A man is charged with intentionally exposing at least 17 women to the AIDS virus (search) after he ignored a directive from health officials to stop having unprotected sex.

Four of the women have tested positive for HIV.

Anthony E. Whitfield, 32, of Lacey, faces 17 counts of first-degree assault (search) with sexual motivation as well as charges of witness-tampering (search) and violating no-contact orders involving two of the women.

Whitfield plans to plead not guilty to all the charges, the last five of which were filed Tuesday, said his attorney, Charles Lane. He was scheduled to appear in court Thursday.

If convicted on all counts, Whitfield could face a 180-year prison sentence, Thurston County deputy prosecutor Jodilyn Erikson-Muldrew said.

Lane questioned whether prosecutors could prove intent.

"All they are going by is the inference that because he allegedly exposed these people to HIV, that was his intent. They're trying to make it sound like such a horrible, violent crime when, in reality, it could have just as easily been charged as reckless endangerment, which is a gross misdemeanor," Lane said.

Last fall, after a sexual partner of Whitfield was diagnosed with AIDS, county health officials told him not only to refrain from unprotected sex but to inform previous partners that he carried the HIV virus.

Authorities say he ignored that directive and a later cease-and-desist order, after which Olympia police became involved.

After Whitfield was arrested in March, officials learned he might have been aware of HIV infection as early as 1992.

A bulletin issued by the county Health Department in May said as many as 170 people could be at risk either from direct sexual contact with Whitfield or a sexual relationship with one of his former partners.

Most of the 170 tested negative for the virus, but 45 either declined to be tested or couldn't be found, officials have said.