Flash-News For US

Daily Flash-News For US

15  03 2008

D.C. gun ban’s effectiveness questioned

WASHINGTON - On Sept. 24, 1976, one of the toughest gun laws in the nation took effect in the District of Columbia, essentially outlawing the private ownership of new handguns in a city struggling with violence.

Over the next few weeks, a man with a .32-caliber pistol held up workers at a downtown federal office at midday, a cab driver was shot in the head, and a senator was mugged by three youths, one carrying a revolver, near the U.S. Capitol.

Since the ban was passed, more than 8,400 people have been murdered in the district, many killed by handguns. Nearly 80 percent of the 181 murders in 2007 were committed with guns.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a challenge to the city’s handgun ban. The case is likely to produce the most important firearms ruling in generations and could undermine other gun control laws nationwide if the court takes an expansive view of the right to bear arms.

The central question is whether the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms, or instead protects the collective right of states to maintain militias. The court probably won’t base its ruling on the effectiveness of Washington’s law.

Outside the court, however, a long-debated question is whether a strict gun law like Washington’s has any effect on violent crime.

City leaders say the law has kept many guns off the street and warn that violence could increase without it. Firearms still flow in from states like Maryland and Virginia, but District of Columbia officials say the ban reduces the number of legally owned firearms that are stolen or used in domestic killings and suicides.

“Whatever right the Second Amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die,” the city wrote in its petition to the Supreme Court last year.

To gun rights advocates, the numbers prove a different point: Violence continues unchecked despite the ban. And while criminals seem to be able to get guns with ease, law-abiding people are being denied the means to protect themselves, they say.

“I should be able to live in the district and protect myself,” said Shelly Parker, who said she was harassed and threatened in her former Capitol Hill home by a drug dealer who once tried to break down her door. Parker was a plaintiff in the original case against the city.

Those who live daily with gun violence on Washington’s streets, many of them just teens, paint a stark picture of how easy it is to get a firearm. A gun can be bought with a few well-placed calls and a couple hundred dollars.

“Some people look at a gun as part of their outfit,” said Maurice Benton, a 19-year-old who says he has never had a gun but was shot in the abdomen by members of a gang while leaving a party in 2006. “They can’t go anywhere without it.”

The city’s gun ban emerged from exasperation. Still reeling from the riots of 1968, the city saw violent crime rise and residents flee to the suburbs. In 1974, two years before the ban took effect, more than half of all homicides were committed with handguns.

There were an estimated 22,000 registered gun owners in the city in 1976, but a Georgetown University poll found three out of four city residents supported the bill. The law cleared the D.C. Council in a 12-1 vote and went on to survive both a court challenge by the National Rifle Association and efforts in Congress to scuttle it.

“Handgun crimes were just getting out of sight,” said Sterling Tucker, D.C. Council chairman when the ban was enacted. “We had to isolate and contain the problem. We thought a handgun law would do that.”

The law bars private ownership of handguns, with exceptions for law enforcement officers and those who had registered handguns before the ban took effect. Shotguns and rifles are legal, but must be disassembled or stored with trigger locks.

Homicides in the district did ebb over the next few years, largely following a national trend. In 1977, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported robberies, assaults and homicides using handguns had fallen sharply in D.C. and concluded the ban was working. However, the results were challenged even by the city’s police department, which said police tactics had contributed to the drop.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, murders spiked as Washington, like many other cities, was hit by the crack epidemic. By 1991, the number of homicides reached 479, or 81 deaths per 100,000 people, earning the city status as the nation’s murder capital.

Yet that year, a study released by University of Maryland criminologists in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested the gun ban had saved lives in the decade before. They argued the ban had prevented 47 deaths per year in D.C., both suicides and murders. Surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia had not seen a corresponding drop in gun crime.

The study analyzed data only through 1987, and did not incorporate the higher murder rate during the crack surge, an epidemic critics said revealed the law’s weakness. Other criminologists said the study should have compared the district to Baltimore, a city with similar crime problems where violence also declined during the same period. The authors went back and compared the district to other cities, including Baltimore, saying their conclusions still held up.

In the late 1990s, the annual homicide numbers began to fall as the crack scourge ebbed. In the past decade, many of the city’s neighborhoods also have undergone a revitalization, attracting more affluent residents. Last year, there were 181 murders.

But the city’s location remains a problem for the law. Washington is surrounded by Virginia and Maryland, where guns remain legal, and many firearms can be traced to shops just across the line. The number of guns seized by police has surged in recent years, reaching 2,924 in 2007, nearly 1,000 more than in 2003. Most of the guns were used in crimes.

