US Cities Stagger Under Cost of Clearing Record Snowfalls

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(NEW YORK) -- From Nevada to New York, already-wobbly city budgets are being hit by the heavy cost of shoveling out from under record snowfalls.

A mid-December storm dropped 17.1 inches on St. Paul, Minnesota -- the most in almost 20 years.  The city spread 4,000 tons of salt on 800 miles of streets, added staff and paid overtime.  As a result, the city's public works budget has been snowed under by $1 million more than had budgeted for snow removal.

The figure, says Deputy Mayor Margaret Kelly, likely will rise to $1.3 million.  To pay it, she said, the city will have to dip into a fund used to patch potholes, maintain alleys and cut city grass.  The prospect that the fund could be depleted, she says, makes the rest of winter "challenging."

Things are worse in Minneapolis, which has exceeded its snow budget by $3 million.  It, too, plans to dip into reserve funds to pay the cost.

In Missouri, tight budgets mean snow plow crews are being told to make roads "passable," not necessarily clear.

New York City, hit hard by a late December blizzard, is still recovering and paying.  A spokesman for the mayor's office says that while not all costs have yet been tallied, the final snow bill should come in at around $38 million.  Given that the city's budget gap next year is forecast to be $2.4 billion, those millions will be missed.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


'It Was a Miracle to Witness': Senator Gillibrand Describes Giffords Opening Her Eyes

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., opened her eyes in the hospital room Wednesday for the first time since Saturday’s shooting, a trio of Congressional Democrats were in the room with her, a Congressional source said.

The three lawmakers who witnessed the moment were House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

 “We had been telling her that she was inspiring the country with her courage and that we couldn't wait to take her out to pizza and a weekend away,” Gillibrand said later, through a spokeswoman. “Then after she heard our voices and the encouragement of Mark and her parents, she struggled briefly and opened her eyes for the very first time. It was a miracle to witness."

 In his speech at Wednesday nights memorial service at the University of Arizona, President Obama told the crowd, “Gabby opened her eyes,” drawing loud cheers from the 14,000-strong audience.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Border Patrol Agent Accused of Hiding Illegal Immigrants, Drugs in Basement

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(SAN DIEGO, Calif.) – A border patrol agent has been arrested after a search of his home uncovered an underground room allegedly used to hide illegal immigrants and drugs, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Marcos Gerardo Manzano, 26,  has been charged with harboring illegal immigrants, one of whom was his father, Marcos Gerardo Manzano Sr., a twice-deported illegal immigrant with a criminal record.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath said during the raid the FBI discovered an illegal immigrant hiding in the room along with 61 grams of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


President Obama Seeks to Comfort Americans after Tragedy in Arizona

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- President Obama on Wednesday evening honored the six people killed and at least 13 injured in a mass shooting Saturday with a call for overcoming differences -- both political and personal.

"I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow," President Obama told the "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" memorial service at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center.

Among the injured when a gunman opened fire at a "Congress on Your Corner" event for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., outside a Tucson supermarket Saturday morning was Giffords herself. The congresswoman was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head and has been in critical condition ever since.

Obama revealed during his speech that, after he visited with her Wednesday, Giffords opened her eyes for the first time.

"Gabby opened her eyes, so I can tell you: She knows we are here, she knows we love her and she knows we are rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey," Obama told the cheering crowd.

The president and first lady were greeted by a standing ovation as they walked into the packed stadium. As he listened to the ceremony before speaking, the president was visibly emotional. Gifford's husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, sat in between the first lady and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

The president focused on the victims and encouraged Americans to live up to the expectations of Christina Taylor Green.

"Imagine: Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future," the president said. "She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted."

One by one, Obama honored each of the six people killed, who, he said, "represented what is best in America." They were Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Christina Taylor Green and Gabe Zimmerman, the only of Giffords' staff to perish in the shooting.

The president also praised "those who saved others" -- the nurses, doctors, policemen, staffers and bystanders who put themselves in harm's way to try and stop the shooter.

The president ended his speech where he began, honoring a victim:

Christina Taylor Green, he said was, "so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."

The speech itself, just under 20 minutes, was a part of a broader, hour-long program called "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." The somber event included music, moments of silence, prayers and other speeches.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Obama Visits Giffords and Other Victims in the Hospital

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(TUCSON, Arizona) -- After touching down in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday afternoon, President Obama went straight to the University Medical Center to see Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, R-Ariz., and several other victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the hospital.

"The president wanted to begin this solemn trip by stopping first at the hospital where Congresswoman Giffords and others continue to recuperate,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement about the 45-minute visit led by Dr. Peter Rhee.

With first lady Michelle Obama, President Obama visited Giffords and her husband in the intensive care unit on the second floor of the medical center, staying for nine minutes.

