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|December 18-24, 2008
Arson on Palin’s church
WASILLA, Alaska — Whoever torched Gov. Sarah Palin’s home church tried to start fires in several places around the building, the federal agency assisting in the investigation said.
Accelerants were found in multiple locations on the outside of Wasilla Bible Church, including around entrances and exits, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Nick Starcevic, an ATF spokesman in Seattle, said it was not yet clear what type of accelerant was used. Samples have been taken to the Alaska state crime lab in Anchorage for testing.
The blaze caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the 2-1⁄2-year-old building and displaced one of the largest congregations in the Valley. Five church members were inside when the blaze started, but they were able to get out safely after the fire alarm sounded.
The church conducts Sunday services attracting up to 1,000 people. Church members include many well-known Valley residents, including Palin, state Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, and state Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer.
Palin’s ties to the church have sparked widespread speculation about whether the person who lit the fire was motivated by that connection. However, Central Mat-Su Fire Department Chief James Steele said that idea remains in the realm of pure speculation.
“At this point, there is no information that we have that even points in that direction,” he said.
Guantanamo detainee seeks closure
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — A Saudi captive accused of plotting an ill-fated al-Qaida terror attack waved a picture of Barack Obama at the war court and urged the president-elect to make good on his promise to close the prison camps here.
Ahmad al-Darbi, 33, delivered the message in a near whisper, displaying little of the showmanship of other defendants.
But the timing was significant: His was the last military commission hearing before the eve of Obama’s inauguration. The court closed for the holidays and doesn’t have a new hearing scheduled until Jan. 19.
“I hope this location will be closed as he promised,” said al-Darbi, waving a copy of an American Civil Liberties Union poster with a pensive Obama and his campaign’s closure pledge on it. “He will earn back the legitimacy the United States has lost as a world leader.”
Al-Darbi, the brother-in-law of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, is accused of plotting a never-realized attack on an unnamed ship in the Strait of Hormuz. He also allegedly met with Osama bin Laden and trained at an al-Qaida camp. Conviction as an al-Qaida conspirator could bring life imprisonment.
Obama has said he prefers classic criminal trials to the new, post-Sept. 11 proceedings. The question now is if, and when, he would suspend commissions.
“This court is aware that on Jan. 20 there will be a new commander-in-chief, which may or may not impact these proceedings,” said the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, warning everyone to stay focused “unless and until a competent authority tells us not to.”
Experts try to verify identity of bones
ORLANDO, Fla. — For five days, federal and Orange County authorities have toiled away in the woods where a child’s skull was discovered in a plastic bag.
Investigators hauled out boxes of brush and dirt. Crime scene technicians combed through debris on their hands and knees. Others shook soil through sifters, searching for any tiny particle that might help determine whether the remains are of missing Caylee Marie Anthony.
Five long days — and yet the work has just begun.
Sheriff’s officials said that the lot, a quarter-mile from the home of the child’s grandparents, could remain a crime scene several more days as the evidence crews and various experts, including an anthropologist, entomologist and botanist, search methodically for more clues.
After that will come weeks of careful laboratory work designed to make sense of what investigators have found. Already, pieces of the remains have been sent to the FBI lab in Virginia. More will follow.
Forensic experts say the process of identifying a decomposed body — especially a child — is not easy, and finding out how that child died can be an even a greater challenge. DNA typing, bone inspections, toxicology tests and trace-evidence analysis are just some of the work to be done in the coming days.
Investigators want to confirm whether the bones belong to Caylee, who disappeared in June. Caylee’s mother, Casey Anthony, 22, insists her daughter was kidnapped by a baby sitter, but a grand jury has charged her with killing her 2-year-old daughter.
A call for a federal hate-crime law
NEW YORK — Following the region’s second brutal immigrant killing in six weeks, Rep. Steve Israel and a dozen Hispanic leaders called for the passage of a federal hate crime law that would allow the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and prosecute such crimes.
“We have learned the tragic lesson of history that words matter and indifference matters even more,” said Israel, who was joined by Assemblyman Philip Ramos and Suffolk Legislator Ricardo Montano, both Democrats.
A federal hate-crime law, Israel added, would “make sure the federal government does not show indifference when anyone is discriminated against, when anyone is assaulted.”
Israel also raised the possibility of funding either a state or regional hate-crime hotline, similar to a phone number set up to report domestic violence.
The Democrat held the news conference outside Adelante headquarters in Central Islip, N.Y., after a conference call with local Hispanic leaders following the killing in Brooklyn of a second Ecuadorean immigrant, Jose Sucuzhanay. He was beaten to death Dec. 7 with a bat and a bottle by men shouting anti-Hispanic and anti-gay slurs. Earlier, Marcelo Lucero died after he was beaten and stabbed on Nov. 8 in Patchogue by seven teens.
“It is sad it has taken the death of two innocent victims to bring this issue to the forefront,” said Montano, urging local groups to network with others around the country to push for passage.
Ramos said the federal proposal goes beyond discussion and “cosmetic initiatives” that so far have “only put a Band-Aid” on the problem.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act was approved in the House in May 2007, but stalled in the Senate after President George W. Bush threatened a veto.
New female condom on its way
CHICAGO — A new, cheaper version of the female condom has won approval from an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration, setting the stage for broader distribution of the product worldwide.
If the FDA heeds the panel’s recommendation, as expected, this altered contraceptive option — designed primarily for women who want to avoid sexually transmitted infections — could become available in the United States by mid-2009. The panel approved the new version.
Costs will run about 30 percent below the existing version, making female condoms more affordable to individuals and public health organizations, said Mary Ann Leeper, senior strategic adviser to the Female Health Co., the Chicago firm that manufactures the product.
The second-generation female condom will be made of a cheaper synthetic rubber product instead of polyurethane, the material currently used.
The FDA approved the original product, known as FC1 (female condom 1), in May 1993. Research shows it has a 5 percent failure rate in the United States, compared with a 3 percent failure rate for male condoms. For the year that ended Sept. 30, 35 million FC1 condoms were sold worldwide, 90 percent in developing countries.
The hope is that the second-generation product, known as FC2 (female condom 2), will expand the market, leading to sales of up to 200 million female condoms a year, Leeper said.
Some 170 women’s health, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS groups urged the FDA panel to endorse FC2 in a letter last week, writing: “The feminization of HIV and AIDS requires a woman-centered response and access to a range of safe, effective and affordable prevention methods for women — including female condoms.” Half of the 33.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS are women.
The 17-member FDA advisory panel unanimously called for the agency to approve FC2.
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