Sterling Tucker said city officials realized the law had its limits, that guns would never vanish from the streets. And they never imagined it would do away with homicides and violent crime altogether. He believes it has at least provided some check on violence, taken away a tool for some criminals.

“We knew there were problems we couldn’t wipe out,” he said. “But we had a little more control over it.”

15  03 2008

High wheat prices raise grocery costs

LUBBOCK, Texas - If you think the cost of gassing up your car is outrageous, wait until you need to restock your pantry.

The price of wheat has more than tripled during the past 10 months, making Americans’ daily bread — and bagels and pizza and pasta — feel a little like luxury items. And baked goods aren’t the only ones getting more expensive: Experts expect some 80 percent of grocery prices will spike, too, and could remain steep for years because wheat and other grains are used to feed cattle, poultry and dairy cows.

“It’s going to affect everything … impact on every section of the grocery store,” said Michael Bittel, senior vice president of King Arthur Flour Co. in Norwich, Vt.

Consumers such as Maria Cardena feel trapped by the prices. She said the bread she buys has jumped from 69 cents a loaf to $1.09 in recent weeks.

“You have to buy it,” said the 29-year-old mother from Lubbock, Texas. “You can’t go without it. Everything has gone up.”

The wheat market has been pushed higher by a combination of agricultural, financial and energy issues.

Poor wheat harvests in Australia and parts of Europe and the U.S. have caused China and other Asian countries to buy up more American crops, which are especially attractive because of the weak U.S. dollar.

At the same time, the American crop is shrinking because of federal incentives to grow corn for ethanol. And skyrocketing gas prices make it costlier to get any wheat to market. Those same pressures have also made it more expensive to supply feed grains for livestock.

At Bob’s Red Mill flour company, wheat flour has typically been subject to retail price adjustments every five years. Now those increases are happening almost monthly.

“You look at the price and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” said Dennis Gilliam, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the company in Milwaukie, Ore. “It keeps climbing every day.”

Wheat historically trades at $3 to $7 a bushel.

But this week, futures of spring wheat — which produces the flour used in hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels and pizza crust — were close to $18 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. They climbed as high as $24 in late February.

Consumers pay an additional penny on wheat products for each dollar the price-per-bushel increases. “It’s a huge impact,” said Steve Mercer, spokesman for U.S. Wheat Associates, an industry group.

White bread cost an average of 85 cents a pound in 1998 and $1.03 in February 2006. The price rose to $1.32 a pound last month, according to federal data.

And that’s on top of overall food price increases of 4 percent last year and an additional 3.5 to 4.5 percent expected this year, according to federal data. Most years see 2.5 percent increases.

During the past few months, the price of cereals and baked goods has risen nearly 6 percent over the same time last year, federal officials reported.

Consumers can try to minimize costs by buying fewer wheat products, but the nation’s bakers, pizzerias and other flour-dependent industries don’t have that luxury.

Panera Bread Company is paying more than double what it paid for wheat in 2007 — an additional $26.5 million this year, according to its latest earnings report.

At Kraft Foods Inc., producer of Ritz crackers and Chips Ahoy cookies, the cost of commodities including wheat were up 9 percent last year, or about $1.3 billion. Spokeswoman Lisa Gibbons called that unprecedented and said the company doesn’t expect prices to ease anytime soon.

The company has offset most of those costs by finding savings elsewhere, such as switching its Miracle Whip sandwich spread from glass to cheaper plastic bottles.

At the online baked goods retailer 1-800-Bakery.com, the price of wheat has meant a hiring freeze and curbing low-profit products. So far, those measures have been enough to avoid price increases. But Stephen Pazyra, the company’s chief executive, said prices will go up unless there is relief soon.

Sometimes the only option is to bake less.

Four months ago, Tony’s Old Fashioned Bakery in Midland, Texas, was paying $7.50 for a 25-pound bag of flour. This week the cost was $23 a bag — for a company that uses 25 to 30 bags a week.

To stretch their dollar and flour, Carmina Aguilar said her family’s bakery is making fewer pastries for display and stopped taking many last-minute orders.

Meanwhile, some consumers are taking the opposite path — baking more. King Arthur’s Bittel said that while store-bought bread is running between $3 and $5, a home baked loaf will cost about 60 cents.

That’s up from 40 cents from a year ago, but Bittel said his company nevertheless has seen growing sales of bread-making machines.

Some experts said wheat prices may be close to topping out. But whether prices come down, and when, is a guessing game.

