Archive For The “News” Category

Federal Investigators Probe Deadly Amtrak Derailment In Montana

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Federal Investigators Probe Deadly Amtrak Derailment In Montana

This aerial view taken Sunday, shows part of an Amtrak train that derailed in north-central Montana Saturday that killed multiple people and left others hospitalized, officials said. The westbound Empire Builder was en route to Seattle from Chicago, with two locomotives and 10 cars, when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday.



JOPLIN, Mont. — A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board was at the site of an Amtrak derailment in north-central Montana that killed three people and left seven hospitalized Sunday, officials said.

The westbound Empire Builder was en route from Chicago to Seattle when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200.

Trevor Fossen was first on the scene. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road nearing the tracks Saturday when he saw “a wall of dust” about 300 feet high.

“I started looking at that, wondering what it was and then I saw the train had tipped over and derailed,” said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get people out. He called his brother to bring ladders for people who couldn’t get down after exiting through the windows of cars resting on their sides.

The train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crew members and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.

A 14-member team including investigators and specialists in railroad signals would look into the cause of the derailment on a BNSF Railway main track that involved no other trains or equipment, said NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.

Law enforcement said the officials from the NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF had arrived at the accident scene just west of Joplin, where the tracks cut through vast, golden brown wheat fields that were recently harvested. Several large cranes were brought to the tracks that run roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 2, along with a truckload of gravel and new railroad ties.

Several rail cars could still be seen on their sides.

The accident scene is about 150 miles northeast of Helena and about 30 miles from the Canadian border.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn expressed condolences to those who lost loved ones and said the company is working with the NTSB, Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing their “sense of urgency” to determine what happened.

“The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak commits to taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar accident in the future,” Flynn said in the statement.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said BNSF was readying replacement track for when the NTSB gives the go-head. “BNSF has assured me they can get the line up and running in short order,” he said.

Railroad safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said accident scene photos show the derailment occurred at or near a switch, which is where the railway goes from a single track to a double track.

Clarke said the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the split and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was unclear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.

“Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,” Clarke said.

Another possibility was a defect in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing doesn’t always catch such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor because trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions.

Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected Thursday.

Because of the derailment, Sunday’s westbound Empire Builder from Chicago will terminate in St. Paul, Minn., and the eastbound train will originate in Minnesota.

Most of those on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but five who were more seriously hurt remained at the Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, Mont., said Sarah Robbin, Liberty County emergency services coordinator. Two were in the intensive care unit, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Another two people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Mont., spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.

Robbin said emergency crews struggled without success to cut open cars with special tools, “so they did have to manually carry out many of the passengers that could not walk.”

Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until relatives are notified.

In this photo provided by Kimberly Fossen, people work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Saturday in north-central Montana. Multiple people were injured when the train that runs between Seattle and Chicago derailed Saturday, the train agency said.

Kimberly Fossen/AP

Kimberly Fossen/AP

Robbin said nearby residents rushed to offer help when the derailment occurred.

“We are so fortunate to live where we do, where neighbors help neighbors,” she said.

“The locals have been so amazing and accommodating,” passenger Jacob Cordeiro said on Twitter. “They provided us with food, drinks, and wonderful hospitality. Nothing like it when the best comes together after a tragedy.”

Cordeiro, who is from Rhode Island, just graduated from college and was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate.

“I was in one of the front cars and we got badly jostled, thrown from one side of the train to the other,” he told MSNBC. He said the car left the tracks, but did not fall over.

“I’m a pretty big guy and it picked me up from my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into the other wall,” Cordeiro said.

Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school..”

A grocery store in Chester, about 5 miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track, equipment, or both.

Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said. He said NTSB findings could take months.

Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw railroad crash investigations for several years at the NTSB, said the agency won’t rule out human error or any other potential causes for now.

“There are still human performance issues examined by NTSB to be sure that people doing the work are qualified and rested and doing it properly,” Chipkevich said.

Chipkevich said track conditions have historically been a significant cause of train accidents and noted most of the track Amtrak uses is owned by freight railroads and must depend on those companies for safety maintenance.

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Early Results Show The German Election Is Too Close To Call

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Early Results Show The German Election Is Too Close To Call

German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives applause during the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) election event on Sunday in Berlin. Voters have gone to the polls nationwide in elections that herald the end of Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship.

