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Former South Carolina police officer who shot fleeing man in the back sentenced to 20 years

Thu, 2017-12-07 09:11

The former South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, following a traffic stop was sentenced Thursday to 20 years behind bars in a federal case stemming from the shooting.

Michael Slager, who had been an officer with the North Charleston police, was charged with murder in state court and indicted on federal civil rights charges after the shooting in 2015. His murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury last year, and prosecutors had vowed to retry Slager in state court.

But earlier this year, Slager pleaded guilty to a single federal civil rights charge as part of a plea deal that resolved both cases. A judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison, according to The Associated Press, which had a reporter at the sentencing.

Under the terms of the plea agreement announced in May, Slager pleaded guilty to one count of violating Scott's rights under color of law, and prosecutors said they would push for a judge to apply sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. Slager could have faced a life sentence, but prosecutors also said as part of the plea deal that they would recommend that his sentence be reduced due to his "acceptance of responsibility."

Scott's death in April 2015 became among the most high-profile police shootings in recent years due to graphic video that later emerged. In the recording, which was captured by a bystander, the 50-year-old Scott was seen hurrying away as the officer fired a volley of rounds at the driver's back.

The video quickly ricocheted around the internet and on news stations, and Slager was arrested and fired from his police force.

Slager said he feared for his life during the encounter. In another video recording, this one taken by Slager's dashboard camera as the traffic stop got underway, the two men could be seen interacting before Scott got out of his car and fled. Slager is then heard on a police radio reporting a description of Scott before yelling, "Taser, Taser, Taser!"

During the trial, Slager testified that he was scared and felt "total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward me." The former officer also said that he tried to subdue Scott and that the driver had grabbed his Taser during a struggle.

When asked by a prosecutor whether he agreed that Scott was unarmed and running away, Slager testified that he did not realize the Taser had fallen behind him when he fired the fatal shots.

Slager said that at the time, he did not think Slager was unarmed, but he realized it after watching the video. The bystander video also shows Slager placing an item – his Taser – near Scott's body following the shooting.

Officers are rarely charged for deadly on-duty shootings, though that number has increased in recent years amid intense scrutiny and protests that have broken out across the country. Experts attribute the increase in prosecutions to a combination of more video evidence and mounting political pressure.

Convictions in such cases remain rare. During a single week last June, three police officers who had been charged over high-profile shootings captured on video were not convicted; two were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in a third case.

The law firm of Andrew Savage, an attorney for Slager, had called the federal charges against Slager "very extreme" when they were announced and suggested they were motivated by "the burden of many past cases that were handled differently."

While the videos that go viral can be gruesome, experts caution that such footage may be incomplete and note that the legal standard still remains whether an officer's actions were "objectively reasonable" at the time.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on police use of force, said this standard tends to favor police. In an interview earlier this year, Harris said jurors also tend to give officers "the benefit of the doubt" in most cases.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign over sexual harassment allegations

Thu, 2017-12-07 08:13

WASHINGTON – Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced on the Senate floor Thursday that he is resigning at the end of the month following multiple allegations that he sexually harassed women.

Franken's decision comes a day after a majority of Senate Democrats called for his resignation after determining that they could no longer tolerate his presence.

They turned on one of their party's most popular figures with stunning swiftness, led by the Senate's Democratic women, who were joined in short order by more than half of the Democratic caucus.

The announcement comes amid a reckoning on Capitol Hill over allegations of sexual harassment against powerful lawmakers.

"Enough is enough," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at a news conference. "We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable. We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go."

When he steps down, a replacement will be appointed by Minnesota's Democratic governor to serve until the 2018 election.

The drive to purge Franken, coming a day after Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned under pressure in the House, was a dramatic indication of the political toxicity that has grown around the issue of sexual harassment in recent months.

It also stood as a stark – and deliberate – contrast with how the Republicans are handling a parallel situation in Alabama, where Roy Moore, their candidate for U.S. Senate in next week's special election, is accused by women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

Although most of the alleged actions took place before he was a senator, Franken was becoming a growing liability to his party, and Republicans had seized upon the allegations against him.

At Moore's Tuesday night rally, conservative pundit Gina Loudon declared that Republicans did not need lectures on morality from Democrats who had struggled with their own sex scandals, and cited both Conyers and Franken.

President Trump, himself the target of multiple allegations of sexual assault, has enthusiastically endorsed Moore, and the Republican Party is once again pouring money into the race after initially pulling back. Leading Senate Republicans have also toned down their negative comments about Moore, saying his fate should be up to the voters of Alabama and – if he is elected – the Senate Ethics Committee.

"I'm looking for where are the Republican voices? Where is their outrage?" Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said on CNN.

Republican leaders remained quiet amid the developments.

Asked about Franken on Wednesday, Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas said he would "leave it up to [Democrats] to deal with members of their own party."

The move by Senate Democrats to oust Franken marked a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the onetime "Saturday Night Live" star. The senator from Minnesota had emerged as one of the Trump administration's sharpest foils on Capitol Hill – and as a potential 2020 presidential contender.

Over the past three weeks, more than a half-dozen women have accused Franken of unwanted advances and touching. He apologized, saying in some cases that he had not intended to give offense and in others that he did not recall events as the women did.

The latest allegation against Franken came in a report published Wednesday by Politico. A former congressional aide whose name was withheld by the publication claimed that Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006, two years before his election to the Senate.

The woman claimed that Franken had told her, "It's my right as an entertainer."

Franken's alleged offenses were arguably less serious than those attributed to Moore, or to Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, who was accused of demanding sexual favors from the women who worked for him. Until late last week, it appeared that Franken's fellow Democrats would allow his case to work its way through the Senate Ethics Committee, a process that would take months and perhaps years to reach a resolution.

As recently as Nov. 26, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, argued on CNN: "Al Franken has acknowledged what he did was wrong, and it was wrong. He has also submitted his whole case to the Senate Ethics Committee. I think that was the right thing to do. Let's have a hearing, an investigation. Let's let this really reach whatever conclusion it is going to reach, but through a due process."

But on Wednesday, Durbin expressed no such forbearance. "Senator Franken's conduct was wrong. He has admitted to it. And he should resign from the Senate."

Even as Senate Democrats expressed support publicly for leaving Franken's fate in the hands of the Ethics Committee, his female colleagues were increasingly unsettled as new accusers went public.

"People were at the edge of their patience with this. They'd had enough. One more allegation was going to be it," said one senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.

Another said female Democratic senators had been discussing it among themselves "on the Senate floor, even in the ladies' room."

"Many people have been talking about this for some time," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "It wasn't coordinated. It just happened."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has served in the Senate longer than most of her female colleagues, said it was "significant that the women on his side of the aisle led the way" and added that she believed the latest allegation was "in some ways the final straw for people."

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who had stood by his friend in the wake of the allegations, called Franken after the Politico story broke early Wednesday and told him directly he had to resign, according to a person familiar with the call, who added that this came before other senators began calling for him to step down.

Schumer also met with Franken and his wife at the leader's apartment early afternoon to discuss resigning. The session ended without a firm commitment from Franken to do so, said the source, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the private exchange.

In recent days – before Wednesday's report – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has known Franken for nearly two decades, had also told Franken he needed to step down, aides familiar with their discussions said. On Wednesday, Warren issued a short public statement, saying, "I think he should resign."

Franken had staved off public calls for his ouster last week, according to a person who has been in touch with the senator and his staff in recent days.

There was a "mad rush" last week to call on Franken to resign when more allegations surfaced, said the person, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about private discussions. "I think that people were talked off the ledge at that point and wanted to recollect and figure out if the Senate Ethics investigation should just move forward."

But, "I'm pretty sure that Al should have known that if there was another story that came out that there'd be a mass exodus away from him."

Outside the chamber, growing numbers of Democrats had been making the case that it was untenable for Franken to remain in the Senate if their party hoped to maintain the high ground on the issue.

Among those calling for Franken to step down was Doug Jones, Moore's Democratic opponent in Alabama.

And though she did not mention Franken by name, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had declared a policy of "zero tolerance" when she called last week for Conyers to leave the House. On Wednesday, Pelosi declared that she was "very proud of the fact that people are taking this matter head on and are trusting women who come forward, what they have to say."

Answering reader questions: Holly plants in Alaska, growing a tree from a clementine seed and more

Thu, 2017-12-07 08:00

I get a lot of questions this time of year. It is clear people have too much non-gardening time on their hands and are starting to miss outdoor planting. We have a way to go, alas.

Anyhow, one reader recently asked about that cute little holly plant she found at one of our supermarkets. You know the question: she bought it for indoors, but will it survive outdoors this spring and next winter?

Holly sprigs have been part of the holiday season forever. When I was a kid, my grandfather, who grew thousands of hollies every year as a hobby, would give small rooted cuttings out as presents. These could be planted outdoors in the spring if they survived.

Nowadays, you find complete holly plants, not simply cuttings, for sale. Many have berries! Unfortunately, these are not the same kind of hollies my grandfather grew and won't survive outdoors. In fact, even those holly would not be hardy here, so you are out of luck.

[The truth about those 'poisonous' holiday houseplants]

Next, vinegar as a fertilizer? A reader was confused because he used vinegar this summer to try to kill dandelions. How can it be a fertilizer? What's the scoop?

Vinegar can and has been used as a fertilizer. The problem is there are lots of different kinds and not all are suitable to use as plant (actually, microbe) food. Many are too strong and many are made using petroleum distillate and are decidedly not organic.

