Archive for January, 2010

“Drew’s Law” Allows the Dead to Testify

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Joliet, IL—Witnesses will testify Tuesday on behalf of a deceased woman, under a new state law that will allow the admission of hearsay evidence in certain cases.

The law was passed in 2007 by the Illinois Legislature, and some suggest that it was specifically passed in order to convict Drew Peterson, the former police sergeant who is suspected of killing his third and fourth wives. Peterson was indicted and charged for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in May 2009.

Savio, who was found dead in a waterless bathtub in March 2004, reportedly expressed fears about her husband’s intentions to friends and family members. Now prosecutors will call about 60 witnesses to the stand to testify about 15 hearsay statements. Will County Judge Stephen White will then rule as to whether or not the jury will be allowed to hear those statements during Peterson’s murder trial.

Some of the people expected to testify include Savio’s sisters, to whom she had confided fears that Peterson might kill her and make it look like an accident. Peterson’s former colleagues could also be asked to testify in the case, since police went to the pair’s home in Bolingbrook nearly 20 times in two years on domestic calls. Savio told officers that her husband had not only beaten her but also threatened to kill her.

Savio’s death was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but the case was reopened after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, went missing. Savio’s body was exhumed and underwent a second autopsy, the results of which were that she had died at the hands of another.

Clergy members of a church that Stacy Peterson had attended may also be asked to testify in the Savio case. According to media reports, Stacy Peterson had told a clergy member just months before her own disappearance that Drew Peterson had confessed to her the killing of his third wife.

Peterson has not been charged in the disappearance of Stacy Peterson.

State’s Attorney James Glasgow pushed for the passage of the legislation, saying that it was crucial to his case that Savio be allowed to testify, in effect, from the grave. Although the legislators never publicly acknowledged that the law had anything to do with Peterson, it has been nicknamed “Drew’s Law.”

A trial date has not yet been set for Peterson, who has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Savio.

Arenas To Face Felony Gun Charge After Locker Room Incident

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

An NBA player who brought weapons into his team’s locker room in December has been charged with a felony.

In the now-infamous incident, Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas brought a gun into the locker room, later claiming that it was meant as a joke. Arenas had allegedly been involved in a dispute with fellow teammate Javaris Crittenton, and that both men had brandished weapons on December 21.

Although Arenas issued a public apology for bringing the gun into the Verizon Center sports arena, saying, “I promise to do better in the future,” he has been the target of criticism for later joking about the matter, and the media’s response, on his Twitter account and elsewhere.

Arenas also attempted to explain his behavior by saying that he wanted to store the guns, which were unloaded, at the Verizon Center in order to keep them away from his children.

“I brought them without any ammunition into the District of Columbia, mistakenly believing that the recent change in the D.C. Gun laws allowed a person to store unloaded guns in the District,” said the three-time NBA All-Star.

Court documents filed Thursday state that Arenas is charged with one count of carrying a pistol without a license. It is uncertain when Arenas will be arraigned on the charge, but one of the documents that was filed is known as an “information,” and usually accompanies a plea agreement. According to one source, the agreement that has been reached by prosecutors and Arenas’s legal team will not include any jail time.

Arenas is currently suspended from the NBA, pending an internal investigation into the matter. The league’s investigation had been temporarily halted at the request of federal prosecutors, but will now continue so that Commissioner David Stern could reach a decision.

“We are aware of the charge filed against Gilbert Arenas today and will continue to follow the ongoing legal process very carefully,” a spokesperson for the Washington Wizards said in a statement.

Some sports commentators have called for the Wizards to void the contract held by Arenas. A felony conviction would probably strengthen their case, but no steps will be taken to do so until after both investigations and punishment processes have been fulfilled.

Sweat Lodge Deaths Not Due to Negligence, Say Lawyers

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Phoenix, Arizona—Lawyers for the man accused of negligence in the case of three Sedona, Arizona sweat lodge deaths say that their client had no reason to believe that anyone would die during the ceremony.

