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Firefighter Brandie Smith from Salida, Colo., walks past a burned out structure on the Black Forest wildfire north of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 17. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

Why Colorado's Black Forest wildfire is now being called a crime scene

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.18.13

After two deaths and at least 500 lost homes, local officials are calling Colorado’s Black Forest wildfire not just the most destructive fire in state history, but also the site of a criminal investigation. 

The return of residents to their homes is being tightly controlled as a result, The Denver Post reports, to preserve as much evidence as possible.

"This is a crime scene until proven otherwise," El Pasco County Sheriff Terry Maketa said at a press conference Monday. "I won't compromise that by letting people in too soon."

Mr. Maketa clarified that he did not know if any crimes were committed, but authorities would treat it as if it were a crime scene until they could make a conclusive determination. Local authorities suspect the fire has a human cause, media reports say.

Five hundred two homes have been lost in the 22-square-mile fire near Colorado Springs, which is 75 percent contained, according to the Associated Press, which cited sheriff's officials Monday. While evacuations reached a peak of nearly 40,000 over the weekend, the mandatory evacuation area dropped to include 4,100 people Monday, CNN reports.

Authorities are investigating two issues, according to media reports: the start of the fire and the deaths of two people as they were apparently trying to evacuate their house. Their deaths have been classified as homicides, according to The Denver Post, until further information is known.

Maketa told the Los Angeles Times that the possible homicides were the reason he had called the site a criminal investigation. 

Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been called in, along with state authorities, CNN says.

As to the cause of the fire, investigators are zeroing in on the fire’s “point of origin,” according to Maketa. Ideally, once that origin is discovered, clues about the fire's start, such as matches or a cigarette butt, can be found, says Rich Harvey, Black Forest fire incident commander. 

"You kind of look at the burn patterns and work your way backwards. Kind of tracking the footprints the fire left as it moved away from the point of origin back to the point of origin. Once you get to the point of origin, you look for clues: cigarette butts, footprints, tire tracks," he told CBS News

Determining the origin of wildfires is notoriously tricky. The cause of the state’s second-most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned nearly a year ago, still hasn’t been determined, the Associated Press reports. Wind, other weather, tire marks, and first-responder tracks can easily cover traces of a fire’s cause. 

But criminal cases have resulted from wildfire investigations, especially in the past five years. In 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for arson charges in a string of 2006 California wildfires, including the Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters.

In January of this year, a second arsonist, Rickie Lee Fowler, was sentenced to death for a 2003 fire in California's San Bernardino Mountains, which burned 91,000 acres and about 1,000 houses and was blamed for the deaths of five people. 

 The past 60 years have seen an evolution of much stricter penalties for arsonists, writes John N. Maclean, the author of several books on wildfires, in a High Country News article.

“The conviction of Raymond Oyler for murder would have been unthinkable a century or even a few decades ago,” he writes, referencing a 1953 wildfire where the arsonist, who admitted starting a fire to get a job on the fire crew, was charged with two counts of willful burning and spent just three years in prison. That fire killed 15 firefighters.

In the years since, arson sentences have gotten progressively stronger, he writes. Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service worker, served six years in prison for starting Colorado’s Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres and 133 houses in 2002. And Mr. Oyler became the first arsonist sentenced to death.

“The Oyler case stands as a warning to every would-be fire starter: Tolerance for the torch has gone the way of the Old West,” Mr. Maclean writes.

Federal investigators stand next to heavy equipment by a field that they are prepared to dig up in a search for the remains of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in Oakland Township, Mich., on Monday. The latest search for Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975 in what law enforcement officials believe might have been an organized crime hit, brought investigators to an overgrown vacant field in suburban Detroit. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

FBI hunting for Jimmy Hoffa again, 38 years after his disappearance

By Staff writer / 06.17.13

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is once again hunting for the body of former International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James "Jimmy" Hoffa, whose mysterious 1975 disappearance remains unsolved.

The government executed a search warrant Monday in a grassy field in Oakland Township, Mich., about 45 miles north of Detroit, Robert Foley III, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, told reporters. The search is “based on information that we have involving the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Foley as saying. 

