TAMPA — Before the police statements were given and the university administrator resigned, before Inside Edition called, there was just this:
A surveillance video rolling in a room, as Tim Boyd and Christine Dillingham watched.
The $100 bike he loaned her had been stolen from outside the University of South Florida building where they worked. A facilities manager had found the culprit.
As the two men on the screen wheeled the cheap mountain bike away, the worker asked: "Do you know who that is?"
Stunned, Dillingham answered: "I think I do. But I don't want to say."
It was Dr. Abdul Rao, the senior associate vice president for research at USF who made $384,280 a year.
He was powerful enough to control the program's grant money. To fire people.
If they spoke out, could he crush their careers?
• • •
Tim Boyd, 39, is a biological scientist who first enrolled at USF as an undergraduate in 1995. He's now a doctoral student conducting research on a drug he believes could slow or even reverse Alzheimer's disease.
After hours and hours of examining mouse brains, his studies are on the verge of publication.
Christine Dillingham, 22, is a senior with a double major, in biomedical sciences and psychology. She's about to start applying to medical schools and hopes to focus on neurosurgery.
They've been friends since she started working in the lab next to his, two years ago, at the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute.
Boyd remembers the time she showed up to a work function covered in bandages. She had been hit by a car while riding her bike.
He liked her work ethic. So when her bike broke down three weeks ago, he dusted off the one in his garage and loaned it to her.
• • •
Rao knew they knew.
He summoned Boyd to a meeting in his office and closed the door.
"Have a seat," the administrator said.
Rao explained that he thought Boyd's bike was abandoned, that he found it unlocked.
Boyd recalled Dillingham telling him she had locked the bike.
Rao said he was just trying to help a "semi-homeless" Miami man who does odd jobs for him. What he didn't say was that the man had a lengthy criminal record and sometimes stayed at his house.
"Tell the police it was a misunderstanding," Boyd recalls Rao saying.
Was Rao really using charity as an excuse for theft? Boyd asked himself.
That made him livid.
Every Sunday night, Boyd waits tables at the Melting Pot and donates all his earnings to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, in memory of a young relative who died of cancer.
Every Thursday and Friday, Dillingham volunteers at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, working with patients' families, in memory of a woman she calls her "adoptive mother" who died of ovarian cancer when she was in high school.
She plans to spend her last spring break as an undergraduate serving cancer patients in Haiti.
This wasn't charity, Boyd thought as Rao spoke. And the bike wasn't unlocked.
• • •
Sitting across from Boyd, Rao didn't know about the detour the graduate student had taken just five minutes before.
Instinct had told Boyd to protect the video. He met the facilities manager in the elevator.
"We've got to do this right now," Boyd said. "It's imperative."
They got off the elevator and entered the room. Boyd pulled a thumb drive from his key chain and copied the video. Then, he ran upstairs to the lab and stuck the drive in a friend's computer. He copied the video again.
"Put this on a jump drive and get it out of here," he told the friend.
That video would spread onto YouTube.
No, Boyd told the powerful administrator, he wouldn't "tell the police it was a misunderstanding."
And he had no problem adding:
"The whole lab knows."
• • •
Rao maintains he isn't a thief. He returned the bike.
He denied allegations that he tried to coerce Boyd to lie to the police. He also attempted to withdraw his resignation on Friday, saying he felt rushed. USF says he is no longer an employee.
Boyd continues to field calls from professors, offering thanks.
"I was only interested in the bike, and now everyone wants to tell me their story," he said.
Dillingham gets high fives in the hallways for calling the police to file a report.
"I would rather keep my integrity intact instead of keeping silent to secure my future."
They think their careers will be just fine.
And they plan to auction the bike on eBay, to raise funds for St. Jude.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.