On Tuesday, Giffords’ doctors told reporters that she was capable of breathing in her own, although they were keeping her on a respirator to avoid infection.

Her neurosurgeon said she has “no right to look this good” based on the severity of the injury from being shot in the head at close range, but cautioned that her recovery will be slow and, possibly, without much progress on a day-to-day basis.

The Obamas also met with four other victims of Saturday’s attack -- including Giffords' staffers Rob Barber and Pam Simon.

Afterward, at the McHale Memorial Center, the president and first lady met with the families of those who lost their lives in the shooting to extend condolences in person. With them were Attorney General Eric Holder and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Barrasso, R-Wy.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Jared Loughner Stopped for Traffic Violation Hours Before Shooting 

Photo Courtesy - Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- Accused Tucson gunman Jared Loughner ran a red light and was stopped by police last Saturday, just hours before he allegedly opened fire in a grocery store parking lot where six people died and 14 were wounded.

When the officer determined that there were no outstanding warrants for Loughner, he was allowed to proceed to his destination with a warning to drive carefully.

Loughner was stopped at approximately 7:30 a.m. on Saturday by an Arizona Game and Fish Department officer, according to a statement released by the department.

"They do not routinely make traffic stops, except when public safety is at risk, such as running a red light," read the statement. "The officer took Mr. Loughner's driver's license and vehicle registration information and ran it through dispatch. The check came back with no wants nor any outstanding warrants on either the subject or his vehicle."

Later that morning, at 10:11 a.m., Loughner allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and sprayed the crowd around her with rounds from a 9mm Glock handgun.

Also that morning, Loughner's father saw him take a black bag out of a car trunk. When the father approached him, his mumbling son took off running and the father chased him in his car, investigators said. Police haven't said what was in the bag, but they continue to search for it.

News of Loughner's behavior on the morning of the shooting spree comes as investigators tell ABC News they are reviewing any past contacts police may have had with the suspect to determine whether the massacre could have been prevented.

Immediately after the assault on Giffords and 19 others who attended her sidewalk meeting, Dupnik said that Loughner had never been on his department's radar.

He did say, however, "There have been law enforcement contacts with individuals where he made kill."

Public records indicate that Loughner was booked by police once in 2007 for possession of drug paraphernalia and was cited in 2008 for graffiti, according to public records and media reports.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Peace Corps Gang Rape: Volunteer Says U.S. Agency Ignored Warnings

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images/Peace Corps[dot]gov(WASHINGTON) -- More than 1,000 young American women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries, an ABC News 20/20 investigation has found.

In some cases, victims say, the Peace Corps has ignored safety concerns and later tried to blame the women who were raped for bringing on the attacks.

"I have two daughters now and I would never ever let them join the Peace Corps," said Adrianna Ault Nolan of New York, who was raped while serving in Haiti.

She is one of six rape and sexual assault victims who agreed to tell their stories, in hopes the Peace Corps will do a better job of volunteer training and victim counseling.

In the most brutal attack, Jess Smochek, 29, of Pennsylvania was gang raped in Bangladesh in 2004 by a group of young men after she says Peace Corps officials in the country ignored her pleas to re-locate her.

"They all took turns raping me," she told ABC News. "They raped me with their bodies,. They raped me with foreign objects."

Smochek says the group began to stalk her and tried to kiss her and touch her from the very first day she arrived at the city where she was assigned.

"Every day we felt unsafe. And we reported everything, we just kept reporting," she said in an interview with five other former volunteers who also were rape or sexual assault victims.

She says the gang rape took place just hours after a Peace Corps safety official filed a report with the local police but again ignored her pleas for re-assignment.

She says the young men knew she had complained to the police.

"They slammed me against the wall and just started threatening me, they're calling me a filthy American whore," she said. "'We told you to stop going to the police. And now we have to kill you,'" she said.

"I was in so much pain that I just told them, 'Just kill me. Please. Just do it.'" Smochek was left unconscious in a back alley.

She says the Peace Corps immediately began to cover up what happened to her, fearful, she says, of offending officials in Bangladesh.

"When the decision was made that I was to go to Washington, D.C., I was told to tell volunteers that I was having my wisdom teeth out," Smochek says.

Peace Corps deputy director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said she was unaware of the gang rape of Jess Smochek because she was only recently appointed.

She denied the Peace Corps has attempted to cover up or keep quiet the large number of rapes and sexual assaults.

"This is the first I've heard of any report of that nature," she said.

The country director for the Peace Corps in Bangladesh at the time, Silas Kenala, told ABC News that because he no longer is a Peace Corp employee he cannot speak about the case. "All I can tell you is that I did what was required to be done according to Peace Corps procedures," Kenala told ABC News.

The Peace Corps pulled all of its volunteers out of Bangladesh in 2006, citing possible "terrorism" issues.

Between 2000 and 2009, Peace Corps figures show there were 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks and 719 other sexual assaults—defined as unwanted or forced kissing, fondling or groping.

