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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Murder For Hire in Florida?; Is Recession Over?; Florida's Python Problem

Aired July 31, 2009 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news out of Florida -- tonight, the possibly of a shocking new motive revealed in a double murder that stunned the country.

Melanie and Byrd Billings, parents of 13 adopted kids, were shot to death in their home near Pensacola earlier this month, killed by intruders dressed like ninjas. Authorities said they were the victims of robbery.

But now there is more. Tonight, our source says the state's attorney's office believes there was more than one motive, beyond robbery, telling CNN the Billings were the target of a contract hit, that the crime was part of a murder-for-hire plot.

Now, tonight, Sheriff David Morgan, who is leading the criminal investigation, is responding to that report.

David Mattingly joins us with the breaking news -- David

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, for the first time, Sheriff David Morgan is confirming publicly that a murder-for- hire scheme is a possibility they are looking at in the murder of Bud and Melanie Billings.

In fact, they have been looking at this possibility since the beginning, following up on what he called uncorroborated information. Now, all these weeks later, they are still working on it and not ready yet to rule out the idea that the Billings murder was a hired hit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID MORGAN, ESCAMBIA COUNTY, FLORIDA, SHERIFF: Let me state emphatically that, at the onset of the Billings investigation, the Escambia County Sheriff's Office was in receipt of uncorroborated information that would lead a person to believe that this was an avenue of an investigation that we should, in fact, pursue.

I want to ensure the media and the citizens of Escambia County that we have and will continue to do that very thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Our source with knowledge of the investigation goes further than that, saying that the state's attorney's office believes that murder for hire was the second motive in this case. But a statement from the state's attorney tonight does not confirm this. It reads: "It is the position of the office of the state attorney that the prime motive in this case was robbery. However, we will consider all possibilities and review any evidence concerning the issue of motive" -- Anderson.

COOPER: So, David, did the sheriff say anything about motive or -- or about suspects?

MATTINGLY: He will not say anything about motive or suspects regarding the idea that this was a murder-for-hire case.

He does say, however, that, of the eight people who have already been arrested, some of them charged with murder in this case, that, as the investigation goes forward, we could see additional charges come up against them.

So, clearly, this case is not over yet. They are still looking at adding more possible charges to the people they already have in custody.

COOPER: Eight people arrested in the investigation. Did -- did Morgan, the sheriff, say anything more about additional arrests in the case? Or are they still looking for others?

MATTINGLY: They are looking for others. He has been talking about this for a couple of weeks now, saying there's two, possibly more, people that they are possibly ready to arrest any time. We were expecting to see that some time this week. Now we are told it may be next week, but two, possibly more, so showing that this case continues to get broader as they continue to look into all these different type of allegations.

COOPER: All right, let's dig deeper now with Stacey Honowitz. She's a veteran prosecutor with the Florida state attorney's office. She joins us now from Miami.

So, we just heard the sheriff talk about CNN's reporting that a contracted hit may have been one of the motives. What do you make of -- of that?

STACEY HONOWITZ, FLORIDA ASSISTANT STATE ATTORNEY: Well, Anderson, I think most people, when they heard about this first when the arrests came out, I think most people probably said, the way that this was carried out just seemed to be a little bit more than a robbery.

It was planned, the ninja-style outfits. It was precise. They practiced a month before. So, I think, generally, people were saying it just doesn't sound like a robbery. So, the fact that now they are investigating this murder for hire I don't think is so unusual.

And I think they are going to keep it close to the vest, because they are still investigating.

COOPER: Keep it close to the vest, as they should. But, I mean, the idea of a revenge killing, in some way, what would be a possible motive for a revenge killing in a case like this?

HONOWITZ: Well, we are not going to know anything until, you know, basically people start flipping.

And I think the woman that was arrested, you know, she was the last one arrested, for accessory after the fact. And I think the bottom line is, she is going to be the flip witness. She is going to be the one that is going to start talking in order to get a good deal.

And that is why now I think you are starting to hear this aspect of murder for hire, because maybe some of them are starting to talk. And that's why additional charges might come down and they might be looking for additional suspects.

COOPER: What's interesting...

HONOWITZ: And we're going to have to wait and see. As this progresses, as people start talking, as more evidence comes forward, we're going to hear more about it.

COOPER: What is interesting, though, and what may complicate all this is that the same source also told CNN that the state attorney's office is working under the belief that most of the suspects in the case thought they were actually there for a robbery, and that it was really only -- that only some were plotting the hit.

HONOWITZ: Yes. I mean, the source in what I have read is, the bottom line is that people that were up from this gentleman Gonzalez, who they say is the shooter, knew what was going on, and the people lower were just kind of lassoed into this robbery.

And you know what? You know, as a prosecutor, I can tell you theories do change as evidence becomes more prevalent, as people start talking, especially in a case when you have more than one people -- person arrested, more than one suspect, in this case, eight people. People start talking.

So, different theories, different portions of the investigation start coming forward as the case goes forward. And that is what you are going to hear in this case.

The theory might change. And you know that you don't need a motive to prosecute any of these cases, but people want to know why. And that is why the fascination with this case. Why would somebody do something to these people, who seemed to be so genuine and caring and -- and took in all these special-needs kids?

COOPER: And do we know what has happened to the kids?

HONOWITZ: It is my belief that one of the -- the eldest daughter agreed to take the children. That's the best place for them.