James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who claims to assist others in achieving spiritual freedom, hosted the sweat lodge ceremony as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. The five-day, $9,000-plus experience was intended to help people overcome the obstacles that had been holding them back in their life, and to be spiritually reborn. Halfway through the two-hour sweat lodge event, several people began complaining of extreme weakness and discomfort. Three people died, and 18 others were subsequently hospitalized with kidney failure, dehydration and other ailments.

Ray had encouraged people to stay inside the lodge for eight sessions of 10-15 minutes each, telling them that leaving during the round would be unsafe due to the presence of hot rocks in the middle of the darkened lodge. No one was forced to stay inside the tent, although some participants say that Ray’s psychological manipulation, combined with days’ worth of fasting, sleep deprivation and other mind-altering activities, would have made it difficult for some to make rational decisions about their well-being.

The participants had signed a waiver beforehand, acknowledging that they were about to experience extremely high temperatures and small, confined spaces, and that injury or death could result.

“It was not unreasonable and certainly not criminally negligent to expect people to know their limits and take care of themselves,” wrote Luis Li, one of the attorneys representing Ray.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk would not comment on the letters other than to acknowledge that she had received them.

Ray’s attorneys wrote that there had only been one previous medical issue during one of his sweat lodge encounters, in 2005, and that safety protocols had been improved since that time. Yet accounts have surfaced attesting to the poor ventilation in the sweat lodge, as well as its being overcrowded. One of the people attending the retreat, which took place at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, decided not to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony, and later told authorities that it did not appear safe.

Several civil suits have been filed against Ray, accusing him of negligence and fraud, but he has not yet been charged in a criminal complaint. Authorities will turn over the results of their investigation within a few weeks to prosecutors, who will then determine whether or not charges will be filed.

Execs, Employees Netted in FBI Sting, Accused of Bribery

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Twenty-two people who work as suppliers to military and law enforcement authorities have been arrested on charges of bribery and corruption.

All but one of the executives and other employees were nabbed as they arrived in Las Vegas for a convention, the 2010 Shooting, Hunting & Outdoor Trade Show. Accused of agreeing to pay a 20 percent commission to an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a representative of an African country’s minister of defense, the defendants were attempting to win a deal, worth millions of dollars, to outfit that country’s presidential guard.

According to several indictments, at least one other undercover FBI agent was involved in the sting, masquerading as a procurement officer for that same African nation.

The employees who were arrested worked for companies located in Arkansas, Virginia, Florida, California, Massachusetts, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and executives of overseas outfits located in the United Kingdom and Israel.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which was passed by Congress in 1977, makes it illegal to bribe foreign government officials. This case marks the largest single investigation, and will be the largest single prosecution, of individuals since the act was passed over three decades ago. Additionally, it is the first use of a large-scale undercover operation to enforce the ban.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a briefing for reporters that there are currently more than 140 investigations being conducted under this act.

A spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation of Newtown, CT, which hosts the trade show being held in Las Vegas this week, said that the arrests were a complete surprise to those involved in organizing the convention. He would not answer questions about the arrest, referring reporters to the FBI and the Department of Justice.

The convention, which is being held at the Sands Expo & Convention Center, will have more than 55,000 attendees this year.

The 22 individuals have been indicted on counts of conspiracy, conspiracy to engage in money laundering, and substantive violations of the corrupt practices act. Charges relating to violating the corrupt practices act carry a prison sentence of five years, maximum, upon conviction. If convicted on the charge of conspiracy to launder money, the individuals may face a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The undercover investigation and sting operation which aimed to capture these execs and employees began two and a half years ago.

FBI Acted Illegally, Says the Justice Department’s Inspector General

Monday, January 25th, 2010

An investigation conducted by the Justice Department, the results of which were published last Wednesday, concluded that the FBI broke the law on many occasions between April 2003 and November 2006 when it monitored phone calls and other forms of telecommunication.

