In West Virginia….

The Free Press WV

►   Body of 85-year-old with dementia found in Elk River

STRANGE CREEK, WV — The Braxton County Sheriff says the body of a man an elderly man who had been reported missing has been found in the Elk River.

Sheriff Eddie Williams says officials searched for several hours after the 85-year-old who suffered from dementia was reported missing early Thursday. Williams says the man’s body was recovered in the Strange Creek area around 10:30 a.m.

Officials have not yet released the man’s name.

►   More than 500,000 First Energy power customers in WV will see rate increase January 01

The West Virginia Public Service Commission approved rate increases for First Energy’s Mon Power and Potomac Edison customers.

In late summer or early fall each year, the company approaches the commission with rate requests.

This year, First Energy proposed a $9.00 increase each month for residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

First Energy spokesman Todd Meyers said the rate, approved Wednesday, covers two of the company’s expenses.

The majority of the increase is to cover First Energy fuel expenses.

“It’s the annual fuel case we do each year. About $5.48 or so of the $9.00 comes from that portion. We don’t make any money off of that. It’s just a pass through cost,” Meyers explained.

The power provider’s rate request to cover fluctuating energy costs happens annually.

“Some years, it’s a rate increase. In other years, a couple years ago, it was a rate decrease. Then there have been other years where there’s no change associated with that,” said Meyers.

Following the 2012 derechos that left knocked out power in all but two of the state’s 55 counties, the Public Service Commission investigated prevention measures power companies could take to decrease the chances of broken lines or shorten the time residents are without power.

According to Meyers, the remainder of the $9.00 rate increase not for fuel costs goes toward tree trimming.

“We greatly increased efforts to trim our right of ways on the big power lines and on the smaller distribution lines,” he said. “We’re about a year and a half into a 5 year process. At the end of 5 years, you should be able to go out to any power line in West Virginia, stand under it and see nothing but blue sky up top.”

The portion of the rate increase for the vegetation management program will remain in place next year.

The following year, First Energy could bring a different number to the table in negotiating rates with the state PSC.

“We’ll look another year out from now at the vegetation management cost and see if we’re collecting enough money or if we’re collecting too much money for what we’re doing. At that point, it will be another true up and we’ll see what happens,” Meyers added.

New rates will be effective for West Virginia customers January 01, 2016.

There are approximately 525,000 First Energy customers in the state who will be impacted by the increase.

►   Ex-school superintendent asks court to reconsider dismissing case

CHARLESTON, WV — A former state schools superintendent has asked the West Virginia Supreme Court to reconsider its unanimous decision to dismiss her lawsuit against the State Board of Education over its decision to fire her.

In a petition filed this month, Jorea Marple rejected the court’s argument that her lawsuit “didn’t contain any allegation” that the board or its president “acted fraudulently, maliciously or oppressively.“

Marple sued the board and former board President Wade Linger last year in Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleging defamation and violation of due process rights. The Supreme Court dismissed Marple’s complaint in November.

An attorney for the Board of Education said the issues Marple raised have already been addressed and the court’s decision should stand. Petitions for rehearing are rarely granted.

►   Ex-coal CEO conviction stirs tougher safety penalty talks

CHARLESTON, WV — Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will spend a year behind bars — if that — in the wake of an explosion at a mine in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners five years ago. Critics say the punishment barely fits the crime and that the case is an example of a coal mining executive getting off too lightly when federal laws are broken.

Prosecutors said they could only work with the penalties Congress provided them. And almost all of the laws in the federal mine safety books are enforceable with only misdemeanor penalties.

“There simply is no reason why willfully violating mine safety laws, safety laws that are designed to keep people safe, should be punished less harshly than violations of the securities laws, which are designed to keep money safe,“ said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, whose office prosecuted the case.

Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine — a misdemeanor — in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades. Jurors didn’t convict him of another conspiracy and securities fraud charges that could have extended his sentence to 30 years.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act — which would have stiffened penalties on mine safety crimes — was voted down by the U.S. House just months after the April 5, 2010 explosion. Only one House Republican voted with Democrats to try to pass the bill, and the proposal failed. The GOP took control of the House in January 2011.

