Friday, September 01, 2006
'Your momma' jokes cease as battle begins
We've only been in Ramadi, Iraq, a few days. Maybe it's the heat, which is in the low 120s, and a few long nights, but it certainly feels much longer.
It took Michael Ware, cameraman Neil Hallsworth and me about four days to get here. The few fights to Ramadi only fly at night, and after mechanical failures, sandstorms and changes in flight plans, we ended up spending several nights on the still-hot concrete of a helipad in Baghdad. Finally, we jumped a ride to Falluja. Honestly, I felt like we were hopping a freight train as we threw our bags onto a Chinook heading vaguely in the right direction and hoped for the best.
We wanted to join a military operation unfolding in Ramadi, and we knew our window of opportunity was rapidly closing. Even with our detours, we managed to show up at the doorstep of the 1-6 Infantry just in time.
Operation Pegasus was nothing if not complex. The aim was to hit four targets simultaneously -- one by a land team, moving in Humvees and Bradleys, another target from the air, with troops dropped in by Blackhawks, and the last, the sea team, which came in on boats sneaking up the river Euphrates.
We ended up hanging onto the back of one of the boats. The troops were equipped with night vision goggles, but we were not. As we moved up the river in the dark, I had to rely on the light from a half moon, which wasn't so bad, but it did make every shadow in the reeds look rather menacing.
After spending time with the soldiers of the 1-6 and the brigade recon troop, I was struck by how tight of a group they are. Most of them are young, perhaps even shockingly so. As cliched as it sounds, these guys act like brothers. They take taking care of each other very seriously and give each other a hard time at any opportunity.
Riding in a seven-ton personnel carrier to the boat launch point, it was quiet for a while, and a little tense, until the soldier behind me turned to one of his platoon mates and said with a very dead pan delivery, "If anything should happen to me, tell your mom I love her." I guess if you can't tell a mother joke before you're sent into combat, then when can you?
Once they hit the ground, no one made any more jokes.
It was a hard night for the brigade recon troop. They were lucky no one was hurt, but they missed their target and an Iraqi grandmother was accidentally shot and killed. You could tell who in the platoon knew what had happened; you could see it in their faces. These soldiers are like most Americans, with varying views on this war. But none of them wants something like that to happen. As tense and full of nervous energy the ride out was, the way back was somber.
The raid lasted about four-and-a-half hours, yet felt like minutes. As we waited for the boats to return and pick us up, the night had become extremely dark. The half moon in the sky had set at some point. We all laid down in a field next to the river, still staying low. Neil and I were just saying that we can't remember ever seeing so many stars.
This isn't an easy tour for these soldiers and the men that lead them -- Captain Dan Enslen, Captain Chris Kuzio, and Captain Danny Pedersen -- just to name the few that I have been able to spend a little time with. These are guys my own age, who over coffee instantly seem familiar. Yet I cannot imagine the lives they are leading, American and Iraqi alike.
As we were leaving for the operation Captain Pedersen looked at me and said, "There is no way I would go past the wire with just a camera." Truth is I am not sure I could go out there with what he has to carry.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Woman still believes in religion but not Jeffs
Warren Jeffs is in a jail cell. But most of his thousands of followers remain in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah.
I have now been in those towns several times. It has been an unfriendly place to be as a reporter, but now it's quite hostile. Warren Jeffs' followers believe outsiders (and particularly politicians and the media) are out to persecute them. Now that the man they believe is a prophet to God is in jail, they feel very besieged and confused.
When we try to talk to them to get their opinions, they either run away from us in fright -- they are told not to talk to outsiders) -- or mutter angry and derogatory things at us.
But we have discovered some exceptions. I walked up to Elsie, a 23-year-old woman. She is the mother of two, the only wife of a man who may ultimately marry more women, and a member of Jeffs' FLDS church. I asked her how she felt about Jeffs' arrest, and she nervously told this stranger she wasn't sure. But she warmed up to us, and she invited us into her modest home that like most FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) houses has no television.
