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JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case Crumbles; President Bush Visits Gulf Coast; Florida Prepares For Tropical Storm Ernesto

Aired August 28, 2006 - 20:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you for joining us. Paula has the night off.
There is breaking news in the JonBenet Ramsey case. And that is our "Top Story" tonight -- a series of huge surprises that seems to have the prosecution back at square one.

Here's the very latest.

As we speak, John Mark Karr remains in a Boulder, Colorado, jail. But the former teacher who says he was with JonBenet Ramsey when she died was almost released a couple of hours ago, when prosecutors decided not to file any charges against him. The district attorney says, Karr's DNA does not match DNA found on the little girl's body back in 1996.

Prosecutors also say that Karr's family provided evidence that he was in Atlanta, Georgia, not Colorado, when JonBenet Ramsey was killed. But, before Karr was released from custody this afternoon, authorities in California asked that he be kept in jail. They want to try him for possessing child pornography.

Our "Top Story" coverage of the latest in the Ramsey case begins with Dan Simon, who joins us now from Boulder, Colorado -- Dan.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, the Boulder County DA confirmed what many people had felt all along, that John Karr has a wild and sick imagination, and is in no way connected to JonBenet Ramsey's murder.


SIMON (voice-over): John Karr's attorney made it official.

SETH TEMIN, ATTORNEY FOR JOHN MARK KARR: The warrant on Mr. Karr has been dropped by the district attorney. They're not proceeding with this case.

SIMON: Boulder district attorney Mary Lacy reached that decision after determining there was no DNA match between Karr and blood evidence at the scene where JonBenet Ramsey was murdered nearly 10 years ago.

KAREN SALAZ, SPOKESWOMAN, COLORADO STATE COURT SYSTEM: Mr. Karr is no longer going to be proceeding through our court system. SIMON: In a five-page motion to quash the arrest warrant, the DA makes it clear why the case against Karr could never proceed, some of it extremely graphic. The documents say Karr, in e-mails and conversations with Colorado Professor Michael Tracey, claimed to have had -- quote -- "oral sex" with JonBenet.

The DA says, Karr's DNA would have been present in blood obtained from JonBenet's underwear, but tests revealed, it wasn't. Karr's lawyers says, it's ridiculous Karr was arrested in the first place.

TEMIN: We're deeply distressed by the fact that they took this man and dragged him here from Bangkok, Thailand, with no forensic evidence confirming the allegations against him and no independent factors leading to a presumption that he did anything wrong.

SIMON: But district attorney Lacy, in court documents, suggests she had no other choice but to take Karr into custody. Citing the correspondence between Karr and Tracey, Karr admitted to killing JonBenet through -- quote -- "sexual activities that included temporarily asphyxiating her."

She goes on to say that Karr, according to his own statements, accidentally killed her by becoming so sexually involved, that he lost track of time, causing her severe injury, and leading him to inflict a severe blow to the head. Since JonBenet was strangled and had head wounds, Lacy felt she had to investigate those claims.

As for why Karr had to be brought to the U.S. from Thailand, Lacy says she needed a clean swab of DNA. Investigators, she says, were able to get items touched by Karr in Thailand, but that wouldn't have been sufficient to make a match. Karr's legal troubles are not over. The Boulder County Sheriff's Department says, he will be extradited to California to face those 2001 child pornography charges.


ROBERTS: So, Dan Simon in Boulder, what's the process now for John Mark Karr, in terms of this extradition? He did not fight extradition from California to Colorado. Is he expected to -- to do the same thing going back the other way?

SIMON: Well, John, this might sound familiar. There's going to be another extradition hearing, and we are going to have a chance to find out if in fact he will waive extradition back to California.

I'm hearing that extradition hearing could happen possibly tomorrow afternoon. Again, that extradition hearing would happen here in Boulder, and we're not sure what he's going to do.

What happens from there is, he would go back to California to face those charges, face those old charges, those -- he was accused of -- of possessing some child pornography back in 2001.

Meanwhile, John, there are a lot of questions, in terms of whether or not John Karr might face charges for making some false statements. Apparently, that's not going to happen. Apparently, his business here in Boulder is now officially over -- back to you, John.

ROBERTS: Right. They -- they came looking for him, as well.

Dan Simon, on the story for us in Boulder tonight, thanks very much.

Now let's get reaction from JonBenet Ramsey's aunt, Patsy Ramsey's sister, Pam Paugh.

Pam, a little more than a week ago, the family seemed very optimistic that this might have been the break that you were looking for, hoping for, for the past decade. How are you feeling tonight, now that the case has come apart?

PAM PAUGH, SISTER OF PATSY RAMSEY: Well, it's another bump in the road for us emotionally.

