Twenty-four years ago, in an act of ghastly malice, a Missouri father plunged a needle filled with HIV-positive blood into his son’s vein. No one at the time could’ve imagined anything worse. But the most astonishing part of all is the life the son turned out to live.
Badger had a question about his father. Badger was dying, so he chose his words carefully, because he would only have the opportunity to say them once.
“Why did he do such a bad thing to me?”
Badger’s real name was Brian. He shared the name with his father, who was standing trial, accused of an inconceivable crime against him.
Badger was 7. He had fevers, a swollen liver, chronic ear infections, fungus growing under his fingernails. He was on 23 oral medications. He had no immune system. A plague—the worst plague—swam the current of his blood.
When he’d been stronger, he had walked the halls of St. Louis Children’s Hospital wearing a sign around his neck with the words BIDS FOR and a huge red pair of lips, trying to coax the nurses to kiss him on the cheek. He idolized Forrest Gump, and to every doctor who entered his room he spoke the famous line from his favorite movie, removing a chocolate from a little box on his bed. The doctors would then toss a quarter into his aluminum can as if it were a piggy bank. Years later, his mother could still remember the jingling.
Badger flatlined twice, and the doctors told his mom not to resuscitate him if it happened again. They advised her to prepare for his funeral and she did, picking out the little white suit he’d once worn as a ring bearer.
So Badger wasn’t in the courtroom to read his words to his father himself. Instead he dictated them, had them written down for his mother to read in court in the fall of 1998.
“I think he shouldn’t ever be out of jail. He shouldn’t have done this.”
Badger’s mom, Jennifer Jackson, struggled to get through the words as she read them to a jury and a judge.
“Why can’t he say he’s sorry?”
Badger’s father, Brian Stewart, was in the courtroom. He listened beside his lawyers from behind a wooden table. He wore a military crew cut and a fresh shave, sitting with his hands clasped in front of his chest. He had said nothing in his own defense in the entire six days of the trial, which in St. Charles County, Missouri, was the trial of the century. But the Honorable Ellsworth Cundiff addressed him directly after hearing Badger’s words.
“I believe that when God finally calls you, you are going to burn in hell from here to eternity, and maybe that’s the only justice that will come of this when you are finally gone,” the judge said. “My thought is that injecting a 10-month-old child with the AIDS virus really puts you in the same category as a war criminal, as the worst war criminal.” He went on: “The maximum I can do with you is life in prison. I don’t really think that is a very fair sentence, not with what your son is going to have to go through. He is going to die. We all know that.”
Brian Stewart was a phlebotomist. He worked evenings. His job was to draw blood from patients at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. He was particularly adept at using butterfly needles, the very small kind often used in the military or by doctors to comfort frightened children. If other phlebotomists were struggling with a stingy vein, they would ask Stewart to help find it, and using a gentle pair of hands, he would. But Stewart was a strange man. In court testimony he was said to enter areas of the hospital that he shouldn’t, giving himself access to all kinds of blood. To have sometimes drawn too much blood from patients. To have kept vials of blood in the freezer of his home.
Stewart was tall and dapper with a prominent dimple in his right cheek. He dressed better than the other phlebotomists, in khakis and ironed shirts, and he wore his lab coat even outside the hospital—a detail that would come back to haunt him.
Stewart had served during Desert Storm right before Badger was born. He met Jennifer in the Missouri town of Troy in 1990, as part of a training program for the armed services. “He was so good-looking,” she remembered. He had the crew cut, he dressed nice, and—that dimple. They talked of becoming engaged, though they never followed through.
Jennifer, by her own admission, had an attraction to troubled men. Years after she and Stewart had separated, she recalled their volatile relationship in an investigator’s report. She told the police he bruised her, hit her, bit her. She told them that when he was angry, he threatened to give her an embolism by injecting her with a needle full of air. She said that in December of 1990, while she was pregnant with Badger, Stewart demanded that she have sex with him, and when she refused he stuck his entire hand into her vagina and said that he would “ruin” her for anyone else. He was arrested, then called her from jail apologizing and saying he would get help. The charges were dropped.
