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Feds: Sweeping Changes for Low-Level Drug Offenders


With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder took to the podium in San Francisco  Monday morning, calling for major changes to the nation's criminal justice system in what he described as a "Smart On Crime" initiative.

He hopes the move - a marked change from the "war on drugs" attitude of the past four decades - will scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes, cost the nation less in terms of dollars and correct what he described as an unfair disparity for men of color who are disproportionately imprisoned for low-level drug crimes. The announcement was for federal guidelines and doesn't directly address state drug charges.

His announcement drew only applause from the crowd, though one protester outside told NBC Bay Area she thought that she prefers the status quo and to keep the laws we already have on the books. And one expert at Stanford said that this news merely changes a policy and perhaps a culture.

In remarks to the American Bar Association, Holder said he also favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders in what he described as "compassionate release."

His point: Prison should punish and rehabilitate, not warehouse and forget.

"The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said in prepared remarks. "To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry. We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it."
In the most sweeping culture change, the attorney general altered Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences, that he called "draconian." Specifically, federal prosecutors won't file charges against low-level dealers detailing the quantity of cocaine, meth or other drugs they were caught with. And without that information, judges can't impose the five- or 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms. Until now, that discretion hasn't been allowed.

Mandatory minimum sentences, Holder said, "breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.''

The Attorney General's Office on Monday sent a memorandum to the country's 94 U.S. Attorneys offices,  telling them that prosecutors will be told that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who: did not involve violence, sell a weapon to minors, are not leaders of a criminal organization, have no ties to large-scale gangs, have no significant criminal history.

Holder didn't change the law, according to Robert Weisberg, co-founder of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, because that would take an act of Congress. What he did do is tell his prosecutors to leave out details in certain drug cases in order to give judges more discretion is handing out lower sentences. This will likely change the culture of the federal prosecutor's office.

“There’s no question that [Holder] would like that mandatory minimum legislation rewritten to be more flexible and nimble, whereby the statutory criteria would really say, ‘the mandatory minimum applies for someone who is the organizational chief of the enterprise, or who is engaged in violent conduct.’ " Weisberg said. "Unless or until Congress does this, Holder simply wants U.S. attorneys, in some cases, not to allege the facts, which would be necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum.”

What remains unclear is how is how each of the U.S. Attorneys offices around the country will implement changes, given the authority of prosecutors to exercise discretion in how they handle their criminal cases. And how drug charges will be treated by county prosecutors also wasn't immediately addressed.

“A lot of the things he was talking about are things that have been going on in San Francisco for the last few years, so I’m pleased to see that,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said. “It’s going to be a matter of seeing what it looks like.”

If there were any critics in the predominantly liberal San Francisco Bay Area crowd, it was hard to tell: Holder only drew applause for his remarks inside the room. Outside, there were a handful of protesters arguing to keep the sentecning policy as it was.
The impact of Holder's initiative on mandatory minimum sentences could be significant, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.
There are roughly 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year and 45 percent of those are for lower-level offenses such as street level dealers and couriers and people who deliver drugs, Mauer said.

A disproportionate number of those convictions are for men of color, Holder pointed out, which is simply unfair - another fact that drew loud claps from the audience. African-Americans account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent,
Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates - with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders.  In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the federal level.

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.
"By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime `hot spots,' and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness - we can become both smarter and tougher on crime,'' Holder said.
The attorney general said 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

NBC Bay Area's Cheryl Hurd, Bob Redell and Pete Yost from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tea Set Found Amid Plane Wreckage


Amid the wreckage of the fatal plane crash in East Haven on Friday, investigators have located a tea set, intact, in the cargo section of the plane. 

Maxwell Henningsgaard, the pilot’s 17-year-old son, had picked it up for his mother, according to police.

Maxwell, his father, and two sisters were all killed in the crash, according to investigators.

Maxwell and his father, Bill, were in the 10-seat Rockwell International Turbo Commander 690B that went down on Charter Oak Drive just before 11:30 a.m. on Friday and crashed into two houses.

Sisters Sade Brantley, 13, and Madison Mitchell, 1, were killed when the plane hit their home.

The Henningsgaards were on a trip to tour colleges, including Yale, when the crash happened, officials said.

Maxwell’s mother, Susan, had told investigators that Maxwell had gotten the tea set for her, officials said.

At first, the National Transportation Safety Board did not find the set, but then located it in the back of the plane.

