Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sequestor Budget Cuts
and their potential effects

First Thoughts: What happens if the sequester sky doesn't fall?

What happens if the sequester sky doesn’t fall?... To count, we’re now on our 5th and 6th fiscal standoffs since 2011… Brace yourself for the Supreme Court to eliminate all federal campaign contribution limits… The more things change on immigration (see McCain and Rubio working on reform), the more some things stay the same (see yesterday’s McCain town halls)… On the gun debate and presidential leadership… Frank Fahrenkopf sounds off… Breaking down some of the RNC’s post-2012 recommendations… And all tied up in Virginia.

By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, Brooke Brower, NBC News

The president conducted interviews on Wednesday with eight local television news anchors across the country to get his message across and avert the sequester next Friday. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** What happens if the sequester sky doesn’t fall? Another day, another back-and-forth over the looming automatic budget cuts -- the so-called sequester -- set to commence on March 1. In an attempt to try and score some P.R. points (at least with conservatives), House Speaker John Boehner has penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed placing the blame for these upcoming cuts squarely on President Obama. “The president's sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending… So, as the president's outrage about the sequester grows in coming days, Republicans have a simple response: Mr. President, we agree that your sequester is bad policy. What spending are you willing to cut to replace it?” Well, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer has responded with a “setting the record straight” blog post pointing out 1) Obama does have a plan to replace the sequester cuts, 2) Boehner had boasted in the past that the sequester was leverage to extract entitlement cuts, and 3) the House GOP has yet to pass a plan in this Congress to replace the sequester. And today, Obama is conducting interviews with eight local TV stations (including some military-heavy markets like San Antonio and Honolulu) to pressure Republicans to come to an agreement to avoid the sequester. But here’s a question we have: Is the public listening anymore? 

*** To count, we’re on our fifth and sixth fiscal standoff since 2011: After all, we’re now on our fifth fiscal standoff since Republicans took over the House in 2011 (the threatened government shutdown, the debt ceiling, the Super Committee, the fiscal cliff, and now the sequester). And later in March, we’ll see our sixth standoff (another battle over shutting down the government). Each time in the past, Democrats and Republicans have come to some sort of agreement that avoids the looming fiscal disaster but that also kicks the larger can down the road. So what happens if the sky doesn’t fall -- immediately -- after March 1? In fact, the New York Times notes that while these looming sequester spending cuts will have an impact on the economy, they’re unlikely to have an immediate effect. “Rather, they will ripple gradually across the federal government as agencies come to grips in the months ahead with across-the-board cuts to all their programs.” If that’s the case, does this kind of public campaign we’re seeing (Obama arguing that essential jobs will be lost, Republicans pinning the blame on the president) actually work? It’s something to chew on as both sides begin to wage a furious P.R. campaign before March 1. By the way, check out Wall Street -- record highs all over the place. Translation: Wall Street has stopped fearing Washington. They now only hear “posturing” when the two sides talk, and if Wall Street doesn’t believe the threats coming out of Washington, then the public might not be far behind.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives to meet with reporters on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.

*** Brace yourself for the Supreme Court to eliminate all campaign-contribution limits: As NBC’s Pete Williams reported yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to delve into the controversial issue of money and politics -- again. This time, the court agreed to take up a challenge brought by an Alabama man who claims it's unconstitutional to prevent him from giving more than $46,200 to candidates and $70,800 to PAC's and political committees, Williams notes. The Alabama man doesn’t challenge the limit on contributions to an individual candidate, but he does claim it's unconstitutional to prevent him from contributing to as many candidates as he wishes. What every political observer should brace for, especially after the Citizens United decision, is that the Supreme Court could potentially eliminate ALL federal contribution limits. Indeed, note that the Republican National Committee joined the Alabama man on this court challenge. And as NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports (more on this below), one of the RNC’s recommendations after the GOP’s losses in 2012 is giving the parties a bigger role in fundraising vs. outside groups – and one way to do this is to eliminate the contribution limits. 

*** The more some things change, the more they stay the same: On the one hand, the politics behind achieving immigration reform haven’t been more promising as they are right now. Yesterday, we learned that President Obama called three of the four Republican senators working on a bipartisan effort to achieve comprehensive immigration (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio). And Rubio’s office issued an encouraging statement, especially after it had complained the Obama White House hadn’t sought its input on reform. "Sen. Rubio appreciated receiving President Obama's phone call to discuss immigration reform late tonight in Jerusalem," Rubio’s spokesman said. "The senator told the president that he feels good about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate." (Can’t help but wonder how much of this is both sides doing what they have to do on the theatrics front.) On the other hand, it appears that the politics also haven’t entirely changed since reform tanked in 2005-2007. Just see the reaction from McCain’s two town halls yesterday in Arizona. The AP: “Some audience members shouted out their disapproval [at McCain’s call for a legal path for illegal immigrants. “One man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.”

*** On the gun debate and presidential leadership: While the Obama White House has taken sort of a backseat in the immigration debate -- at least for now -- to let Congress work its will, it’s striking to note the active role it has taken in the gun debate after Newtown. Ask yourself this question: Where would this issue be, even the chance at getting universal background checks, without the president putting his shoulder behind the issue. This is an example of why presidential leadership does matter in politics. The irony in all of this: Guns were never an issue Obama campaigned on during the 2012 election. Every two or three days, there’s a new gun event being pushed by the White House. Yesterday, it was the Biden Facebook townhall, which gave social media its quote of the day: If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun,” he said, per Roll Call.