As part of federal counterterrorism initiatives, the FBI acquired more than 3,500 telephone numbers and call records from employees of three major telecom companies. The companies, which have not yet been named, contracted out six employees to the FBI, and also provided unlimited access to phone records—without the legal authority to do so—to the government.

The telecom employees worked in FBI offices and responded to over 700 requests for information from FBI investigators, sometimes giving the information verbally or scribbled on Post-It notes. Both parties violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act multiple times, because the FBI is required by both law and Justice Department policy to issue formal requests for telecommunications information of this nature.

According to the report, which was issued by the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG), the telecom companies’ workers not only shared space with the FBI agents, but had their own FBI email accounts, telephone extensions, and a “separately networked computer that provided access to the records of the communications service provider.” That made them part of the FBI “team.”

The telecom workers gave agents not only phone numbers and call records, but also the “calling circles” of individual suspects, reporters and others.

The IG report does recommend disciplinary action against the FBI, but agrees with the Department’s Office of Public Integrity that there is not enough evidence to justify pursuing criminal charges against the FBI agents who were implicated in the transfer of information.

Privacy advocates who are concerned that the FBI wants to safeguard its ability to circumvent policy and law in obtaining phone records point to one section of the report, which reads “After reviewing a draft of this report the FBI also asserted for the first time that… [it] could have obtained these records without any legal process or qualifying emergency through voluntary production by the communications service providers.”

The FBI was given some authority to scan phone records under the Patriot Act, but citizens and groups who are concerned about privacy issues say that the bureau abused this authority.

The difficulty of suing the government, especially when there are classified records involved, means that there may be no repercussions for the FBI or its agents.

Chain of Yoga Centers Called “Cult,” Sued By Former Employees

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

A popular chain of yoga and wellness centers, founded by a South Korean businessman who has gained a widespread and devoted following, has recently been the target of a lawsuit.

The suit, filed in Arizona’s federal court by more than two dozen plaintiffs, calls Dahn Yoga a “cult” and its leader, Ilchi Lee, the cult’s “absolute spiritual and temporal leader.” At issue are allegations that instructors at the yoga centers demanded that employees pay increasing amounts of money for training and courses, and that they asked workers to take out student loans and turn over the sums to the company.

Jade Harrelson, one of the plaintiffs, also claims that she was sexually assaulted by Lee, although she never filed a police report and did not come forward with the allegation until she and three other former employees filed suit in early 2009.

Additionally, the plaintiffs say that they were forced to undergo extreme physical exercise regimens, including a form of training known as “bow training,” in which participants perform deep knee bends to the floor, hands raised high, and then come back up. Another plaintiff, Harrelson’s friend Liza Miller, said that she was once asked to perform this maneuver 3,000 times over the course of 10 hours, without being allowed food or water.

Dahn Yoga opened its first United States studio in Philadelphia in 1991, and has since grown to a chain of 127 U.S. centers, with over 1,000 worldwide. Its profits for 2009 have been estimated at $34 million. The yoga and wellness centers are wildly popular, counting among their fans the president of Costa Rica, choreographer Tommy Tune, and a neurology professor at NYU’s medical school, Elkhonon Goldberg. Goldberg has also been quoted on Dahn Yoga’s website as praising a group Lee founded, called the International Brain Education Association (IBREA).

Dahn Yoga’s philosophy includes a technique called “brain wave vibration,” which is intended to ameliorate the symptoms of diabetes, arthritis and other maladies. Yet the former employees who are named in the lawsuit claim that what the company does is indoctrinate its workers and followers, in order to take advantage of their devotion.

Supporters say that Dahn Yoga is a business, like any other, and that the disgruntled employees misunderstood common financial practices by that business. A spokesperson for the company said that no one has ever been coerced into giving money to Dahn Yoga or to Lee.

