- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Man arrested in church fire

BIRMINGHAM — A man described as mentally disturbed was jailed yesterday on suspicion of setting fire to an abandoned church in what authorities said was a copycat of the recent church arsons in rural Alabama.

Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said the arrest was “absolutely not” linked to the fires that destroyed or damaged 10 rural Baptist churches since Feb. 3 in central and west Alabama.

The man lived beside the old White Plains Church of God, where flames heavily damaged a storage room Monday night, and has a brother who is a volunteer firefighter, Calhoun County Chief Deputy Matthew Wade said.

Sheriff Amerson said investigators think the suspect, whom he identified as Jason Phillips, 21, also started several brush fires after watching press coverage of the church arsons.


Border agents seize 2 tons of marijuana

NOGALES — U.S. Border Patrol agents responding to reports of illegal aliens driving on a border road near here discovered and seized more than two tons of marijuana in two pickup trucks that previously had been reported stolen.

The two Dodge pickups entered the road illegally on Monday and were heading north when several Border Patrol agents responded and, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesmen in Tucson, both vehicles attempted to drive back into Mexico.

One of the trucks became stuck, and the occupants fled back into Mexico. CBP air units were called in for support and discovered the other truck abandoned nearby. Both stolen vehicles were loaded with bundles of marijuana. No arrests were made.

The marijuana has a value of $3.9 million and was turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.


Lawyers spar over Cuban agents’ trial

ATLANTA — Prosecutors and defense lawyers sparred yesterday over whether five Cuban intelligence agents could have received a fair trial in Miami at the same time the community was focused on the politically charged case of young Elian Gonzalez.

Prosecutors urged the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the agents’ request for a new trial because there was no evidence jurors had any prejudice about their guilt or innocence.

Defense lawyers argued that the events surrounding Elian inflamed the community, making it impossible for jurors to be impartial about any case involving Cuba. The then-5-year-old boy was found clinging to an inner tube in 1999 after a boat carrying would-be migrants capsized. After a court battle waged by his anti-Castro relatives in Miami, Elian was handed over to his Cuban father by the U.S. government in 2000.

The five Cuban agents were convicted in Miami in 2001 of being unregistered foreign agents. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit threw out all the convictions in August, ruling that pretrial publicity combined with pervasive anti-Castro feeling in Miami didn’t allow for a fair trial. The government asked the full appeals court to reconsider.


Weight-loss drug backed in study

CHICAGO — An anti-obesity drug that turns off the same brain circuits that trigger the marijuana-induced munchies appears to produce sustained weight loss among patients who took it in a two-year study, researchers said yesterday.

The report by New York’s Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons also said the drug — Sanofi-Aventis SA’s Acomplia, or rimonabant — needs additional study for its long-term effects and said the research was limited by a high dropout rate. The drug company funded the study.

The drug is awaiting an approval decision by the Food and Drug Administration. There has been speculation that it could become the world’s first blockbuster anti-obesity medicine, with analysts estimating sales topping $3 billion a year.

Yesterday’s report, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on a study involving more than 3,000 patients that began in 2001 and also involved diet and exercise changes. The basic findings were released at an American Heart Association meeting in late 2004.


Farmer plows Valentine in field

LINDSBORG — Forget the pen and paper. Richard Patrick made his wife of nearly 50 years an early Valentine with a piece of farm equipment.

Pulling a 12-foot-wide chisel behind his tractor, the 70-year-old plowed a huge heart into his soybean field last week, with the words “Be My” inscribed inside it. He then took his wife for a drive on an elevated highway nearby.

“It’s the first time he’s ever drawn me a Valentine’s card,” said Delrena Patrick, 68. “I thought it was pretty nice. He usually does it like every other male: He goes to the store and buys one.”

Still, Mr. Patrick wasn’t off the hook for Valentine’s Day. He said that when he and his wife got home after he showed her the Valentine, the first thing she said was, “You aren’t gonna get by with just that.”


Loss of students to force staff cuts

JACKSON — A decline in student enrollments will force staff cuts next fall in at least two Mississippi coastal school districts slammed by Hurricane Katrina.

Students are continuing to return to schools on the coast, but enrollments remain below pre-Katrina levels. Overall, the 11 public school districts have lost nearly 8,500 enrolled before the Aug. 29 hurricane.


Gotti back in court on rackets charges

NEW YORK — The son of late mob boss John Gotti returned to court yesterday for retrial on racketeering charges that include a violent plot to kidnap Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.

A jury last fall acquitted John A. “Junior” Gotti of securities fraud, but deadlocked on more serious racketeering counts, leading to the retrial.

Jury selection started yesterday with the judge announcing that 71 prospective jurors among 250 who filled out questionnaires were disqualified. Others were to be questioned during the week to determine whether they might qualify.

Opening statements were scheduled to begin next week.


Gas well fire injures six persons

GRINDSTONE — Fire broke out at a natural-gas well yesterday, injuring six persons and leaving at least two in serious condition with burns, officials said.

“It’s a very serious situation, but they do have it under control,” said Roy Shipley Jr., Fayette County emergency management director. Crews planned to cap the well, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, once the fire was out.

Jeffrey Simmons, executive vice president of operations for Atlas America Inc. of Moon Township, an oil and gas production company, said he understood from the workers that something had produced a spark.


State planning new rail stations

PROVIDENCE — The state plans to build two new rail stations that will connect Warwick and North Kingstown to the commuter rail lines running into Boston and Providence, according to Department of Transportation Director James Capaldi.

The $225 million project would be the first expansion of rail service since 1988.


First trial under way in corruption sting

CHATTANOOGA — The first trial in a public corruption sting dubbed the “Tennessee Waltz” started yesterday, with federal prosecutors telling jurors secretly recorded tapes would show how a county commissioner took bribes.

Hamilton County Commissioner William Cotton is accused of taking $4,750 in bribes in return for supporting a resolution to benefit a phony company created by the FBI.

Mr. Cotton, 58, is charged with attempted extortion and conspiracy to attempt extortion.

Seven officials — including five current or former state lawmakers — have been indicted in connection with the undercover sting that became public in May. The scandal led to a special session of the legislature, which passed a sweeping ethics-reform bill earlier this month .

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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