Elsie then told us that although her conservative lifestyle and religion are still important to her, she and her husband no longer love Warren Jeffs. Ever since he's been on the run, they say they realize he is dishonest, and no longer regard him as a prophet.
Elsie says Warren Jeffs presided over her wedding. She says Jeffs told her you will marry a man whom we have picked for you; a man she hadn't yet met. I asked Elsie how long after that introduction the marriage took place, and she told me five minutes later! I thought she was kidding, but she was not.
However, three years later, she says she has indeed fallen in love with her husband, Robert, and she remains grateful to Jeffs for matching them up. Nevertheless, she does believe Warren Jeffs is a hypocrite and not the man she once thought he was.
Hours after we interviewed Elsie, she told me she talked to her father who was not happy that she spoke with us. Elsie's parents are still devoted to Jeffs, and the parent-daughter relationship has suffered because of Elsie's independent views. Elsie told me she is sorry she hurt her father by talking with us, but adds she was always taught to be a nice person, and believed she was being nice by talking with us.
Elsie has undoubtedly lived a conflicted life. But whatever she has gone through, we did indeed find her to be very kind to us.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Star witness surprises polygamy prosecutors
I left New Orleans for Kingman, Arizona, in a flash yesterday after hearing of the arrest of polygamist Warren Jeffs. I came here to cover the trial of one of his followers, which was supposed to start yesterday. But prosecutors got a big surprise when they put their star witness on the stand and she refused to answer questions.
Candi Shapley was just 16-years-old when, she says, Warren Jeffs ordered her to marry then 28-year-old Randy Barlow. Shapley had testified before a grand jury last year that Barlow had forced her to have sex with him after she'd moved into the home he shared with his other wife and children.
"I had never even seen him in my life. He just held me down and took my clothes off and raped me," Shadley told a local television station.
Barlow is charged with sexual conduct with a minor, which is more commonly known as statutory rape. But yesterday in court, Shapley, his former wife, refused repeated requests to answer questions on the stand.
How come? That's what I asked Mohave County District Attorney Matt Smith.
"Her family has put a tremendous amount of pressure on her. They're members. Her mother, father, both are believers in Warren Jeffs as being the prophet and in the FLDS church and they don't want her to have anything to do with these prosecutions," he said. "The victim is also a key witness in Warren Jeffs' case and here Warren Jeffs gets arrested. That pressure, that added scrutiny."
Barlow is one of eight men facing similar charges. All of them believed to be members of Warren Jeffs' FLDS church. This is the largest group of men to be prosecuted for polygamy-related crimes in this area since 1953. But prosecuting polygamists isn't easy, according to District Attorney Smith.
"Most of the victims won't talk to us. The neighbors won't talk to us. All the people that are loyal to Warren Jeffs won't talk to us." He told me some witnesses even go so far as to move homes so they can't be found again.
I also talked to Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County Attorney's office. He has been following this issue for years.
"I think eventually justice will win out. If I didn't, I couldn't continue to do this. So I just keep pushing and pushing and see where it leads us. I'm not done yet. I'm not ready to give up," Engels told me.
Seven of the eight FLDS members charged in Mohave County are still awaiting trial. All have pleaded not guilty and refused to speak with CNN. The only one who's been tried is appealing his verdict. His name is Kelly Fischer. He was found guilty last month of statutory rape and given 45 days in jail and three years probation.
Here's the tricky part of the Barlow case -- if Candi Shapley stays silent, then Randy Barlow could go free and Candi -- now held in contempt of court -- could be the one who ends up in jail.
Prominent polygamist denies interest in Jeffs' job
Greetings from Spokane, Washington. I'm on my way to Bountiful, British Columbia, to interview one of the most notorious polygamists in North America: Winston Blackmore. He's got about 20 wives and a hundred kids.
Some observers are speculating he might be the one to succeed Warren Jeffs as leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) now that Jeffs has been arrested.
