Friday, March 31, 2006
Kansas family beats back fire
It was a twister with a twist.
We came to Kansas to cover tornadoes. And at least one tornado touched down in the state.
But in Hutchinson, a town of 40,000 about 50 miles northwest of Wichita, a twister touched off as many as 18 fires. Authorities aren't completely sure if the fires were caused by downed power lines or lightning strikes, but at least 5 homes were heavily damaged.
An estimated 5,000 acres in Reno County, Kansas, were scorched, and hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes.
We spent the late-night and early-morning hours with lifelong Hutchinson residents Marty and Linda Morgan. They used hoses to try to protect their home from flames.
Marty and Linda's storage shed right next to their house was burned to the ground and the flames continued to burn after the sun came up. But they succeeded in keeping the flames away from their house.
The fires in Reno County were frightening, but one cannot overlook the good news that nobody was hurt.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
A true medical miracle
As doctors, we don't like to use the term "miracle" too much.
Truth is if you look hard enough you will find a reasonable explanation as to why one person survives, when so many others die. When Randy McCloy was pulled out of the Sago Mine and subsequently examined at the hospital, I could tell the doctors weren't too optimistic.
I traveled to West Virginia and they told me that too much carbon monoxide had invaded his blood stream, and for too long. That carbon monoxide had stripped away precious oxygen from his brain and caused what could best be described as a stroke of his whole brain. The fact that he was alive was remarkable and perhaps best attributed to his young age and associated resilience.
Then, over the last three months, there were incremental rays of hope. In what seemed a last ditch effort, Randy was transported to another hospital and was placed in a hyperbaric chamber, the same kind used to treat scuba divers when they get the Bends.
The idea was to force the oxygen into his blood stream and knock some of the lingering carbon monoxide out. He was also given DHA, a fatty acid, with the idea that it could rebuild the coating around some of his severely damaged nerve connections. Slowly, Randy started to awaken. A move here and there, a slight utterance that might be a word. And then today, I sat reveling with all of you as I watched him walk out under his own power, smile, and hold a news conference.
Sure, he didn't say much and his right arm and leg still seem weak, but he is very much alive and is very much Randy. The miracle of Randy's recovery may lie deep in a hyperbaric chamber somewhere or in the thoughtfulness of a doctor who thought fatty acids could help repair the brain. Perhaps it was his own desire to fight for his life or it could just be that his wife Anna never left his bedside, not once, in the entire time he was ill. So, as doctors, just like anybody else, we enjoy the good stories and we are happy from time to time to call them miracles.
Good luck Randy.
Beware of mom's home cooking
For years, restaurant kitchens have been the target of health inspectors, but now the Los Angeles Health Department is targeting your kitchen. They have designed an online food safety test
, just like the one used to rate restaurant kitchens. But this time you can test your own kitchen.
We recently put three Los Angeles area kitchens to the test.
L.A. Health Inspector Hector De La Cruz came along as we raided refrigerators and poked through people's cabinets. We took samples along the way of lots of stuff: homemade chicken barley soup, dish towels, sponges, rare steak, even a fly swatter one guy hung with his clean pots and pans (yuck!).
A lab in New Jersey put our samples under the microscope and you won't believe what showed up. One pot of mom's homemade soup had 50 times more bacteria than is expected in prepared foods. Working this story made me want to go home and scrub my kitchen from top to bottom.
When was the last time you looked closely at what may be lurking in your kitchen? And what do you think a real health inspection may turn up??
Mexican boom town.. in Wyoming?
How many people would have guessed that a small county in Wyoming would have one of the fastest growing populations of Mexican immigrants?
We were surprised and that's why we traveled to Teton County, Wyoming, to check it out.
Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 1,700 percent increase in the number of Mexicans who live here. Why? Jobs, lots of jobs.
Teton County is the home of the posh Jackson Hole ski resort, and as the resort has grown, so has the need for workers. Many of the more menial jobs -- some like housekeeping that can pay up to $15 an hour -- are not attracting any interest from the locals, so word of mouth keeps bringing Mexicans here.
Mexicans were 1 percent of the population in 1990. Now, they are nearing 20 percent. Even in springtime, it is cold and snowy here, but many of the Mexicans tell us they have learned to enjoy the climate and especially, the people.
Although there is occasional grumbling from old timers here, relations between the natives and the Mexicans appear to be quite good. There are certainly many illegal immigrants here, but there are also those who are here legally, including some who have become U.S. citizens.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
The real battle of the border
Tonight we are broadcasting the show live from Nogales, Arizona, what some call ground zero in the battle to stop illegal immigration.
Right now I'm out on patrol with the U.S. border patrol south of Tucson. This is the most active sector for illegals crossing over. Just a few hours before we arrived a horse trailer carrying 42 illegals crashed. About a dozen were injured, the smuggler escaped.
Sixty-thousand illegals have already been apprehended in this sector this month. Next month the border patrol expects to catch more than 70,000.
It's fascinating to see the border patrol in action up close. For all the talk in Washington, this is where the rhetoric meets reality.
Tonight we go from Arizona to lesser known battlegrounds like New York's Chinatown and Jackson, Wyoming, all the angles on the battle of the border.
Can the U.S. do any good in Iraq?
There was a time when Iraqis told you some crazy theory about who was behind the latest bombing and you'd just shrug and pass it off. Now, when most Iraqis' theories circle back to the United States as the root of their ills, you can't just ignore them.
There were a couple of conversations I had recently that made me think I needed to find a way to tell this story.
On my way to cover Iraq this time around, I stopped off in Jordan, which about a million Iraqi refugees have made their new home. Many are the reasonably rich who could afford to get out, and many are Sunnis from western Iraq.
One in particular has become a valuable source of insight into the tribes of western Iraq, exactly the sort of people it's almost impossible to meet in Baghdad because their region is so hostile to westerners. He is an important tribal sheik, and until a few months ago, he was optimistic the United States could bring stability to Iraq. But now he thinks that window of opportunity has closed.
He says the Sunnis in the west of Iraq are angry, not just about the continued U.S. presence but that the United States is allowing Shia's, with their ties to Iran, to become dominant. This sheik was once a close ally of the United States, but now when he talks it seems the United States can do nothing right.
My young Iraqi friends in Baghdad tell me they hear the same thing from their buddies -- that the United States is getting it all wrong.
Just over a week ago, I went to interview a middle-class Baghdad family about life three years after the invasion. They had more questions than I did and most came back to one fundamental subject: What is the U.S. doing here? What did the Americans really come for?
Answers that point to democracy or a better life without Saddam just don't cut it with them. They measure their lives in their daily safety, and they don't feel safe. The simple answer for them is to blame is the Unites States. Nothing I could say could get them to believe the United States is here as an honest broker to help fix a bad situation.
It's hard to say what's deep down in people's hearts. Do they really believe life would be better if U.S. troops leave? I guess they know things could get uglier. It's not that they don't hope their lives will improve. They do. They hope for it desperately every day. But each morning bring no respite.
On Sunday events took a turn for the worse. U.S. Special Operations Force advisers mentoring an Iraqi Special Operations force raid on a band of hostage takers and killers got in a gunfight with the men they came to capture.
Before U.S. military spokesmen could release details of the clash in which 16 people were killed, the Al Iraqia television station here, which was set up with U.S. taxpayer dollars, began broadcasting accusations that U.S. troops had killed worshipers inside a mosque. Worse, even after the U.S. military issued a statement to explain what happened, the TV station kept up the accusations.
It was the first time this station turned on the very people who helped get it on the air. If this station is so openly hostile to the United States, it begs the question: What can Americans do?
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Shock therapy for kids
At first glance, the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, looks like something out of Disneyland. It's a kind of magical place, with plush rooms and lots of games and adventures for the students. But it is also the only place in the country that uses aversion shock therapy on its students -- some of whom are as young as six years old.
The center was founded by Dr. Matthew Israel, who designed a shock device called a GED, or gradual electronic decelerator. The students, who have few options when it comes to schooling due to behavioral issues or mental disabilities, wear up to five electrodes at a time strapped to their arms and legs. The gadget itself is housed in a fanny pack worn by the student. If a student acts out or becomes violent with staff members, the student gets a two second shock to the skin.
But now, a Long Island, New York, woman is suing the state of New York because her son was shocked at the center. New York sent him to the center in Massachusetts after nobody in New York could treat him properly. Aversion shock therapy is illegal in New York but legal in Massachusetts.
She wants her son, Antwone Nicholson, who has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), removed from the center. But Dr. Israel says the shock therapy was helping Antwone, just as it has thousands of others before him. Dr. Israel says Antwone's violent episodes dropped from 5,000 a week to none after he was placed on the GED device. Antwone's mom says she didn't think his behavior was too bad. But she signed the paperwork for him to get the treatment. She says she didn't think it would hurt so much.
When I went to the center to interview Dr. Israel, I tried the aversion shock device to gauge its power. I put one electrode on my arm and shocked myself using a remote control. I had been told by the center's employees that it feels like a bee sting or a pin prick. Let me tell you, it hurt far worse than that. Two seconds felt like two minutes. It was like a parade of pins stabbing me in the arm. I could see why students would alter their behavior after feeling that sensation.