The easiest way to employ vinegar as a soil amendment is to use organic vinegars made from fruits like apple or wine vinegars. Think about what these are: very diluted organic matter full of nutrients. Mix up 1 ounce with a gallon of water and use this to water your plants.

Know that your plants only need 18 of the 50 nutrients in the stuff, but the microbes in your soil will use them to keep happy and they end up feeding the plant. Happy microbes, happy plants.

OK, on to the birds, or lack of them. I have had several people confirm what we are experiencing here in South Anchorage: a lack of birds. Well, a lack of song birds, at least; there are plenty of magpies and even jays.

Where are the masses of birds that used to populate the area? Is this simply a limited problem or have the feral cats and the burgeoning magpie population gotten so bad? Let me know so I can pass on your experience this season.

Next, clementine oranges make great Christmas stocking stuffers, but a reader wants to know: can you grow them? You can, indoors of course, and you probably won't ever get fruit, but you can create a nice plant or display.

All you need to do to grow a clementine is to plant a thoroughly cleaned seed a 1/2-inch deep into well draining potting soil. Cover with plastic until germination and you are good to go. This is a zone nine plant, so keep it warm and give it plenty of light.

Consider planting lots of clementine seeds in an appropriate container and thus growing a bonsai forest. If you have them, add other citrus seeds. You will end up with a really neat miniature scene. When these seedlings get too large, simply transplant to individual pots.

[Here's how to grow your own vegetables, herbs and citrus indoors this winter]

Finally, why didn't your amaryllis re-flower? Revived amaryllis, if stored for dormancy long enough, will start regeneration with a flower stalk. However, if the temperatures were too warm during dormancy, you didn't wait for long enough (minimum two months) or if the plant was not able to put on enough growth the previous season, then the plant will only produce leaves.

Sometimes it is possible to tell if your plant will produce flowers or leaves by looking carefully at the growth coming from the bulb. Flower stalks have a notch in their tips which is lacking in leaves. Keep this in mind when you go looking for these bulbs (on sale all over now). If the packaging allows you to see the bulb, you might be able to get some with more than one flower stem.

Jeff's garden calendar

Birds: if you are seeing few, at least make sure you have the right food — i.e. black sunflower seeds.

Turn plants: 'T'is the season of leaning toward light. Give pots a 1/ 4 turn every few days.

Alaska Botanical Garden membership: It has its perks — free garden entry, 10 percent off and first showing on nursery sales, discounts and free admissions at gardens all around the country and so much more. Every reader of this column would like a membership. What a great gift for them, yourself, or even some who don't read me! And, if you have ever wanted to send me thanks, joining the ABG is the best way to do it! Do it now. (alaskabg.org)

Raging Southern California wildfires force 200,000 people to flee

Thu, 2017-12-07 07:48

LOS ANGELES – Hundreds of Los Angeles area schools shut their doors on Thursday as raging wildfires wreaked havoc on Southern California, forcing about 200,000 people to flee and destroying hundreds of houses.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest with more than 640,000 students, said it closed at least 265 of its nearly 1,100 schools.

Dozens of schools were also closed in neighboring Ventura County, where the largest of the area blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred more than 95,000 acres. The school district, with nearly 17,000 students, said it hoped to reopen on Monday.

"But that will only happen if a number of factors are in place that will guarantee the health and safety of our students and staff," Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dave Creswell said in a statement.

Dry Santa Ana winds, blowing westward from the California desert, could reach 75 mph on Thursday. "Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger," said an alert sent by the countrywide emergency system in Los Angeles.

Video and photographs on social media showed flame-covered hillsides along busy roadways on Wednesday as commuters slowly made their way to work or home, rows of houses reduced to ash and firefighters spraying water on walls of fire as they tried to save houses.

The Thomas Fire continued its westward push on Thursday, forcing a few hundred Santa Barbara County residents to be evacuated and the closing of coastal Highway 101 north of Ventura city.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 12,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent center.

Another blaze, the Rye Fire, threatened more than 5,000 homes and structures northwest of Los Angeles.

The Skirball Fire in Los Angeles has forced hundreds of residents in the wooded hills near the affluent Bel-Air neighborhood to evacuate and charred more than 150 acres.

Skirball threatened media magnate Rupert Murdoch's Moraga Estate winery. The property was evacuated, with possible damage to some buildings, Murdoch said in a statement. "We believe the winery and house are still intact."

"These are days that break your heart," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday during a news conference. "These are also days that show the resilience of our city."

No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported. Three firefighters were injured and hospitalized in stable condition, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

The Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 150 homes and threatened thousands more in Ventura.

Additional evacuations were called for late Wednesday in the Ventura area, where 50,000 people had already fled their homes over the last three days.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Brendan O'Brien)

Republicans hammer Mueller, FBI as Russia investigation intensifies

Thu, 2017-12-07 07:06

WASHINGTON – Republican activists and lawmakers are engaged in a multi-front attack on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of possible connections between associates of President Donald Trump and Russian agents, trying to stop or curtail the investigation as it moves further into Trump's inner circle.

For months, the president and his allies have been seizing on any whiff of possible impropriety by Mueller's team or the FBI to argue that the Russia probe is stacked against Trump – potentially building the political support needed to dismiss the special counsel.

Several law enforcement officials said they are concerned that the constant drumbeat of conservative criticism seems designed to erode Mueller's credibility, making it more politically palatable to remove, restrict or simply ignore his recommendations as his investigation progresses.

Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, one of the president's informal advisers as well as one of his most vociferous defenders, on Tuesday night called Mueller "a disgrace to the American justice system" and said his team is "corrupt, abusively biased and political."

Several conservative lawmakers held a news conference Wednesday demanding more details of how the FBI proceeded last year in its probes of Hillary Clinton's use of personal email and Russian election interference. Earlier this week, the conservative group Judicial Watch released an internal Justice Department email that, the group said, showed political bias against Trump by one of Mueller's senior prosecutors.

[A bold new legal defense for Trump: Presidents cannot obstruct justice]

Fresh ammunition came this weekend, when it was revealed that Peter Strzok, the top FBI agent on Mueller's team, had been removed over politically charged texts he'd exchanged with another former member of the Mueller team, senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page. The texts appeared to favor Clinton and disparage Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.

"The question really is, if Mueller was doing such a great job on investigating the Russian collusion, why could he have not found the conflict of interest within their own agency?" Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., asked at the news conference. Meadows, leader of the Freedom Caucus, cited a litany of other issues that he said show bias on the part of the FBI and Mueller, including past political donations by lawyers on Mueller's team.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

Accusations of bias against Mueller from conservatives have become commonplace in the public debate about the president and the Russia probe, and Republicans are expected to grill FBI Director Christopher Wray about those matters when he testifies Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

The chairman of that committee has been pressing the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel – one to probe Clinton, as well as the FBI's handling of past Clinton-related probes. Law enforcement officials also expect Wray will be pressed on that issue again Thursday in the wake of the Strzok-Page revelations, which are being investigated by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Mueller did get a public vote of confidence Wednesday from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the senior Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe – though Rosenstein did not address the Strzok inquiry. In an interview with NBC, Rosenstein was asked if he was satisfied with what he had seen so far from the special counsel's office, and he said yes, and noted that some public charges had been filed. "We're not in a position to talk about anything else that may be going on," he said.

Mueller first became aware in late July of text messages exchanged between Page and Strzok, who had been engaged in an affair, according to people familiar with the matter, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Strzok was removed from the job immediately and transferred to the FBI's human resources division, which was widely understood by his colleagues to be a demotion. Officials have said Page left the Mueller team two weeks earlier for unrelated reasons.

Trump tweeted this weekend that the FBI's reputation was "in Tatters."

Strzok was a major player in both the Clinton and Russia probes, taking part in key interviews, including those of Hillary Clinton and Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI duringthat January questioning.

On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, signed letters to the Justice Department and FBI demanding more information about Strzok's communications.

"Strzok's behavior and involvement in these two politically-sensitive cases raises new concerns of inappropriate political influence in the work of the FBI," Grassley wrote in one of the letters.

Matthew Miller, a Democrat and former Justice Department spokesman, said Grassley is part of a Republican effort to undermine Mueller's credibility over the long run.

"First, they want to kick up dust about Hillary Clinton so the conservative press has something to talk about that isn't Trump's misdeeds," Miller said. "The eventual goal, though, is to delegitimize Mueller in such a way that he can either be fired or can be ignored if he concludes the president broke the law."

A Grassley spokesman called Miller's comment "a baseless charge from a Democratic operative" and said the senator has a "three-decade record of government oversight across administrations."

Grassley also called Mueller an "honorable person" whose investigation should be allowed to "play out."

Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, has called for the Mueller probe to be shut down, saying his prosecutors are simply too biased against the president to conduct a credible investigation.

Fitton said the Justice Department and FBI "covered up" the Strzok issue for months. "That's a scandal," he said. "Rosenstein needs to explain what he was doing, what he knew and when, and Mueller needs to explain himself as well. I think Mueller has fewer and fewer supporters in the Republican establishment, because of what he allowed to happen."

In Congress, an effort by a Republican lawmaker to ensure Mueller could not be abruptly fired has lost steam.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who in August unveiled legislation to prevent Trump from firing Mueller without cause, said Wednesday that he felt no urgency for the Senate to take it up.

"Based on what's occurred with Flynn and some of the reports over the past week, I'm not overly concerned that we have to move quickly," Tillis said. He called his bill a "good governance" measure that lawmakers will continue to discuss.

Tillis offered a mixed review of the Mueller probe.

