- - Sunday, February 12, 2012

ALABAMA

Murder trial set in honeymoon death

BIRMINGHAM — A dream honeymoon to scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef turned into a terrible nightmare, and the horror is about to play out years later in a courtroom in Alabama.

An Alabama man who already served prison time in Australia after pleading guilty to a reduced charged in the death of his bride goes to trial Monday, accused of murdering her for insurance money. Tina Thomas Watson drowned during a scuba dive on the reef just days after her wedding in October 2003.

Gabe Watson is charged with capital murder - which normally is a death-penalty offense in Alabama - but a deal the state made years ago with Australian officials to guarantee his return to the U.S. precluded the death penalty.

Originally charged with murder in Australia, Mr. Watson avoided a jury trial there by pleading to manslaughter and serving 18 months for not doing enough to save his wife. He was an experienced diver; she was a novice. The defense will argue her death was an accident.

Jury selection and legal wrangling could take several days, and officials said the trial could last a month.

NORTH DAKOTA

No punishments planned over diploma-mill charges

BISMARCK — No immediate discipline is planned for any Dickinson State University employees in the wake of an audit determining the school awarded hundreds of degrees to foreign students who didn’t earn them, the chancellor of North Dakota’s university system said.

The university vice president in charge of overseeing the program in which the students studied resigned Friday after the audit was released. Jon Brudvig, Dickinson State’s vice president for academic affairs, will continue to work at the university in a yet-to-be determined role while he looks for another job, Chancellor William Goetz said.

The audit did not mention Mr. Brudvig by name, and Mr. Goetz said his resignation wasn’t requested.

“It was a decision [Mr. Brudvig] made not to continue with those responsibilities,” he said. “It was his decision.”

Mr. Goetz wouldn’t discuss whether the apparent suicide of university administrator Doug LaPlante was connected to the audit’s Friday release. The audit didn’t mention LaPlante, but many affected students studied in the business program he led.

ILLINOIS

City nullifies contest over vehicle ID sticker

CHICAGO — After a week of controversy, Chicago officials have decided to design the 2012-13 vehicle registration sticker themselves.

The city axed the winning design by a 15-year-old boy Wednesday amid concerns that it may depict street gang signs. City Clerk Susana Mendoza had announced that the runner-up’s design would be used instead.

But Ms. Mendoza now says the runner-up’s parents contacted her office and asked that the girl’s design not be used “as a result of the unwanted media and public scrutiny and criticism of her artwork.”

Ms. Mendoza says the sticker design will be done in-house. But all finalists will receive the $1,000 savings bonds that come with winning the design contest. She says the office is reviewing the contest and whether it should continue.

WISCONSIN

Sex-abuse lawsuit against Vatican gets tossed

MILWAUKEE — Lawyers for a man who was sexually abused decades ago by a priest at a Wisconsin school for the deaf have withdrawn their lawsuit naming Pope Benedict XVI and other top Vatican officials as defendants.

Attorney Jeff Anderson filed the lawsuit in 2010. He claimed then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - who has since become the pope - and his deputies knew about accusations of sexual abuse at the school and protected the priest from punishment.

Mr. Anderson’s firm withdrew the case Friday in Milwaukee. He said the action was justified because he only was seeking information and accountability, and he’s already received 30,000 pages of revealing documents through bankruptcy proceedings of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena calls the explanation “ridiculous.” He says the withdrawal is confirmation the lawsuit should never have been filed.

TEXAS

Induced labor lets dying man see daughter

DALLAS — The birth of a Texas baby has been bittersweet.

Her mother, 31-year-old Diane Aulger, had her labor induced in January so her husband could see their child before he died.

Mark Aulger was diagnosed with colon cancer in April. Surgery and chemotherapy seemed successful, but then he developed pulmonary fibrosis, which thickens the lungs. On Jan. 16, the couple learned the condition was fatal.

When Diane Aulger asked how long her husband had, the response was a sobering five or six days. Their daughter wasn’t due for another two weeks, so they decided to have labor induced.

Mr. Aulger held his daughter Savannah for about 45 minutes after her birth. Mrs. Aulger says “he cried and he just looked very sad.” Her husband died five days later at age 52.

NEW YORK

Dad of subway bomb plotter gets prison time

NEW YORK — A federal judge has sentenced the father of an admitted terrorist to 4 1/2 years in prison for destroying evidence and lying to investigators.

Mohammed Wali Zazi was sentenced Friday in Brooklyn for charges including conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Authorities said the former cab driver from Colorado tried to cover up his son’s 2009 plot to attack the New York City subways.

His son, Najibullah Zazi, admitted that he returned from Pakistan to the family’s Denver-area home to practice making homemade bombs. The younger Zazi then drove to New York with plans to attack the subway system. Instead, he learned he was being watched by the FBI and fled back to Colorado.

CALIFORNIA

Report: Teacher in molestation case paid to resign

LOS ANGELES — The former third-grade teacher charged with committing lewd acts on students was paid $40,000 to drop an appeal of his firing, a newspaper reported Friday.

The Los Angeles Unified School District settled with Mark Berndt because it couldn’t defend his February 2011 firing, district general counsel David Holmquist told the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Berndt, 61, was removed from the classroom in January 2011 and dismissed as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was investigating him. He appealed but resigned in June after the district agreed to pay him four months of back salary and reimburse his health benefit costs.

Mr. Berndt recently was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon children, ages 6 to 10, and accused of feeding his semen to some students during “tasting games” in his classroom from 2005 to 2010.

&Bull; From wire dispatches and staff reports

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