What do you think? Should shocks be used as a way of controlling behavior in children? Or is it, as critics call it, inhumane?
Drinking with the 'devil'
When I think of an alcoholic, I typically envision a middle-aged guy with a bright red nose, telling stories a little too loudly at a bar. So, when I recently heard 50 percent of alcohol dependence starts before age 21 and 75 percent starts before age 25, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), I was shocked. Alcoholism, it seems, has become a disorder of young people, far too young.
In some ways, it is not surprising, given that your risk of alcoholism is 60 percent genetically determined and only about 40 percent environmentally determined, according to NIAAA. While it is not guaranteed the child of an alcoholic will become one, it certainly is more likely. If you have a history of alcohol abuse in a parent or sibling, you have a fourfold greater risk than someone without that family history.
What is also amazing is the earlier you start drinking, the more likely you will continue to drink your entire life. Your brain actually adapts in some ways to the alcohol. Think of it like this -- you have two counteracting forces in the brain. One is the devil on your shoulder telling you take a sip -- that is called the amygdala. The other is the angel, warning you of the dangers -- that is the frontal lobes. In children who start drinking, the frontal lobes throw in the towel early and let the amygdala, or devil, control their actions.
That may have been what happened to Richard Preston, a 61-year-old you will meet on tonight's show. He only drinks ice tea now, after ten whiskies a day for much of his life. It seems the liver transplant finally scared him enough to stop. He tells us first hand, however, what his life was like as someone who was completely dependent on alcohol. The ravaging headaches, remarkable weight gain, and dulled senses.
Have you ever wondered what alcohol really does to your body and to your liver? I will show you tonight, and I warn you -- it is not pretty. For many doctors, treating alcoholism is not about blame or circumstance, it is understanding the science of alcoholism. Yes, there is a science to it, and if you learn it, it may just keep you away from another drink.
From terrorism to trash collection
You would think that after more than 50 years of one of the most intimately chronicled conflicts in human history -- Israelis vs. Palestinians -- there would be nothing new to say, no surprises. You would be wrong.
Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that has launched suicide attacks in Israel, won the Palestinian elections
in January, thereby creating two firsts:
1. The first time a regime has changed in the Arab world democratically through elections;
2. The first time an Islamist group has come to power through elections.
Hamas gained support among Palestinians through two decades of building an effective and affordable social welfare system in Gaza. It runs most of the kindergartens, funds health clinics, provides welfare checks to widows and orphans, and yes, even stages mass weddings to help unemployed young men get married.
During this year's election, Palestinians fed up with the rampant corruption and lawlessness of the late Yasser Arafat's government turned to the only alternative, Hamas.
So when people ask: "Why did the Palestinian people elect a terrorist group?" The answer is because they see them as a lifeline.
Each time I go to the Palestinian territory of Gaza, I am shocked by the reality on the ground. On a recent visit, I passed through a short tunnel from the First World in Israel and emerged into the Third World that is Gaza. The poverty there is among the worst in the world.
Hamas officials told me they did not expect to win the election as overwhelmingly as they did. They say their main priority now is to meet the demands of the people for a better life.
But that may be impossible, because Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Hamas and have already cut funding
to the new Palestinian government.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Woman accused of poisoning neighbor
Brian Hausler met us in a park about a mile from his house. He was friendly, but I could sense he was enormously stressed. We put a microphone on him, and began to roll tape, as we walked on a cold spring day.
"People keep asking questions," he said. "Did we have an affair? Did I lead her on? There was no affair. I did not lead her on."
Brian is talking about his neighbor, 33-year-old Tina Vazquez. Vazquez is now behind bars, charged with first degree assault for poisoning Brian's wife Angie.
Brian said he and Angie and their two young children moved to Bonne Terre, Missouri, a small town south of St. Louis, about a year-and-a-half ago. Last summer, they became friends with Vazquez, a neighbor. At first, Brian said, she came over with her husband; then they separated. Vazquez soon became a regular visitor, and did some babysitting for Brian and his wife.
At some point last fall, Brian's wife Angie started to have ongoing flu symptoms. Then, earlier this month, Angie got very sick and called 911.
Doctors said she'd been poisoned -- that she must have ingested a toxic substance recently. Angie told her husband that Tina Vazquez had given her an antibiotic capsule about a half hour before the worst symptoms came on. Brian became suspicious, and confronted his neighbor.
"I said, 'What's going on Tina?' And she said, 'I did something bad. I put something bad in Angie's medicine,'" Brian told me.
Police said that "something" was sodium nitrite, a substance used for curing meat. Investigators said Vazquez worked at a meatpacking company, and substituted a toxic dose of the chemical in the antibiotic capsule she gave to Angie Hausler.
"And I asked her why," said Brian. "She just said she thought she could make me happier."
Detectives told us that Tina Vazquez claimed she and Brian Hausler were having an affair, but Brian says that's not true. He says his wife is now home, and recovering.
Brian suspects his neighbor was slowly poisoning her over the course of several months. So far, police allege only one poisoning attempt. But prosecutors say that if she's convicted, Tina Vazquez could face up to life in prison.
Neither Angela Hausler nor Tina Vasquez would speak to us for this story. Tina Vasquez hasn't yet made a plea in this case, and tomorrow (Tuesday morning), she'll make her first court appearance to face formal charges.
Teen's discovery could save millions of lives
E. coli poisoning is a huge problem in Third World countries, mostly due to poor sanitation. Millions of kids die every year from the severe diarrhea it causes. There is no quick cure, because most available shots require refrigeration.
For years, scientists have been working to find what can kill E. coli. Well, finally, someone found it. It turns out there is a good bacteria in yogurt that secretes a protein that kills E. coli. We know this now because a very smart, hard-working researcher discovered it...at the ripe old age of 13.
Serena Fasano, now 16 years old, earned a patent recently on her discovery, so we thought we'd interview her on "360." We learned Serena has spent countless hours of her free time in a lab and that she's very, very bright. She's also a normal high school kid with lots of friends. Yet, this "normal" kid's after-school activities could soon save the lives of millions of children.
What were you doing during your teen years? Actually, don't answer that. Better question is -- were you in a lab every day after school and on weekends looking for medical discoveries? Exactly.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Exorcist casting the devil out of Tulsa
When Sherri roared like a bull, rolled her eyes into her skull, and lunged against the three men who were holding her, Bob Larson says he saw the devil. He should know. Larson is one of the leading practitioners of modern, Christian exorcisms, and here I was in a hotel conference room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, right across from Oral Roberts University, watching him wrestle with demons.
Larson performs his exorcisms in rooms full of people -- sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. One religious scholar says 600 Protestant churches have established what they call Redemption Ministries in recent years, which feature exorcisms or something like them.
At the heart of all this is a basic belief that demons are real and move among us, inhabiting people's bodies and driving them to all manner of bad behavior.On this night, as Larson stood with his Bible in hand and called out demons, a half-dozen people howled, cried, and bellowed in strange voices, while he ordered their possessors back into the pit of hell.
I am naturally skeptical of things that cannot be proven, so I had to ask: Is all this just a show?
Larson and the folks he confronted say absolutely not. Larson freely admits he has been called a charlatan, a flimflam man, and a snake-oil salesman. But he clearly has legions of followers -- people who believe exorcism can help them in the eternal battle between heaven and hell. Sherri says she feels a great weight was lifted from her through the experience.
So what do you think: Are modern exorcisms a legitimate religious practice or spiritual vaudeville?
Friday, March 24, 2006
Sexsomnia: Not as funny as it sounds
Sexsomnia is one of those words that's both titillating and disarming to hear.
It's the name for a condition in which someone has a sexual experience while asleep, sort of like how people walk or talk in their sleep. It spawns jokes from the people it affects and from the people who are lucky enough not to have to deal with this sleep disorder.
Many of the emails I received in the week since beginning research about sexsomnia for tonight's show have had a joking tenor. Like the one from "O.S." in Boston who says that to his horror, sometimes he'd rip his wife's clothes off during one of his episodes of sexsomnia, but still they "laugh about it later."
Or the one from "M.M." in San Francisco who says he wakes up after his "episodes" -- which involve loudly talking about sex and moaning -- only to find that his neighbors have heard and "snicker and make gestures."
Or the one from a woman in Europe who says she would masturbate in her sleep. It was 10 years before her husband even mentioned it. It's sometimes fodder for jokes between them, but she and her husband are at the same time trying to save their troubled marriage.
The jokes, well, they're understandable. It's an uncomfortable thing to talk about.
But after all of the conversations I've had the past week with "sexsomniacs" and all the time spent researching people it affects, including two who were tried in courts of law for initiating unwanted "sleep sex," I'm erring on the side of seriousness.
Sexsomnia is one of those fascinating conditions that give us an opportunity not only to examine questions about what is sleep or consciousness, but a chance to examine our views about sex.
Jailbreak: $58 million prison sits empty
It might be one of the most expensive pieces of government property never to be used.
Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, built a $58 million jail. The "Wapato Facility," as it is known, was completed two years ago, yet it's completely vacant. The local sheriff, Bernie Giusto, it calls an "echo chamber."