Stewart did have a tender side. To celebrate the impending birth of their child, he gave Jennifer a framed poem about parenthood. Before Stewart left for Desert Storm, they discussed what it might be like to raise a son. They agreed the boy would take Stewart’s first name, just in case he didn’t come back. While Jennifer was in labor, Stewart called her from the Middle East. He wanted to know, “How big is he? What does he weigh? Do I have a son?” Badger was born on February 24, 1991.
When Stewart came home from the war a few months later, Jennifer met him at the airport and he held his boy in his arms and wept. They spent Thanksgiving and Christmas as a family. Stewart might open the door for Jennifer, hold her hand, kiss her, talk vaguely of plans for the future—but she says he also smashed a car windshield with his fist during an argument. When she finally told him she didn’t want to be with him anymore, he said, I’ll decide when I’m going. He’d leave for two or three days, come home for a while, and then leave again.
Jennifer already had a daughter by another man. Her mother told her, You need to make this work. Jennifer eventually checked herself into a psych ward to manage her stress. Stewart started openly questioning whether he was Badger’s real father, refusing to pay child support until he was eventually ordered to after a paternity test. He moved to the periphery of his ex-girlfriend’s life—the unstable father who wanted a son, then didn’t.
Stewart was a strange man. In court testimony he was said to enter areas of the hospital that he shouldn’t, giving himself access to all kinds of blood.
One day in February 1992, Jennifer called Stewart at work to let him know that 11-month-old Badger was at St. Joseph Hospital West with bad asthma, in bed with an IV. She remembers the woman who answered the phone asking a startling question: “Are you sure you have the right Brian Stewart? Brian doesn’t have a son.”
Stewart decided to pay Badger a visit. He arrived at the hospital that day carrying his white lab coat, which he draped over a rocking chair in the hospital room. Jennifer, who was there with Badger, would testify that she thought it peculiar when he said, “I brought my lab coat up because I didn’t want to leave it in the car.” She complained she was thirsty, and Stewart suggested she leave the hospital room to take a break, to go get a soda—leaving her son with his father for about 15 minutes. When she came back to the room Stewart was in a rocking chair, holding Badger, who was screaming.
Four years later, Detective Kevin Wilson from the St. Charles County sheriff’s office caught a case from the Division of Family Services: A child was dying from complications of HIV at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, with no known risk factors to have acquired it. The boy had been living a normal, healthy life with his single mom until he was 5. Not until doctors had screened him for numerous diseases, including rare ones that exist only in other countries, did they decide to even test him for HIV.
The mom had no idea what was wrong with him for months, until she remembered a terrible fight she and Stewart had about child support, back when Badger was an infant. “When I leave you, I’m going to leave for good, and I don’t leave any loose ends or ties behind,” Stewart told her, according to court documents. “You won’t need to look me up for child support anyway, because your son is not going to live that long.” She asked what he meant. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I just know that your son is not going to live to see the age of 5.”
Detective Wilson, a trim man with a neat brown mustache, was also a paramedic, which made him familiar with modes of transmission for HIV in a time when many people still didn’t understand how it was spread. He interviewed family members, friends, former babysitters, the child’s family doctor and pediatrician. He had the St. Louis County Department of Health administer blood tests to more than 30 people who’d been around Badger in the prior six years of his life. No one was infected. But Stewart had access to HIV-tainted blood, and to his son; he had his knowledge as a phlebotomist; and he had a motive, not wanting to pay child support.
Wilson began building the case that when Stewart was in room 238 of St. Joseph Hospital West in 1992, he had injected his son with HIV using a butterfly needle, connected by a tiny hose to a vial of infected blood that he’d taken from his work and put in a deep pocket of his white lab coat. This, Wilson suspected, was the reason the child’s fever spiked, causing him to wail because he’d had a hemolytic reaction to an injection of incompatible blood.