She had a relationship with they -- relationship with them. They were her brothers and sisters. And I believe that is where they are now.

COOPER: All right, well, Stacey Honowitz, we appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

HONOWITZ: Thank you.

COOPER: Before we move on, I just want to remind you, you can join the live chat, which is happening right now, at AC360.com. You can share your thoughts with Erica and I and other viewers who are watching right now. I'm about to log on myself.

And just ahead tonight, new information in the Michael Jackson investigation, new word on Jackson's possible efforts to get that drug propofol, plus another delay involving the coroner's report.

And new economic numbers have some wondering if the recession is over. We will check the facts for you.

And, also, tonight, Florida's python problem. Tens of thousands are of them on the loose. It's hard to believe. We are going to take you on the hunt to round them up before they do even more damage.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight, a disturbing picture is coming into focus in the Michael Jackson investigation.

Randi Kaye has been following the clues she found in search warrants severed this week at the Las Vegas home and office of Dr. Conrad Murray. Murray, as you all know by now, was Jackson's personal physician for a while.

Randi first reported on those search warrants last night on the program. She joins me now from Los Angeles.

You have had some time to dig through the warrants. One doctor mentioned caught your eye.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Anderson.

We have learned that Michael Jackson had asked one of his former doctors for propofol, the drug authorities believed killed him, just two months before he died. In all, seven doctors are mentioned in the search warrant filed after Dr. Conrad Murray's home and office were searched in Vegas.

He has been Jackson's personal physician since May of this year and had been hired to go on the final tour with him. Well, in the search, investigators were looking for letters, notes, and any correspondence between Dr. Murray, Michael Jackson and these other doctors.

Now, here's the key nugget. Investigators mention in the warrant a West Hollywood doctor named Allan Metzger. He was Jackson's internist until 2003. Well, tonight, his lawyer said Dr. Metzger has handed over his files to investigators, but they have not questioned him, and they haven't asked to. But the big news is. His lawyer told us, back in April of this year, Dr. Metzger went to visit Michael Jackson at his hour after Jackson asked him to come and told him -- quote -- "Michael Jackson asked him about the I.V. sleep medication propofol."

The lawyer said Dr. Metzger told Jackson it was -- quote -- "dangerous and potentially life-threatening" and could not be used outside of a hospital.

We know authorities believe propofol is what killed Jackson. And a source has told CNN that Jackson's personal physician, Dr. Murray, gave him propofol within 24 hours of his death.

But, here, we see a pattern, Anderson. Just about two months before his death, this Dr. Metzger says Jackson asked him for propofol, too.

Also, another interesting tidbit -- Dr. Metzger's lawyer said his client prescribed drugs for Michael Jackson under the name Omar Arnold and Michael Jackson, under both of those names together.

But it's very interesting here, since Omar Arnold is what we told you last night. That's one of the 19 aliases mentioned in the search warrant. His lawyer told us that Dr. Metzger did that because he thought it was -- quote -- his "duty" to protect the privacy of his client.

COOPER: There were other doctors, too, mentioned. What is their connection to Michael Jackson at this point; do we know?

KAYE: The other doctors, those incumbent Dr. Arnold Klein, Jackson's longtime dermatologist, whose records have been subpoenaed in this case.

Asked about his name in the warrant, Dr. Klein's lawyer would only say his client is cooperating with investigators. Also mentioned is Las Vegas dentist Mark Tadrissi and Beverly Hills anesthesiologist Randy Rosen. Now, we know from a source last week his client got a visit by the coroner's chief investigator. And the records were taken.

Also, the doctor who gave Jackson that five-hour physical to make sure he was healthy to go on his final tour, he's also mentioned. That's Dr. David Slavik out of New York. We tried reaching out to all three of them for comment. Our calls were not returned.

There's also in this a Dr. Adams (ph) listed, no first name given, so we couldn't find him anywhere, with just the last name. And the nurse who treated Jackson for just a few months, Cherilyn Lee, she is mentioned in there as well. She told 360 weeks ago that Jackson begged her for propofol -- that's the sedative just reversed for hospital use -- so he could sleep.

Her spokesperson told us today they had no idea her name was even in the search warrant, but added she is cooperating with investigators. COOPER: And the other big news, Randi, you got word today from your sources that the autopsy was delayed again, this time indefinitely.

What is going on?

KAYE: That's what we're trying to figure out.

I spoke to the source, who knows all about the autopsy, who told me the coroner's office met yesterday with the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney's office and made what he called a joint decision to delay the release of the autopsy and the toxicology report indefinitely.

All parties agreed to that, I'm told, because they need more time to gather information, go through medical records. They are still working on what my source called follow-ups. I asked if it is still possible the results may be released next week, which, as you know, is what we were told last, and the response was -- quote -- "I have no idea."

COOPER: And do you know what -- what the delay means for Dr. Conrad -- I mean, for Dr. Murray?

KAYE: That's what...

COOPER: I mean, he, clearly, at this point, seems to be the central focus of this investigation, or at least the most prominent name being bandied about.

KAYE: Right. I spoke with his office today, and his spokeswoman wasn't sure what to make of this delay exactly. I asked her if she thought the delay was good or bad and what it meant and was told simply -- quote -- "Dr. Murray is awaiting the results of the investigation and like, everyone else, wants to know how Michael Jackson died."