"Some of the questions raised about some of the people in the FBI and their behavior and possible biases make you want to go back and look at the role that they played and whether or not there was any bias that was woven into any results or observations they made," Tillis said. "But on the whole, I'm satisfied with the way it's progressing."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., one of his party's most outspoken Trump critics, said he couldn't envision the president firing Mueller.

"I can't imagine him being terminated," Corker said. "To me, that would be a step too far."

As for the way the Mueller investigation is proceeding, Corker declined to opine. "I have almost no knowledge as to how it's proceeding," he said.

92 North Slope workers facing termination offered new employment

Thu, 2017-12-07 06:41

A new oilfield services contractor for three North Slope fields said Wednesday it has offered jobs to the workers who faced the prospect of losing employment with the previous contractor, ASRC Energy Services.

ASRC notified state officials last week it would be laying off workers from Dec. 18 until Dec. 31 because the operator of the fields, Hilcorp, had engaged a new contractor. ASRC said 92 workers would be affected.

The new contractor, Anchorage-based Northern Energy Services, has offered jobs to all the affected employees, NES official David Chaput said in an emailed statement.

"We, along with Hilcorp, sincerely hope to continue relying on their experience and expertise, and will not be reducing the overall workforce," Chaput said.

The news is "awesome," said Lisa Mielke, coordinator of the state Rapid Response Team that seeks to find new jobs for terminated workers. After ASRC Energy notified the state team about the situation, Mielke began reaching out to affected employees.

"I'm excited to know that two weeks before Christmas a bunch of people won't be jobless," Mielke said.

ASRC Energy also told the state team that it had about 40 open positions it would offer terminated employees. ASRC also said it understood the new contractor would try to employ the workers.

Mielke said the news is good for the economy. Following years of low oil prices, petroleum-dependent Alaska had the nation's worst unemployment and job growth in October, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The oil fields affected by the contract change are Milne Point, Endicott and Northstar.

The letter from ASRC Energy indicated Hilcorp made the contract change to reduce costs. The statement from Northern Energy Services did not discuss costs or wages.

A spokesperson for Hilcorp could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Clashes erupt in West Bank after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement

Thu, 2017-12-07 06:29

JERUSALEM/GAZA – The Islamist group Hamas urged Palestinians on Thursday to abandon peace efforts and launch a new uprising against Israel in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as its capital.

The Israeli military said it was reinforcing troops in the occupied West Bank, deploying several new army battalions and putting other forces on standby, describing the measures as part of its "readiness for possible developments".

Medics said at least 31 people were wounded by Israeli army gunfire when Palestinian protests erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday. They said 11 were hit by live bullets and 20 by rubber bullets. One person was in a critical condition. Some protesters threw rocks at soldiers and others chanted: "Death to America! Death to the fool Trump!".

Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, imperiling Middle East peace efforts and upsetting the Arab world and Western allies alike.

The status of Jerusalem – home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions – is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We should call for and we should work on launching an intifada (Palestinian uprising) in the face of the Zionist enemy," Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a speech in Gaza.

He urged Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs to hold rallies against the U.S decision on Friday, calling it a "day of rage".

Naser Al-Qidwa, an aide to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and senior official in his Fatah party, urged Palestinians to stage protests but said they should be peaceful.

Asked on Israel Radio whether there might be another intifada, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said: "In my estimate Abu Mazen (Abbas) will not wreck matters. It would not be helpful to him."

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital. Palestinians want the capital of an independent state of theirs to be in the city's eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Trump announced his administration would begin a process of moving the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step expected to take years, a move his predecessors opted not to take to avoid inflaming tensions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hailed Trump's announcement as a "historic landmark", said many countries would follow the U.S. move and contacts were underway. He did not name the countries he was referring to.

"President Trump has immortalized himself in the chronicles of our capital. His name will now be held aloft, alongside other names connected to the glorious history of Jerusalem and of our people," he said in a speech at Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Other close Western allies of Washington, including France and Britain, have been critical of Trump's move. Pope Francis has called for Jerusalem's status quo to be respected, while China and Russia have also expressed concern.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said: "The European Union has a clear and united position. We believe the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states and with Jerusalem as the capital of both."

The United Nations Security Council is likely to meet on Friday to discuss the U.S. decision, diplomats said.

Trump's decision has raised doubts about his administration's ability to follow through on a peace effort that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has led for months aimed at reviving long-stalled negotiations.

Haniyeh called on Abbas to withdraw from peacemaking with Israel and on Arabs to boycott the Trump administration. Abbas said on Wednesday the United States had abdicated its role as a mediator in peace efforts.

"We have given instruction to all Hamas members and to all its wings to be fully ready for any new instructions or orders that may be given to confront this strategic danger that threatens Jerusalem and threatens Palestine," Haniyeh said.

"United Jerusalem is Arab and Muslim, and it is the capital of the state of Palestine, all of Palestine," he said, referring to territory including Israel as well as the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

Israel and the United States consider Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2007, a terrorist organization. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and its suicide bombings helped spearhead the last intifada, from 2000 to 2005.

Fearing recrimination could disrupt reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah and other Fatah delegates arrived in Gaza on Thursday to meet Hamas.

The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, believing its status should be resolved in negotiations. No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem.

Trump's decision fulfils a campaign promise and will please Republican conservatives and evangelicals who make up a sizeable portion of his domestic support.

He said his move was not intended to tip the scale in favor of Israel and that any deal involving the future of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated by the parties, but the move was seen almost uniformly in Arab capitals as a sharp tilt toward Israel.

The United States is asking Israel to temper its response to the announcement because Washington expects a backlash and is weighing the potential threat to U.S. facilities and people, according to a State Department document seen by Reuters.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah lawmakers said the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital constituted aggression against Palestinians and resistance was the only way to recover lost rights. Hezbollah and Israel fought a war in 2006.

Protests broke out in areas of Jordan's capital, Amman, inhabited by Palestinian refugees, and several hundred protesters gathered outside the U.S. consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday after Trump's announcement.

In Pakistan's capital Islamabad, about 50 members of the Islamist movement Jamaat-ud-Dawa staged a protest on Thursday to denounce the U.S. decision. A few dozen people from a trade organization joined the rally.

Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan said the United States was "exposing its colonial ambition in Muslim territory".

Palestinians switched off Christmas lights on trees outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, and in Ramallah, next to the burial site of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in protest.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Kay Johnson in Islamabad, Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem)

A vigil for Christan: Family and friends gather in grief for 5-year-old lost to a gunshot

Thu, 2017-12-07 05:50

They came on a cold, dark December night to mourn 5-year-old Christan Johnson, his big extended family and family friends too.

Dozens gathered Wednesday outside the family's East Anchorage apartment for a vigil of support. They sang and prayed, hugged and sobbed as they leaned into one another, remembering what no one wants to remember but also the goodness of him.

He was a kindergartner at Tyson Elementary School. He loved cars and baking cakes with his mother, some friends said. He was so loving and sweet that he seemed different from other children, said Lydia Quinn, his mother's cousin. She led the crowd in prayers seeking strength for the parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles.

"Yes Lord," she prayed as the family prayed with her. "The baby – we know you got him."

Early Tuesday, the boy found a loaded pistol in his parents' nightstand and fatally shot himself with it.

Parents held infants in blankets and hugged small children clutching red balloons. Friends and family wrote messages on some balloons and his nickname, "Pablo." In the dark, tears were lit by candlelight.

His parents huddled with close family. His mother, Jualisa House, thanked everyone for coming.

"It showed us how loved he was and how much of an impact he had on a lot of lives," she said later in a text message. Christan's father, Anthony Johnson, released from jail earlier in the day on a charge of being a felon in possession of gun, stayed quiet.

"Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world," the crowd sang, voices breaking and trailing off, then picking up again. "Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight."

Mariah Haynes, who became friends with House when they were both students at Bartlett High, said she came to show her love for Christan.

Then they counted, 1-2-3. The balloons drifted free.

"We love you baby. We love you so much," someone choked out through tears.

"Bye Christan!" one child said, then another, then another.

In almost an instant, the balloons disappeared against the dark of night.

The secrets and service of a World War II family, 76 years after Pearl Harbor

Thu, 2017-12-07 05:33

MESA, Ariz. – The storage unit's corrugated metal door slid upward, revealing 100 square feet of mostly empty space. Not very promising, thought Joe Alosi, a businessman who bid on units, sight unseen, when tenants stopped paying the rent. Several plastic bins sat in the middle of the floor, and dust billowed as Alosi peeled off the first lid.

Inside, tightly packed, were rows of envelopes. Alosi opened one, and then another, and then another. The Marine Corps veteran felt a slight chill.

The mostly handwritten letters, on tissue-thin paper, dated to World War II and were penned mostly by the members of a single family – the Eydes of Rockford, Illinois. Three brothers were in the military: one in the Marine Corps, one in the Army and one in the Army Air Forces.

There were hundreds of letters, stretching over four years of war and beyond. They captured the horrors of combat, offered warm reminiscences of childhood and exchanges about everything from the movie "Casablanca" to the brothers' beloved Chicago Cubs. The brothers also used racist and pejorative language, including in their descriptions of Japanese and German forces.

Back at his kitchen table, Alosi, joined by his wife and children, continued to pore over the correspondence. They took turns reading the letters aloud.

Alosi wondered how such an intimate and gripping collection had ended up in a storage locker, whether any of the brothers had children, and if there was anyone left who would care to see them.

"I've seen multiple times the way people leave things, you know?" Alosi said. "And when they leave them in a certain way, it's like they don't plan on coming back."

What remained was the story contained in the letters.