Since then, Democrats have filed subsequent versions of the Byrd mine safety bill without getting much consideration or Republican support.

Though Blankenship’s defense attorneys say a $250,000 is his maximum penalty, a filing by the prosecution says tens of millions of dollars in restitution is possible. Prosecutors cited families of the deceased miners and Alpha Natural Resources, which purchased Massey, as among those possibly entitled to restitution.

Meanwhile, the Byrd bill, named after the late West Virginia senator, hasn’t died.

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor this year, said there’s no question mine safety laws need to be strengthened. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a co-sponsor.

“Putting the lives of workers at risk in unsafe mines should be a felony and I will continue to push to change the law so that those operating unsafe mines are held fully accountable,“ Casey said in a statement after Blankenship’s conviction.

Under the current version of the bill, violating mine safety rules by “recklessly exposing a miner to a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death” would be a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. Second-time offenses could double both penalties.

Republicans and coal industry groups have been mostly silent about Blankenship’s prosecution and conviction.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, would be open to considering whether stiffer penalties, like felonies, for mine safety violations are needed, said spokeswoman Amy Graham. Capito voted against the Byrd bill in the House in 2010.

Largely because of the weak law, few people have been indicted after mine safety disasters, said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and Lexington attorney representing miners.

“They’re higher-profile cases if you can charge people with a felony,“ Oppegard said. “Therefore, there’s been tons of cases over the years where individuals could have been criminally charged after a mining fatality and they haven’t been.“

►   CSX train derails in West Virginia; no gas leaks or injuries

NEW MARTINSVILLE, WV — Officials say no one was injured after a train that was carrying propane derailed in West Virginia.

New Martinsville Fire Chief Larry Couch says that 10 CSX train cars ran off the tracks on the north side of the city early Thursday. He said four of the cars fell on their side, but there was no damage to the cars. No propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas, was released.

Couch said there’s no danger to the public.

CSX Spokeswoman Melanie Cost said the cause of the derailment remains under investigation. She said it occurred inside a rail yard and officials are unsure when the tracks will be reopened.

►   More than 33,000 W. Virginians enroll in health marketplace

CHARLESTON, WV — More than 33,000 West Virginia residents have signed up for coverage through the federal health care law.

Federal officials said this week that 33,407 West Virginians signed up or renewed coverage on the federal marketplace from November 01 through December 19. Nationally, more than 8.2 million people have enrolled in the 38 states that use the website and call center.

Residents have until January 31 to sign up for coverage. People who remain uninsured after that risk rising fines.

Officials say that 2.4 million of those who’ve signed up across the country this year are new to, which is ahead of last year’s levels.

►   two Hospitalized After Rollover Crash in Lewis County

Two men were taken to the hospital Wednesday following a single-vehicle crash in Lewis County.

Crews were dispatched just after 10:45 p.m. to the accident along US Hwy 19, near Good Hope.

West Virginia State Police Cpl. Waggamon said the vehicle crashed over an embankment and injured two men.

One man was flown by HealthNet to the hospital and the other was taken to United Hospital Center in Bridgeport by ambulance, Jane Lew Fire Captain Jason Smith told 12 News. No word on the extent of their injuries.

The Jane Lew Fire Department and Jackson Mills Volunteer Fire Department also responded to the scene.

The West Virginia State Police will conduct an investigation in to what cause the crash.

In USA….

The Free Press WV

►   Officer Helps Woman Give Birth in Kmart Parking Lot

A Mississippi officer helped make a special pre-holiday delivery in a parking lot for a pregnant woman who couldn’t quite make it to the hospital. Sgt. Ken Walker of Corinth came to the aid of Karla White about 4am Monday. WTVA-TV reports that White and her mother were on the way to the hospital and called 911. Dispatcher Ashleigh Hinds advised them to pull over and wait for an ambulance. They headed into a Kmart lot. That’s when Walker showed up and realized there was no time to wait. The officer then helped deliver the baby. Hinds says “emotions just overflowed the dispatch center.“ Walker says colleagues are giving him “atta boys” and calling him “baby doctor.“ And little Henry Dalton Byrd, who was born more than two weeks early, is reportedly doing fine.