Clemens Bilan/Pool/Getty Images

Clemens Bilan/Pool/Getty Images

BERLIN – Germany’s two largest parties have emerged from Sunday’s election in what amounts to a dead heat, according to preliminary results. The first projected results released by national broadcaster ARD put the country’s center-left Social Democrats at 24.9%, just two-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Merkel’s center-right party.

Another exit poll released by broadcaster ZDF showed a slightly wider gap between the top two parties, with the Social Democrats, the SPD, at 25.7% and the center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, at 24.6%. While the results are only preliminary, they underscore how difficult it will be for Germany’s top parties to form a coalition government. And whenever one is formed, it’s likely to be a three-party coalition, the first in recent memory.

However, hours after the polls closed, it was unclear what form that coalition would take or whether it would be led by Social Democrat chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, or by Armin Laschet, the candidate from Merkel’s CDU party.

“We, as the Christian Democratic Union, have received a clear mandate from our voters that a vote cast for the Union is a vote cast against a left government,” said Laschet to cheers from party members soon after the first results were released. “And this is why we will do all we can to form a German government led by the Christian Democratic Union.”

German SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz waves on stage at the Social Democratic Party (SPD) headquarters after the estimates were broadcast in Berlin on Sunday.

Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile at the Social Democratic Party headquarters, chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz spoke to hundreds of jubilant supporters. “Being pragmatic, being optimistic and joining ranks: This is what we will show in the time ahead, and this is what is important,” he said. “And I’m sure that the citizens of this country will be glad they voted the way they did when they voted for the Social Democrats. We will deliver on our promises. So let’s wait until the final election results, but then we will get down to business.”

The Social Democrats appeared to make big gains compared to the last German election in 2017, but they weren’t alone. The environmentalist Green Party also appeared to receive more votes than last time, but fell short of having its own shot at the chancellery. The CDU/CSU lost support, and is heading for the worst result since its formation in 1945.

Given the narrow margins, it’s possible tabulating the final election results in Sunday’s election will take longer than expected, as will the more difficult work of negotiating between the prevailing parties to form a new coalition government.

Sunday’s election was the first in Germany’s post-war history when an incumbent chancellor did not stand for reelection. Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to step down once the next government is formed, but after an election as close as this one, that could take many months.

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Exit Polls Show An Extremely Close Race In German Election To Succeed Angela Merkel

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Exit Polls Show An Extremely Close Race In German Election To Succeed Angela Merkel

People queue in front of a polling station in the Moabit district of Berlin, Germany. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.

Michael Probst/AP

Michael Probst/AP

Early exit polls from Germany show an extremely close race between the center-left Social Democratic Party and the center-right Christian Democratic Union, in an election that will decide the next chancellor of the country after 16 years of Angela Merkel in office.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its partner, the Christian Social Union, have 25% of the vote, placing them in a tie with the Social Democratic Party. Following behind is the Greens with 15%.

Further updates in the numbers are expected as the tallying continues Sunday in Germany.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time and closed at 6 p.m. There may be more delays than usual in counting ballots this year due to the pandemic and the number of voters who participated in mail-in voting, analysts say.

The latest polling leading up to election day showed the Social Democratic Party narrowly ahead of Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union partnership. The Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, were following behind, as was the Free Democratic Party, which is more libertarian.

Of the higher-polling parties, theleading contenders to succeed Merkel are the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz, the Christian Democrats’ Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.

Economic issues and concerns over how to handle climate change are some of the top concerns among voters in this election. It’s a tight race so far, which has some voters still torn over how to vote — even on election day.

“I’m very torn. I like Scholz because of his initiative on taxes for the international minimum tax level, but I’m not so sure how strong they’ll be on climate,” first-time-voter Vessela Hristova told NPR.

Scholz currently serves as the German finance minister and vice chancellor.

Even with the uncertainty surrounding this year’s election, some voters in Berlin — a more liberal leaning city compared to Merkel’s conservative leaning politics — say they will not miss Merkel in office.

“Maybe when we see what will be the result of this election, maybe we will miss her! I don’t know. She’s not my chancellor,” Katja Lucke told NPR.

In the German election system, parties may have to form coalitions to determine a majority. And in this year’s election, it could result in three parties forming a coalition, a rarity in German politics.

Rob Scmitz contributed reporting from Berlin.