She would not comment on the fact investigators were searching his Vegas properties, looking for evidence of the sale or shipment of this drug propofol, which we know has -- has likely contributed to Jackson's death. She said, a third interview with Dr. Murray still has not been scheduled with investigators, even though we know that they had initially requested that over a week ago.

COOPER: All right, Randi Kaye our in front of the story again -- thanks, Randi.

Let's dig deeper now with Jami Floyd, an attorney and anchor of "In Session."

You know, it's interesting. This Dr. Metzger says that -- that, two months prior to Michael Jackson's death, he asked him for propofol.

JAMI FLOYD, "IN SESSION" ANCHOR: Right. Right. COOPER: We know Cherilyn Lee, the nurse who came forward weeks ago, says it was three months, I think it was, three months before the death that he had asked her about this drug.

FLOYD: Right.

COOPER: So, clearly, he seemed to have been on a search for this drug.

FLOYD: Forum-shopping. He is looking for it. And he ultimately finds it -- or at least all indicators are that he ultimately finds it.

Now, that doesn't mean that it is the cause of death, and that doesn't mean that, even if it is the cause of death, that he gets it from Dr. Murray. So, the link has to be made directly to a particular individual, and then we have to know that that individual administered it before charges can be filed.

But it is clear that he is looking for it. And it is heartbreaking that he needs this to sleep. I mean, this is a hospital-setting, or at least a clinical-setting, drug.

COOPER: And it doesn't even put you to sleep. It puts you under. It doesn't allow your body to recover, the way sleep allows your body to recover,.

FLOYD: That's exactly right. And here is what fascinating. I'm not a doctor, but my understanding, in the following the coverage and reading up on this, is, it may not show up in the toxicology report.

COOPER: Right. It leaves the -- right. It leaves the blood pretty quickly.

FLOYD: And, so, it may be difficult to determine whether it contributed to cause of death. And then it becomes hard to know what the manner of death was. So, it may be part of the reason why this is all delayed, the way it has been.

COOPER: It was really interesting because I must say I was sort of skeptical of that the nurse, Cherilyn Lee, when she first came forward. She was on our air the first night.

FLOYD: Right.

COOPER: And, yet, she was the first one to really introduce Diprivan, propofol...

FLOYD: Right.

COOPER: ... into the conversation. And, lo and behold, it is now popping up all the time.

FLOYD: Right. And now what she -- I, too, thought she was kind of sketchy. And now she said initially starts to dovetail with what has been coming out in the weeks that have past and seems to be corroborated by all of the independent facts.

So, she may become a key player. What is amazing to me are the number of health care providers...

COOPER: Right.

FLOYD: ... that seem to be attached to Michael Jackson. I mean, it's incredible to me, the number of physicians he is either consulting with or actively seeing in the course -- he is a relatively young man, and, presumably -- I mean, we know he had his problems and his addictions, but, presumably, relatively healthy, rehearsing until midnight every night.

And, yet, he needs this heavy-duty narcotic to sleep. It's incredible and, again, very, very sad, and, ultimately, finds it somehow, if the investigators are on the right trail.

COOPER: The autopsy, the fact that...

FLOYD: Yes.

COOPER: ... the results of that are being -- are being delayed indefinitely, what do you make of that?

FLOYD: Well...

COOPER: I mean, have you ever heard of something like that?

FLOYD: Yes. There is the possibility that it is going to be inconclusive. I mean, it's deeply disturbing, because everybody wants an answer. But -- and we answers in this country, right? We don't like inconclusive results.

But there's a possibility we may never know what killed Michael Jackson. Everybody keeps saying, we're going to get that result and we're going to know the cause of death. We may not. But I think it is more likely than not that there are a number of contributing factors, and they just want to get it right before they come to that podium...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: The family conducted their own autopsy. So, they must have the results of that.

FLOYD: Well, and, statement, what happens -- and I have seen this -- in big cases, with notorious and well-known deceased, and then in lesser-known cases, you can have inconsistent results, when the family has its own autopsy conducted, and then you have the public medical examiner. So, that may be part of what the holdup is here. So, we will have to just wait and see.

COOPER: It is not uncommon for well-known people to have aliases that are used in order for them...

FLOYD: That's right. That's right. COOPER: ... get prescription drugs, because, you know, medical personnel in the pharmacy...

FLOYD: Absolutely.

COOPER: ... could see, oh, well, this person is getting prescribed...

FLOYD: Absolutely.

COOPER: ... something, and -- and sell that information to a tabloid.

FLOYD: There is -- there is nothing to prevent the pharmacy or somebody who works at a pharmacy from releasing your private information about what you are getting, if you are a celebrity or even if you're not a celebrity. You can go after them after the fact, violation of privacy, but, by that time, the information is out.

So, if you're a celebrity...

COOPER: And it is in the -- it is in -- it is in the computer system of a pharmacy...

FLOYD: Absolutely.

COOPER: ... like, you know, one of those big chain pharmacies, probably, a large number of people can...

(CROSSTALK)

FLOYD: So, if I'm your doctor -- and we heard Metzger say this -- in the interest of your privacy, if you have a legitimate medical need, I might want to use a different name.