►   LA Getting Another Celeb Murder Trial

Los Angeles will get another high-profile celebrity trial next summer: Real estate heir Robert Durst has agreed to be extradited from Louisiana to face charges that he murdered friend Susan Berman in 2000, reports the AP. The Durst case is convoluted, but he’s the one who seemingly implicated himself in the deaths of Berman and two others by muttering to himself at the end of the HBO documentary, The Jinx.

Investigators think Durst killed Berman to keep her from talking to detectives re-examining the disappearance of Durst’s first wife in 1982. The 72-year-old also is suspected in the murder and dismemberment of a neighbor in Texas in 2001. Durst is being held on gun charges unrelated to those deaths. “Bob Durst didn’t kill Susan Berman and doesn’t know who did,“ his attorney tells the Los Angeles Times. “He’s ready to get to California and prove his innocence.“

►   He Was Jailed After a Woman’s Dream. Now He’s Free

A 28-year nightmare is over for a Denver man who says he was wrongly convicted after a neighbor who had been raped and beaten told police his face appeared to her in a dream. A judge overturned the 1988 conviction of 60-year-old Clarence Moses-EL on Tuesday and he was freed on $50,000 bond ahead of a possible new trial next year, the AP reports. Moses-EL raised money with the help of fellow inmates for DNA testing of evidence, including body swabs and the woman’s clothing, in 1995, only to discover that police had mistakenly destroyed the evidence after what they described as “communications problems” with the DA’s office, the Denver Post reports. In Tuesday’s ruling, the judge said Moses-EL will probably be acquitted if the case goes to trial again.

The victim, who was attacked after a night of drinking, initially named three other men as potential attackers before giving police Moses-EL’s name a day later. The breakthrough in the case came in 2013 when one of the three men, already serving time for other rape convictions, admitted to having consensual sex with the victim and to hitting her, the Post reports. “I waited a long time for this,“ Moses-EL told reporters after leaving jail arm-in-arm with his wife, saying he was looking forward to eating pizza “with chopped shrimp and steak.“ He said he was excited to finally meet his 12 grandchildren, one of whom wrapped his arms around his leg and said, “I’m glad you’re home,“ per the Post. (This Virginia man spent almost 30 years in prison because he looked like a rapist.)

►   Head of Education Panel Thinks Earth Is 6K Years Old

The new chief of Arizona’s Senate Education Committee has some beliefs that put her at odds with most science educators. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake, has courted controversy over the last few years by declaring that the Earth is 6,000 years old during a hearing on mining rights and via a Facebook post suggesting she believes the conspiracy theory that the government is manipulating the weather with “chemtrails” sprayed from aircraft, 12 News reports. She has been appointed to manage a committee that decides the future of education-related legislation, reports the Arizona Republic, which notes that Allen graduated from high school but did not go to college.

Allen made headlines earlier this year when she suggested bringing in a law to make church attendance mandatory, but state lawmakers from both parties say she’s a capable legislator and they expect her to do a good job with the education committee. Her beliefs probably won’t be an issue, Democratic Senator Steve Farley tells the Republic. “She’s made some interesting comments to the public, but it’s not like she’s going to be teaching,“ he says. “We have accredited teachers for that.“ (Last year, Pope Francis told creationists that they shouldn’t think of God as “a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything.“)

►   More Than 3K Washington Prisoners Mistakenly Freed Early

More than 3,000 prisoners in Washington have been mistakenly released early since 2002 because of an error by the state’s Department of Corrections. At a news conference Tuesday, Governor Jay Inslee said he has ordered immediate steps to correct the long-standing problem. “Frankly, it is maddening,“ Inslee said. Authorities say a July 2002 state Supreme Court ruling required the Corrections Department to apply good-behavior credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences. However, the programming fix ended up giving prisoners with sentencing enhancements too much so-called good time. An analysis showed as many as 3,200 offenders were released early. The median number of days for early release was 49.

