Thursday, February 08, 2007
New Orleans parents fear losing kids to crime
The St. Augustine High School Purple Knight marching band is good. Real good. We watched them practice after school this week while in New Orleans.

The families of these kids are very proud. And many of them are also relieved; relieved that their kids spend so much time practicing music after school, because it keeps them off the streets.

Life in New Orleans has been tough enough since Hurricane Katrina decimated the city's infrastructure. But as the months wear on, many parents say they their biggest problem may not be the rebuilding, but the rising crime rate that potentially imperils their children.

They say the streets of the Big Easy seem more dangerous these days. Police have even begun random checkpoints where they stop all cars in an effort to clamp down on crime. What's also troubling though is that teens between the ages of 17-19 are a big part of that crime increase, according to Orleans Parish Court officials.

So parents have two concerns: 1) keeping their kids away from troublemakers and 2) keeping their kids out of trouble.

We spent some time talking to a 15-year-old girl who did not want us to use her name. She says her family will no longer let her leave home after the sun goes down. She says she often hears gunshots in her neighborhood, particularly on the weekends, and that she rarely heard them before Katrina.

We also talked with an 18-year-old named John. He says the streets are much more violent now.

"You don't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. But he claims he is not scared.

"Whatever happens is going to happen," he tells me. Not exactly words of inspiration for the worried parents of New Orleans.
Posted By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent: 5:52 PM ET
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Violent crime creeps into the French Quarter

A man displays a sign during a recent rally against crime in New Orleans.

Thirteen years ago, I was mugged in my New Orleans driveway.

I remember being told to turn around, with the gun at the back of my head, and thinking, "What a stupid way to die."

Crime was bad in New Orleans back then. In the mid-90s, the Big Easy edged out Gary, Indiana, for the title of "Murder Capital" of the United States. But a new mayor and a new police chief brought crime under control, and it stayed under control, until Hurricane Katrina.

After the hurricane, most folks thought the criminals had been blown away permanently. Where would they live? In FEMA trailers? What kind of market would they find for drugs or guns in a city preoccupied with gutting houses?

But the criminals have come back, and they are terrorizing people who never felt afraid before. Although the city's population is less than half of what it was before the storm, the number of murders per capita is so high that New Orleans is again the murder capital of the country.

I always tell out of town friends that the "jewel" of the city -- the French Quarter -- is completely safe. It's so romantic to stroll in the Quarter at night, sipping chicory coffee and eating beignets in Jackson Square.

Bill and Betty Norris are 17-year homeowners in the Quarter who just won't go out any more at night. They were almost killed in a mugging in January, and now they say that if the police can't lock up more criminals, then they'll continue to lock themselves in.

They say they moved to the Quarter for the freedom to walk everywhere they want to go -- to the store, to church, to see friends. Now, they drive, even if it's only two blocks.

As Bill puts it, "Our plan now is to reduce our exposure." A 15-year-old who held a gun on Betty was later captured, but the teenager who held a gun on Bill was never found.

Betty says unless the city gets better policing, she and Bill will remain "prisoners" in their home.
Posted By Susan Roesgen, CNN Correspondent: 12:56 PM ET
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Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Insurance companies fight paying billions in claims
Put yourself in the driver's seat of this accident. You are heading down the street when a truck comes out of nowhere and slams into the right side of your car. The damage to the vehicle is obvious: dents across the passenger door.

You are hurt too, thought it's not obvious how much: a slight cut above your eye, an ache in the neck.

Your doctor says your spine was injured, you have soft muscle tears, and the pain in your neck mostly likely is whiplash.

It's going to need therapy, she says, and some time off work to heal. And in the end it's going to cost you $15,000 in medical payments and another $10,000 in lost wages, because you took so much time off work.

But when you send the $25,000 bill to the insurance company of the person who hit you, the insurance company says it's only going to pay you $15,000. You can take it or leave it.

What do you do?