It's not like there's a shortage of potential inmates. Portland actually has a jail overcrowding problem. Last year, the county released more than 4,500 inmates because they ran out of jail beds, according to the sheriff's department. What's going on here?
Voters signed-off on the money for the jail to be built, but the county didn't and still doesn't have the money to operate it. Local leaders say shrinking taxes are to blame, which is forcing tough choices between funding classrooms or prisons, for example.
For Sheriff Giusto, the most frustrating element is having a perfectly good facility sit empty. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he offered the jail as a solution for short-term housing for evacuees. (The Red Cross said "no" because it didn't think it would be appropriate to have storm refugees in a jail.)
Anyone who tours the jail can't help but feel a little perplexed by the situation. Despite being a jail, it's an impressive facility. It's clean and modern. There are two flat screen televisions for the inmates to watch. The kitchen is stainless steel.
Why did the government build a jail it can't operate? I kept wondering that as I looked around. And as of this writing, I still don't have an answer.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Trading beer bongs for sledgehammers
OK, so you probably won't see these spring-breakers on MTV anytime soon, but thousands of young college students have passed up beer bongs in Daytona for the opportunity to volunteer in Mississippi and New Orleans, gutting homes and helping residents try to clean up.
I spent today with a number of volunteers, and I gotta say, while some people fret about the future of our country, if these young people are any indication, the kids are alright. There is nothing glamorous or fun about the work they are doing. Ripping out dry wall in mold-infested homes is not exactly easy or pleasurable, and yet, these students have paid their own way here for the privilege.
Nearly every person said the same thing: "I had no idea it was this bad" and "I can't believe more isn't being done."
I wish everyone had an opportunity to come down to the Gulf Coast. Nearly seven months since Katrina, and still no clear rebuilding plan is in place.
It's interesting to see it through the eyes of these young volunteers. I think the danger of coming here as often as I have is that it starts to seem normal. The destroyed homes, the lack of progress. For the volunteers it is a shock, and it still should shock us all.
Black market puppies crossing southern border
People will do most anything for a buck. That's one reason why border smuggling is so prevalent. But while most of us are familiar with stories of human beings and drugs being smuggled across the border, I wasn't quite so familiar with another type of smuggling...that of puppies.
Smugglers are going to puppy farms in Mexico, where they are able to buy very young and often very sick puppies for a low price. They then gamble they won't be stopped at the border. Once they get into the United States, they place want ads and sell the puppies for a huge markup in arranged meeting places to people who think they're getting a good deal.
But it is illegal in some places, such as California, to sell puppies under eight weeks old. And what often happens is the people who buy these very young puppies see them get sick very quickly.
We spent time going undercover with puppy sellers in Mexico who wanted to sell us 6-week-old ill-looking puppies. We then watched police conduct a sting operation to arrest a woman they claim makes a living by selling young, sick puppies in California. And we spent time with two families who bought puppies on the street for their children, only to see the dogs die in a matter of days.
The story is very sad and increasingly prevalent, according to U.S. authorities and human society officials. Small dogs are trendy right now, and when people see a sad puppy on the street, sometimes their better instincts leave them and they decide to buy them. And that is what is leading to an increase in this puppy black market.
This 'folk hero' sheriff could face charges
It was less than a week after Katrina laid waste to the gulf coast, and Billy McGee, the sheriff of Forrest County, Mississippi, was tired of waiting for help to arrive. So he ordered his deputies to nearby Camp Shelby, a FEMA staging area, and told them to commandeer two 18-wheelers loaded with ice that were being held under lock and key.
The officers followed McGee's orders. In the process, a National Guard soldier who tried to stop the hijacking was handcuffed. McGee is in hot water and may face criminal charges. But his community is backing him.
The opinion page editor of the local newspaper says, "Hang on." Six days after Katrina, the county had no power, no ice, and temperatures were in the 90s. The editor says FEMA's response to the disaster was anemic. People were hurting. Someone had to do something. A poll shows 88 percent of the county supports McGee.
In fact there is even a song out in the area, a tribute to McGee's actions. It tugs at heartstrings, but is a little rough on the ears.
I talked to McGee and his attorney for about an hour, all off camera. They don't like the attention and won't talk about the case with cameras running.
The investigation into the sheriff's action was being handled by a U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, but he recused himself. The case was transferred to a U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is deciding what to do with it.
I popped into a place where people are only too willing to talk about the case -- a blue-collar diner called Mom and Dad's Country Cooking, in Petal, Mississippi, just outside Hattiesburg.
The place was filled with burly folks who look as though they don't miss many meals. In between bites, we learned the sheriff isn't some cowboy. Far from it. They say he's soft-spoken, a local fellow who's serving his fourth term. He was a good softball player, and a guy who cheated death by beating leukemia. And to a person, they support what he did 100 percent. It's elevated the sheriff to folk hero status.
One fellow summed up the sentiment in the diner, saying, "He stepped up and did something for the people. That's it."
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Five months in prison: Free of charge
By law, the state of Louisiana has no more than 60 days to charge someone arrested for a crime, but Hurricane Katrina has left hundreds of inmates behind bars with no access to a lawyer.
We interviewed one man, Ace Martin, who was arrested for an alleged fistfight a few days before the storm. He was evacuated from the Orleans Parish Prison the night Katrina hit, and bounced around to different prisons around the state. Five months later, he was still in jail.
It wasn't until he read about an attorney, Neal Walker, and contacted him that he finally got released. Walker has helped more than a thousand other inmates get released. He says they were being held longer than state law allows because the district attorney, the public defenders and the courts can't keep up with the number of cases.
I've been looking into the apparent collapse of the New Orleans justice system for months now. The situation doesn't seem to be getting any better. The district court is still pretty much unusable. The office of District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. was flooded. Now, he and his reduced staff are working out of a former nightclub. And there are just six public defenders left in town to defend the poorest of the city's prisoners.
Jordan Jr., the district attorney, told us that because of Katrina, he thinks it is acceptable for prisoners to be held longer than is allowed under state law. We also talked to Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, who says help is on the way in the form of new funding from Washington, D.C.
But not everyone is pleased with how the situation is progressing. One attorney, Rick Tessier, put it this way: "I think eventually people are going to look at this situation and say, 'Saddam Hussein had six lawyers in Iraq and 4,000 people in Lousiana have no lawyers and that's not fair.'"
After five months behind bars for that alleged fistfight, Ace Martin was never charged. That's five months of his life he won't ever get back.
Angelenos and New Yorkers hunted by 'assassins'
Not being Mike Wallace or part of a contingent of paparazzi, I usually don't hide in bushes or dark stairways to ambush people. But that's exactly where I was a few days ago -- and, oh yeah, on the roof of someone's apartment, too.
We're doing a story on these amateur "assassins," who hide out looking to "kill" their target. Sounds violent, but it's actually part of an elaborate game called "StreetWars: Killer." Think paintball, but played with water guns. And not in some arena, but on the streets of Los Angeles or New York City.
Some 200 people are given a list of targets to kill -- and when I say "kill," I mean shoot with a water gun or hit with a water balloon. So you've got your list. But at the same time, you are on someone else's list. So while you're out there looking for your targets, someone else is looking for you. All you get to start is a picture, a name, some basic info. The players Google each other, look through records, and do all kinds of other stuff to find out where their targets work and play.
We were assigned to "Agent Tuna," a 20-something woman living in Hollywood. We scheduled the interview days earlier and called when we were on our way, but when I knocked on her door, she was so paranoid she wouldn't let us in for 5 minutes, not until we proved we were with CNN and not trying to set her up.
Pretty soon we were on the road, driving by her targets' homes. We were literally crouching in bushes, crawling on the ground, waiting for these people to come home.
I thought this game was silly at first, but after a few hours, I started to feel paranoid too. I was looking around, watching my back, getting nervous about getting found out. Then I would get excited when cars pulled up, thinking it might be our -- or rather, her -- target.
At one point, we climbed up a lady's balcony to hop over to the roof. Later that night, we crouched in a dark stairwell for hours, after "Agent Tuna" got a lead that her target was on her way home.
I asked her: Do you realize how ridiculous we seem sitting here in some alley on a Thursday night? She said she asks herself that question all the time, but the adrenaline rush is so incredible she keeps coming back for more. I found this out for myself.
Just as we were packing to leave, "Agent Tuna's" target finally came home. But she missed. And then she missed her second one too. We waited hours in that dark stairway for her third to arrive. Just when it looked like the night would be a bust, targets two and three ambushed her. Number three got away, but "Agent Tuna" recorded her first "kill" when she blasted target two. Now all she has to do is get the other ones...and watch her own back.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
What doomed Iraqi police?
Looking at video of the overrun police headquarters
in Moqdadia, the first question that comes to my mind is: Why so little damage?
Burnt out police vehicles, yes. Gutted building, yes. Bloodied clothes, yes. But nothing recorded on the camera footage I saw to indicate a massive, long, drawn-out fight. It begs the question: How could police in a secure compound allow themselves to be overrun?
It's happened before, most notably in Mosul in November 2004, when insurgents stormed multiple police outposts, torching and destroying many of them. Almost over night, the police ran away. The assessment at the time was many of the police were sympathetic to or afraid of the insurgents.
