Friday, January 19, 2007
Psychic told parents that son was dead
Of the many horrors Shawn Hornbeck's parents and loved ones faced during the four years their son was missing, some news they received early on -- just four months into the ordeal -- perhaps was the cruelest ... perhaps.
They had looked everywhere for Shawn. There were no fresh leads, no rumors, no trails to follow. His parents were beyond desperate when they went on Montel Williams' syndicated television program, where they were brought together with renowned psychic Sylvia Browne. The following is the transcript of the exchange between Craig Akers (Shawn's stepfather) and Pam Akers (Shawn's mother) and the psychic Sylvia Browne:
CRAIG AKERS: Can you tell how far from the area he was taken?
SYLVIA BROWNE: Maybe about 20 miles.
CRAIG: And he's still within a 20-mile radius even now?
BROWNE: He's still within a 20-mile radius of -- let's say, here's where you are, 20-mile radius, but it's really southwest of where you are.
BROWNE: So whatever is southwest, because it looks like this is -- here we go again with the wooded, with the -- you know, the wooded areas. So southwest of you.
PAM AKERS: Is there any landmarks around?
BROWNE: Yeah. Strange enough, there are two jagged boulders, which look really misplaced. Because everything is trees, and then all of a sudden, you've got these stupid boulders sitting there.
MONTEL WILLIAMS: And he could be found near there?
BROWNE: He's near the boulders.
PAM: Is he still with us?
CRAIG: Do you see the bicycle anywhere?
BROWNE: I think the -- see, here's what's strange. I think the--the--the bicycle is in another state in a dump.
In other words, Sylvia Browne was telling his parents the worst possible news -- that Shawn was dead, and that his body was in a rocky, forested area within 20 miles of their home. For the next three weeks, the search reportedly focused on finding Shawn's body in that prescribed area.
Of course, they failed to find the body because last week -- four years after he went missing -- Shawn Hornbeck turned up very much alive.
We wanted to talk to Sylvia Browne about her responsibilities and about delivering that kind of information to a desperate and vulnerable family, but she chose not to speak with us in person. In a written statement, her publicist said, "She cannot possibly be 100 percent correct in each and every one of her predictions. She has, during a career of over 50 years, helped literally tens of thousands of people."
All this is a lot to think about, especially if you are family desperate to find your missing child. What do you think? It's something Anderson will discuss with a number of experts on tonight's show.
9-year-old runaway snuck on two flights
You have to be a pretty sharp (albeit troubled) kid to know how to a) steal cars and b) drive them. Nine-year-old Semaj Booker has done both. Three times, according to his mother. She says he learned how to drive by playing video games. If only the story ended there.
On Sunday, Semaj stole a car from his neighborhood near Tacoma, Washington. (In each instance, the cars had been running while their owners were temporarily out of sight.) The fourth-grader wound up leading police on a high-speed chase. The cops wanted to put Semaj into juvenile detention, but were told he's too young. So they took the boy home.
The next morning, Semaj snuck out of his house and took a bus to the Seattle airport. He went to the Southwest ticket counter and gave a fake name. According to this mother, he told the ticket agent his last name is "Williams." The agent looked in her computer and said, "Frank Williams?" Semaj answered, "Yep," and off he went with the boarding pass with the name "Frank Williams."
He got through security with no issues, because children don't need photo id. Semaj hopped on a plane that stopped briefly in Phoenix before heading on to San Antonio. He tried to get on a third flight for Dallas where the boy still has family, but Southwest figured out something wasn't right and called airport police. (The airline told us it's investigating the incident.)
Semaj is now in a shelter in San Antonio until authorities figure out what to do with him. He's been charged with car theft and eluding police, but prosecutors may drop the case because he's so young.
Obviously, this kid is pretty smart. How else could he pull off something like this? Let's just hope he gets some help and is able to put his mind to good use someday.
As for the real Frank Williams ... there's no word on what happened to when he checked in for his flight. So Mr. Williams, if you or anyone who knows you is reading this, we hope you'll let us know what happened when you went to pick up your ticket.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
U.S. prisons could breed terrorists, report claims
My father is a retired corrections officer who worked inside a prison for more than 20 years. Most days he went to work without incident and he always tried to comfort us by saying that acts of violence behind bars are not nearly as common as most people think. But on one terrible day something happened that showed us just how dangerous his workplace could be. Without warning an inmate attacked him and left him badly beaten.