As officials work to console the families and investigate what happened, they are also carefully packing the gift for a grieving mother and shipping it to her, according to officials.

The mayor’s office said they have received several inquiries on how to help the victims and a fund has been set up.

Checks should be made payable to “East Haven United” and can be dropped off or mailed to the following locations:

  • Old Stone Church, 251 Main Street, East Haven, CT 06512. The phone number is 203-467-2907
  • St. Vincent DePaul Church,  80 Taylor Ave East Haven, CT 06512. The phone number is 203-467-6394
  • East Haven United c/o P.O. Box 120085, East Haven, CT 06512.

Listen: AOL CEO Fires Employee on Conference Call


In a move that would make Donald Trump proud, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired Patch.com's creative director on a conference call Friday with close to 1,000 employees listening in.

Media blogger Jim Romenesko obtained audio of the call (embedded below) in which Armstrong quickly transitions from encouraging Patch employees who “think what’s going on right now (at Patch) is a joke” to quit to an abrupt dismissal of Abel Lenz.

As was common practice, Lenz was taking a picture during the all-hands call to post to the company’s internal blog. That’s when Armstrong lost it.

Armstrong: “Abel, put that camera down right now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.”

Just like that.

An awkward moment of silence followed before he goes on about how AOL is committed to the network of hyper-local news sites The day before, Armstrong announced Patch would cut approximately 300 of its 900 sites nationwide – and the editors who run them -- in a cost-cutting maneuver.

Lenz still identifies himself as “Creative Director at AOL Patch.com” on his Twitter profile and responded to a tweet from Romenesko regarding the incident: “I appreciate the interest Jim, but I have nothing to share. Go Patch!”

Several media outlets have reported that while Lenz’s tweet might indicate cooler heads prevailed, that he was indeed let go.

Before taking over as Charirman and CEO of AOL in 2009, Armstrong served as President of Google’s Americas Operations. He co-founded Patch in 2007, which was then acquired by AOL shortly after Armstrong landed at the company.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Marine May Have Died After 'Trust Game,' Sources Say


A 19-year-old Marine from South Dakota who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head may have been playing a so-called "trust game" Friday evening, sources close to the investigation said.

Lance Cpl. Cody Scott Schoenfelder died Saturday morning after the shooting inside the Marine Barracks in southeast Washington about 6:45 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Marine Corps confirmed Monday.

News4 Washington confirmed that another Marine was present at the time of the shooting. They were on guard duty in one of the guard shacks at the barracks. Schoenfelder may have been attempting to demonstrate how a 9 mm handgun could be prevented from firing even if the trigger was pulled, NBC News reported.

Now, investigators are looking into whether the shooting was part of a trust game, sources told News4.

Several published reports have described trust games in which Marines dare each other to risk dangerous stunts.

“There’s several variations of the trust game that we’ve written about in the past,” Marine Corps Times Senior Editor Dan Lamothe said. “The most common one involves one Marine pointing a pistol at another Marine and asking ‘Do you trust me?’ and then pulling the trigger. It doesn’t seem clear what happened here yet, especially because they are reporting it was self-inflicted.”

There’s not supposed to be a round in the chamber of the weapon. But in 2009, Marine Cpl. Mathew Nelson was sentenced to eight years for killing a fellow Marine during a trust game.

In March 2009, Nelson played the game with two Marines, shooting and killing the second, Lance Cpl. Patrick Malone. That investigation uncovered several incidents of the game in that platoon, though Malone was the only fatality.

At least two other soldiers' deaths have been linked to trust games, according to Trista Talton, who covered the case for the Marine Corps Times. She cited the 1997 death of a lance corporal in Okinawa after other Marines dropped him from the third story of his barracks and the 2007 death of a soldier shot and killed by his best friend, a Kentucky National Guardsman.

Schoenfelder, of Huron, S.D., was a decorated infantry rifleman, having received the National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terror Service Medal.   

“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family and loved ones of Lance Corporal Schoenfelder, as we mourn the loss of one of our Marines,” read a statement from the Marines.

The case is being investigated by D.C. police and Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. as an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.



San Diego Teen Found Safe "Victim of a Horrific Crime"


The father of a San Diego teenage girl who was missing for nearly a week said the healing process will be slow for his daughter Hannah.

"No one should have to do this," said Brett Anderson, who just returned from Cascade, Idaho, where 16-year-old Hannah was being held against her will by 40-year-old arson and murder suspect James DiMaggio.