Blackmore says he's not interested in the job, but perhaps no one is better positioned to take over. He was the head of the FLDS sect in Canada until Jeffs booted him from power a few years ago. Now, with Jeffs in custody, some people think Blackmore has the leadership skills and charisma to take over the whole church.
Despite what you may think of Blackmore's lifestyle, he's an engaging fella. He's friendly to reporters (unlike most polygamists) and is an ardent defender of the way he lives.
Today, we plan on talking to him about what he thinks of Jeffs' arrest, how he views the future of the church, and whether he might entertain taking over. I'm also curious to hear his thoughts about Jeffs having more than $50,000 in his SUV along with computers and iPods -- the very things he tells his followers to shun.
So here's my question: If you were interviewing Blackmore today, what would you ask him?
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Trying to prevent the next Katrina
A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, officials on the local, state and federal level are not only pausing to honor those who lost their lives, they're also trying to convince themselves and residents of the Gulf Coast that this will not happen again ... that next time, things will be different.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers has erected flood gates to keep waters from filling up fragile canals that buckled under the weight of Katrina's floodwaters last year. It is staggering what the Corps has accomplished in the last year, but even Corps officials admit, the true measure of their success won't be known until the next storm hits.
In the course of the past year, a lot of work has gone into arranging buses, trains, planes and automobiles to shuttle people out of the city if another storm threatens the Crescent City. There are 200 buses on standby in Louisiana, and another 1,600 that could quickly be pulled into service. Twenty-four train cars sit idle at the station, waiting to evacuate people in case of emergency. It's all part of a plan to get people out of the city, especially people who don't have the resources to get themselves out.
But in the course of all this planning, one group has seemed to fall by the wayside -- the elderly. In the aftermath of Katrina, 32 residents of St. Rita's nursing home died before rescuers could reach them. In response to that tragedy and other similar cases, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals decided to test nursing homes in the affected region to see if they'd be ready when the next big one hit.
So teams from the DHH set forth to test out hurricane readiness plans for the 72 nursing homes in the New Orleans area. They were checking to see if the nursing homes had things like adequate generators to power life support devices, sufficient transportation contracts to get residents out if the need arose and a place to shelter those residents in the days following a catastrophe.
The results of those surveys were mailed to the operators of the homes in July. The outcome?
Out of 72 nursing homes, only 21 of them complied with the minimum licensing standards for emergency preparedness. Nineteen facilities had one fault in their plans -- either they didn't have adequate generators or they didn't have a bus contract to evacuate. Then there are the other 32 nursing homes that had multiple gaps in their emergency preparations -- not only did they not have generators, they also didn't have a plan for how or when to evacuate.
So, one year later, the question remains: If and when the next big storm hits New Orleans, will the people who need help the most be in a position to get it?
No jazz funerals for these victims
I'm new to this town. Just moved in last week. Before I came, I read that in New Orleans they embrace death as part of life. When someone dies, a jazz band plays as the funeral procession leaves the church. It starts with a dirge on the block where the church is located. But when they round the corner, they turn up the tempo and march through the streets celebrating their fallen friend's life.
One of my first assignments was to do a story on 50 victims from Hurricane Katrina who remain unidentified. The city of New Orleans is storing the bodies in a warehouse a couple blocks from the Superdome. The warehouse also holds 51 identified victims whose families haven't been able to pick the body up.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, by appointment only, funeral homes can arrange to pick up the identified bodies at the warehouse. It took us a while, but we found the unmarked warehouse on a rainy day last week.
When we arrived, a white minivan converted to a hearse was pulling up. We watched as the middle of five bay doors slowly pulled up to reveal the dimly lit interior. One hundred and one coffins were lined up side-by-side on the bare concrete floor. The city coroner told us the silver-colored coffins were the same kind in which they bring dead soldiers back from Iraq. Each coffin was tightly wrapped in plastic, the same kind you put on the outside of your house before you put siding up to keep the water out.