But I think we saw lady justice put her gavel down today and make a very open statement, which is what we were wanting. We wanted to know, was this man to be included or was he to be excluded?


What do you make of him, first of all, this -- this partial admission of involvement, saying that he was there when she died; it was an accident; and -- and now the exclusion of him from the case, at least from a DNA perspective? I mean, what -- what do you think is going on in this guy's head?

PAUGH: Well, I'm not in a position -- I'm certainly not a professional in that realm.

But I would say that, when anyone raises their hand and causes red flags to fly all around them, that the district attorney should not in any way be faulted here. She did exactly what the justice system in this country prescribes. And that's to take that person, whether he's in Bangkok, Thailand, or two blocks over in Boulder, and get them in there, get the DNA, start looking at some really deep questions -- "What do you know that the public doesn't?" -- and take those things where they lead.

And, today, it happened to lead that Mr. Karr is not our killer. But we don't know, as of yet, if he had any other information that might tell us who is. So, I don't think that this story is over yet. And I think, again, patience is the prudent thing to desire at this point.

ROBERTS: Pam Paugh, what do you make of the idea that this whole case of Karr's involvement, at least, revolved around the DNA testing? Is that suggestive in your mind that all the Boulder DA has is DNA evidence, or was that the only thing that they were looking, perhaps just to exclude Karr?

PAUGH: Well, it was probably based on the statements that he made.

There's a big difference in saying, "I was there; I did this," vs., "I was there; I watched this happen."

So, if you raise your hand and say, "I was actually involved in the process," that would have implied, at least, that you would have had access to the inside of the panties. Thus, logically speaking, the DNA should belong to you. And in -- in this case, it comes out that it didn't.


When -- when Karr was arrested, it appeared to lift the decade- old cloud of suspicion that has sort of swirled around JonBenet's parents -- Patsy now having been passed away in recent -- recent weeks.

But are you -- are you concerned, now that Karr has been excluded from this case, that that cloud of suspicion is going to settle back over the family again?

PAUGH: Absolutely not.

You know, the police tried everything, every tactic, everything that they could to put undue pressure on Patsy and John, at a time when they had just gone through the worst nightmare, perhaps, of their lives. And, when the grand jury in Boulder County refused to return an indictment, that spoke volumes.


PAUGH: They even, in that grand jury proceeding, tried to not bring forth very clear and critical evidence, as was later exposed by Lou Smit.

Then, secondarily, Judge Carnes, in the circuit court, said emphatically, the evidence shows signs of intruder. She didn't say the evidence might indicate. She said, without question, there is an intruder in this case.

ROBERTS: All right.

PAUGH: So, for me, it has never been a question of Patsy or John being under that stupid umbrella.

ROBERTS: Well, we're back to square one now, as far as the prosecution goes.

Pam Paugh, in Atlanta, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

PAUGH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Now let's turn to our "Top Story" legal panel.

Joining me now, senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, along with criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt, and former Denver district attorney Norm Early, who has followed this astonishing case from the very beginning.

Jeff Toobin, first of all, your thoughts about all of this.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, what's interesting is that, in the last hour, the DA has released approximately 100 pages of documents consisting of mostly the e-mails between Michael Tracey, the journalism professor, and Karr.

ROBERTS: Interesting reading?

TOOBIN: And you can see why they were concerned.

I mean, it's -- you have quotes here like, from -- from Karr, "I -- I have had sex with teens, and I have had sex with little girls. The experience is unreal."

I mean, you can see why they were very concerned about this guy. But what you don't see is any particular knowledge of the case that you couldn't have gotten from the voluminous coverage of the case.

So, you know, you can -- the -- the struggle here was, do you try to stop -- arrest this guy, who's obviously troubled, and -- and is -- is under a charge of pedophilia, or child porn, in -- in California, or do you continue the investigation, and try to get something more solid than just his very creepy words?

ROBERTS: Jeralyn Merritt, you heard Pam Paugh say that she does not fault the Denver -- or the Boulder district attorney's office here. She thinks that Mary Lacy did exactly what she should have done. How do you think the DA's office and the investigators come out in all of this?

JERALYN MERRITT, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I don't think they come out that well.

I tend to agree with Jeffrey that, when you look at the pages that were released, you don't really see any probable cause that he committed the crime of murder of JonBenet. And, when you go to get an arrest warrant for someone, you are swearing to a judge that there's probable cause to arrest them for that particular murder.

The fact that Mary lacy thought that other children might be at risk, or the fact that she thought he might be a flight risk, doesn't justify getting an arrest warrant for first-degree murder of JonBenet Ramsey. And I think it was her duty to -- to investigate this case further, before she involved the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and got the entire world watching, as they brought this guy halfway across the world from Bangkok. I'm disappointed.