Inslee told corrections officials to stop releasing prisoners affected by the glitch until a hand calculation is done to ensure the offender is being released on the correct date. A broad fix to the software problem is expected to be in place by early January. The governor said two retired federal prosecutors will conduct an independent investigation to figure out why it took so long to discover and fix the problem. “I have a lot of questions about how and why this happened, and I understand that members of the public will have those same questions,“ Inslee said. Based on a prior Supreme Court ruling, most of the offenders mistakenly released early won’t have to go back to prison.

►   Bank Robber Writes a Holly Jolly Demand Note

Georgia police say a bank robber gave a teller a note that both demanded cash and wished the teller a merry Christmas. Gwinnett County police said in a news release that they are looking for a man who entered a BB&T bank in Buford on Monday and handed a teller a note requesting money. At the end of the note, the suspect had written, “Merry Christmas.“ Police say the suspect had a beard and was wearing a blue cap, blue jeans, black hoodie, and white gloves. Police say the robber got away with a small amount of cash.

►   Teen Boy, Girlfriend Accidentally Die in Parked SUV

Police say two teenagers were found dead inside an SUV in a garage, though their deaths appear to be accidental. In a news release Monday, police in St. Petersburg, Fla., said a woman found her 17-year-old son with his 14-year-old girlfriend in the family’s garage, which was not attached to their apartment. Police say they were in the boy’s 2002 Mitsubishi SUV. The garage door was closed, and the vehicle was running. Investigators say it doesn’t appear to be a case of suicide.

The woman said her son left home Sunday afternoon to get his girlfriend. She was unaware of their return. She told police she tried calling him several times and reported them missing Sunday night. The teens have been identified as Dorian Andres Gomez Poehlmann and Emily Rose Sabow. Both attended Riverview High School in Hillsborough County. Autopsies will be performed.

►   11 Months Into 22-Year Jail Sentence, Teacher Fired

You’d think that getting convicted of kidnapping and burglary would get you fired from your teaching job. But in the case of 43-year-old New Yorker Goran Logan, he wasn’t officially fired from his position at Palisade Preparatory School until 11 months into his 22-year prison sentence for the aforementioned crimes, the Journal News reports. In May 2013, Logan went to a Manhattan apartment, armed with a loaded gun and knives, and held a man and two females hostage there for eight hours. He eventually ordered one of the females to leave the apartment with him, at gunpoint; she was later found outside his own home. He was eventually convicted of three felonies: second-degree kidnapping and first- and second-degree burglary; he was sentenced in January and has been serving time at the Clinton Correctional Facility.

Yet a Yonkers schools rep failed to respond to repeated questions about his employment status, and the city’s Board of Education just fired him last week. The district had filed disciplinary charges against Logan on November 23, which Logan never contested. The president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers explains that teachers automatically lose their license if they’re convicted of serious crimes, meaning they’d be unable to actually teach in any New York district. So “being unlicensed, I’m not sure why it’s necessary to terminate [Logan]. I would say it’s to clean up the records,“ he says.

►   Coyote stopped at security checkpoint at South Carolina airport

A coyote ran inside a South Carolina airport baggage claim area on Tuesday but was caught at a security checkpoint before it could get into the terminals, officials said.

No one was injured and no flights were delayed, said Kirk Lovell, assistant director of airports at the Myrtle Beach facility, where the coyote was first spotted around 10 a.m. local time.

The coyote was removed from the Myrtle Beach International Airport by Horry County animal control, Lovell said.

The coyote was first seen by airport personnel, who chased it unsuccessfully before the animal control officers were called, he said.

The animal ended up cornered next to a Transportation Safety Administration checkpoint, Lovell said.

“It did not get through the security checkpoint, so the TSA is doing a fantastic job of stopping anybody without ID or boarding passes,“ he said.

The checkpoint was briefly closed but no passengers missed their flights.

The coyote was euthanized, as the animal is considered a nuisance in Horry County and policy dictates that any captured be killed, according to The Sun newspaper in Myrtle Beach.

