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North Carolina Prosecutors Seek Death Penalty In Killing Of 3 Muslims

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

DURHAM, N.C. — A prosecutor described in court here Monday how Craig Stephen Hicks, accused of killing three Muslim college students Feb. 10, methodically shot each one several times after a dispute over a parking space.

Hicks told police that he first argued with neighbor Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, at Barakat’s front door about “certain issues … involving parking,” Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried told a packed courtroom.

Then Hicks walked to his adjoining apartment, retrieved a handgun and returned to shoot all three students one at a time, Dornfried said as he requested the death penalty in the case.

Hicks first shot Barakat several times, Dornfried said. When Barakat’s newlywed wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 22, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, began screaming, Hicks stepped inside the apartment and shot both women, Dornfried said.

“They were alive after the first volley,” the prosecutor said. “Each one of these women was then shot in the head.”

He added, “The defendant then started exiting the apartment and shot Deah Barakat a final time.”

Moments after Dornfried described the killings, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two women, passed a few feet behind Hicks at the defense table and muttered, “Coward. Scumbag.”

Hicks, 46, who sat manacled in an orange prison uniform, glanced up at Abu-Salha but did not respond.

Friends and relatives of the victims’ families glared at Hicks as they left the courtroom after the brief hearing.

Terry W. Alford, a private attorney assigned to assist a court-appointed state capital defender who is leading Hicks’ defense, did not contest the prosecutor’s request for the death penalty.

Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson, Jr. ruled that the prosecution had met the state standard for a capital case. “This defendant is death penalty qualified,” Hudson said in court.

Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Dornfried said Yusor’s blood was found on Hicks’ pants, and shell casings from the scene matched a handgun confiscated from Hicks’ apartment.

Hudson set the next hearing in the case for the first week of June.

The three students lived in an apartment below the unit occupied by Hicks and his wife on Summerwalk Circle in the Finley Forest complex in Chapel Hill. Gunshots rang out in the busy complex just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10.

Chapel Hill police said the shootings stemmed from a parking dispute.

Neighbors said Hicks was notorious for angrily confronting residents and visitors about parking or noise. He often called a towing company to remove cars he said were parked in spaces he claimed were reserved for him and his wife.

A police search warrant noted that Hicks “kept pictures and detailed notes on parking activity.”

Two days after the shootings, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the FBI had begun a preliminary investigation into whether the shootings amounted to a hate crime. The decision came after the case received worldwide attention, propelled by a social media campaign tagged #muslimlivesmatter.

Friends and family members of the three students said the victims were targeted because of their religion. Barakat’s brother, Farris, and Deah’s close friend and former apartment roommate, Imad Ahmad, told the Los Angeles Times that Hicks’ anger intensified after the Abu-Salha sisters, who wore Muslim head scarves, began spending more time at the apartment. Yusor Abu-Salha moved in after the couple married Dec. 27.

In early January, Hicks accosted the sisters’ mother, Amira, when she parked in front of the Hicks’ apartment while delivering her daughter’s wedding dress. Yusor Abu-Salha asked Hicks why he confronted them, Ahmad said.

“Yusor told me he said, ‘I don’t like the way you look,'” Ahmad said.

On the day of the shootings, none of the three cars belonging to the students was parked in the spaces claimed by Hicks, Ahmad and Farris Barakat said.

Deah Barakat was a dental student at the University of North Carolina. His wife was to join him in the dental program this fall. Razan Abu-Salha was a student in the design school at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Hicks, a paralegal student at Durham Technical Community College, surrendered to police the evening of the shootings.

Detectives found an arsenal of weapons in his apartment: 14 rifles and handguns, including a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

On his Facebook page, Hicks wrote, “Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative.”

The page featured a photo of a handgun and the comment, “Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader.”

Hicks, who described himself as an atheist or “anti-theist,” railed against organized religion on the Facebook page. He did not specifically criticize Islam, and neighbors said in interviews that they never heard him make any comments about the religion.

“He had equal-opportunity anger toward all the residents,” neighbor Sarah Maness said of Hicks.

The “religious views” section of Hicks’ Facebook page says, “I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto.”

The comment did not mention a specific religion.

According to search warrants, police seized computers and cellphones belonging to Hicks and to the three students.

Karen Hicks, Hicks’ wife of seven years, denied that the shootings were a result of religious hatred.

“He believes everyone is equal,” she said at a news conference the day after the shootings. “It doesn’t matter what the person looks like.

“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion, or creed,” she said.

Karen Hicks suggested that her husband had mental health problems. Hicks had a concealed-carry permit.

Because of legal challenges, there has been a de facto moratorium since 2007 on executions in North Carolina. The last execution in the state, which has 149 inmates on death row, was in 2006.

When Namee Barakat, the father of Deah Barakat, was asked in February whether his son and the two women were killed because of their Muslim faith, he replied, “Very possibly.”

“This is more than just about parking,” Barakat said. “Three people get shot in the head. The death penalty would not be enough.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Murder defendant Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, left, listens while his co-defense counsel Terry Alford makes notes during a Monday, April 6, 2015 death penalty hearing for Hicks in Durham, N.C. Presiding Judge Orlando Hudson found the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students at Finley Forest residential complex in Chapel Hill in February 2015 made the Hicks case eligible for the death penalty. (Harry Lynch/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Racially Segregated War-Memorial Plaques Divide South Carolina Town

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

GREENWOOD, S.C. –– It was a noble gesture intended to salve the wounds of this former mill town’s segregated past.

Mayor Welborn Adams and the local American Legion raised $15,000 for new plaques on the town’s war memorial to replace ones that designate the dead from World Wars I and II as “Colored” or “White.”

Instead of praise for righting the wrongs of the past, Adams was threatened with arrest and accused of whitewashing history.

“I know you can’t change history, but why keep segregating people by race?” Adams said.

Greenwood, a town of 23,000 people that is 45 percent black, is in a controversy over wording that reflects attitudes in town — and in the U.S. military — from nearly 70 years ago.

Like many Southern towns, Greenwood is struggling to break free from the burdens of race and history. The town’s leaders say it long ago shed its Jim Crow legacy and now embraces diversity, although it still has separate white and black American Legion posts. Now, according to some residents, the issue is ensuring that the town’s segregationist past is not erased. They say history demands acknowledgment that the U.S. military was once segregated.

“History means telling the story — the whole story,” said Eric Williams of Greenwood, who spent 32 years as a U.S. Park Service historian. “You don’t leave out the ugly parts or the distasteful parts.”

Changing the plaques would destroy the memorial’s historical integrity, Williams said as he stood beside the commemorative plates, which list veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars alphabetically — with no racial designation. The military was desegregated in 1948.

“History cannot be altered,” said Williams, who is white. He suggested that the new plaques be installed at a local museum with an “interpretive sign” explaining military segregation.

Adams, who is white and was born and raised in Greenwood, said of that suggestion: “That’s like saying, ‘We were racist then but we’re not now.'” He laughed and mentioned a 1950 line by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The South is dotted with towns haunted by the past. In Georgia, the towns of Waynesboro and Thomaston have similar war memorials, and other Southern memorials designate black veterans with a “C.” Clemson University is wrestling with demands to remove the name of Benjamin Tillman, a founding trustee and white supremacist, from a campus building.

Statues and street names honoring Confederates are common sights in the South. Fears by some South Carolina whites that such tributes would be erased forced a compromise in a 2000 law that removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome in Columbia. The law also said no historical memorial may be “relocated, removed, distributed or altered” without legislative approval.

Adams, 48, said he first proposed changing the plaques during a speech four years ago to Greenwood’s white American Legion, which installed the memorial on city property in 1929, with World War II dead added later. The idea was rejected.

But last summer, the post’s executive committee voted 10-0 to remove the plaques, though some rank-and-file members remain opposed, said Dale Kittles, a committee member. The post worked with Adams to raise $15,000, with two blacks joining 41 whites in contributing. Adams wrote a $1,000 check.

“That memorial is for the warriors, not for the color of their skin,” said Kittles, 51, a white Army veteran and Legion committee member who proposed the vote. He also said he’d like the white and black posts to merge into one.

Retired Master Sgt. Thomas Waller, a prominent Greenwood veteran, says most local veterans want the “Colored” designation removed. Waller, 82, who is black, served 20 years in the Army.

“We trained together, shipped out together, fought and died together,” Waller said. “Nobody worried about whether you were white or black.”

Waller refused to join either American Legion in town because of their racial designations, but says he is not offended by the “Colored” plaques. “I just try to think ahead to the day when it won’t say black or white — just soldiers,” he said.

Blanton Smith, president of the Greenwood NAACP, said the “Colored” plaques were painful reminders of Jim Crow. “Those men on that memorial deserve better,” he said.