The war begins

"We have been called out on air raid alarms the last few days, but you know as much about what was happening as I do, the radio is the only dope we get as well as you about them Japs and Nasty Germans. Bastards are what they are, raiding without warnings, sneaking up at night and such wrong methods of a clean fight." – Frank Eyde, in a letter home, Dec. 10, 1941.

Lorentz Eyde and Margaret Larsen separately came to the United States from Norway and married in Rockford in 1908. He was a cabinetmaker, she a homemaker, and they settled in a small three-bedroom home on tree-lined Fremont Street.

[Alaska, the day before Pearl Harbor]

Frank, the eldest child, graduated from Rockford Central High School in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became German chancellor. Frank had a wide smile and thick, dark hair, and worked as a traveling soap salesman for Procter & Gamble. His three younger brothers called him "The Salesman," even though the career didn't stick.

Frank enlisted as a Marine in October 1939 at age 26, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. Two years later, Frank's younger brother, Ralph, quit his factory job at George D. Roper Corp. to enlist as an Army infantryman at age 23.

In a stroke of good luck, both brothers were stationed in California – Frank with the 2nd Marine Division's 2nd Tank Battalion at San Diego's Camp Elliott, and Ralph with the 32nd Infantry Regiment of the Army's 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, a sprawling installation near Monterey.

Conflict in Europe and Asia seemed far away. "All this falseness of war, it's hooey!" Frank wrote home in November 1941. He had just been to Los Angeles and spotted Hollywood stars Margaret Lindsay, Betty Grable and Claire Trevor. "Could have dated your choice if I had the dough, say me," he boasted.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. U.S. troops up and down the California coastline began pulling patrols to watch for enemy bombers, as well as preparing to deploy to the Pacific. An attack on the mainland seemed entirely possible.

"No telling when I'll go home now," Ralph wrote to his brother John, the youngest sibling, on Dec. 18. "Won't even get Christmas off. Stood five and a half hours of straight guard last night. Shoot anyone suspicious lurking around in wee hours of morning."

Frank described the changes in San Diego.

"All the shops are putting black paper on their windows and when the alarm goes, all lights will have to go out except those on the inside that can't be seen from the street," he wrote four days after the attack. "There is talk of 4,000 Japs organizing along the Mexican border and the paper says fishing boats bring some in dock to be searched."

In Rockford, the other two brothers – Sanford, the second oldest, and John – considered what they might do in the military. Sanford, 26 when the war began, worked at the Woodward Governor factory as a carpenter, and received a deferment.

Ralph urged John, 21, who ran a lathe at Roper Corp., making aircraft parts for the military, to enlist but avoid a job in the combat arms.

"If you want my true thoughts on your best bet, it's the aviation mechanical line on airplane motors. Best pay, course you study while you work + when you get out, you've a high paying trade," Ralph wrote. "That's my advice, John. Stay out of the infantry with your keen mechanical mind. No pay, too much danger, learn nothing valuable for civilian life."

The Battle of Tulagi

"What I saw I will never forget. I was on a guncrew that shot down a Jap bomber coming right at us about 20 feet off the water and about 25 feet from our boat. In all, our ship shot down five bombers coming right close to the ship, trying to crash into it." – Frank Eyde, in a letter home in summer 1942.

Frank became a section chief for an intelligence unit in 2nd Tank Battalion, overseeing 18 men. He told his father in a letter home in May 1942 that he had learned how to do everything from changing the treads on a tank to using a 37mm antitank gun that was pulled by a Jeep.

"Wherever I am, I know how to take care of myself and you know my speed, so watch them babies fall when I get that gun working, rolling at speeds over the sands," Frank wrote.

He deployed to the Pacific by transport ship in June, not knowing his destination. Ralph informed their parents of Frank's departure. "Don't worry about him," he wrote. "He knows all the tricks. I was hoping to see him, but that'll have to wait for a while, I guess. It won't last so long the way the U.S. fleet is beating the Japs in the Pacific."

Frank's unit sailed to the Solomon Islands. U.S. commanders launched a multipronged attack there on Aug. 7, 1942, placing Marines and sailors ashore under fire on the islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo and Guadalcanal. Frank's unit was deployed to Tulagi, where hundreds of Japanese soldiers fought to the death on a strip of land about three miles long and a half-mile wide.

"High bombers overhead dropping eggs all around us," Frank wrote home in the summer of 1942. "At night a real battle was on. I saw tracers blast from our ships . . . heavy fires all around. We can't talk about the losses of the war, so I guess all I can say is we won the battle. It was sure a 4th of July and it happened eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Frank's unit withdrew from Tulagi relatively quickly, moving to the New Hebrides, a group of tropical islands off the east coast of Australia now known as Vanuatu.

"I am doing fine and feel all right," Frank wrote to his mother that September. "We have a guard tonight and have had quite a few hikes to keep in condition. I can't say much about the Island outside of that it is not so bad and has plenty of advantages for protection. I went to church here at camp, and enjoyed the outdoor sermon. We train to keep in shape and when they need us to do a job we will be ready. It's good training here as all our fighting will be done in the same kind of islands."

In February 1943 Frank contracted malaria and jaundice, and the Marines sent him home from the South Pacific.

Ralph is wounded

"As long as you know now that it was only a slight head wound + nothing more it's okay by me. It was plenty close but I was never out of the 18 straight days of action nor in any hospital or rest camp. Too many fellows worse off than myself at the time so I had it dressed the following day while eating my field ration (was hit the same day I landed – shell landing 15 feet away while pushing ahead). But all this a thousand times over never held up this outfit." – Ralph Eyde, in a letter written home Sept. 28, 1943.

Ralph wrote John in April 1943 that he was preparing to deploy, as part of "one of these outfits who make beach landings in the middle of the night on the roughest coastlines possible and seize airports, railroads, cities, and enemy coast defenses."

It was possible, Ralph wrote, that the division would be sent to "Japan itself," underlining the two words for emphasis.

"If I want to write some secret dope," he wrote, "I have to do it now." But he warned his brother John not to "tell anyone out of family what our outfit has been doing cause all this training could be worthless if a pack of subs got ahold of us and all were sent to the bottom in Mid-Ocean."

In April 1943, Ralph left San Francisco on a transport ship, traveling under the Golden Gate Bridge, and then heading north to Alaska. Japanese soldiers had landed unopposed in the Aleutian Islands in June 1942, taking control of the islands of Kiska and Attu and raising fears that they could use them to launch attacks on the continental United States. The invasion was the first on an American territory since the War of 1812.

[From the archives: Over 70 years ago, the Battle of Attu raged]

The Battle of Attu began May 11, 1943, with Ralph's unit landing on muddy shores as part of Operation Landcrab. Over the next three weeks, in frosty, miserable conditions, 15,000 American and Canadian troops battled about 2,300 well-fortified Japanese soldiers. All but about 30 Japanese soldiers fought to the death.

Ralph suffered a head wound from a shell early in the battle but shrugged it off and stayed in the fight. Frostbite and other exposure injuries were common, and the battle did not conclude until the remaining Japanese fighters made a "banzai" charge through American lines that resulted in furious hand-to-hand combat.

"If the people back home ever have any doubts about the fighting caliber of its soldiers, they want to see this outfit in action and I can assure you that all their doubts would be erased," Ralph wrote in a letter home dated Aug. 5, 1943. "It was a rugged struggle and all the weather in the world couldn't hold us back."

He and four other soldiers from his company of a few hundred received a Purple Heart, which he sent home to Rockford and called a "real honey of a medal."

U.S. accounts of the battle state that 549 Allied troops were killed, 1,148 more were wounded and, 1,814 suffered through cold-weather injuries and disease.

"It was plenty tough + rugged going with the weather against us + Jap snipers harassing us all the time," Ralph wrote in another letter that August. "But we blew them from their foxholes + they all ended up 6 foot under. I think they'll be good fertilizer – they're sure not good for anything else."

[Alaska's World War II civilian POWs recall their 'lost village' of Attu]

Frank struggles at home

"I am still here at the U.S. Naval Hospital being watched over by some experts in the art of bringing one back to normal." – Frank Eyde, in a letter to his mother from a hospital, July 11, 1943.

While Ralph remained on Attu, Frank returned to San Diego. He initially appeared upbeat, writing his brother Sanford in June 1943 that he had just arrived "from the other side" and was looking forward to a 30-day furlough in Illinois.

"It takes a little time to get things straightened out but it won't be long before I can see the Cubs get out of the cellar," Frank wrote. "I am feeling fine and looking to the day I can see you all again."

But Frank had begun a long downward spiral. Traveling back to Rockford, he experienced a paranoid episode on Chicago's Navy Pier on July 7, 1943, believing people were watching him, according to military documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Authorities found him confused and restless, prompting the military to admit him to the Great Lakes military hospital north of the city for observation rather than allowing him to continue home.

Frank played down his problems. "I am feeling fine and dandy and wish I was with you and the boys. Being so close, but it won't be long now, I hope," he wrote to his mother four days later. "I needed a short rest, for my nerves were kind of jittery. I have been looking to the bright side of life and everything is going to turn out all right. Where there is a will there is a way."

Frank was diagnosed with combat fatigue – often considered a precursor to the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder – a few weeks later. By mid-August, doctors reported that he had improved and was no longer fearful or confused, and had a mood that is "one of quietness but not depression."

"He wishes to return to duty, but does not believe that he is well enough for combat duty at this time," a hospital report said.

Frank continued to struggle. He was transferred in September to a Navy base in Crane, Indiana, where he could be closer to home, but was court-martialed in December 1943 after an unauthorized absence from the base. He was demoted from sergeant to corporal, with Marine officials pointedly noting that he had a drinking problem, according to military documents.