►   Man cited for killing ‘Bow Tie,‘ well-known deer in Milwaukee

A Wisconsin man was cited on Tuesday for hunting with an improper license after he killed a large male deer known as “Bow Tie” in the neighborhood around the Milwaukee-area park where it roamed, a state official said.

Jason Elliott, 29, was accused of poaching the 12-point buck with a crossbow in the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa, a western suburb of Milwaukee, on December 13, said Kevin Mickelberg, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden.

Residents and park officials called the white-tailed deer Bow Tie because of distinctive markings on its neck, Mickelberg said.

Elliott was also issued citations for failure to validate or attach a deer tag and for hunting without proper colored clothing. He faces $1,540 in fines and may have his hunting privileges suspended for a year and his crossbow confiscated, Mickelberg said.

Elliott was not immediately available for comment.

Mickelberg said the hunter was cooperating with wildlife officials and that he had no past violations with the Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ll miss our resident deer, Bow Tie,“ Milwaukee County Parks said on its Facebook page.

Bow Tie was also popular with local photographers and outdoor enthusiasts and had been featured in a wildlife calendar, according to local media.

“Everyone in the neighborhood is just very sad because we’ve all photographed him in our yards,“ Lisa Carlson, who lives near the park, told local television station Fox 6.

►   Nuisance or nice? Florida family’s holiday lights frazzle neighbors

When it comes to holiday decorations, Kathy and Mark Hyatt go to extremes.

In December, they transform their home in Plantation, Florida, into a 200,000-light spectacle, with Santas, reindeer and candy canes blanketing the lawn, snowflakes and angels twinkling in the sky, and a sign over the garage beckoning visitors to “Believe in the Magic of Christmas.“

The reaction of some neighbors and their city? Bah humbug!

“This is a war zone, all because of the ego of that guy,“ said neighbor Rafael Imbert, 65, who erects a plastic construction fence to keep the thousands of sightseers lured by the lights off his lawn.

Disputes over holiday displays go hand in hand with the annual tradition. One person’s festive spirit can bring out the Grinch in others, leading to fines, strained relationships and - in rarer cases - lawsuits claiming that decorations have gone too far.

The Hyatts are the target of such a lawsuit: The city of Plantation, about 30 miles north of Miami, is seeking to shut down their display that it deems a public nuisance. The couple is not backing down.

“They believe it engenders goodwill and a bond between the community,“ said their Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer, James Helf.

In Ohio, a man has disregarded his critics by again erecting a nativity scene on his lawn portraying Jesus, Mary and Joseph as zombies.

A Maine homeowner used lights to spell out ISIS, prompting calls to police last week that the person might be a sympathizer of the Islamic State militant group. As it turned out, the display included a Santa appearing to urinate on the letters with a stream of white lights, local media reported.

The popular Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights display is ending its run this holiday season after two decades at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando. More than 2 million lights that belonged to late Arkansas philanthropist Jennings Osborne found a home in Florida in 1995 after he was sued by neighbors and ordered by courts to take down most of his decorations.


In Plantation, Mark Hyatt, a mortgage banker and father of two, said he caught the decorating bug from his devout Catholic parents.

His family starts planning their “Hyatt Extreme Christmas” display in July, begins decorating in October and switches on the lights the day after Thanksgiving. On weekends in December, they welcome visitors inside the gates of their circle driveway for a close-up look at their collection, including a miniature Ferris wheel Hyatt built.

“I have kids who came here when they were little and now are coming back with their own kids,“ he said. “That’s the coolest thing of all.“

His neighbors are less enchanted. They say strangers knock on their doors asking to use the bathroom, cut through their property to see the display and leave trash in the street - complaints Hyatt contends are untrue or exaggerated.

Several residents on the cul-de-sac said they are forced to flee their homes when the crowds become unbearable.

The city of Plantation sued the Hyatts in 2014 on the grounds that the “carnival-like atmosphere” was incompatible with the neighborhood. A trial has been set for April.

A city spokesman declined to comment.

Recent visitors were happy to see the lights still shining.

“It makes me feel like a kid again,“ said Chris Coburn, 37, of nearby Davie, Florida.