*** Frank Fahrenkopf sounds off: Speaking of the 2012 election, don’t miss one of the old-guard Republican establishment figures -- former RNC Chair Frank Fahrenkopf -- sounding off on his party, Washington, and the media during a talk in Las Vegas. As Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston writes, Fahrenkopf “presented a blizzard of by-now familiar statistics of how Mitt Romney had his clock cleaned by President Obama among minorities and young people.” (“And I thought McCain’s campaign was the worst I’d seen in modern history,” Fahrenkopf said.) More: “Fahrenkopf said the GOP should take the position that the country needs ‘sensible, fair, immigration reform.’” And: “Fahrenkopf couldn’t resist a criticism of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace of Obama during Hurricane Sandy, providing this cringe-worthy description: ‘He kissed him. He didn’t have to French-kiss him. I think he went overboard.’” 

*** Breaking down some of the RNC’s recommendations after their 2012 losses: Meanwhile, NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports that Republican Party officials studying how to rebuild the party in the wake of 2012 losses are hoping to release their set of recommendations by mid-March -- and the list of fixes is already beginning to take shape. Some of these recommendations, per Hunt: 1) expanding the map and increasing voter contact; the party needs a plan that's not dissimilar to former DNC Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state strategy as it tries to expand the map beyond traditional red states; 2) changing campaign finance. The GOP team worries about how much new campaign finance law has weakened the national party structure, handing more power to outside groups on both sides of the aisle -- and giving a louder voice to both the left- and right-wing; and 3) limiting presidential primary debates.

*** All tied up in Virginia: Finally, turning to this year’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia, a new Quinnipiac poll finds the race is pretty much tied – whether or not GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling decides to mount a third-party challenge. In a straight head-to-head match-up, the poll has Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli tied at 38% among registered Virginia voters. And in a three-way race, it’s McAuliffe at 34%, Cuccinelli at 31%, and Bolling at 13%. Folks, Bolling is polling at 13%, and he hasn’t even announced. If he gets any kind of serious financial support, he can become a real threat. Do NOT take this candidacy lightly. This is not some spoiler in the works. Democrats shouldn’t be rooting for Bolling to get in because they simply think he’ll split GOPers and indies with Cuccinelli. Bolling is positioning himself to the left of some of the state’s more mainstream GOPers, including Gov. Bob McDonnell.

U.S. troops turning to civilian supplier for combat vests, medical kits

By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor

A civilian military depot in California is trying to plug soldier-reported gaps in U.S. supply lines literally on a shoestring budget — by providing bootlaces along with tourniquets, tracheotomy tools, goggles and other gear to service members in Afghanistan who say they are increasingly strapped for basic equipment.

But TroopsDirect, a nonprofit with one full-time employee and a small squadron of corporate backers, calls the latest request sent from soldiers soon to be in harm’s ways a disturbing first: They say they need key materials to protect them in a combat situation.

An Army unit slated to deploy to Afghanistan to clear roadside bombs has asked TroopsDirect for 30 special vests designed to carry armored plates because, according to the unit’s commanding officer, the Army will only outfit half of his 60 members with those vests.
The reason: Defense Department budget constraints, the unit’s sergeant told Aaron Negherbon, president and founder of TroopsDirect.

The nonprofit Troops Direct is bypassing bureaucracy to help soldiers get the supplies they need in a timely manner. So far, 15-tons of much-needed items have already been shipped with much more on the way. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

“That’s just not going to work,” Negherbon said. “Thirty lives are at risk. If one of the guys died because of lack of equipment, who will then say anything about budget cuts? What’s the value of a human life or a human limb?

“A sergeant I spoke to, who is under the company commander in this unit, said there was a budget issue tied to this,” Negherbon added. “To that end, he said: ‘If this was a few years ago, we could have gotten anything that we wanted. Now, it’s a make-do kind of thing.’ The company commander even put in an additional appeal (with the Army) and never heard back on it. So they reached out to us.”

TroopsDirect shared with NBC News its communications with the unit member who requested the 30 vests. NBC News agreed not to reveal the unit’s location or name to protect its leaders from potential discipline for going outside the Army’s supply chain.

The vests eventually will be fitted with armored plates that are slipped into Velcro pouches inside the nylon fabric. The unit already possesses the necessary plates. But, without the vests, 30 of the men would have no way to cloak themselves in the armor, Negherbon said, unless they were to duct tape the plates to their uniforms or bodies. An order verification form, obtained by NBC News, shows that Darley Defense in Itasca, Ill., will ship the vests — at a total cost of $1706.89 — to the nonprofit’s headquarters in San Ramon, Calif., at the end of February.

“I fully support what Aaron and TroopsDirect are doing,” said Jeff Freeman, the Darley salesman who sold the vests. “What is strange is when these troops are deploying, they may not be deploying with enough gear to support them for their 6-month, 9-month or 14-month deployment. At some point, they then have to turn to TroopsDirect, or to (their branch’s) supply system, to fulfill those needs. I don't know if that’s a budget issue or a planning issue.”

NBC News contacted the Army's media relations division on Tuesday afternoon, seeking comment on the work being conducted by TroopsDirect. An Army spokesman had not responded to that interview request as of Wednesday morning.
Last year, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced his plan to cut almost $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, focusing on shrinking ground forces in the Army and Marine Corps.