Here's the problem. What if you don't have a legitimate medical need? What if you have an addiction? What if I'm overprescribing? And, in many of these cases -- And this is what I think we saw in the Anna Nicole Smith case, although that is yet to be proved in court, but we start seeing three, four, five, maybe 15, 12, 20 aliases to get medications that aren't medically necessary, for a medically legitimate purpose.

(CROSSTALK)

FLOYD: And that is the fine line between the privacy protection and what really can be an illegal use of aliases to get your hands on prescription medication.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, it certainly seems clear that Michael Jackson, whether it was the fact that he was traveling so many different places or not, did not have sort of a centralized medical authority who was overseeing all his care.

FLOYD: Right.

COOPER: He was basically going from here to there, from doctor to doctor. And -- and perhaps it was a doctor-shopping thing.

FLOYD: Well, and -- and, look, when you are Michael Jackson, or Heath Ledger, or Anna Nicole Smith, or any other celebrity, and you want to get your hands on these drugs, you are going to get them.

COOPER: Right.

FLOYD: And even if a doctor like Metzger will stand up and tell you no, or a nurse like Lee will stand up and tell you no, eventually, you are going to find a doctor who will tell you yes.

And you find someone who is financially compromised -- and I'm not saying that Murray was this person, because nothing has been proved, and I think he is being scapegoated a little bit before all the information is out -- but you're -- you are going to find that person eventually...

COOPER: Right.

FLOYD: ... because people like Michael Jackson, they have a certain amount of power in our culture, as celebrities. And, ultimately, they do that forum-shopping, as we call it...

COOPER: Yes.

FLOYD: ... and they -- they get their hands on those -- those prescription drugs. And -- and they can be abused.

(CROSSTALK)

FLOYD: And they are being abused, too much.

COOPER: Jami Floyd, appreciate it. Thanks very much being with us tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Still ahead: As investigators try to figure out who was prescribing what for Michael Jackson, 360's Joe Johns is in Florida, where police are scrambling to crack down on the so-called pill mills, the clinics that have made Florida a magnet for drug addicts looking to score prescription medication.

Also ahead tonight, is the recession actually over? A new economic report that is getting a lot of attention.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Coming up, the investigation into Michael Jackson's death shedding new light on a decades-old problem, prescription drug abuse. A growing network of so-called pill mills has made scoring prescription drug easier than ever. We will tell you where.

And Joe Johns tonight is "Keeping Them Honest." But, first, Erica Hill has a 360 news and business bulletin -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, three Americans are reportedly in Iranian custody tonight, after straying across the border from Iraq. A senior Kurdish official -- Kurdish official tells CNN the three traveled to a tourist area near the Iranian border to go backpacking.

The group contacted a fourth traveler who had stayed behind. They told that person they were lost and surrounded by military personnel speaking Farsi. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has not yet confirmed the report.

HILL: There is more backlash over those fat cat Wall Street bonuses -- the House voting today to limit executive pay for firms with more than $1 billion in assets. The move follows reports that the nation's largest bank awarded nearly $480 million-plus bonuses in 2008.

Senator Chris Dodd has an early form of prostate cancer. Appearing at a news conference today, the senator insisted he feels fine, adding that he will undergo surgery after the Senate adjourns next week.

The seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour returning to Earth today, after 16 days in space. While in orbit, they met with the six crew members on the International Space Station. And, together, that group of 13 set a record for the most people ever assembled in space.

See, makes you want to go now, doesn't it, Anderson?

COOPER: Absolutely.

HILL: I knew it.

COOPER: Coming up next: Is it finally over? New signs that the economy may be on the mend. We will show you what the new numbers may mean for your wallet and for Washington. David Gergen and Ali Velshi join us for that.

Then, Pythons on the loose, believe it or not, it is a growing threat in parts of Florida. John Zarrella takes us along on the snake hunt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Wow. Look at this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this isn't a big one.

ZARRELLA: That's -- that's -- this is a good 10 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nah.

ZARRELLA: Oh, yeah, at least 12.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, there new signs the recession may soon be over. A report out today shows the pace of economic decline has slowed dramatically. The GDP, or gross domestic product, shrank just 1 percent in the second quarter, vs. a whopping 6.4 percent from January to March.

President Obama commented on the good news this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This morning, the GDP revealed that the recession we faced when I took office was even deeper than anyone thought at the time. It told us how close we were to the edge.

But the GDP also revealed that, in the last few months, the economy has done measurably better than we had thought, better than expected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Cautious, but optimistic nevertheless.

While the freefall appears to be over, unemployment continues to rise, and consumers, well, they are simply not spending. The pain may be easing, but, really, are we on the road to an actual recovery? Will it feel like a recovery?

Ali Velshi joins us with details and your money, your future.

So, the -- so, the GDP has done better than they thought. Does this mean it is behind this?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: No. Look, it is an interesting measure. It is old. As you mentioned, it's from the second quarter of this year, March until the end of June.

But let me give you a pattern. Let me show you the last two years of GDP, which is the broadest measure of all economic activity in this country. I'm going to you right now, first of all, before I do that, this is what the Dow has done, another indicator of what is going on.

Let's go back to Election Day, November of '08. Look at where we were. We were just about 9000. Look where we have gone, back to March '09. You remember, Anderson, we were talking about that being the bottom of the market. Now look at what has happened. We have traced this market back up, and we are today where we were back on Election Day. So, that is one of the indications that this market is doing a lot better. GDP is another of these indications. We have still -- we are still shrinking this economy, Anderson, but we're shrinking it a lot less than we were before.

