Nicole Lynn Mansfield, the American woman who was killed Wednesday in Syria while allegedly fighting with rebel forces, was a mother with a “heart of gold” who struggled to find a purpose in life, according to family members.
Ms. Mansfield’s cousin, aunt, and grandmother told the Associated Press that FBI agents visited them Thursday to inform them of her death. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
A pro-Syrian government news agency said Mansfield and two others were fighters for a group opposed to Syria's government and were killed in a confrontation in Idlib, in northern Syria. The agency said a banner of a rebel front linked to Al Qaeda was found in the car in which the three were traveling when they were killed. The report on the circumstances of the deaths could not immediately be confirmed.
“She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded,” her grandmother, Carole Mansfield, told the Detroit Free Press. “I think she could have been brainwashed.”
Mansfield grew up in Flint, Mich., where she was raised a Baptist. Her father was a production worker at General Motors. Her parents divorced, and Mansfield was brought up between them and her grandmother, according to the ML-The Flint Journal.
Mansfield dropped out of high school after she became pregnant at age 15, according to the Detroit Free Press. Her daughter is now 18. Mansfield’s aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman, said Mansfield married an Arab immigrant about five years ago, at which point she converted to Islam and started wearing the hijab. The marriage ended about three years later after her husband was able to get a green card that permitted him to stay long-term in the United States.
Ms. Speelman said Mansfield traveled to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, two to three years ago, but returned after concerned family members urged her to come home.
Mansfield’s aunt and grandmother described her as developing a spotty record when it came to family gatherings, and say they didn’t know that she was in Syria or the name of her former husband who inspired her to convert to Islam.
She told people “that the best way of life was to be a Muslim. And that women should wear scarves ... women should always cover their head,” Nicole’s grandmother told the Free Press.
Mansfield finished her GED and took classes at a local community college, but didn’t settle into a clear career. She worked as a home health-care provider for about 10 years, helping elderly people at various group homes and hospice facilities, and would have liked to have been a nurse, her grandmother told the ML-Flint Journal.
Muna Jondy, a Syrian-American activist who is president of the Flint-based United for a Free Syria and who opposes the Syrian government, told the Detroit Free Press that she hadn’t heard of Mansfield. She also warned about accepting the Syrian television report because the station is linked to the Bashar al-Assad government, which is battling opposition forces and may be reporting propaganda.
Mansfield could be the first American killed in the Syrian conflict, notes the Daily Beast. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in that country's civil war. The US indirectly backs certain of the rebel groups fighting the Assad government in Syria, but it has also registered concern that Islamist extremists have joined the rebel forces.
The Daily Mail noted in April that an in-depth study published by Kings College London said the presence of American fighters in Syria is rare, although as many as 600 Europeans have traveled there to fight in the conflict.
In April, former US soldier Eric Harroun attracted international attention after posting videos online of him supposedly fighting with rebel groups in Syria and holding rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
The FBI arrested Mr. Harroun when he returned to the US in March on charges that he fought with the the Al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Foreign Policy identified a Pinterest account that it said could be Mansfield’s. The account, belonging to a Nicole Mansfield from Flint, Mich., has 13 followers, including several from Michigan who converted to Islam.
Most of the pictures are of puppies, birds, food, and vacation destinations. A folder called “Islam” contained mainly stock images of mosques and the holy city of Mecca. There was also an album called “Hometown Love Never Die” with pictures of Flint, and a hot dog, including the caption “ewww, pork!”
– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report
A White House mail screening facility has intercepted a suspicious letter addressed to President Obama that is similar to two letters containing threats for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his gun-control group in Washington, according to the Secret Service Thursday.
The letter addressed to Mr. Obama has been turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other two letters, which are also being investigated, have already tested positive for ricin, authorities said Wednesday.
The pair of letters that surfaced first, and that were sent anonymously, were opened in New York on Friday at the city’s mail facility in Manhattan and in Washington on Sunday, according to New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne. Mr. Browne said “the writer, in the letters, threatened Mayor Bloomberg, with references to the debate on gun laws."