ROBERTS: And, Norm Early, are you surprised that, given all of that effort that Jeralyn Merritt just -- just outlined, that this case came apart as quickly and as resoundingly as it did?


I hadn't talked to anyone over the last two weeks who honestly felt this was the right person. I was at a conference of victims last week and victim advocates, and no one to whom I spoke at that conference, which is an extremely good prosecutor -- prosecutor forum, and -- and very favorable to law enforcement, no one there felt that this was the right person. There was something that just didn't ring true.

But I do believe that she needed to gather the evidence. And, once the media was tipped off, she wasn't able to -- to gather it quietly, as she would have been had the media not been tipped. And that forced her to get the swab in public -- I mean, under public scrutiny, to conduct the investigation from the front pages of a newspaper and from shows such as this and radio talk shows, a very, very, very difficult way to conduct an investigation, from the prosecutor's standpoint.

Thank God they stuck to their guns, they did what they had to do, and they eventually came to the right conclusion, because you want the right person, John. Jeffrey wants the right person. Jeralyn wants the right person. I want the right person. And everybody in America wants the right person, not just someone to stand for charges in this case.

ROBERTS: So -- so, Jeff Toobin, if this guy wasn't the right person, who was he?

TOOBIN: Well, he's just some nut. I mean, he's a -- he's -- you know, there are people who are attracted to these crimes.

He obviously had some sort of obsession with little girls. And we don't know whether he has in fact ever been involved in molesting young girls. The -- the case against him in California is just a misdemeanor. The most he faces is a year there. So, he obviously has this twisted fantasy mind about little girls. And it's reflected extensively in these e-mails that were just released.

But he -- he certainly -- the one thing we know, he didn't kill JonBenet Ramsey. That's for sure.


All right. Well, we will find out exactly what he's all about, perhaps, in the coming days and weeks.

Jeffrey Toobin, Norm Early, Jeralyn Merritt, thanks very much for being with us. Appreciate it.

EARLY: Pleasure, John.


ROBERTS: More on the dramatic developments in the Ramsey case in just a moment -- also ahead, another "Top Story" tonight out at sea, getting stronger and maybe taking dead aim at Florida.


ROBERTS (voice-over): Getting ready for Ernesto, Floridians are boarding up and waiting in line for gas and groceries. Where and when will the storm hit? We will have the updated forecast.

Plus: the perfect political storm. One year after Hurricane Katrina, the president works to repair the damage to the Gulf Coast and to his legacy -- all that and more when we continue.



ROBERTS: After a day of bombshells, the mystery continues in our "Top Story": Who killed JonBenet Ramsey, and what happens to John Mark Karr?

Prosecutors in Boulder, Colorado, today decided not to file charges against Karr, because there was no DNA match -- all of this despite his claim of involvement in JonBenet Ramsey's death. But Karr is not a free man. Tonight, he faces extradition to California on previous child pornography charges.

Joining me now is a specialist in human behavior, the author of "How to Spot a Liar," Greg Hartley.

Greg, what was your impression of John Mark Karr from the get-go?


I saw some -- some threshold thinking that he leaned away from the audience as he said, "I was in the room," that kind of thing. I also thought, in the very beginning, that he did not have any visual data. The first time I -- I saw the -- the video, typically, when people are see -- are remembering visual cues, they will look up, either left or right.

Everything he said was below the browband, which, typically, we think of as being an auditory thing. And there are several indicators that he was probably fabricating this.

ROBERTS: So -- so, was does that mean, that, instead of a memory that he had actually experienced, he was looking for something that he had read about or heard about?

HARTLEY: Yes, let me give you an example, a very quick one.

I will ask you, what is the fifth word of "The Star-Spangled Banner?" As you try to recall that, you will pay attention to your own eyes, and most people's eyes...


HARTLEY: ... will drift to the left and just slightly up....


HARTLEY: ... just below the browband. ROBERTS: When -- when you...


ROBERTS: ... come up with the -- the word "see"?

HARTLEY: Right. Exactly.

So, now, if that's the case, and most people are up and to the left, and his went up and to the right, I think he was creating something. But, if he never looked to a place that had anything to do with sound at all, then I would -- that's very suspicious...

ROBERTS: So, what...

HARTLEY: ... especially...


HARTLEY: ... visual...


ROBERTS: We have asked this question of a couple of people tonight. What do you think this was all about?

HARTLEY: What I really believe is going on is, he had details about the body that were not known to the public. If that's the case, how did he get those details? After the very least, it's a leak in the Boulder Police Department. And that has to be covered.


HARTLEY: More than likely, though, he may have had exposure to some other person with a perverse mind, and may have gotten the details.

ROBERTS: So, what -- what...

HARTLEY: And that, we have to uncover.