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who spoke along with Foley, said, “It is my fondest hope that we can give … closure not just to the Hoffa family but also to the community,” according to a report from the Detroit Free Press.

Neither official explained what led them to the site being excavated by a backhoe. But Fox News quoted its local Detroit affiliate as saying that Tony Zerilli had said earlier this year that Hoffa was buried in the vacant lot and that the plan had been to move his remains once the initial search cooled down. Mr. Zerilli is the son of a reputed Mafia figure.    

Dan Moldea, author of the book “The Hoffa Wars,” told the Free Press that “this isn’t some screwball.” Zerilli "is the right man at the right time. His father would have to sign off on this,” Mr. Moldea added. He said he considered it "very possible" that the elder Zerilli or one of his associates would have shared information about Hoffa's disappearance with the younger Zerilli. 

Hoffa disappeared July 30, 1975, after reportedly agreeing to a reconciliation meeting at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfiled Hills, Mich., with Anthony Giacalone, a Detroit area Mafia official, and Anthony Provenzano, a Teamster official alleged to have mob connections. 

Since then, there have been multiple leads into his whereabouts that have not yielded results. In September 2012, police in Roseville, Mich., used soar equipment to look for human remains under a driveway. The FBI also searched a Michigan horse farm in 2006 looking for Hoffa, but the investigation did not produce Hoffa's remains, Time magazine reports. 

Jimmy Hoffa ran the Teamsters, at the time the nation’s largest union, from 1957 until 1971. Starting in 1967, he spent four years in jail for jury tampering, mail fraud, and bribery before being pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971. He was declared officially dead in 1982.

Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, has served as president of the Teamsters union since 1999 and has been reelected to the post multiple times. 

Chicago sees deadliest weekend of 2013, with 6 dead, at least 40 hurt

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.17.13

Gun violence in Chicago this weekend left at least six people dead and more than 40 injured in the deadliest weekend of what had been a record-setting year for a decrease in homicides citywide.

Authorities say the first homicide of the weekend happened late Friday on the city's West Side. The tally, which included at least 41 injuries, spanned Friday night through Sunday night. 

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that it was the most violent weekend of the year in the city. 

The youngest victim was 15-year-old Michael Westley, who died Sunday, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. Michael was shot by a Chicago police officer in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood at about 10:50 p.m. Sunday, according to the Chicago Tribune 

Pat Camden, a union spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, said in the Michael Westley case that officers assigned to a gang crimes unit responded after hearing gunfire in the area. Police pursued three people they saw running away and during the chase, one runner pointed a gun at the officers, according to a preliminary statement from the Chicago Police Department’s Office of News Affairs. One of the pursuing officers then fired on the alleged gunman, the statement said. Michael was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Chicago was beset last year by a headline-grabbing spike in homicides and gun violence, which local officials blame on lax gun laws in jurisdictions outside of city borders. Crime experts, for their part, credited an explosive mix of feuding street gangs, drug-related violence, concentrated poverty, and inadequate opportunity for youths in poor neighborhoods, as well as cuts in the size of the police force. The 2012 jump to more than 500 homicides citywide prompted, in January, a reallocation of foot-patrol officers to 10 areas where crime is most rampant and other intervention tactics intended to drive down the high rate of street violence.

According to the Chicago Tribune, one of the other fatalities over the weekend was a result of a police-involved shooting. Other fatalities occurred after unidentified individuals opened fire in neighborhoods in the South and Northwest sides of the city. No arrests have been reported.

Chicago Police officials told the Chicago Sun-Times that more shootings took place during the same weekend last year than this year, and that there have been fewer murders in the city so far in 2013 than any year since the mid-1960s.

Last year at about the same time, 53 people were shot, nine fatally in one weekend, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Chicago residents told local papers of continued fear in their communities: “I had a family from my parish tell me recently that their 10-year-old son didn’t want to come back to Chicago from vacation because of the violence,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in the Englewood neighborhood, which is about a mile from the site of one of the shootings, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago police spokesman Adam Collins told the Chicago Tribune that the city’s crime-fighting strategies are working, despite the bloody weekend.