With the U.S. military drawing down in Afghanistan — and with 34,000 more troops scheduled to return to home soil during the next year — the requests for needed gear have simultaneously picked up at TroopsDirect, according to Negherbon.

Last month, he heard from the commander of an Army mortar unit outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, who complained that the ear protection donned by his soldiers was so worn, some men were having their eardrums blown out by weapon percussions and were bleeding from their ears, Negherbon said. He’s pulled together an order of ear-protection devices for that unit.

When combat medics waited more than four weeks to be resupplied, TroopsDirect gathered stretchers, stethoscopes, syringes and gauze rolls in a few hours and shipped the material overseas.

According to GuideStar, a charity-monitoring website, TroopsDirect reported $350,858 in income (contributions) in 2011 against $209,419 in expenses — including $27,466 spent on administrative costs. Its corporate contributors include Gatorade, PowerBar, REI, American Trucking Associations, Darley Defense and 18 other companies.

Founded in 2010, the nonprofit self-reports that 87 percent of its total organizational expenditures go directly to program expenses and that it already has shipped more 60,000 pounds of equipment to service members overseas.

“We’re seeing a lot more of this one-off kind of stuff — like vests — that once was available and now isn’t,” Negherbon said, adding that troops who reach out to him have reported that some of their equipment needs are budget related and some are caused by logistical glitches arising in the Afghanistan drawdown.

“I will hear things like: ‘We’re in the south and our supply chain is in the north and because they’ve closed down so many distribution facilities and are retrograding at a rapid rate, we can’t get anything anymore,’ " Negherbon said.

“I can see telling them to ‘make do’ without a certain type of pouch. But these things (like vests and ear-protection requests) are something I’m seeing a lot more of. We just sent a bunch of medic packs to a Marine Special Operations unit. They were issued stuff that was ineffective for a medic out in the dirt tending to the wounded.”
Freeman’s company began selling to TroopsDirect in April of 2012 and has done deals on helmet lights and gloves, he said. 

“There’s probably two sides to that story,” said Freeman, a veteran. “At times, the Army (members) may use him as an ‘easy button.’ If they know they’re going to have difficult time getting something out there, maybe they go to him because they’ve used him in the past and he’s provided such great customer service to them that it might be a little easier for them to use him.”

Body found in water tank of Los Angeles hotel is missing tourist

The body of missing 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam was discovered in a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.'s Dara Brown reports. 

By Melissa Pamer and Lolita Lopez,

The body of a woman recovered Tuesday from a water tank on the roof of a downtown Los Angeles hotel is that of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a Canadian tourist who stayed at the hotel before she disappeared several weeks ago, police officials said late Tuesday.

At about 10:15 a.m., police were called to the Cecil Hotel. The Los Angeles Fire Department also responded. The body was removed at about 4:30 p.m. after an urban search and rescue team worked to free the remains while trying to maintain evidence, authorities on scene said.

Hotel guests had reported that the water pressure in the building was low, prompting a maintenance worker to visit tanks on the roof, where the body was found, according to Los Angeles Police Department Officer Sara Fayden.
Officials were gathered on the hotel's roof at midday, and multiple emergency vehicles were parked in front of the building, including a sedan from the county coroner's officer.

LAPD homicide detectives had been investigating the disappearance of Lam, a Vancouver, B.C., resident who had stayed at the hotel during a visit to Southern California last month.

Surveillance video from the hotel had shown Lam in the hotel's elevator on Feb. 1. She seemed to push multiple buttons in the elevator, then stepped in and out and appeared to hide in a corner in what authorities described as "abnormal" behavior.

Watch: Surveillance Video

The surveillance video is the last known image of Lam, whose parents said she had called them every day until she disappeared, according to police.

Lam had stayed at the Cecil Hotel during a visit to LA that began Jan. 26, but when it came time for her to check out, she could not be found. She was last seen Jan. 31.

LAPD via Reuters
Elisa Lam of Vancouver, British Columbia, is seen in this undated handout photo provided by the Los Angeles Police Department. 

The water tank was about three-quarters full when the body was found, according the Sgt. Rudy Lopez of the LAPD. He said the tank's metal latch could be easily opened but added that access to the hotel's roof is secured with an alarm and lock.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said the agency was investigating the four 4-foot-by-8-foot water tanks to determine whether the hotel's water supply had been contaminated.

Fire Capt. Jaime Moore said a water sample had shown "no biohazard concerns" and that the hotel's water tanks were not connected.

Longtime hotel resident Bernard Diaz reported flooding on the fourth floor at about the time Lam disappeared, saying he heard a thump so loud one night he "fell out of bed."

The building, located near Skid Row, is described on its website as a "beautiful vintage European-style hotel built in the 1920s."

The single-room-occupancy hotel has an unusual history. "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, who was found guilty of 14 slayings in the 1980s, lived on the 14th floor for several months in 1985. And international serial killer Jack Unterweger is suspected of murdering three prostitutes during the time he lived there in 1991. He killed himself in jail in 1994.

In 1962, a female occupant jumped out of one the hotel's windows, killing herself and a pedestrian on whom she landed.

OC Shootings: Construction Foreman "Started Running and Got Lucky"

The gunman behind a series of OC shooting deaths and carjackings mentioned the drug industry before Shane Caporaso "heard him chamber a round"

By Jonathan Lloyd and Toni Guinyard
| Wednesday, Feb 20, 2013 | Updated 4:01 PM PST

A foreman describes his encounter with the gunman who shot and killed three people in Orange County before shooting himself in Orange. Shane Caporaso said the Ali Syed talked about the drug industry and told him to walk away. Raw video from Feb. 20, 2013. 