The police force in Moqdadia should be better trained and by most accounts is better motivated than the force in Mosul two years ago. So was there an informer among their ranks giving insurgents vital information about weaknesses? Or were they simply so ill-equipped or poorly trained they couldn't match the insurgents?
U.S. military officers have told me they believe infiltration of Iraq's new security forces is so significant it may take years to eradicate. But if the police were let down by poor equipment or a lack of training, then that raises other questions about the speed with which they are being put in harm's way.
The area around Moqdadia is typical of regions in Iraq where U.S. forces are handing over "battle space" to Iraqis. It puts Iraq's police and army in operational control of a clearly defined area, allowing U.S. troops to scale back and ultimately leave the country.
Regardless of which explanation answers my initial question, the simple answer may be the one provided by U.S. field commanders: Iraq's police and army are a long way from standing alone.
Democrats to Bush: Bring it on
Ok. The truth is I've been vacationing for nine days on a beach where the TV news is not spoken in a language I understand and the New York Times costs $11. (I said, no thanks, but I tried to read 'above the fold' stories while my sons ran around getting overpriced food in the local grocery store).
All by way of saying, usually I can return from a news-free vacation and find stories I'm pretty sure I read before I left. Nothing much changes, especially in politics. Except this time, there was something new.
Democrats seem ready to actually challenge President Bush on security issues.
For last night's show, I looked at the politics of the Iraq War. Despite the falling poll numbers on public views of and the president's handling of the war, it has been a political given that Democrats couldn't find a way to turn that to their advantage politically.
But stop the presses and consider Howard Dean's statement yesterday: "The president's chief advisor Karl Rove says he is going to run on security. Well, to quote a famous American, 'Bring it on.'"
For those of you who don't think Howard Dean speaks for Capitol Hill Democrats, I present to you Senator Harry Reid, whose office sent out a note to Democratic operatives, urging them to tell their bosses to use their holiday breaks to challenge the administration on homeland security, the treatment of veterans and the war in Iraq, with incompetence being the unifying theme of this challenge.
All that talk from Democrats about "the culture of corruption" seems to have been replaced by new buzz words -- "dangerously incompetent" or "amazingly incompetent" or the like, as long as they contain the word "incompetent."
You pay. They don't. How come?
$35 billion. As much money as China will spend on its military this year. As much as Americans will spend on weight loss plans. That's how much money is owed to the U.S. government in fines and penalties from corporations and individuals, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
And yet the money goes uncollected. Why?
None of the government agencies we contacted wanted to talk publicly about the problem, but they admit it is real. Some agencies suggest they just don't have the people to collect. Some say these offenders who have broken all sorts of regulations for workplace safety, the environment, consumer protection, you name it, often can't pay anyway. So, these regulators suggest, it is good to at least use the threat of fines to extract promises of better behavior.
Still, at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, D.C., I met Oscar Keys, who had just finished paying $270 worth of parking tickets. He wasn't happy when we told him the federal government has let $35 billion of fines go uncollected. As he put it: If the government is collecting money from me, shouldn't it collect money from everyone, including big businesses?
Monday, March 20, 2006
Dying for a good night's sleep
I usually sleep no more than five or six hours a night. Between my jobs as a neurosurgeon, CNN medical correspondent, TIME contributor and new daddy, that's all I can afford. And frankly, it always seemed like enough.
Sure, I might get a little tired by mid-afternoon, and I know that experts recommend eight hours. But you can get a lot done in those extra two or three hours, especially when the rest of the world (not to mention the baby) is asleep. So when my CNN producers and I decided to put together a series of stories on sleep
, it seemed a good opportunity to figure out just how much I really need.
For six months, we crisscrossed the country, interviewing sleep experts, getting tested in sleep labs and even flying a 747 simulator after being awake for 30 hours. I got my first clue that I might be more sleep deprived than I thought in a lab run by Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.
I was wired with electrodes all over my head (including my eyelids) and two cameras recorded my every move. Everybody figured that with all the distractions, I would have trouble sleeping. As it happens, I was out almost immediately -- faster, according to the researchers, than anybody they had ever studied. It has given me new insight into my wife's complaint that I'm often asleep before my head hits the pillow.
I was sleep deprived. So what? Still confident that there was nothing wrong with my ability to function at full capacity, I flew to San Francisco, where NASA's Ames Research Center keeps a full-size virtual-motion simulator of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. It's the next best thing to really flying. After a few hours of training and several takeoffs and landings, I had mastered the 747 -- or so I thought.
My assignment was to stay awake to the point of sleep deprivation and then try to fly again. After being awake for 30 hours, I felt more exhausted than I could ever remember. Then I was back in the cockpit. Remarkably, all those simple landing sequences were suddenly much harder to remember. Just keeping the nose of the plane level was a real challenge. Had I been flying a real 747, my passengers would have had a very bumpy ride.
My experience, I learned, is hardly unique.
If you have been up for more than 20 hours, your reflexes are roughly comparable to those of someone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, which in many states is enough to be considered legally drunk. You should not drive, and you most certainly should not fly a plane, in that condition. Moreover, the effects add up. Sleeping only six hours a night for a week makes you as tired on the seventh night as if you had had no sleep at all.
Having seen firsthand what sleep deprivation can do, I'm now making a conscious effort to get more shut-eye. I still don't know why we sleep in the first place, but I have a much better feel for what happens if we don't.
Daytona Beach on guard for serial killer
On the streets of Daytona Beach, volunteers with the Halifax Urban Ministries try to help out the homeless and people down on their luck.
On this night, they are walking the streets, handing out flyers that warn women of a very real, very deadly danger. Local police say a serial killer is out there. Since December, three women have been shot and killed. They all went willingly with their killer, police say.
For the volunteers this is a two-pronged effort. One group canvasses the beach where the spring break crowd is. The college women say they are cautious. They stay in groups.
But across the inter-coastal waterway on some of the city's hard-boiled streets, the mood is different. This is where the killer has struck, targeting women police say lived a "high risk" lifestyle.
One woman who calls herself Carol says she's a former prostitute. She says the women on the street are more careful now. They don't get in cars with men they don't know. Police say there is no connection between the killings and special events like spring break.
Another woman, Scholanda, sat alone on a darkened street corner. She told us she always carries a cell phone. "It doesn't have no minutes on it," she said. "But I can call 911 real quick." Scholanda said she usually carries a knife, but didn't have it with her this night.
We stopped by the corner of Madison and Beach streets. Just off the corner in a narrow alleyway is where the first victim's body was found. A piece of cardboard was slid behind a pipe on the side of one of the buildings. On it, the woman's friends wrote notes to her, messages of peace and love.
As one of the ministry volunteers put it, every time a woman on the street gets in a car with someone she doesn't know, she's playing Russian roulette.
Friday, March 17, 2006
Crawling away from wreckage with hair ablaze
I am based in Beirut, Lebanon, better known to Americans as the terror capital of the world in the 1980s for its rampant lawlessness and kidnappings. Thankfully, the civil war that lasted some fifteen barbarous years ended in 1991. But Lebanon is still a dangerous place.
A series of mysterious bombs have killed or maimed several politicians and journalists I knew well, none more so than a remarkable and courageous woman named May Chidiac, a fearless Maronite Catholic journalist who I came to admire during the war years.
Back then, May was a field reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. In recent years, she has come to be known throughout the Middle East as a kind of Barbara Walters. She is fiercely independent and has made many enemies through her opinionated commentary and TV news reports.
Her last broadcast came six months ago when she poured scorn on Lebanon's powerful neighbor, Syria. Her televised discussion focused on alleged Syrian involvement in a series of assassinations in Lebanon. A few hours later, May was blown up by a bomb attached to the underside of her SUV.
She was sliced to shreds, somehow crawling way from the wreckage with her hair ablaze.
"I saw my hand attached to my arm with a small piece of skin," she told me. "But I hoped that they could save my hand." In fact, she lost her hand and half of her arm as well as most of her left leg. She was also covered in terrible burns and her body was peppered by shrapnel wounds.
For months, my friend and respected colleague has been subjected to grueling physical therapy at a special rehabilitation center near Paris. For tonight's show, we talked about how she survived the bomb attack and her valiant effort to eventually return to the screen to tell stories that matter.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Debating 'Roe vs. Wade for Men'
When I blog for this show, I'm always curious to know if the subject will actually motivate people to engage in a debate. Turns out my original story about the case they're calling "Roe vs. Wade for Men"
generated a lot of interest.
It's about a lawsuit arguing men should have the right to reject the responsibilities of fatherhood -- including getting out of paying child support. A national men's rights group backing the suit argues a woman gets to decide if she wants to have a child, give it up for adoption, or have an abortion, while the man has no control.
In the lawsuit, Matt Dubay, a 25-year-old from Saginaw, Michigan, is suing his ex-girlfriend, 20-year-old Lauren Wells. They had a baby girl who is now eight months old. Dubay says he told Wells up front he did not want to be a father. And he doesn't feel he should have to pay $560 per month in child support. Here's a sample of your responses:
He was intimate with her and is responsible. Can you imagine the financial impact of allowing men to avoid child support! It is already a problem. He needs to pay.
