In April 2018, Scotsman Daryll Rowe, then 28, became the first man in the UK sent to prison for transmitting HIV.
He received a life sentence in England for deliberately trying to expose ten sexual partners to the virus. He must serve at least 12 years.
Rowe later received a sentence of eight years in Scotland for similar offences. Several of his partners later tested positive after acquiring the virus from Rowe.
In a new BBC documentary, available today via the BBC iPlayer, Rowe has spoken from prison about what motivated him to commit his crimes. He says his attitudes towards sex became ‘unhealthy… which I need to work on.’
The film also features some of his victims. They reveal the devastating impact Rowe has had upon them.
What made this case unique?
Many in the field of sexual health have campaigned against the criminalization of HIV transmission. They believe it increases HIV stigma and may dissuade people from getting tested. However, few disagree that Rowe’s behaviour made him a danger to society.
It’s known that if you are on treatment and have a undetectable viral load, you cannot transmit the virus. However, Rowe refused to take HIV medication. In some instances, he pretended to wear a condom when engaging in sex, and told men he was ‘safe.’
One partner, who lived with Rowe, recalls finding condoms belonging to the former hairdresser after his arrest. They appeared to have been intentionally damaged. Ripping or piercing condoms inevitably reduces their effectiveness.
The Man Who Used HIV as a Weapon
The new BBC documentary unravels Rowe’s 18-month spree of reckless and callous behaviour.
Five men who had sex with Rowe took part in the documentary, entitled The Man Who Used HIV as a Weapon.
Director Charlotte Charlton also speaks to Rowe’s foster parents in North Berwick, Scotland. They say the crimes he committed are at odds with the eight-year-old boy they took into their home.
They remember a ‘really loveable’ child.
‘To think he would purposely infect anyone with HIV is unbelievable,’ says foster mum Jacqueline. ‘There is no excuse for it.’
Rowe arrived aged eight with a collection of over 100 Barbie dolls. Jaqueline helped him bathe and dress each one regularly.
He’d had an abusive early childhood, and still had scars from where scalding liquid had been poured on him. He stayed with the couple until he was 19. The couple have remained in contact with him.
Finding out he was HIV positive and rejecting treatment
Rowe was diagnosed with HIV in early 2015. He rejected medical treatment, instead choosing to opt to drink his own urine as a form of self-medication. He’d read online that it could treat HIV (a view not backed up by any medical science). Because of this, it’s likely he had a high viral load.
One of the men in the documentary, Stuart, met Rowe in July 2015 via Grindr. They arranged for Stuart to go to Rowe’s house in Edinburgh.
‘I asked him to put a condom on and he appeared to do so,’ Stuart remembers.
After sex, Stuart looked down at bed and saw the condom but it didn’t appear to have any semen inside it. He asked Rowe about whether he’d worn the condom and he replied, ‘Are you one of these paranoid people? Yeah, I wore it.’
Stuart stayed for another few minutes but then made his excuses and left. Rowe messaged and called him but Stuart didn’t respond to every message.
‘Eight days later he [Rowe] snapped and sent me a series of short messages in quick succession,’ says Stuart. The messages were abusive. Rowe told Stuart he had taken the condom off and cum inside him.
‘Don’t be so paranoid’
Peter, another victim, recounts a similar story.
‘He was quite direct and made it clear he wanted to have unsafe sex,’ says Peter, who turned up at Rowe’s house to find him already waiting in bed. Peter questioned him over whether he was sure it was ‘safe’ and Rowe said, ‘Yeah, yeah man. Don’t be so paranoid.’
Peter received the same treatment as Stuart. Because he didn’t respond to Rowe’s subsequent messages, an upset Rowe texted him, informing him he was HIV positive and had a high viral load. Rowe then blocked him. Peter thought Rowe must be joking: tormenting him.
Andrew, another man in Scotland, also provoked Rowe’s anger.
‘He was quite hot and he seemed like a nice person,’ he says of their encounter. ‘At the time I had no reason to question that.’
‘He didn’t have condoms but we both decided to have sex anyway.’
Andrew stayed the night with Rowe, but when he left he checked his Grindr. Rowe saw that Andrew was online and sent a message criticizing him for logging on to Grindr as soon as he left Rowe’s house.
A month later Andrew got a message from Rowe: ‘I hoped you enjoyed four of my loads. I have HIV :-)’
Investigators suspect Rowe knowingly withheld the information about his HIV status until the men he had sex with could do nothing about it. Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) medication, which can stop someone acquiring HIV, needs to be commenced within 72 hours if you believe you’ve put yourself at risk.
Finding out they’d acquired the virus
Troubled by Rowe’s messages, Andrew went to an STI clinic. He showed the nurse Rowe’s texts.
‘His face just dropped,’ recalls Andrew. ‘It wasn’t the first message he’d seen. He thought it was likely I’d have got HIV from Daryll.
Stuart also went to get tested. His clinic asked him to come in for his results. He says he knew then it was positive and started shaking. The clinic confirmed the result.
Stuart reported Rowe to the police. ‘He needed to be stopped.’
‘I ripped the condom off … I got you’
Before police were able to question Rowe, he went on the run. He left Scotland for Brighton, on England’s south coast.
There he continued to knowingly put other men at risk of acquiring HIV.
One of his victims is Lenny, originally from the US but now a successful makeup artist in the UK.
He too says Rowe was adamant about wanting unprotected sex during their initial messages. Lenny’s response: ‘Absolutely not. That’s not happening.’