“There’s going to be good days, and there’s going to be bad days, which is why we’ve been calling this progress, not victory,” said Mr. Collins, who pointed out drops in overall crime. 

– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Members of the free Syrian Army prepare their weapons in Aleppo, Syria. Rebels are pressing for a decision from the West on arming their forces to even their odds now that Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas are fighting alongside the regime. (Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP)

Syria crosses 'red line' on chemical weapons. How will Obama respond? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.13.13

In a warning last summer to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Obama said a “red line” would have been crossed if chemical weapons were used against rebels fighting there, and he promised “enormous consequences” if that were to happen.

According to news reports Thursday and a direct statement by the White House, that red line clearly has been crossed with chemical weapons used to kill between 100 and 150 people. But the White House was vague about its immediate response, other than to note it would "increase the scope and scale of assistance" to the anti-Assad rebels.

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement. “Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.”

“The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete,” Mr. Rhodes said, indicating that there may well be more casualties from chemical weapons.

“The body of information used to make this intelligence assessment includes reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent,” Rhodes said.

In his earlier warning to Syria, Obama had said this: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or utilized. There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movements on the chemical weapons or use, that would change my calculations significantly.”

“A whole bunch of chemical weapons” and “change my calculations significantly” are phrases designed for maximum flexibility.

But Obama has been under increasing pressure to do more about the situation in Syria, which has seen, according to the latest UN estimate, at least 93,000 people killed – most of them civilians – and thousands more turned into refugees trying to escape the fighting.

In recent weeks, Britain, France, Israel, and the United Nations all have asserted that Assad regime forces had used chemical weapons. Domestic political pressure has been mounting as well.

“It is long past time to bring the Assad regime’s bloodshed in Syria to an end,” Buck Brendan, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement Thursday. “As President Obama examines his options, it is our hope he will properly consult with Congress before taking any action.”

In a joint statement, Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who are pushing for the US and its allies to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, said, “We cannot afford to delay any longer.”

“Assad is on the offensive with every weapon in his arsenal and with the complete support of his foreign allies,” they said. “We must take more decisive actions now to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”

More to the point for a Democratic President in the White House, former President Bill Clinton this week sided with that view, according to several reports from a private meeting at which Senator McCain and Mr. Clinton spoke.

“Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake,” Clinton said.

“I agree with you about this,” Clinton told McCain during an event for the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan Tuesday night, reported. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

At this point, the Obama administration is being less than specific in its response the “red line” report about chemical weapons killing rebel fighters and likely civilians in Syria.

“The Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition,” Ben Rhodes at the White House said. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

“The United States and the international community have a number of other legal, financial, diplomatic, and military responses available,” Rhodes said. “We are prepared for all contingencies, and we will make decisions on our own timeline.”

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An American flag planted by the curb in front of this home waves in the breeze as a home is demolished last month in West, Texas. FEMA has denied a request for disaster aid in West. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

FEMA denies disaster funds for West, Texas. Is that unusual?

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.13.13

The Federal Emergency Management Agency refused a request for aid by West, Texas, to replace infrastructure destroyed in a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, in a move that drew criticism from Texas officials.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office on Wednesday said FEMA rejected the request for more aid in a June 10 letter.

According to the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, FEMA said it reviewed the state's appeal to help but decided that the explosion "is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration."

FEMA said the agency and the US Small Business Administration have approved more than $7 million in aid and low-interest loans to West residents impacted by the blast, which killed 15 people. FEMA also is paying 75 percent of the costs of debris removal and will reimburse the state and the municipality for the initial emergency response.

While the ruling means that residents won’t get as much assistance as is typically given to victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, it isn’t unprecedented. FEMA has turned down that level of assistance for emergencies not stemming from natural disasters before, such as in 2010 when officials denied a request for millions in aid after a gas pipeline explosion in northern California.

