BEIJING – An American pastor checked into upscale hotels in the Olympics host city this week, filmed himself painting two of his rooms with slogans like "Beijing 2008 Our world Our nightmare" and then disappeared. Without paying.
Eddie Romero's unusual protest, now making the rounds on YouTube, shows foreigners can still sneak through the tight security measures China imposed to keep potential troublemakers away from the games, which start Friday.
Romero's friends said the preacher was in hiding, but planned to surrender to Chinese authorities as soon as the Olympics end Aug. 24.
They said he began thinking about his elaborate, one-man protest of China's human-rights abuses when Beijing was selected as the host for the 2008 Olympics seven years ago.
On Tuesday, in a sometimes unsteady hand — he had to teach himself how to paint — the California-based pastor splashed the walls of his two hotel rooms with demands for the release of five Chinese activists. He slashed pillows and staged mock killings with stuffed people propped on the bed, red paint spattered like blood on the headboard.
"One down," Romero whispers, looking into the video camera. Bespectacled and gray-haired, he holds up a finger in his transformed Novotel Peace Hotel room. "One down."
Romero, who appears to be alone, tells the camera he doesn't want to disrupt the games. He talks about religious freedom for groups that remain highly sensitive with the Chinese government — Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"Freedom's a scary thing for them, and by them I mean the Chinese communists," he says.
Before starting work on the second hotel room, he prays.
After finishing his protests, Romero, who is a part-time philosophy professor at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, Calif., taped the door keys to the rooms' "Do Not Disturb" tags, hung them outside and had supporters tell journalists by e-mail where to find them.
The four-star Novotel and the Traders Hotel, both part of international chains, said the case was in the hands of police. A Beijing police spokeswoman said she knew nothing of it.
"We really don't understand why he did this," said Lanny Liu, communications manager at Traders. Romero apparently slipped out of room 417 before dawn Wednesday, leaving damage that Liu said cost nearly $1,500 to clean up. "We just want to find the person and ask him to pay the bill."
At the Novotel, room 1602 already was restored Thursday afternoon, with machines drying the carpet and a smell of cleaning fluid in the air. Downstairs, manager Marc Cherrier spread his hands and shrugged hugely. "I have no idea," he said of what happened.
Romero's friends said he had planned to paint four hotel rooms, but skipped two because of security concerns.
At one hotel, he found the lobby full of security agents and left after telling officials he had walked into the wrong building. At the second, he found two security agents searching his room, but convinced them there was nothing suspicious about the paint he had.
"That was a close one," he says later into his camera.
The protest is heartfelt, said Bob Fu, leader of the Texas-based China Aid Association who is among a group of Romero supporters monitoring the protest from California.
"This is not like middle-age crisis, craziness," Fu said. "He's very genuine, a caring, loving pastor. And very creative."
Another friend, British-based pastor Tony Thomas, said Romero had no special connection to China, but he had a vision for the project in 2001 after watching Beijing win the right to host the games.
Thomas said Romero hatched the protest plan — which he eventually named "The Gadfly Project" — after consulting with a few close friends at his Hacienda Christian Fellowship church and talking with American activists who campaign for Chinese rights.
"It's gone quite amazingly well," Thomas said. "From the outset, it was considered an almost impossible thing to happen unless God was in it."
The friends said Romero was occasionally logging on to make blog posts while in hiding. He speaks little Chinese, but has dodged authorities so far, and even managed to shop at a Wal-Mart.
"Can you believe it? I'm in Sam's Club in Beijing!" Romero says in one Internet posting. "Will be relieved when all is complete," he says in another.