McCain volunteer admits to hoax
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Almost from the start, Pittsburgh police were skeptical about a young woman's claim that she had been mugged and a "B" carved into her cheek by an attacker who was provoked by the sight of a John McCain bumper sticker on her car.
Yesterday, their doubts were confirmed when 20-year-old Ashley Todd, a McCain volunteer from College Station, Texas, admitted that she made the whole thing up.
There was no black man with a knife, no robbery, no physical assault.
And the backwards "B" on her cheek? She's not sure, she told police, but assumes she did that herself. As for the black eyes, police assume they likewise were self-inflicted.
Her story quickly became political fodder on the Internet and spread around the world, fueled by the presidential campaign and Ms. Todd's political connections as a field representative for the College Republican National Committee and McCain volunteer.
But in less than a day, the international story of a McCain volunteer being attacked, traumatized and disfigured for her political beliefs deflated into a sad tale of a troubled woman with a history of mental problems.
Police were sensitive to that fact yesterday, saying that while Ms. Todd would face at least a charge of filing a false report with police, she would not be released until she had a mental health evaluation.
"We don't feel she should be able to walk out onto the street," said Pittsburgh Assistant Police Chief Maurita Bryant. "We wouldn't want any further harm to come to her."
Ms. Todd was in the Allegheny County Jail last night on $50,000 bond after her video arraignment before District Judge John N. Bova. Judge Bova requested that she undergo an evaluation by the jail's behavior clinic. She'll return to court on Thursday.
The day after the purported attack, both Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin called Ms. Todd, offering words of comfort. Yesterday, McCain-Palin campaign spokesman Peter Feldman issued a statement: "This is a sad situation. We hope she gets the help she needs."
Ms. Todd told police a black man with a knife approached her at a banking machine at Citizens Bank at Liberty Avenue and Pearl Street in Bloomfield shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday. She said after she gave him $60, the robber spotted the McCain stickers on her car, became enraged, knocked her to the ground and punched and kicked her.
She quoted him as saying "You are going to be a Barack supporter," as he sat on her chest, pinning both of her hands down, and scratched the letter "B" on her right cheek.
First among the problems with her story was the fact that the "B" scratched on her face was backwards -- as it might be if she had done it herself using a mirror.
"The backwards 'B' was the obvious thing to us when we first saw her. Something just didn't seem right," Assistant Chief Bryant said. "And, first of all, with our local robbers, they take the money [and flee]. They're in and out. They're not stopping to do artwork."
Additionally, said Lt. Kevin Kraus, investigators were struck "that it was a superficial, pristine 'B,' which seemed highly inconsistent with the story she reported that it was a violent attack, basically in which she was fighting for her life."
Nevertheless, Assistant Chief Bryant said, Ms. Todd reported herself as a victim, so police began an investigation. Then they found more and more inconsistencies.
Ms. Todd underwent five hours of questioning at police headquarters on the North Side Thursday night and submitted to a polygraph. Her story kept changing -- the attack happened before she got to the bank machine; she was hit from behind and rendered unconscious; she didn't know she had been cut or robbed until she went to the apartment of a friend, Dan Garcia; the attacker had sexually fondled her.
Yesterday, she told detectives she was driving alone in her car when she looked in the rearview mirror and saw the letter on her cheek. She didn't remember how it got there but assumed she had done it because she had incidents of memory loss in the past. The letter made her think of "Barack," Assistant Chief Bryant said, so she concocted the story before going to Mr. Garcia's house.
Once she had told the story to police, "she told lie after lie and the situation compounded to where we are right now," said Lt. Kraus. He added that Ms. Todd showed no remorse for her actions but was angry with the media, saying they blew the story out of proportion.
Assistant Chief Bryant said the false report created "a huge waste of time, with many man-hours and people coming in on overtime just to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible."
"It created intensive national and international attention," Lt. Kraus said. "We've had detectives working around the clock since she made the bogus allegation. The cost to the city of Pittsburgh has been many, many dollars and resources."
Ms. Todd's job as a field representative for the College Republican National Committee brought her to Pittsburgh about two weeks ago to recruit college students. She had worked for the committee since August. Yesterday, the organization fired her.
Ashley Barbera, the organization's communications director, said workers initially were concerned for Ms. Todd's safety.
"We are as upset as anyone to learn of her deceit. Ashley must take full responsibility for her actions," she said.
In March, Ms. Todd was asked to leave a grass-roots group of Ron Paul supporters in Brazos County, Texas, group leader Dustan Costine said. He said Ms. Todd posed as a supporter of former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and called the local Republican committee seeking information about its campaign strategies.
"She would call the opposing campaign and pretend she was on their campaign to get information," Mr. Costine said last night. "We had to remove her because of the tactics she displayed. After that we had nothing to do with her."
About a month earlier, he said, Ms. Todd sent an e-mail to the Ron Paul group saying her tires were slashed and that campaign paraphernalia had been stolen from her car because she supported Mr. Paul.
"She's the type of person who wants to be recognized," Mr. Costine said.
Mr. Garcia, 32, a first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh law school who also is from Texas, met Ms. Todd in May at a gathering of young Republicans in their hometown of College Station. On Wednesday night, she came back to his house, bruised and battered, and told him of the attack. He contacted police.
Mr. Garcia said his immediate response was to tend to the wound on her cheek. A police officer arrived, and Ms. Todd became belligerent when the officer asked where the mugging happened.
"I don't know!" she told him, using an expletive, Mr. Garcia said. "I'm not from here."
Mr. Garcia, Ms. Todd and the officer then drove through Bloomfield until they arrived at the Citizens Bank on Liberty Avenue. She told the officer it was the right spot. Assistant Chief Bryant said yesterday police aren't even sure Ms. Todd was in that area Wednesday night.
The officer asked Ms. Todd if she needed medical attention. She declined. Instead, Mr. Garcia said, they went to eat at Ritter's Diner on Baum Boulevard. He then persuaded her to go to nearby UPMC Shadyside, where he waited for her until 2 a.m.
"I don't know why she would do this," Mr. Garcia said yesterday, after learning that she had fabricated the story. "I would think that she needs help.
"I had red flags going up, but I didn't think it was prudent of me to ask the truth. I wanted to make sure she was OK."
Now Mr. Garcia says he is furious that Ms. Todd deceived him. He has cut off all contact with her, he said.
Mr. Garcia took the widely published picture of Ms. Todd with her injuries. He said he took several photographs with a digital camera to document what had happened. He said he only gave copies of the photos to police and Ms. Todd's employer, the College Republicans. One photo appeared on The Drudge Report on Thursday, setting off a storm of media attention.
Ms. Todd was a student at Blinn College in Texas. She decided to take a year off to work in politics. Mr. Garcia said she told him she was estranged from her mother.
On her MySpace profile, where her screen name is "Italian Pajamas," Ms. Todd gives her occupation as "Being a badass." Next to her picture, she references the title of a song by the group Panic at the Disco: "Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her cloths (sic) off," but adds to it "but its (sic) better if you do."
Among the books she lists as favorites: "The Scarlet Letter."