Global wheat stocks have hit a 30-year low following seven of eight years in which world consumption exceeded production. Federal projections show America’s supplies at their lowest levels since the late 1940s.

Earlier this week, representatives of the U.S. baking industry went to Washington to ask the Bush administration and Congress to address the record wheat prices.

Lee Sanders, senior vice president of the American Bakers Association, said her group isn’t asking for a wheat export moratorium, which countries such as Ukraine, Russia and Argentina have enacted. But the industry does want export policies reviewed to ensure domestic bakers have enough affordable flour.

15  03 2008

2 doctors cleared in John Ritter’s death

GLENDALE, Calif. - Two doctors were not negligent in the diagnosis and treatment of John Ritter, who died from a torn aorta in 2003, a jury found Friday in a wrongful death lawsuit by the actor’s widow and children.

The lawsuit claimed that a radiologist failed to spot a purported enlargement of the aorta in a body scan conducted two years before Ritter’s death and that there was malpractice by the cardiologist summoned to treat the actor at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a heart attack.

The jury voted 9-3 to clear Dr. Joseph Lee, the cardiologist, and Dr. Matthew Lotysch, the radiologist, of the negligence claims. Neither doctor was present for the verdict, which was reached on the second day of deliberations and was read quickly. Attorneys said the doctors were at work.

“We felt very strongly that neither Dr. Lotysch nor Dr. Lee did anything wrong in this case,” said jury forewoman Adriana Goad, a human resources manager for a mortgage company. She said talks were often heated but the majority was adamant that “we don’t believe his life could have been saved.”

Ritter was 54 when he became ill while working on his hit sitcom “8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and was taken to the hospital on Sept. 11, 2003.

Lawyers for Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck, and children claimed Ritter’s death resulted in a loss of as much as $67 million in future earnings. Attorneys said Friday that because Ritter would have had expenses such as paying an agent and staff, they were actually seeking about $43 million in damages for the family.

Eight other medical personnel and the hospital previously made settlements with the family totaling $14 million.

“I disagree with the jury’s decision but I believe in the system and I respect it,” Yasbeck said.

Yasbeck said she believes that bringing the lawsuit has drawn attention to aortic diseases and the fact that “mistakes like this are made every day.”

“It inspires me even more to find, with these brilliant medical minds, a path to diagnose aortic diseases,” Yasbeck said. She said she has started a foundation in her husband’s name to work in that area.

During the trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys sought to show that Lee rushed to a faulty diagnosis and failed to have a chest X-ray taken that would have revealed the torn aorta, resulting in surgery that would have saved him.

Testimony showed that an X-ray was ordered as soon as Ritter arrived at the emergency room but for unknown reasons it was never done. Lee was called in later in the evening after Ritter was already diagnosed with a heart attack.

Defense testimony characterized the aortic dissection as lethal and contended that even with surgery the outcome would have been the same.

“We all came into this trial liking John Ritter,” said Goad, the forewoman. “We all fell in love with John Ritter and his family during the trial. What an amazing man.”

But she said the deciding factor was the timeline that showed Lee arriving after others had declared Ritter was having a heart attack, and she said the majority was convinced that the doctor had no spare time to take an X-ray and had to act quickly to try to save the actor’s life.

Juror Bill Boller, a former paramedic, said that when Lee arrived Ritter’s “vital signs were already dipping. He had to make a quick decision. He had no time.”

The decision on Lotysch was so clear it took only 15 minutes, said juror Ann Sood.

“My heart cries out for John’s family,” she said. “But two doctors’ lives were at stake here, too.”

Attorney Stephen C. Fraser, who represented Lotysch, credited jurors with being sophisticated and intelligent.

“The system worked and we’re very, very happy that they did the right thing,” Fraser said.

Among the jury’s findings was that Ritter was advised by the radiologist after the body scan to follow up with treatment by a physician and that the actor did not do so.

The radiologist testified he advised Ritter he had calcification in three coronary arteries and should consult other doctors. But the jury also found that Ritter’s failure to pursue that medical consultation was not a cause of his death.

A dissenting juror who refused to be identified said she tried to convince others to find the doctors negligent.

She said she was impressed with the testimony of Ritter’s widow and adult children, calling it “very poignant.”

“What impressed me was very strong testimony that the doctors missed the diagnosis. I felt they should take responsibility.”

Fraser said the doctors would have been bankrupted by a verdict of just a few million dollars in damages and he was proud of them for fighting the lawsuit.

“They were the only doctors with the courage to stand up and come to court in a celebrity case,” he said.