According to the figures, there is a yearly average of 22 rapes. There were 15 in the year for which the figures are most recently available, 2009

Peace Corps officials say the number of rapes has gradually declined over the decade.

But some victims say the Peace Corps has continued to treat them in an insensitive way.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Arizona Lawmakers Stop Westboro Protestors

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- Arizona lawmakers successfully curbed members of the Westboro Baptist church from picketing the funeral of the Tucson massacre's youngest victim, Christina-Taylor Green.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new law that requires protesters to remain 300 feet from a funeral site. The law, which took effect immediately after it was signed, took only 90 minutes to pass in Arizona's legislature. Triggered by Westboro's plans to picket the funeral of nine-year-old Christina-Taylor on Thursday, the law passed by a unanimous vote.

The law assures that "the victims of Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson will be laid to rest in peace with the full dignity and respect that they deserve," Brewer said in a statement. She praised lawmakers for "a remarkable spirit of unity and togetherness."

Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., is the offshoot group of fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps. It frequently pickets soldiers' funerals, political rallies and gay rights gatherings. Church members have long said they're exercising their First Amendment rights.

The group still plans to picket Friday's funeral of U.S. District Judge John Roll, and at the intersection where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot. Six people died when a gunman attempting to assassinate Giffords went on a shooting rampage at political gathering outside a Tucson grocery store.

Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema drafted the legislation that requires the Westboro protestors to stay 300 feet away from a funeral from an hour before it starts until an hour after it ends, ABC Affiliate KNXV reported Tuesday. "I'm a strong advocate of the First Amendment, and the bottom line is this, Fred Phelps and his group of people can still spew their hate if they want. They just don't get to do it close to the families that are grieving. They have to be farther away," Sinema told KNXV.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Homelessness Increases Due to Recession

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The National Alliance to End Homelessness released a report Wednesday that showed the number of homeless families in the United States went up four percent during the recession in 2008 and 2009. 

Among those speaking at the Alliance presentation at the National Press Club was Ebony Roscoe, a one-time homeless single mother of four who recently found a job and got an apartment with the help of the Community of Hope in Washington, D.C.  "Staying and feeling stable within a school was difficult. It was hard enough moving from place to place and not knowing where we were actually going to be staying. So making and keeping stable friends made them feel sad at times," said Roscoe.

 Roscoe said even with her job she still relies on assistance which has dwindled due to the recession. "During the time of unemployment and even while employed now i make ends meet with assistance that i receive.  Benefits from social services have decreased tremendously but we still try to make things do."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Tucson Shooting: Friend of Jared Loughner Speaks Out About Motive

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- Investigators are searching for a black bag that alleged Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner took from his family's car, as President Barack Obama heads to a memorial service to honor the victims of the shooting that left six people dead and 13 injured.

On the morning of the Tucson shootings, Loughner's father saw him take a black bag out of a car trunk. When the father approached, his mumbling son took off running and the father chased him in his car, investigators said.

Police haven't said what was in the bag, but they continue to search for it.

Meanwhile, a high school friend of the 22-year-old Loughner remembers a man starkly different from the unstable man with the piercing stare in his mugshot.

"I wish I could have helped him.... I just forgot about him, you know," Zach Osler said. "We stopped talking to each other. I wish there was something I could have did or said to help him or try to get him help. I just didn't, so that's why it's hard to look at the picture of him, it looks like a monster."

Loughner was arraigned at a federal court in Phoenix Tuesday on charges related to the deadly shooting that has left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life.

Giffords remains in critical condition, but doctors remain optimistic about her recovery. She is now breathing on her own.

"He wasn't shooting people, he was shooting at the world," Osler said.

Loughner's downward spiral and increasing anger began after a high school girlfriend broke up with him, Osler said. As a teen, Loughner turned to heavy drinking and drugs, such as the legal hallucinogen Salvia, Osler said.

"He would say he was using it and he would talk about it and say what [it] would do to him and I was like, 'Dude, that's screwed up.'"

Osler described the Loughner family home as uninviting.

"The house itself is kind of shrouded, it's covered cold, cold dark unpleasant....I always felt unwelcome, always, like I shouldn't be there," Osler said.

Loughner's parents, Randy and Amy Loughner, did not attend his arraignment. Instead, the devastated parents issued a statement Tuesday saying they "don't understand" what prompted their son to allegedly go on a "heinous" shooting rampage.

"This is a very difficult time for us. We ask the media to respect our privacy," according to the statement. "There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were so we could make you feel better. We don't understand why this happened.

"It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss."

It was the first word from Loughner's family since the carnage on Saturday.

Loughner's parents have sealed themselves in their suburban Tucson home since Saturday's shooting, blocking access to the front door with a piece of wood to presumably keep people off their property.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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