says. “Anything he wants to do he can do. If there’s something no one has thought of, he’ll think of it. Anywhere or anything you talked about, he had either seen it or done it.” To Tradup, even Mayer’s dependence on drugs and alcohol was enticing—appealing, she says, to “a part of me that wants to help people and be needed.” Mayer told her that he and Valerie were being divorced, and whenever rumors of Mayer’s promiscuity got back to her, Allison chose to disregard them. “I guess I see what I want to see,” she admits. “There’s a part of me that’s very innocent. To a certain extent, I was naive and gullible.”

When Valerie learned of her husband’s affair, she planned, according to family and friends, to warn people about her condition and his infection with the AIDS virus, but she died before she had the chance. At that point, the friends, acting anonymously, contacted Monroe County legal authorities and told them that an AIDS carrier was putting people at risk, in violation of Florida state laws governing infectious diseases. State’s attorney Kirk Zuelch and police detective Steve Hammer investigated and identified Mayer as the threat but could not prosecute without a copy of Mayer’s AIDS test, plus a victim who was willing to testify. Mayer’s doctors felt they could not warn Tradup of the danger without violating the rules of patient confidentiality. The police and sheriff’s departments were advised that Mayer was a suspected AIDS carrier, and they spread the word through the “coconut phone,” as the local grapevine is known.

As word spread of Mayer’s positive AIDS test, the Monroe County AIDS Education Project, a federally funded AIDS testing center, was flooded with requests for blood tests. “Sixty people came in, and 80 percent of them—men and women—acknowledged they had had direct or indirect sexual contact with Mayer,” says counselor Noreen Sofranac. So far none of them has tested positive, but medical experts point out that the disease may be incubating and is difficult to detect for six months. When Allison Tradup learned that she was pregnant with Mayer’s baby, she confronted him with the rumors and says that he repeatedly denied he had AIDS. A few days after Valerie’s death, Imogene Synon, an attorney representing Tradup, filed a court order before Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ignatius Lester requesting the release of Mayer’s medical records. At a closed court hearing in April, County Public Health Director Dr. Jose Bofill handed Tradup a piece of paper that evidently satisfied her request for information. Mayer’s attorney, Michael Halpern, comments, “It is a case of monumental importance, balancing one’s right to privacy with one’s need to know and the public interest. We did not dispute her need to know, but we would not give her the records unrestrained.” Although the court has ordered her not to discuss the nature of the document she was shown, Tradup leaves little doubt about what she learned. Since the hearing, she has twice tested negative for AIDS and is seeing a specialist in fetal AIDS. Tradup still plans to have her baby, which is due in late November. “I see this as my last chance to have a child,” she explains. “If I turn positive, I can’t have children, and I always wanted children.” Meanwhile, she has asked Mayer for a settlement that includes a house and $750,000 in child support and medical expenses.

Remarkably forgiving, Tradup says she feels no bitterness toward Mayer and does not even rule out the possibility of marrying him. “He’s very good at lying, he’s been doing that for a long time,” she admits. “But I’m still in love with him, and that’s the kind of person I am….I wish he could get psychological help so I can know what the truth actually is and we can live what time we have left with honesty.”

Those who know Mayer see little likelihood of that, and his attitude remains one of stubborn public denial. “I don’t have AIDS,” he says flatly. “I’ve never given anyone AIDS, and my wife did not die of AIDS. I have been wronged, and I believe it was a vendetta by people who didn’t want me to be with Valerie from the start. I have been shot at, my house has been ransacked, and there is a vigilante group out to get me. I went from being the most popular person in this community to the most hated.” Despite his earlier protestations, Jim Mayer recently agreed to cooperate with the Florida health department by undergoing AIDS counseling and practicing safe sex.

Friends say they are baffled by Mayer’s callous disregard for Tradup and his other sexual partners. Some believe that Mayer has always used drugs and booze as an escape from the truth. And one woman says, “Jim has defied death so many times he has a feeling of immortality.” But if Jim Mayer was once the life of the party in Key West, he has now become the specter of death. “We need to have a strategy for dealing with people like Jim Mayer,” says Slaff. “And the issue will not go away.”

—With additional reporting by Dale Wittner in Key West