15  03 2008

2 states consider guest-worker programs

PHOENIX - As a labor contractor in the nation’s winter lettuce capital, Francisco Chavez struggles to hire enough workers to pick and package the produce

Last year, ripe romaine sometimes went bad in the fields around Yuma, Ariz., because Chavez didn’t have enough people to harvest the crop, which must be picked by hand. “That’s my challenge — to get the crews,” he said.

Such complaints are becoming so common that lawmakers in Arizona and Colorado are considering creating their own guest-worker programs to attract more immigrant laborers. It’s unclear whether states have the authority to adopt such measures, but legislators are tired of waiting for Congress to overhaul the immigration system — and they are taking matters into their own hands.

State Sen. Abel Tapia, the Democratic co-author of the Colorado proposal, lashed out at Washington: “You had your chance to do a comprehensive immigration package a year ago, and you didn’t do it, and I can’t imagine that you will have anything by 2010, so what are we to do in the meantime?”

The federal government has run guest-worker programs for more than a century, but congressional efforts to overhaul the system stalled in 2006 and 2007.

The Arizona proposal aims to create a program run entirely by the state. Employers could recruit workers through Mexican consulates if they can document a labor shortage and unsuccessful efforts to find local employees.

If approved, the measure would admit an unlimited number of workers in a wide range of industries.

The Colorado proposal is intended to help chili, tomato and watermelon farmers. It’s aimed at eliminating bottlenecks that slow federal applications for immigrant laborers. As an incentive for workers to return to their homelands, Colorado farmers would be required to withhold 20 percent of workers’ wages and send the money after the workers move home.

The Arizona bill got unanimous approval last month from a legislative committee.

A sponsor of the Colorado proposal said she may scale back the bill because of opposition, reducing it to a program that would let the state hire labor firms in Mexico to find workers and help resolve procedural problems at U.S. consulates there.

Neither measure has come to a vote before the full House or Senate.

Immigration law experts said states don’t have the foreign-policy power to negotiate guest-worker agreements, but Congress could grant them permission to do so.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, a former Border Patrol boss who supports revamping the nation’s guest-worker programs, said it’s unlikely states would get the necessary permission to arrange their own foreign labor.

He also said it’s ironic that Arizona and Colorado are so eager for cheap foreign labor because in recent years both states have cracked down on illegal immigration.

“I’d say to the states: ‘You can’t have it both ways,’” Reyes said.

Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an advocate of expanding state and local immigration efforts, said the proposals could never hold up in court. He said the Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot impose additional conditions on immigrants who are working legally in the United States.

Aside from the legal barriers, state-run guest-worker programs would probably face another hurdle: Businesses in other states that lean on Congress to sink the idea, because their rivals could pay lower wages and get a steadier supply of labor.

The Arizona bill is also opposed by some immigrant-rights groups, which have backed immigration-reform efforts but fear the state plans would exploit immigrants.

Hector Yturralde, president of Somos America, a coalition of immigrant-advocacy groups that has staged protests in Phoenix, likened the Arizona proposal to the “bracero” program that brought in Mexican farm laborers during World War II. It ended in 1964 amid allegations of worker abuse.

“It’s indentured labor,” Yturralde said, referring to the Arizona proposal.

Republican state Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a restaurant owner and an author of the bill, said the labor shortage in Arizona had been mounting for several years. It grew worse after passage of a new state law that punishes businesses for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. That law has pressured many immigrants to leave.

Francisco Chavez, the Arizona labor contractor, said the 2007 labor shortage in the lettuce fields was eased by shrinking demand for lettuce that prompted farmers to plant less. But if demand rises, he said, labor contractors won’t have enough workers, and prices could spike for consumers.

If field hands can’t pick enough produce, Chavez said, shoppers “won’t be able to have a salad, because there is no way to get it into the market.”

15  03 2008

Ala. building can’t shake swastika shape

DECATUR, Ala. - From the ground, the Wesley Acres Methodist retirement home looks like any other building. But fly over in an airplane, and the outline is unmistakable: It’s one big swastika.
Prompted by complaints from a Jewish activist, the agency that owns the government-funded building is planning to alter its shape to disguise the Nazi symbol. The move comes just a few years after a $1 million design modification meant to quiet similar complaints from a U.S. senator.

“The difficulty is there are a limited number of options for fixing a building that has been there for some time,” said Mike Giles, counsel for the Methodist Homes Corp. of Alabama and Northwest Florida. “We have to come up with a way to fix an appearance that we want solved and not hurt our residents.”