Dennis LaFrance, 40, who drove 30 minutes with his three kids to see the display, said he could understand the frustration of the Hyatts’ neighbors.

“But to make it go away altogether is kind of Scroogy,“ he said.

►   ‘Interfaith Do-Gooders’ Wearing Hijabs Are Misguided

They mean well, but non-Muslim women who don head scarves as a sign of religious solidarity are actually doing a disservice to modern Muslim women, argue two members of the latter camp. In their essay at the Washington Post, Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa describe themselves as “mainstream Muslim women,“ and they make the case that events springing up such as “Wear a Hijab” day are misguided—“a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies.“ The idea that Muslim women should wear head scarves, that all of them want to wear head scarves, has suckered in “well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders,“ along with the media. They’re buying in to a political perversion of Islam pushed by the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, and the Islamic State.

“To us, the ‘hijab’ is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair,“ they write. “We don’t buy it. This ideology promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.“ One problem is that somewhere along the way, the word “hijab” has become synonymous with head scarf, they write. It’s actually “never used in the Koran to mean headscarf,“ and in Arabic the word hijab actually means “curtain,“ “hiding,“ “obstructing,“ and “isolating.“ Those definitions speak volume about the problem. Click for their full column.

►   Lunch Lady Feeds Hungry Kid, Gets Fired

Dalene Bowden’s response when a 12-year-old at Idaho’s Irving Middle School told her she was hungry but didn’t have any money seemed like a no-brainer: The food service worker gave the girl a free hot meal. In response, she received a letter of termination, describing her theft of school district property, reports the Idaho State Journal. Bowden, who is now on termination leave pending a hearing, says she offered to pay for the $1.70 lunch, but her supervisor wouldn’t accept her money. “I know I screwed up, but what are you supposed to do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry and they don’t have any money?“ says Bowden, acknowledging she was once warned about giving a student a free cookie. “I offered to pay for the meal and I don’t think I deserved to lose my job over it,“ she adds. “This is just breaking my heart.“

Bowden says she’ll seek legal counsel, telling KPVI, “I can’t say that I wouldn’t do it again.“ But parents are already trying to get Bowden back to work. “I think (Bowden) did the right thing and I think we need to make sure that every child that wants lunch can have lunch,“ says Raushelle Guzman, who started a petition pressing the district to rehire Bowden. It has nearly 40,000 supporters, including from Canada and Mexico, the Journal reports. “I think the district’s policy needs to be changed. We do not need to humiliate or demean any child or worker in that situation. Students must be provided with an adequate meal,“ Guzman says. A school district rep says students who can’t pay their bills are given alternative meals, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk. Bowden says workers are encouraged to dump the trays of students who exceed a credit limit of $11.

►   After Viewing Xmas Lights, a Family’s Double Tragedy

A Texas family’s ride to view a Christmas lights display ended in tragedy Monday night when their car was rear-ended, killing the two oldest kids, WFAA reports. The Haltom City mom and dad and their three children had just completed a drive-through of the Christmas lights extravaganza at Texas Motor Speedway and were on their way home “in their car singing Christmas carols,“ the deceased’s aunt tells the station. “My sister said within seconds everything turned to chaos.“ That chaos came in the form of a Ford Explorer that smashed into the back of the family’s car, killing 23-year-old Alexander Trejo and his 19-year-old sister, Gabrielle Estelle. The local medical examiner says the two victims, who had to be pulled from their Ford Fusion, died of blunt force trauma, per the Star-Telegram.

“We were laughing, giggling, singing Christmas songs, and then the next thing I know is I blacked out,“ 17-year-old Zachary, the sole surviving sibling, tells Fox 4 News. Zachary’s parents were both hospitalized after the accident with injuries that were said to be non-life-threatening, per a GoFundMe page set up by the mom’s co-workers. Fort Worth police are still trying to figure out what caused the Ford Explorer to plow into the family’s car, WFAA reports; as of now, the driver of the SUV isn’t facing any criminal charges. Meanwhile, family and friends held a tribute Wednesday night for Alexander, who had a love of music, and Gabrielle, said to be an aspiring photographer, Fox 4 News notes. The GoFundMe page has so far raised more than $9,000 for the family’s hospital and funeral expenses.