Posted By Ted, Dallas, Texas
The main question is whether or not the man has a right to any say in the outcome. What if the woman wanted an abortion and the man wanted the child? Would the man have a say in that circumstance? Or would the woman have all the choices without any regard to the wishes of the man?
Posted By Frank, Columbus, Ohio
He says it's about trying to extend to men the freedom of choice the Supreme Court decision gave to women. Really? What statement fails to realize is that women must deal with the situation because of biology. Hence, the choice to make a decision, because they cannot walk away from this reality. When men have the ability to become pregnant, then the same choices should be extended. If men currently are extended the same choices, then it is assuming that they will have choices which will affect a women's body. Where is the equal justice in that?
Posted By Margaret, Orlando, Florida
This is really a matter of "equal justice under law" and needs to be sent to the Supreme Court. Look at it this way -- if a woman becomes pregnant she has the following options open to her:
(1) Abort; or,
(2) Rear child; or,
(3) Place for adoption
The man, in the case of pregnancy, has the following options:
(1) Pay support; or,
(2) Marriage and support; or, if this lawsuit is successful,
(3) Flee or otherwise refuse
As it stands now, the only options open to men are #1 and #2; and #3 is right-out illegal in most places. What this lawsuit does is open up equity for men in this matter -- since men cannot become pregnant themselves, this gives the man a similar "opt-out" option that the woman currently has. Regardless of personal morals, this is an intensely important issue, and may well drive legal doctrine in this country for decades.
Posted By Phil, Waterloo, Iowa
You can watch my full report on this story tonight on the show. It will be followed by a debate on this subject. And you can read my original blog post here
. Feel free to leave more of your thoughts in the space below.
Searching for closure in the lower Ninth Ward
The story assignment was simple -- a reality check on the effort to recover the bodies still buried in debris more than half a year after Hurricane Katrina.
I have lived in New Orleans nearly three months now. And working on this story, it struck me. Does the rest of the country realize only half the debris left by Katrina has been removed from Louisiana? Do they realize hundreds of bodies are still unaccounted for?
I drive by blocks and blocks and blocks of splintered homes every day, with people dressed in hazmat suits walking in and out of the houses they are gutting. But the real emotional button for much of New Orleans is the legion of people still listed as missing.
The Family Assistance Center puts the number at 1,495 people and dropping. No one really believes that many bodies will be found. That would more than double Katrina's death toll.
The state medical examiner estimates there are probably 400 people who died who haven't been discovered. Sad reality, most of them probably never will be. Authorities here suspect many washed into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, or some bayou.
That doesn't mean crews aren't looking. Every day, cadaver dog teams get up, and in tedious fashion, they walk from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood. The monotony is broken every now and then when a dog makes a positive "hit" -- meaning it senses human remains or body fluid deep beneath debris.
It is grisly work. It is time-consuming. And it is important. Debris from areas like the lower Ninth Ward can't be removed until all suspect areas have been thoroughly checked.
It is going to take months to finish. People in charge tell me the effort to find bodies could still be going on even as we memorialize the first anniversary of Katrina next August.
Firefighters, dog teams, medical personnel, and others privately debate just how many more bodies will be found. Their answers may shock you. The low end -- in the teens. The highest number I have heard is about 60. That means a lot of families with missing loved ones will never get closure.
Help wanted fighting wildfires: No hotheads need apply
March is supposed to be a quiet month for wildfires. That's why the Aerial Firefighting Institute holds its annual training school this time of year in Safford, Arizona, for pilots of SEAT planes, or single-engine air tankers.
The pilots of these planes typically are the first-responders to wildfires. Get on the fire, and get on it fast, are words these firefighters live by. If you don't see them and the fires they're fighting on TV, then that means they are doing their job.
While P3 air-tankers "bomb" the big fires, SEAT pilots attack the small ones before they get big. In theory, at least, that's how it's supposed to work. But lately, there have been so many big fires that SEAT pilots are fighting them alongside the "bombers."
The SEAT "attack fighters" are single-seat, modified crop-dusters that can drop 800 gallons of water and fire retardant while flying high speeds in tight locations. This is risky business that requires lots of training. No cowboys allowed here. Only experienced pilots with a cool head need apply.
Apparently, they won't let hotheaded Italians fly either. That would be me. I'm so bummed they won't let me go for a ride. LEGAL issues they say.
Well, it's pretty cool to see the training from the ground. Anybody out there ever want to be a crop-duster or aerial firefighter? With the early start to this season, they may very well be hiring.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
'You look like a kid'
Hearing that Mike Wallace is going to be stepping back from his work at "60 Minutes" was surprising to me. It's not that he doesn't deserve a little let up in his schedule. He has certainly earned as much time off as he wants. It's just that for as long as I can remember I've spent Sunday nights with him. Not literally, of course.
To me, "60 Minutes" is still the best news magazine program on broadcast television. It's the only show I rush home to see, even when I know my TiVo is going to record it anyway. It's the only show I listen to on the radio, if I am in a car when it's on.
It's only recently that I've come to know Mike and his amazing wife Mary personally. I flew down to Florida this weekend to attend a dinner with them for a charity they support. I actually got to sit between Mike and Mary, and it was such an incredible treat.
"You look like a kid," was the first thing Mike said to me when I saw him Saturday evening.
"That's because he is a kid compared to you," Mary quickly chimed in.
When Mike told me he was going to be 88 years old this year, I did a double take. I couldn't believe it. He looks amazing, and has far more energy than I do.
I've been reporting now for 15 years, and there are days I wonder how long I can keep this pace up. News is a tough business. It's hard on your family. It's hard on your brain. It's hard on your body. But Mike Wallace has been at the top of his game for decades, longer than I have been alive. If I could have half the career Mike Wallace has had, and will continue to have, I would consider myself a very lucky man indeed.
Training draws scrutiny after Marine drowns
"If he was such a good swimmer, how did he drown during a training exercise with the Marines?" That is what I asked myself when I was first assigned the story of Staff Sgt. Andrew Gonzales...and I am still asking myself that question.
Gonzales was a strong swimmer. His wife called him a "fish." All he ever wanted was to be a Marine Drill Instructor. After accomplishing that goal, he was handpicked because of his water survival skills to train to become a Marine Combat Water Survival Instructor. But just six days into training, he died. How did it happen?
According to the Marines' preliminary investigation, Gonzales was in an exercise where instructors grab students to simulate being grabbed by a distressed swimmer. Three times, Gonzales failed to escape his instructor's hold. According to the report, witnesses heard Sgt. Gonzales yelling "let me go" several times that morning.
Shortly before his final breath, Gonzales was "breathing rapidly" and "visibly uncomfortable," according to witnesses.
So why did Staff Sgt. Gonzales have to die? How tough is too tough when it comes to training?
It's the Marines' policy not to allow a rest in between rescue exercises like Gonzales was performing. It's also their policy not to let the student go until he's successfully performed the exercise. Gonzales died after his third attempt. Four marines are now charged with dereliction of duty and two of them face more serious charges of manslaughter and negligent homicide. They have not entered a plea yet.
One former marine we spoke with for our story, which airs tonight, says the training has to be tough in order to turn out tough marines. "This isn't the boy scouts," he said. Sgt. Gonzales refused to get in the swim tank the morning he died, but he was told to "get in the pool or be dropped from the course," according to the investigation. An hour later he was dead.
Do you think the Marines should reconsider how tough they are on their recruits and others in training? Where do you draw the line?
The man behind 'Roe vs. Wade for Men'
When I walked up to a modest home in Saginaw, Michigan, yesterday morning and knocked on the door, I expected a loud and emotional greeting from the man inside. After all, he's launched a lawsuit that's grabbing headlines
and could have national implications. As it turns out, I met a soft-spoken man, but what he has to say could impact how men are held accountable when they father a child.
Matt Dubay is 25 years old. He's single. And for now, he wants to keep it that way. But Dubay is also the father of an eight-month-old girl named Elisabeth. And that's the problem. Dubay is suing his ex-girlfriend, 20-year-old Lauren Wells, because he believes he shouldn't be forced to pay $560 a month in child support.
"During the time we were seeing each other, I made it very clear to her that I was not ready to be a father, and she made it very clear to me that she was incapable of becoming pregnant because of a condition," Dubay told me.
The ex-couple's battle here in Saginaw has become the centerpiece of a national campaign to allow men to reject the responsibilities of fatherhood. A rights group called The National Center for Men
is backing the lawsuit, calling its legal crusade "Roe vs. Wade for Men," after the landmark Supreme Court decision that gives women the legal right to an abortion.
Dubay told me that he feels he was shut out. "She was given the right to have an abortion, keep the child, put the child up for adoption, and whatever she chooses, I have to go along with....Under our laws, our constitution, that doesn't seem right to me."
Women's rights groups insist men like Dubay are not being forced into parenthood. They say child support payments are a fair, and modest, alternative to the lifetime commitment of being a father. But when I met with Dubay's lawyer, Jeff Cojocar, at his office near Detroit, he insisted the lawsuit isn't trying to create an easy way out for men. He says it's about trying to extend to men the freedom of choice the Supreme Court decision gave to women.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'
Natalee Holloway, Lori Hacking, Laci Peterson. The list goes on and on and on.