That's what producer Kathleen Johnston and I have been investigating for the last 18 months -- accidents most of us don't pay attention to, the fender-benders we pass by without even slowing down. In part, we looked at how Allstate handled the claim of one woman, Roxanne Martinez. Her car was hit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her medical bills and lost wages added up to $25,000.

Allstate offered $15,000 to settle. Roxanne Martinez didn't know what to do.

Sure, she could try to find a lawyer. But if you were in her shoes, would you? After all, you are fighting insurance giant Allstate over a $10,000 difference. What attorney is going to take on that case?

Martinez's case represents what 10 of the top 12 auto insurance companies are doing to save money. And if you are in a minor impact crash and get hurt, former insurance industry insiders say, insurance companies will most likely try doing the same thing to you: delay handling your claim, deny you were hurt and defend their decision in drawn-out court battles. It's the three Ds: delay, deny and defend.

That, in a nutshell, is the strategy adopted by several major auto insurance companies over the past ten years, a lot of lawyers, former insurance company insiders and others tell CNN.

With nowhere to go, Allstate and others bet you'll take what they offer and walk away. It's right in the training manuals we obtained from Allstate: force "smaller walk-away settlements."

Shannon Kmatz, a former claims adjuster for Allstate, told us she would offer as little as $50 dollars in some cases. Poor people would take it, she said, fearing that if they didn't, they'd get nothing at all.

Roxanne Martinez didn't take it. She sued and a jury awarded her $167,000 dollars. But that verdict took three years.

Allstate is betting you won't wait, you won't sue and you'll take what you get and walk-away. And that, say our experts, has been a good bet for Allstate and others. Accident victims have been walking away from billions of dollars that insurers now keep for themselves.

Allstate would not grant an interview or answer our questions. Instead, they sent an e-mail saying they didn't think CNN would deliver a fair report. I hope you will watch our report tonight and decide for yourself who is being fair.
Posted By Drew Griffin, CNN Correspondent: 3:11 PM ET
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Big guns, big oil collide in Nigeria

These militants say they are fighting to get Nigerians their fair share of oil profits.

Splashing across the murky waters of southern Nigeria in a speedboat, I suddenly found myself in one of the scariest positions of my journalistic career: masked militants firing machine guns at me and my crew.

We hit the deck, shouting, "We are press! We are press!" Eventually, the bullets stopped flying and the gunmen approached our boat, demanding to know who we were.

As I stared down the barrels of some very big guns, being held by angry young men, I began to have doubts about our trip here.

The waters are so dangerous in these parts that the Nigerian navy doesn't even dare patrol the region. In a word, it's a no-go zone for outsiders.

"How many times do you people come here with your cameras and nothing is done? We don't want you guys to come here again," one of the gunmen shouted.

But we weren't about to leave so easily.

Click here to read the rest of Jeff's story
Posted By Jeff Koinange, CNN Africa Correspondent: 11:56 AM ET
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Recent UFO sightings caught on camera

Charles Miller took this picture of unidentified lights in the North Carolina sky and sent it to CNN.

When it comes right down to it, almost all of us have seen UFOs. After all, UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object," and who hasn't seen a flying object in the sky they haven't been able to identify? That said, it's the other connotation of the term UFO that has us doing some investigating this week, the "other worldly" connotation.

A couple of weeks ago, the 911 emergency call centers in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area lit up. People reported strange lights in the sky. Some said it looked like a blue-green oval-shaped object. Some said it was blue and white. Others said it had a tail and streaked across the sky. All said it was something very unusual. One man actually took a picture of it and gave a copy to CNN.

Two nights later, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, fireballs were seen in the sky. And it wasn't only a picture available this time, it was video, which was shot by a television station's camera. One surfer on Oahu told a television reporter that while he was watching the fireballs he thought he might never surf again.

Sightings of unusual objects in the heavens are nothing new. UFO Web sites are full of such reports. But what's noteworthy about the recent sightings is the fact that we actually see the images, rather than just hear about them. And that just adds fuel to the fire for UFO enthusiasts.