►   ‘Black Lives Matter’ Protest Shuts Mall, Airport, Terminal

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters shut down America’s biggest mall on Wednesday in what an organizer says was just a decoy for a protest that shut down an airport terminal. The protesters gathered at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., where they were met by hundreds of police officers, before some of them took public transit to Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, where they blocked a road to a terminal and delayed several flights, the New York Times reports. Authorities say airport traffic returned to normal by Wednesday evening. Around 80 stores at the mall were closed for about an hour during the protest, which organizers said was to highlight the fatal police shooting of unarmed black man Jamar Clark last month, the AP reports.

The mall, which was targeted amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last December, “was a decoy,“ organizer Miski Noor tells the AP. “I think it was really effective.“ “We accomplished exactly what we came here to accomplish—we wanted to shut down the highway, shut down the airport, and show solidarity with other Black Lives Matter groups,“ protest organizer Michelle Barnes tells the Star Tribune. The protests remained largely peaceful, with no injuries or property damage reported, though police say 15 people were arrested at the mall and the airport on charges including trespassing, the AP reports.

►   In Final Heroic Act, Man Donates Organs to Fellow Vets

As Army veteran Matthew Whalen was wheeled down the halls of Plaza Fort Worth Medical Center in Texas in his final moments on Monday, current and former service members stood at attention in an emotional tribute. His wife, fellow veteran Hannah Whalen, said her final and tearful “I love you.“ But Staff Sergeant Whalen’s heroism continued into the moments past his death as his organs were donated—to two other veterans, reports Fox4KC. “It’s almost as if it were meant to be that the two donor recipients happened to be veterans,“ friend Sean Hatton’s posted on Facebook. Hatton’s cell phone video of the tribute has been viewed more than 8.5 million times as of this writing. He notes that “there is no SOP or protocol for this type of ceremony, but with the help of Matt’s wife Hannah, all of his family, the nursing staff, and an Honor Guard we were able to show our love and appreciation in the best way we could.“

The 35-year-old suffered a massive stroke on Saturday, reports CBS Local; he was diagnosed with a hemorrhage in his brain and it was determined he wouldn’t recover. The decision was made to take him off life support when it became clear that in his death he could save two others. “That’s what Matt deserved,“ Hannah said of the touching ceremony. “He was a four-time combat veteran. He was an exceptionally loving dad. ... That ceremony that they did, he deserved that recognition.“ Whalen is survived by his wife and three young children, Logan, Mattix, and Sadie. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Hannah with the medical bills and other expenses. It surpassed the $50,000 goal in just one day.

►   SeaWorld’s Dead Killer Whale Is 3rd in 6 Months

SeaWorld San Antonio has seen its third whale death in six months with the passing of Unna, an 18-year-old killer whale suffering from a fungal infection. The whale, who died Monday, had been undergoing treatment for a pathogen, Candida, in her bladder for months and was under “constant care,“ the park says, per the San Antonio Express-News. A necropsy will determine the cause of death. Female killer whales typically live 30 to 50 years; a killer whale hasn’t died of Candida at SeaWorld for some 25 years, reports the Washington Post. However, a 2-year-old beluga whale suffering from gastrointestinal issues died at the park last month, four months after the death of a baby beluga born prematurely.

“After a review of each of these cases, none of the issues were related to each other, or to the care that the animals received,“ the park says, adding, “We have no evidence that Unna was stressed from her environment.“ Animal rights activists are skeptical. While Candida occurs both in wild and captive whale populations, they say stresses of life in captivity—including dehydration, cramped quarters, and abnormal diet—could hurt a whale’s ability to fight an infection, per Gawker. SeaWorld’s website notes Unna received medication never before used on killer whales, as part of a plan developed by veterinarians and experts, because she didn’t respond to conventional treatments. The park canceled all whale shows on Monday.