The letter addressed to Obama also had an anti-gun control message, along with a suspicious substance, a law-enforcement source told ABC News.
The civilian personnel who initially came into contact with the first pair of letters showed no symptoms of exposure to the poison, but three police officers who later examined the New York letter experienced minor symptoms that have since abated, Browne said.
One letter was addressed to Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nonprofit advocacy group started by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino that lobbies federal and state lawmakers for stricter gun-control laws.
Mr. Glaze opened the letter while sitting outside over the Memorial Day weekend, a colleague told the Associated Press. According to ABC News, Glaze opened the letter on a park bench and then called for help after seeing powder in the envelope.
A Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI and the NYPD’s Intelligence Division are investigating the threats, Browne said.
Ricin can be made from castor beans and can be lethal if ingested even in small quantities.
Asked about the letters Wednesday night, Bloomberg said: “There’s 12,000 people that are going to get killed this year with guns and 19,000 that are going to commit suicide with guns, and we’re not going to walk away from those efforts. And I know I speak for all of the close to 1,000 mayors” in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, he said. “This is a scourge on the country that we just have to make sure that we get under control and eliminate.”
While officials would not comment on what specific threats were made or where the letters were postmarked, ABC News reports that the author wrote he or she has a "constitutional and God-given right and I will exercise that right 'til I die" – saying that the government would have to kill him or her before he or she would relinquish any weapons.
The first two letters to surface were postmarked from Shreveport, La., ABC News reports. The Shreveport mayor, Cedric Glover, released a statement Thursday morning:
"The city of Shreveport in conjunction with the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force is working to apprehend those responsible for mailing ricin laced letters to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg," Mr. Glover said. "We are also taking the necessary steps to protect local [Postal Service] & Government Plaza personnel as well as local citizens from any possible harm."
The letters are the latest in a string of toxin-laced missives. In Washington State, Matthew Buquet of Spokane was charged last week with threatening to kill a federal judge in a letter that contained ricin. That letter was discovered earlier this month during screening, before it was delivered to the judge, Reuters reported.
In April, letters containing the same substance were addressed to Obama, a US senator, and a Mississippi judge. J. Everett Dutschke, a former tae kwon do instructor from Tupelo, Miss., was arrested in that case on April 27, four days after federal prosecutors dropped charges against Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator from Corinth, Miss, whose lawyer says he may have been framed.
Browne would not say whether the latest letters were believed to be linked to the other ricin cases.
Bloomberg’s advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, counts more than 700 mayors nationwide as members. It aired a spate of television ads this year urging Congress to expand background checks and pass other gun-control measures after the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The background-check proposal failed in a Senate vote in April, and other measures that gun-control advocates wanted – including a ban on sales of military-style assault weapons – have stalled.
Separately, Bloomberg also has made political donations to candidates who share his desire for tougher gun restrictions. His "super political-action committee," Independence USA, put $2.2 million into a Democratic primary this winter for a US congressional seat in Illinois, for example. Bloomberg’s choice, former state lawmaker Robin Kelly (D), won the primary and the seat.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Alaska seems headed for another lively US Senate race.
Tea party favorite Joe Miller has filed Federal Election Commission papers to challenge incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, one of several sitting Democrats seen as vulnerable by the GOP.
“Support from the grass roots has been overwhelmingly positive, and we are moving forward within those guidelines organizing, fundraising, and coordinating with our volunteer base,” Mr. Miller said in a statement when Politico.com broke the news Tuesday.
RECOMMENDED: Eight open US Senate seats in 2014
Miller is best known for challenging incumbent Republican US Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. With the backing of national tea party groups and Sarah Palin, he beat Senator Murkowski in the GOP primary by 2,006 votes out of 109,750 cast.
But Murkowski, a moderate Republican, came back to wage a write-in campaign backed by native corporations, political action committees, and some unions, dashing Miller’s hopes and holding onto her seat – the first time in more than 50 years that a US Senate candidate had won a write-in campaign.