I was struck by the irony of these caskets wrapped in plastic to keep the water out. Most, if not all, these people drowned in their homes.
Morbid as it seems, we wanted to see inside the warehouse to show viewers what it is like one year later. The coroner told us it would be undignified to shoot video of the coffins. Standing on the sidewalk in the rain, looking inside the warehouse at the rows of coffins, made me question just how dignified it was to leave these people in a warehouse instead of burying them.
A year to the day after Hurricane Katrina, there is no plan to bury the unidentified dead. The DNA samples have been taken and they're waiting for matches. The city says they'll keep the nameless bodies in the nameless warehouse for as long as FEMA pays the rent.
The coroner couldn't or wouldn't give us a breakdown of men, women, children, age, race or gender. They are identified only by a square black and white sign with a number posted on the wall above their coffins -- numbers one through 50 still waiting for their jazz funeral.
One fact remains in JonBenet murder
I think I should get my quarter back.
When John Mark Karr burst onto the news as a possible suspect in the nearly decade-old murder of Jonbenet Ramsey, I was floored.
I have covered this case from the beginning, and over the years, time and again, when people have pulled me aside to whisper conspiratorially, "Who really did it?" my answer has always been the same. "Until the courts convict someone of this crime," I have said, "We will not know who the murderer is, but some of those investigating the murder, lacking other suspects, still cling to the possibility the Ramseys were responsible."
I would always take pains to say that this does not mean the parents did it, but that until someone else was convicted, some investigators felt the family could not be utterly cleared either.
So as Boulder authorities started beating the drum on John Mark Karr, I thought a page might finally be turned. Maybe after all this time, all the speculation, and suffering, the Ramseys would finally be proven to be not involved, and the actual killer would be brought to justice.
I felt that way for about 24 hours. Then the story of John Mark Karr started falling apart. You know all the details by now. You've heard about the unanswered questions about his past. The alibis he didn't even ask for, but were offered up by his family. The strange e-mails and apparent obsession with a little girl's death.
I wrote on this blog
some days back that I long ago bet a quarter with a colleague about the Ramsey case. I told this co-worker that I thought no one would ever be charged with the murder. John Mark Karr, for a short day, made me believe I'd lost the bet, and I was happy for it.
Now I'm back to where I've been for ten years, writing the same sentence that expresses the one undeniable fact of this terrible case: A 6-year-old girl was murdered in her own home on Christmas night, and no one has ever been charged with the crime.
And once again, I doubt that anyone ever will be.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Remembering the city that never forgets
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana -- One year later.
In some ways, it's hard to believe. Parts of the city are cleaned-up, scrubbed fresh. You stare at the Convention Center and the Superdome and there's no sign of what happened there, no marker, no memorial.
I flew in yesterday, and while waiting for my luggage in the airport, I thought back to the elderly and sick people who one year ago were placed on the baggage conveyer belt. There was nowhere else for them to go.
It's strange. I'm staying in the exact same room of the same hotel I stayed in a few weeks after Katrina and it seems normal. But drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, of course, or Saint Bernard Parish and Katrina is not just a memory. People's possessions still lay out in the sun. There is still no clear plan for what will be rebuilt, or when, or how.
Did you know that in New Orleans they never take the names off buildings, even if the name of the building has changed?
My father's high school was called Francis T. Nicholls, named after a racist governor of Louisiana. The name of the school was changed years ago. It's now the Frederick Douglas Academy, but Nicholls' name is still carved in stone on the school facade.
This is a city of memory, a city which never tries to erase its own past. I think there is something important in that. We must never forget what happened here. We must never allow others to simply rewrite the history of this storm. We must remember by honoring the dead and telling the stories of the living.
As we look back tonight on "360" at what happened one year ago in Mississippi and Louisiana, I'd be interested in hearing from you.
What memories do you have of Katrina? Whether you lived through it yourself or just watched the horror unfold on TV, was there a moment, a picture, a story that stays with you? Let us know. Help us remember.