Adams scheduled a ceremony to unveil the new plaques at the memorial on January 19 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But opposition was mounting, in part because of Adams’ comment to the local newspaper: “I think if history offends people, it needs to be rewritten if possible.” He says he now wishes he had said he was changing the way history is presented.

Randall Faulkner, a white Army veteran, threatened to swear out an arrest warrant against the mayor for violating the 2000 law. Faulkner said changing the plaques would be “almost an insult” to black soldiers who fought for freedoms white soldiers already enjoyed. He said their descendants should decide how they are honored.

“You lose a teaching point if you change it now,” he said.

A December 28 editorial in the Index-Journal of Greenwood said the “Colored” plaques should remain, but with a new plaque added to explain that the nation’s armed forces were once segregated.

“Changing the plaques does not change the fact that there was a time when blacks and whites who served in our armed forces did indeed serve separately,” the editorial said. It added: “We cannot and really should not attempt to change our history.”

In fact, the editorial said, removing the “Colored” designation might even backfire by erasing public acknowledgment that blacks fought and died for their country despite overt racial discrimination.

On January 19, Adams proceeded with the unveiling, although he couldn’t mount the plaques because of the state law. The event was attended by 40 black and white veterans in an emotional outpouring of support.

Richard Whiting, the Index-Journal editor and author of the December 28 editorial, said the veterans’ response changed his mind.

In a January 25 editorial, Whiting wrote that the existing plaques should be removed. The unveiling of the new plaques was “an incredibly powerful ceremony, a ceremony of unity, not acrimony,” he wrote.

“If the veterans want it changed, then I’m OK with it,” said Whiting, who is white. “Let’s move on. We have far greater things to deal with.”

Whiting said he worried that the controversy made them all “look like a bunch of backwoods rednecks.” While some Greenwood residents “still live with the hope the South will rise again,” he said, most residents support racial healing.

“We’re not the same community we were years ago,” he said.

State Senator Floyd Nicholson, who is black and once was Greenwood’s mayor, has introduced legislation to remove the “Colored” designations.

“We need to change with the times,” Nicholson said. “The bullets our soldiers took weren’t aimed at blacks or whites. Those soldiers fought for all Americans.”

But Nicholson said it would not be easy to overcome political opposition in a state whose history is weighted by the Civil War and a segregationist past. He said some people opposed to the new plaques resented black advancements, and editor Whiting said some opponents “still want to live in the past.”

“We’ve come a long way, but we have a way to go,” Nicholson said.

Adams said: “There are some people who still look back fondly on that period of segregation.” He said continuing the “Colored” designations leaves Greenwood mired in the past, making it difficult to attract national and international investment.

The two-term mayor said he wept in his office when the town attorney told him that replacing the plaques required legislative approval. It still pains him now to see the shiny new plaques resting forlornly against an office wall at City Hall, waiting for Greenwood’s racial history to be resolved.

Photo: Mayor Welborn Adams of Greenwood, S.C., stands next to the town’s 1929 war memorial, which separates “Colored” and “White” veterans who died in World Wars I and II. Adams and the local American Legion raised $15,000 to buy new plaques that list all veterans alphabetically, with no mention of race. But the mayor has run into opposition from historians – and a state law  from 2000 that prohibits changing any public monument without approval by the state legislature. (David Zucchino/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Slayings Of 3 In North Carolina Arouse Muslim Fears

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — They were young newlyweds — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a dental student at the University of North Carolina, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, soon to enter the same dental program.

He sent dental kits to Syrian refugees and helped the homeless. She was an honor student. He was Syrian-American and she was Palestinian-American. Both were U.S.-born.

And they had complained to their families about an angry, aggressive upstairs neighbor well-known to residents for confronting neighbors about parking spots and noise.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the couple and Mohammad’s 19-year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were shot and killed inside their apartment in a leafy neighborhood two miles from campus. Authorities charged their upstairs neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with three counts of first-degree murder in what they said was an ongoing dispute over a parking space. The shooting will also be investigated to determine whether religious hatred played a role because of the victims’ Muslim faith.

Barakat’s sister, Suzanne Barakat, spoke Wednesday of “execution-style murders” and demanded that authorities “investigate these senseless and heinous murders as a hate crime.” National Muslim activist groups also called for a hate-crime investigation as photos of the three victims — with the two women wearing head scarves — went viral worldwide on social media under the hashtag #muslimlivesmatter.

News of the shooting caused revulsion across Europe and the Middle East, where it energized long-standing fears among Muslims that the violent loss of Muslim lives would not get the same attention by the mainstream media as killings of white or Christian people. “U won’t see this on the news because it’s about a Muslim,” one user tweeted overnight, in a sentiment that was retweeted more than 1,400 times and widely shared across other social media.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue pledged in a statement that investigators would “exhaust every lead to determine” whether the killings were motivated by hatred.

“It is a question of what we find — motive, facts — things that need to be confirmed and will be part of the decision-making process,” said Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols, who will consider the possibility of hate-crime charges.

Lt. Joshua Mecimore said a preliminary investigation indicated “that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”

When Namee Barakat, father of Deah Shaddy Barakat, was asked whether his son and the two women were killed because they were Muslim, he said, “Very possibly.”

“This is more than just about parking,” Barakat said. “Three people get shot in the head. The death penalty would not be enough.”

Hicks made his first court appearance Wednesday morning and was ordered held without bail after a five-minute hearing. A probable-cause hearing was set for March 4.

Hicks nodded when asked whether he understood the charges. Echols said no decision had been made on whether to seek the death penalty.

Hicks was described by neighbors as an angry, hulking figure who exploded in rage over parking spaces and noise in a neighborhood where parking is at a premium in the evenings.

“He was very disgruntled, very aggressive. He would scream at people,” said Samantha Maness, 25, a technical college student who lives across a small parking lot from the building where Hicks and two of the three slain students lived.

“He made everyone feel uncomfortable and unsafe,” Maness said Wednesday.

Maness said she never heard Hicks refer to anyone’s religion or race. “He had equal-opportunity anger toward all the residents,” she said.

Karen Hicks, the suspect’s wife of seven years, denied that he had acted out of hatred.

“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed,” she said.

A Facebook profile bearing Craig Hicks’ name and photo paints a portrait of a vehement atheist who shared anti-Muslim and anti-Christian posts and links.

“I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto,” it says under the “religious views” portion of the profile, not indicating whether it’s talking about a particular faith.

A banner photo on the Facebook page promotes “anti-theism” and says, “I don’t deny you your right to believe whatever you’d like; but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.”

Suzanne Barakat said her family “wept tears of joy” when her brother and sister-in-law, an honors architecture student at North Carolina State University, were married Dec. 27.

“Today,” she said, “we are crying tears of unimaginable pain. … We are in a state of shock and will never be able to make sense of this horrendous tragedy.”
___
(Times staff writers Michael Muskal and Matt Pearce contributed to this report from Los Angeles.)

Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt speaks to hundreds of mourners gathered in on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. A vigil service for Deah Barakat; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and her sister Razan Abu-Shala was held after the three were killed in a triple homicide on Tuesday. (Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer/TNS)

Millions Of Tons Of Toxic Coal Ash Are Piled At Power Plants Across The Nation

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

COLON, N.C. — After a massive coal ash spill coated the Dan River in North Carolina with 70 miles of toxic gunk a year ago, state lawmakers required coal ash stored at four Duke Energy plants in North Carolina to be moved to safer locations.

Now tons of coal ash may end up across the road from Joe Bray’s tidy little home and vegetable garden in the piney woods of central North Carolina.

“It’s going to pollute this whole area, I guarantee you,” Bray, a mustachioed glass blower, said of Duke Energy’s plan to dump up to 8 million tons of coal ash in an abandoned clay mine in rural Lee County.

Duke has proposed moving tons of coal ash from leaky basins more than a hundred miles away to a rural county free of coal ash headaches. Bray and his neighbors, along with outraged county commissioners, are asking Duke: Why us?

“Duke wants to make us the coal ash dump site for the whole state,” said John Crumpton, the Lee County manager.

County commissioners issued a resolution Jan. 5 accusing Duke of springing the plan on the county without notice. It said the dumping would create “environmental risks” and impose a “stigma” on the county.

For years, coal ash has been the toxic waste that nobody wants. Millions of tons of coal ash are piled at coal-fired power plants across the nation, with 140 million tons generated each year.
Coal ash, waste left over from burning coal to produce electricity, contains mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium and cadmium. Exposure to high levels can cause cancer and neurological problems.

Two recent spills — a 2008 release in Tennessee that dumped toxic sludge 6 feet deep and the Feb. 2, 2014, spill on the Dan River — have forced utilities to find safer ways to store the waste.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy is storing 130 million tons of coal ash at 32 sites at 14 power plants. The new state law requires Duke to safely move all of it by 2029, and from four leaking ash ponds by 2019.