Miller did not go down without a fight, however, challenging the election results up the Alaska state court system until a federal judge finally dismissed Miller’s suit and Murkowski was certified as the winner two months later.
Apparently, the 2010 loss still smarts. Miller seems almost to be running as much against Murkowski as Begich.
“Though I was labeled an ‘extremist’ by the likes of Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich for telling the truth, both of our sitting senators now routinely engage in such ‘extremist’ rhetoric with respect to federal overreach, government spending, and entitlement reform,” Miller writes on his Restoring Liberty website.
Miller’s political manifesto is straight out of the tea party wing of the Republican Party.
“With the re-election of Barack Obama, our very way of self-government is in peril,” he says. “The Constitution is under attack, the value of human life degraded, religious liberties are threatened, the Second Amendment is increasingly in jeopardy, and the right to protection from unlawful search and seizure is giving way to a virtual surveillance State.”
He warns of a “looming debt crisis” and “the coming downgrade of America’s credit rating.” The US senators he says he most admires: Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah – those who will “confront President Obama, not one who will cut a deal to negotiate the terms of our surrender to his radical socialist agenda.”
Miller is a West Point graduate who served in the Gulf War, holds a law degree from Yale University, and has been an Alaska state judge and US Magistrate. He and his wife have eight children.
Alaska politics can be wild and wooly as well as highly personal – see Sarah Palin – in a vast territory with few people and a small-town feel. (Senator Murkowski’s father is a former governor.)
Miller’s career has not been without controversy and the occasional tinge of media-fanned scandal.
Earlier this month, a state judge ordered Miller to pay $85,000 in attorney’s fees to the Alaska Dispatch online news organization in Anchorage tied to a 2010 lawsuit to make public Miller’s employment records during his time as a part-time government lawyer. At one point in the dust-up, Miller’s security men at a town hall meeting handcuffed the editor of the Alaska Dispatch.
“Miller’s conduct, which included taking inconsistent positions, failing to disclose information during discovery, and his procedural filing, which the record did not support, all caused unnecessary delay and costs for both Alaska Dispatch” and the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides wrote in her ruling.
Is there any chance that Ms. Palin could jump into Alaska’s 2014 US Senate race? It may be unlikely, but recent polls could tempt the GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee.
She enjoys a 62 percent favorable rating among Republican voters in the state, according to a Harper Polling survey earlier this month, and she leads Miller 52 percent to 19 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head match.
Miller, meanwhile, has a 49 percent to 34 percent unfavorable-favorable rating in that poll.
RECOMMENDED: Eight open US Senate seats in 2014
A record 40 percent of American mothers are the primary breadwinner for their families, up from 11 percent in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center study released Wednesday.
The report, based on US census data, shows a dramatic change in women’s role as earners, as more women are single mothers or outearn their husbands. It reflects the growth of women in the workforce and could be due in part to the elimination of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs during the Great Recession, analysts say.
"This change is just another milestone in the dramatic transformation we have seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so," said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project. "Women's roles have changed, marriage rates have declined – the family looks a lot different than it used to. The rise of breadwinner moms highlights the fact that, not only are more mothers balancing work and family these days, but the economic contributions mothers are making to their households have grown immensely."
IN PICTURES: Women's work: from family to front office
Women make up 47 percent of the US labor force, and the percentage of married mothers who are working has increased from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011.
"I always thought I'd be working – not just for the financial implications, but because I love what I do," Karen Potter, a mother who works as an endodontist in California, told the Los Angeles Times. When her daughter grows up, "I hope and pray that she knows you can be there for your children and have a career that you're passionate about."
Since 1960, the percentage of mothers who are single has tripled, from 7 to 25 percent. And the share of married mothers who outearn their spouses has nearly quadrupled, from 4 to 15 percent.
“The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960,” said Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies gender and family trends, in The Washington Post. “This reflects the larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss, or declining wages.”