Ralph gets wounded again

"When dawn broke and the sun was shining brightly, the dead Japs were piled in lines where our machine guns had been mowing 'em down all night." – Ralph Eyde, in a spring 1944 letter to Frank.

By January 1944, following jungle-warfare training in Hawaii, Ralph was back on the high seas. U.S. commanders sent his division to assault the Marshall Islands, on which the Japanese had several airfields.

Allied forces launched Operation Flintlock on Jan. 31, 1944, with soldiers from the 7th Infantry Division coming ashore on Kwajalein Atoll.

The Army caught the Japanese underprepared, but they still fought fiercely. On Feb. 4, Ralph and his comrades found themselves facing Japanese soldiers who screamed wildly as they made a final, furious charge under cover of darkness.

"Wham! Shell just misses us. Wham! Another right behind us," Ralph recalled later in a letter to John. "The machine gun let go with a roar, mowing down some Japs several yards away. My machine gun keeps mowing them down all night."

The battle continued until after dawn, when Ralph was hit by a Japanese shell and blown 20 feet out of his foxhole, with shrapnel wounds to the lung. Ralph was dizzy from his concussion and wounds, he wrote, but continued to throw hand grenades.

Ralph's machine-gunner lost an eye, but both men survived. Ralph later boasted to Frank that American soldiers would beat "the tricky and cunning Jap" anytime.

"He's a tough little fanatic and no one in this outfit underestimated his fighting ability," Ralph wrote. "Lost some of my buddies in this campaign and their heroic deeds against harassing snipers, pillboxes, and block houses will never be forgotten."

The Battle of Kwajalein ended with 142 American troops killed, two missing and another 845 wounded. The Japanese lost more than 4,300 men.

"Golly, you sure get your share of battle, don't you?" John wrote Feb. 11, not knowing that Ralph was wounded and being shipped to Hawaii for treatment.

By then, John was a member of the Army Air Forces, and training for a deployment to the Pacific with the 505th Bombardment Groupat Wendover Airfield in Utah.

"Be a soldier like you use to pitch Ralph, and you'll be O.K. – and you know I'm always on your side, howling it up for you and thinking about you all the time – so give them Japs hell," John wrote.

The Eydes learned that Ralph had been "seriously wounded" on Kwajalein in a telegram on Feb. 16, and received a letter from a general confirming the news the following day. Sanford wrote his younger brother immediately.

"It could have been worse, and it was with that thought in mind that I told Musha and Borsk not to worry," Sanford wrote, using nicknames the brothers had for their parents. "I said that any guy who can pick other guys off second base like you did one after another was plenty quick moving. Your ability in sports has been to your advantage in your most recent encounter."

A few days later, when he heard Ralph had been wounded, John wrote that he had "bawled like a baby! – and right in front of everybody!"

Frank is discharged; John deploys

"Japan hasn't seen 1/100 of blastings she's going to in the near future." – John Eyde in a letter home, July 1945.

Frank's situation continued to worsen. He was ordered from his base in Indiana to the naval hospital in Charleston, S.C. where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

"It is the opinion of this board that this patient is unfit for service; that his condition did not exist prior to enlistment and that he will be a menace to himself and the public safety; and that further hospitalization is indicated," said one hospital document dated March 31, 1944. "It is recommended that he be transferred to the National Naval Medical Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland for further observation, treatment and disposition."

Another document dated the same day said that he often secluded himself and was prone to "bizarre behavior." He believed others could potentially control his thoughts, and recalled seeing a large figure in the sky a few months prior "that could have been God."

Doctors in Charleston also reported that Frank told them he had several sexual encounters with men while drunk and regretted it afterward.

As his mental condition worsened, his letters got shorter and shorter, usually touching only on the weather and baseball. Frank was transferred in April to Bethesda. Doctors there found him "dreamy and preoccupied but in good conduct," but also said that he "smiles fatuously and inappropriately." Institutional care, they determined, was still necessary. Frank was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington.

Sanford, meanwhile, was rejected by the military in 1944: Doctors declared him "4F," meaning he was not suited for the service.

Sanford traveled to Washington in June to visit Frank, reporting back to the family in a letter that his brother had gained weight and looked "like his good old self at 190 pounds." By the end of July, Frank was discharged from military service.

John deployed late in the year to an airfield on Tinian, which Allied forces had seized that summer in a week-long battle. The island, part of the Mariana Islands, was viewed by the United States as a key base from which B-29 Superfortress bombers in John's unit could wage an aerial assault against Japan.

"I can't tell you where I am at present due to censorship," John said in his first letter home. "The plane ride was smooth and quite swift and I enjoyed the trip immensely. The vegetation on this place is good and most anything will grow, including bananas."

He urged his brothers to savor their status as civilians.

"Maybe by the time you get this, you'll have yourself a good job, how about that?" John wrote. "Also you Frank – should get yourself a good position. I know it's hard to get adjusted to your new civilian life, but you'll soon get used to it! And Sanny, you're quite adjusted already, heh, heh."

John stayed abroad for another eight months, working on the electrical components of airplanes.

"The British Lancasters and Lincolns will soon be over and with their 11 ton bombs they should be able to push disaster on any underground factories that may be in Japan," he wrote in July 1945. The following month, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Within days, the war was over.

John had already been thinking about life after the war. He suggested to Ralph that they open a sporting goods store.

Postwar

"Thanks for keeping my whereabouts a secret and that is a good way to describe my movements – 'in and out' all the time. Ha, ha." – Ralph Eyde in a June 1959 letter to Sanford and John.

Frank continued to struggle for many years after the war, unable to hold a steady job. In March 1954, John wrote to Ralph that "Frankie boy" was recently freed after serving 20 days in jail.

"We don't worry about him here at all and he doesn't come around here at all – he's over 40 and can live his own life as he sees fit," John wrote. "I've never heard him say he was wrong or apologize to anyone. He's just not all there or extremely a self-worshiper and a stubborn, selfish, liar and bullslinger."

But he outlived John and Sanford and died in 1996, aged 83.

John, who opened a window installation business out of his childhood home after the war, fell ill in 1962, dying from a brain tumor at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Madison, Wis. Sanford, who continued to work at Woodward Governor, died in 1971 at age 56.

Ralph's life took more unusual turns. He briefly stayed home in Rockford, but then took a job with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, witnessing the testing of nuclear bombs in South Pacific in the 1950s.

He continued to work for the government for decades, in a somewhat clandestine fashion, writing his family from everywhere from Africa to Asia, with many years in Europe during the Cold War. He thanked his brothers repeatedly for not revealing where he was to others, saying in a May 1959 letter that keeping quiet would prevent him from having to "answer a lot of dumb questions."

Ralph was assigned to perform work on a Navy construction contract in Saigon in 1967, according to a copy of his travel orders obtained by The Washington Post. He wrote letters through at least 1970, as the Vietnam War raged around him. But he did not describe his work. Ralph's family suspected that he was in the CIA. When he died in 2003, aged 85, his obituary said he had served in the agency.

The CIA, asked whether Ralph served either as an officer or as a contractor, declined to comment.

A mystery solved

For eight years, Alosi sat on the letters he had found in a storage unit, unable to find relatives, before contacting The Washington Post, which located distant relatives. The closest surviving family member is Vicki Venhuizen, a second cousin of the Eyde brothers who said she remembers them as young men. None of the brothers married or had children, she said, and many of the other cousins who were close to Ralph have died.

Venhuizen, of Mesa, Arizona, said that in Ralph's later years, he settled in Rockford and collected the family correspondence, which he stored in plastic bins, along with a collection of vinyl records.

A now-deceased cousin of Venhuizen's, Darwin Backer, grew close to Ralph and listened to many of his stories, she said. Backer took care of Ralph's affairs when he died, including his obituary. He turned over the letters to Vicki's half sister, Judith Jones Ellis, who served as an unofficial family historian.

"I was with her when she picked them up," Venhuizen said. "They were in Darwin's basement, and he felt like they had no use for them."

Ellis took the letters back with her to Arizona, where she also lived, Venhuizen said. Ellis died a few years later, and it's likely that family members in Arizona did not realize the significance of the letters or what they detailed, she said. Somehow, they ended up in the storage unit.

Venhuizen expressed gratitude to Alosi for not throwing them away. She considers the Eyde brothers her heroes, but believes the letters are Alosi's now.

"I would like to read them," she said. "It would be wonderful if they ended up in a World War II museum somewhere, if Joe donated them. That would be a great last stop."

Alosi said he's still uncertain what to do with the letters.

"I'll talk to her and we'll figure it out," he said. "I'm just really excited that people will get to hear about these guys."

– – –

The Washington post's Julie Vitkovskaya, Carol Alderman and Bridget Reed Morawski contributed to this report.

UAA bounces back with exhibition win over Cal Miramar in men’s basketball

Wed, 2017-12-06 22:35

UAA's offensive woes evaporated Wednesday in a 106-70 men's basketball exhibition win over Cal Miramar.

The Seawolves placed six players in double figures, shot 58.1 percent from the field and shot 50 percent from 3-point land against in a big bounce-back performance against the team from San Diego at the Alaska Airlines Center. The Fighting Falcons beat UAA 61-59 on Tuesday.

Freshman guard Brennan Rymer led UAA with 18 points in 18 minutes off the bench and senior forward Jacob Lampkin tallied 16 points and eight rebounds after missing Tuesday's game for a minor disciplinary infraction.