When pretty, young women -- especially white ones -- are killed or disappear, media storms often follow. There is no polite way to say it, and it is a fact of television news. Media and social critics call the wall-to-wall coverage that seems to swirl around these events, "Missing White Woman Syndrome."
That was the phrase invoked by Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, during our interview yesterday. The phenomenon is characterized by critics as a short and cynical equation: Pretty, white damsels in distress draw viewers; missing women who are black, Latino, Asian, old, fat, or ugly do not.
I think the critics are a lot right. And I think they are a little wrong.
People in the news business, in my professional experience of nearly 30 years, are like people in every profession. They wrestle with questions of right and wrong, fairness and accuracy, perception and reality. Some are good at it. Some aren't.
I've never, not even once, seen a story spiked because the victim was not attractive enough or the wrong race. But I've seen plenty of stories fall by the wayside, pushed down and out of the show, because a consensus develops that says, "You know, I don't think our viewers are very interested in this case."
Is that racism or realism? We can't cover every murder, but ignoring them all or reporting just statistics seems irresponsible. So how should we decide whose life or loss is covered?
Monday, March 13, 2006
'They can smell the danger'
We landed in the Texas panhandle this morning to news that wildfires have scorched 650,000 acres here since Sunday.
To be honest, I've been having a hard time wrapping my head around that figure. It's just too massive to comprehend.
As we chased the fires this morning, we drove some 60 miles from Amarillo to Borger to Pampa to Miami -- the land was charred as far as the eye could see. And what we've seen is only a fraction of what has burned.
Which brings us to Miami. This is a town of 588 people along Highway 60. The wildfire has reached the northern ridge of this town and dozens of firefighters are battling the rugged terrain to keep the flames from rolling in.
High winds blow the smoke over the ridge into Miami. Residents might not be able to see the low-moving flames, but they can smell the danger. I was standing on top of the ridge watching the firefighters work and right behind me you could see the town where some residents have put sprinklers on their rooftops.
West Texas wildfires are fast-moving. I can't emphasize that enough, and you probably have to see a wildfire erupt to get a true sense of how quickly they can move. We saw flames rise from the smoldering ground twice in 15 minutes. Firefighters were able to smother them quickly because they were close by.
So for now, the town of Miami is safe. But the volunteer firefighters on patrol here aren't letting their guard down.
Three little words that changed a war
Improvised explosive device.
It's probably safe to venture that just a few years ago most Americans had never heard those three little words used together in one phrase.
Now, those words are invoked daily in news stories and military briefings, as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have proven to be the deadliest weapon against U.S. troops in Iraq. Some 930 U.S. troops have been killed by these bombs, and 9,627 wounded.
Just as sectarian violence is on the rise in Iraq, with civilians now in the crosshairs of these explosive devices, the Pentagon is stepping up its efforts to deal with the IED problem. Officials are fond of saying there is no "silver bullet," no single solution. And they appear to be right.
Soldiers are trained to look for IEDs, but these weapons can be hidden in a pile of trash, in the carcass of a dead animal or in a cement curb at the side of the road. The Pentagon wants to spend more than $3 billion to develop new technologies to detect IEDs, but insurgents constantly change their bomb-making practices, so that each time there is a new U.S. detector, new types of bombs appear.
And now, the military has turned to the FBI to get help with forensic science and detective work, as they look for networks of bomb-makers and their funding sources as they try to dry up the deadly pipeline for these devices.
Search thy neighbor
Who's your neighbor? Do many of us really know much more than "Hi, how are ya?" about the people next door?
Well, Steve Prator, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has made it his mission to get to know some of his new neighbors. He's trying to do background checks on hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in his jurisdiction -- the area around Shreveport, Louisiana, about a five hour drive from New Orleans.
But Sheriff Prator is infuriated that FEMA refuses to release the names, social security numbers and dates of birth on the evacuees who are getting FEMA funds to stay in Shreveport-area hotels and shelters. We talked to him about this issue for the show.
The sheriff is convinced that a lot of the evacuees are criminals. To back up his claim, he points to 33 evacuee names he got from an informant. The sheriff ran background checks on those evacuees, all of whom are in the Shreveport area, and found they all had criminal records and a combined total of 340 prior arrests.FEMA maintains that federal privacy law prevents the agency from releasing any personal information about evacuees to law enforcement.
But Sheriff Prator points out that people in federally funded public housing developments have to go through background checks, and he doesn't see why it should be any different for evacuees living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms and shelters.
Friday, March 10, 2006
Bush's successor might be in Memphis
Call it what you want -- the opening bell in the 2008 Presidential race, the first cattle call for candidates, an opportunity for delegates to kick the tires on the new Republican models -- but there's a chance the next president of the United States will be here in Memphis, Tennessee, this weekend at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC). While this event can't make or break a candidacy, it can give Republican faithful an early look at how viable a candidate might be. It's all about buzz.
The early money is on Sen. John McCain. He has the edge on experience -- running a national campaign in 2000. And he's gone some distance in the past six years toward building bridges with the conservative wing of the party. But according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, he is still more popular among moderates than conservatives, leaving the door open for someone else to pass him on the right.
Who might that be? Rudy Giuliani for one. According to our poll, he has less appeal with moderates than McCain, but beats him with conservatives (despite some positions that would seem to give social conservatives cause for concern). Giuliani also has tremendous national security and management credentials, the sort of person America equates with crisis management. Giuliani was invited this weekend, but is skipping the event.
And then there is Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. A dark horse at this point, Huckabee has the kind of personality that could catch fire. A former minister who is hugely popular with social conservatives, Huckabee recently lost more than 100 pounds and ran a marathon in an effort to beat diabetes. He was born in a little town called Hope. And we all know that Hope has a pretty good record of producing presidents.
Any way you look at it, the field is wide open. It's the first time since 1952 that there's no sitting president or vice-president seeking the nomination. The eventual list of candidates could top 10 or 11. In addition to McCain and Huckabee, also in attendance this weekend are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (a home-state favorite), Virginia Sen. George Allen, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Each will have 15 minutes to address the delegates. Fifteen minutes they hope will lead to fame.
We'll get our first idea of how delegates are feeling about the field with the results of a straw poll on Saturday night. Sure, a straw poll at this time could be considered meaningless, but let's not forget who won the SRLC's ballot in 1998 -- George W. Bush. However, some Republicans say the fix is in on Saturday's straw poll. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott claims Frist has stacked the deck by busing in delegates from Nashville. There's no love lost between Lott and Frist, and Lott is throwing his support behind McCain. But to trash the senator in his home state is an indication of just how interesting the coming campaign could be.
It's still early, but who do you think is the GOP's best bet in 2008?
Son still hoping for fugitive father's kidney
Imagine counting on your dad to come through for you. Sure, he hasn't been there for you most of your life, having been in prison for seven years on a bank robbery conviction. But now, he's promised to donate a kidney
, raising your hope just a little.
That's how relatives of 16-year-old Destin Perkins describe the teenager's emotional predicament.
Last year, Destin's mother gave him one of her kidneys, but his body rejected it. His father, Byron Perkins, offered his, but is now on the run
with his fugitive girlfriend, Lee Ann Howard.
So all Destin can do is wait.
If his father is captured or gives himself up and still agrees to donate his donate his kidney, Destin says he'll take it gladly.
If not, his doctors at Kosair Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, say they won't even consider a transplant for months. They would first look to other relatives. Mainly, they say, Destin needs a good dose of emotional strength to rebound.
"Right now, the family's gone through a lot of psychological strain," says Dr. Larry Shoemaker. "We"re trying to get Destin back to a regular dialysis program."
The fugitive father and his girlfriend are now on the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted List. There is a $25,000 reward for information leading to their capture.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Twenty kids, eleven moms, one dad
Eleven women having children with the same man....not through polygamy or promiscuity, but through the modern marvel of reproductive science.
Women who undergo artificial insemination typically choose from a large pool of anonymous sperm donors. General characteristics, like height or education, may be revealed, but that's about it.
Well, while reporting this story, we looked at a case in Virginia where one man's genetic profile has proven especially popular. He is said to be of German descent, tall and athletic, and is responsible for "fathering" as many as 20 children through 11 different women.
He chooses to remain anonymous, but the mothers have established an incredible connection to each other through a Web site called DonorSiblingRegistry.com. The site allows mothers who conceive children with donated sperm to connect with one another.
I spoke to several women who connected in this fashion. They have become fast friends, but perhaps more important, their kids have discovered they have brothers and sisters. To see the kids' photographs is striking, because of their resemblance to one another.
The moms are smart and highly educated. They aren't unusual but for the fact they all chose sperm from the same donor and have kids with a strong biological connection.
So are they all really members of the same family? Are these kids actually brothers and sisters in any meaningful sense? This is one of those assignments I'll be thinking about for a long time.
I get by with a little help from my friends
If the statistics are trustworthy, they are staggering. The number of adults taking prescription drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has more than doubled in the past few years. Some of them, like Kim Majerowicz, whom I met recently in Baltimore, are glad to hear it.