COOPER: Let's talk about this -- this -- this cash for clunkers program. Two billion dollars, another $2 billion was approved to -- to keep this -- this thing going. It's been kind of a surprising hit, right?

VELSHI: Yes.

I have got to tell you, I have some penance to do. I was one of the doubters. This didn't seem like it made a lot of sense. This was a program that was putting $1 billion aside to give to people -- you had until November do this -- to trade in your old clunker to buy a new car.

They ran out of money in the first week. Today, before Congress left, they authorized $2 million to add to the first $1 billion, so that people could continue to do this -- 40,000 people have taken advantage of it already. Dealers say another 200,000 people are ready to do this, Anderson.

This low-hanging fruit of a program that none of us thought was going to work might end up being one of the most successful enterprises in an effort to stimulate the economy. Ford is saying it's expected to do one of its best months in a very long time because of this.

COOPER: And how does it basically work?

VELSHI: Basically, if you have a car that is old, that doesn't get very good gas mileage, instead of trading it in or selling it, you go buy a new car that is fuel-efficient. You get a voucher from the dealer. If you go and scrap that car, you get $4,000 -- $3,500 or $4,500 from the government.

So, for frugal -- frugal people who have these old cars that are not fuel-efficient, but didn't buy a new car, this is tempting them to go out and buy a brand-new fuel-efficient car, basically, money for just trading in your clunker, and getting a new fuel-efficient car. It is working very well.

COOPER: And that is some good news there.

Ali Velshi, thank you very much.

Let's move on to the "Raw Politics" of all this.

Senior political analyst David Gergen joins us now from Boston.

David, so, signs that the economy might be doing a little bit better. How much does the news today help the president? Because he was sort of very cautious in his statement today, obviously.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he wanted to claim credit.

I think most economists, Anderson, would tell you that it was really the private sector. Exports were up more than expected. Business investment was up more. They didn't cut inventories as much.

But they will also say that the government helped. Probably, most of the credit from economists would go to the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke. And they have thrown everything they could at this economy, and it's making a difference.

But some of the credit also belongs to President Obama and the stimulus program -- not just the stimulus program, but the foreclosure program, the efforts to get credit moving.

But, you know, in politics, it -- all these things matter less. And when you are the incumbent and things start looking a little better, you claim credit, and you usually get it.

COOPER: How -- is it really fair, though? I mean, only some $60 billion of the $787 billion in this stimulus package has actually been spent. So, I mean, it's hard to say, well, it's the stimulus plan, because they have only spent $60 billion of it.

GERGEN: Well, that is why I say I think economists would tell you -- you're absolutely right, Anderson -- that it's only -- it is a modest part of this turnaround.

And there is probably the psychological factor that the Obama folks would claim, as well, having this new president, this fresh, promising president. You know, and I do think they deserve an awful lot of credit in the Obama administration for making sure we didn't go over the cliff.

But, you know, Anderson, there's a -- there -- once you start going out as president, as he did today, and claiming a lot of the credit for this, starting to make this turn, you also make it your economy.

COOPER: Right.

GERGEN: It becomes the Obama economy.

So if economists are right that he faces a real danger that this growth pattern or this turnaround is going to level off after a while and we're going to have a long, painful recovery without a lot of new jobs, that's going to be the Obama economy. And that is not good news for the president.

COOPER: And where does health care now stand? We learned late today that another House committee has approved that's going to pave the way for health-care reform. Obviously, the Senate still has their issues with it. Where -- how do you see this playing out?

GERGEN: This has been a very good day for the president. And having the House go out now, three committees considering health care. All three have voted health care out and recommended it to the full House. That means we are very likely going to get the full House to vote in the fall and very likely to pass.

The Senate remains a very big problem for the president. Indeed, fractious Democrats remain a major problem for the president. But if you're President Obama tonight, you can at least say this. We -- this country, under a variety of presidents, went back to the 1940s, have been trying to have national health care passed.

No president has ever gotten it to a vote on the House or the Senate. And President Obama is about to get there. His chances of getting a full health-care package done might be a big drama. It's still an uphill fight for him in the Congress.

But tonight he can take -- he can take comfort and, I think, find encouragement in the fact that all three House committees that have been considering have now passed that bill, recommended to the full House passage of a bill. They've still got to settle a lot of differences in the fall.

COOPER: All right. David Gergen, appreciate it. Have a good weekend, David.

Join the live chat happening right now at AC360.com. Let us know what you think about all this. Do you feel like the recession may be over?

Next on the program, filling prescriptions for suspected drug addicts and breaking the law. Cops go undercover, make a bust. We'll take you along.

And later, massive snakes on the loose. I find this story hard to believe. One man's solution. We'll introduce you to the python hunter down in Florida when 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Dr. Conrad Murray has emerged as the main focus in the criminal investigation into the death of Michael Jackson, as we reported earlier today. But the case could involve other physicians who treated the singer

Now a big question for the police and the DEA surrounds prescriptions for powerful drugs and painkillers. Did any of Jackson's doctors sacrifice his health and his life to make money?

If a patient needs a fix, there's probably a place he or she can get it. They are called pill mills, medical clinics that, for a price, give addicts their fix.