Wilson began shadowing Stewart, eventually confronting him in the hospital parking lot and hauling him down to the station for questioning. Stewart barely spoke a word during more than eight hours of interrogation. He just stared at the wall.
“He felt that no one was smart enough to convict him,” Wilson told me. “I said, ‘Your son has this terrible sickness, and there’s no logical explanation.’ I told him I was going to paint him as a monster in front of the jury. And during this time we’re firmly expecting little Brian to die.”
The trial began, and the prosecution unveiled a number of chilling episodes from Stewart’s past. His ex-wife, Elizabeth Stolte—whom he had married and quickly divorced shortly after splitting with Jennifer—had two protective orders against him. She took the stand, echoing Jennifer, saying he was abusive: “He threatened me numerous times while we were married and said that if I ever did anything against him, he had ways of getting rid of people that would never be traced back to him.”
A National Guard buddy remembered Stewart talking along the same lines: “We were driving and he made a comment to me that if someone would screw with him, he would inject them with something and they would never know what hit them.”
Stewart made a convincing villain. “He is a diabolical character,” Wilson said. “That father absolutely intended to kill that child when he injected him with HIV.”
The defense suggested in turn that Badger could’ve contracted HIV any number of ways—through needles left in the house by Jennifer’s heroin-using sister and her friends, or through sexual abuse, or through some kind of mistake when he was hospitalized as a baby—and that, even if none of those were the cause, the virus could be passed in ways that hadn’t been discovered yet.
Jurors were not swayed. They saw pictures of Badger in the wasting stages of illness. He showed no signs of being sexually abused. Jennifer’s sister and her friends were HIV negative, as were Badger’s blood samples from before February 1992.
Circumstantial evidence is like a rope, prosecutor Ross Buehler said in his closing statement. “The number of strings come together and all together they’re very, very strong. It is a very strong rope that bears the weight of conviction.” Then he reached into his suit pocket and pulled something out and held it in the air, something almost too small to see. A butterfly needle.
Badger managed to be healthy enough to attend kindergarten, but had to wear a special backpack connected by a long tube plugged into a hole in his stomach, called a G-button. It fed him liquid nutrition because he would barf up regular food, like pizza. Jennifer quit her job and dropped out of college to stay home and care for her son; they survived on food stamps and Medicaid and the Ryan White CARE Act.
As anti-retroviral medication prolonged Badger’s life, Jennifer fought to get him into school, teaching the school district all she had learned about HIV. Even then he was forced to use a special bathroom, rode the short bus, permanently lost 80 percent of his hearing because a drug called amikacin killed the nerve endings in his ears.
Badger wore giant hearing aids that clipped on and made his ears stick out. The hearing aids were connected by cords to a fanny pack he had to wear. He spoke with a speech impediment that made him sound dumb. He couldn’t play football and couldn’t be on the wrestling team. Couldn’t even be in Boy Scouts; the troop leaders knew he had HIV and were petrified. He got shoved to the tile floor in fifth grade: AIDS Boy!
He grew to hate his real name. He was aware, even as a child, of being called the same thing as his father. At age 8 he decided to legally change it. He wanted his new name to be Brandon or Shawn, but his mother begged him, if he was going to change his name, to change only the spelling. That name was part of who he was, she told him. So he walked up to a judge and handed him the new spelling, which he thought looked cool: Brryan.
Brryan got suspended from school for fighting back against a group of kids who pushed him into the walls and pinned him onto the floor. He missed almost all of ninth grade because his viral load became detectable again, and he started sleeping 20 hours a day. Brryan was still sick; his new name couldn’t change that. People still thought he’d die, and sometimes he wished he would.
Badger, though, he lived. He picked up the nickname at Camp Kindle in Nebraska, a retreat for kids with HIV; one of the counselors chose the name for him because everyone had to have a nature nickname, and Squirrel Bait was already taken. Badger gained confidence, realizing he had a story to tell. By the end of high school, he’d become a minor celebrity, developing a modest career as a public speaker—first appearing in and around St. Charles, making the rounds of local TV, and ultimately traveling to 25 states in his family’s Toyota Camry with 102,000 miles on the engine.