There are substantial differences between single mothers, who make up nearly two-thirds of mom breadwinners, and the 37 percent of mothers who are married and primary breadwinners.
The median family income of married mothers who earn more than their spouses was about $80,000 in 2011, nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother. In comparison, the national median family income for all families with children is $57,100.
"I think mothers are forced to work these days," Samantha Salbeck, a project manager for a construction firm in Ripon, Calif., told the Associated Press. "It just costs so much to raise a family, and women have gotten smarter about it, getting an education and pursuing positions that women would not typically pursue 10 to 20 years ago."
Single mothers are also younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree, Pew found. Married mothers who outearn their husbands are slightly older, disproportionally white, and college educated.
Education is one of the factors driving the increased number of breadwinner moms, although it tends to be a characteristic of married high-earners rather than single moms, says Wendy Wang, lead author of the Pew report.
“The mothers who make more than their husbands ... are the most highly educated out of all mothers,” she says.
Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, predicts the increasing numbers of working mothers will lead to a growing constituency among women in favor of family-friendly work policies such as paid family leave, as well as safety-net policies such as food stamps or child-care support for single mothers.
"Many of our workplaces and schools still follow a male-breadwinner model, assuming that the wives are at home to take care of child-care needs," he said. "Until we realize that the breadwinner-homemaker marriage will never again be the norm, we won't provide working parents with the support they need."
Demographers say the change is all but irreversible, but still, the general public is not entirely sure that having more working mothers is a good thing.
While roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to traditional roles, only 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society, according to the Pew survey.
Other findings from the report:
• There is a gender gap when it comes to attitudes. About 45 percent of women say children are better off with their mother at home, and 38 percent say children are just as well off if the mother works. Among men, 57 percent say children are better off with their mother at home, and 29 percent say they are just as well off if she works.
• The share of married couples in which the wife is more educated than the husband is rising, from 7 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2011. Still, most married couples have similar educational backgrounds – at 61 percent.
• The number of working wives who make more than their husbands has been increasing more rapidly in recent years. Among recently married couples, including those without children, the share of "breadwinner wives" is roughly 30 percent, compared with 24 percent of all married couples.
The Pew study is based on an analysis of census data as of 2011, the latest available, as well as interviews with 1,003 adults by cellphone or land line from April 25 to 28. The Pew poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
RECOMMENDED: Women's work is her choosing
A judge in Sanford, Fla., ruled Tuesday against George Zimmerman’s defense team on several key issues in preparation for his trial on charges of second-degree murder in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
In a two-hour hearing at the Seminole County Courthouse, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled that defense attorneys will not be able to mention Trayvon’s past marijuana use, his suspension from school, or his alleged participation in fights in their opening statements.
The rulings came after Mr. Zimmerman’s defense team recently posted online photos and text messages from Trayvon’s cellphone. The texts included several about being a fighter, smoking marijuana, and being ordered to move out of his home by his mother. The photos included a picture of what appeared to be a .40 caliber handgun, the Orlando Sentinel notes.
RECOMMENDED: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case
In other rulings, the judge refused to allow jurors to travel to the scene of the shooting, calling such an excursion “a logistical nightmare.” She also denied the defense’s request for a delay in the start of the trial, now scheduled to begin June 10.
In another victory for prosecutors, Judge Nelson granted their request to bar evidence about why it took so long for them to charge Zimmerman in the alleged crime. And she ruled against a defense motion that jury candidates be sequestered during the jury-selection process.
But not all of the rulings in Tuesday’s court action went against the defense. The judge denied the prosecutors' request for a gag order in the case. And she granted the defense team’s request to hold a hearing on whether the prosecution failed to turn over some evidence. A former attorney in the state attorney’s office has charged that prosecutors did not turn over some photos and text messages from Trayvon’s phone.