Joe Johns tonight is "Keeping Them Honest."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Broward County Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pull over here. JOHNS: Sheriff's detectives in a minivan listening to radio transmissions, waiting for an undercover drug deal to go down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Counting the money. Counting the money.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay here.

JOHNS: They're about to arrest a local guy named Matthew Sullivan and charge him with selling prescription pain killers to a female undercover officer. We're talking OxyContin pills, powerful narcotics. A street-level drug deal but not like cocaine, heroin or marijuana. The painkillers are prescribed by doctors and sold by more than 100 pain clinics that have cropped up all over South Florida, especially in Broward.

Sullivan says he's an addict.

(on camera) What is it like living in that life?

MATTHEW SULLIVAN, PRESCRIPTION DRUG ADDICT: A never ending -- like, a hamster wheel, you know?

JOHNS: How much do you take a day?

SULLIVAN: Twenty pills, 30 pills sometimes.

JOHNS (voice-over): Sullivan did not admit breaking the law in our interview. Police say Sullivan also got fresh prescriptions earlier in the day before they arrested him.

SGT. RICHARD PISANTI, BROWARD COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: One is from July 30. He got 112 of those. And this one July 30 also, he got 150.

JOHNS: People come here from all over the East Coast to score pills from legal pain clinics. Police call them pill mills.

The cops say it all began here, with this one pain clinic that has now closed down and relocated.

DETECTIVE HENRY LOPEZ, BROWARD COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: This is what our sergeant called ground zero here. This is where we started getting the crowds of people coming from out of state to obtain the pills illegally here. And all it took was for us to drive into work one day and see, you know, 80, 90 people just milling around here, waiting for the pain clinic to open up.

JOHNS (on camera): That was two years ago. Now the DEA says more than 6.5 million pills were sold here in the last half of last year, and police say the clinics are making money hand over fist.

In the last half of 2008, authorities say 50 of the top doctors dispensing OxyContin in the nation worked in South Florida and 33 of those doctors worked right here in Broward County.

(voice-over) Why is it such a big problem here? Until recently, Florida was only one of a dozen states with no way to monitor sales of the drug.

(on camera) The state of the Florida has just passed a new law to track sales of pain killers, which should make it harder for people to abuse the system. But it could take years for the effects to be felt.

PISANTI: Right now you can go to ten clinics a day. It's illegal, but you can do it unless the police follow you. With the new monitoring system in effect, you go into one clinic once a month, and that's all the pills you're going to get.

JOHNS (voice-over): But "Keeping Them Honest," because there are several other states with no monitoring systems, the clinics could simply move someplace else. Which is why some experts have been pushing for a national solution, a computerized federal prescription drug monitoring system, to track drugs nationwide.

John Walters was national drug czar under President George W. Bush.

JOHN WALTERS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DRUG CZAR: You can have a check in a database that's confidential, whether or not this person was doctor shopping, whether this is the 15th prescription they got today from a doctor, and whether a pharmacist has already filled that prescription.

JOHNS: A possible fix for a broken system; no fix at all for the addicts.

Joe Johns, CNN, Broward County, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: It's amazing to think some states still don't have a system that can check on things like that.

Coming up next on 360, meet the python hunter. Searching for these huge snakes in Florida and hoping to stop the reptiles from getting even more out of control. We'll take you on the hunt.

And did you know that going to the dentist can be especially painful for people with a certain color of hair? Can you guess what color hair that is? We'll tell you, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: In Florida tonight, where alligators and crocodiles lurk in the waters, a dangerous new predator has emerged, and it is growing in number and size. Take a look at this. A Burmese python more than 17 feet long was caught this week on the grounds of a hospital near Lake Okeechobee. Seventeen feet long, and these snake cans travel more than a mile in a day. They also eat just about anything.

Across the state, thousands of pythons are on the loose. They were kept as pets and then discarded by their owners. One man, though, is on a mission to find them, and John Zarrella takes us on the trip. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT(voice-over): Joe Wasilewski drives along a stretch of road that bisects Florida's Everglades. Night is coming on quickly. He's looking for snakes. One in particular.

JOE WASILEWSKI, REPTILE EXPERT: The next ten miles seem to be the hot spot for Burmese pythons lately.

ZARRELLA: Wasilewski, a reptile expert, is one of a handful of men sanctioned by the state to hunt down and rid the Glades of pythons. An extraordinary move in response to what scientists believe is a rapidly-growing threat to the delicate ecosystem.

WASILEWSKI: It's a large predator and they're eating basically everything in sight. That's the problem.

ZARRELLA: Twenty years ago there were none here, today perhaps 100,000. No one is quite sure. Night is the best time to catch these non-venomous snakes. That's when they're on the move.

Wasilewski spots something. He jumps from the truck, runs to it.

WASILEWSKI: This is not a python. It's a banded water snake.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Banded water snake.

WASILEWSKI: Do you want to pick him up?

ZARRELLA: Do I?

WASILEWSKI: He'll bite you.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): An hour driving back and forth across the road. Still no pythons, at least not alive. There's a dead one and several more small snakes. A baby alligator, too.

WASILEWSKI: Oh, man. And he got hit by a car.

ZARRELLA: Two hours into our hunt, suddenly Wasilewski is on it. He sees one.

WASILEWSKI: Yes, baby! Hey, look at the size of this one.