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A Passenger Attempted To Rush The Cockpit In A Violent Incident On A JetBlue Flight

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A Passenger Attempted To Rush The Cockpit In A Violent Incident On A JetBlue Flight

A JetBlue aircraft sits on the tarmac. The company is one of many commercial airlines to experience unruly passenger incidents over the past year.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg via Getty Images

The FBI is investigating an incident aboard a JetBlue flight where witnesses say a passenger violently assaulted a flight attendant while attempting to enter the flight galley and cockpit.

According to an FBI affidavit obtained from The Daily Beast, the incident occurred Wednesday evening on Flight 261 en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Boston.

The passenger reportedly ran to the front of the plane about 45 minutes before touching down in San Juan and yelled for crew members to shoot him. Witnesses told the FBI that after becoming violent, multiple crew members restrained him.

Once the plane landed, the man was arrested for interference with flight crew members and attendants, which is considered a federal offense.

The altercation comes as commercial airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration continue working to lower the number of unruly passengers on planes — a number that drastically increased compared to last year, with fines totaling over $1 million.

According to the FBI’s affidavit, a flight attendant initially stopped the man from entering the galley by confining him to an area in front of the first row of seating on the plane.

Witnesses said that as the flight attendant worked to restrain him, the man became aware that a flight crew officer had opened the cockpit door and, in response, he began to kick and punch the flight attendant trying to hold him back. He also began choking the flight attendant by his tie.

The FBI report details that the flight attendant let go of the man to avoid asphyxiating but grabbed him again before he got to the galley.

The man was then restrained by six or seven crew members, using “makeshift restraints,” including the flight attendant’s tie, according to the FBI affidavit.

For the rest of the flight, he was moved to a back seat of the plane and handcuffed with flex cuffs and held by seat belt extenders.

As of Friday, the man remained in custody in Puerto Rico, FBI Public Affairs Officer Limary Cruz-Rubio told The Washington Post, adding that the FBI continues to investigate the situation and takes the incident “very seriously.”

Unruly passenger violations have steadily gone down compared to earlier this year, according to FAA data.

Each week in February and March, approximately 12 unruly passenger incidents were reported for every 10,000 flights. Since then, numbers have dropped and now rest at about six incidents per 10,000 flights.

Opposition to wearing face masks made up nearly 73% of all incidents over the year.

As part of the push to avoid further unruly passenger incidents, Delta Airlines released a memo on Thursday advocating for airline companies to release the names of individuals on their “no-fly” lists.

“A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline, ” the memo stated.

The company also said it passed over 600 names of those barred from their flights to the FAA, adding that their list stands at 1,600.

On the same day of Delta’s announcement, individuals representing airline and flight attendant advocacy organizations testified in front of the U.S. House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, urging lawmakers to assist in curbing incidents.

“Every level of threat requires vigilance and scrutiny,” Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, wrote in her written testimony.

“We cannot be lulled into a place of accepting these distractions as a new normal,” she added.

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Sam Is Now A Major Hurricane, But Isn’t Likely To Hit Land

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Sam Is Now A Major Hurricane, But Isn’t Likely To Hit Land
Hurricane Sam

National Hurricane Center

A storm brewing in the Atlantic is now a “major hurricane,” but forecasters say it currently poses little threat to land.

The National Hurricane Center said Saturday that Sam was bringing wind speeds higher than 110 miles per hour, the threshold for a storm to be dubbed a major hurricane.

It’s the fourth storm to receive such a designation this year, according to Andy Latto, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

With winds speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, Sam was a Category 3 hurricane and was expected to become a Category 4 (wind speeds between 130 and 156 miles per hour) by Sunday.

As of late Saturday morning, Hurricane Sam was located about 1,000 miles east-southeast of the Northern Leeward Islands and about 630 miles northeast of the French Guiana coast, moving west-northwest at 10 miles per hour.

No coastal warnings or watches are in effect — and while Hurricane Sam is currently delivering strong winds, it’s not likely to make landfall in the Caribbean or mainland United States.

“There’s an upward trough — a cold front — going through the southeastern United States already,” Latto told NPR. “The associated trough that helps drive that front will help turn this system to the north later on, sometime by the early to middle parts of next week.”

Latto said there is a slight chance the hurricane would hit Bermuda, but modeling currently shows it’s likely to miss the island.