Anderson thanked multiple law enforcement agencies for the safe return of his daughter, and said that the widespread use of social media and media coverage played a part in finding his daughter.

"This did make a difference," he said Monday.

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore also spoke, saying that Hannah is a victim of a "horrific" crime.

"During our law enforcement interviews with Hannah, it became very clear to us that she is a victim in every sense of the word in this horrific crime," Gore said. "She was not a willing participant. She was in extreme duress from the time she was taken from Boulevard to the time she was rescued in Idaho."

Officials would not answer specific questions about the investigation, saying that they still had to interview people and check areas of the crime scene.

Officials said that DiMaggio burned his own home on Aug. 4 in Boulevard, Calif., killing Hannah’s mother and 8-year-old brother.

A widespread Amber Alert was set for Hannah and her brother Ethan while authorities searched for DiMaggio. It was later revealed that Ethan had died in the house fire, and DiMaggio was traveling with Hannah alone.

Timeline: Searching for Hannah Anderson

While the nationwide manhunt for DiMaggio was in place, Anderson publicly spoke and said, “Hannah, we all love you very much. If you have a chance, you take it. You run. You’ll be found.”

DiMaggio took Hannah to a rural part of Idaho, hid his car and spent multiple days in the woods camping with the teen before authorities fatally shot him

Anderson was able to reunite with his daughter in an Idaho hospital before taking her home to San Diego. 

Hillary Clinton Urges Vigilance on Voting Rights


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Washington to strive to protect voting rights in a speech Monday afternoon in San Francisco.

In remarks to the American Bar Association, which was honoring her, Clinton warned against the damage she said could be wrought by the Supreme Court's recent ruling on the landmark Voting Rights Act.

"Citizens will be disenfranchised, victimized by the law instead of served by it," Clinton said. "That historical progress for a more perfect union will go backwards instead of forwards."

The ruling struck down the formula for determining which counties and states must get pre-clearance from the federal government before changing their voting rules. "By invalidating pre-clearance, the Supreme Court has shifted the burden back onto citizens alleging discrimination," Clinton said.

The American Bar Association was presenting Clinton with its ABA medal, which is its highest honor. ABA President Laurel Bellows said the group wanted to recognize Clinton for her law career, as well as her work helping to advance the careers of other women lawyers.

Clinton served as the chair of the ABA’s Commission on Women from 1987 to 1991. In her half-hour speech to the group, she encouraged attendees “to stand up against dictatorship, corruption and oppressions.”

"We're at our best when we live our ideals, including our devotion to democracy," Clinton said, urging Congress to pass new legislation and the Justice Department to beef up its enforcement of other components of the Voting Rights Act.

Clinton also decried a new spate of state-level voting restrictions nationwide, enacted in the wake of what she called a "phantom epidemic of voter ID fraud," and warned that much of the damage wrought by the Supreme Court could play out at a very local level.

Clinton's speech came hours after Attorney General Eric Holder delivered remarks to the lawyers group calling for an overhaul to the criminal justice system, particularly an end to mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes.

Missing from Clinton’s speech was any mention of her decision on whether she intends to run for president in 2016, although she did drop a hint or two that she was testing the waters.
Clinton said during the next few months she planned to travel around the United States to deliver speeches on everything from national security to U.S. global responsibility.

"She’s been pretty good about saying that’s a long time away and let me focus on resting and being out of government for awhile," said Corey Cook, a political professor at the University of San Francisco. "At the same time she does seem like she’s laying the groundwork for something."

Bellows said Clinton has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in a long career that’s taken her from law to education to politics.
"If I said to you, name the top three women in the world who have contributed to the law, to human rights, to the betterment of society, Hillary would be right up there with those names," said Bellows, who is the fifth woman to lead the powerful organization.

Bellows said didn’t want to speculate on whether Clinton should run for president. But then she paused, and allowed for a crooked smile.  

"I’m a big fan of what she’s accomplished," Bellows said. "And I know she’s going places."

Photo Credit: AP

Scooter Operator Run Over by Truck


A 62-year-old Bridgeport man suffered serious injuries when he was run over by an tractor-trailer around 2 p.m. on Monday, according to police.

The victim, who was riding a scooter, was struck by a semi that was backing into MJ Metal Inc. in the area of Wordin Avenue and somehow ended up beneath the truck, according to Officer John Perry, a traffic unit investigator.