Feb. 19, 2013: Map of OC Shooting Locations
  • View more videos at:

    A deadly shooting spree that started in a Ladera Ranch home ended in the city of Orange when police say suspected gunman Ali Syed turned the gun on himself. Investigators are continuing to search for a motive in the rampage, which left four people dead. Vikki Vargas reports from Ladera Ranch for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19, 2013. 

    View more videos at:

    Investigators are attempting to piece together the events -- including a series of carjackings -- that led to the deaths of four people Tuesday morning in Orange County. Annette Arreola and Vikki Vargas report for the NBC4 News at Noon on Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013.

    Shane Caporaso was working at a hotel construction site Tuesday morning when he came face to face with a gunman who had already shot and killed three people in a series of crimes that stretched from Ladera Ranch to the Tustin area.

    Caporaso, the plumbing project foreman at the site, was is his truck when he received a call that a co-worker had been shot near Edinger Avenue and the 55 Freeway, just across the street from the work site. He ran toward the location, where he saw his co-worker on the ground and Ali Syed holding a gun.

    "I heard him chamber a round in the shotgun," Caporaso said. "I knew I had X amount of time to run.

    "I kind of knew he was going to shoot me. I just started running and got lucky."

    Caporaso suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. His co-worker, 27-year-old Fullerton resident Jeremy Lewis, was pronounced dead at the scene.

    The shooting death was part of a rampage Tuesday morning that began at a Ladera Ranch house and ended in Orange when Syed, 20, shot himself at an intersection.

    Map: Shooting Locations | Video: Victims Were On Way to Work

    Authorities have identified the woman found dead early Tuesday in the Ladera Ranch home at which Syed lived with his parents. The woman in her 20s was not a relative of Syed, investigators said Tuesday.

    Her identity was released as a Wednesday afternoon news conference as Courtney Aoki, 20.

    Syed left the residence in his parents' black sport utility vehicle before a series of carjackings near the 5 and 55 Freeways in the Tustin area. Syed shot and killed a driver in what authorities described as an execution on a freeway exit ramp before driving the victim's vehicle to the Edinger Avenue exit, where he encountered Lewis and Caparaso outside a Micro Center electronics store.

    "He told me to take 30 steps and walk away," Caporaso said. "He said, 'This was a result of of the drug industry, the narcotics industry,' and that it didn't matter because he'd be dead n 20 minutes. I I don't know what was going through his head.

    "I just started running and got lucky."

    Syed discharged the shotgun twice, striking him once in the arm, Caporaso said.Two co-workers called police to provide the gunman's location.

    "This isn't about me -- I'm ok," he said. "I had a friend who didn't make it."

    Caporaso described Lewis as always smiling and joking. They worked together for about one year.

    "Everybody's missing Jeremy," Caporaso said.

    Syed also opened fire at vehicle on the 55 Freeway with a shotgun. At least three drivers reported injuries.

    The rampage came to an end in Orange, where Syed -- who has no criminal record -- got out of a stolen vehicle and shot himself in the head, police said

    Justin Bieber murder plot details: Inmate wanted singer castrated, suffocated

    Mike Coppola / Getty Images

    Justin Bieber.

    By Bruna Nessif, E! Online

    Things just got a little scarier. News of a possible murder plot formulated by an inmate and two fugitives against pop star Justin Bieber made headlines in December, and now the details behind that conspiracy have unraveled after the audio of phone calls made last November from a prison near Las Cruces, N.M., were released.

    Police told ABC News ' Albuquerque affiliate KOAT that inmate Dana Martin, who is doing time at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility for the murder and rape of a 15-year-old girl, was the mastermind behind the plot.

    A Justin Bieber murder plot?

    According to police, Martin directed a former jailhouse friend in Vermont, Mark Staake, and Staake's nephew, Tanner Ruane, to carry out the kidnapping and murder, and asked Ruane in a taped conversation, "Did he go over the Bieber thing with you?"

    "Nah. The way I like to work dude, I like to know as little as possible," Ruane replied. "He's gonna use one of the things you gave him, and then he's gonna take care of it." Oh, and it gets worse.

    "We went and bought the hedge clippers," Ruane said. "You're gonna give me 5 large ($5,000) for each one I get." Police said that Ruane was instructed to castrate Bieber and his bodyguard with the clippers, and then suffocate them with a scarf.
    Justin Bieber posts family photos

    "Tie it really tight, and that cuts off all the oxygen, and then tie it in the back again, really tight. That seals the deal," Martin was heard saying.

    Luckily, before any of this could take place, Staake and Ruane were arrested by border patrol agents after making a wrong turn in to Canada. They, along with Martin, now face two counts each of conspiracy to commit murder and two counts each of conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

    Bieber's camp were not immediately available for comment, but told E! News when the plot first came about in December, "We take every precaution to protect and insure the safety of Justin and his fans.

    Related content: 
    Bieber becomes youngest artist with five No. 1 albums
    Bieber moons the camera on Instagram
    Bieber sued by bodyguard who claims the singer punched him

    Body pulled from wreckage of KC restaurant destroyed in gas explosion

    NBC NewsCrews work near the smoldering remains at the scene of an explosion in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 20.
    By Matthew DeLuca, Staff Writer, NBC News

    Authorities pulled a body Wednesday from the wreckage of a landmark restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., where a natural gas explosion caused a spectacular fire.