ROBERTS: And what we saw in Thailand, where he came forward and said, I was there when she died; it was an accident; do you believe that was that his own fabrication, or could it possibly have been coercion by Thai authorities, who were looking for a -- you know, a big spotlight here, as well?

HARTLEY: Well, let's think of it.

He was there under some kind of charge for a sex crime in Thailand, which I can only imagine what that could be. And, then, the next problem is, if they're going to charge him with a crime there, and he has the option of dealing with the Boulder police, and he knows he didn't commit the crime, why not take the opportunity to get out of Thailand? ROBERTS: All right. Well, Craig, you said you had problems with this guy from the beginning. It turns out you were right. Thanks very much for joining us tonight. Appreciate it.

HARTLEY: Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Now we are going to turn away from the Ramsey case to another breaking story, Tropical Storm Ernesto. It's crossing Cuba tonight, but may strengthen, and hit the United States mainland as early as tomorrow night.

And just about all of South Florida is under a hurricane watch now. And tourists have been ordered to leave the Florida Keys.

So, let's check Ernesto's track now.

Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras joins us now from the CNN Weather Center.

Where is Ernesto heading, Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, it's heading west- northwesterly. So, it's taking just a little bit of a turn to the left at this time.

It's still over land right now, over Cuba. And, as long as it stays over land, we don't expect that it is going to be strengthening at all. In fact, you can see, on the satellite imagery, that it's even becoming more disorganized, as we speak.

Once it gets back out over the open waters, however, we are -- there's a good window of opportunity for it to strengthen. At this time, we think it will likely become a tropical storm -- a strong tropical storm, rather, before making landfall into Florida. But there's a small possibility it could be maybe a Category 1 hurricane.

So, we will have to wait and see how it plays out, and just how much time it ends up spending over the water here. Now, I want you to notice the cone of uncertainty, still covering a pretty good margin of Florida, so, the Keys certainly not off the hook. And neither is Miami-Dade County.

Once it moves across Florida, we're expecting to see those winds get strong and continue to pick up. It's about 350 miles away from Miami at this time. And heavy rain will be moving all across the peninsula. And there will also be a threat of tornadoes. We think the tropical-storm-force winds are going to be arriving as early as tomorrow afternoon, with possible landfall by tomorrow evening.

Now, people who live in the Carolinas, into the mid-Atlantic and all across the Northeast also need to be paying attention to Ernesto, because the forecast track is turning the storm to the right, after it moves off of Florida's coast, moves into the open water, and intensifies again into a hurricane, and makes a second landfall into the Carolinas. It could stall out after that, and be a flood-maker across parts of the Northeast. ROBERTS: Wow.

JERAS: John.

ROBERTS: Lots to look forward to.

JERAS: Mmm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Jacqui, even sub-hurricane winds can cause some problems in the Florida Keys, where I think they're between three and five feet above sea level, on -- on average.

JERAS: Mmm-hmm.

ROBERTS: What are folks doing down there to prepare for this storm?

JERAS: Well, they have been getting ready for a while.

And, by the way, John, there's not a big difference between a strong tropical storm and a weak hurricane. So, it doesn't make that big of a difference. But, as of yesterday, the tourists were ordered to evacuate into the Florida Keys. That happened about 1:00 yesterday afternoon. As of this morning, people with special needs, medical needs, evacuated the Keys, and, also, at 10:00 today, people who live in mobile homes, not a safe place to be during a tropical storm or a hurricane.

People have been lining up at the service stores, like Home Depot, for example. And they have been loading up on their batteries, flashlights, generators, things like that, and getting those supplies. And, also, people have been stocking up on their food. You need a three-day supply of food and water, one gallon of water per person -- lines at the gas stations as well, John.

People were waiting for about an hour-and-a-half today in South Florida, fill up with gas. They need it for their cars, and they also need it for their generators.

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

JERAS: Back to you.

ROBERTS: Jacqui, thanks very much. We will keep checking back with you.

JERAS: Mmm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Appreciate it.

Tonight's "Top Story" in politics involves a different kind of storm. Actually, it's a different storm altogether. Next: President Bush heads to the Gulf Coast for the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and more political damage control.

Plus: notes on a comeback in progress -- our Soledad O'Brien shares observations of New Orleans from her reporter's notebook.


ROBERTS: A year ago tonight, Hurricane Katrina was closing in on the Gulf Coast. President Bush was on vacation, and no one was ready for what the government now calls the -- quote -- "single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history."

As we speak, the president is sitting down to dinner in New Orleans, still trying to undo both the physical and political damage from the storm of a lifetime.

Here's White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux with tonight's "Top Story" in politics.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Still feeling the political heat one year after the federal government botched its response to Hurricane Katrina. President Bush is trying to convince the American people he's still committed to bringing the Gulf Coast back.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Optimism is the only option.