He also noted that this is the time of the year when forecasters begin to shift their focus from the eastern Atlantic basin near Africa to the western part of the ocean.

“Even though something like Sam most likely won’t be reaching the United States, keep vigilant and keep and eye on things — because there is always a secondary peak that comes from the western part of the basin later on,” Latto said.

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11 People Are Indicted In A Fraternity Pledge’s Alcohol Poisoning Death

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11 People Are Indicted In A Fraternity Pledge’s Alcohol Poisoning Death

RICHMOND, Va. — Eight Virginia Commonwealth University students have been charged with hazing in a fraternity pledge’s death from alcohol poisoning after a party earlier this year, officials said Friday.

The eight men arrested Friday range in age from 19 to 22, police said. All are charged with unlawful hazing of a student and four are also charged with buying and giving alcohol to a minor. Seven were held without bond at the Richmond Justice Center. The eighth was arrested in Prince William County and released on bond. Three others who were indicted are expected to surrender in the coming days, police said.

The university confirmed that all eight were students and all but one were enrolled this semester. The student code of conduct allows for sanctions up to and including expulsion, the university said in a statement, but it can’t share potential disciplinary information, if any, about specific students.

The indictments come nearly seven months after 19-year-old Adam Oakes of Loudoun County died. The office of the chief medical examiner ruled that his death was caused by alcohol poisoning.

Oakes had received a bid to the Delta Chi fraternity and attended a party where he would receive his “big brother” the night before his death. Oakes was told to drink a large bottle of whiskey and later passed out on a couch at an off-campus residence, his family said. He was found dead the next morning.

Richmond police, campus police and the university launched investigations. The chapter was suspended by the university and the fraternity’s national headquarters and in June VCU expelled the fraternity.

VCU has banned alcohol at fraternity and sorority events

Last month, the university announced that it would ban alcohol at fraternity and sorority events, publish misconduct instances online and pause new member recruitment. On the same day, two investigations of university Greek life on campus were released, finding that there are concerns about hazing and binge drinking at the university and staff has struggled to address them.

“VCU continues to mourn the tragic death of Adam Oakes and is grateful to the Richmond Police Department for its investigation,” the university said in a statement. “VCU is dedicated to continuing its efforts, announced this summer, to promote a safe and welcoming fraternity and sorority life culture for all.”

Oakes’ family expressed their gratitude in a statement, news outlets reported.

“We are grateful for some measure of justice these charges and arrests may produce, as well as the protection from hazing they may give young, impressionable college students,” the statement read. “The past seven months have been agonizing for our family. This is the first time these young men have been held accountable for their historically toxic and destructive traditions, manipulation of the VCU disciplinary systems, and for Adam’s death.”

The fraternity’s national office said in a statement that it was aware that former members of the indefinitely suspended chapter had been arrested.

“The alleged actions of these individuals are an affront to the values of Delta Chi. Our policies are clear as it relates to the expected conduct of members including that no member shall engage in or condone acts of hazing,” the fraternity said. “No family should ever have to experience what the Oakes family has experienced.”

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A 6-Year-Old Girl Died After Ride Operators Reportedly Did Not Secure Her Seat Belts

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A 6-Year-Old Girl Died After Ride Operators Reportedly Did Not Secure Her Seat Belts

The Haunted Mine Drop is shown in this July 2017 file photo at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs, Colo. A recent investigation revealed a 6-year-old girl on vacation with her family died earlier this month after operators of the vertical drop ride did not properly check her seatbelts.

Chelsea Self/AP

Chelsea Self/AP

A 6-year-old Colorado girl fell to her death at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs earlier this month after ride operators failed to properly check her seatbelts, state officials said.

Wongel Estifanos of Colorado Springs, Colo., died from her injuries on Sept. 5 after investigators said she fell 110 feet from the Haunted Mine Drop ride.

Estifanos was visiting the amusement park during Labor Day weekend while on vacation with her family.

In a report from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, state investigators say the child was sitting on top of two seat belts previously buckled on the ride instead of wearing them properly them across her lap.

State investigators said an alarm system warned workers of the issue, but two of the workers, who had been hired within the past two months, weren’t properly trained to fix the issue.

One of the workers reset the system and began to dispatch the ride, investigators said.

“Safety is, and always has been, our top priority,” park officials told KDVR-TV.

Park officials told the local broadcaster they’re continuing to work closely with Colorado Department of Labor and Employment safety experts who are reviewing the incident.