Wesley Acres provides government-subsidized housing for 117 low-income people ages 62 and above. Most have no reason to suspect their hallways take on a sinister shape.

The one-story building, designed in the mid-1970s and completed in 1980, underwent a $1 million alteration in 2001 with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following complaints by Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin, who has since died. But the addition of two wings did little to hide the offensive shape, and in some ways accentuates it.

Options for the new renovations include the addition of covered porches or other outdoor areas.

The latest push to rid the landscape of the broken cross shape follows complaints from Avrahaum Segol, the same Israeli-American researcher who last fall helped publicize a swastika-shaped barracks at Naval Base Coronado in San Diego. The Navy said it would spend about $600,000 to alter the building, which opened in the 1960s, but the work has not yet been done.

Segol calls the Alabama retirement home a “sister swastika” to the building in California and says they were both part of a tangled, government-funded conspiracy to honor Nazis.

Segol claims the swastika shape of Wesley Acres in Decatur pays homage to the German scientists who came to nearby Huntsville after World War II and designed the rockets that put Americans on the moon.

Methodist Homes’ Giles said Segol’s conspiracy claims are ridiculous. The building was originally designed to be much larger, he said, and cutbacks resulted in a shape that resembled the four-armed swastika used as the symbol of German Nazis during World War II.

“It was certainly not intentional,” Giles said.

The shape of the retirement center is evident in satellite photos available on the Internet. But it is located in a residential section in a city with few tall buildings, and many in Decatur have no idea Wesley Acres resembles a swastika.

Giles said any changes to the building must be relatively inexpensive since the agency lacks money for an elaborate solution. Planners are considering modifications, he said, “so that from the air it takes your eye away from what was originally there.”

15  03 2008

NY governor-to-be boosts black pride

NEW YORK - In Harlem and other predominantly black neighborhoods, they don’t care how David Paterson becomes governor. They just care that he is taking over the state’s top job.
The unexpected ascension of Paterson, the lieutenant governor, longtime lawmaker and heir to a Harlem political dynasty, has fueled a surge of black pride amid the demise of Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The 53-year-old Paterson will be sworn in Monday as New York’s first black and legally blind governor, succeeding Spitzer, who announced his resignation this week after getting caught in a federal prostitution investigation.

To Leonardo Reynolds, a 19-year-old community college student from Syracuse, Paterson’s political rise has been inspiring, especially when paired with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I think there’s still a lot of racism around, but having black leaders in these positions will help change things,” Reynolds said.

The new governor, who served as Spitzer’s lieutenant for just 14 months, has been a Democratic state senator since 1985, representing parts of Harlem and Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a city where blacks are 28 percent of the population, compared with 16 percent statewide.

A graduate of Columbia University and Hofstra School of Law, Paterson lives in an apartment complex in the heart of Harlem.

“He’s a good man from a good home who worked hard, and he knows what our people have gone through,” retired plumber Thomas Baxter said in an interview a few blocks from Paterson’s home. “But this should have happened 40 years ago — a black man becoming governor.”

For Paterson, politics is the family business. His father, Basil, a former state senator representing Harlem and later New York’s first black secretary of state, was part of a political fraternity that included fellow Democrats U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins — the city’s first black mayor — and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.

Spitzer picked Paterson as his running mate, in part, for his experience as a legislator, something Spitzer lacked coming into the governor’s office. The former attorney general had no experience in the Legislature when he was elected.

In a news conference Thursday, Paterson reflected on his political career.

“In some ways, I feel that I’m sitting on a sand castle that other people built,” Paterson said. “There are so many African-Americans, both men and women throughout the past couple of centuries, who have struggled unremittingly to try to advance opportunity for all people and for themselves.”

He went on to say that if his newfound fortune makes him a role model for blacks, the disabled, Hispanics, women or other groups underrepresented in the top echelons of power, “I would feel very privileged, very proud and very flattered to be in this position.”

In interviews around the state, it was clear this week that he has touched a chord in the black community.

“I believe with the help of the others he will do an excellent job,” Eva Jeter said from behind the counter of her gift shop at the Broadway Market in an economically distressed part of Buffalo. “It shouldn’t matter what race you are, it’s whatever you’re capable of doing. We all are human beings, regardless of our ethnicity.”

William Jackson, who was having a cup of coffee at the market, was also celebrating Paterson’s luck. “I think it’s great, though too bad he had to make it like that,” he said.

Vinita Hall, a bookkeeper in Rochester, agreed.