MALVEAUX: That message delivered outside a renovated home in the punishing Mississippi heat.

BUSH: I feel a -- a quiet sense of determination that's going to shape the future of Mississippi. And, so, I have come back on this anniversary to thank you for your courage, and to let you know the federal government stands with you still.

MALVEAUX: Mr. Bush paid a brief visit to Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, towns once destroyed by Katrina, now cleared of debris.

BUSH: I was struck by the beauty of the beaches.

MALVEAUX: The president met with local business leaders, who are bringing back jobs and cash through the casino industry, toured a boat factory that has residents back to work, and reunited with sisters who cried with Mr. Bush last year, after losing everything, now housed in FEMA trailers.

Mr. Bush says, the $110 billion in federal aid allocated for Gulf Coast recovery is robust. Now it's up to state and local governments to get it to the people.

BUSH: You know, hopefully, that will work. Hopefully, that's enough. It's certainly enough to get us through the next -- you know, next period of time. And the hardest part has been to get the state reconstruction efforts up and running.

MALVEAUX: But polls show, he has made little progress. The president's image as a strong leader took a big hit after the hurricane, and has never recovered.

Just before Katrina, six in 10 Americans considered Mr. Bush a strong and decisive leader. Just after the hurricane, that figure dropped to 49 percent. Now it stands at 51 percent.

(on camera): Mr. Bush moves on to New Orleans, Louisiana, where, he admits, the recovery effort is much slower. Today, the president said, it will take years, not months, to bring the region back.

Suzanne Malveaux, Gulfport, Mississippi.


ROBERTS: And will memories of Hurricane Katrina make a difference at the polls this November, in the midterm elections, and on the president's overall legacy?

And here to debate that, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, along with conservative political analyst Bay Buchanan, who's president of the American Cause.

Let's take a look at some new CNN poll results. Sixty-four percent of respondents said that they disapprove of the way that President Bush is handling the response to Hurricane Katrina. And, as you can see, that's worse than it was in September of 2005 -- those numbers from Opinion Research Corporation.

Bay Buchanan, it seems to be getting worse for the president, when it comes to Hurricane Katrina, not better.

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There -- there's no question the polls do indicate that.

I think there's no question, also, though, that the president is completely committed and focused on trying to do something down there. It has taken longer than maybe the American people expected it to take. And maybe the message isn't as clear as it should be, that maybe the president's -- I don't know how he could go down there more, John. He has been down there 13 times.

But maybe the progress, when it starts to be seen, will really -- then, he can benefit from it. But -- but the -- the hit was taken, and he has not recovered from it. You can't argue that.


Jamal Simmons, the Democrats are using Katrina as a point to -- to question and attack President Bush's competence and caring, which are two of his sort of signature personal issues. Is it fair or unfair to do that, to -- as Bay said, he has been there 13 times. He appears to be committed to the rebuilding.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Of course it's fair to do that.

The American people trusted President Bush, after 9/11, to create a Department of Homeland Security that was going to protect us, and make sure that, in case of natural disaster, the federal government would be there to help take care of us. Katrina proved that that's not the case.

And, so, is it political? Is it a political decision to say, we want the American government to protect American citizens in a time of disaster? Yes, that's a fair -- that's a fair point to raise in the course of political debate. And Americans are asking that question.

I think George Bush clearly has lost the confidence of the American people, both on -- both on compassion and on competence.

ROBERTS: Bay Buchanan, is this going to be felt at the polls in November? Will people vote with competence and confidence and caring on their minds?

BUCHANAN: You -- you know, I think, John, the key problem here for the president is, Katrina is a symptom. Katrina is one of the factors that have contributed to a public mood in this country that Republicans haven't done the job -- the president is at the head of the party -- and they have failed to put the country where the American people expected it to be at this time.

And, so, that is what the president and Republicans are fighting. It's not Katrina, per se. If you look at the congressional races that are close, most of them -- in fact, overwhelmingly -- they are in the Midwest, in the northeast. They are not in the south. There's only about six down there. The key is the public mood, not Katrina. Katrina is a symptom that made the people stop giving the president and Republicans the benefit of the doubt. And then the war set in, you've got immigration problems, you've got gas problems, and the American people are now disenchanted with Republicans.

ROBERTS: Jamal Simmons, is Katrina going to have the same impact on these November elections as say Iraq will?

SIMMONS: Well I think it all goes in a package. What Katrina is a symbol of the failure of the Bush administration. After 9/11, America also trusted George Bush to fight the war on terror and instead he abandoned the initial fight in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden and went into Iraq. And Americans every night watch the news and see Americans die and see what's happening in Iraq.

So now we also are facing this anniversary of Katrina with seeing the effect of a year later the city of New Orleans is still devastated, Americans remember sitting in their homes for three days watching their fellow citizens stranded on rooftops, drowning, and all of that, and now they've literally lost confidence in this president.