The Haunted Mine Drop, which opened in July 2017, is referred to as the first drop ride to go underground, dropping riders 110 feet inside of Iron Mountain.

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Quad Countries Have 1st In-Person Summit At The White House

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Quad Countries Have 1st In-Person Summit At The White House

President Biden hosted the first face to face summit with leaders of Japan, Australia and India. The four countries are known as the Quad and see themselves as a democratic bulwark against China.


At the White House today, President Biden hosted the first face-to-face summit with leaders of a key group in Asia. The U.S., Japan, Australia and India grouping is known as the Quad and see themselves as a democratic bulwark against an increasingly assertive China. NPR’s Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting at tables facing each other in the East Room of the White House, President Biden described the Quad as a group of countries that share a worldview and have a common vision of the future.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are four major democracies with a long history of cooperation. We know how to get things done, and we are up to the challenge.

KELEMEN: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out that the group first came together to help in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Now, it is promoting a vaccine initiative that Modi says is serving the interests of humanity.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, said the summit demonstrates a, quote, “unwavering commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” That was echoed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.


SCOTT MORRISON: We are liberal democracies that believe in a world order that favors freedom.

KELEMEN: Before reporters were ushered out of the room, the word China didn’t come up. But concern about China is the main thing that unites this group now, says David Shullman, a former CIA analyst now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

DAVID SHULLMAN: The Biden administration and leaders in the other three countries have put a lot of work into getting the Quad to this point, this first in-person leaders summit. But China really gets the lion’s share of the credit for making this happen.

KELEMEN: He says China has become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

SHULLMAN: China’s doubled down on aggression along the border with India last summer. It has singled out Australia for economic punishment. That has backfired. So all of this has really ensured the staying power of the grouping.

KELEMEN: China has tried to paint the Quad as a NATO-allied (ph) group trying to start a new Cold War, says Carla Freeman of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

CARLA FREEMAN: That seems to be the subtext of a lot of China’s commentary. You know, at the same time, China is trying to downplay in a lot of its press the potential impact that the Quad can have on China. For example, today, the People’s Daily says the Quad is incapable of inflicting substantial harm to China.

KELEMEN: Still, China doesn’t like all the talk about a rules-based order. Freeman says China sees that as an attempt to preserve America’s primacy in world affairs.

FREEMAN: China does not want to have to adhere to rules that it sees as crafted by the United States to serve its own interests and so is trying to set up other opportunities, other ways of promoting its interests, through different multilateral groupings, different arrangements, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

KELEMEN: President Biden has insisted that he’s not seeking a new Cold War or a world with, as he puts it, rigid blocs. A former undersecretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, says she views the Quad as an attempt to avoid conflict.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: I see this as a type of deterrent and containment given the actions that have already taken place emanating from Beijing.

KELEMEN: The agreements announced today are more about soft power, focusing on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, emerging technologies and infrastructure. There are also new fellowships for students from Japan, Australia and India to come to the U.S. for STEM programs.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


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R. Kelly’s Federal Trial Is In The Hands Of The Jury

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R. Kelly’s Federal Trial Is In The Hands Of The Jury

A courtroom sketch of R. Kelly telling Judge Ann M. Donnelly he won’t take the stand in his own defense.

Elizabeth Williams/AP

Elizabeth Williams/AP

Editor’s note: This report includes allegations of sexual and physical abuse.

It’s been six weeks of hearing from alleged victims, former employees and expert witnesses. Now the jury decides what’s next for R. Kelly.

Kelly — whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly — faces charges in a New York federal court of sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping, forced labor, sexual trafficking across state lines and racketeering involving six victims. The racketeering charge positions him at the head of an enterprise that used his fame to lure people into becoming potential victims. Kelly, 54, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he faces a prison sentence of 10 years to life.

Kelly’s defense lawyer, Deveraux Cannick, painted the alleged victims as liars and opportunists in his closing argument Thursday, and said that the government allowed the witnesses to lie under oath. He called one woman in particular a “super-stalker” of Kelly and a “super-hustler.”

“A lot of people watched Surviving R. Kelly,” Cannick said, referring to the 2019 docuseries detailing sexual-abuse allegations against the artist, “and unfortunately, a lot of people are now surviving off R. Kelly.” He also argued that the government had failed to prove that Kelly led an organized criminal enterprise.