“It’s exciting to see a difference, to see change,” she said. “It’s nice to see that someone of color is in power.”

Though Paterson becomes New York’s first black governor — and only the third nationwide since Reconstruction — he’s not the first who aimed for the top office.

Former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall was the first black candidate for governor on a major party line; he lost to Republican George Pataki in 2002.

Maurice “Mickey” Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said he hasn’t polled voters to see whether Paterson could be elected statewide, but said it’s no longer outside the realm of possibility.

“This business of, ‘Can a black guy represent white people, or can a white guy represent black people?’ — that’s 25 years ago,” he said, adding that if there were an election today, “Paterson would be a viable candidate.”

While Paterson’s success has been a source of pride for the black community — and many others, including the blind — it has also heightened expectations.

Jonneil Boatwright, a single mother with three children, said she hoped Paterson would bring attention to the problems that continue to plague poor urban blacks — gang violence, drugs and unemployment.

“It will only be good for black people if he helps fix some of the problems we have to live with every day,” said Boatwright, a nurse from Syracuse. “As governor, he can set priorities. I want my kids educated. I don’t want to see them dead on crack, or killed in some gang fight.”

15  03 2008

Hundreds of sick cats found in Pa. raid

TARENTUM, Pa. - Hundreds of sick and dying cats were removed from a fortress-like sanctuary Friday in a raid brought on by worried animal lovers and a former county worker who infiltrated with a hidden camera.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead cats were believe buried on the secluded 29-acre property known as Tiger Ranch Farm, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Owner Linda Bruno apparently meant well but lost track of the needs of the animals years ago, said Howard Nelson, director of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which organized the raid.

“I found her to be in denial of the condition of the cats,” he said. “It’s billed as a sanctuary, but no one person can take care of 750 cats.”

Bruno, also known as Linn Marie, 45, was arraigned Friday on 13 counts of animal cruelty and neglect, but more charges were expected as subsequent cases were documented, Nelson said. She was in jail, unable to post $50,000 bond. It was not immediately clear whether Bruno had an attorney.

Animal control agents and sheriff’s deputies arrived Thursday night. By midday Friday, at least a dozen cats had been euthanized at the site and more than 400 had to be medicated due to highly contagious diseases, officials said. Authorities found 600 to 700 cats on the property.

The SPCA got a search warrant after a seven-month undercover investigation in which former Butler County humane officer Deborah Urmann, who worked for Bruno once a week as a volunteer, videotaped the operations using a button camera purchased over the Internet, officials said.

“She claims she’s a no-kill shelter, but really she’s a slow-kill shelter,” Urmann said.

About 100 cats were living in a building that looked like a construction trailer. It was strewn with blood and feces and had two doors that enabled the cats to go out into a fenced area. Dozens of cats lived with Bruno in her ranch-style home, too, Nelson said.

“You couldn’t even breathe because of the ammonia,” Nelson said, referring to the stench of cat urine.

Officials were hopeful as many as 80 percent of the rescued cats can be saved. They hope to find homes for them once they are rehabilitated.

Unlike dog kennels, however, there is no legal limit to how many cats a sanctuary can have.

Carolyn DeForest, a psychologist from Sewickley involved in volunteer animal rescue work, helped Urmann with her undercover investigation. One problem was that Bruno operated secretively and didn’t allow people onto the property except from 10 p.m. to midnight, when she’d accept animals to shelter, DeForest said.

“The place is like Fort Knox,” she said.

15  03 2008

Maui drivers watch gas prices reach $4

WAILUKU, Hawaii - “Maui No Ka Oi” is a popular Hawaiian saying that means Maui is the best. Mike Sweeney recently moved to this idyllic island from Denver and was hit with the other side of living in paradise with his first visit to the gas pump: Maui is also No. 1 in gas prices.

“After seeing the total, I won’t be smiling,” Sweeney said as he watched the numbers on the Chevron pump spin faster than a slot machine.

The pump finally stopped at $97.20, which put 24.5 gallons in his Chevrolet Avalanche.

He was elated about living on Maui and being reunited with his black, super-size pickup truck, which just arrived from Colorado, but he wasn’t so thrilled about paying nearly $4 for a gallon of regular.

While the price of oil climbs above $110 a barrel, most Americans dread the day they will have to pay $4. On this tropical island and a few stations in California, $4 gas has already arrived, straining the pocketbooks of residents and businesses.

Maui is on the verge of becoming the first area in the nation to average $4 for a gallon of regular. The average price in Wailuku reached $3.943 on Friday, the highest price in AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. At several stations, it was a penny shy of $4. In the remote coastal town of Hana, it was around $4.40 a gallon.