BUCHANAN: What you know what I don't understand, John? It's clear that before the president failed and before Republicans in this administration failed, a democratic mayor and a democratic governor performed atrociously. They were on the front lines of this battle and the mayor himself was reelected. It shows that the people down there are not holding the Democrats responsible. I think that's a message Republicans should say, listen, these guys did a lousy job. At least the president has admitted his mistakes, has made some changes, has been down there. It's time for Democrats to step up to the plate now.

ROBERTS: All right, well we'll keep watching this. Jamal, unfortunately we're out of time here, but we've got lots more time until November, it's not over yet. We'll come back to this. Thanks very much, folks.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien has been in and out of New Orleans a number of times over the past year. Coming up, what's getting better and what still needs attention after the storm of a lifetime.


ROBERTS: As we mentioned, President Bush has made numerous visits to the Gulf Coast, so has our own Soledad O'Brien. She's back there again tonight to anchor our coverage out of there tomorrow evening and also for "AMERICAN MORNING." She joins us now with a reporter's notebook of her impressions of what life's been like there for the past 12 months. Soledad?

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, John, good evening. You know, when you see the Superdome repaired and you see the convention center cleaned up, when you see the French Quarter with people moving through, it's easy to feel very hopeful about the progress here. But then you remember back almost exactly a year when we arrived here the city was still underwater and it was a mess.

We were camped out in an R.V. right on Canal Street. We decided to come back, retrace our steps, and see if any progress had been made. And if any, what's been going on.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): I arrived in New Orleans like any other visitor, at the airport. But we didn't fly in, we drove in through empty streets. And what I saw was nothing like the typical departures and arrivals and reunions. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport had become my first image on the ground of the human toll of the disaster, and it was immediate and it was overwhelming.

The airport departures area was turned into a field hospital. Sick and elderly patients lined up gurney after gurney where they were left on wheelchairs. Inside the terminal entire families and lots of little children were camped out in the hallways. They were safe for the time being, but they'd lost everything. Many of them were getting water, clean water, for the first time in days.

(on camera): Choppers over my shoulder. Every time you hear one...

(voice-over): ... Over our heads the constant buzz of choppers near our camera positions. At one point they were landing, off leading evacuees every couple of minutes and people who once had homes and jobs and families and futures now had nothing. They were left homeless at the airport, at the Superdome, at the convention center. And maybe the most horrible, the feeling for American citizens that they weren't being treated like human beings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is inexcusable to do this to people. We're human beings, we're not animals.

O'BRIEN: I think the hardest thing to make people who are watching our coverage understand was the scope of the devastation. We kept saying if it looks bad on T.V., it is so much worse in person. Home after home, block after block, literally mile after mile. It just seemed to go on without end. The conflicting messages too. Officials would tell us they had the situation under control, help was on the way, but all the pictures were telling a different story.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No water, helicopters flying overhead.

O'BRIEN: In all the chaos, all the bad news, there were some happy moments, success stories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been worried so much about you.

O'BRIEN: People were found and reconnected after they'd been separated by the storm. And by the hundreds, people were asking us to put up photos of their missing children and their parents and their sisters and their brothers and put them on T.V., and they were reunited, and that felt great. It happened a lot, and sometimes it was the only good news to report.

Now almost a year later, I arrive back at the airport, this time more traditional way. There's tourists and returning residents, but no gurneys and no helicopters and no chaos. The roads in New Orleans are busy again. The damage is vast, but there is a sense of purpose. Close to the levees in the lower Ninth Ward, though, there's been virtually no change. But the churches are back, some of them. It's brutally, brutally slow progress, but the people in the street will say, well, at least it's progress.


O'BRIEN: Now there's some people who say there's no progress, nothing's been done, and there are others who will say great progress, lots has been done. The truth lies somewhere in between. The truth is that where there's been progress, it's because people have come back sometimes with no money from their insurance companies, which in many cases have let them down. Sometimes with no help from the government whatsoever and they've decided this is home and they're going to stay, and if people are coming back to the city and they're going to make this city alive again, it's because of those people with their fortitude, not necessarily because there's a plan and there's a system in place and there's someone who's helping them. They're a pretty impressive group of people who have come here and try to make a difference -- John?

ROBERTS: A lot of incredible stories on a number of different levels. Soledad, thanks very much. We'll see you tomorrow. Much more tonight on the Katrina anniversary tonight on "ANDERSON COOPER 360." He'll be live from the Ninth Ward at 10 p.m. Eastern. And join Soledad from New Orleans tomorrow on "AMERICAN MORNING" and again tomorrow night right here with special coverage on the anniversary as Soledad fills in for Paula Zahn.