In the prosecution’s rebuttal to Cannick’s argument on Thursday afternoon, Assistant United States Attorney Nadia Shihata called the defense’s position “shameful,” saying: “It’s as if we took a time machine back to a courthouse in the 1950s. What they’re basically insinuating is that all of these women and girls were asking for it, and that they deserved what they got.”

Finishing her rebuttal on Friday morning, Shihata underscored the difference between Kelly’s celebrity and power, and the women who have accused him. “The defendant’s victims aren’t groupies or gold diggers. They’re human beings. They are daughters, sisters, some of them are now mothers,” she said. “And their lives matter.”

Shihata’s remark felt like an underscoring of the power differential between R. Kelly and the women, but also a reminder that the alleged victims are mostly Black women — and that this is the first high-profile #MeToo trial where the witnesses on the stand are largely Black women.

The vast majority of the trial was spent with the prosecution, who called 45 witnesses to the stand, including 11 alleged victims — six of whom testified that they were underage when they began having sexual encounters with Kelly.

Offering testimony that often echoed one another, the accusers described instances of Kelly attracting them with his fame, then abusing them sexually, physically and mentally, which they delineated in often graphic terms. Accusers also described Kelly directing them to have sex with him and with each other, and videotaping such encounters.

During her closing argument Wednesday and Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes walked thoroughly through each count against Kelly; her closing argument took about six and a half hours over two days, as she restated key points of evidence. Her arguments were punctuated with a large board displaying photos of Kelly and over 20 of his employees and his associates. It was reminiscent of the way government prosecutors have described mafia hierarchies to juries — but this time, it was with R. Kelly as the capo dei capi. (In 2012, 38 defendants in a Colombo crime family case that Geddes was prosecuting pleaded guilty.)

In her closing, Geddes also briefly described one of the graphic videos in evidence which the jury has seen, but not the media and public. She said that it showed Kelly grabbing one of his alleged victims by the hair and forcing her to give oral sex to another man.

“It is time to hold the defendant responsible for the pain that he inflicted on each of his victims: Aaliyah. Stephanie. Sonja. Jerhonda. Jane. And Faith,” Geddes said at the very end of her presentation on Thursday. “It is now time for the defendant to pay for his crimes. Convict him.”

By contrast, Cannick tended to appeal to the jury’s emotions in his closing argument Thursday. By turns, he invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (saying that if the jurors acquit Kelly, they would be displaying the same sort of moral courage as King), Hugh Hefner (R. Kelly’s life was similarly that of a “sex symbol, a playboy,” said Cannick) and former vice president Mike Pence (who reportedly refers to his wife as “Mother,” while R. Kelly asks his girlfriends to call him “Daddy”). He also dismissed Kelly’s marriage to the singer Aaliyah, when she was just 15 years old and he was 27, as “fluff.”

One woman, who went by “Jane” during the trial, testified that she met Kelly when she was a 17-year-old aspiring singer. She said that when she went to audition for him at a hotel in Florida, he immediately pressed her for sex. In a text message submitted as evidence by the prosecution, Kelly allegedly wrote to her: “I want to groom you and be bonded with you one hundred percent.”

A man who went by the name “Louis” on the stand told the court that Kelly began sexually assaulting him when he was a 17-year-old high school student and aspiring musician.

Kelly’s defense attorneys had brought forward only five witnesses to testify over the course of three days, beginning on Monday. Kelly did not take the stand himself, nor did any of his current or former romantic partners. Instead, the defense presented a series of men who all had worked with or for Kelly in some capacity.

Larry Hood was the defense’s first witness on Monday. A childhood friend and former Chicago police officer, he worked security for Kelly, and also recruited other CPD officers to work on the side for the star. (In his 2019 book, Soulless, journalist Jim DeRogatis writes: “I’d long heard some police officers in Chicago and Olympia Fields [a Chicago suburb where Kelly lived] worked security for Kelly, and department rules didn’t stop them from doing it or require them to tell anyone about it.”)

Hood testified that he’d never seen any underage girls with the singer. But he then went on to say that he was with Kelly when the artist first met Aaliyah, with her family at their home in Detroit, and that he saw Aaliyah and her “little friends” at Kelly’s studio. (Earlier in the trial, Kelly’s former manager, Demetrius Smith, testified to having helped organize the marriage between Kelly and Aaliyah, when the late pop star was just 15 years old; Smith bribed a public assistance office in Chicago to make a fake ID for Aaliyah.)