One night at the 2009 Alicia Keys Black Ball in New York, Badger found himself at a table with Samuel L. Jackson. He decided to break the ice and said, “Mr. Jackson, nice to meet you. I’m Mr. Jackson.” The movie star laughed, and then when Badger told his story, Samuel L. Jackson put down his fancy fork and said, “Wow. Wow!”
On a summer afternoon he walks through the glass doors of a Chick-fil-A in St. Charles County. Twenty-three years old, six feet tall and tan, his keys swinging from a chain hooked onto the hip of his jeans. Sandy hair short and mussed, the tips blond from too much sun. Badger.
The girls behind the counter giggle shyly. He’s wearing Chuck Taylors with bright blue socks. He nods to the kid with the earpiece taking orders; the kid nods back. Badger used to work for Chick-fil-A, delivering chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.
He pushes a pair of sunglasses away from his eyes. He has a prominent dimple in his right cheek. He leans against the counter with a nonchalant cool—Badger Swagger. That’s his thing. He exudes it now. The term is goofy but apropos, with its own social-media hashtag. Whenever he does something silly, like mowing the lawn in a banana suit: #badgerswagger. It even trickles down to the way he slurs his words, a mild speech impediment caused after he lost most of his hearing. “The funny way I talk,” he says, “that’s just my accent.”
It’s two days after Father’s Day, and Badger’s father has been in a maximum-security prison for more than 15 years.
“I actually just tweeted about Father’s Day,” Badger tells me over his meal. “I have been known to make jokes about it. And some of the jokes make people”—he pauses, sips his drink—“uncomfortable.”
Badger’s jokes go something like this: He’ll hold up an orange shirt and ask, with a sideways grin, “Does this make me look like my dad?” Or he’ll post a picture of a license plate to his Instagram as an example of his father’s “craftsmanship.” And on Twitter: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? NOT MY DAD.”
He lives a relatively healthy life now, down to just one pill a day, though he still deals with shingles and fatigue and has doctor’s appointments every three months to check his blood.
“Man,” Badger tells me, “either I could be sitting around being so mad at the situation, or I can sit around and have fun with it. I tried starting a hashtag, Deaf Guy Problems: ‘They said work; I heard twerk! #deafguyproblems.’ I’d rather be funny than serious any day. Life’s about having fun, having adventures. If you want to make a couple jokes about being a bastard child, or not having a father growing up, or being hard of hearing, or being HIV positive, do it. Let me make fun of myself so people don’t make fun of me.”
It is hard, especially at first, not to see Badger’s self-deprecation as a latent childhood defense mechanism that lingered into adulthood, not to suspect that his persona—even the name he still answers to—must suppress a roiling anger. And yet if that resentment exists, it is buried somewhere so deep within him that he either does not or cannot even acknowledge it. To spend time with Badger is to witness a guileless person projecting an attitude of This is my life, and I’m rolling with it.
“I guess this seems easy, or looks easy,” he tells me later. “But me and my father…how can I explain it? It’s like if you see someone do a skateboard trick. They’ve taken so much time and dedication. They make it look so graceful. But you try to do it. It’s not so easy.”
Dating has been tough. Badger has had more than one relationship end after the girl’s parents intervened. Fathers generally like him until things get serious. All of which is especially complicated for Badger, because he really wants to be a dad himself. He has a vision, a plan, to pass on a different legacy. “There’s this thing called sperm washing,” he says. “You won’t pass on HIV.” To think about having children makes him happy. “I think I’d be a cool dad,” he says. “But, well, the guy who thinks he’s the cool dad is really the most embarrassing. I have a little bit of fear of that. I don’t want my kids to think I’m an embarrassing dad.”
That’s always his word: dad. He uses it to describe other people, with its implications of longing and love. As in, “Tell me about your dad. I like to hear stories about other people’s dads.” But father? That he saves only for Brian Stewart. Those two syllables lashed together and dragged through his accent: “Fah-thoh.”