We move on to a top story that's still a mystery. Next, how did a commuter airliner get on the wrong runway with deadly results? And later, a bizarre murder case with Los Angeles with two very unusual suspects.


KING: Continuing our top story coverage tonight, the only person who may be able to explain the crash of Com Air flight 5191 remains in critical condition in the hospital. He is the copilot who was pulled out of the fiery wreckage early yesterday morning in Lexington, Kentucky. All 49 other people on board the commuter jet died when the crew tried to take off from the wrong runway, a runway that was far too short. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are working the crash tonight. CNN's David Mattingly has the latest for us on the investigation.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From high above it's plane to see runway 22 dominates the Lexington Blue Grass Airport. At 7,000 feet it was the only runway long enough for the fully loaded Com Air commuter jet to take off safely. And in the predawn darkness it should have been obvious from the ground as well. An airport spokesman tells CNN that runway 26, the shorter runway, was closed, and because the lights were off, it was dark. CNN has learned that, according to the cockpit voice recorder, the pilot verbally confirmed he was heading for the correct runway.

DEBBIE HERSMAN, NTSB: The planning discussions between the air traffic controllers and the flight crew were about a takeoff from runway two-two. As you know the FDR and the evidence on scene indicates the crew took off from runway two-six.

MATTINGLY: A $3 million repaving project closed the Lexington airport a week ago for 48 hours. According to the FAA, one taxiway is closed, marked by a small barricade. An alternate taxiway opens to both runways from one small turning area. Beyond Lexington the crash renews concerns about ground safety at the nation's airports.

Through 2004 and 2005 airplanes moved on to the wrong runways more than 600 times. The NTSB puts runway incursions on its 2006 list of most urgently needed safety improvements, citing the need for warning systems. There's also the issue of crew fatigue. The Airline Pilots Association says an overhaul of rules governing how long and how often a crew can fly is long overdue.

TERRY MCVENES, AIRLINE PILOTS ASSOCIATION: The airplanes are more complicated. We're operating in a more complex air traffic control environment that requires us to really take a look at some of those regulations and how they apply today. MATTINGLY: The bodies of all 49 victims now have been recovered from the burned fuselage and identification is under way. The lone survivor, the first officer, was pulled from the burning wreckage. He is still listed in critical condition. The investigation will look closely at the plane itself to determine if design or other factors might have prevented more from getting out alive.


MATTINGLY: And in the next hour we expect to hear again from the NTSB, they promised to provide us with more details of what they've learned over the past 48 hours working this accident, and, of course, John, as you know, the questions of how and why will probably take a long time to answer, as well as that big one how to prevent this from happening again.

KING: And there's a lot of people asking all of those questions. David Mattingly for us in Lexington, thanks.

Joining me now from Las Vegas, a former senior accident investigator with the NTSB, Gregory Feith. Gregory, you heard the statistics. You're well-aware of them, 600 runway incursions, people being on the wrong runway at the wrong time. Was this just an accident waiting to happen and could it happen again?

Well, obviously we're having a little bit of problems with Greg's audio. Tell you what, we'll take a quick break and we'll try to fix that and come right back to you. So, actually, we got him back. So, Greg, sorry again. Start what you were about to say. Was this just an accident waiting to happen?

GREGORY FEITH, FMR. NTSB INVESTIGATOR: It sounds that way from all indications. With the work that had been done at the airport, John, there's a good likelihood that some of the signage may have been confusing to the flight crew and given the fact that some of the taxiways had changed, if the flight crew was using an airport diagram to navigate to runway two-two and the physical aspects of the runway had changed, that may have caused this accident or at least caused the pilots to get on to the wrong runway.

KING: What about the idea of crew fatigue? Because we have heard that some of these commuter airlines really turn their pilots around very quickly.

FEITH: They have these short nights and crew fatigue has been something that the NTSB has been looking at for quite a long time. I was the investigator in charge on the American 1420 at Little Rock several years ago where fatigue was cited as a contributing factor, as well as a number of other accidents. Crew fatigue affects decision making, and if the crew is tired, some of the decisions they make, some of their situational awareness may collapse a little bit so they're not fully getting the big picture, and that may have been an aspect in this particular accident as well.

KING: Give us the inside perspective. What are investigators going to be looking at now as they try to recreate this crash? FEITH: They need to answer the question what would have enticed this flight crew to actually get on to a dark runway? With all of the factors and, of course, the information about the lighting on runway 22 versus no lights on runway 26, you have to answer the question what would have gotten this crew to believe that, not only were they on a runway, but they were on the right runway and then tried to take off on that runway?

So there must have been something there, and a lot of it may come from that notice airman or notem (ph) that talked about the inoperative lights, and with that perception, the pilots may have thought, OK, the lights aren't working, this is a runway environment, we must be on the right runway.

