In 2007, three women from Frisco, Texas, took matters into their own hands when they discovered that their boyfriend, Philippe Padieu, 54, had lied to them about his relationships with at least a dozen other women -- and, they say, never disclosed the fact that he had tested positively for HIV in September 2005. They say he continued to have unprotected sex with them and other women.
For months, they conducted their own investigation, going to great lengths to prevent more women from being infected. At least 11 of Padieu's former girlfriends say they have tested positive for HIV.
In May 2009, Padieu was convicted in a Texas court of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for infecting the women. He was later sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Elizabeth Vargas sat down with six of the women who contracted the HIV virus from Padieu to talk about their journey, their investigation and their friendship. Here, a woman ABC News is calling Susan Brown tells her story and explains why she chose to use a pseudonym; and Tricia Reeves, who decided not to be in disguise for the interview, shares how she coped with an HIV diagnosis.
Watch this story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET
In Her Own Words: Susan Brown
My name is Susan Brown and I'm a 50+ grandmother with HIV. When I found out two years ago about my condition, I was in total denial, shock, and panic. I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die a horrible death! No one must ever know!' I daydreamed about various ways to kill myself before anyone could find out. I was overcome with panic, obsessing about losing my job and insurance, wondering how I could possibly support my kids. I imagined people backing away and looking at me as if I was dirty. I wondered how I could possibly explain this to my family. How could this be true? How the hell could I have been SO STUPID!
Suicide was attractive, but not an option. Too many people depended on me. I would just have to find a way to survive as long as possible. I worried about Philippe Padieu, the man who I was sure had infected me. We had broken up, but I called him right away and urged him to get tested. I assured him, "We can get through this together." When he didn't follow up with me I became suspicious. After contacting the Health Department and sharing my concerns, I provided them with the name of his former girlfriend, Diane. She rushed to be tested and was diagnosed with AIDS. Diane and I located more of Philippe's girlfriends who also tested positive. We were certain that Philippe must have known his condition and our suspicions about him turned out to be true. We went to the police and filed a complaint. This was a huge risk, because the story was sure to be publicized and we would be exposed.
Fortunately, when we gave our statements we were provided pseudonyms. This did a lot to calm our fears and was also a critical decision factor for other women who wanted to join the case. After Philippe's arrest, it was surreal watching the media try to track us down. Worst of all, it was absolutely devastating to see that although we were putting our reputations on the line to stop a predator, people on the Internet blogs were calling us "sluts," "one night stands," and "deserving whores."
When "20/20" contacted us, I was really excited about the opportunity to educate people about HIV/AIDS. However, I felt that by not revealing my name people could be reminded of their rights to privacy and the safety net provided to victims of rape, assault, and family violence. We hope that media coverage will encourage more people to get tested. It is important for people to know that their names are kept confidential by the health department and that partners are notified anonymously. The fear and stigma associated with this diagnosis often keeps people from getting tested and obtaining treatment. As a result, the death rate goes up and more partners are at risk of infection.
I admire the guts and class of each woman who stepped forward and joined hands to stop Philippe Padieu from hurting other women. When the story is told, I think it is not who we are but what we achieved that matters most. We stood together for all women and that is how I would like for us to be remembered.
In Her Own Words: Tricia Reeves
Newly divorced, new to the dating scene, I met Philippe at an upscale night club in Addison, Texas. We dated over a period of several months, during that time, I was with Philippe only two times sexually in 2005. The last time we were together sexually, I was injured. During that sexual act, I begged him to stop to no avail. I went to the doctor the next day and they had never seen such a tear. After several weeks of calling and leaving urgent messages at five different telephone numbers and no response I assumed I would never see him again. I became uncomfortably surprised in the months to follow, he would seek me out in local establishments. He asked me several times to leave with him, I refused. He would then pick up other women in front of me and leave with them. About four months after our last encounter, I started becoming extremely ill. No energy, flu like symptoms to pneumonia, hair falling out by the handfuls, the list goes on. Thought I was just aging rapidly and did the best I could to accept it.
Shortly after his arrest in 2007, viewing the 10 p.m. news, I saw Philippe had been arrested with criminal charges related to infecting several local women with HIV/AIDS. My first response was denial. It must be someone else that looks like him and has the same name. I began to wonder if the symptoms and health challenges I had during the last two years could be AIDS.
The first phone call was to my daughter, Becky. Here is how she experienced this death sentence and how we handled the HIV journey together:
My mom called me in late July 2007 after she caught a brief clip on the local news about a man intentionally infecting others with HIV. She said she had dated him and was scared. I looked it up on the Internet, and as soon as I read that he was a martial arts instructor, my heart sank as I knew it was the man she had dated. We went to Dallas County to get her tested the next day, and waited the slow and anxiety-stricken hour for the rapid results. For confidentiality purposes, they had to give her the results first in a private room. It took too long. Something was wrong. When they walked me back to the room and opened the door, she was crying and nodding, and I knew instantly what the results were. I couldn't cry. I could only hold her hand, tremble and listen in shock. It's not a moment we ever expected to have, but one we will never forget. Our worst news was yet to come at the first visit to the infectious disease doctor when he informed us that her T-Cells were around 35 (normal being 1000+), the viral count hundreds of thousands (normal being 0), and the doctor said, "you are in a really deep hole and I am not sure I can dig you out, but I will try with your help." Since then, it's been all about educating ourselves about HIV and AIDS.
Disclosing to others was difficult, but my mom is painfully honest, so there was little choice in the matter. The challenge was finding the right words and following it up with enough education about the disease, so that even family members in small-town rural Texas who have never been touched by HIV could not only understand, but not be so afraid. Fortunately, everyone has been wonderful and nothing but loving and supportive.
There have been a lot of tears, fear, and frightening doctor's visits, but there have also been a lot of hugs, laughter and a greater appreciation for every day of life, and all of its miracles, however large or small. News from the doctor of an increase in T-Cells is better news than winning the lottery. What we might have perceived as problems in the past are tiny dots compared to what she faces. However, she continues to astonish and inspire me and all those around her by facing her health status as she does everything in her life -- with strength, courage, faith, and an unbelievably positive attitude. My mom lives with HIV/AIDS every day, but it does not define who she is.
It's still difficult to hear Becky tell the story and hear her pain and sadness. Becky never questioned or judged me. Looking back, it was almost as though she became "my" parent. The emotions and situations at times were overwhelming and knowing she was there for me gave me hope and the strength to go forward. It took courage to disclose it to her, but I cannot imagine how I would have survived without her love, compassion and encouragement.
What I do know is that if we breathe we will make mistakes and wrong choices. I did -- it can happen to anyone. First and foremost, face it, deal with it, keep your faith in a higher power and always have hope, never, never give up on yourself or the good that can come from a bad situation.
All of Philippe's victims were looking for love. As a result of what appears to be a fatal and end-all situation, I found that love. My significant other is a 20 year HIV survivor I found through Poz.com, a dating website for men and women who have HIV/AIDS.
Faced with the challenge and opportunity to share my story on "20/20," I made the decision to step out in faith. I faced my fear of being recognized, using my real name and appearance, so that others who might be facing similar situations would know there is no shame with this disease and to give them hope and courage to do the same.