“This community is not willing to stand by and be dumped on — it’s a toxic mess, and we don’t want it,” said Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which has organized hundreds of local residents opposed to Duke’s plan.

The utility says abandoned clay pits in Lee County and 15 miles away in neighboring Chatham County are ideal to safely store ash in dry, lined, covered pits as “structural fill” to be monitored for 30 years for leaks or “leachate” — liquid that has dissolved harmful substances.

Mike Hughes, Duke Energy’s vice president for community relations, said the ash will be encased in several layers of impermeable, high-density plastic. Hughes said there isn’t enough room at all of its plants to build new ash storage sites. Lee and Chatham were chosen for their central locations, high capacity and proximity to rail lines, he said.

Hughes said Duke Energy regretted the late notice, in mid-November, to the counties, which he attributed to time constraints.

Like utilities nationwide, Hughes said, Duke has to find a better way to store waste from coal-fired plants that provided cheap energy for decades. “And there aren’t that many communities saying, ‘Bring it here,'” he said.

Duke has contracted with Charah Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based waste management company that bought the two clay mines and filed coal ash permit applications with state regulators. Charah plans to store the ash on 118 acres at the former Colon Mine.

A mammoth loading effort would transport ash by rail more than a hundred miles from each of two Duke plants — near Charlotte to the west and Wilmington, N.C., to the east. Critics say that would drastically alter the rural character around the tiny, former brick-making community of Colon.

“Duke is hitting the poorest rural neighborhoods, where they think people won’t be able to fight back against a big corporation,” said Donna Bray, Joe’s Bray’s wife, who’s worried about contamination of the vegetable garden that provides 50 percent of the couple’s food.

More than 100 alarmed residents packed Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Colon one cold January night to fight the plan.

They were evenly split between black and white, many of them elderly. Others were homemakers or middle-aged men wearing ball caps, hunting jackets and abundant facial hair.

Organizers passed out “No Coal Ash” yard signs and yellow stickers that read “Duke: Don’t Dump Coal Ash On Our Communities” — to be attached to utility payments mailed to Duke Energy.
Vick, the organizer, displayed a map showing nearly 100 clay mine pits in the state, including three near Duke Energy’s corporate headquarters in Charlotte. That prompted several people to ask, loudly, why Duke doesn’t dump its coal ash there.

Crumpton, the county manager, said Duke proposes paying Lee County nothing in fees to store ash. He said the best way for the utility to dispose of its ash is to keep it right where it is — in counties where Duke has paid millions in local taxes.

Hughes said the law does not require fees for coal ash stored in clay pits. But he said Duke is willing to discuss possible payments with county officials.

Lee County is conservative, with little tradition of environmental activism. But residents are also hunters, fishers and backyard gardeners wary of big corporate outsiders who might threaten their air, water and wildlife.

“They’re wanting to dump poison right where we live and eat,” said Barbara Wood, an elderly hat maker and local resident who walked into the church meeting with the help of a cane.

Her husband, Major Wood, a retired postal worker, worries that the graves of his grandparents — buried behind the church — would be threatened by any leak of coal ash stored just down the road.

Duke, the country’s largest electric utility, has an unlikely ally: the Southern Environmental Law Center in nearby Chapel Hill. The center has lambasted Duke for years over its handling of coal ash, and has fought the utility in court.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the center, said storing coal ash in dry, lined pits away from waterways is exactly what the center has been demanding of Duke for years.

“On the face of it, the permit application meets the criteria we’ve been pushing for,” Holleman said. “You can’t just dump coal ash in a hole.”

But Holleman criticized Duke for failing to clean up the Dan River spill. He said 92 percent of the 39,000 tons of coal ash dumped a year ago still has not been removed. State regulators say river water has been restored to pre-spill quality.

The permit applications will be reviewed by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The agency and Duke Energy are being investigated by a federal grand jury in Raleigh for possible criminal violations over the handling of the Dan River spill.

Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the agency, said regulators are reviewing the applications and will submit the plans for public comment.

The day after the church meeting, Joe Bray, 56, and his neighbor, Shawn Moore, stomped through the woods to inspect the old Colon Mine site. Bray carried a shotgun, having spotted an aggressive coyote on a previous jaunt.

Moore, 26, a college student born and raised next to the mine, recalled fishing for bass and crappie in the water-filled clay pits. They are home to ducks, geese, beavers, otters and an occasional bald eagle.

“Coal ash is toxic,” Moore said as he stood next to a pit the size of two football fields. “It’s going to seep out or get blown out by wind. Then what?”

Bray said lining the pits with heavy plastic is like lining them with a plastic bag — it will eventually deteriorate and allow ash to escape.

“And nobody is going to be able to sell their house with a coal ash dump next door,” he said.

Photo: Barbara and Major Wood on January 26, 2015, at their home near a clay mine pit in Lee County, N.C., that Duke Energy wants to fill with eight tons of coal ash. The Wood family and hundreds of other local residents have protested a proposal by Duke to dump coal ash waste in the rural county in central North Carolina. (David Zucchino/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Families Of U.S. Journalists Missing In Syria Filled With Dread

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Friends and relatives of Austin Tice, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria two years ago, were preparing to hold a candlelight church vigil for him in Houston on Tuesday when they received shattering news:

James Foley, an American journalist whose family had befriended the Tice family, had been killed in Syria by the militant group Islamic State. The extremists also threatened to execute a second captive American journalist, Steven J. Sotloff, if the United States does not halt airstrikes against the group in northern Iraq.

“That was just a terrible threat,” said Chris Brombacher, 27, a childhood friend of Tice attending the vigil. “There’s just such a feeling of helplessness. We all want to do something to help, but we don’t know what.”

For a handful of families of American journalists missing in Syria, Foley’s beheading and the death threat against Sotloff compound their sense of helplessness and dread.

About 20 journalists from across the world are believed held by Islamist militant groups in Syria, many of them by Islamic State, said Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. Mansour said most are Syrians, and declined to say how many are Americans or to provide the names of any American or other foreign captives, saying their families and employers had asked that their identities not be made public.

An additional 12 journalists are believed held by the Syrian government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In all, more than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since 2011, Mansour said. Seventy journalists have been killed covering the Syrian civil war, the organization said.

In some cases, kidnapped journalists from other countries have been freed, purportedly after ransom was secretly paid to their captors. Such payments, analysts believe, have been a key source of financing for some militant groups in Syria.

Four French journalists kidnapped in Syria in June 2013 were released in April, found blindfolded and bound on the Turkish border, according to an account in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. A month earlier, a Spanish reporter and photographer for El Mundo were freed in a similar fashion.

The U.S. and British governments have a long-standing policy against paying ransom.

Foley’s brother, Michael, may have been obliquely referring to the ban on payments when he spoke at a news conference Wednesday. “There’s more that can be done,” he said. “The footprint has been laid by some of the other nations.”

The video of Foley’s execution probably will harden U.S. and world opinion in support of tougher military action against Islamic State, even as it creates further anguish for families of those kidnapped, said Charlie Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general who directs the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University.

The threat is a crude attempt at intimidation — and a miscalculation, Dunlap said.

“You could see the president was clearly angered,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s comments about killing of Foley, 40, who went missing in Syria in 2012. “It’s very dangerous to get a democracy like the United States angered about a savage act against a U.S. citizen.

“From now on, they will never have a single day when the United States is not actively hunting them down.”

Islamic State’s threat to behead Sotloff, kidnapped in northern Syria in 2013, was “a very frightening thing to hear,” said Thomas Brombacher, who attended the Tice vigil Tuesday night.

Brombacher, whose son Chris was in the Boy Scouts with Tice, said Tuesday said the vigil was planned before the news of Foley’s death. The event marked the second anniversary of Tice’s August 2012 disappearance in Damascus while freelancing for The Washington Post and Al-Jazeera English. No group has taken responsibility for Tice’s disappearance.

“The last 635 days, we have had to share a horrible nightmare, which has made us close to the Foley family and our heart goes out to them,” Tice’s family said in a statement Tuesday. “We pray eternal rest for James’ soul and comfort for his family.”

In an email Wednesday, Debra and Marc Tice, Austin’s parents, declined an interview request “out of respect for the privacy of the Foley family.”

Thomas Brombacher said Debra Tice made brief remarks at the vigil, held at a Catholic church. About 80 to 100 friends and family members attended, lighting candles, praying, and honoring Austin Tice, 33, with a minute of silence.

“It wasn’t just for Austin,” the elder Brombacher said. “It also was a prayer for peace for Syrian families and what they’re going through over there.”

Chris Brombacher described Tice, an Eagle Scout and former Marine, as outgoing and warm-hearted.

“He cared about you,” he said. “He had a really big impact on my life.”

Zucchino reported from Durham, N.C. Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Maeve Reston in Rochester, N.H., contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

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Husband Of Ebola Patient Leaves Quarantine, Visits Wife In Isolation Ward

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

The husband of an American missionary diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus has ended his quarantine in North Carolina and visited his wife Sunday at an isolation room at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a Christian missionary group announced Monday.