Attractive, outgoing, and middle-aged, Kim runs her interior design business with energy and good humor. She says that just a few years ago, however, she could barely drag herself out of bed. She often ran late to appointments, lived in chaos, and felt as if she were failing as a parent, as a spouse, and as a person. Then she was diagnosed as ADHD, started taking medication, and everything changed for the better.
Her doctor, David Goodman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, thinks wider prescribing of drugs might help other people too. He is concerned that as many as seven million adults in America are living with undiagnosed ADHD.
But other medical experts fear that many adults, in a complex and busy world, are watching drug company ads and convincing themselves that the pills used to treat ADHD -- stimulants -- can be used as simple performance enhancers, making them work better, faster, and with less fatigue. They call it drug abuse.
I know there are people who suffer from pronounced psychological conditions who doctors say are undeniably helped by these drugs. But I also know some doctors worry we might be too quickly "running for the shelter of Mother's Little Helper." What do you think?
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Kentucky putting the squeeze on smokers
In Kentucky, tobacco has long been an important cash crop. It still brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But tobacco has also brought the Bluegrass State something less glorious -- Kentucky has the highest smoking rate in the United States. Nearly 28 percent of Kentuckians smoke regularly, more than any other state.
Considering the state's heritage, we found it interesting when Kentucky decided to start charging state employees who smoke more money for health insurance than it charges nonsmokers. The man who led the effort to add the surcharge is Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who also happens to be a doctor.
Gov. Fletcher feels that insurance surcharges along with a wellness program will lower Kentucky's smoking rate. In addition, he thinks it is fair for smokers to pay more than nonsmokers because they cost the state so much more for medical care.
But there are a lot of angry smokers in Bluegrass Country. Here's one common complaint -- Why doesn't the state ask other people in high risk categories to pay more?
One state employee we talked to says she smokes two packs a day, but hasn't had any major medical problems, so why should she pay more?
We asked the governor what he thought about that argument. He says right now smokers are indeed the only group paying more, but he wouldn't rule out expanding the surcharge to other higher risk categories. Kentucky is one of five states that ask smokers to pay a surcharge, but it got our attention because of its number one ranking in a category it doesn't want to lead.
The 'Donald Trump' of New Orleans?
Where many people saw hopelessness in the damage and devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Patrick Quinn saw opportunity.
For years, Quinn has been a player in New Orleans real estate. Now, he's making a play to be a major power broker.
He's purchased five buildings since the hurricane and is in discussion for two more. Usually, he says, his company, Decatur Hotels, does only one or two big deals a year.
In fact, The New York Times Magazine this week dubbed him the man who wants to be the "Donald Trump" of New Orleans.
Quinn cringed when I asked if that was his goal, saying, "No, no!" What he really wants, he says, is to branch out from hotels and into residential development.
Quinn started down that path after Katrina, buying a couple of residential lots. But then he slammed on the brakes. He fears city, state, and federal officials have yet to come up with an acceptable plan to redevelop flooded areas like the Lakeview section of New Orleans.
Quinn lived in Lakeview as a kid, attending Catholic schools in this now devastated area. He believes homeowners will return if they are confident the area is safe.
But the clock is ticking on Quinn's plans....Fewer than three months until hurricane season. And unless residents know they will be protected in low-lying areas, Quinn knows they will not return.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Remembering Gordon Parks
I just heard the news that Gordon Parks has died. My mom saw him several times this past week, and she warned me yesterday that he was near the end of his life. Still, the news came as a shock. I just wanted to write in and say a few words about a man whose life was truly remarkable and deserves to be celebrated and honored for years to come.
If you don't know who Gordon Parks is, or even if you think you know about him, chances are you only know one part of his story. Gordon Parks lived more lives and had more talents than anyone else I've ever met. He was a photographer, a writer, a poet, a film director, not to mention a father, a husband, and a friend.
Gordon gave so much to this world, even though this world initially didn't give him much of anything. He was born in Kansas to a family that was dirt poor. He was the first African-American photographer for Life Magazine, and later, the first African-American to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio.
My mom became friends with Gordon Parks in the mid 1950s. He was a photographer for Life back then and had come to take her picture. I don't think two people could have come from more different backgrounds, but my mom and Gordon became very close friends -- a friendship they maintained and protected throughout the rest of their lives.
Most kids don't pay much attention to their parents' friends, but when Gordon Parks came to stay at our house on weekends during the summer, my brother and I made sure we would be around. I knew Gordon was cool, long before I even knew what the word cool meant. Memory plays tricks over time, and I can't recall if Gordon drove a Jaguar or a Porsche, but I remember it was the most beautiful sports car I'd ever seen. He told me he'd give it to me when he died. Later, he admitted he said that to just about everyone who inquired about the car.
As a kid, I didn't really know much about Gordon's career. I knew he'd written books and took photographs. It was only as a teenager that I actually saw his remarkable work and came to appreciate the full scope of his talent.
We live in an age of quick celebrity, where people become famous for not really doing much of anything. Gordon Parks earned everything he ever got. He made countless contributions to art and politics, and through his work and his life was an important agent of social change. I feel very lucky to have known him even a little bit.
It's strange. I didn't know Gordon was ill, and just last week dropped off at my mom's house a belated birthday present for her. It's a photo of Gordon and her taken a few years ago in her apartment in New York. It was taken for a series on race The New York Times was doing.
In the photo, my mom and Gordon are sitting in her living room, holding each other. There is something so tender about it. These two old friends, both of whom knew the pain of losing a child, both of whom had seen so many good times and bad. There they were after all these years. Friends. Survivors. Together. Holding onto one another.
Gordon Parks has died. He is gone. Thankfully, his work, his art, his example -- those are things all of us still have to hold onto.
Reeve's resilience left me hopeful
I know the numbers are abysmal when it comes to lung cancer, but somehow I thought in the back of my mind that Dana Reeve still would beat it.
Maybe it was her amazing resilience after her husband was paralyzed or even the optimistic outlook in November when she announced her tumors were shrinking. Maybe it was the fact that she and Christopher had a son, Will, and it would be brutally unfair for him to lose two parents in two years. I should have known better.
Lung cancer kills 60 percent of its victims in the first year alone, and within five years, only 15 percent are living. A large part of the problem has to do with the fact that we aren't very good at screening for this type of cancer. By the time someone comes to their doctor because they are not feeling well, the cancer is often advanced. We have mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colon cancer and PSA tests for prostate cancer, but when it comes to lung cancer (the biggest killer of all), we aren't even sure who to screen.
Should it be every person who has smoked over 10 years? Should it be anyone who has a cough lasting more than a month? How about someone who develops pneumonia and bronchitis repeatedly? The answer is we don't know, and the medical community isn't ready to recommend a CT scan of the lungs for every American, while a chest x-ray alone probably isn't sensitive enough to detect early lung cancer.
A lot will be made of the fact that Dana Reeve wasn't a smoker. Fair enough, since that fact puts her in the minority of lung cancer victims. Only 20 percent of women who develop lung cancer weren't smokers and just 10 percent of men. It may have been bad genes, exposure to secondhand smoke or radon or something else entirely. Truth is, we may never know for sure.
Still, there is a larger issue: How do we collectively make a dent in saving and prolonging the lives of people with lung cancer? Should we place a bigger focus on it in the media? Should more funding go toward treatment as it kills more people than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined? And perhaps most importantly, how do we develop a better screening test?
We'll take your cancer-related questions live on air tonight between 10 p.m. and midnight ET, so please call us then at 877-648-3639. In the meantime, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. I'm anxious to hear what's on your mind.
Couple 'vacations' with fugitive dad in Mexico
John and Lynn (real names withheld by choice) were sitting at an airport gate in Phoenix, waiting for their connecting flight to Washington state after a Mexican vacation.
CNN was on the monitor. John was reading a book as he listened to a story about a Kentucky fugitive dad
who was allowed to leave jail for a final round of tests before donating a kidney to his son.
But he skipped out. Vanished. John said he thought, "What a jerk." He looked up at the screen, saw Byron Perkins' photo, and said, "Honey, you wouldn't believe who was just on TV."
John and his wife believe they unwittingly spent a few days with that runaway dad in a tiny fishing village called Boca de Tomatlan south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Perkins and his girlfriend Lee Ann Howard had been on the run for a month.
Instead of ignoring the story, John and Lynn went the extra step. They called police. They got involved. Timing. Luck. Whatever you call it, U.S. Marshals are grateful to have their first solid lead in weeks.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Former employees allege racism at Allied Aviation
It was a source who first called me about this story, which focuses on an airline refueling company called Allied Aviation, one of the largest airline refuelers in the country. Chances are, when you look out the window of your airplane, Allied workers are refueling your aircraft.
When I first heard the details, I found them hard to believe. Several African-American and Latino workers at Allied's facility in Dallas allege they were subjected to racism by supervisors and colleagues and that upper management didn't do enough to stop it.
Eric Mitchell, a former employee, described how white workers and managers used a demeaning racial slur to describe blacks. He says his immediate supervisors did little to stop it. One day he went to work and saw his name, as well as the names of several other black employees, on something called the "n----- hit list." The list was written on a bathroom wall.