“Outrageous. Completely outrageous,” said Janet Carone, of Wailuku.

The high price to get around has hurt many families, like the Carones. They’re coping by driving less, carpooling or working more.

“It has a big effect because our housing is high, our food is high, and the gas prices just make it worse,” she said.

Other than AAA, perhaps no one on Maui tracks local gas prices better than Deok Lee, owner of Airport Taxi. He maintains a detailed record of gas expenses using Excel spreadsheets on his laptop.

In just nine days, Lee had spent $300 to fuel his Toyota Sienna van. Like his drivers, the more Lee pays for gas, the less money he brings home. His pay shrinks by the day — and by the gallon.

“Crazy,” he said about the prices. “Ridiculous.”

Fuel cost has more than tripled since he took over the business in 1999, and it’s forcing him to consider trading his van, which costs $80 to fill, for a smaller four-cylinder car.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take away some comfort for the customers. But you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said.

Lee expects many cabbies will be forced out of business if fuel prices keep rising.

Chuck Gamarata, who operates the only limousine taxi on the island, is forced to work longer hours to compensate for the gas prices. He’s still taking home about $10 less each day.

“You add that up over a year’s period, that’s thousands of dollars,” he said. “It hurts. It hurts bad.”

Other businesses are also feeling pinched.

Todd Winn, co-owner of North Shore Explorers, has been hit hard since launching the tour company in September. It takes 150 gallons of diesel, at $4.21 a gallon, to fill up his 30-foot rigid hull inflatable boat, which gets about a mile per gallon. It also costs more than $100 to fill up the Ford F-350 to tow it.

While the new company is trying to build up clientele, it may be forced to raise rates or add a fuel surcharge.

“It’s been dramatic enough that we’ve actually seen our original business model blown out the window,” Winn said. “It’s been quite costly and we’ve had to cut costs in other areas to make it work.”

He shakes his head when hearing about people in other states complaining about gas prices. Maui residents remember the good ol’ days of $3 gas.

“It’s just the price of living here,” Winn said. “I’m not sure it’s fair. But at the same time, it’s not going to get me to move back to the mainland to pay a buck less for a gallon of gasoline.”

Hawaii is the most oil-dependent state in the nation, with more than 90 percent of its energy coming from imported oil. The state’s economy is also extremely sensitive to oil prices globally because it depends on airplanes and ships to bring in tourists and all of its goods.

Marie Montgomery, spokeswoman for AAA Hawaii, said it’s a little comfort for islanders that gas prices haven’t risen as fast as in other states, such as California.

On Friday, California hit another record with an average of $3.619. It was just ahead of Hawaii ($3.610), which it overtook Thursday for the nation’s highest gas prices. Meanwhile, the national average has risen to a record $3.28, according to the auto club.

But Maui, which doesn’t have a major public transportation system, now has all the California cities beat by at least a quarter a gallon.

Residents here have long wondered why gas prices on the island are so much higher than on neighboring Oahu, where Honolulu gas is about 50 cents less.

“It’s like we work just to pay gas,” resident Yolanda Ellis said. “Funny how our gas goes up but our pay stays the same.”

Hawaii, which imports most of its crude oil from Alaska and Indonesia, has two refineries on Oahu operated by Chevron Corp. and Tesoro Hawaii Corp.

Both companies blame the Maui price on higher transportation costs, even though islands further away, such as the Big Island, have lower prices. They also cite several other factors, such as volume, competition and higher local taxes on Maui.

Chevron spokesman Albert Chee said the price, in most cases, is set by the station operators and owners. The company sets the retail prices for only six stations it owns out of the 63 Chevron-branded outlets in Hawaii.

The company wouldn’t disclose the difference in wholesale price between Maui and Oahu. However, Chee said: “It’s not 50 cents. It’s not even half.”

“The difference between Oahu and Maui of 50 cents is not flowing into my pocket,” he said.

Chevron noted that the cost of crude oil has spiked 20 percent in the past 30 days, while gasoline has increased 9 percent nationwide and only 5 percent in Hawaii.

Not everyone seemed upset with the pump prices on Maui. Tourists, who pay an average close to $300 a night for a hotel room, don’t seem to mind.

“If the gas would’ve been higher, we still would’ve gone,” said Jack Glisson, of Jacksonville, Ill. “It didn’t make any difference.”

15  03 2008

Legal cloud lingers over Spitzer

NEW YORK - Resigning won’t spare Eliot Spitzer from the heat of a criminal investigation — federal prosecutors must still decide what to do with the case of the disgraced New York governor and the prostitutes.