KING: Greg, real quick, do you think they tried to lift off?

FEITH: I believe they did. I think when they finally got to the end of the runway, they tried to make the airplane fly and unfortunately it wasn't ready to fly.

KING: Greg Feith in Las Vegas, thanks very much, appreciate it.


KING: A top story in California tonight involves two elderly women who many people thought were angels of mercy. Next the accusations behind their new nickname the black widows.


ROBERTS: Our top story coverage now turns to a case that's so shocking it could easily be a thriller movie. Los Angeles police say two elderly women bought millions of dollars in life insurance for homeless men and staged hit and run killings to collect the insurance. Local papers are calling them black widows. Tomorrow, they'll be arraigned on murder charges.

Peter Viles has the story.


PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For years at churches like this one in Hollywood, two elderly ladies have befriended homeless men helping them out. Olga Ruderscmidt (ph) is 73, her friend Helen Goler (ph) is 75 with three grandchildren.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's a very nice lady, she's very intelligent, very pleasant.

VILES: Police agree that Golet (ph) is smart, smart enough, they allege, to dream up a ruthless murder for profit scheme and almost get away with it twice.

DENNIS KILCOYNE, LAPD DETECTIVE: I'm in my 30th year, probably 21 years in homicide and this is pretty evil. VILES: It was a stroke of luck that police even noticed a pattern. In this alley in 1999, a down on his luck man named Paul Vados (ph) was run over and killed. And in this alley in 2005, another transient, Kenneth McDavid (ph) was also run down and killed. No one saw a connection until this spring when an LAPD detective told the colleagues about the two ladies named Olga and Helen who kept bugging him for paperwork on McDavid's death.

KILCOYNE: He was suspicious in that these two women with no apparent interest in this person were making all of these inquiries and wanted copies of reports and things like that.

VILES: Another detective was listening, and said to himself, Olga and Helen, I remember them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cobwebs were cleared out, the filed is located, and there's a Paul Vados (ph) 1999 incident. And sure enough, the same two little old ladies, Olga and Helen, were doing the same thing then.

VILES: Insurance investigators sifted through the record of the two dead men and found the connection. They now say Olga and Helen had taken out 36 life insurance policies on the two men totaling $8.4 million and had collected nearly $3 million.

Police then put the women under surveillance and watched as they befriended more homeless men.

KILCOYNE: We reached a point where our surveillance people were photographing them talking to other elderly men, and obviously the police department can't just sit by and wait until they kill somebody else.

VILES: The women were arrested this spring and charged with federal insurance fraud, but not murder. As lawyers for Golet (ph) and Rutterschmidt pointed out.

KIM SAVO, OLGA RUTTERSCMIDT'S ATTORNEY: They're charged with mail fraud. Mail fraud. It's a very boring federal offense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's just no evidence of any murder. If they had evidence, they would have filed charges.

VILES: Police were stumped with no witnesses and no murder weapon. They thought insurance fraud might be all they could prove.

KILCOYNE: At that point, we felt that was the best we were going to do.

VILES: But then a big break. Police say they found one of the murder weapons, this 1999 Mercury Sable station wagon. They say the two women had bought the car and sold it right after McDavid was killed.

And this spring, they say, it still had tiny pieces of human tissure stuck to the undercarriage, fragments police say, match McDavid's DNA.

SHELLIE SAMUELS, DEPUTY D.A.: The way that they were killed is that they were rolled over slowly while they were still alive. So whether or not they were conscious we don't know. If they were conscious, it would have been a very painful death.

VILES: Nothing else about the women suggests crime. Rutterschmidt ad lived in a modest Hollywood apartment, Golet (ph) owns property in Santa Monica. And though they were known to frequent soup kitchens, police rarely saw them together.

The defense right now is that charity is not a crime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are coincidences in the case, but a coincidence or a number of coincidences do not equal first degree murder or even any crime.

VILES: For weeks, Diamond (ph) has been saying the women are not guilty of fraud and now not guilty of murder.

That's why we have trials. Ms. Golet (ph) is not guilty of the charges, neither is Olga Rutterschmidt.

VILES (on camera): If convicted, Golet (ph) and Rutterschmidt could both face the death penalty, but don't count on it because in California the death row appeals process lasts an average of 20 years.

By then, both of these women would be well into their 90s.

Peter viles for CNN, Los Angeles.


ROBERTS: At the top of the hour on "LARRY KING LIVE," comedian Bill Maher takes your calls. Stay with us.


ROBERTS: That's all for tonight. I'm John Roberts, in for Paula Zahn.

Tomorrow night, Soledad O'Brien will be here live from New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It starts at 8:00 Eastern.

Thanks for joining us. "LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.


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