David Writebol, who was quarantined as a precautionary measure after returning from Liberia, said his wife Nancy was continuing to improve. Nancy Writebol, 59, and a missionary doctor, Ken Brantly, 33, were flown from Liberia earlier this month for treatment at Emory’s special containment unit, one of just four in the country.

“I have had the great joy to be able to look through the isolation room glass and see my beautiful wife again,” David Writebol said in a statement Monday. “We both placed our hands on opposite sides of the glass, moved with tears to look at each other again.”

Writebol has not had contact with his wife since she was diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia on July 26. Nancy Writebol, wearing a full-body white protective suit, was flown to Atlanta on a specially-outfitted private plane on Aug. 5.

David Writebol said he had no symptoms of Ebola and was cleared by doctors to leave quarantine Sunday to visit his wife.

“She was standing with her radiant smile, happy beyond words,” David Writebol said of Sunday’s meeting. “She is continuing to slowly gain strength, eager for the day when the barriers separating us are set aside, and we can simply hold each other.”

He added: “We prayed together over the intercom.”

“My family and I look forward to her speedy restoration, and we give thanks for continued prayers on her behalf,” Writebol said.

Ebola has infected at least 2,100 people and killed 1,145 in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization.

Two other doctors with the Charlotte-based missionary group SIM also were placed in precautionary quarantine on SIM’s campus in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 10. The doctors, whose names have not been released, have not been diagnosed with Ebola.

Palmer Holt, a spokesman for SIM, declined to say Monday whether the two doctors were still in quarantine.

Both Nancy Writebol and Brantly have been treated with the experimental drug Zmapp, which contains a mixture of antibodies. There is no effective vaccine for Ebola, but patients are given fluids and other treatments in hopes of stabilizing them long enough for their immune systems to eventually fight off the virus.

In the worst Ebola outbreaks in Africa since the virus first appeared in 1976, up to 90 percent of those diagnosed with Ebola have died, according to WHO. The virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids.

On Friday, Brantly released a statement from his isolation room at the Atlanta hospital, saying his condition continued to improve.

“I am growing stronger every day,” Brantly said.

Brantly said he traveled to Liberia not to fight Ebola but to treat patients at a SIM-run missionary hospital in Monrovia on behalf of a North-Carolina based Christian charity, Samaritan’s Purse. But as Ebola swept through West Africa, he began treating Ebola patients, he said.

“I witnessed the horror first-hand, and I can still remember every face and name,” he said.

He added: “As you continue to pray for Nancy and me, yes, please pray for our recovery. More importantly, pray that we would be faithful to God’s call on our lives in these new circumstances.”

AFP Photo/Florian Plaucheur

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VA Audit Tracks Mental Health Care

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

DURHAM, N.C. — Andrew Danecki, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, suffers from sleep apnea that left him nodding off on the sofa and behind the wheel of his car. He said he waited eight months to get a sleep study performed at the Durham VA Medical Center.

Dennis Hunter, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, waited several months for an orthopedic appointment for knee and back injuries that require him to use a wheelchair.

The Durham VA Medical Center had the longest average wait time for new patient mental health appointments — 104 days — in a nationwide audit of veterans’ health care facilities released this month. The hospital also had the nation’s seventh worst average wait times for new patient specialist care appointments: 69 days.

“I feel like they just don’t know what they’re doing, and don’t really care,” said Danecki, 27. “It’s like vets get health care for free, so why should they do their best work?”

North Carolina’s four main VA hospitals struggle under demands from one of the largest veteran communities in the nation — about 770,000, many living near large military bases such as Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The Durham VA served 64,000 patients last year, and to many veterans, the facility seems impenetrable when it comes to getting specialty care.

“They have so many problems here, I don’t know where to start,” said Hunter, 68, perched on his wheelchair in a crowded waiting room inside the red-brick hospital in downtown Durham.

Officials at Durham have challenged the national audit’s methodology, saying that more than half of new mental health patients were actually seen within 14 days this fiscal year, with new patients waiting an average of 25 days for their first appointment.

“We are heading in the right direction and have already made significant improvements,” said DeAnne Seekins, the Durham VA director.

The hospital said it has added dozens of mental health staffers in the last two years, and is recruiting 18 additional mental health providers. The hospital opened a Mental Health Access Center last year, which provides emergency psychiatrist services, in an effort to reduce wait times.

“We have made great progress in wait times, but are not where we want to be yet,” said Dr. Richard Weiner, chief of mental health services at the Durham VA.

Pete Tillman, a spokesman at the facility, said growing patient demand and a lack of hospital space had contributed to problems. He said the hospital had expanded its hours, opened weekend clinics and planned to open a third mental health access clinic.

Two employees, a doctor and an administrative staffer, were placed on administrative leave last month after an internal review found irregularities in appointment scheduling.

The VA audit found that none of the 141 medical facilities examined across the country met the agency’s goal of seeing all new mental health patients within 14 days. At 30 facilities, the average mental health wait was more than 40 days.

The Durham VA, affiliated with top-ranked health systems at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, has enjoyed a reputation for quality care — once it’s delivered. And even veterans who complain of long waits and poor follow-up care say specialty treatment there has been good once they finally receive it.

But experts in mental health say follow-up care is often inadequate at VA hospitals, in part because the agency is unable to attract enough psychiatrists and other specialists to meet new demands.

The VA’s lengthy hiring procedures — up to six months — discourage promising young interns from working there, said Lizbet Boroughs of the American Psychiatric Association. Unlike private hospitals and many other government hospitals, she said, the VA doesn’t offer medical loan forgiveness to job applicants, who are often up to $100,000 in debt.

“The VA needs a more level playing field” to compete for mental health providers, Boroughs said.

The problem with mental health care goes beyond wait times for appointments and stretches far more widely than the hospitals in North Carolina, say many who have worked with VA facilities.

Internal VA reports and federal investigations dating back nearly 14 years have documented long wait times, inadequate care and mental health shortcomings.

In 2011, a federal appeals court in San Francisco declared the VA’s mental health treatment so inadequate that it was unconstitutional. “The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” the court majority wrote in a 2-1 ruling that was later overturned. “No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish.”

Ralph Ibson, who studies mental health issues for the Wounded Warrior Project, said VA hospitals often cut costs by pushing veterans with mental health problems into group therapy when they need individual therapy. The VA has limited programs for follow-up mental health treatment, he said, often delaying such care “until the veteran’s condition deteriorates to the point of crisis.”

He said the agency tended to use a “dart throw” process that allocated precious mental health staff erratically, with the facilities that need the most help often not getting it.

Danecki, the Afghanistan veteran, said he was able to see a VA psychiatrist without a long wait. But when the doctor prescribed a sleep study for his apnea and exhaustion, it took eight months to schedule it.

He ultimately received a machine to regulate his breathing, and now his apnea is under control. He also has been diagnosed with PTSD, he said, but will not be visiting the Durham VA for treatment. “After what I went through there, it wouldn’t be worth my time.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

General Dempsey: Army May Still Pursue Desertion Charge For Bergdahl

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

The Army may consider pursuing an investigation of possible charges of desertion or other violations by Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was freed Saturday after nearly five years in Taliban custody, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday.

Army General Martin Dempsey noted that U.S. military leaders “have been accused of looking away from misconduct.” Dempsey said that was “premature” in the case of Bergdahl, who has been accused of desertion by former members of his unit in Afghanistan for abandoning his post during a combat deployment.

The remarks, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, were Dempsey’s first public comment on Bergdahl since he was freed Saturday in exchange for the transfer to Qatar of five Taliban commanders held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In a separate posting on Facebook, Dempsey said of Bergdahl: “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”

Any decision on disciplinary measures will be up to the Army, Dempsey said in the interview. He said he does not want to prejudge Bergdahl or say anything that might influence Army commanders.

In the Facebook post, Dempsey said in response to “those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity.”

He added: “This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him.”

Several members of Congress have criticized the prisoner swap, described as a “transfer” by the Obama administration. Critics said the administration caved in to Taliban demands and raised the ransom price for any future U.S. service member captured by insurgents, and also failed to properly notify Congress of prisoner releases.

Dempsey said he had not spoken to Bergdahl or his parents since the soldier’s release. The military is expected to learn more about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance and captivity by questioning him.

He is undergoing evaluation at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and has not had direct contact with his parents in Idaho.

Bergdahl, 28, left a small observation post in eastern Afghanistan in the early-morning hours of June 30, 2009, without informing anyone, three former members of his 30-man platoon said in interviews Monday. In his one-man tent, they said, they found Berghdahl’s rifle, helmet, body armor, night-vision goggles and other gear neatly stacked.

The former soldiers said Bergdahl had expressed disillusionment with the way the Army was conducting the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan and had made off-hand comments about walking into the mountains or walking to India.