Badger has never addressed an envelope to Missouri inmate No. 1018559, never placed a call to the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point. Brian Stewart is someone who comes up only in stories, in a few pictures he’s seen, when new friends are curious or when Badger’s on the news.
He knows that he and his father look alike. He knows his father requested that Badger share his name. He knows his father claimed to Jennifer that he never had a son, which makes Badger shake his head each time he says it, as though he still can’t quite believe it. He knows about the $267 a month in child support his father was sending before he went to prison. Part of Badger is defined by the wondering, by the silence, by the lack of information that renders him incomplete. The mystery and the sickness—the only two things his father left.
He wonders if his father knows he started his own HIV organization, Hope Is Vital. That he went to Kenya and told his story to a nursery full of children with HIV—“It’s not a death sentence!”—and danced and sang to Miley Cyrus on a bus that wobbled through the mountains. He wonders if his father knows that he spoke before Congress. That he threw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game while standing barefoot in a personalized jersey, B. JACKSON on the back, while the team put a couple of paragraphs about his story on the scoreboard.
Though Badger always talks with a certainty that his father tried to murder him, it’s still nearly impossible to wrap his brain around. Badger has his stock reasons, his speculations: He wanted to avoid child support, he wanted to hurt my mom. But he still doesn’t actually know.
“I don’t really feel anything about him,” Badger says. “I don’t know the guy; I just know what he has done, and I feel like you have to be accountable for what you’ve done. Maybe there’s some regret; maybe there’s a change in his heart. I don’t know what he thinks or what he does, but since I’ve forgiven him, that’s all I can do. Just live my life and show him what I’m made of.”
While Badger lives the life no one expected him to have, Stewart spends every day by himself in protective custody because the other inmates know why he is there. He talks to almost no one, inside the prison or out, though sometimes he writes letters.
When Jennifer sued the hospital where Stewart worked, reportedly claiming the administration should’ve known how dangerous her ex was, Stewart wrote a lengthy response filled with proclamations of love for his son: “The good people who know me, know in their hearts and minds that I could never do what I’ve been accused of.” He wrote that he upheld the boy’s best interests before knowing that the child was his, that he actually rescued Badger from his mother and persuaded her not to abort him. He wrote that he’d held his son and hugged him, burped him, squeezed him, changed his diapers, bathed him, rocked him to sleep. “As a father, what I loved the most was to see his precious smile, and hear his laughter.…”
While preparing this article, I receive a packet in the mail on Stewart’s behalf from a family friend. Inside is a cover letter. No one has tried to hear Brian’s side, it begins. The letter makes a list of accusations about Badger’s mom and the media and HIV. His son is alive and boasting of his exploits on Facebook. The letter is meant to express that Stewart’s son is not only alive but healthy. In other words, that Badger doesn’t actually have HIV, and that Stewart has been wrongfully convicted. Also in the packet are old printouts about HIV transmission, letters from Stewart to the governor of Missouri and to the Midwestern Innocence Project, which declined to pursue his case.
At length, Stewart writes to me himself. He is cordial—Please forgive my delay in writing back. He will consent to an interview, he says, only on several conditions, which include “that you absolutely agree in writing that you will print the following, unedited: My son’s HIV test was falsely positive.”
He also insists that GQ publish “the related scientific facts by experts at both the Perth Group and AliveandWell.org.” The former is an Australian organization that believes the existence of HIV to be unproven. The latter is a website that “raises questions about the accuracy of HIV tests.” It was founded by AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore, who died in 2008 of an AIDS-related illness, and whose daughter died at age 3, also of complications from AIDS.
Our correspondence ends there.
Today Badger lives in a little house outside St. Louis with a pink flamingo staked in the yard. His address is on a street called Hope Drive.
He had the money to buy the house because of the malpractice suit his mom settled against Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Barnes Health System. Both mother and son are gag-ordered from talking about it, but the settlement allows him a good life.
