- - Monday, July 13, 2009

FLORIDA

Man charged with tampering

PENSACOLA — A 56-year-old man was charged with evidence tampering Sunday in connection with the slaying of a wealthy Florida couple known for adopting children with developmental disabilities, the Escambia County sheriff said.

Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr. is accused of trying to paint over and hide damage on a red van that was spotted on surveillance video leaving the Florida Panhandle home where Byrd and Melanie Billings were fatally shot Thursday while eight of their children, ages 8 to 14, slept.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a news conference Sunday that he expects more arrests, but did not provide additional details.

Mr. Gonzalez, who did not own the van, was still being interviewed Sunday evening and his bond was set at $250,000.

The Billings were killed in their spacious, nine-bedroom home in a rural area west of Pensacola near the Alabama state line. The house had an extensive surveillance system that authorities said captured three apparently experienced criminals swiftly slipping into the house before driving off in the red van.

HAWAII

Island tourists look to the stars

HONOLULU — Tourists coming to Hawaii for high-end getaways could someday be launched from the sand to the stars, taking island-hopping to new heights.

Hawaii could even be the first state where space travelers use rocket planes to get from one place to another. Rather than launching and landing in the same spot, planners envision the planes taking off in one place, traveling through space, then coming down in another, going from the Big Island to Oahu. Within a decade, space travelers could island hop from Hawaii to Japan in 45 minutes.

And promoters promise a unique perspective during the Hawaii flight.

“Flying down the Hawaii island chain, it’s a completely different view of the planet than you’ll see when you launch from landlocked states,” said Chuck Lauer, vice president of business development for Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Global. “It’s the blue planet view of the world.”

KANSAS

Gunman surrenders at VA medical center

TOPEKA — Authorities say a gunman who entered a Veterans Affairs medical center in Topeka surrendered after trading his ammunition for cigarettes.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported on its Web site that a SWAT team and multiple law enforcement agencies had responded to a report of a gunman at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center early Sunday afternoon.

Authorities tell the newspaper the gunman surrendered by 1:45 p.m. after ejecting rounds from his weapon in exchange for cigarettes and laying the gun on the ground.

MISSISSIPPI

Bus crash kills 1, hurts 27

MERIDIAN — A coroner says a bus carrying a church youth group from Louisiana to Georgia flipped Sunday in Mississippi, killing one person and injuring 27 others.

The bus overturned three times about 10:20 a.m. on Interstate 20 near Meridian, Miss., and trapped some people underneath, Lauderdale County Coroner Clayton Cobler III said. Teenagers and adults were on the bus from First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La. A group of National Guard soldiers was on the highway at the time and helped rescue the injured.

One person died at the scene, Mr. Cobler said. One person was taken to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, while the other 26 injured were taken to three hospitals in Meridian, the coroner said.

NEW YORK

Body found in skyscraper

NEW YORK — A woman found dead in a skyscraper where a cleaning woman had vanished days earlier was bound and gagged and had a gold crucifix taped to her mouth, police said Sunday.

Police searching for the cleaning woman at a building near the World Trade Center site found the body Saturday after discovering blood leaking from a ventilation shaft, top police spokesman Paul Browne said.

The body hadn’t been identified, but police presumed it was that of Eridania Rodriguez, who hasn’t been seen since her work shift Tuesday at the 26-story Manhattan tower. Mrs. Rodriguez’ street clothes and other belongings were found in her locker, and video surveillance didn’t show her leaving the building.

An autopsy Sunday determined that the dead woman, found in a 12th-floor air-conditioning duct, was asphyxiated by tape applied to her head and face, medical examiner’s office spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said.

PENNSYLVANIA

Swim club lets minorities return

PHILADELPHIA — A private suburban swim club accused of racism after it canceled the memberships of dozens of minority children says it will seek a meeting with the children’s camps to work out an agreement for them to return.

Amy Goldman, a member of the Valley Club, said those able to attend a hastily called meeting Sunday afternoon voted unanimously in support of reinstating the memberships of the Creative Steps Day Camp and two other camps as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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