Texas lawmakers aren’t happy with FEMA’s decision and several pledged to try and overturn it.

"I'm not sure what their definition of a major disaster is, but I know what I see over there and it's pretty bleak," West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

Mayor Muska said the rural community of 2,800 people cannot cover the costs of the repairs, and doesn't believe that the state will provide enough money on its own. He estimated the cost of those repairs at about $57 million, including $40 million to rebuild schools that were destroyed or damaged when the West Fertilizer Co. blew up in April.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the Insurance Council of Texas estimates that the West Fertilizer Co. explosion caused at least $100 million in damage, including $17 million in damage to the city’s roads, pipes, and sewage system.

Governor Perry criticized statements President Obama made at a memorial service for the 10 first responders killed in the April 17 blast.

"He said his administration would stand with them, ready to help," Perry said. "We anticipate the president will hold true to his word and help us work with FEMA to ensure much-needed assistance reaches the community of West."

At the service, Mr. Obama told town residents, “We’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere…. Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”

Rep. Bill Flores (R) of Texas, whose district includes West, told The Dallas Morning News he is “disappointed that we didn’t get it approved” and that the decision could mean a difference of more than $20 million in aid. He said he would work with Perry to try and get the decision reversed.

Officials can appeal FEMA’s decision within 30 days. Perry’s office said it would “assess what – if any – additional information federal officials might need to alter their decision,” writes The Dallas Morning News.

Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, called FEMA’s response “completely unacceptable” and vowed to work to get the decision reversed.

Authorities haven't publicly determined what caused the fire, saying it could have started from a spark from a golf cart, an electrical short, or could have been set intentionally, CNN reports. In May, authorities announced they had launched a criminal investigation into the case, though no one has been charged.

Texas has a recent history of disputes with the federal government, notes Reuters: “The rejection is the latest in a host of disputes between the Republican-led Texas state government and Obama's Democratic administration, including FEMA's denial of a Texas request for disaster assistance for the devastating 2011 drought and wildfires.

Other disputes have included the administration's blocking of federal funds for a Texas health program for poor women after the state passed a law barring Planned Parenthood, a provider of abortions, from participating in the program. In addition, the US Justice Department last year went to court to block a Texas law requiring identification for voting, saying it discriminated against minority voters.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report


Diondai Brown-Whitfield, of Chicago, center right, embraces Gov. Pat Quinn before he addresses a rally of gun control advocates in front of the state capitol in April 2013. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register/AP)

Concealed carry bill: Illinois prosecutor 'goes rogue,' allows concealed carry

By Contributor / 06.12.13

An Illinois prosecutor is refusing to prosecute carriers of concealed weapons in his county, even though the governor is still weighing the bill that would allow concealed carry statewide. The attorney’s announcement puts him amongst a burgeoning crop of local officials nationwide who are "going rogue" in civil disobedience efforts against mounting calls for greater gun control.

In May the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that would allow state residents to have guns in public, putting an end to Illinois’ status as the only state that does not allow its citizens to do so. Without the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, that bill is not yet law.

But Jeremy Walker, the State Attorney for Illinois’ Randolph County, said ahead of the governor’s pending decision on Tuesday that he would not prosecute public gun possession in his rural country, which touts the motto, “Where Illinois Began.” His statement comes just days after St. Louis' Madison County’s State Attorney made a similar announcement about his also mostly rural area.

Illinois has become a contested center in the gun control debate, as high rates of gun violence in roiling Chicago has focused national attention there. Governor Quinn has previously voiced opposition to a concealed carry law in his state.

"This legislation is wrong for Illinois," said Quinn said in a statement after the Illinois Assembly passed the concealed carry bill, Senate Bill 2193. "We need strong gun safety laws that protect the people of our state. Instead, this measure puts public safety at risk."

“I will not support this bill and I will work with members of the Illinois Senate to stop it in its tracks,” he said.

The two Illinois attorneys are not alone in their preemptive measures against gun control.  In January, Sheriff Stacy Nicholson of Georgia's Gilmer County wrote on Facebook that he has no “intention of following any orders of the federal government to perform any act which would be considered to be unlawful” – meaning, any federal or state gun-control measure that curbed Second Amendment rights.