Jack MacDonald (14 points), Drew Peterson (14), Maleke Haynes (13) and Josiah Wood (12) all reached double figures for the Seawolves.

Christian Mora's 22 points led Cal Miramar, a United States Collegiate Athletic Association team.

One Seawolf was back, but another was out — senior guard D.J. Ursery, UAA's second-leading scorer with 11 points per game — missed the game with a minor injury suffered Tuesday.

But UAA more than made up for his absence with 45 points off the bench.

The Fighting Falcons stuck with the Seawolves until midway through the first half, when UAA turned a 23-23 tie into a 43-31 halftime lead.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Peterson and Ryan Curtis (6 points) extended UAA's lead to 76-53 with 10 minutes to go in the second half.

The game doesn't count toward UAA's stats or 6-4 record, but the Seawolves' scoring effort was well above its season average of 63.1 points per game.

UAA returns to Great Northwest Athletic Conference play Dec. 17 at Western Oregon.

Prep hockey: Mackin goal in closing seconds lifts Bartlett to 1st CIC win

Wed, 2017-12-06 21:26

Bradley Mackin scored with seven seconds remaining to lift the Bartlett hockey team to its first Cook Inlet Conference victory of the season Wednesday.

Mackin's unassisted goal in the third period, his second of the game, was the final goal in Bartlett's 4-3 win over Eagle River at Ben Boeke Arena.

Eagle River scored all three of its goals in the third period.

Golden Bears goalie Hayden Laflamme tallied 20 saves and Eagle River goalie Chandler Annis made 21 stops.

Readers write: Letters to the editor, December 7, 2017

Wed, 2017-12-06 20:57

AGDC picture confuses

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the message in the glossy Alaska Gasline Development Corp. publication included with Sunday's Anchorage Daily News isn't clear. It shows Alaskan and Chinese dignitaries smiling and shaking hands across the signing table for the pipeline agreement. Chinese President Xi Jinping in the background on the right is smiling and applauding. On the left is President Trump, with eyes closed and a frown. Is he … napping (It was a busy trip, after all), or unhappy ("I could have gotten a much better deal!"), or contemplating his next tweet (about how great the Chinese are)?

I'd like to know.

— Jon Sharpe
Anchorage

Sherwonit's data too narrow

RE: Bill Sherwonit's letter 'Grizzlies more deadly' (Dec. 4) responding to my letter 'Black bears kill more often' (Nov. 30): Science News "Beware of predatory male American black bears: Attack rates are rising with human population growth" (May 11, 2011), cites University of Calgary's Stephen Herrero as its source, stating "most fatal black bear attacks were predatory," etc. This is quite different than Sherwonit portraying black bears as soft and fuzzy while confining his data to Alaska, which is misleading as it is too narrow.

After two people were killed by black bears earlier this year, KTUU provided "North America's fatal bear attack map" compiled by Sidney Sullivan July 5, 2017, showing 25 human fatalities from black bears and 18 from brown between 2000-2017. And although Sherwonit maligns researcher Larry Kaniut, it's Kaniut who necessarily points out bear spray is not enough in a bear attack, while Herrero — who Sherwonit praises — advocates bear spray. Finally, Sherwonit wrote he didn't understand my Romy Schneider "La Califfa" YouTube video reference, but it was meant to complement Sherwonit's Nov. 28th commentary on Anchorage bear deaths as both evoke sadness over tragic death.

— Chris Deile
Anchorage

Tax bill was drafted in secret

John Klapproth (Letters, Dec. 5) repeats the canard about Obamacare not being thoroughly vetted before passage.

The current tax bill — in addition to its substantive problems (highly favoring the rich, reducing medical care for millions, blowing up the deficit) — was drafted in secret and had zero committee hearings.

Obamacare, by contrast, was drafted and debated openly for over a year, with numerous hearings where experts and others could voice their views.

What Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to was not that people didn't know what the bill said — it had been thoroughly vetted — but rather that, being long and complex, we'd have to see in practice how it all worked out, and undoubtedly there would be problems that would need to be fixed.

The current Congress has had that opportunity, and failed.

— Rick Wicks
Anchorage

Be wary of gas deal with China

On the last page of the Joint Development Agreement for Alaska LNG with China, the signatures of Bill Walker and Keith Meyer stand out clearly, while the signatures of those who signed for China Petrochemical Corp, CIC Capital Corp and the Bank of China are blocked out for privacy. Now, why is that? So much for transparency with China.

China is a dictatorship with no respect for the rule of law, transparency or an independent judiciary. China has no regard for human rights, labor rights, freedom of speech and religion, or environmental protection. Internet censorship is widespread.

A joint venture of this size with Chinese state entities that engage in these practices worries me. And the fact that it got a nod from Trump and China's unelected president Xi Jinping offers no consolation whatsoever.

Alaska needs to be wary … very wary.

— William M. Cox
Anchorage

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a letter under 200 words for consideration, email letters@adn.com, or click here to submit via any web browser. Submitting a letter to the editor constitutes granting permission for it to be edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity. Send longer works of opinion to commentary@adn.com.

Don’t read this article if you are afraid of snakes 3 times your size

Wed, 2017-12-06 20:46

A Burmese python – more than 17 feet long and weighing more than 130 pounds, with more rows of sharp teeth than you ever cared to imagine – has been captured and killed in the Florida Everglades.

Officials said the hunter, Jason Leon, set a record late last week for bringing in the longest snake recorded in the South Florida Water Management District's Python Elimination Program, which was designed earlier this year to help trim the reptile's troubling population.

[Earlier this year: Owner says Sam, the missing 17-foot python, has returned home in Meadow Lakes]

District spokesman Randy Smith said the non-venomous constrictor was captured in the Everglades, about 40 miles from Miami, and brought to the district's Homestead Field Station to be measured.

The hunter also claimed a bounty – $50 for the first four feet and an extra $25 for each foot more, according to the district spokesman.

Leon, the hunter, said when he saw the python, it was completely submerged in water.

In a video from the South Florida Water Management District, he said he "got her out, shot her right in the head while I was holding her."

"I grabbed her first by the center of the body. She had her head over wrapped around by the tree and I was able to go ahead and grab her farther up by the head. When I had her farther up on the head, I came and took a shot on her right here," the hunter said in the video, wrapping his hands around the dead python's head to show where he shot it. "And she got popped again here on the neck later."

When asked about the hunt, Leon told NBC Miami that no one should attempt to do it alone.

"That snake could pretty much kill any full-grown man," he told the news station about the serpent. "If that snake was alive right now, it would probably take like three of us to be able to control that snake."

The Burmese python, which is considered one of the largest snakes in the world, is native to Asia and an invasive species to the Everglades, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The South Florida Water Management District says on its website that the Burmese python was likely introduced to the Florida Everglades "by accidental or intentional releases by pet owners."

[After Allie the alligator, a Valley shop is inundated with reptiles in need of rescue]

It states:

"Since making their way into the bountiful grounds of the Everglades, these giant constrictors have thrived, assuming a top position on the food web.

"While researchers have been hard pressed to provide specific population numbers in the Everglades, a rapid number of increased sightings from 2005 to 2010 is concerning. The species was once relegated to only Everglades National Park and Miami-Dade County, but recent tracking shows pythons are moving westward into locations such as Big Cypress National Preserve and northward into Broward and Palm Beach counties.

"Burmese pythons possess an insatiable appetite. They cannot only kill Florida native prey species and pose a threat to humans, but also rob panthers, birds of prey, alligators and bobcats of a primary food source."

"We saw that there was a very serious problem," Smith, the spokesman, said.

Smith added the python program has been the "most successful endeavor in trying to make a dent in the population," eliminating at least 743 snakes (some of them pregnant females) since the program's inception in March.

To participate, hunters must be at least 18 years old and without a felony conviction or wildlife-related offense within the past five years, according to the site.

Seawolves notebook: It’s rivalry weekend for hockey and women’s hoops

Wed, 2017-12-06 20:29

It's a full-fledged rivalry weekend for UAA and UAF with Govorner's Cup hockey in Anchorage and a women's basketball showdown in Fairbanks.

The Seawolves hockey squad is looking for its first win against the Nanooks this season after dropping two games in October in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association rivalry.

UAA hosts UAF Friday and Saturday at Sullivan Arena. The teams will play each other six times this season.

"Not only do we already have two games under our belt in terms of knowing what to expect from them, but if there's two teams in college hockey that know each other inside and out, it's the two Alaska teams," UAA coach Matt Thomas said. "They're fun games to play in."

UAA (1-9-4, 1-4-3 WCHA) dropped to last place in the 10-team conference last week after falling twice to Ferris State, 2-0 Friday and 5-2 Saturday.

The Seawolves have nine points in the WCHA standings, one behind ninth-place Bemidji State. Bowling Green leads the conference with 24 points.

The Friday loss was UAA's first shutout loss of the season.

In the Saturday game, UAA battled back to tie the game at 2-2 with two goals in a 32-second span in the second period. Senior Austin Azurdia scored his team-leading seventh goal of the season followed by Corey Renwick's first-career goal moments later.

Ferris State pulled away with three goals in the third period.

[UAA hockey team loses twice to Ferris State]

Despite the losses, Thomas said he likes the way the Seawolves have been playing.

"I think last weekend could have been different in terms of results if a few pucks would've went into the back of the net at key times for us," he said. "We've got a good feel about our team right now — we're executing our game plan for the most part."

UAA women retain No. 2 basketball ranking

The Seawolves are ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II for the third straight week heading into Saturday's women's basketball game against UAF in Fairbanks.