Calling Bergdahl a deserter, the soldiers said he should be held accountable for possible violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They contended that several U.S. service members died in direct or indirect connection with the massive 90-day search for the missing sergeant.

The Pentagon has not confirmed that any deaths were related to the search for Bergdahl.

In the Facebook post, Dempsey said: “I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him, and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him.”

Dempsey said in the interview that Bergdahl, a private, who was promoted to sergeant during his captivity, will no longer be automatically promoted to staff sergeant because he is now free.

Soldiers missing in action are normally promoted on the same schedule as their peers. But for Bergdahl, “his status has now changed, and therefore the requirements for promotion are more consistent with normal duty status,” Dempsey said.

Bergdahl could face court-martial if the Army uncovers sufficient evidence of desertion, said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School. The Army might also decide to separate Bergdahl from the service through administrative procedures.

Any physical or psychological trauma could make Bergdahl unfit for continued service, Fidell said. If so, the Army would likely begin the process of arranging for retirement, medical care and other benefits.

Photo via AFP

Army General Sinclair Tearfully Pleads With Judge At Sentencing

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — His eyes red, his head bowed, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair strode uneasily to a courtroom lectern Wednesday and glanced up at a silver-haired military judge who will sentence him for offenses he admits he committed.

Exactly two years had passed since a young Army captain who worked for Sinclair walked into the office of his commander in Afghanistan and revealed that she and the general had carried on an adulterous three-year affair in two war zones — prompting Army prosecutors Wednesday to ask the judge to dismiss Sinclair from the service.

Choking on his words and wiping his eyes, Sinclair apologized to the judge, the captain, his wife, his two young sons and to an institution he has served for 27 years. He begged to be allowed to retire at a reduced rank so that his family may collect military benefits “they have earned serving alongside me all these years.”

It was the close of the sentencing phase in Sinclair’s court-martial, where he has pleaded guilty to adultery, mistreating the captain, inappropriate relationships with two other female officers, obstructing an investigation and other charges.

Shortly after Sinclair spoke, an Army prosecutor in a blue dress uniform stood at the same lectern and asked the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, to dismiss Sinclair. Pohl, who listened to more than two hours of impassioned closing statements from the two sides, indicated he would impose the sentence Thursday.

Maj. Rebecca DiMuro said Sinclair had betrayed the Army and its officer corps by using his rank and authority to exploit impressionable young officers who came to him for guidance and leadership. She reminded the judge that Sinclair had pressured two officers for nude photos of themselves and asked a third for a date.

“Every time he chooses to harm a soldier, he harms everything it means to be an officer,” DiMuro said. “General Sinclair let the Army down.”

DiMuro, a special-victim prosecutor, scoffed at Sinclair’s profession of concern for his family. She noted that on the final weekend of home leave with his family at Fort Bragg before he was to return to duty in Afghanistan in March 2012, he pressured a young lieutenant for a horseback riding date, saying he was “smitten” with her.

“He begged you to consider his family,” DiMuro reminded the judge. But when he had the chance to consider them, she said, “he wasn’t thinking about them.”

Sinclair, 51, one of only a few generals to face court-martial in the last 60 years, pleaded guilty Monday to twice misusing his government charge card to pursue the affair, disobeying an order not to contact his mistress, and making derogatory and sexist comments about other female officers.

A week earlier, Sinclair pleaded guilty to impeding an investigation by deleting sexually explicit emails and photos from a civilian woman, possessing pornography in a war zone, conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers and asking the lieutenant for a date.

Under a plea agreement, the Army dismissed charges that Sinclair sexually assaulted the captain and threatened to kill her and her family if she exposed the affair. Also dropped were charges that the general had engaged in “open and notorious” sex in a parked car in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona. If convicted on the most serious charges, Sinclair would have faced life in prison and registration as a sex offender.

The veteran of five combat tours now faces up to 25½ years in prison. However, an agreement between prosecutors and the defense puts a cap on his sentence. The actual sentence will be either the cap or the judge’s sentence, whichever is shorter. Terms of the cap agreement, known as a “quantum,” were not disclosed, not even to the judge.

On Wednesday, prosecutors did not request prison time. Pohl can still impose a prison sentence, but the ultimate sentence would have to be no higher than the cap. The judge will read the quantum after sentencing, then reconcile any differences with his punishment.

If Sinclair is allowed to retire at reduced rank — his lawyers proposed lieutenant colonel, the highest position in which he served honorably — a military review board will determine his retirement rank.

Sinclair said he had caused emotional distress for the captain, 34, who in sometimes tearful testimony said she was trapped and victimized by Sinclair. She said he refused to let her out of the relationship and drove her to threaten suicide. The general apologized to all four female officers.

“It was my responsibility to ensure these officers were protected and promoted, and I failed them as a leader. For this, I am truly sorry,” he told the judge in a low, hoarse voice, standing a few steps from Pohl, wearing a dress uniform and polished paratrooper’s jump boots.

Sinclair said he had no one to blame but himself: “I put myself and the Army in this position with my selfish, self-destructive and hurtful acts.” He described “a deep and abiding sense of shame and remorse.”

He paused several times to wipes his eyes. It was the third time the general had broken down in tears, first when he told the judge about lying to his mistress about divorcing his wife, and again when a defense lawyer read a statement Wednesday from his wife describing how his behavior had devastated their family.

DiMuro reminded the judge of a military skit at a roast for Sinclair in Germany in 2010, when one male officer portraying the captain donned a brown wig and knelt before another officer, portraying Sinclair, as if to perform oral sex. The skit was attended by more than 500 people, including Sinclair’s wife, Rebecca, and the wives of other officers.

Rebecca Sinclair was sitting next to her husband that humiliating evening, a contrast to “the family he desperately wants you to think of now,” DiMuro told the judge.

DiMuro noted that 24 defense character witnesses, most of them active-duty or retired officers, had described Sinclair as an inspirational and charismatic leader devoted to his men. The general spent more than two decades honing a reputation as one of the Army’s most dynamic and promising officers, she said.

“He forsook all that collateral — every dime of that collateral, in exploiting junior subordinate soldiers,” DiMuro said.

Sinclair’s defense team, led by Philadelphia lawyer Richard L. Scheff, selected a soft-spoken officer, Maj. Sean Foster, to deliver a sentencing closing statement that recounted Sinclair’s service and his wife’s military volunteer work.

A video screen displayed photos of the Sinclairs’ engagement and marriage, and their sons, now 10 and 12. Also on the screen were testimonial letters from Army officers, some retired, about Sinclair’s sterling performance before his career was destroyed by his offenses.

Foster described the captain as “flirtatious” and said his accuser was not trapped in the affair. “It was a relationship she wanted to be in. … She chose to stay.”

Foster said the charges that led to Sinclair being called “a rapist wearing stars” by a member of Congress had been dropped. “The reason we are here today is because of the stuff they dismissed.”

He added: “General Sinclair has been punished enough.”

The general was removed two years ago as deputy commander of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. He has spent two years defending himself in court with the help of a civilian law firm and a New York public relations agency.

“Now I have lost my ability to work at my calling — leading soldiers and planning battles,” Sinclair told the judge.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Army General Sinclair Breaks Down, Asks Judge To Not Punish Family

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

FORT BRAGG, NC — Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair broke down in tears Wednesday at his sentencing hearing, asking the judge to allow him to retire at a reduced rank instead of dismissing him from the Army, which would deprive him of military benefits and “punish” his family for his adulterous affair with a captain.

“I have squandered a fortune of life’s blessings, blessings of family, work and friendship,” the one-star general said in court. “I have put myself and (the) Army in this position with my selfish, self-destructive and hurtful acts.”

He said he “failed as a leader” and apologized to his accuser and the two officers he pressured to send him nude photos of themselves.

The judge, Col. James S. Pohl, is expected to sentence Sinclair on Wednesday for mistreating an Army captain with whom he conducted a three-year adulterous affair in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany and the United States.

Speaking for the prosecution, Lt. Col. David Leach, who served under Sinclair in 2012 in Afghanistan, said the general’s actions were “not a minor mistake. It was a matter of internal moral and ethical direction and that was most disturbing. … He failed his family, soldiers he served and the American people.”

Sinclair, who has remained composed during most of his court-martial the last two weeks, bent forward, his hands clasped, as attorney Ellen Brotman read a statement to the judge from Rebecca Sinclair. The general wiped his eyes with a tissue when the statement mentioned the impact of Sinclair’s adultery and prosecution on the couple’s sons, ages 10 and 12.

“My boys and I are the only truly innocent victims to these offenses,” Rebecca Sinclair’s statement read. She referred to charges against her husband that have been “so publicly and horribly aired.”