    At least 14 people were injured Tuesday night when a blaze tore through JJ’s Restaurant, part of an upscale business and shopping district. Searchers with cadaver dogs had sifted through the rubble for hours overnight looking for the lone person missing, a woman who worked at the restaurant.

    The cause of the gas explosion remained under investigation. A statement released by Missouri Gas Energy said early indications were that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line.

    More than 100 firefighters responded to the 6 p.m. blast at JJ’s Restaurant in Country Club Plaza, an upscale business and shopping district of Kansas City. Flames shot up through the night sky, destroying the renowned Midwest dining spot as firefighters worked in below-freezing temperatures. The fire was largely under control a couple of hours later.

    “JJ’s Restaurant is totally gone,” Kansas City Fire Department Chief Paul Berardi said.

    David Frantzè, the restaurant owner's brother, said the loss of the beloved eatery is a major blow to the city.

    "My brother just spent 27 years of his life running this business. He's built it into one of the fine restaurants in Kansas City," Frantzè said. "To come down here and to see a hole in the ground in flames is a pretty staggering experience."

    Nearby residences and apartments suffered damage after the explosion and blaze, authorities said, including a building adjacent to the restaurant with a collapsed wall.

    “There will be scattered damage throughout the immediate vicinity of the incident,” James said.

    It was at first thought that two people might be missing in the blaze, but authorities said that one of those people was located at St. Luke’s Hospital around midnight.

    With a major winter storm approaching, rescuers moved in heavy construction equipment on Wednesday to lift fallen debris, which was three to four feet thick over the floor of the destroyed eatery, Berardi said.

    Witnesses told NBC station KSHB that they smelled natural gas in the area of the restaurant at least an hour before the explosion.

    “KCFD are on the scene and will conduct a thorough investigation of what caused the explosion,” Berardi said. “We will continue to bring out the dogs and clear that scene and then an investigation will occur.”

    JJ’s has been in business since 1985, and was widely regarded as a premier city dining location, earning a 93 rating from Zagat’s. The restaurant’s wine cellar had been listed by The Wine Spectator as among the finest in the world.

    Authorities are still searching for possible victims after a natural gas explosion outside a popular restaurant sparked a five-alarm fire that injured at least 14 people. NBC's John Yang reports.

    This story was originally published on Wed Feb 20, 2013 8:40 AM EST

    2 suspects dead after wild shootout; one body in burned house, another hanged

    West Kendall resident Alejandro Zagales describes the scene after gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons, possibly set their home ablaze and then fled, putting an entire neighborhood on lockdown.

    Raul Torres / For The Miami Herald

    Police on Wednesday found two dead men following a wild shootout that locked down a West Kendall neighborhood and led police on an all-night manhunt.

    One body was found inside a burned house where the shootout took place. Another man was found hanged in an apparent suicide about 10 blocks away.

    The saga started on Tuesday night when gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons, possibly set a home ablaze and then fled.

    One suspect, Brian Kelly Howell, 29, was in custody as of Wednesday morning. Dell Peter DiGiovanni, 50, was found dead after a 911 call to report a hanging at Southwest 48th Terrace and 147th Avenue.

    Michael Steven DiGiovanni, 27, may still be at large. The body in the burned house has not been identified.

    Police said Wednesday afternoon there is still one suspect on the run.

    Dectives raided the home, off Miller Drive and Southwest 154th Avenue, suspected of being a marijuana grow house.

    As police approached the home, the three men inside opened fire on the officers using automatic, possibly high-powered, weapons. Police shot back. No officers were injured, police said Wednesday.

    Shellshocked neighbors cowered inside their homes as bullets flew outside.

    “At first we thought it was firecrackers, but when we went outside the police yelled at us to get back inside,” said a woman who lives on the block but did not want to be identified.

    “By the end, it sounded like a real gun battle,” she said. “We called 911 and hid in the rear of the house.”

    The incident intensified when police and SWAT teams from several departments closed in on the house. The men inside could have set fire to the house, but it was unclear early Wednesday how the fire started. The flames could be seen from blocks away.

    The home in a cul-de-sac at 15415 SW 57th St. burned for hours. “Firefighters at first couldn’t get to the scene,” the neighbor said late Tuesday.

    After the men apparently slipped away, police helicopters hovered overhead, using megaphones to alert the neighborhood of the armed men and warning them to stay indoors.

    Residents reached by The Miami Herald said the home was a “known problem in the neighborhood.” They said two young male adults and an older man, possibly the father of one of them, lived at the house. The men told their neighbors that they hailed from Virginia. It appears they rented the home at 15415 SW 57th St. for several years. According to property records, the three-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-story house is owned by Julian and Lily Leyva.

    About 10:30 p.m., police relaxed their perimeter, allowing residents who had been kept out of their neighborhood to return to their homes.

    Some who lived on the block said the residents of the home had long been considered a nuisance. Last month, one of the men, allegedly under the influence, crashed his car into a tree on the block; another recently drove over several neighbors’ mailboxes.

    “They kept to themselves, but if anything bad happened on the block; they were usually the ones to blame,” said the neighbor.

    Told that police described the home as a marijuana grow house, the woman said: “I’m not surprised.”