The Seawolves and Nanooks enter the rivalry contest on opposite sides of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings. UAA is undefeated at 8-0 overall and 2-0 in the conference, while UAF is 2-4 overall and 0-2 in league play.

But UAA coach Ryan McCarthy said his team isn't overlooking its rivals.

"Fairbanks is always an interesting game," McCarthy said at UAA's weekly press conference. "I actually found out an interesting fact that we're 41-6 against Fairbanks at home, but 25-24 on the road.

"It's always a tough game."

The Seawolves are winning their games by an average of 23 points per game — by far the best in the GNAC.

Junior forward Hannah Wandersee is pacing UAA with 17.1 points — good for third in the GNAC — and 6.8 rebounds per game. Wandersee's 57.8 field goal percentage is second best in the league.

In the national rankings, the Seawolves only trail No. 1 Ashland (Ohio) — the defending Division II champion. Ashland is 8-0 on the season.

Gymnastics to open with Green and Gold meet

First-year UAA gymnastics coach Tanya Ho will get her first glimpse of her team in action Saturday in the Green and Gold meet at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The Seawolves boast 11 returners and four freshmen this season.

"I'm excited to see how the team performs under pressure," Ho said. "They've worked really hard in the gym and I think them putting all those routines in … it should be a little easier now to compete in front of a live audience."

Ho is only the second UAA gymnastics coach in program history. She joined the team over the summer after former UAA coach Paul Stoklos retired after 33 years at the helm.

One of UAA's top returners this season is senior Kendra Daniels, who broke a 21-year-old UAA beam record with a 9.9 Feb. 19 at UC Davis.

Swiss named honorable mention All-American

After being snubbed in the West Region honors, UAA junior Leah Swiss was named an honorable mention Division II All-American this week by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

The 6-foot outside hitter was instrumental in the Seawolves making their fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and a 19-11 record this season. UAA fell to Western Washington in four sets in the first round of the tournament last week.

Swiss, a Dimond High grad, ranked sixth in the GNAC with 4.09 points per set and second with 0.43 aces per set this season.

Swiss was a second-team All-America pick by the Division II Conference Commissioners Association last season as a sophomore in 2016, when she when she helped the Seawolves win a second straight GNAC title and advance to the NCAA national championship, where UAA finished runner-up.

HOCKEY

Last week
Ferris State 2, UAA 0
Ferris State 5, UAA 2

This week
Governor's Cup
Friday — UAA vs. UAF, 7:07 p.m., Alaska Airlines Center
Saturday — UAA vs. UAF, 7:07 p.m., Alaska Airlines Center

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Last week
UAA 70, Central Washington 58
UAA 78, Northwest Nazarene 68

This week
Saturday — UAA at UAF, 7:30 p.m., Patty Center, Fairbanks

MEN'S BASKETBALL

Last week
UAA 65, UAF 39
UAA 74, Montana State-Billings 62

This week
Cal Miramar 61, UAA 59, exhibition
Wednesday — UAA vs. Cal Miramar

GYMNASTICS

This week
Saturday — Green and Gold intrasquad exhibition, 2 p.m.

VOLLEYBALL

Last week
West Region championships
Western Washington 3, UAA 1 (26-24, 23-25, 25-18, 25-18)

Father of Anchorage 5-year-old who died of self-inflicted gunshot wound is approved for house arrest

Wed, 2017-12-06 19:48

The parents of a 5-year-old who accidentally killed himself Tuesday with a gunshot to the head were in federal court Wednesday, surprisingly composed though signs of tension broke through.

The father, Anthony L. Johnnson, has a record for drug trafficking and wasn't supposed to have a gun, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Sayers-Fay. After his son's death, he was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The criminal complaint was quietly filed Tuesday and made public Wednesday.

The main issue before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin McCoy was whether to allow Johnnson out on house arrest for now. That would allow him to help with funeral preparations and attend the service, which is planned for Saturday, said defense attorney Gary Colbath.

His fiancee, Jualisa House, took the witness stand for questioning on whether she could keep him under watch as his third-party custodian, and turn him in if he violated the terms.

"We're putting you in the middle of a very difficult situation," McCoy told House.

[Previous coverage: 5-year-old killed by self-inflicted gunshot in East Anchorage, police say]

One side of the courtroom was packed with friends and family of the couple. House held someone's young child for part of it.

Around 12:20 a.m. Tuesday, House was preparing food and Johnnson was elsewhere in the home when she heard a shot, according to Anchorage police.

Their son, Christian Johnnson, found a loaded handgun in the master bedroom nightstand, then shot and killed himself with it, according to Anchorage police. The new charge describes the gun as a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Police found Christian dead in the master bedroom from a gunshot to the head, the sworn statement filed in federal court says. A pistol was beside him.

Police got a warrant and searched the house. They seized items that included the pistol, 22 .40-caliber rounds recovered from the kitchen counter, 17 .40-caliber rounds found in a bag in a kitchen cabinet, an automatic rifle-style magazine with more rounds in a cabinet, and 43 9mm rounds recovered from a night stand, according to the sworn statement by Jason Crump with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The mother, father and child all lived in the East Anchorage apartment on  Rocky Mountain Court, the federal court filing says.

Sayers-Fay, the prosecutor, said she wasn't against allowing Johnnson out on house arrest and tracked by an electronic ankle monitor until after the funeral even though normally the government would fight it.

Yet there are concerns, she said. Johnnson, who appeared in court in a light orange jailhouse uniform, a month ago had tried to buy a gun in Mississippi, she said. There were other guns in the vehicle that he said he was holding for someone else — a person he could only vaguely identify, the prosecutor said. There's concern for his mental state, though a jail watch on him has been removed, she said.

As the hearing went on, Johnnson fidgeted, perhaps from cold. He wrapped his arms in the jail shirt.

Mainly, Sayers-Fay said, she didn't want House — in the midst of a trauma and the longtime romantic partner of Johnnson — as the third-party. The two have been together 10 years, House said in court.

Did House know that her fiance, as a convicted drug trafficker, wasn't supposed to have a gun? Sayers-Fay asked.

"We needed it because it was protecting me and my son," House answered. She said she didn't know Johnnson couldn't legally buy a gun, but it was for her. Anyway, he was done with probation, she said.

As the questioning went on, House said she was now well aware that he couldn't buy a gun and she wouldn't want one in the house anymore. After what happened, she said, she doesn't want a gun for protection or anything else.

Why should he, the judge, trust her? McCoy asked.

She said she knew Johnnson very well and she hoped what happened is eye-opening for him.

He didn't always listen to her but that should change, she said.

"After all this, he's going to listen to everything," House said.

House works for a local bank. Her supervisor said she could take all the time she needs, she told the judge.

McCoy ultimately agreed to allow Johnnson out on house arrest with a GPS-connected ankle monitor. He has to stay under House's watch around the clock and can only leave the house for pre-approved reasons, the judge said.

Another hearing was set for Monday to address whether Johnnson can remain out of jail.

During Wednesday's hearing, McCoy also went over the charge — a federal offense that occurs when a felon has a gun or ammunition "which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce."

What? Johnnson asked.

There are no gun manufacturers in Alaska, so they are all shipped here, McCoy explained.

The drug case began in 2011 when House was pregnant, she said.

A sworn statement filed in court said federal agents were targeting a man nicknamed Popeye in a Ford Explorer and Johnnson was in the front seat. After being ordered out, he tossed a baggie under the Ford, the statement said. It contained about half an ounce of crack, an amount that indicated drug trafficking, the statement said.

He was sentenced in 2012 to serve nine months, which could be in a halfway house, and three years of probation. Most of his time was in Mississippi, where House said she is from. She wants to bury their child there.

A vigil was planned for Wednesday night outside the family's apartment.

Anchorage police also are investigating the child's death.

Push to open ANWR gets another boost as Murkowski named to Senate tax negotiating team

Wed, 2017-12-06 17:44

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday named Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to his chamber's team of negotiators charged with resolving the differences between dueling tax overhaul bills approved by the Senate and U.S. House.

The Senate's tax legislation — but not the House's — also includes language to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, and Murkowski's presence on the negotiating team gives a boost to those hoping the language sticks.

There are also significant differences between the proposed tax revisions in each bill, which must be resolved.

U.S. Rep. Don Young was named to the House's negotiating team earlier in the week. He said in a prepared statement at the time: "I'll do everything in my power to ensure this important moment to unlock ANWR's energy resources does not pass us by."

[Related: Don Young just became the longest-serving member of the U.S. House]

Murkowski chairs the Senate energy committee that wrote the language to open the refuge to drilling. She joins seven other senators on the conference committee with the House, and she said in a prepared statement Wednesday that she's confident the negotiators will "quickly reach agreement."

"With Congressman Young representing the House of Representatives on our energy provisions, Alaskans will have a very strong voice at the table to ensure this bill crosses the finish line," Murkowski said.

Freezing rain expected in Anchorage on Thursday

Wed, 2017-12-06 17:39

Freezing rain was expected in Anchorage on Thursday, creating potentially difficult travel conditions, the National Weather Service said.

A winter weather advisory was issued for 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday warning of intermittent freezing rain throughout the day.

"Some areas may warm above freezing, though side roads will likely remain hazardous," the National Weather Service wrote.

"The ice will result in difficult travel conditions, including during the evening commute," the agency wrote.

O Christmas tree, how hard we worked to get thee

Wed, 2017-12-06 17:21

There have been few times in my life when I have felt as triumphant as I did last Saturday.

The day didn't start well. Work spilled over into Saturday morning from the long week. It was eerily warm outside so I could hear water dripping on my porch. Not a good soundtrack for December in Alaska.