Mitchell was so concerned he reported it to police. But he said it was only after he and others complained to Allied's corporate headquarters that the company scheduled a sensitivity class.
I also spoke to Francisco Ochoa, who had put up with workers telling him to go back to "Mexico." The defining moment for him was when he walked into his manager's office and found a derogatory cartoon with him in it. He said it was titled: "Mexican gas chamber." Ochoa, who was battling cancer, tearfully explained how deeply it had hurt him.
When I caught up with Ochoa's former manager, the one who had the cartoon on his desk, he told me that while the cartoon probably should not have been on his desk, whoever drew it was "a good artist." He said Ochoa never complained to him about the cartoon.
Allied would not speak to us on camera about the allegations, but they did release a statement: "We deny that these individuals are the victims of any type of discrimination or retaliation....We have acted in good faith towards these individuals."
But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission conducted an investigation, and as a result, filed a federal suit against Allied Aviation. The EEOC says Allied did too little, too late to stop the racism at its facility. And, according to James Vagnini, a plaintiffs attorney, there are similar allegations at Allied facilities operating at JFK airport, Newark International and San Antonio.
I know full well that racism still exists in many parts of our society, despite the good intentions of most people, but the allegations in this case nevertheless are disturbing.
'Buddy' finds dead people with his nose
Buddy gets up every day and can't wait to get to work. No complaining, just a methodical, business-like approach to his job.
That's amazing when you consider more often than not Buddy spends his entire day looking for dead people.
Buddy, you see, is a six-year-old German shepherd and a "cadaver dog." He is trained to find dead people.
Buddy went into a house in the Lakeview section of New Orleans Sunday, hit the brakes and immediately looked toward the ceiling. A short while later, a grim find in the attic -- the mummified remains of a man in a crawl space.
This man probably died more than six months ago during Hurricane Katrina. While it's not easy to say, the state medical examiner believes he died a terrible death.
Just two days earlier, on Friday, the city police checked the same house and found nothing. Without Buddy's keen nose following up on Sunday, the house would have been torn down, the remains of this man likely swept away with the debris.
But now, with DNA testing yet to come, there should be some sense of closure for this man's family.
Friday, March 03, 2006
McCloy will 'roll his eyes' at all the attention
I have been reporting on Sago mine survivor Randy McCloy's recovery for two months now, and yesterday, I interviewed his wife, Anna. While I had seen and heard her speak at the few press conferences she has held so far, I have never seen her as relaxed and animated as she was yesterday. The reason is simple: She told me it wasn't until just a week ago that she felt Randy was showing signs of real recovery -- speaking to her and their children, able to remember details, and perhaps most important, shining through with a sense of humor.
For much of the past two months, she and Randy's doctors have described his recovery as "miraculous" and "exceeding their expectations." But in talking to them yesterday, it became clear that while they have been optimistic, it is really only now that they are confident of Randy's ability to regain much of what the Sago mine disaster threatened to take from him forever -- his essential personality, his ability to interact with friends and family.
Anna has become well-practiced at dealing with the media. She told me with a big chuckle that Randy will most likely roll his eyes at the notion of being the center of attention. She says he's aware that a lot of media attention awaits him when he leaves the hospital. My guess is there will be a temptation to cast Randy as a symbol of all that is good and troubled about the coal mining industry. Even without that burden, it would be challenging enough for them to handle all of the interview requests and shrug off the inevitable misrepresentations that happen when stories are retold.
I just hope they can regain some peace and quiet and reconnect with their community, which has lost so much.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
Jihad Jack was a prized catch
Just the name says so much -- Jihad Jack.
Otherwise known as Jack Thomas, Jihad Jack is an Australian convert to Islam who took the Muslim name of Jihad and ended up at an al Qaeda training camp in 2001. He gets a gleam in his eyes as he describes Osama bin Laden "float across the room." By his own admission, he was offered cash and a plane ticket by one of bin Laden's top lieutenants to go back to Australia, under no illusion that it was for anything but terrorism.
Does the story sound familiar? Maybe you're thinking of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, who is now in a U.S. prison? He also went to Afghanistan, the same training camp, in fact, and was also someone al Qaeda wanted to recruit. Both men are converts to Islam and terrorism experts say they are prized catches for al Qaeda -- basically white guys who can blend back into their own societies.
Which makes you wonder: How many Jihad Jacks are out there? And what made him and others like him go to Afghanistan in the first place?
This week, an Australian court convicted Jihad Jack of intentionally receiving funds from al Qaeda and possessing a falsified passport. But he was acquitted of intentionally providing resources to al Qaeda.
Tonight, you'll hear an interview Jihad Jack did with an Australian TV program. He discusses his conversion to Islam and his journey to Afghanistan, but swears he never planned to attack his countrymen. He says he took the money because he felt he was owed it.
Violent death raises troubling questions
In 1999, Rashad Williams was an antidote to the poison of despair that was the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings. Just 15 years old, he became a national celebrity after raising tens of thousands of dollars for one of the victims. Williams was interviewed by many TV networks, including CNN. He even made an appearance on Oprah.
Popular, handsome and athletic, Rashad Williams strikes me as the kind of kid that many teenagers wished they could be. He was probably the kind of kid a lot of parents wished they could have raised. So it was with particular surprise and sadness that I read of his violent death a few months ago in California.
In December, Rashad was shot twice in the back and died in the middle of the street -- the result of what authorities describe as a violent home invasion. But then, details surfaced that floored me. Rashad, 21 years old, wasn't a target of the home invasion -- he was an intruder and was shot by the homeowner. Turns out that in recent years he had robbed banks and passed counterfeit checks. I have since talked to people who knew him best and we all share the same question: How could this happen?
Some possible clues emerge in these interviews, which we will feature tonight. At times, Rashad had problems with stress from the demands of celebrity. Also, there were issues at home with his mom going through a divorce. He was so burned-out in his senior year that he flunked classes and couldn't get a diploma. But are these reasons for such a terrible turn in a once inspiring life? I never found that answer and probably never will.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The best day of Mardi Gras
My favorite part of Mardi Gras? Ash Wednesday -- when it's over! (I'm only partly serious.)
Living in New Orleans, I always tell out-of-town friends that unlike the let down you get after Christmas in any other city, there is no let down in New Orleans. As soon as you put away the Christmas decorations, out come the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras decorations. Then come the parties, and the sticky-sweet "king cakes" in every office, and lots of afternoons when you duck out of work early to meet friends at the parades.
But after two full weeks of throwing my arms in the air to beg for plastic beads, I'm ready for Ash Wednesday. In this rather Catholic city, the day after Fat Tuesday is truly a time to repent. The faithful gather at St. Louis Cathedral to have ashes rubbed on their foreheads -- a reminder of "dust to dust" -- and the city is quiet...calm..peaceful. It is our city again -- the one we reclaim from the tourists on Bourbon Street.
And in the branches of the old oak trees along St. Charles Avenue you'll see those brightly colored beads -- hundreds of strands of beads that were thrown from the floats but never made it to those outstretched arms.
A reminder of our wild side -- until the next big rain brings them all down.
Old horrors, young victims (Part II)
I'm humbled by the sheer volume of responses to my blog post
, partly because many of you were responding even before you'd seen the TV version of this story about the horrors inflicted on the children of Gulu in northern Uganda. I'm particularly touched by your humanity, in a world where inhumanity seems to be the order of the day.
Someone asked whether my heart bleeds every time I cover one human tragedy after another. The answer is yes. I lay awake many nights trying to find answers to seemingly intractable questions -- Why have we become so cruel to ourselves? What makes us revert to our basic "animal" instincts of killing our own without guilt or remorse? Why, in the 21st century, are so many of us living like our medieval ancestors?
The Joseph Kony's of this world are everywhere, like many of you pointed out -- in Kosovo, in Chile, in Cambodia, in Congo. I, like many of you, have my own ideas of what I'd want to see done to Kony and his ragtag group of rapists, murderers and pedophiles. But alas, it's not for us to decide their fate. That would make us like them -- animals that kill for the sake of killing.
Many of you asked the fundamental question -- what can be done to help these children? I say you're already doing it. By speaking out, by blogging, by letting friends and family know. These are always good first steps. Word of mouth is still an effective tool in the 21st century. The next step is to write to your congressman, your senator, your elected leaders. Tell them of this horror that exists in our time and make some noise. Lots of noise. That's the only way to keep stories like this on the "front burner." Otherwise, people quickly forget once the "kids" are off the evening news.
For those that want to contribute monetarily, there are a number of credible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing a yeoman's job out there. UNICEF
, World Vision
, others. Their websites are easily accessible. Make sure you indicate the monies are specifically for the "Night Commuters" of Gulu, otherwise the contributions could get lost in some huge, bureaucratic blackhole.
Finally, I'll continue to highlight "my" peoples' plight as long as you continue to show interest. I feel I was born to tell the African story, without fear or favor. Sometimes, it's painful, other times it's fearful, most times it's rewarding for me as a journalist and as an African, especially when I get responses like the ones from this last story. They make me realize I'm doing what I was meant to be doing.
Thanks to all of you for getting involved. Now let's go out there and make some noise.