It took a long time for him to recover. But he eventually went back to work in the same prison, surrounded by the same inmates. Nothing like that ever happened again (thankfully), but my dad was never able to comfort us any more by pointing out how that attack was the exception for prison life and not the rule.
That traumatic time for my family was very much on my mind as I heard the loud clank of the heavy metal doors behind me at California's infamous Folsom Prison. We had come to ask questions about the potential for a new kind of violence and those new exceptions that could leave innocent people injured...or worse.
A special report
from two major universities warned of a global trend of men going into prison as criminals and coming out transformed into religious and political radicals. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid is believed to have been influenced by a radical Imam while in a British prison. In the United States, California inmate Kevin James allegedly founded his own radical Islamic group and directed a failed terrorist plot, all from behind bars. (James pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy to wage war against the U.S. government and other charges, and is awaiting trial.)
At Folsom, we found that there is indeed concern that today's overcrowded and understaffed prisons could be an incubator for terrorism. Some officials say it is the perfect environment for someone with radical ideas to stoke the flames of hatred and give rise to a wave of homegrown terrorists. Prison officials compare this "radicalization" of inmates to gang activity saying it is impossible to stop and difficult to manage.
Religious converts behind bars (and there are a lot of them) are said to be prime targets. And while converts of any religion could be at risk, the universities' report says those new to Islam could be more vulnerable than others. That's because prisons like Folsom don't always have a qualified, full-time chaplain to lead services and teach. This could give a motivated inmate the opportunity to spread his own radical ideas to a captive audience.
Imam Salem Mohamed, a prison chaplain, has to split his time between inmates at Folsom and one other prison. He is available to the prisoners for only five days every other week. In ten years, he says, he has only encountered a few inmates with radical ideas. The vast majority he says follows the call to prayer seeking peace, many trying to escape a life of violence. But the authors of this report say all it takes is one charismatic figure to take advantage of this vacuum and sow the seeds of jihad.
It's important to note that followers of Islam are a small minority in a large prison population. Those with radical religious ideas (of any faith) are believed to represent a much smaller minority than that. The odds that one of them might actually cause harm to innocents seems remote. And had it not been for my own family's experience...I might have found that comforting.
Have you seen this woman?
Gary Tuchman is working on a story
about Esther Reed, the woman pictured to the left. Esther allegedly stole the identity of a missing South Carolina woman and used that identity to create a new life for herself in New York City. Gary's television piece on this subject is scheduled to air tomorrow night. In the meantime, please e-mail
us if you have any idea where she might be.
Would you e-mail during sex?
Hot Links: Con artist's crazy cons
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Congressional felons could lose pensions
Over the past few weeks, your calls for an end to fat pensions for congressional criminals have gotten the ears of both sides of the U.S. Capitol.
By an 87-0 count, the Senate recently passed legislation that would abolish pensions for lawmakers convicted of the biggies: Fraud, bribery, conspiracy. Those are the financial crimes that lead to ethics disasters, like those of former Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham, for whom the act is dubiously named.
And just last night in the house, freshman Democrat Nancy Boyda of Kansas filed her bill, H.R. 476, which looks a lot like the Senate version. It could pass if it comes up for its scheduled vote this Friday.
But this is Washington after all, so although the speed with which this legislation is moving is admirable to the rest of us taxpayers, the nitty-gritty exposes some "hole-e-mole-e's."
This is what many of you told us on this blog
: Any lawmaker convicted of any crime should be denied his or her federal taxpayer-funded pension.
This is what the bills say, in essence: Any lawmaker convicted of a very few specific felonies, like bribery and fraud, related to their conduct in office, should be denied a taxpayer-funded pension. So if you are convicted of any other felony, yes, even murder, you still get a pension.
Oh, and one more hole. If a certain lawmaker is convicted of a certain specific felony and does forfeit his or her pension, Congress must evaluate what the loss of that income would do to his or her family. If this would leave the lawmaker's spouse or children destitute, then special provisions should be made.
Congresswoman Nancy Boyda says, "Hey, it's a start." Yep, and there's a long way to go.
Payments to Iraqi victims draw scrutiny
This is the TV version of the story that Steve Turnham blogged about yesterday.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Fairness sought for 'condolence payments'
An Iraqi woman mourns the death of a relative killed during a battle between U.S. soldiers and insurgents.