    Miami Herald reporter Manny Navarro contributed to this report

    • A SWAT team member helps police block access to residents and drivers along Miller Drive and Southwest 147th Avenue. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Pedro Portal / El Nuevo Herald Staff
    • Police work the scene near 154th Avenue and Southwest 57th Street. GREGORY CASTILLO / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
    • Police set up emergency flares at the site of a shooting near 15415 SW 57th St. on Tuesday, February 19, 2013. Gregory Castillo / Miami Herald Staff
    • Police work the scene of a shooting near 15415 SW 57th St. on Tuesday, February 19, 2013. Gregory Castillo / Miami Herald Staff
    • Police work the scene of a shooting near 15415 SW 57th St. on Tuesday, February 19, 2013. Gregory Castillo / Miami Herald Staff
    • This cellphone photo shows a house fire near the scene of a shooting on Miller Drive and 154th Avenue in the Kendall area on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Courtesy Melannie Morfa
    • Police warn cars to turn around near the scene of a shooting on Miller Drive and 154th Avenue in the Kendall area on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Gaston De Cardenas / For El Nuevo Herald
    • Police warn cars to turn around near the scene of a shooting on Miller Drive and 154th Avenue in the Kendall area on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Gaston De Cardenas / For El Nuevo Herald
    • This cellphone photo shows a house fire near the scene of a shooting on Miller Drive and 154th Avenue in the Kendall area on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Courtesy Melannie Morfa
    • A SWAT team member helps police block access to residents and drivers along Miller Drive and Southwest 147th Avenue. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Pedro Portal / El Nuevo Herald Staff
    • A SWAT team member helps police block access to residents and drivers along Miller Drive and Southwest 147th Avenue. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Pedro Portal / El Nuevo Herald Staff
    • A helicopter flies over a burning house near 154th Avenue and Southwest 57th Street. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Screenshot by / Raul Torres
    • Police officers block access to residents and drivers along Miller Drive and Southwest 147th Avenue. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Pedro Portal / El Nuevo Herald Staff
    • A SWAT team member helps police block access to residents and drivers along Miller Drive and Southwest 137th Avenue. Police put the neighborhood on lockdown Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as they searched for three armed men who opened fire on police. Pedro Portal / El Nuevo Herald Staff
    • Street scene on the side of the home set ablaze last evening in Kendall. Miami-Dade police have a suspect in custody and are searching this Wednesday morning for two more after gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons, possibly set their home ablaze and then fled. Media is being held several blocks away at SW 154th Court and 57th Terr. WALTER MICHOT / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
    • This aerial view shows the home at 15415 SW 57th St. in Miami-Dade. Police said the house was the site of a shooting Tuesday night. Miami-Dade County Office of the Property Appraiser

    Read more here:

    Russian nuclear bombers intercepted near Guam

    Russian Tu-95 Bear long rang bomber aircraft / AP
    Russian Tu-95 Bear long rang bomber aircraft / AP
    By Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, NBC News

    BY: Bill Gertz
    February 15, 2013 4:04 pm

    Two Russian nuclear-armed bombers circled the western Pacific island of Guam this week in the latest sign of Moscow’s growing strategic assertiveness toward the United States.

    The Russian Tu-95 Bear-H strategic bombers were equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and were followed by U.S. jets as they circumnavigated Guam on Feb. 12 local time—hours before President Barack Obama’s state of the union address.

    Air Force Capt. Kim Bender, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Air Force in Hawaii, confirmed the incident to the Washington Free Beacon and said Air Force F-15 jets based on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, “scrambled and responded to the aircraft.”

    “The Tu-95s were intercepted and left the area in a northbound direction. No further actions occurred,” she said. Bender said no other details would be released “for operational security reasons.”

    The bomber incident was considered highly unusual. Russian strategic bombers are not known to have conducted such operations in the past into the south Pacific from bomber bases in the Russian Far East, which is thousands of miles away and over water.

    John Bolton, former U.N. ambassador and former State Department international security undersecretary, said the Russian bomber flights appear to be part of an increasingly threatening strategic posture in response to Obama administration anti-nuclear policies.

    “Every day brings new evidence that Obama’s ideological obsession with dismantling our nuclear deterrent is dangerous,” Bolton said. “Our national security is in danger of slipping off the national agenda even as the threats grow.”

    Defense officials said the bombers tracked over Guam were likely equipped with six Kh-55 or Kh-55SM cruise missiles that can hit targets up to 1,800 miles away with either a high-explosive warhead or a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead.

    The F-15s that intercepted the bombers were based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and were deployed to Guam for the ongoing annual Exercise Guahan Shield 2013.

    Two U.S. B-2 strategic bombers were deployed to Guam in late January and last fall advanced F-22 fighter bombers were temporarily stationed on the island. Three nuclear-powered attack submarines and the Global Hawk long-range drone also are based in Guam.

    About 200 Marines currently are training on the island. Earlier news reports stated that Japanese and Australian military jets joined U.S. jets in the Guam exercises.

    Guam is one of the key strategic U.S. military bases under the Obama administration’s new “pivot” to Asia policy. As a result, it is a target of China and North Korea. Both have missiles capable of hitting the island, located about 1,700 miles east of the Philippines in the Mariana island chain.

    This week’s bomber flights are a sign the Russians are targeting the island as well, one defense official said.