And one Texas-based law-enforcement group is campaigning to get more sheriffs on-board with such opposition, hoping to get least 1,200 out of the nation's 31,000 sheriffs to publicly oppose gun control laws.

At the time, President Barack Obama was proposing a package of gun-control laws that would meet rising demand for such measures after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In Maine, a bill that would have allowed gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit failed to pass the House of Representatives by one vote on Tuesday. Currently, Maine law allows people to carry a gun without a permit as long as the gun remains visible.

A professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver, Sam Kamin, told The Christian Science Monitor that the push-back from local officials on gun-control are an echo of Civil War politics, when southern authorities refused to enforce federal laws in their localities.

"It sounds like the pre-Reconstruction South, where they vowed to arrest federal officers coming down to enforce federal law – which is just inherently inconsistent with the federal system," he said.

Illinois’ bill would ban the carrying of concealed guns in a number of public spaces, including schools and parks, as well as in bars where more than 50 percent of sales are from liquor. Permits would be given to people who pass a background check and has a valid Firearm Owner's Identification Card, which requires 16 hours of training to obtain.

Under the previous law, the right to carry a concealed weapon had been restricted to police, security guards, hunters and members of target shooting clubs.

Former president George H.W. Bush (l.) applauds with Laura Bush after former president George W. Bush's speech during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on April 25. (David J. Phillip/AP/File)

George W. Bush back in favor? His ratings make a surprising jump.

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.12.13

Former president George W. Bush’s popularity is ticking up. For the first time since 2005, Americans’ opinions of him are more positive than negative.

A Gallup poll released Wednesday found 49 percent of Americans view him favorably and 46 percent unfavorably.

Mr. Bush has chosen to remain largely out of the public eye since leaving the White House. He told CNN last year that “Eight years was awesome, and I was famous and I was powerful but I have no desire for fame and power any more.”

When Bush left office in January 2009, he had a 40 percent favorable and 59 percent unfavorable ranking. His approval rating hit its lowest point in April 2008 at 32 percent. At the time the economy was in recession, gas prices approached record highs, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were jostling for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

The recovery in Bush's image is not unexpected, given that Americans generally view former presidents positively. Favorable ratings for Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all exceeded 60 percent when Gallup last measured.

Yet “Bush left office with decidedly negative favorability ratings as well as approval ratings, so the recovery in his image is notable,” Gallup writes.

The dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in April thrust the 43rd president briefly back in the spotlight and sparked a flurry of commentary about his legacy.

Supporters, such as conservative writer Charles Krauthammer, suggested a parallel to Harry Truman, saying views will improve with time and that Bush "did not just keep us safe. He created the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe." Others, like Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post penned, "In retrospect, George W. Bush's legacy doesn't look as bad as when he left office. It looks worse."

The latest Gallup poll, conducted June 1-4, found that despite the uptick in his popularity, opinions of Bush remain sharply polarized. He has a 60-point gap in favorable ratings from Republicans versus Democrats.

Bush’s job approval ratings are the most polarized for a president prior to President Obama. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings during his first term continued the severe party polarization trend.

During his fourth year in office, an average of 86 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans approved of the job Obama did as president. That 76 percentage-point gap ties George W. Bush's fourth year as the most polarized years 

“The list of most polarized years makes it clear that Obama's highly polarized ratings may be as much a reflection of the era in which he is governing as on Obama himself. The last nine presidential years – the final five for Bush and Obama's first four – all rank in the top 10. Thus, it appears that highly polarized ratings are becoming the norm, as Americans aligned with both parties are apparently not looking much beyond the president's party affiliation to evaluate the job he is doing,” Gallup wrote in a January 2013 press release. 

Shermain Miles of Chicago, who is incarcerated at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill., has been arrested 396 times in the past 35 years. She has been ordered to get mental-health and substance-abuse treatment in a deal with prosecutors. (Illinois Department of Corrections/AP)

Arrested 396 times: Chicago woman has done it, using 83 aliases

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.11.13

Is it possible to get arrested 396 times?