The judge will hold another hearing on June 6. At that session she will hear arguments about whether to admit testimony from a state audio expert, Alan Reich. In a report to prosecutors, Mr. Reich says the audio of a 911 call has the voice of Trayvon saying in a trembling voice, “I am begging you.”
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon’s family, said his family was pleased with the judge’s rulings. “Trayvon Martin is not on trial,” Mr. Crump said.
After the hearing, Robert Zimmerman, George’s brother, called on the state to drop the second-degree murder charges. “In this country. You don’t charge someone with any crime solely to assuage the concerns of misinformed masses,” he said, according to CNN.
Zimmerman is charged with shooting Trayvon while serving as a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman called 911 to report “a suspicious person” in the neighborhood. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty in Martin's death, saying he acted in self-defense.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
RECOMMENDED: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case
There’s a $30,000 cash prize at stake and decades of bragging rights for the winner of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, which kicks off Tuesday with the first vocabulary test in the history of the competition.
Instead of just getting the vowels and consonants right, 281 spellers from all 50 states and eight countries, gathered outside Washington, must also know the meaning of words like flibbertigibbet, weissnichtwo, and gobbledegook.
“When I first heard about it, I was thinking, ‘It’s going to be a lot harder now,’ ” competitor Alicia Gonzales from Winchester, Va., told The Washington Times. “Instead of just spelling the word, we have to know what it means.”
RECOMMENDED: Think you can spell? Take our Spelling Bee quiz!
The computer-based vocabulary test counts for half of the speller’s overall score, with onstage tests, beginning Wednesday, to determine the other half of the score. Students are given 24 spelling words and 24 vocabulary words during Tuesday's preliminary round.
The E.W. Scripps Company, which has sponsored the bee for 70 years, introduced the new vocabulary test last month. Bee director Paige Kimble told CNN the announcement was made after the regional spelling bees concluded.
“The timing of our announcement ... is absolutely fair," she said. "April is the first opportunity to engage all of the participants who have qualified for the national finals."
The new vocabulary component aims to help students "learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives," she said, in an April 9 announcement of the rule change.
Richard Morga, a Bee participant from Wood Dale, Ill., told the Chicago Tribune that he thinks the vocabulary test evens the playing field: “The repeat (competitors) don’t really matter anymore,” he said.
Linda Tarrant, president of Hexco Academic, a company in Hunt, Texas, that provides personal coaching for elite spellers, told The Washington Times that the vocabulary change “threw us all out of kilter.”
“I think they did it for all the right reasons, but I think it’s a terrible mistake to do it six weeks before the spelling bee,” Ms. Tarrant said. “You have kids who have been studying hard, two-to-four hours a day, since last year’s national bee. They have learned several thousand words, but have they learned the meaning of them all? My guess is no.”
Hexco’s website lists the cost of eight sessions of one-on-one coaching at $1,900 and 16 sessions at $3,000.
The Bee also added other measures this year. Spellers will be eliminated after the first time they misspell a word in Round 2, instead of getting a chance at a second word.
“Every year, we’re trying to improve the competition – improve the fairness and the competitiveness,” said bee spokesman Chris Kemper.
Only 50 contestants will survive the preliminary rounds to advance to the semifinals. Participants who correctly spell their words during the onstage portion aren’t guaranteed to advance to the next round, if their written spelling and vocabulary scores aren’t high enough, writes USA Today.
Students will still be able to ask for definitions during the onstage spelling section, but future bees may eventually include onstage vocabulary tests, Kimble told the Associated Press last month.
A portion of Wednesday’s semifinals and the championship round Thursday night will be broadcast by ESPN.
This year Tara Singh of Louisville, Ky., is the youngest speller at age 8. Participants range from 8 to 14 years, with 89 percent between the ages of 12 and 14. The competition is open to students younger than 16 who have not yet passed eighth grade.
Two contestants, Vanya Shivashankar and Ashwin Veeramani, have siblings who previously won the spelling bee. The Economic Times notes that the past five bee winners were Indian-Americans and that nearly 50 Indian-Americans are competing this year, including Ms. Singh, the youngest competitor.
