Pittsburgh police detectives for the second time last night interviewed a John McCain campaign volunteer who told them she was mugged and the letter B cut into her face following a robbery in Bloomfield on Wednesday.
Police said Ashley Todd, 20, of College Station, Texas, reported that the attack happened about 9 p.m. after she withdrew $60 from an ATM at Liberty Avenue and Pearl Street.
She said a man armed with a knife demanded her money. She gave it to him, then began walking to her car, which had McCain stickers on it. She told police that although the robber had moved away from her, he became agitated when he saw her car, punched her in the back of the head, pushed her to the ground and carved a B into her face.
"This is what she's telling police," police spokeswoman Diane Richard said. "We can't substantiate it at this time."
Ms. Todd told police during at least five hours of questioning last night that her attacker said to her, "You are going to be a Barack supporter." She told police the man then sat on her chest, pinning both her hands down with his knees and used what she believed was a dull knife with a roughly 5-inch blade to carve the B.
Ms. Todd then went to a friend's house in the 5100 block of Cypress Street, about a mile away, where she reported the incident to police about 45 minutes later. She declined medical treatment at that time.
A friend said Ms. Todd went to an unknown hospital on her own around 1 a.m.
"The initial report would lead us to believe it was a street robbery," said Zone 5 police Cmdr. Larry Ross.
Zone 5 detectives were handling the case initially, but it was turned over to the robbery squad last night after the case made national headlines.
When Ms. Todd reported the incident, "nowhere did she say to the officer that [the assailant] made reference to the bumper sticker. I don't know how she came to the conclusion that he noticed the sticker," Cmdr. Ross said.
He said the description of the robber as a 6-foot 4-inch, 200-pound black man is similar to that of a man who robbed a Liberty Avenue bank in recent weeks.
Police were checking surveillance video of the Wednesday ATM incident.
Several employees at nearby businesses last night said they were unaware of the attack.
Ms. Todd was in Pennsylvania as a field representative for the College Republican National Committee. She took a year off from her studies at Blinn College, near her home in College Station, to travel to Washington, D.C., in August to train with the committee. Her duties included going to college campuses to recruit students for the organization.
"She was one of our better recruiters this year," committee executive Ethan Eilon said. He said she spent several months working in New York and moved to Pennsylvania two weeks ago. On Wednesday night, she had just returned from a phone banking event before she reported being attacked.
Mr. Eilon said she went to the hospital on her own.
"She's had a pretty terrible 24 hours," he said. "She's hanging in there. Everyone has been very supportive. In our view, this was a random crime that escalated into something worse."
The committee will let Ms. Todd decide if she wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
Ms. Todd thanked "everyone for their thoughts and prayers," yesterday on her blog, where she posted Wednesday night that she was "Stubbornly searching for a Bank of America to avoid ATM fees."
According to the McCain campaign, both Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sen. McCain called Ms. Todd and her family to express their concerns, but a spokesman declined to comment on the incident.
The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama issued the following statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the young woman for her to make a speedy recovery, and we hope that the person who perpetrated this crime is swiftly apprehended and brought to justice."
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968. Sadie Gurman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1878. Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1183.