A Chicago woman has done it.

Shermain Miles accepted a plea deal Monday after pleading guilty to charges she attacked a city alderman. She also pleaded guilty to trespassing and public drinking in separate cases. 

A judge sentenced her to time served in all three cases because Ms. Miles agreed to undergo a mental-health evaluation and get follow-up treatment, the Associated Press reports.

“All of us are reaching out to you and offering you, maybe for the first time in your life, a hand, OK?” Judge Peggy Chiampas told Miles, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “But you’ve got to reach out and grab all of our hands as well.”

Miles thanked the judge and told her “I’m not that person.” 

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that: "Since 1978, Chicago Police alone have arrested Miles 396 time ... under at least 83 different aliases. Those arrests include 92 times for theft, 65 for disorderly conduct, 59 for prostitution-related crimes and five for robbery or attempted robbery."

Miles is homeless and has been in the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill., since December, according to the Associated Press. She had been released in April 2011 after serving three years for an armed robbery conviction. But multiple arrests while on parole prompted her return to prison.

In the majority of those cases, Miles is arrested, released and never convicted, according to the Sun-Times. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office counts 73 convictions in all.

“We also need her to come to court,” Fabio Valentini, chief of Cook County’s Criminal Prosecutions Bureau told the Sun-Times. “You can see that in a great many cases, she fails to appear in court.”

Road rage murder in Maryland: New Jersey police officer charged

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 06.10.13

The New Jersey police officer who allegedly shot a man to death in an act of road rage has been charged with second degree murder and manslaughter by Maryland authorities.

Joseph Walker, an officer in the Hudson County, N.J., prosecutor’s office is being held on a $1 million bond, according to Maryland State Police, for allegedly shooting Joseph Harvey, Jr. on an on-ramp to Route 3, twenty miles south of Baltimore on Saturday.

The motive for the altercation remains unknown. Walker, an off-duty officer, was in a minivan with his wife and three children, according to Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo. The two vehicles came to a stop on the on-ramp and Harvey allegedly exited his vehicle and walked toward Walker before being shot.

Troopers say they were told that the two vehicles were involved in a road rage incident before they pulled over and the shooting took place.

“Certainly, this appears this is some sort of aggressive behavior gone bad,” Ms. Russo said in an interview with CBS New York.

Road rage has ranked as a top concern of American drivers over the past decade, according to several studies.

In a 2009 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Security, nearly 9 in 10 respondents said they believed aggressive drivers were a “somewhat” or “very serious” threat to their personal safety.

In 2005, a telephone survey by ABC News and The Washington Post found that out of a list of threats that “most endanger your own safety on the road,” 32 percent of respondents said aggressive drivers. This was the same number of responses as for drunk drivers.

While road rage attracts more attention, the AAA and other organizations actually distinguish between road rage, which is a criminal offense, and aggressive driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, road rage must include the intent to cause physical harm. 

Analysts say aggressive driving, which includes speeding, tailgating, and running red lights, is the more common problem and can lead to road rage or other traffic related fatalities. 

“The murders are very sensational and it’s very important, but aggressive driving more broadly is a key safety issue,” says Bruce Hamilton of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Security.

Mr. Hamilton points out that even as Americans worry about road rage and aggressive drivers, most drivers engage in potentially aggressive behaviors. In 2009, a survey by his foundation found that nearly half of people admitted to speeding more than 15 mph over the limit on major highways in the previous 30 days.

The last time the AAA specifically measured road rage, in the mid-1990s, they found that more than 10,000 road rage incidents committed over seven years resulted in at least 218 murders and another 12,610 injury cases. When drivers explained why they became violent, the reasons were often trivial, according to the AAA: “She wouldn’t let me pass,” “They kept tailgating me.” One driver accused of attempted murder said, “He practically ran me off the road – what was I supposed to do?”