The Scripps Howard News Service has developed an interactive map to track which competitors are eliminated or "still spelling," and to show home states, gender, and age. Among this year’s group, 52 percent are girls and 48 percent boys.
According to ABCNews, Harry Potter was the most popular response to the bee’s survey of participants' favorite books, and most competitors want to grow up to be a doctor. Math is most frequently cited as a favorite subject.
Ms. Kimble, the bee director, appears confident the new vocabulary section will be a success. She tweeted this morning: “Was there ever any doubt? With >75 Prelims Test scores in, the spellers are performing a bit better on vocab than spelling.”
RECOMMENDED: Think you can spell? Take our Spelling Bee quiz!
The bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River north of Seattle will get a short-term patch within weeks, officials say, keeping this busy portion of the I-5 interstate open while the crunched original is replaced.
"We will install a temporary span on the bridge that will restore traffic while we build a safe and durable permanent span adjacent to it," Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Sunday. That permanent replacement should be ready by early autumn.
That’s good news for commuters and travelers along this busy highway through the Pacific Northwest into Canada now poking their way along other river crossings. But it’s also a reminder that many older bridges around the country are at risk, in serious need of repair or replacement.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know the US? Take our geography quiz.
“Thousands of bridges around the US may be one freak accident or mistake away from collapse, even if the spans are deemed structurally sound,” reports The Associated Press.
“The crossings are kept standing by engineering design, not supported with brute strength or redundant protections like their more modern counterparts,” the AP reports. “Bridge regulators call the more risky spans ‘fracture critical,’ meaning that if a single, vital component of the bridge is compromised, it can crumple.”
Which is exactly what happened when a tractor-trailer carrying a legal oversized load clipped a girder on the I-5 bridge, sending one span and two vehicles plunging into the river below. No one was killed or seriously injured, and the truck driver (who made it across the bridge and immediately stopped) has not been charged.
Vulnerable bridges carry millions of passengers a day. Some examples: In Boston, a six-lane highway near Logan Airport includes a "fracture critical" bridge over Bennington Street. In northern Chicago, an I-90 pass that goes over Ashland Avenue is in the same category. An I-880 bridge over Fifth Avenue in Oakland, Calif., is also on the list.
There are 66,749 “structurally deficient” bridges and 84,748 “functionally obsolete” bridges in the United States, according to the Federal Highway Administration – about one-fourth of the 607,000 total bridges nationally.
"Since 1989, we've had nearly 600 bridge failures in this country,” Barry LePatner, author of "Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward," told CBS News last August. “While they're not widely publicized … a large number of bridges in every state are really a danger to the traveling public."
The Huffington Post notes that in his State of the Union message this year, President Obama urged repairs of "the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country." He proposed a plan called "Fix it First.”
“Investing in infrastructure not only makes our roads, bridges, and ports safer and allows our businesses and workers to be as competitive as they need to be in the global economy, it also creates thousands of good American jobs that cannot be outsourced,” states a White House fact sheet announcing Obama’s infrastructure program. “The President’s plan will immediately invest $50 billion in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, with $40 billion targeted to the most urgent upgrades and focused on fixing our highways, bridges, transit systems, and airports most in need of repair.”
Instead, Congress failed to avoid the "sequester" and transportation repair spending faces a $1.9 billion cut.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know the US? Take our geography quiz.
A 17-year-old student in Albany, Ore., built several bombs and had a detailed plan – including checklists and diagrams – as part of a Columbine-style plot to attack West Albany High School, a local prosecutor says.
No motive has yet been made public, but Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said authorities on Friday found six kinds of explosives – including napalm bombs, pipe bombs, drain-cleaner bombs, and Molotov cocktails – in "a secret compartment that had been created in the floorboards" of the teen's bedroom. The teen, Grant Acord, sought make his attack bigger than Columbine, Mr. Haroldson said.
The alleged plot is just the latest example of how the Columbine massacre continues shape school safety 14 years later.