Harrelson, who followed Lee to Seoul, South Korea in order to work with him there, says that he gave her special attention and that she regarded him as a father figure—until, that is, one night in 2007 when he sexually assaulted her in his apartment. Lee has denied all allegations of sexual assault, physical abuse and psychological manipulation of his employees.

Former NBA Player Cuts Plea Deal In Shooting Case

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has announced that former NBA star Jayson Williams has made a plea deal in the fatal shooting of his chauffeur.

Williams was originally charged with eight counts, including one of aggravated manslaughter, and stood trial in 2004. He was acquitted of three counts in the shooting and guilty on four charges of attempting to cover up the crime. When the jury was unable to reach a consensus on a second count of reckless manslaughter, the judge, Edward Coleman, declared a mistrial. The state decided to retry Williams.

The former Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets player filed a motion to dismiss the charges on which he would have been retried, claiming that the admission of the same evidence as was used in the initial trial would amount to double jeopardy. A three-judge appellate panel, however, seconded Coleman’s rationale that “this isn’t really a second prosecution, it’s a continuation of the same prosecution.”

Now, Williams has agreed to a plea deal, which mandates a sentence of 18 months in prison without the possibility of parole; prosecutors say they will ask for Williams to serve five years in prison on the four charges of attempting to conceal the shooting.

Costas Christofi, 55, had been hired to drive the basketball player and several friends to dinner on February 14, 2002. After the night’s festivities, the group returned to Williams’s home, where he was recklessly handling a 12-gauge shotgun when it went off, fatally shooting Christofi. In conjunction with two other men Williams then tried to cover up the act, by making it appear as if Christofi had used the weapon on himself.

Williams paid $2.75 million in 2003 to settle a wrongful death suit brought by the family of the slain driver.

Williams, who will be sentenced on February 23, is currently free on $250,000 bail, on conditions that he check in daily with probation officers and refrain from drinking alcohol.

In an unrelated case, Williams also faces charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and operating a vehicle while impaired after crashing his Mercedes SUV into a tree last week, according to a spokesperson from the New York Police Department. In this case, his bail was set at $10,000 and he was ordered to wear a monitoring device.

The sports star had retired about 10 years ago due to a leg injury, after playing nine seasons in the NBA.

Fort Hood Shooter Promoted Despite Poor Performance, Radical Views

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

According to information obtained by the Defense Department, the Army major accused of having gone on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas had caused concern among his superiors.

Major Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist who shot and killed 13 people on the Army base in November, had received positive reviews and promotions from those who were overseeing his medical training, despite his strident Islamic views and reputation as a weak student.

Hasan went to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, taking six years to complete his training instead of the usual four. This was due in part to leaves of absence he took after his parents died, yet the recent review of his education shows that he received numerous failing grades and was put on academic probation. For some reason, this information was left off of his military personnel file, which may have contributed to his advancement.

During a four-year psychiatry internship and residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Hasan was reportedly a below-average student. Between 2003 and 2007, his supervisors and colleagues wrote memos and notes detailing their concerns with his performance, and counseling him about his communication and collaboration skills, his absenteeism and his slack performance with patients. Nevertheless, he continued to receive positive evaluations in his capacity as an Army officer, and was promoted to captain in 2003 and to major in 2009.

Hasan’s difficulty in reconciling his Islamic faith and his service in the United States military was also a concern. He allegedly discussed religious matters inappropriately with patients, and voiced strident opinions, including the idea that suicide bombings were justified. He also suggested to fellow students that Islamic law could trump the Constitution.

After completing an ironic two-year fellowship in preventive and disaster psychiatry, Hasan went to Fort Hood. Four months after his arrival at the large military base, he entered a medical screening center and opened fire after shouting “Allahu Akbar” — Arabic for “God is great.” Thirteen people died as a result of gunshot wounds, and many more suffered non-fatal wounds.

After being shot by security guards during the rampage, Hasan suffered paralysis. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation at a San Antonia military hospital. Hasan faces charges of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder, and could face the death penalty.