Pictures fill the house, many of him at Camp Kindle, where he graduated from camper to counselor. Where Badger was a shirtless guy splooshing into the dunk tank each time a kid nailed the bull’s-eye with a softball, his old round scar from the G-button glistening with chlorinated water. He was an example of survival, and of transcendence—“He’s a miracle,” said the counselor who introduced him, as Badger stood in front of a fire late one night, the campers hushed on wooden bleachers, the flames crackling and his face a dire shade of orange. “By the time I got to fifth grade, my own peers would run away from me every day, like I had a gun or something,” Badger told them. “They made me begin to believe I was a freak of nature. That there was no place for me on this earth. Like, not only am I a bad kid, but…I’m going to be Just. Like. My father.”
The driveway up to Badger’s house is covered in words and pictures drawn in colorful, washable chalk: WELCOME TO THE JACKSON SUPERDOME, it says. That’s because, on the day I visit, Badger’s siblings (his brother, Colttyn, now 16, plus sisters Raydden, 14, and Shannyn, 12) have come to live with him for a while.
Jennifer now has six children by five men; in Badger’s mind some of the guys after his father weren’t a whole lot better. He says he watched them hit her and saw them leave all but one of those children behind for her to take care of. She wants the kids to be in a better school district and says her last boyfriend has threatened her, so she’s taken them to stay with her eldest son. Badger has thus become a type of surrogate father. The boy without a dad, learning to be one.
“I’ve made some bad choices,” Jennifer says. “Brian Stewart told me I was tainted. This leads to a feeling of being hopeless in relationships. When you feel less than other women, you don’t think you can ever find a normal relationship. I’m working on it.”
Characteristically, Badger puts a good spin on his situation. He likes helping raise his siblings. He checks the kids’ homework, takes them to school, keeps a giant box of cheese balls on the counter.
“I’ve always been skeptical of the guys my mom dates,” he says. “All these other A-holes who’ve been in and out of her life, who’ve treated her like dirt? Thanks for showing me what a bad person is. That’s another thing about my father rejecting me, and also having HIV—you don’t always discover who you’re supposed to be, but you discover who you’re not supposed to be.”
When Badger lands speaking gigs, he uses his mother as a source of inspiration for giving up so much of her life to help him survive. “We have choices,” he intones, smacking his palms together, “about who we turn out to be.”
Leaving the house, I follow Badger to his checkup at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which has a giant hot-air balloon in the cafeteria and colorful outlines of animals on the walls. Children’s is connected by a glass skywalk to Barnes, where Badger’s father had access to all that blood.
Badger has been treated at Children’s every year since he first became sick. The doctors used to pin newspaper stories about his survival onto the hallway corkboard. The patient who flirted with the nurses as a dying little boy has never stopped trying to charm them, even though he understands that what they’re testing in his blood will be there forever. He leans against the hospital front desk on his elbows, chatting them up. He still receives a lollipop as a reward for sitting through his checkups.
Badger’s red Sperry Top-Siders dangle just above the floor while he sits on the exam table, awaiting his appointment. Using the doctor’s light as a prop, he snaps several selfies. His general practitioner enters the room and hugs him. Asks him about his love life and whether he’s taking his medication on schedule. Then she tells him, sadly, that he will no longer be treated at Children’s. “You are officially an adult now,” she says. She wants him to know, though, that she will always follow him, that she will think of him proudly. That watching him grow up has been a story no one could ever forget. They sit together quietly for a minute.
As Badger exits into the hallway, the nurses at the outpatient desk Oooh over him for a final time, comment on how tall he’s become—say that he’d better not be a stranger, that he’d better stop by the hospital sometimes because they want to stay in touch. He walks past the animals on the walls, and that giant balloon, and the rooms where sick children fight for a chance to live. As he heads for the parking lot, he still has a lollipop poking out from his bottom lip and a little blue bandage covering the spot on his arm where the nurse drew his blood.
Justin Heckert is a writer living in Indianapolis. This is his first article for GQ.