Not only does the plot suggest that would-be attackers continue to draw inspiration from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., before committing suicide on April 20, 1999. But it also points to how such plots have been repeatedly foiled.
Authorities say they received a tip. Albany police became suspicious after they "received information that associated ... Acord with manufacturing a destructive device with the intent of detonating it at a school," Haroldson said, according to a CNN report.
With students more alert for signs of potential attacks post-Columbine, tips have been crucial to preventing more Columbines.
- In 2001, A suspicious note passed along by a friend led police in Elmira, N.Y., to find a high-school senior in the cafeteria with a pistol, 18 bombs, and a sawed-off shotgun, according to media reports.
- Three years later, a tip about an Internet chat in which a student said he was planning to attack his school led to a stash of found stolen weapons, an AK-47, and Nazi literature in the student's house in Clinton Township, Mich., reports say.
- Tips also led to the discovery of Columbine-style plots in Tampa, Fla., in 2011, and in Utah last year.
In the Utah case, the suspect actually went so far as to visit Columbine High School and interview the principal.
“To go as far as to interview the principal and physically go there … sends a message that they were extremely committed to doing something,” Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland told the Monitor at the time.
In Oregon, Grant will be charged as an adult with aggravated murder, Haroldson said. He will also face charges related to bombmaking.
“This was a very methodical process,” said Haroldson, according to a report in The Oregonian. “He took time to even get to this point.”
The evidence gathered by police, which includes "diagrams, checklists, a plan to use explosive devices, and firearms to carry out a plan specifically modeled after the Columbine shootings" shows "intent and plans to carry out a deadly assault on a target-rich environment," he said.
Haroldson did not say when Grant planned to carry out the attack, according to ABC, but added: "I can't say enough about how lucky we are that there was an intervention. When I look at the evidence in the case, I shudder to think of what could have happened here."
Grant was arrested at his home Thursday.
Police say they have searched the school and found no devices, though a Reuters report said they are following up the initial search more thoroughly to make sure students can return to school after the Memorial Day vacation.
Three people were rescued from icy water after a section of the Interstate 5 bridge collapsed Thursday evening 60 miles north of Seattle, raising the prospect of a renewed debate over funding critical infrastructure repairs across the country.
A semitruck with an oversize load that hit the upper span of the bridge at about 7 p.m., Pacific time, caused the collapse, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said during an overnight news conference. The truck made it off the bridge, and the driver remained at the scene and cooperated with investigators.
The local Skagit County Sheriff’s Department said two men and one woman were rescued from the water and transported to area hospitals, where they were all reported in stable condition, according to King 5 News in Seattle. State authorities say there were no fatalities.
“You talk miracles,” said Dan Sligh, one of the survivors, in an interview with the Seattle Times. “I don’t know what you want to call it. When you’re sitting down in the water and all that mangled metal of the bridge. You look around and you pinch yourself.”
The bridge, built in 1955, was inspected twice last year and repairs were made, according to state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. The Los Angeles Times reports that the latest inspection was in November.
"It's an older bridge that needs a lot of work, just like a good number of bridges around the state," Ms. Peterson said.
Transportation officials are working on plans for either a temporary or permanent replacement, she said, and the National Transportation Safety Board is sending an investigative team.
The bridge was not classified as structurally deficient, but a Federal Highway Administration database listed it as being "functionally obsolete" – a category meaning that the design is outdated, such as having narrow shoulders and low clearance underneath.
The bridge is also classified as "fracture critical" by the National Bridge Inventory. That means the bridge is designed so that a failure in any one part of the bridge can collapse the entire span. There are some 18,000 fracture-critical bridges nationwide, of which 8,000 are also "structurally deficient," according to a 2012 review of Federal Highway Administration records by Bloomberg News.
The bridge has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in Washington have a lower sufficiency score.
The Seattle Times reported that, on average, about 70,000 vehicles use the bridge each day, 12 percent of them trucks.