The victim was conscious and alert but suffered significant injuries to his pelvis and lower extremities and taken to Bridgeport Hospital, police said.

Bridgeport police are receiving assistance from Trumbull Police, who have an officer certified in truck inspections.

Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Netflix Closes Bloomfield DVD Distribution Center


Netflix has closed its Bloomfield DVD distribution center.

The company released a statement on Monday afternoon stating that this is “due mainly to United States Postal Service transportation and service changes, along with increased internal production efficiencies, resulting a small number of jobs lost.”

Five jobs are impacted, according to the company.

“ Netflix DVD members in the area will continue to enjoy the same uninterrupted one day service as they have in the past,” Netflix said in a statement.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Man With Autism Saves Grandma From Fire


A man with autism is being called an "angel" after leading his 82-year-old grandmother and a would-be rescuer out of a burning Orange County home to safety, according to fire officials.

The blaze was reported about 9 p.m. Sunday in the 31400 block of Paseo Campeon, according to Orange County Fire Authority spokesman Steve Concialdi.

Neighbor Tony Weeda, 53, spotted the fire while driving by and pulled over to pound on the door. When no one answered, he entered and woke up the grandmother, who was sleeping on a couch, Concialdi said.

The pair went upstairs to warn John Kurrasch, 20, when the power went out, leaving the trio in smoke and darkness.

"You couldn't see a thing," Weeda said. "The house had no lights and the whole house was up in smoke."

Weeda wasn't familiar enough with the home to navigate through the darkness. He grabbed onto Kurrasch's shirt and told him to lead them to safety. So he did - through the smoke and past flames.

After Kurrasch led them out, his grandmother referred to him as an "angel" for his heroic act. She told Weeda that they would have died if he hadn't shown up.

"When the chips are down with John, when somebody's sick, he just transforms into an angel," father Dave Kurrasch said of his son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

The fire, which was determined to be an accident, caused about $150,000 worth of damage and was possibly started by an appliance in the garage, Concialdi said. Firefighters put out the fire in 30 minutes.

Though most of blaze was limited to the home's attached garage, the house sustained heavy smoke damage and parts of it burned, Concialdi said. A car in the garage and another in the driveway were destroyed.

And, thanks to Weeda and John Kurrasch, no one was hurt.


More Southern California Stories:

Photo Credit: Vikki Vargas

MLK Memorial Fix Not Likely to Be Finished for Anniversary


Work to revise a section of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial -- where a disputed inscription was recently removed -- may not be finished until after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Executive architect Ed Jackson Jr. told the Associated Press on Monday that a disagreement arose over the past 10 days over how to sandblast and refinish the stone where an inscription was recently chiseled away.

The side of the memorial's "Stone of Hope'' has been left unfinished because the main contractor, Worcester Eisenbrandt Inc. of Baltimore, doesn't have insurance to complete the sandblasting with steel pellets, the way it was originally created, Jackson said.

There are color differences now where words were removed, and a slight yellow stain was left on the stone Friday when workers tried an alternate process using walnut shells to blast the stone.

"It looks unfinished,'' Jackson said. "The artist is furious about leaving his work unfinished.''

Sculptor Lei Yixin, who created the memorial, traveled from China to do the corrective work and plans to return home Aug. 20.

Lei told the AP that sandblasting was always a crucial piece of the project, and he did not know how it was left out of the National Park Service's contract.

"All we have done is kind of physical damage to the sculpture because we chiseled the inscription out,'' Lei said through his son, Ke Shi, who interpreted. "The sandblasting is a way to restore the damaged surface to make those damaged surfaces look uniform with the rest of it.''

National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said officials agree the work must be done, but it may have to be part of a new contract because of government rules.

The project may have to stop for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28 when commemorative events are expected to draw big crowds. Scaffolding would be taken down around the monument, and work would resume later, she said.

"We are committed to going forward in the way Master Lei wants to go forward,'' Johnson said. "It's just a question of what's the best way and the quickest way to get this done.''

It was not clear how the sandblasting process that was used to create the memorial more than two years ago was left out of the contract.

Jackson said part of the problem was there was never full agreement with the National Park Service on the process outlined by Lei. He said the foundation that built the memorial felt the park service was choosing the wrong contractor to remove the disputed inscription.

The Park Service said the project requirements were not clear.

"We certainly didn't know that this is what was going to be necessary until the process had already started,'' Johnson said. "Otherwise it would have been in the contract.''

