After bicycling 3100 miles on a cross country trip without experiencing much more than some flat tires and a scratch or two, a group of Harvard students raising money to fight world hunger were robbed of their cash, cameras, and repair equipment early Saturday while they slept in a Detroit church.
The incident occurred just hours after the 31 Harvard riders--along with five others on the 66-day, 3800-mile journey from Seattle to Boston--received keys to the City of Detroit during a downtown ceremony attended by about 350 people.
(For more on the trip, see accompanying story.)
The stolen items included five cameras worth $300 each. $300in tools, air pumps and spare bicycle parts, about $2600 in travellers checks and cash intended for trip expenses, and nearly $400 in personal cash, a Detroit police spokesman said yesterday. The 36 bicycles belonging to the group, as well as the van from which the items were taken, were not damaged during the robbery, which took place between midnight Friday and 7.30 Saturday morning, police said No suspects have been identified and chances for recover ing the stolen goods are "not good," they added.
While the bicyclists have replaced the stolen travellers checks, trip organizers and leader Daniel M. Pallotta '83 said yesterday in a telephone interview from Shaker Heights, Ohio that the most treasured belongings lost by the group could not be replaced: about 700 photos taken by the students during the ride.
"We're really hoping that some of that film makes its way back to us," said Pallotta. Aside from the inconvenience of getting by with one set of tools instead of four, he added, the group does not expect that the robbery will affect the remainder of their trip, now scheduled to conclude August 20 with ceremonies in both Boston and at Harvard.
"I think we'll survive," Pallotta said, adding that the robbery provided a sharp contrast to the kind of reception the bikers received in the Michigan city.
"It's really a shame that our visit was overshadowed by what happened, especially because the people in Detroit are trying so hard to give the city a positive image," he said. Among other things, the group received free meals, t-shirts, and ice cream during the day-long stop, treatment not unlike that accorded the riders throughout their journey thus far.
Although Detroit officials honored each participant with a key to the city--usually reserved for "special visitors" according to one mayorial aid--city officials do not plan to make a contribution or other kind of reparation for the stolen goods, Detroit City hall spokesman Robert Berg said.
"It's something that can happen anywhere, and it just happened to happen here," Berg said. "We never like to have visitors treated that way."
Pallotta said that several participants have wired home for money, and that officials of the organization affiliated with the trip--Oxfam America, a Boston-based foundation committed to reducing world hunger--have pledged whatever additional support is needed for the remainder of the journey.
Known as the "Ride for Life," the group began its trek June 15 in Seattle, Wash, with nearly $35,000 in pledges and donations. Along the way, Pallotta said, the riders--averaging 80 to 100 miles per day--have raised an additional $35,000, much of it through checks and pledge forms passed to the bicyclists on the road by people in passing cars. The contributions or forms were stolen Saturday, Pallotta said.
Organizers had said before the trip's start that they had hoped to raise $250,000. While Pallotta yesterday acknowledged doubt that the group would attain that goal, he said he believed the ride had proved "more than successful" in raising awareness about the plight of the poor in both developing and industrialized countries.
"People don't look at us like we're a bunch of snobby Harvard students or rich kids: they see us just as individuals trying to make a difference," he said.
The bicyclists have received unusual media attention throughout the trip, appearing on more than 30 television and radio talk shows, numerous news programs, and in a variety of newspapers both in large cities and small towns, local organizers said yesterday. They displayed a sheaf of clippings and described several awards and proclamations received by the bicyclists over the past month and a half.