Gifts help Dutch tourist go from cab ride to bike ride

April 12, 1995|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Sasa Nikolic, the Dutch tourist who received free trips and gifts last summer after claiming he was overcharged for a cab ride from New York to Laurel, and the Howard County man who churned up publicity for him are at it again.

This time, they're getting free use of a car and bike while they're trying to stage a benefit for the homeless.

In July, Mr. Nikolic, 24, and Laurel resident A. B. Miller, 51, were showered with free air tickets to Florida, limousine rides and hotel suites at Disney World, after the Dutch tourist told a Washington TV station that a New York cabdriver charged him $472 for a ride to Laurel.

The two say they met at the Laurel Econo Lodge, where Mr. Miller works, when the cabdriver dropped Mr. Nikolic there. After hearing how much Mr. Nikolic had paid the cabbie, Mr. Miller stirred up news media and tourist-industry interest in the foreigner-has-been-had story.

Thanks to a visa extension, Mr. Nikolic is still in the United States. And Mr. Miller now has drummed up a new adventure for him: raising money for organizations that help the homeless and families in need -- one they already have begun to parlay into another round of gifts.

In the meantime, Mr. Nikolic is seeking a second visa extension to avoid having to leave the United States on May 9. In fact, he says, he'd like to stay here indefinitely.

But Mr. Miller says that Mr. Nikolic's need for a visa extension is "not the main reason we're doing the fund-raiser" for the homeless.

"A lot of people have been getting upset that he's been given too much. So I told him it's time to balance the sheet, give something back," Mr. Miller said.

Initially their plan was for Mr. Nikolic to bike around a Laurel high school racetrack next week and raise money by drumming up individual and business sponsors. Then the venture blossomed into biking across Maryland -- or even the nation. But now it appears the event has been put off a month or so and is back at the high school.

The uncertain plans for the fund-raiser haven't stopped Mr. Miller from promoting it with the same flair -- and gift for the gratis -- that he employed last year after he ran into Mr. Nikolic.

Montgomery Ward in Laurel has lent Mr. Nikolic a new bicycle to train on. Henry Gay Oldsmobile in Laurel has given the two men a new Bravada sport-utility vehicle to be used as an escort car when Mr. Nikolic is training for the bicycle event. And the dealership's public relations firm says it's looking into how the event could be widely promoted.

Mr. Miller said he's already called every Washington television station and CNN's Washington office to pitch the story, saying Mr. Nikolic might be going on a "Thank You, America" bike tour. "This has the potential to be really big," Mr. Miller said. The Laurel man gained his most recent benefactors partly on the strength of a scrapbook he totes around that's jammed with newspaper articles about Mr. Nikolic -- as well as business cards from dozens of government and corporate honchos the two met while the Dutchman's taxi saga was a red-hot story last year.

"Sasa played a good role as a victim, and some advantages have come to him as a result of that," said John Gay, general manager of the Laurel auto dealership. "Mr. Miller has benefited, too. He's gotten a lot of the free trips, also. But they seem to sincerely want to pay America back in some way for all the good will, and I'm all for that. The main thing I'm interested in is sponsoring an event that will be a success."

Not all has been rosy for Mr. Miller and Mr. Nikolic since interest in the tourist's story ebbed last fall.

Last month, Mr. Miller attempted to team up with Todd Ouellette, who had just ended his eight-month protest in front of the White House by meeting with the president. Mr. Miller said he wanted to stir up interest in Mr. Ouellette's cause, soldiers missing in action.

But in an interview, Mr. Ouellette said he felt uneasy about Mr. Miller's intentions and turned down the offer. "He told me about all this free stuff they had gotten, and I said, 'Wow.' But there was something about the whole thing I didn't trust," Mr. Ouellette said.

Mr. Nikolic's attempt to stay in America indefinitely by landing a work visa was shot down last winter by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Dutch tourist, who has been living with his pet cat in a Laurel apartment thanks to the $300 to $500 his mother sends him monthly, periodically eats at Elizabeth House, a soup kitchen run by churches in the Laurel area.

Last winter, he also received help from Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a nonprofit crisis center in Laurel, said director Mary Matiga.

It was at the soup kitchen that Mr. Nikolic says he befriended some homeless men. "We just felt that no American should live like they do," said Mr. Miller, who wants "every penny raised" to benefit Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services.

And Mr. Miller is already busy trying to organize another project for his Dutch friend once that fund-raiser is wrapped up: The two hope to jet off to Florida once more, this time to raise money for an organization that aids children with life-threatening illnesses.

But first they have to persuade an airline to donate tickets. So far, United Airlines, which gave the two round-trip tickets to Florida last summer, has turned them down.

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