Hamilton says the New Jersey police officer arrest is a good reminder to be an alert driver: “I think it’s a good reminder that we’re all human. When we’re behind the wheel it doesn’t matter who we are or what our job is we all need to be responsible and respectful.”

New Jersey actually has some of the strictest road rage laws in the country. Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill last August that could land aggressive drivers in prison for up to five years if their behavior behind the wheel causes a serious injury.

“It does not permit you to act out every one of your childish tantrums while behind the wheel of a vehicle,” Governor Christie said at the time. 

According to CBS Philadelphia, Christie said then that road rage seems to be a bigger problem in New Jersey than elsewhere – "perhaps because it’s a densely populated state where roads are often crowded and residents are known for having a bit of an attitude," they posited.

CBS reports that Christie said he’s been in the path of road rage, too: He told reporters that one woman was so upset that she wasn’t allowed to drive between the two vehicles in the governor’s motorcade that she threw things at the governor’s vehicle.

State Department may have covered up sex and drug scandals, report says

By David T. CookStaff writer / 06.10.13

The US State Department may have covered up illegal and inappropriate behavior concerning sex and drugs, according to a report by CBS News citing a draft memo from the department’s inspector general’s office.

An internal memo obtained by John Miller of CBS News said there were eight examples where an investigation of misconduct was influenced, manipulated, or called off, the network reported on the "CBS This Morning” broadcast.

Misconduct cited in the memo, the network said, included allegations that a State Department security official engaged in sexual assaults on foreign nationals hired in Beirut, that members of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s security detail engaged prostitutes while on official trips abroad, and that an underground drug ring operated in near the US embassy in Baghdad and provided State Department contractors with drugs.

In its report, CBS quoted the State Department as saying it would “not comment about specific allegations of misconduct, internal investigations, or personnel matters. Not all allegations are substantiated.” The statement continued: “It goes without saying that the Department does not condone interference with investigations by any of its employees.”   

The charges come as the department continues to be under fire from congressional Republicans concerning the drafting of talking points about a September 2012 attack on a US diplomatic post in Benhgazi, Libya, that claimed the life of four people, including the American ambassador. Critics believe the talking points, delivered on Sunday talk shows by UN Ambassador Susan Rice, were modified for political reasons.

The conservative website Human Events was quick to link the CBS report and the Benghazi controversy. "The spirit of Benghazi went far beyond the lies and obfuscations pumped out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her top people, according CBS News, which has 'uncovered documents that show the State Department may have covered up allegations of illegal and inappropriate behavior within their ranks,' " the site said.

Mr. Miller, who previously was an assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, interviewed Aurelia Fedenisn, a former investigator with the State Department’s inspector general’s office. Ms. Fedenisn, who worked in the State Department for 26 years, said the IG uncovered various cases of wrong doing “some of which never became cases.” She added, “we were very upset. We expect to see influence, but the degree to which that influence existed and how high up it went was very disturbing.”

In one case CBS cited, State Department investigators from the Diplomatic Security Service were told to stop investigating the behavior of a US ambassador who was suspected of meeting with prostitutes in a public park. Fedenisn said it was likely that hostile intelligence services were aware of such alleged activities and that they presented “a serious risk to the United States government.” The ambassador was summoned to Washington but was allowed to return to his post.  

CBS said that two hours after contacting the State Department about Fedenisn’s charges that “investigators from the State Department’s Inspector General showed up at her door.”

That triggered this response from Human Events. “The State Department might have been lax about investigating and exposing these nefarious activities, but it springs into action with the speed and ferocity of a panther when it’s time to pounce on a whistleblower.”

It is not clear how much political impact the CBS report will have. The story of the alleged State Department misdeeds will have to compete with wall-to-wall coverage of recently revealed government surveillance programs.   

“Our current attention span makes it unlikely that the State Department's alleged misdeeds will be front page news, but the story certainly has plenty of rather attention-grabbing details,” Slate observed. “Perhaps the most troubling part of the report isn't the alleged misconduct itself but the possibility of the subsequent attempts to keep it under wraps.”

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