Sinclair, 51, one of only a handful of generals to face court-martial in the last 60 years, pleaded guilty Monday to mistreating the captain. He also pleaded guilty to twice misusing his government charge card to pursue the affair, disobeying an order not to contact his mistress, and making derogatory comments about other female officers.

A week earlier, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery; impeding an investigation by deleting sexually explicit emails to and from a civilian woman; possessing pornography in a war zone; conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers; and improperly asking a female lieutenant for a date.

The 27-year veteran of five combat tours technically faces up to 25 1/2 years in prison. However, an agreement between prosecutors and the defense puts a cap on any punishment; the actual sentence will be the lower of the two — the cap or the judge’s sentence.

Terms of the cap agreement, known as a “quantum,” were not disclosed. Pohl has not seen the document, but will read it after he sentences Sinclair. The judge will then reconcile any differences between his sentence and the quantum.

If convicted on the original charges of sexual assault, sodomy and making death threats, Sinclair would have faced life in prison and registration as a sex offender. With those charges dismissed, his sentence is expected to be far less severe.

Sinclair’s lawyers have asked for no prison time, and for Sinclair to be allowed to retire at a reduced rank of lieutenant colonel — the highest rank at which he was not accused of misconduct.

It was not clear Wednesday whether, if Sinclair is sentenced to prison time, he would be placed in custody immediately or given time to put his affairs in order. That decision would be made by Army officials, not by the judge, according to military legal officers.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Duke Energy Accused Of Mishandling More Coal Ash Wastewater

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

MONCURE, N.C. — While poring over regulatory documents for Duke Energy coal ash ponds, environmentalists at the Waterkeeper Alliance grew suspicious of how the giant utility was handling the toxic ash waste left over from burning coal.

They sent a team up in an aircraft to photograph Duke’s retired Cape Fear coal-burning power plant and ash ponds in this tiny community in central North Carolina.

The photos revealed what the Waterkeeper Alliance says is evidence that Duke, the nation’s largest electric utility, is deliberately pumping toxic coal ash wastewater from the containment ponds into a canal that feeds into the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for downstream cities.

In the photos, two portable pumps and hoses can be seen drawing water from a coal ash pond and dumping into the canal and into nearby woods. According to the environmental group, that is a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act and state laws.

“They were trying to hide it. It was just dumb luck that we caught them at it,” said Peter Harrison, staff attorney for the alliance.

State regulators said the pumping could be illegal.

Duke and state regulators are under intense public and political pressure after the February 2 Duke Energy coal ash spill, which coated the Dan River with toxic coal ash sludge for at least 70 miles in North Carolina and Virginia. Hazardous heavy metals such as arsenic and lead were dumped into the river.

That spill, at a retired Duke Energy coal-fired plant in Eden, N.C., led to allegations by environmental groups that state regulators have been soft on Duke and have ignored coal ash seepage for years from 14 Duke plants in North Carolina. It was the third-worst such spill in U.S. history.

Federal prosecutors have announced a criminal investigation into the relationship between the state agency and Duke Energy. They have said they are seeking evidence of any money or gifts exchanging hands. Officials at the state agency and at Duke Power have been issued subpoenas to appear before a grand jury this week.

In a statement, Duke Energy said the pumps were permitted by state regulators.

“The pumps in question are temporary installations used to lower the water level in those ash basins in order to perform maintenance on equipment in the basins,” the statement said. “This maintenance activity is allowed under our permits and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is aware that this work is occurring.”

A spokesman for the state agency, Drew Elliott, said in an email message: “Our inspectors noticed this pumping during an on-site inspection this week, and we are investigating the utility’s actions. While routine maintenance is allowed under the permit, discharge of untreated wastewater could be a violation.”

Elliott said he didn’t know whether the inspectors noticed the pumps before or after the Waterkeeper Alliance took aerial photos. The agency announced March 5 that it would conduct detailed inspections of all coal ash ponds at Duke’s 14 plants, including the Moncure plant.

Harrison called Duke Energy’s explanation “absurd.” He said no state permit would allow a utility to pump coal ash water from ponds because pumping would dredge up toxic heavy metals that settle at the bottom of the ponds.

Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. via Flickr

Army General Pleads Guilty In Sex Case, Says ‘I Failed Her’ As A Leader

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

DURHAM, N.C. — Brig. Gen. Jeffery Sinclair formally pleaded guilty Monday morning to maltreating a subordinate under his command, telling a military judge in halting voice that he deceived her during their illicit three-year affair and caused her “emotional distress.”

Sinclair, one of only a handful of generals to face a court-martial in the past 60 years, also pleaded guilty to twice misusing his government charge card to pursue the affair, disobeying an order not to contact his mistress, and making derogatory comments about other female officers. The military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, accepted the pleas.

As part of a plea deal signed over the weekend, the Army has agreed to drop more serious charges of sexual assault; threatening to kill the captain with whom he carried out the affair and her family; and engaging in “open and notorious” sex in a parked car and on a hotel balcony.

“I failed her as a leader and a mentor, and caused harm to her emotional state,” Sinclair told the judge, referring to a 34-year-old captain who reported to him while the two were engaged in a torrid, adulterous affair. “I put her under emotional distress because I misled her.”

Sinclair, 51, the former deputy commander of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, is married with two children. The captain, who was 29 when the affair began in 2009, is single.

The general, wearing a dress blue uniform and jump boots, paused at times, his voice breaking, as he read from statements admitting his guilt. He told the judge that he deceived the captain by suggesting that he would divorce his wife to be with the accuser, when, in fact, he had no intention of breaking up his marriage.

Sinclair admitted that he did so because the captain had threatened to expose their affair. Under military law, adultery is a serious offense.

“I led her to believe I would leave my wife and that we would be together at some point in the future,” Sinclair told the judge. “This was not true.”

He added: “While I still had strong feelings for (the captain), I began to fear that she was not going to be content to end the relationship quietly, but that her anger and disappointment could lead her to acting rashly and exposing us. From this point on, I was not honest with her about my intentions.”

On March 6, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery for conducting a three-year consensual affair that stretched across three continents. He also pleaded guilty to impeding an investigation by deleting sexually explicit emails to and from a civilian woman; possessing pornography in a war zone; conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers; and improperly asking a female lieutenant for a date.

In addition to dismissing charges that Sinclair twice forced the captain to perform oral sex on him in an office in Afghanistan when she tried to break off the affair, the Army has also said it will drop charges that Sinclair groped and fondled the captain against her will on a military flight, and that he pressured another captain to send him nude photos of herself.

Testimony in the sentencing phase is expected to begin Monday afternoon, with Army prosecutors presenting witnesses. The accuser and her parents are on the Army’s witness list, according to the defense team, but the Army has not indicated whether prosecutors will actually call them to testify.

Sinclair’s civilian lawyer, Richard L. Scheff, said he expects to call at least 20 witnesses, some of whom will testify by phone.

In court Monday, prosecutors asked for a maximum sentence of 25 years. Pohl told Sinclair that he may also face dismissal from the military, forfeiture of pay and allowances, and possible fines.

Under a separate agreement, which has not been disclosed, the Army and Sinclair’s lawyers agreed to place a cap, or maximum, on any sentence imposed.

Pohl will sentence Sinclair after testimony concludes in the sentencing phase, which is expected to last at least until Tuesday.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Accuser In General’s Sex Assault Trial Says She Feared She’d Be Fired

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

FORT BRAGG, NC — The accuser in the sexual assault court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair testified Friday that she continued to have sex with the general for two years after she says he threatened in Iraq to kill her and her family if she revealed what became a three-year affair.

The accuser, a military intelligence captain, told a court-martial panel that she continued to have sex with Sinclair because she believed she had no other option, and also feared the general might fire her.

“I felt the best way to move forward was to continue sleeping with him,” the captain said during a sometimes tearful hour on the witness stand.

The captain has accused Sinclair of twice forcing her to perform oral sex after their affair soured. The general is charged with sexual assault, sodomy, groping her against her will, having public sex, and abusing his government credit card in pursuit of the affair. He faces life in prison if convicted on all charges.

In opening statements earlier Friday, Sinclair’s lawyer, Ellen C. Brotman, told a panel of five male two-star generals that the accuser continued the affair and at times pursued Sinclair, telling him in emails and text messages that she loved him.

Even on the day in March 2012 that the accuser told Sinclair’s immediate superior that he had forced her to perform oral sex, she exchanged emails with Sinclair. “I owe you,” she wrote him at one point; “owe” was code between the lovers for “love,” according to Brotman.

The defense contends that the captain leveled the sexual assault allegations as retaliation against Sinclair after she discovered sexually charged emails between Sinclair and another female captain. The accuser exploded in fury, Brotman said. Using the general’s email account, the accuser fired off three angry emails to the captain.

“Her dreams are crashing down around her,” Brotman said.

The accuser was also furious with Sinclair, Brotman said, because she had concluded that he was not going to leave his wife, as he had indicated earlier. In her private journal, the accuser did not mention fearing for her life or for her family’s safety, Brotman said.