    Guam also plays a key role in the Pentagon’s semi-secret strategy called the Air-Sea Battle Concept designed to counter what the Pentagon calls China’s anti-access and area denial weapons—precision guided missiles, submarines, anti-satellite weapons, and other special warfighting capabilities designed to prevent the U.S. military from defending allies or keeping sea lanes open in the region.

    Defense officials disclosed the incident to the Free Beacon and said the Russian bomber flights appeared to be a strategic message from Moscow timed to the president’s state of the union speech.

    “They were sending a message to Washington during the state of the union speech,” one official said.

    The bomber flights also coincided with growing tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands. A Chinese warship recently increased tensions between Beijing and Tokyo by using targeting radar against a Japanese warship.

    The U.S. military has said it would defend Japan in any military confrontation with China over the Senkakus. The bomber flights appear to signal Russian support for China in the dispute.

    Meanwhile, Obama on Wednesday telephoned Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reiterate U.S. nuclear assurances to its ally following North Korea’s third detonation of an underground nuclear device.

    A White House statement said the president told Abe, who visits Washington next week, that the United States “remains steadfast in its defense commitments to Japan, including the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.”

    “It shows that the Russians, like the Chinese, are not just going to sit idly by and watch the United States ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ its forces toward Asia,” said former State Department security official Mark Groombridge.

    “One could argue the Russians were poking a bit of fun at the Obama Administration, seeing how they flew these long-range bombers close to Guam on the same day as the state of the union address,” he said.

    “But the broader implications are more profound,” said Groombridge, now with the private strategic intelligence firm LIGNET. “The Russians are clearly sending a signal that they consider the Pacific an area of vital national strategic interest and that they still have at least some power projection capabilities to counterbalance against any possible increase in U.S. military assets in the region.”

    Airspace violations by Russian Su-27 jets triggered intercepts by Japanese fighters near Japan’s Hokkaido Island last week. The Feb. 7. incident prompted protests from Tokyo and took place near disputed territory claimed by both countries since the end of World War II.

    The Russian air incursion around Guam was the third threatening strategic bomber incident since June. On July 4th, two Bear H’s operated at the closest point to the United States that a Russian bomber has flown since the Soviet Union routinely conducted such flights.

    The July bomber flights near California followed an earlier incident in June when two Bear H’s ran up against the air defense zone near Alaska as part of large-scale strategic exercises that Moscow said involved simulated attacks on U.S. missile defense bases. The Pentagon operates missile defense bases in Alaska and California.

    Those flights triggered the scrambling of U.S. and Canadian interceptor jets as well.

    The bomber flights near Alaska violated a provision of the 2010 New START arms treaty that requires advance notification of exercises involving strategic nuclear bombers.

    Military spokesmen sought to play down the June and July incidents as non-threatening, apparently reflecting the Obama administration’s conciliatory “reset” policy toward Russia that seeks better relations by tamping down criticism of Moscow, despite growing anti-U.S. sentiments and policies from the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey questioned his Russian counterpart, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, during a meeting at the Pentagon July 12th.

    The latest Russian nuclear saber rattling through bomber flights comes as the Obama administration is planning a new round of strategic arms reduction talks with Russia. State Department arms official Rose Gottemoeller was recently in Moscow for arms discussions.

    The president was expected to announce plans to cut U.S. nuclear forces by an additional one-third in a new round of arms reduction efforts with Moscow.

    However, the president did not announce the plans and said only during his state of the union speech that he plans further arms cuts.

    “Building Guam as a strategic hub has played a critical role in balancing U.S. security interests in responding to and cooperating with China as well as in shaping China’s perceptions and conduct,” wrote Government Accountability Office analyst Shirley A. Kan in a September 2012 report.

    “Since 2000, the U.S. military has been building up forward-deployed forces on the westernmost U.S. territory of Guam to increase U.S. presence, deterrence, and power projection for potential responses to crises and disasters, counterterrorism, and contingencies in support of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, or elsewhere in Asia.”

    'I'm sorry I let 'em down': Jesse Jackson, Jr. pleads guilty to fraud

    Gary Cameron / Reuters
    Former Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. enters the U.S. District Federal Courthouse in Washington on Wednesday.

    By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News

    Former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday morning to misusing more than $750,000 in campaign cash on private expenses -- including a Rolex, furs, and other luxury goods.

    Jackson, who resigned three months ago to reportedly get treatment for bipolar disorder and clinical depression, will face time behind bars when he is sentenced this summer.

    "For years I lived off my campaign," Jackson said in court as he fought back tears. "I used money that should have been for campaign purposes for personal purposes."

    Jackson accepted charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. The embattled Democratic lawmaker reportedly agreed to a negotiated plea recommending a sentence of between 46 and 57 months and a fine in the $10,000 to $100,000 range. But prosecutors reserve the right to argue for a harsher punishment, including the maximum sentence of five years in prison.

    All parties agree that Jackson would not be eligible for probation when he is sentenced June 28.

    "I'm not bound by the sentencing guidelines," Judge Robert Wilkins said. "The sentencing guidelines are advisory and they are something I am bound to consider."
    By way of explaining his decision to plead guilty, Jackson said, "I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or their money."

    "I'm guilty, your honor," a visibly emotional Jackson said.

    The bevvy of pricey goods Jackson allegedly bought with campaign funds also include a $4,600 fedora from Michael Jackson's collection, a $1,500 cashmere cape, and a range of memorabilia from other celebrities.

    As he exited the courtroom, Jackson, who left office last November after 17 years in his post, opened up to a reporter.