Officials say the bridge, part of the major north-south highway connecting Seattle to Canada, will not be fixed for at least a few weeks, and they urged travelers to avoid the area over Memorial Day weekend.
The collapse of a portion of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota in 2007 killed 13 and injured 145, sparking a national reexamination of the safety of the country’s roads and bridges, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
More than 200 million trips are taken daily across structurally deficient bridges in the nation's 102 largest metropolitan regions, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In total, 1 in 9 of America's bridges is rated as structurally deficient, and the Federal Highway Administration estimates that it will take $76 billion – that is, $8 billion a year more than is currently being spent – to address the problem. The average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is 42 years.
Popular Mechanics writes that after the Minnesota bridge collapse, the state swiftly moved to build a new bridge, opening it 13 months later, three months ahead of schedule. The new bridge included embedded sensors to relay safety information to researchers at the University of Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation also committed to replace or rehabilitate 120 of the state’s 172 structurally deficient and/or fracture-critical bridges by 2018.
President Obama’s budget proposal for 2014 calls for $21 billion to fund improvements and construction of new infrastructure. In March, he told a Miami audience: "We've still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren't safe" and urged Congress to fund his proposal.
In 2009, $28 billion for bridge and highway repair were included in the $787 billion federal stimulus measure passed by Congress.
– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
An Army sergeant who served as a staff adviser for cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point has been accused of secretly videotaping female students as they showered, the latest in a string of sexual-assault or harassment cases plaguing the Department of Defense.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is contacting about a dozen women who may have been filmed while in the bathroom or shower, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The soldier, identified as Sgt. First Class Michael McClendon, faces multiple charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including indecent acts, dereliction in the performance of duty, cruelty, and maltreatment, according to Army spokesman George Wright.
IN PICTURES: Women in the Military
Sgt. McClendon, a veteran of two tours of Iraq, was transferred to Ft. Drum, N.Y., before charges were filed on May 14. According to The New York Times, he served as a tactical commissioned officer at West Point since 2009, where school personnel documents described his position as “responsible for the health, welfare, and discipline” for a company of roughly 125 cadets.
Time reports that McClendon, of Blakely, Ga., earned more than two-dozen awards, including a Bronze Star, and was a seven-time recipient of the Army’s Good Conduct Medal.
There are roughly 4,500 students at West Point. Women have been accepted to the prestigious military academy since 1976 and make up about 15 percent of the student body.
Army officials responded quickly after The Times reported the allegations Wednesday. “The Army is committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of our cadets at the Military Academy at West Point — as well as all soldiers throughout our Army,” Gen. John F. Campbell, the Army vice chief of staff, said Wednesday. “Once notified of the violation, a full investigation was launched, followed by swift action to correct the problem.”
The Department of Defense has been reeling from a string of sexual misconduct cases. On May 7 Jeffrey Krusinkski, head of the US Air Force sexual assault prevention unit, was charged with sexual battery. A US Army sergeant in Fort Hood, Texas, was accused of abusive sexual contact a few days later.
A Pentagon report released in early May found that the number of sexual assaults reported at military academies soared in recent years, from 25 in the 2008-09 academic year to 65 in 2010-11 and 80 in 2011-12. Reports of unwanted sexual advances also have risen throughout the military, from about 19,000 in 2011 to an estimated 26,000 in 2012, an increase of 37 percent, Reuters reports.
President Obama and members of Congress have spoken out publicly against the sexual-assault cases in recent days. Last week, Mr. Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the sexual assault cases and Department of Defense report.
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D) of New York told NBC’s “Today” program that repeated sexual assaults without accountability, “allows the culture to continue.” Senator Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee, says sexual assault should be reported outside the chain of command, directly to a military prosecutor.
Hours before the West Point case was reported, Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, assured a Senate panel that addressing sexual-assault is their top priority.
"These crimes violate virtually everything the Army stands for,” McHugh said. “They will not be tolerated."
Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.
IN PICTURES: Women in the Military