The agency is still working to finish the project before Lei leaves for China, Johnson said. It is seeking approval to have the work done by the agency's Historic Preservation Training Center, "under the watchful eye of Master Lei,'' she said.

That could allow the project to be completed before the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream'' speech.

On Monday, the work site was quiet. Scaffolding wrapped by a white material covered both sides of King's statue, including the area where the inscription was removed.

The now-removed inscription was a paraphrase from King's "Drum Major'' speech. It read, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.''

Critics, including the poet Maya Angelou, argued the quotation was taken out of context when it was paraphrased and shortened. Angelou said it made King sound arrogant.

State St. Bridge Construction Delayed Again


When the plan to replace the State Street Bridge over Mill River in New Haven was announced, DOT expected to have it reopened no later than 2010, but that's when it ended up closing.

Then it was supposed to open back up in 2011, but now the hope is for mid-summer of next year.

The problem is crews keep hitting major delay after major delay, including a 42" water main having to be relocated to construction actually causing I-91 itself to move.

"So any settling, any movement of the highway is of course a reason for everything to stop," said New Haven Alderwoman Jessica Holmes.

Owner of Chestnut Fine Food, Fred Walker, has been at his State Street location for nearly ten years, and since the bridge closed he's lost about 25% of his walk-in customers.

"[Customers] who do not want to come down through some of the detours they have there. They're a little confusing. It's a little hard to get around," said Walker.

It's the same story at many businesses relying on access through the bridge to keep customers streaming in, and the project that doesn't seem to want to end is causing other headaches as well.

"There's increased vandalism, increased campers, increased drug use close to the rivers," said Holmes.

Holmes says she does believe DOT is doing everything it can to hurry the process along. She plans to host a community meeting in September or October and have DOT come and give an update.

Opponents Protest San Diego Mayor’s Return from Rehab


Opponents of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner say he’s not welcome back in San Diego, even if he has been to rehab.

Protesters gathered Monday afternoon at Civic Center Plaza downtown. They held signs with messages like “Get Out” and “Bye Bye Bob.”

Speakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties addressed the crowd, in between chants of “Bob Must Go.”

“We’re not turning against Bob Filner. Bob turned against us,” City Council candidate Dwayne Crenshaw said during his turn at the podium.

Filner’s former communications director has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Multiple other women have also come forward, reporting unwanted advances by the mayor.

Timeline: Mayor Under Fire

“He has turned his back on values like equality for women, basic human dignity,” said Ashley Harrington, secretary for the Democratic Party of San Diego County.

Filner’s lawyers confirmed that he completed a behavior therapy program over the weekend, one week earlier than anticipated. The protesters say rehab is not enough.

“We will do whatever it takes, within our legal measures, to remove Bob Filner from office,” Hillcrest Town Councilmember Dave McCulloch said.

However, Francis Barraza, Executive Director of the Republican Party of San Diego County, said a recall is a big challenge.

“It’s going to take probably up to a million dollars," Barraza said.

“The recall will be over if Bob Filner resigns,” she added. “If he resigns, what happens to all the money that was invested into it?"

So far, the mayor has refused to resign, saying due process will reveal the truth about the allegations.

Sandy Victim Lives in Backyard After Aid Expires


A Long Island man whose house was flooded out by Sandy 10 months ago is living in his backyard, on an air mattress among mosquitoes, now that his federal aid has expired.

Chuck Burgio's backyard in Lindenhurst, N.Y., is outfitted with a makeshift bed, gym equipment and a patio table. It's home for now, since his actual house is gutted -- there's no floor, just standing 2-by-4s and exposed piping. 

"I've been in the backyard right here, getting bit up by mosquitoes and gnats," he said. 

Sandy dumped 4 feet of water in the area and devastated much of the neighborhood. While Burgio's neighbors have rebuilt, he's been left in the cold.

"Where am I going to go? I have no money," he said. 

Up until a week ago, Burgio was living in local motels, but then federal aid ran out. So now Burgio says he's making the best of the situation, accepting food from charities, going to the bathroom at a nearby diner and letting neighbors lend a helping hand. 

John Warry, one neighbor, said he was worried for Burgio when it rained Monday morning.

"We tried to wake him, and we weren't sure if he was alive," he said. "He's not moving, we're getting worried. We can't have that." 

But things seem to looking up. NBC 4 New York was there Monday evening when a good Samaritan dropped by with a gift. 

"He just came here and put $500 in my hand and told me he's going to do this whole house for nothing," said Burgio. "I'm going to have a heart attack." 