I played Christmas carols to drown out the snowmelt and sat in my pajamas on the floor with my laptop and a cup of coffee. When I was finally at a point where I could stop, it was already noon.

Luckily, I had something to look forward to: Christmas tree hunting.

To be honest, I have spent many years in Alaska either treeless (I'm Jewish, and a Hannukah bush just doesn't cut it) or sneaking down to Dimond Boulevard in the cover of night to purchase a tree shipped up to Alaska from the Lower 48. Hats off to the fine people making a living this way, but for me this trip has always felt like a shameful journey: I failed to find a viable tree by myself in all of the great state of Alaska, and instead paid $80.

This year that changed. My husband and I drove out to the Moose Range, near Hatcher Pass. With no permit needed, we'd heard we could find that perfect tree.

[How to harvest your own Christmas tree in Alaska]

Our plan was a slightly different take on the classic. Normal people walk into the woods, cut down a tree and lug it out. Easy. Our approach involved fat bikes.

As we got closer to the Moose Range, the dreary freezing rain started turning to snow. By the time we'd pulled up, the temperature had dropped 15 degrees, and white, fluffy flakes were falling steadily from the sky. The Christmas music we were playing suddenly made sense. My mood lifted.

I saw families pulling sleds loaded with their trees. Kids wobbled around in snowsuits as parents let down the tailgate and poured hot chocolate. Yes, it was that cute. It was even better because everyone was in a picture-perfect Alaska snow globe.

My husband and I dawdled outside our truck. Our supplies: our fat bikes, a 3-foot yellow sled, a handsaw, a backpack, two ski straps and a wad of thin, black line. The merriness of our scene faded slightly as we bickered over the best arrangement.

First we tried to affix the sled, with nothing on it, with line to the back of my bike. This failed when line got bunched in my gears within five seconds of attempting to ride.

The second system was better — attaching the sled with ski straps to my husband's backpack and stowing the rest of the materials in a side pocket. We headed down the trail, glad to be moving and that we'd at least figured out how to pack our things, but still uncertain as to what we'd do when we found an actual tree.

[This Alaska family travels to New York City every year to sell Christmas trees]

That part didn't take long. We rode for about 10 minutes, veered off onto a small pathway and found a reasonably sized, mature tree that didn't seem too terribly Charlie Brown-esque. It filled out nicely at the bottom and tapered at the top. We ditched our bikes and sawed it down.

It fell with a gentle, guided whumph into the snow.

We stood back. We were back where we'd started: same tools, no real system in place, but now with a tree.

We got to work. First, we pulled the tree onto the sled with the stump facing the bike so that when we dragged it the branches would naturally go in the right direction. Then we attached the tree to the sled with the two ski straps, ratcheting them down to secure the tree.

Then, the fun part: figuring out how to affix to the sled to a bike. We tried several systems.

We looped the line through holes in the sled, geniuses that we are.

Then, my husband, who would probably be a combination of a sled dog and mountain goat if he were an animal (and this description will be a delightful Christmas surprise for him), took the first try at hauling.

He wrapped line around his gloves and stuffed them into his pogies. He slowly pedaled forward. In 10 seconds, line was caught in his gears.

We tried again. Same thing happened.

Then we tried the brilliant move of each of us taking some line. He pulled the line on his right side; I pulled on my left. This lasted about five seconds.

Finally, just as we were going to give it up and walk the tree out Ye Olde Fashioned Way, I gave it one more try. I wrapped the line several times around each of my handle bars. I braced myself against the weight of the tree, pulling slack out of the line on either side of me.

And I very slowly started pedaling.

And pedaling.

It was working!

With the exception of a few quick stops, I pulled that tree out with our ridiculous makeshift bike trailer. As long as I kept a steady pace, which took steady effort, everything moved forward. Under my labored breath I alternated between mutter-singing "Jingle Bells" ("on a one-horse open sleigh"), and vowing to invest in an actual bike trailer. A family riding an ATV regarded me with what seemed to be a mix of curiosity and pity. My husband Snapchatted and shouted encouraging words.

We made it back to the truck, snow still gently falling on our snow globe expedition. It stayed that way all the way back to our house, where it started to rain.

But our house smelled like evergreen, Christmas and triumph. We strung up the lights. Soon darkness fell. All was December again in the world, now with our tree — or at least I could pretend.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

Wasilla police are seeing a spike in counterfeit bills

Wed, 2017-12-06 16:45

Wasilla police are warning people to look out for counterfeit currency making the rounds at much higher levels this year than last.

Last year, police responded to three reports of counterfeit money use, according to Wasilla Police Department spokeswoman Amanda Graham.

So far this year they've responded to 24, Graham said, mostly at restaurants.

The bills are larger denominations: $20s, $50s and $100s.

The money is a mix of bills with Chinese printing, movie prop money and "just flat-out fake-looking currency," Graham said.

The Chinese bills are printed with characters that, loosely translated, say they're practice money and not meant for circulation, she said. "People should reject currency that has Chinese writing on it, as a general rule."

Wasilla police offer tips to avoid counterfeit money:

— If accepting currency from people for items purchased online, meet at a bank or the police station, where the bills can be checked.

— On the front lower-right corner of bills, the denomination should be in color-shifting ink.

— When holding the bill up to light, you should see a watermark of the portrait that matches the one on the face of the bill.

— In various places on the bill you should see microprinting and feel raised text.

— There should be a security tag running down the left side visible in the light with the correct face value on it. On the new $100s there is a holographic blue bar next to Benjamin Franklin's face.

— Fake bills usually feel fake because they're made of poor-quality paper often missing red and blue threads.

Police say anyone suspecting they've received fake cash can call 907-352-5401 with a description of the person they got it from and their vehicle, if possible.

This weird, water-loving dinosaur has claws like a velociraptor and a neck like a goose

Wed, 2017-12-06 16:09

If it walks like a duck and swims like a duck, it might be a dinosaur. Scientists have discovered a flippered theropod dinosaur that appears to have spent much of its life in water.

The fossil of Halszkaraptor escuilliei, described in the journal Nature, reveals a strange dinosaur that defies paleontologists' expectations: one that mixes the traits of theropod dinosaurs with those of aquatic or semi-aquatic birds and reptiles today.

"The first time I saw the fossil I was shocked," said lead author Andrea Cau, a paleontologist at the Geological and Palaeontological Museum Giovanni Capellini in Italy. "It was so unexpected and bizarre."

[Dispatches from Denali National Park: When dinosaurs ruled Alaska]

H. escuilliei lived some 75 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period. It was a theropod, a largely carnivorous group of dinosaurs whose members included Tyrannosaurus rex and the ancestors of all living birds.

H. escuilliei, called Halszka for short, was part of the dromaeosauridae, a group of feathered theropods that included velociraptor and that were not birds or bird ancestors, but closely related to them. While no feathers survived on this specimen, Halszka probably sported plumage and it had a somewhat birdlike bill that was still not a true beak (in part because it housed several teeth).

Halszka had a long, swanlike neck, was the size of a goose, and it probably spent much of its time in lakes and rivers eating small fish, crustaceans and small animals such as lizards, Cau said. In this dino-eat-dino world, its predators may have included fellow theropods like velociraptor.

This fossil, which is still partly embedded in rock, was originally poached from Mongolia, passing through several private collections before a French fossil dealer acquired it in 2015 and donated it to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. It quickly struck researchers as an oddball.

"We're used to thinking of dromaeosaurs in the context of the classic raptors — velociraptor and Deinonychus and Utahraptor, because we now know they're totally feathered and so forth — as sort of knife-footed murder-birds," said Thomas Holtz Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved with the study.

But this new fossil, he said, is one "weird … looking dromaeosaur."

This dinosaur did have a curved sickle-like claw on the second toe of the foot that is typical of dinosaurs like velociraptor, but it was not especially long and probably wasn't used that much for hunting, Holtz said. Meanwhile, its "arms" were small and appeared to have been modified for use as flippers, which could have helped it paddle through the water.

Unlike penguins and other aquatic birds today, Halszka would not have been a diver, Holtz said. Instead, it probably would have used its long neck to dart out and grab prey close to the water's surface.

The overall result was a sort of "pseudo-goose … something that could wade out into the water and dab around for some small-bodied prey," Holtz said.

[Duck-billed hadrosaurs loved frigid Arctic winters]

The animal's hind legs, meanwhile, appear to have been modified for standing in a more upright position — modifications that can be found in birds today such as ostriches and ducks, Cau said.

Because this fossil had been stolen from its original resting site in Mongolia, the researchers had to make sure that their fossil was authentic.

The scientists subjected Halszka to synchrotron multi-resolution X-ray microtomography, producing a high-resolution digital scan of the whole fossil. This allowed them to see that the structure of the rock around different parts of the specimen remained the same, confirming that the fossil had not been cobbled together from different parts.

This technique also allowed them to see the bones that were still embedded in the rock, the teeth within the bill and even a neurovascular mesh in its snout that's similar to what's found in aquatic reptiles like crocodiles today.

"Halszkaraptor shows aquatic and swimming adaptations not seen in other dinosaurs," Cau said.

Halszka wasn't the only dinosaur with this weird mix of traits, as it turns out: Two other Mongolian fossils — one found in 1970, the other in 1992 — may represent two other species that together with Halszka define a new group of amphibious or semi-aquatic dinosaurs.

The next step, Cau said, is to keep analyzing the six terabytes of scan data the scientists pulled form this single fossil. Once their study of this particular fossil is done, it will be returned to Mongolia.

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