ZARRELLA: Skillfully he grabs it behind the head. It instantly coils around his arm. Wasilewski will lock the snake in a crate and take it to the national park biologist to be studied and destroyed. But first, we've got to untangle it from his arm.

(on camera) Wow, look at this.

WASILEWSKI: And this isn't a big one.

ZARRELLA: That is a good ten feet.

WASILEWSKI: Nah.

ZARRELLA: Oh, yes. At least 12.

(voice-over) Wasilewski doesn't get paid. It's voluntary. While he knows they've got to be eliminated, he's got a soft spot for the reptile.

WASILEWSKI: And guess what? It's not this snake's fault. He didn't mean to be here.

ZARRELLA: So are believed to have gotten here when reptile breeding facilities near the Everglade were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew.

WASILEWSKI: Why don't you take this side?

ZARRELLA (on camera): No, you take that side. You take the head end. I've got the back end.

WASILEWSKI: OK.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Others, from pet owners who disposed of them when they got too big. They can grow up to 200 pounds. But this one is no longer a problem.

WASILEWSKI: One down.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Yes.

WASILEWSKI: A hundred thousand more.

ZARRELLA: A hundred thousand to go.

(voice-over) John Zarrella, CNN, the Florida Everglades.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Unbelievable. Here with us live tonight is the python hunter himself, Joe Wasilewski.

Thanks so much for being with us. I hadn't realized -- you know, hundreds -- are there really -- is it known that there really are 100,000 of these snakes out there?

WASILEWSKI: We really can't put a number on it at 100,000 or 150,000 or 50,000. It's so new in the game that we really don't have an idea. We know there's a lot.

COOPER: They're a danger to the ecosystem. Basically, they change the entire ecosystem when a new predator is introduced. We've seen that around the world. Are they -- are they a threat to humans?

WASILEWSKI: You know, where pythons come from, where they originate, Burmese pythons, there's never been a human killed and eaten by one. And I highly doubt that will happen in Florida, in the Everglades that is. COOPER: So what is -- how serious a danger are they to the environment, to the ecosystem?

WASILEWSKI: They're a danger to the ecosystem just because they're a top predator, you know. And they -- they will eat a lot of birds. We found a lot of different animals, mammals, birds and alligators in their stomach. But on the other hand, people forget we have a big predator that lives in the Everglades for millions of years. Alligators.

COOPER: And how long could they have been being released for? I mean, they can't have 100,000 -- if there are 100,000 of them, is that because they have mated with each other and given birth in the wild? Or have 100,000 actually been released?

WASILEWSKI: No. No. No. Probably what happened was '92 was Hurricane Andrew. About 800 baby pythons were literally blown into the Everglades. And if you look at statistics, you look at five, six years for them to mature and breed, we're at the third generation now. And that's where these numbers are spiking.

COOPER: That's amazing. I hadn't realized it goes all the way back to Hurricane Andrew. What about that 17 footer caught in Florida roaming around a construction site? I mean, do you normally see them growing to that size?

WASILEWSKI: You know, honestly, I didn't see a picture of the animal, but they said it was 200 pounds. And that was probably someone's released pet. Because a wild Burmese python 17 feet long is probably going to be under 100 pounds. So that was -- that was probably a pet.

COOPER: And the snakes, you send them to where? I mean, they're studied and then ultimately killed?

WASILEWSKI: Yes. They're euthanized, humanely euthanized. And actually, I work with the -- on sending the animals I capture to Everglades National Park, to the biologists there. And they'll just take biometric data: lengths, measurements, weights, and check their stomach and see what they've been eating. And it's all for science.

COOPER: What if people have a snake that they want to get rid of? Obviously, they should not just release it in the wild. What should they do with it?

WASILEWSKI: No. Please, if you have a pet snake that you don't want anymore, please send it to a zoo, a rehabilitation center. Wildlife rehabilitation center, that is. It's against the law in Florida to release non-indigenous species. But you shouldn't do it anywhere in the states. Take it somewhere and let it be taken care of professionally.

COOPER: What's the most difficult thing about catching a python?

WASILEWSKI: Finding them.

COOPER: Finding them.

WASILEWSKI: I love catching them. Catching them is the easy part. Finding them is the hard part.

COOPER: It doesn't look -- I mean, with a snake that big, though, I mean, it wraps around you pretty quickly. And basically, I mean, that's -- isn't that how a python kills its prey, ultimately, by wrapping around and smothering it?

WASILEWSKI: Yes, they're constrictors. But they know they're not going to eat -- we're not natural prey for them. And they're -- see, they're really cryptic. And one could be right next to you. One could be 20 inches away and you won't see it. That's the problem.

And when the snake coiled around me that was just defensive. You know, I had it, and it doesn't have arms and legs. And that's how it defended itself.

COOPER: You volunteer for this?

WASILEWSKI: Yes. I don't get paid for this.

COOPER: Why do you do this?

WASILEWSKI: I love snakes.

COOPER: You love snakes.

WASILEWSKI: Yes. I love snakes, you know. And there's a lot of people like me out there. And -- and we want to try to help this problem. We want to try to help it out. We'll never get all the pythons out of the Everglades. They're here to stay. Hopefully, we can manage them.

COOPER: Joe Wasilewski, I appreciate you're out there, doing what you're doing. Thanks so much. Stay safe.

WASILEWSKI: You're welcome.