One nonprofit on Monday offered to put him in another hotel until his home is rebuilt. 

NJ Teen Bitten by Shark While Fishing on Vacation


A New Jersey teenager is recovering after he was attacked by what he believes was a shark while he was fishing in Florida.

Christian Mercurio, a rising high school senior in Randolph, N.J., was fishing in waist-high water off the coast in Sanibel, Fla., a week ago when his legs and feet were suddenly seized underwater.

"It felt like my feet were crushed by cement," he told NBC 4 New York.

He began screaming for help, and his mother, thinking he was joking around, told him to stop. 

"My mom was like, 'Don't yell 'shark.' You will cause a panic,'" Mercurio said.

But his mother, Lisa Mercurio, flew into action when she realized what was happening to her son. 

"We sat him down, elevated his legs," said his mother, who is a registered nurse "Luckily, people started throwing us beach towels." 

Florida investigators think it was a 6- to 8-foot-long bull shark that went after Christian. The teeth missed major arteries, but they pierced his leg and left a wound on his foot. 

Christian thinks the shark became more aggressive as he tried to escape.

The Mercurios say they will go back in the water despite the ordeal, and all of them are grateful the run-in with the shark was a survivor story.

"It's still surreal," said Lisa Mercurio. "Definitely still shocked. He spent the week watching 'Shark Week.' I spent the week with nightmares." 


Man Shot at Southington Motel


A 25-year-old man was found with a gunshot wound to the groin or thigh at a Southington motel early Saturday morning and police are investigating.

A woman at the Econo Lodge, located at 1845 Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, called police at 12:46 a.m. to report that there was a shooting victim there.

Police responded, found the man and he was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital to be treated.

The victim is reported to be in stable condition, according to police.

Police said this is an active and ongoing investigation and appears to be an isolated incident.

Anyone with information should call the Southington Police Department Detective Division and speak with Detective Adam Tillotson at 860-378-1667.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Teenager Arrested After Fatal Crash


Glastonbury Police have arrested a teenage girl following a fatal car crash last month.

Jane Modlesky, 17, of Glastonbury, was killed when the SUV she was driving hit a tree on Woodhaven Road around 5 a.m on Sunday, July 14 and police had been searching for answers ever since.

Weeks later, the investigation has led police to another 17-year-old who police said threw a house party hours before the crash and served alcohol to minors.

Police said she threw the party when her parents weren’t home and authorities learned about it after Modlesky was killed.

“I saw it start and it woke me up when some cars left,” said Carol Uscinski, who lives on Paxton Way.

She said she heard the party across the street and then saw police there a few days later.

“Two policemen came and they were talking to the two young girls who live there. Then they went into the house,” Uscinski added.

Police have not said if Modlesky was at the party or drinking, but her friends told NBC Connecticut they were all together at the home hours before she died.

Those friends also said the car Modlesky crashed belonged to the owners of the home where the party was thrown.

NBC Connecticut reached out to the family of the teenager who has arrested but received no answer.

The 17-year-old was charged with permitting minors to possess alcohol and she will face a judge on August 20.


Police Investigate Homicide in Hartford


Hartford police detectives are investigating after male’s body was found in a yard on Linnmoore Street, a residential street in the capital city.

Police are calling the death a homicide.

Neighbors said they heard gunshots before the body was found. 

Check back for additional details.

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Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Women to Be Sentenced in "Gifting Table" Ponzi Scheme


Two Guilford women who ran a million-dollar pyramid scheme, called a gifting club, for three years will be sentenced today.

An 18-count federal indictment charged Donna Bello, 55, of Guilford and Jill Platt of Guilford with defrauding the IRS, filing false tax returns and committing wire fraud.

The women pleaded not guilty to the charges during their arraignments in U.S. District Court in Hartford and were found guilty of wire fraud and filing false tax returns in February.

Bello was the "ringleader and principal promoter" of the alleged pyramid scheme, according to prosecutors, and made at least $400,000 from the arrangement.

"She didn't profit whatsoever. She did it for philanthropic purposes, giving money back to people," Bello's attorney, Richard Marquette, said during one of the hearings.

When asked if she had anything to say about the charges as she left the courthouse, Bello said, "No, I don't. I'm sorry."

The indictment outlines exactly how the alleged scheme worked.

The pyramid had four levels: "Appetizers," "Soup and Salads," "Entrees" and "Dessert."