Hood also admitted during cross-examination that he had left the police force in 2007, in good standing and with a pension, when he was convicted of a felony forgery for passing fake $100 bills. He said on the stand during this trial that he hadn’t been aware that they were fake.

“So you weren’t telling the truth when you were in court under oath when you pled guilty?” a prosecutor asked him. “Yes,” Hood answered. “And you’re in court under oath today,” the prosecutor added. Again, Hood replied, “Yes.”

On Tuesday, the defense called to the stand John Holder, Kelly’s former accountant. Holder testified that Kelly insisted on getting paid for his concerts in cash, and then using that cash to take his girlfriends shopping. He said he was hired after the IRS audited Kelly and found that he owed the government $12 million, a sum Holder reduced to $3 million. During cross-examination, prosecutors asked Holder to explain an org chart he’d made for Kelly’s business, RSK Enterprises.

Instead of an org chart’s usual lines and boxes, however, this chart depicted a red cartoon octopus. In retrospect, the octopus was an unfortunate metaphor for a company now accused of being a “criminal enterprise” whose focus was luring girls, boys and women into sexual abuse.

An org chart for R. Kelly’s company, RSK Enterprises, made by his former accountant.

courtesy of the Eastern District of New York

courtesy of the Eastern District of New York

Multiple witnesses, including former employees, testified for the prosecution that Kelly forced them into writing false letters as collateral, which they say Kelly believed would absolve him of any crimes. Employees and accusers also described the multitude of “rules” they say Kelly forced women in particular to follow, from needing to seek permission to order food to prohibiting his girlfriends to speak to other men, even during public activities such as going clothing shopping.

“He used lies, manipulation, threats, and physical abuse to dominate his victims. He used his money and public persona to hide his crimes in plain sight,” Geddes said during the prosecution’s closing arguments. She also pointed out that it’s normal for an artist to have an inner circle promoting their music and brand. “But his inner circle also served as enablers of his criminal conduct.”

Geddes also sought to point out that Kelly’s crimes were frequent and took place over decades. His abuse and subsequent marriage to Aaliyah, she said as an example, was not a single act. “After the defendant had access to Aaliyah and he surrounded her with teens that he had already been abusing,” Geddes noted, “the defendant sexually abused Aaliyah too.”

After this trial in New York ends, Kelly will head to a separate federal trial in Illinois, where he faces child pornography and obstruction charges. He also faces outstanding criminal charges in both Cook County, Ill., where he was indicted by the state attorney in Feb. 2019 on aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges involving four victims (three of them minors), and in Minnesota, where Mr. Kelly was charged in Aug. 2019 with engaging in prostitution with a minor.

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Japan’s Outspoken, U.S.-Educated Vaccine Minister Wants To Be The Next Prime Minister

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Japan’s Outspoken, U.S.-Educated Vaccine Minister Wants To Be The Next Prime Minister

Taro Kono, a candidate of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and currently the minister in charge of vaccinations, delivers a speech in Tokyo on Sept. 17.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AP

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AP

SEOUL — The race to become Japan’s next leader looks like a tossup. In the nearly half-century that Tokyo-based journalist Hiroshi Izumi has been covering party politics and elections, “This is the first time that we cannot predict the result until the ballot box will be opened,” he says.

The ballot box he’s talking about is for choosing the country’s next prime minister next week. The Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for all but two short periods since its inception in 1955, and is holding its leadership election on Sept. 29. Whoever emerges as its leader will effectively become the next prime minister. General elections will follow in November.

The LDP is essentially a coalition of factions advocating a range of policies. These factions are headed by senior men, mostly in their 70s and 80s, who generally do not look kindly upon rebels who challenge the status quo.

But one of the party’s strongest candidates has a reputation as an outspoken reformer and political maverick. In fact, if the winner could be judged just from opinion polls and media attention, Taro Kono would be the odds-on favorite. Kono, 58, is an English-speaking, eight-term LDP lawmaker and currently serves as the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine rollout, which he has sped up.

But his party may not be inclined to make a prime minister of him.

“The party will not give mavericks positions of power unless, frankly, they’re scared witless,” observes Ellis Krauss, a Japan expert at the University of California, San Diego. And the LDP has good reason to be nervous, he adds, with the party at risk of losing seats in November’s general election.