Make no mistake about it; there are a great many people who believe the U.S. government has covered up extraterrestrial visits and that these recent events are more evidence of travelers from other worlds. But other witnesses who saw the lights in North Carolina and Hawaii say they're not sure what they were seeing.

We spent part of the evening this past week at the Appalachian State University observatory in the mountains of North Carolina. Professor Daniel Caton told us that most UFO sightings are explainable. The one in North Carolina, he has concluded, was a bolide, which is a fireball-like meteor that ranges in size from a pebble to several kilometers in diameter. Professor Caton told us something about extraterrestrial aircraft we found especially humorous.

"Until it sets down on the White House lawn and CNN is there," Caton said, "I won't believe it."

That hasn't happened yet. But it won't stop believers from believing. Though even the man who took the picture of the object in the North Carolina sky has his doubts. Charles Miller is no believer in alien visitors, but he told us what he saw in the sky looks like no meteor he has ever seen before. He just knows he doesn't want to see something like it over his house again.
Posted By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent: 9:37 AM ET
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Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Some felons serve time and country
Would you give a gun to a guy who admitted to dousing another man's car with gasoline and setting it on fire? That's what the military did in the case of Army Reservist Bob Gidding.

Gidding is a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to a charge of felony arson. He was sentenced to five months in prison and three years probation. He was also barred from owning or possessing a handgun.

But the judge allowed Gidding to ship out for active duty before serving his prison sentence. He wound up serving in Iraq. The Army Reserve went along with it, even though Gidding had told his commanding officer he had been convicted of a felony after joining the reserve.

"They should have arrested him, packed his bags, and sent him back," retired General Paul Monroe told me. Instead, they shipped him out for a second tour of duty and promoted him to military police officer, a job that required him to carry a loaded rifle. And today, Gidding is still an Army Reservist waiting for his next deployment.

As we looked more deeply into this case, we discovered that the U.S. military knowingly allows people convicted of felonies and other crimes to serve. In fact, the Army says soldiers who commit a felony after they've enlisted can continue to serve if a military adjudicator lets them stay.

Pentagon consultant Eli Flyer told us that Army records show it enlisted close to 1,000 people with felony records last year alone. Flyer said the last time the Pentagon matched its personnel records with federal criminal records was 1995. Looking at those records he found that one enlistee with repeated criminal convictions was given clearance for top secret information and another was cleared to serve on a nuclear missile team. Their clearance wasn't revoked until years later.

What do you think? In a time of war when recruiting numbers are so low, should people with criminal records be allowed to serve?
Posted By Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent: 9:00 PM ET
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Can people change from gay to straight?
The news today about Ted Haggard got us thinking: Is it really possible to change from gay to straight? Many people scoff at the idea, but before you dismiss it, here is what one person who says she went through just such a transformation told us earlier today:

"When I lived homosexually, I was homosexually identified, my attractions, my feelings, thoughts, my behaviors, all centered around a homosexual identity, and I can say that all of those things are radically changed now, where I'm a heterosexually identified women," said Melissa Fryrear. "I'm attracted to men. I even look different. I think different, feel different."

Melissa is a Christian who works for the conservative group Focus on the Family.

"I realized as early as age 11, 12, 13 that I was struggling with my sexual and gender identity," she told us. She lived as a lesbian until she was 26 years old and found God. She grew disillusioned with her homosexual life and wanted to change.

"That was a decision that I wanted to make in my own life," Melissa said. "This was a process of many years, several years for me of going to counseling, professional counseling, connecting with Christian ministries that could help, talking with other men and women who had been on a similar journey, and was able to work through the issues in my own life that contributed to homosexuality."

This is the first person I have spoken with who considers him or herself "Ex-Gay." We'll have more about the this on the show tonight, but I am curious to hear your take. Is it possible for someone to change their sexual orientation? Has anyone you know tried to change from gay to straight?
Posted By Jim Spellman, CNN Producer: 5:10 PM ET
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