- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008


Girl opens birthday gift, finds soldier stepdad inside

SANFORD — At her seventh birthday party, Amber Birdsall thought the huge gift box wrapped in pink paper likely hid a pair of bicycles.

She was wrong. Inside was something she wanted even more — her stepfather, a soldier who had been deployed overseas.

The surprise began a few weeks ago when Amber told her inquiring mother that all she wanted for her birthday was to have her stepfather return home from serving 10 months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Her mother, Trisha Johnson, 34, relayed Amber’s wish to her 39-year-old husband the same day that the girl expressed it. Army Spc. Glenn Johnson immediately started on the paperwork. His request for more than a week of leave was granted.


Towns flooded; 13 reported killed in heavy rains

PIEDMONT — Residents of low-lying towns stacked sandbags or grabbed belongings and evacuated yesterday after a foot of rain pushed rivers and creeks out of their banks in the nation’s midsection. At least 13 deaths had been linked to the weather, and three persons were missing.

Record or near-record flood crests were forecast at several towns in Missouri. Flooding was reported in large areas of Arkansas and parts of southern Illinois, southern Indiana and southwestern Ohio, and schools were closed in parts of western Kentucky because of flooded roads.

The National Weather Service posted flood and flash flood warnings from Texas to Pennsylvania.

After two days, rain had finally stopped falling in much of Missouri and Arkansas as the weather system crawled toward the Northeast.


Suspect held in junkyard killings

SANTA MARIA — Police suspected yesterday that a son of an auto-wrecking yard owner fatally shot four persons at the business, including at least one relative and two employees.

Panicked customers fled the busy yard Tuesday afternoon as the gunman shot his victims at close range, police said. The shootings were “very deliberate,” and the assailant likely reloaded at least once, Santa Maria police Chief Danny Macagni said.

Lee Isaac Bedwell Leeds of Santa Maria was booked on investigation of murder and was held without bail. Police issued a press release saying witnesses at the scene identified the 31-year-old as the gunman.

Police Lt. Dan Ast told reporters late Tuesday that the gunman “took off running, tried to get over a fence and was captured.” The gunman discarded a semi-automatic handgun before he was taken into custody, and it was found later, police said.


Runaway bride’s ex-fiance marries

ATLANTA — The man who was once engaged to the “runaway bride” has gotten married — to another woman.

John Mason, 35, married Shelley Martin, 34, in a quiet ceremony Saturday at his parents’ home in Duluth, his father, Claude Mason, told People magazine for a story posted Tuesday on its Web site.

“We were very, very happy for him,” said Claude Mason, who serves as an associate municipal judge and officiated the ceremony.

John Mason was thrust into the spotlight in 2005 when then-fiancee Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared just days before their wedding. She turned up a few days later in New Mexico and initially said she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted. She later recanted, saying she ran away because of personal issues, and pleaded no contest to telling authorities a phony story.


Vehicle strikes bystanders; 15 hurt

CRESTWOOD — An out-of-control sport utility vehicle plowed into crowds at a suburban Chicago auto auction yesterday, injuring 15 persons. Five were critically hurt.

An employee driving a Range Rover into the Tri-State Auto Auction building lost control of the vehicle.

It suddenly sped up, hit a group of bystanders and struck a minivan before going through a doorway and hitting another group of people.

Crestwood Fire Chief Jon Bruce said it was not clear what caused the employee to lose control.


Secretaries of state cited for ‘Courage’

BOSTON — The secretaries of state in California and Ohio were named winners of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on Tuesday for challenging the reliability of electronic voting systems.

Debra Bowen severely restricted the use of electronic voting systems in California six months before the Feb. 5 presidential primary, after computer scientists at the University of California concluded that the system could be hacked.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner required counties using electronic voting systems to give paper ballots to voters who requested them in the primary election held this month. She also ordered county officials to replace their electronic voting systems with paper ballots and optical-scan technology by the November general election.


Court asked to pull Scruggs’ law license

JACKSON — The Mississippi State Bar filed a petition to disbar high-profile lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.

The petition was filed Tuesday with the Mississippi Supreme Court, which decides such matters.

A similar petition was filed against Sidney A. Backstrom, Scruggs’ law partner.

Scruggs, 61, and Backstrom, 38, each pleaded guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Oxford to one count of conspiring to bribe a state judge. Other counts were dropped.

Although the high court makes the final ruling, the revocation of the license to practice law is standard in the case of a felony conviction, the Mississippi Bar Association said last week.

The bar previously filed petitions with the Supreme Court to disbar two other lawyers — Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci.

Scruggs, Backstrom and Balducci admitted conspiring to offer Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey $50,000 for an order Scruggs wanted the judge to issue in a dispute with another law firm over $26.5 million in legal fees from Hurricane Katrina cases.


Bag Day celebrated at Irish pub

ATLANTIC CITY — Paul Murphy came all the way from Glasgow, Scotland, to stand against the back wall of the Irish Pub with a pint in his hand and a paper bag on his head.

He did not stand out in the least at the bar, which was packed Tuesday afternoon with people wearing brightly decorated paper bags atop their heads, for this was Bag Day, the second-greatest day of the year at the Irish Pub.

Each March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, people come from far and near to jam the joint, most wearing some sort of bag fashioned into a hat atop their head. The tradition dates back 24 years to a group of exhausted waitresses and casino workers who realized they had worked through the entire night and missed St. Paddy’s Day.

“We said, ‘We didn’t have too much fun on St. Patrick’s Day; let’s start our own holiday,’ ” said Cathy Burke, who owns the pub.


English-only sign not discriminatory

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia agency has ruled that English-only signs at a famous cheesesteak shop are not discriminatory.

The Commission on Human Relations said in yesterday’s ruling that the sign at Geno’s Steaks does not violate the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.

Joe Vento posted the signs at his shop in October 2005. They read “This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ‘PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.’ ”

Critics say the policy discourages customers of certain backgrounds from eating there. They say the signs discourage those who don’t speak English from going to the shop.

Mr. Vento says he has never refused service to anyone because they couldn’t speak English.


Nightclub-fire figure freed from prison

CRANSTON — The band manager whose pyrotechnics display sparked a nightclub fire that killed 100 persons in 2003 was freed from prison yesterday after serving less than half of his four-year sentence.

Daniel Biechele, 31, walked from the front door of Rhode Island’s minimum-security prison into his attorney’s car at midday and was driven away. He did not respond to questions as he got into the vehicle.

His attorney, Thomas Briody, said in a statement that Biechele would not make any public statements “out of respect for those people most affected by the fire.”

Mr. Briody has declined to discuss future plans for Biechele, who married just before reporting to prison. But a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections has said Biechele will be assigned a parole officer and will live in Casselberry, Fla., outside Orlando.

Biechele, the former tour manager for the 1980s rock band Great White, pleaded guilty in 2006 to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter for his part in the fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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