The prospect of defeat for LDP lawmakers forced the effective resignation of outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, announced earlier this month, after less than a year in office. Suga became a political liability to his party. He is an unpopular leader, blamed for bungling the government’s response to COVID-19 — he tried to promote domestic tourism and pushed through the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic despite widespread opposition — and for being a tone-deaf and wooden communicator.

A growing number of scandals and gaffes by LDP leaders have drawn criticism that the party is led by a gerontocracy that acts with virtual impunity, thanks to its decades-long political dominance.

“The young generation of Japan is really turned off, and Suga did nothing to stop that trend,” says Krauss. “And they need something to inspire them, even a little.”

Kono has been an outspoken critic of government policies

Among the four men and women vying to succeed Suga, Kono is seen by many as the candidate with the strongest reformist credentials. He is also one of Japan’s most popular politicians on Twitter, with a total of more than 2.4 followers on his Japanese and English accounts.

Kono has been a strong advocate for the U.S.-Japan alliance and a critic of what he sees as China’s “revisionism.”

“He would, I think, get along great with the U.S.,” says Krauss.

One thing Kono is not, though, is an upstart. He comes from a family of prominent politicians.

“Both his grandfather and his father missed being prime minister by one step,” notes Hiroshi Izumi. “Becoming prime minister is a wish cherished by three generations of the Kono family.”

Kono graduated from Georgetown University in 1986 and worked for U.S. Senators Alan Cranston of California and Richard Shelby of Alabama.

In his own career as a lawmaker, Kono became known for his liberal views on social policy and his blunt criticism of government policy.

Interviewed by NPR in 2009 about Japan’s practice of allowing foreigners to work in factories under the pretense that they are ethnic Japanese, and therefore different from other foreign workers, “It’s, uh, bull****,” he scoffed. Japanese law prohibits foreigners from taking unskilled jobs in Japan, but descendants of Japanese immigrants to South America are granted an exception. “We just wanted the cheap labor,” Kono said, “but we don’t want to open our market to the foreign countries.”

Following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, Kono took aim at Japan’s powerful nuclear power lobby.

“We’ve been depending on the nuclear energy so much,” he lamented. “It’s not the policy choice. It’s because of those bureaucrats and the power company and the politician got some vested interest in promoting nuclear.”

From 2012 to last year, when Kono held a series of cabinet positions including foreign minister and defense minister under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Kono toned down his rhetoric and softened his stance on some issues, Krauss says. For example, Kono now says that Japanese nuclear power plants that shut down after the Fukushima meltdown can be restarted so that Japan can go carbon-neutral by 2050.

“He really is a maverick, and he has been one his whole career,” Krauss says. “But he’s a maverick who’s willing to compromise, in order to achieve what he wants.”

In the current campaign season, Kono has backpedaled on previous comments that he is open to allowing women to becoming emperor, an idea that’s anathema to many conservatives in his party. He is still in favor of same-sex marriage and allowing married couples to use separate surnames, neither of which Japanese law permits.

Internal squabbles may derail Kono’s ascent

While these views may prove popular with the public, Kono faces a reformer’s dilemma: he must seek the backing of the very power brokers whom the reforms could threaten.

So far, Izumi says, Kono has not even got the backing of his own faction boss, Taro Aso, a former prime minister and current deputy prime minister who has not shown a clear preference for any one candidate.

What concerns the party leaders is the possibility that Kono will try to dismantle their vested economic interests, Izumi says.

As a lawmaker, Kono has railed against the cozy relationships between Japanese politicians and business lobbies, and between media and advertisers.

“More than 40% of LDP members join the party as members of industry associations,” Izumi explains. “They represent interest groups. And the scariest thing for them is Mr. Kono doing whatever he wants.”

During the campaign, Kono has also advocated sweeping reforms of Japan’s social security system, guaranteeing minimum pension income to poor seniors who cannot afford to pay insurance premiums. This stands in contrast with Suga’s insistence that Japanese practice “self-reliance” instead of relying on public support.

If Kono becomes prime minister and then tries to break up vested interests, party members could rebel against him, Izumi warns. In that case, Kono could find himself the latest in a series of “revolving door” leaders, who — like his predecessor — are forced to quit after one term.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

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