    "Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?" he reportedly said.

    Jackson's attorney, Reid Weingarten, told the judge that he plans to make the case at this summer's sentencing hearing that his client's mental health conditions might be mitigating factors.

    "That's not an excuse. That's just a fact," Weingarten said outside the Washington, D.C., courtroom, adding that he anticipates Jackson will rebound and have "another day," according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

    Jackson's wife, Sandi Jackson, is expected to plead guilty Wednesday afternoon to a single charge for filing false tax returns and reporting less income than she accrued. The charge comes with a maximum prison sentence of three years.

    But Sandi Jackson's lawyer, Tom Kirsch, said a negotiated plea recommends a more lenient punishment, according to NBC Chicago.

    The couple was joined in court by Jackson's father, civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson; his brothers, Jonathan and Yusef; his sister, Santita; and Sandi sister, Tina.

    Rev. Jackson on Monday said his son still struggles with mental illness and remains under "tight medical supervision."

    "During this difficult and painful ordeal, our family has felt the impact of your prayers and calls," Rev. Jackson said. "So many ministers have reached out to us, and we thank you. The hurt in this valley is indescribable."

    Jackson's guilty plea caps off a dramatic downfall. At the apex of his political career, Jackson was a leading figure in the Democratic Party establishment, serving as a national co-chairman of President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and as a surrogate for other high-profile politicians.

    Lutheran pastor apologizes for taking part in Sandy Hook service

     I thought we were a 'Christian' Nation, and we have the religious freedom to attend whatever service we need. To make this Pastor apologize for attending an interfaith service for a community grieving and confused after losing 26 lives, 20 of whom were children, is also confusing. I guess that is why I quit going to 'church', they are all hypocritical. Do as we say, or get kicked out especially if you do not apologize, for what we decide you can do. Forget what Jesus has taught 'Do unto others the way you would want others to do for you'. Appalling, utterly appalling. I am sorry that this Pastor had to apologize for what his heart and his God told him to do.

    Pastor Rob Morris of Newtown's Christ the King Lutheran Church provided the closing benediction at an interfaith event following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16.

    A Lutheran pastor who participated in an interfaith prayer service inNewtown, Conn., in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre has apologized after being criticized by the leader of his denomination for violating its prohibition against joint worship with other religions.

    The Rev. Rob Morris, a new pastor who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, defended himself in an open letter published by the church, saying that before the tragedy, he had spent hours with his congregation educating them about the differences between Lutheran teaching “and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or Baha’i,” both of which had representatives at the interfaith service. He also noted that, in his own prayer at the service, he had spoken about Jesus and quoted from the Bible.

    “I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy,” he wrote.

    But he also apologized.

    “To those who believe that I have endorsed false teaching, I assure you that was not my intent, and I give you my unreserved apologies,” he wrote.

    Mr. Morris, serving his first year of ministry as pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Churchin Newtown, attracted attention within his denomination when he gave the benediction at the high-profile memorial service on Dec. 16 that was attended by President Obama, the families of the dead, and clergy members from many religions, including the Muslim and Baha’i faiths.

    In the days after the interfaith service, criticism of Mr. Morris mounted within his denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a 2.3-million-member church that is more conservative theologically than the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Missouri Synod bars joint worship with other religions, because, it says, participation could be seen as an endorsement of faiths that do not regard Jesus alone as savior or as a suggestion that differences between religions are not important.

    The Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Missouri Synod, called on Mr. Morris to apologize, which he did.

    “There is sometimes a real tension between wanting to bear witness to Christ and at the same time avoiding situations which may give the impression that our differences with respect to who God is, who Jesus is, how he deals with us and how we get to Heaven, really don’t matter in the end,” Mr. Harrison wrote in an open letter on the Web.

    Because it was not Mr. Morris’s intention to give the impression that the other faiths were equally valid, Mr. Harrison called on Lutherans upset by what had happened to accept Mr. Morris’s apology and support him and his congregation “especially in providing funding for Christ the King as it continues to care for victims,” he wrote in his letter.

    A spokeswoman for the denomination, Vicki Biggs, added words of support on Thursday.“We are proud of the work Pastor Morris has done in Newtown and how he has served the community in so many ways,” she said.

    The Newtown reprimand was not the first time a pastor from the Missouri Synod has been chastised for taking part in an interfaith service after a national tragedy. In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. David H. Benke, the pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn and the equivalent of a bishop in the church hierarchy, was suspended from ministry for taking part in a huge interfaith prayer service held at Yankee Stadium.

    Mr. Benke had broken the First Commandment — “I am the Lord thy God” — by worshiping with “pagans,” including Muslim, Sikh and Hindu clergy members, the Rev. Wallace Schulz, a senior official of the church, said then. Mr. Benke refused to apologize, and was cleared by a church panel in 2003 and permitted to return to ministry.

    Asked for comment on the Newtown situation on Thursday, Mr. Benke said he did not agree with the denomination’s decision to ask Mr. Morris to apologize. “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it,” he said. “If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    Correction: February 17, 2013

    An article on Feb. 8 about a Lutheran pastor who, facing criticism, apologized for participating in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Conn., after the school massacre there referred incorrectly to the type of representatives of the Baha’i faith who participated in the service. While representatives of the group took part, the Baha’i religion does not have clergy; it is not the case that Baha’i “clergy members” participated. (The error was also in an On Religion column on Dec. 29.)