Lenny’s determination to have safer sex was rooted in personal tragedy. He lost both his parents to AIDS. His father, a drug user, became HIV positive in the 80s and passed the virus on to his mother. Both died. Lenny vowed he would never acquire the virus. As PrEP is not widely available in the UK, he relied on condoms for protection.
Lenny eventually blocked Rowe on the app they had been exchanging messages, but by this stage he’d already given out his address and phone number. Rowe turned up at his flat and rang to say he was outside. Lenny, to his regret, let him in.
The American says he had to push Rowe off when he tried to force himself upon him without a condom. Lenny instead gave him a condom and watched him put it on.
‘What he did with it then I have no idea. I trusted him.’
Lenny says he didn’t respond to all of Rowe’s subsequent messages after their encounter. He says Rowe became ‘possessive.’ Eventually, he blocked Rowe when the messages turned nasty.
‘The following Wednesday I was at my house on my own and my phone rings and a voice says, “How dare you block me. Stupid American. You can’t get rid of me. You’re going to burn. I ripped the condom off. Stupid… I got you”.’
Rowe arrested and goes on the run again
Lenny says he fell ill a few weeks later. He went to a clinic and told them what had happened. He told them about meeting a Scottish man who said he’d ripped the condom off.
The nurse at the clinic in Brighton said, ‘We’ve had four other cases who have said exactly the same thing.’
Shocked, Lenny told the nurse to contact the police.
Lenny reported Rowe to police on 4 February 2016, and, crucially, was able to give them Rowe’s address.
Rowe was arrested. He was wanted on charges relating to seven men. Police went to his home and found him in bed with another man. He was to be Rowe’s eighth victim. They seized Rowe’s phone. Checking his messages, they realized he had been exchanging messages with hundreds of men – all of whom they set about contacting.
Rowe was released on strict bail conditions and had to return to Scotland and stay at his foster parents’ home. He was ordered to start HIV treatment immediately.
However, he again went on the run. He slept in a tent in the hills above Edinburgh. Police found the tent and his discarded HIV medication. This sparked a nationwide manhunt in August 2016.
Capture in Sunderland
Rowe then hooked up with another man, Tom, in Sunderland, England. Rowe, who gave Tom a false name, said he was having trouble with his accommodation and Tom let him move in to his home on a temporary basis.
‘It’s been practically impossible for me to approach a man, and I guess that’s probably why I’ve been quite gullible in taking what I can in regards to attention from men,’ recalls Tom in the documentary.
Rowe, besides being a hairdresser, had also appeared in some porn films. Tom was at first excited and flattered by Rowe’s attention. However, he says Rowe became very controlling, not wanting Tom to go out and not allowing him to watch news broadcasts.
Police tracked Rowe down through an advert he placed on an escorts website. A policeman, incredibly, recognized Rowe’s penis from images they had downloaded from his seized phone.
The escorts website had a cell number for Rowe. This was traced back to Tom’s home. Police turned up to arrest Rowe. He tried to escape through a first floor window, but ended up falling and chipping a bone in his back, leaving him writhing on the ground in agony.
Tom was to later test HIV negative and considers himself lucky.
Sent to prison and aftermath
By the time of his arrest, 24 men had reported Rowe to the police. However, authorities fear he could have put more men at risk; men who haven’t come forward.
Prosecutors in England charged Rowe on multiple charges of causing grievous bodily harm. A jury found him guilty on five counts of GBH and five counts of attempted GBH. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.
‘I feel like I’ve been the victim of rape,’ says Lenny. ‘I feel like I’ve been violated. There’s a right of mine that’s been taken away without my consent, and that’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. How can someone be so fucking cruel?’
Unable to deal with rejection
During his trial, Rowe denied any responsibility for his actions. However, in a phone call from prison recorded for the documentary, he now admits some of what he did.
‘I was building a really unhealthy relationship with sex, which I need to work on.’
He says he was in a state of denial about his HIV diagnosis.
‘I had in my mind that I was going to cure myself with this urine therapy. I used that in my head as an excuse for continuing to have unprotected sex … this might may be blocking it, in a way.
‘I hold my hands up completely to not using a condom when I was asked to. That for me was the worst point.’
‘I used it as sort of weapon to get a reaction from them, which was really immature.’
Rowe could not handle it when men he had sex with did not want to see him again.
‘I wasn’t coping well at all when I was rejected by anybody.
‘It got out of control… I am really sorry for my behaviour … I hope they can forgive me one day.’
‘Helping the men to make sense of why this had happened’
Documentary director Charlotte Charlton told Gay Star News she hopes her moving documentary has helped those impacted by Rowe’s actions. The men she talks with give candid accounts of their encounters with him.
‘When I was asked to direct the film, I took a long time to consider the ethical complexity of finding the right angle. The project therefore became about helping the men to make sense of why this had happened.
‘This wasn’t a conventional whodunnit; it was a ‘whydunnit’, about violation and closure.
‘The biggest challenge for me was juggling the emotional needs of the five men, whilst also being fair to Rowe’s foster-parents, who had their lives turned upside down too.
‘Hopefully, through honest portraits of those targeted by Rowe, the film focused where the real harm lay, without falling into a tabloid simplification of what had happened.’
The Man Who Used HIV as a Weapon is on BBC iPlayer now and will screen on BBC One on Tuesday 19 March at 11.05pm.