The review, ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has not yet been released but is expected to be submitted to the DoD by January 15.

Indictment Against Two Ex-Blackwater Security Guards Includes Murder Charge

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Two arrests were made on Thursday in the controversial Blackwater case, in which two Afghan men were shot and killed, and a third wounded, during a traffic incident.

The men who were arrested, Justin Cannon and Chris Drotleff, were security contractors with the company, which has since changed its name to Xe. They are charged with having opened fire on a vehicle in a Kabul intersection, after the driver of that vehicle caused an accident and then drove towards the men as they were attempting to help.

Cannon, 27, and Drotleff, 29, claim that their lives were in danger and that the shooting was therefore justified.

“I feel comfortable firing my weapon any time I feel my life is in danger,” said Drotleff. “That night, my life was 100 percent in danger.”

An indictment unsealed after the arrest lists the charges as 13 counts of second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. The men were arrested without incident by FBI agents, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in eastern Virginia.

Other Blackwater contractors had been charged with 14 counts of manslaughter in another shooting, this one in Baghdad. Yet last week a federal judge dismissed those charges, claiming that prosecutors for the government had improperly taken sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity.

The judge’s decision has caused an uproar, with some Iraqis claiming that the United States does not hold its security contractors accountable for their action. The government in Iraq has said that it will pursue this case.

Federal prosecutors have also announced their intention to charge yet another security contractor for Blackwater with the killing of an Iraqi guard in 2006.

Cannon and Drotleff were among four Blackwater contractors who were fired after the incident. Steve McClain spoke to a Virginia grand jury earlier in the week to recount his memory of the accident and subsequent shooting. Neither he nor Amando Hamid, the fourth contractor, were charged.

According to the men involved, they were traveling on a Kabul road when a speeding car crashed into one of the vehicles in their convey, flipping it. Cannon and Drotleff stopped their own vehicle and got out to lend assistance, but the car that caused the accident turned and began speeding towards them, at which point they drew their weapons and began shooting.

Police Believe Missing Lottery Winner To Be Dead

Monday, January 18th, 2010

A man who won a multi-million dollar lottery prize—and who subsequently went missing—may be dead, say police.

Abraham Shakespeare, a Florida truck driver, won $31 million in a lottery in 2006. A year later, he was embroiled in a court challenge with a coworker, who had accused Shakespeare, 43, of stealing the ticket from him.

Shakespeare’s family told representatives from the Polk County sheriff’s department that they had not seen him since April. They did not report him missing, however, until November. Initially, both friends and authorities had assumed that Shakespeare had left Florida, and perhaps the United States, in order to escape constant requests for loans and gifts after having received the lottery winnings.

After Thanksgiving, when there was still no word from Shakespeare, authorities offered a reward of $5,000 for information about him.

Detectives have been investigating Dee Dee Moore, a friend of Shakespeare’s who is now a “person of interest” in the case. No charges have yet been filed against Moore.

According to detectives, Moore paid people in order to report that they had seen the missing man, sometimes paying as much as several thousand dollars to each individual. Sheriff Gray Judd said that Moore paid a cousin of Shakespeare’s $5,000 to send a birthday card to his mother, which Shakespeare had purportedly signed. She also allegedly used Shakespeare’s cell phone to make phone calls and send text messages, in order to give the impression that he was still alive.

Moore perpetuated the idea that Shakespeare had left town because he was tired of others hounding him for money, but authorities later discovered that his bank accounts and properties had been transferred into Moore’s name. Included among these assets was a $1 million house which Moore claimed to have purchased from Shakespeare for $600,000. She told investigators that she had offered to help the truck driver manage his finances after the lottery windfall.

Although Moore was initially cooperative, she has since stopped talking to investigators about the case.

Judd has called for Shakespeare to come forward if he is alive, so that the investigation can be put to rest. Investigators believe that most of Shakespeare’s fortune—which amounted to $16.9 million after taxes—has been spent.