A law enforcement official said Spitzer’s high-powered defense team was believed to be negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors over his connection to a high-end prostitution ring, but attorneys would not comment Thursday about the discussions.

“Corruption cases often pose a dilemma for the prosecutor,” said Evan Barr, a private practice lawyer who once handled such cases for the same Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office that is now weighing how to proceed with Spitzer.

“If you charge a public figure under an obscure or rarely used legal theory, the critics will say the prosecution is politically motivated; if you decline to charge under the same circumstances, the critics will say the prosecutor is going easy on the would-be defendant because he or she is a prominent person,” Barr said.

The legal snarl was being untangled as Lt. Gov. David Paterson prepared to take over the state following Spitzer’s spectacular fall from power. Paterson said he spoke to Spitzer on Thursday and “told him how sorry I was this happened.”

“I promised the governor yesterday that I would commit myself to the people of this great state, that we would have stability and continue in these challenges that lie ahead,” Paterson said. “Now we have to get New York back on track.”

Paterson takes over on Monday, and will become New York’s first black governor and the nation’s first legally blind chief executive to serve more than a few days. Bob Cowley Riley, who lost his left eye in WWII and later lost vision in his right eye, served 11 days as governor of Arkansas in 1975.

Spitzer, a married father of three teenage girls, faces a dubious future after he was accused of spending tens of thousands of dollars on prostitutes — including a tryst with a 22-year-old call girl in Washington the night before Valentine’s Day. Officials said Spitzer initially drew the attention of authorities with suspicious money transfers that will be a key part of any possible criminal case.

Among the possible charges that could be brought against Spitzer: soliciting and paying for sex; violating the Mann Act, the 1910 federal law that makes it a crime to induce someone to cross state lines for immoral purposes; and illegally arranging cash transactions to conceal their purpose.

But legal experts said bringing charges and getting a conviction would be unusual, considering federal authorities rarely charge the customers in illegal sex or drug cases. A likely outcome could be what is called a “deferred prosecution agreement,” which could leave Spitzer on probation with charges dropped if he did not get into any more trouble.

Gerald Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said criminal charges against Spitzer would be “stretching federal statutes to a place they’ve never been.”

Edward J.M. Little, who worked in the public corruption unit of the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office in the 1980s, said it would be “piling on” to bring charges now.

“I think it would be outrageous if they went after him any further on this,” he said. “Solicitation cases are typically pled down to minor charges and just because he was governor doesn’t mean he should be treated any more harshly unless they impacted his duties as governor.”

He added: “Even though I personally think it’s reprehensible, it doesn’t mean it’s criminal. He’s resigned which is probably the ultimate penalty in this case so we should let it be.”

The most likely charge Spitzer could face is structuring — breaking sums of money down into smaller amounts to hide the true purpose of the funds — but it is rarely brought as a stand-alone charge.

Lawyers said they are usually brought in money-laundering cases or as part of some larger criminal activity such as drug dealing.

Also, such cases usually involve hiding the source of the money. There is no reason to believe Spitzer, a millionaire many times over, used illegal funds to pay for anything.

A Mann Act violation may be another stretch.

The law is not typically applied to buying sex from adult women, even if, according to court papers, the client identified as Spitzer by law enforcement officials managed to break almost every part of the law by arranging for the woman’s train fare, hotel, right down to the mini-bar at the hotel. And do it all on tape for the listening feds, no less.

Some say a structuring case might be the most likely scenario.

Miami-based lawyer Gregory Baldwin said there is one basic principle to the crime — one that might still trip up Spitzer.

“A drug dealer, for example, is probably more concerned with hiding the source of his money. A terrorist, on the other hand, is probably more concerned with hiding the destination and purpose of his money,” Baldwin said. “Whether it’s the source, destination, or purpose, though, the structurer … always wants to avoid one thing: being identified as part of the transaction.”

15  03 2008

New photos in Illinois store shootings

TINLEY PARK, Ill. - Police in a Chicago suburb have released a series of photos they hope will help lead them to a gunman who killed five women at a Lane Bryant clothing store.
The grainy, black-and-white photos were captured from a video camera on a nearby Target store in Tinley Park.

The photos show a small, dark-colored sport utility vehicle in front of the store about the time of the shootings on February 2.

Police caution that they don’t know whether the vehicle was involved in the crime, but they would like to track down the owner.

A gunman tried to rob the store before opening fire and shooting six women, one of whom survived.

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