The terrible news out of Iraq today: At least 70 people people died in a sectarian attack at a university. Plus, the United Nations released a report finding that 34,000 Iraqi civilians died in Iraq in 2006. Most of those civilians were killed in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, but not all of them.
The U.S. military has been involved in a number of civilian casualties, and we wondered, what does the United States do when that happens? Do they make reparations for the families who've lost loved ones?
We checked, and in fact, the Pentagon does have a program to compensate victims of so-called "collateral damage." But as we found out, it's pretty haphazard, and there are those both in and out of the military who think it would be a good idea to set up an official policy to compensate civilian victims of U.S. military actions.
One of those is the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat. He wants the Pentagon to replace the old system of leaving the amount of so-called "condolence payments" up to the discretion of field commanders with a formal program where the Defense Department would need to come to Congress to ask for money, and Congress could then ask questions about civilian deaths. The idea hits on fairness and transparency.
A significant side effect of that kind of program would be to, for the first time, give the public an idea of how many Iraqis have died under U.S. fire. Because right now, no one is counting.
Neighbors: Alleged kidnapper kept to himself
So often when reporting on stories like the Missouri kidnapping, I encounter neighbors and co-workers of someone who has become the focus of an investigation and am told how that suspect was quiet and stayed to himself.
But according to Michael Devlin's neighbors, he fits only part of that description.
Late last summer, neighbor Rob Bushelle says he got into a loud argument with Devlin over a parking space. It ended when Devlin called the police, according to Bushelle. In hindsight, this move appears baffling, given that the abducted boy Shawn Hornbeck was living in Devlin's apartment at the time.
Another neighbor complained of shouting and loud noises from inside Devlin's apartment.
But beyond these negative encounters, no neighbor we found could say they really knew him at all. Devlin worked two jobs and never socialized around his apartment complex or was known to engage anyone in conversation.
People who worked with Devlin also now wonder if they really knew him either. Devlin worked at one pizzeria for 20 years. He became a manager and was known to be dependable and friendly with the customers, including the occasional police officer.
There was nothing to suggest to those around him that he might be an abductor of children.
Hot Links: Military surplus exploited
Monday, January 15, 2007
Raw Data: Kidnapping statistics
The discovery of the two missing boys in Missouri got some of us here at "360" wondering: Just how prevalent is kidnapping in the United States?
While researching this question today, I came across some interesting statistics. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(citing U.S. Department of Justice reports), nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. That's more than 2,000 a day.
The NCMEC says 203,000 children are kidnapped each year by family members. Another 58,200 are abducted by non-family members. Many others are runaways or pushed out of the home by parents.
Despite these huge numbers, very few children are victims of the kinds of crimes that so-often lead local and national news reports. According to NCMEC, just 115 children are the victims of what most people think of as "stereotypical" kidnapping, which the center characterizes thusly: "These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently."
Of these 115 incidents, 57 percent ended with the return of the child. The other 43 percent had a less happy outcome.
Have you seen Cherrie Mahan?
Their stories are eerily similar, but only one, so far, has a happy ending.
When Ben Ownby disappeared in Missouri last week, Janice McKinney, a Pennsylvania woman, shed some tears at the thought of what he and his family must have been going through. Janice, after all, can relate. Her daughter, then 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan, was kidnapped more than two decades ago after getting off her school bus, just like Ben Ownby.
Cherrie, who now would be 30 years old, hasn't been seen since.
Like in Ben's case, there was a witness who saw a vehicle. A student from Cherrie's bus described a blue van with a snowcapped mountain and a skier painted on the side of it. Investigators never found the van. Janice McKinney lives with terrible guilt. It was the first time she hadn't picked up her daughter at the bus stop. She had given her permission to walk the 300 feet from the bus to her driveway.
Next month marks the 22nd anniversary of Cherrie's disappearance. She's happy that William Ben Ownby and another young boy, Shawn Hornbeck, were found. Janice told me it gives her hope that one day she'll have her little girl back too. "Twenty-two years later, I'm still searching for any kind of answer," she said.
As it turns out, Cherrie was the little girl who helped put a real face on missing kids. Hers was the first to appear on those "Have you seen me?" fliers you get in your mailbox.