“My biggest fear is that there is still something there in his marriage,” the accuser wrote in her journal, which Brotman read aloud to the panel.

According to Brotman, the accuser also threatened to commit suicide “as a ruse to get Brig. Gen. Sinclair’s attention.”

“False suicide claims, false sexual assault claims,” Brotman told the panel.

On Thursday, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery, improper relationships with three other women, impeding an investigation and viewing pornography on his personal computer while deployed.

Defense lawyers said the guilty pleas, accepted by the trial judge, were designed to remove what they call prejudicial and inflammatory material about pornography and an extramarital affair. That now allows them to focus on the accuser, whose allegations are the basis for the most serious remaining charges.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Brigadier General Sinclair Pleads Guilty To Inappropriate Relationships

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

FORT BRAGG, NC — Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, one of the highest-ranking officers ever to face a court-martial, pleaded guilty at the start of his trial Thursday morning to several charges, including an illicit affair with a female captain, possessing pornography, impeding an investigation and pressuring other female officers to send him nude photos of themselves.

The general pleaded not guilty to the most serious charges against him. They include twice forcing the captain to perform oral sex, groping her, committing sodomy, engaging in public sex and threatening to kill the captain and her family if she revealed their three-year affair.

The offenses to which Sinclair has pleaded guilty normally result in fines and retirement at a reduced rank, according to the general’s defense team. It is up to the military judge presiding over the court-martial, Col. James L. Pohl, to accept the pleas.

“Gen. Sinclair has consistently admitted his shortcomings and taken responsibility for them,” Sinclair’s lead attorney, Richard Scheff, said in a statement Wednesday night. “We advised him to delay pleading to some of these lesser charges for tactical reasons.”

Sinclair, 51, faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges. He was relieved of duty as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the accuser came forward in 2012.

The general, who is married with two sons, has previously admitted to the affair but has insisted that it was consensual throughout. His lawyers have accused the captain, who was 29 when the affair began, of falsely accusing Sinclair of sexually assaulting her when she tried to break off their affair. The defense says she accused Sinclair in order to escape punishment for adultery, a serious offense in the military.

Opening statements are expected Thursday in a case that has attracted national attention at a time of intense public and political scrutiny of the military’s handling of sexual assaults. Congress is debating whether to strip commanders of authority to bring sexual assault charges against those in their command and to instead have independent prosecutors make those decisions. A vote could come in the Senate as early as Thursday.

Scheff said Sinclair would plead guilty to conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for pressuring a female captain, a female major and a civilian woman to send him nude photos of themselves. He will plead guilty to engaging in inappropriate relationships with the three women, as well as attempting to engage in an improper relationship with a female lieutenant, according to Scheff.

The defense said Sinclair would admit that he attempted to impede an investigation by deleting nude photos of one of the women from his computer and deleting an email account used to communicate with some of the women.

The general will also plead guilty to having sex with the accuser in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Texas, Arizona and at Fort Bragg, where Sinclair is still on active duty pending the outcome of the court-martial. The accuser remains on active duty in Arizona.

In a statement, Scheff said the guilty pleas would deprive prosecutors of the ability to “distract us with salacious details about acts that aren’t even criminal in the civilian world.” He accused prosecutors of putting “a fancy wrapper” around “pathetically weak assault charges.” The anticipated guilty pleas “tore the wrapper off,” Scheff said.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Military Judge Nixes Porn In Opening Of Brigadier General Sinclair’s Trial

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A military judge refused Wednesday to let prosecutors show pornographic images during opening statements in the sexual assault trial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, also ruled that prosecutors may not use Sinclair’s alleged viewing of pornography as evidence that he intended to commit certain sex acts depicted in the images.

Pohl left open the possibility that the images could be introduced later in the court-martial.

Sinclair, a decorated, 27-year combat veteran, is charged with forcing a female captain to perform oral sex, and with possessing pornography in a war zone in Afghanistan. Prosecutors argued that the five two-star generals who are on the jury panel need to view images allegedly found on Sinclair’s computers to confirm that they were indeed pornography, as charged.

Pohl ruled that showing the images to the jury risked prejudicing the case against Sinclair, 51.

The prosecution said it recovered 8,500 pornographic photos and 600 videos on four “electronic devices,” presumably laptops, in Sinclair’s possession. The general’s defense lawyers say others had access to those devices.

The lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, told the judge that Sinclair’s alleged viewing of images of aggressive or forced oral sex “demonstrate intent and motive of the accused” to perform sex acts “strangely similar to the videos.”

“It shows a motive to engage in that type of behavior,” Stelle said in requesting permission to show 125 pornographic photos and 50 videos.

Sinclair, who is married with three children, has admitted a consensual three-year affair with the 34-year-old captain, who is single. The captain has accused Sinclair of twice forcing her to perform oral sex after their relationship soured, and threatening to kill her and her family if she told anyone of the affair.

Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault, sodomy, adultery, possession of pornography and conduct unbecoming an officer. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted of all charges.

A defense lawyer, Ellen Brotman, told the judge: “Lots of people watch pornography. Does that mean they all have intent to commit an offense?”

Brotman said showing the images could present “a danger of spillover prejudice on other charges.” The prosecutors, she said, “are trying to inflame the prejudices of the panel.”

The material “has such high emotional shock content … that there is actually risk of a mistrial,” Brotman told the judge.

In denying prosecutors’ requests to show the images and to link viewing them to an intent to commit sexual violence, the judge also prohibited prosecutors from telling panel members in opening statements of the 8,500 pornographic photos and 600 videos.

Opening statements are expected Thursday in a case that has attracted national attention at a time of intense public and political scrutiny of the military’s handling of sexual assaults. Congress is debating whether to strip commanders of authority to bring sexual assault charges against those in their command and instead let independent prosecutors make those decisions.

AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima

U.S. Widens Inquiry Of Duke Energy’s Coal Ash Spill In North Carolina

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

RALEIGH, N.C. — Federal prosecutors have broadened their criminal investigation of state environmental regulators after a massive coal ash spill February 2 that contaminated the Dan River in North Carolina, issuing 20 more subpoenas demanding documents about communications and possible payments and gifts.

The subpoenas, disclosed Wednesday, require the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to produce records of any payments or “items of value” received from or provided to Duke Energy, the giant utility whose coal ash containment basin spilled as much as 82,000 tons of toxic coal and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the river.

About 19 agency employees are required to produce documents — “to include but not limited to: cash, check, wire transfer and stock transfer,” the subpoenas say — and most are compelled to testify before a federal grand jury March 18. In an attached letter, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh, Thomas G. Walker, described a “criminal investigation of a suspected felony.”

The latest subpoenas seek records not only about the Feb. 2 spill but about dealings between the agency and Duke Energy regarding coal ash ponds at all 14 North Carolina Duke plants since 2009.

Duke Energy, the country’s largest electricity provider, said it received a second federal subpoena Wednesday related to the spill. A spokesman, Thomas Williams, declined to provide details.

A deepening sense of crisis has surrounded the spill, which state regulators and Duke have consistently downplayed while working closely to contain the coal ash and the political fallout. Environmental groups have accused the agency and utility of a cozy partnership and a secretly arranged “sweetheart deal” on coal ash basins.

The agency has had to backtrack after first saying arsenic levels from the spill, caused by a ruptured storm-water pipe, were within safety standards. Meanwhile, environmental groups have produced test results that they say show levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals far above state safety levels.

On Tuesday, the agency and Duke had to contend with a report by the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service documenting a 5-foot deep “coal ash bar” 75 feet long and 15 feet wide near the spill site. The report said the bottom of the Dan River was coated with coal ash up to 70 miles from the spill site, threatening fish and mussels.

That report came the same day the state agency announced it had detected elevated levels of arsenic from a second cracked pipe spilling coal ash at the Dan River plant. The agency said it had ordered Duke to stop the spill, and on Wednesday said it was 90 percent contained.

The agency attacked news coverage and heatedly denied that it had been too soft on Duke. In his second news conference on the spill, the agency’s embattled secretary, John Skvarla, said any suggestion that his department “and Duke Energy got together and made some smoky backroom deal with a nominal fine is just absolutely not true.”

After being peppered with questions for more than an hour, Skvarla and his aides ended the news conference and retreated to the elevators as journalists continued to shout questions. “Why are you running away from the press?” one reporter cried.

During the briefing at agency headquarters, Skvarla denied environmental groups’ accusations that the department had filed last-minute lawsuits last summer to preclude them from suing Duke in federal court. The state reached an agreement with Duke that did not require the utility to clean coal ash basins at two plants.

Environmental groups say the agency sued to protect Duke and to block the groups’ federal lawsuits, which, if successful, would have required Duke to move the basins away from waterways and into lined lagoons. Their lawsuits also would have exposed Duke to potential fines far larger than the $99,000 penalty the agency proposed for the $50 billion company.