COOPER: Coming up next on the program, missing explosives, blocks of TNT, dynamite, and more stolen. Authorities are asking for your help to recover them.

And later, "The Shot," a lightning strike and one very lucky guy. We'll show you more of his close call coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Coming up, a close call for one man when lightning strikes. It's tonight's "Shot." But first, Erica Hill joins us with the "360 Bulletin" -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Erica, the last of Britain's troops left Iraq today. At the height of the war, they had 42,000 troops in Iraq. One hundred seventy-nine Brits lost their lives during the conflict. Hundreds of explosives belonging to state and federal agents are missing tonight, gone from a storage unit at a port in Washington state. Among the items, 96 pounds of TNT, 17 sticks of dynamite, and 1,500 feet of detonation cord. Also, some consumer fireworks. The ATF is investigating.

Honda is expanding a recall due to faulty airbags. Those airbags are suspected of causing at least six injures and one death. The issue here: the defective airbags can over-pressurize. That allows metal fragments to cut through them and injure or kill passengers.

The affected models include 2001 and 2003 Honda Accords, 2001 Honda Civics, and 2002 and 2003 Acura TL models.

Hair color and your dentist. Connection? Maybe you don't see it immediately but get this: new research published in the "Journal of the American Dental Association" finds redheads are twice as likely to avoid the dentist as people with dark hair. Why? I'm going to tell you. Turns out redheads are more sensitive to pain, and they require more anesthesia.

COOPER: Really?

HILL: Which ups their anxiety levels when it comes to going to the dentist.

COOPER: What about nitrous oxide? Do you get nitrous oxide at the dentist?

HILL: Laughing gas?

COOPER: Yes.

HILL: I think I had -- when I had my wisdom teeth out, I had it.

COOPER: It's -- yes. Incredible.

HILL: It's crazy stuff. But apparently, redheads in some cases require as much as 20 percent more anesthesia.

COOPER: See, they should just get the laughing gas before they get the anesthesia.

HILL: You're saying that would solve everything?

COOPER: I think it would mellow them out a little bit.

HILL: You know, maybe you're in the wrong line of work.

COOPER: That's right. Exactly. Yes. That's really what you need to be taking from me, is medical advice.

Next on the program, our "Beat 360" winners, our daily challenge to viewers, a chance to come up with a better caption to the one we can come up with for a photo that we put on the blog every day.

By the way, I've only tried nitrous oxide in a dental setting.

Tonight's picture, an activist wearing a mock bottom and a hospital gown petitions lawmakers on Capitol Hill for health-care reform. Yikes. I didn't know what a mock bottom was at first.

HILL: There you go.

COOPER: The picture really spells it out right there.

Staff winner tonight is Joey. His caption: "We need health-care reform. No ifs, ands or butts."

(SOUND EFFECT: GROANS)

COOPER: Ba-dum-bah.

HILL: Ai.

COOPER: The viewer winner is Kathy from Ottawa, Canada. Her caption: "Just like the beer summit. Bottoms up, yes, we can."

(SOUND EFFECT: LAUGHTER)

HILL: Good one, Kathy.

COOPER: Kathy, congratulations. A "Beat 360" T-shirt is on the way.

So we've seen a lot of storms this summer. But one man got dangerously close and caught it all on tape. It's our "Shot of the Day." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Erica, for tonight's "Shot," wicked weather. Now check out how close one guy got by -- got to getting struck by lightning. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Is he on that roof there?

COOPER: He's on the video camera, I think, right?

HILL: What is that thing moving on the roof? Watch. Is that a person up there?

COOPER: I guess so, yes.

HILL: Is that the person who almost got hit or the video camera guy?

COOPER: I think it's both. I guess that is -- is that a person? Does the control room know?

HILL: I'm going to go out on a limb and say, if that is a person, I'm really glad you didn't get hit. But what -- what are you doing on a roof? What are you doing on a roof in a lightning storm.

COOPER: I should have probably listened to the video before we aired it. But there's an annoying chasm of silence in the control room. So no one seems to have actually watched it.

HILL: Apparently not. Fascinating piece of video, though.

COOPER: I'm hearing crickets in my IFP (ph). Just...

HILL: You don't thin kit looks like a person?

COOPER: No, it's not a person. No one -- no one watched this video before we aired it. Apparently, no one knows what we're even looking at.

HILL: If we watch it enough times, maybe we'll figure it out.

COOPER: It's a chair.

HILL: A chair.

COOPER: Wow. OK.

HILL: So if you wanted to sit out and get hit by lightning, you could.

COOPER: Check out how close this chair got to being hit by lightning. That's what I should have read. The chair. But clearly, the guy with the video camera came pretty close, as well.

HILL: He was super close. Yes.

COOPER: All right. It was -- a little information. Here we go. It was apparently recorded in St. Augustine, Florida, a couple -- just a couple days ago..

HILL: I think that's Augustine.

COOPER: Is it really now?

HILL: Isn't it?

COOPER: This is one of those things I probably should have read, too, before going on the air with it. I know what you think (ph).

HILL: I don't know if this is true, but I thought I read on the blog earlier that it's Friday.

COOPER: For the love of God it's two minutes to 11 on Friday.

HILL: Cut the man some slack.

COOPER: All right. We are so done.

Coming up at the top of the hour, the breaking news out of Florida. Stunning developments in that double murder in Florida. We'll have the latest, right ahead. We'll be right back.