New members contributed a $5,000 "gift" to join at the "appetizer" level, older members moved up the pyramid, and the person at the top "dessert" level cashed in on the new member "gifts," according to court documents.  

From there, the pyramid split with lower level members moving up and recruitment starting again for eight new "appetizer" level members.

The women referred to their proceeds as "Green Beans" and sent emails to potential club members promising large tax-free financial gains, according to the indictment.

"They went to counsel to review the matter, to review the essence of what the government calls a Ponzi scheme, and legal counsel that they had told them it was legal," said Jonathan Einhorn, who is Platt's attorney.

Attorneys even participated in the club, according to Einhorn.

The indictment includes portions of numerous emails sent from the women to participants in the club.

In one email, Bello told a participant, "I believe within a year of your starting ... you will make $80,000 on your small investment."

Bello emailed another participant saying, "Keep it quiet because rather not have red flags raised."

When a participant complained to her, Bello replied in an email, "You chose to gift, your family chose to gift. You and your family r not victims. There were no promises made by me."

Bello explained to another participant in an email, "The tables are not illegal. All but a few gifts received have gone to charity. I do not have money to give to you. I'm sorry."

The women claim more than 70 people made it to the "dessert" level and that more than 20 of those women made it to the top more than six times, according to emails outlined in the indictment.

They also claimed in emails that more than $5 million has exchanged hands.

Photo Credit: NBC Connecticut

Group Says Bugs Attacked Them in Hotel Stay


As many as 60 people, members of a south side Chicago church drum and bugle corps, say they were bitten by bugs during a several nights stay at a Cincinnati-area hotel.

Eight members of Bishop Paul Hall's Christ Universal Church said they planned on visiting an emergency room on Monday night because the bites were so severe. An adult who went on the trip said some of the bites appeared to be from bed bugs. Others may have been fire ants.

"The trip was a horrible nightmare," said Hall. "We spent $4,000 to sleep in horror, and that's a lot of money to inner city, south side children who raised that money."

The attacks were so severe chaperones said they cut the trip short, leaving the Ramada Inn in nearby Florence, Ky., a day earlier than planned.

Making matters worse: the group said they received no refund or even an apology for the experience.

"We tried to meet with the owner. She was having nothing to do with us," said Hall. "She said she would meet us at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. She never showed up."

One of the biting victims, Latoya Lewis, said hotel management insinuated that the kids brought the bugs with them.

Corps officials said they plan to complain to city and state health departments and are considering filing a lawsuit as well.

The drum and bugle corps has previously performed at the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Couple Recounts Being Held Hostage During Hialeah Shooting Rampage


The husband and wife who survived last month's shooting rampage at a Hialeah, Fla., apartment building spoke for the first time following a memorial mass for the victims Monday night.

Zoeb and Sarrida Nek attended the mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where they said they're grateful to have survived the July 26 shooting just outside Miami that claimed the lives of six people and the gunman.

"Somebody helped me and I just thank God for this, that's I'm still alive, my wife is still alive," Zoeb Noek said.

Gunman Called 911 Hours Before Hialeah Shooting

Police say Pedro Vargas, 42, shot and killed six people and held the Neks hostage, and opened fire on police officers before he was killed by SWAT team members during a violent standoff at an apartment building in the 1400 block of West 46th Street.

Italo Pisciotti, 79, and Samira Pisciotti, 69, the husband and wife who managed the building where Vargas lived with his 83-year-old mother for the last 12 years, were killed, as were neighbor 17-year-old Priscilla Perez, her mother Merly Niebles and stepfather Patricio Simono, and Carlos Gavilanes, who was killed across the street.

Hialeah Shooter "Took His Motives to the Grave"

"We lost not only our neighbors, our friends, they were just like a family to us," Zoeb Nek said. "And it's their time, I don't think, I'm just lucky to be alive."

The couple, who are natives of Pakistan, have been married for 33 years and spent the past 27 living in the building, raising all of their children there.

They thanked the Hialeah SWAT team for saving them and said praying helped them get through their ordeal.

Gov. Scott Honors Hialeah Police for Shooting Response

"Prayers, it helped me during my time when I was held hostage, prayers has helped me after that, it's all prayers, it's all miracles, it's all God," Zoeb Nek said.

Sarrida Nek said she was scared but never asked Vargas to spare her life.

"I would never beg anybody except my God, I was praying to my God," she said. "I was at peace."

Photo Credit: NBC6.com
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