Skvarla told reporters Wednesday that in fact his agency and environmental groups were “partners” in seeking to clean up waterways and groundwater contaminated by Duke coal ash. He said news reports had falsely “portrayed that we are in an adversarial role.”

Those comments surprised environmental groups, which have accused the agency of allowing coal ash to seep into waterways and groundwater for years from 32 coal ash basins at Duke’s plants in the state.

“There’s been a very adversarial posture from this agency from the very beginning,” said Peter Harrison, a lawyer with the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance. He called Skvarla’s comments “little more than fluff.”

“What we haven’t heard from the agency is any satisfactory answers on the damage to the Dan River and how they intend to mitigate it,” Harrison said. He has used a kayak to collect water samples at the spill site that show much higher levels of heavy metals than results released by the agency or Duke.

The agency has accused Duke of illegal discharges of coal ash from two ruptured storm-water pipes under a 27-acre containment basin at Duke’s shuttered Dan River coal-fired plant in Eden, N.C. It has not fined the utility, saying it will wait until after its investigation to assess any penalties.

Skvarla assured reporters that his agency was taking a careful, long-term approach to dealing with coal ash spills while it investigates the Feb. 2 incident. The goal is to “clean up coal ash ponds as quickly as possible” and require Duke to mitigate any damage to the river, fish or wildlife, he said.

Skvarla said his agency had reached a consent decree with Duke to avoid years of litigation that would delay dealing with coal ash. He denied news reports that he had asked a judge last week to “scuttle” the agreement, saying he had asked that the deal be held in abeyance while the agency investigates the Dan River spill.

With a video presentation airing over his shoulder, Skvarla said the lawsuits and proposed fine were the first ever against Duke Energy in the state, although he acknowledged that the fine was “irrelevant in the grand scheme of things … like a grain of sand on a mile of beach.”

But the agreement was designed to quickly “get to the endgame: getting these coal ash ponds cleaned up,” Skvarla said. “We held Duke’s feet to the fire.”

Agency spokesman Drew Elliot said Skvarla had not personally received a subpoena. He said the agency had made public all subpoenas.

Skvarla said the agency had not started an internal investigation.

The subpoenas disclosed by the agency Wednesday were dated Wednesday and Feb. 11. The agency was served with two other federal subpoenas Feb. 10.

Among the agency employees named in subpoenas was Tom Reeder, the Division of Water Quality director who has been at the forefront of the state’s response to the spill. In a video address to agency employees in July, Reeder said the agency had a “moral obligation” to review environmental regulations and “relieve the regulated community of that burden.”

Skvarla was appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a 28-year employee of Duke Energy whose campaigns and supporters received $1.1 million in contributions from Duke. The governor said on state ethics forms that he held Duke Energy stock in excess of $10,000 but did not disclose the amount.

Skvarla is a Raleigh lawyer and businessman who has helped run an environmental mitigation company, cargo airline and waste management company, and owns a golf course community. He has said his agency is a “partner” to those it regulates and considers them “customers.”

Skvarla said he had no role in McCrory’s 2012 campaign.

Elliot, the spokesman, said the secretary had donated to the campaign. He declined to specify the amount.

Photo via Wikimedia 

Case Against American Man Illustrates Canada’s Zero-Tolerance Gun Policy

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Louis DiNatale didn’t intend to enter Canada when he and his wife wound up on a bridge from New York state to Ontario province one day in September, misdirected by an unreliable GPS. What began as an American couple’s getaway to Vermont quickly turned into a lesson on the stark difference between the U.S. and Canada when it comes to gun laws.

DiNatale, whose request to turn around and cross back into the U.S. was denied, then made another mistake. When a border official asked if he had any weapons, he said no.

Then the questions started about guns. A border agent asked whether he owned any.

“Yes,” DiNatale said.

“Why?” an agent asked.

“I told him I was retired military, I had respect for weapons, and I had a concealed carry license to do so,” DiNatale said in a written statement.

“He asked me when was the last time I had a weapon on me. I told him, ‘Earlier that week.’ He asked me again, ‘Why?’ I told him it was my right as an American Citizen to do so.”

But he was driving his wife’s car, and had forgotten he had stowed his Bersa .380 handgun in the center console days earlier.

A search turned up the gun and DiNatale was handcuffed and questioned by Canadian border officers for allegedly trying to smuggle a loaded handgun into the country — and lying about it. He spent four days in a Canadian jail before he could post bail.

DiNatale’s predicament is a cautionary tale for American gun owners: Canada takes gun control more seriously than the United States. Over the last three years, nearly 1,400 firearms were confiscated at Canadian entry points, most of them personal guns belonging to U.S. citizens.

His Canadian lawyer, Bruce Engel, says Canada overreacted to DiNatale’s honest mistake and is using his case to send a message.

“They’re trying to make a general blanket statement to American citizens: Don’t mess with our borders,” Engel said from his office in Ottawa.

DiNatale, 46, a retired sergeant major, says he stored the gun in his wife’s car a few days earlier because he didn’t want it in his car when he drove onto Fort Knox, Kentucky, for a dental appointment.

The gun was still in his wife’s car when she picked him up from work in Louisville, Kentucky, to drive to a weekend getaway in Vermont, he says. He remembered it all too well, of course, when Canadian agents confronted him with the weapon after they searched the car at the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing between New York state and Ontario province.

The agents were unmoved by his explanations even after his wife, Cathy, verified his story.

DiNatale, a former Army legal expert who is now a paralegal in Kentucky, faces three years in jail if convicted; a Canada court date is scheduled for June. Engel says he will vigorously fight the charges.

“They could have done their homework and looked at his background and seen he’s a professional,” Engel said. “They could have accepted the word of his wife and released him on his own recognizance.”

Instead, Engel said, he was told by a Canadian prosecutor at DiNatale’s bail hearing during his jail stay: “Bruce, when it comes to guns, it’s kind of a zero-tolerance policy.”

For Americans accustomed to routinely carrying guns in the U.S., the situation changes radically at the Canadian border. The no-tolerance attitude toward guns there is similar to that of airport security in the U.S. It made no difference, for example, that DiNatale’s gun is legally licensed in the U.S., or that he has a valid concealed-carry permit.

Under Canadian law, Americans who want to bring up to three guns across the border must first fill out a form and pay a $25 fee in Canadian dollars. The weapons must be declared at the border post; the form serves as a 60-day gun permit in Canada.

“If you do not declare all firearms or weapons, we will seize them and you may face criminal charges,” the Canada Border Services Agency warns on its website. Automatic weapons and silencers are outlawed, and Canada strictly regulates the size of cartridge magazines.

The U.S. embassy in Ottawa warns U.S. citizens who attempt to enter Canada with guns: “Weapons are strictly controlled.” The warning adds: “Canadian law requires that officials seize firearms and weapons … from those who deny having them in their possession. Seized firearms and weapons are never returned.”

In DiNatale’s case, it seems his mistake was not just unfamiliarity with Canadian laws, but also faulty navigation and a poor memory.

If a Canadian citizen made the same mistakes at a U.S. border post, agents would be able to exercise some discretion, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said. If agents found no evidence of an intent to smuggle weapons, they would probably confiscate the gun and deny entry — but in many cases the offender would not be prosecuted, the official said.

Gun smuggling into the U.S. from Canada is not widespread, the official said, given gun-control efforts in Canada and the relatively free flow of guns in the U.S. But gun smuggling into Canada is a serious problem, which helps explain the vigilance of Canadian border agents.

Most Canadians entering the U.S. with firearms are not required to fill out forms, depending on circumstances, but are subject to local gun possession laws in individual states. If a gun is intended for hunting, Canadians must fill out, in advance, a permit with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They must also obtain a state hunting license, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In DiNatale’s case, prosecutors sought to keep him in jail until his June court date, Engel said. The lawyer said he was able to persuade a pre-trial judge to release DiNatale, who paid $5,000 cash bail and signed a $5,000 bond.

The judge “was a bit of a hunter, and he said it may have been reasonable that the gun was left there inadvertently,” Engel said.

Chris Kealey, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency, said he could not comment on DiNatale’s case. He said Canada goes to great lengths to inform visitors of the country’s gun laws.
Asked whether Americans are aware of gun laws at the border, Kealey replied: “I can’t speak for all folks who cross. But those who live near the border are probably more aware of Canada’s laws than someone from the southern part of the U.S.”

DiNatale is determined to return to Canada and clear his name, Engel said. He said there is no evidence that DiNatale intended to smuggle the gun or deceive the agents. His military service and his civilian work as a paralegal should bolster his case, the lawyer said.

“This case falls on the credibility and the intentions of the accused,” Engel said. “In this case, I have a good witness.”

Photo: Rob Bixby via Flickr