►   Parents Charged After Space Heater Kills Toddler

Authorities say a 2-year-old boy in Missouri died after being left alone in a room with a running space heater for 38 hours straight while his parents did meth, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. “They heard the child’s cries and did nothing,“ a county prosecutor says. The body of Braydon Barnes was discovered in his crib by his mother, 22-year-old Kathleen Peacock, on Sunday morning, per KTVI. A neighbor who ran to help after hearing Peacock’s screams says it felt like it was more than 100 degrees in Braydon’s room. Authorities say the boy had been dead for a while before he was found, CNN reports. It was determined that Braydon died of hyperthermia—or overheating—which likely “caused extreme discomfort and difficulty breathing as he died.“

Peacock and 25-year-old Lucas Barnes allegedly admitted to making meth the week before Braydon died in the mobile home where the boy was found, the Post-Dispatch reports. They’re facing decades in prison for child abuse and drug manufacturing. In addition to hyperthermia, Braydon was found to be suffering from malnutrition and likely hadn’t eaten in days. Their mobile home. which had “feces in places where it shouldn’t be,“ was declared unsafe “for any human being” and condemned, the prosecutor says. Peacock, who is currently pregnant, was already facing charges for allegedly driving drunk with Braydon in the car. According to KTVI, relatives are “devastated,“ with at least one expressing hope that both Peacock and Barnes receive the harshest punishment available.

In The World….

The Free Press WV

►   Austrian radio jockey punished for playing ‘Last Christmas’ 24 times

An Austrian radio station has punished one of its moderators after he locked himself in the studio only to play the song ‘Last Christmas’, a cult hit from the 1980s by British band Wham!, 24 times in a row.

Only once the moderator’s daughter called the studio to beg her father to stop because the song made everyone “mad” did he finish his one-song marathon, according to a video on Youtube.

Timm Bodner, programming Chief of the station Antenne Kaernten in Austria’s province of Carinthia, told Reuters on Wednesday the 27-year-old disc jockey barricaded the studio last Friday with a wooden stick to play the prank on his listeners.

“In general, it was funny but there must be consequences,“ Bodner told Reuters in a telephone conversation. “As a consequence he will have to work tomorrow on Christmas and on New Year’s eve.“

►   Junta leader writes new song, leaving Thais to face the music

Thailand’s junta leader released the lyrics to a new patriotic ballad on Tuesday, the second song he has written since seizing power in 2014.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief led the May 2014 coup, first wrote the song “Return Happiness to Thailand”, which is played constantly on television and radio stations as part of a public relations campaign by the junta to win over Thais.

The tune has racked up more than one million views on YouTube but has been mocked by critics of the junta.

His second song, “Because You Are Thailand”, includes lyrics like “If we join hands ... the day we hope for is not far away” and “Because you are Thailand, you will not let anyone destroy you.“

Prayuth told reporters the song was his New Year present to the Thai people.

The junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, overthrew an elected government, putting an end to months of protests in Bangkok led by the middle class and elite who wanted to get rid of the civilian government of populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

A military government installed after the coup has largely stifled dissent and has gone hard after critics of the junta and monarchy by using a harsh royal insult law to detain dozens of people, prompting stern criticism from rights groups, the U.N. and some Western governments.

The junta has repeatedly delayed planned elections, claiming the country is not yet stable enough to hold a poll.

Prayuth comes from a musical family. His daughters enjoyed brief fame in Thailand as a pop duo called BADZ.

►   German church hosts galactic service to celebrate Star Wars release

Children carried toy lightsabers to a church in Berlin and some of the congregation dressed up as Darth Vader on Sunday to mark the release of the new Star Wars movie with a service on Sunday.

At the terracotta-brick Zion Church, an organist played the movie series’ theme and Ulrike Garve, a vicar in training, opened the Protestant service with the words “The wait is over - the Force has awakened!“

A screen set up next to the altar showed a clip from a Star Wars movie in which Luke Skywalker fights off Darth Vader and declares to The Emperor that he will never turn to the Dark Side.

Garve and fellow vicar in training Lucas Ludewig, fans of the seven-part epic space movie series, said Skywalker’s actions showed it was important to eschew violence.

Speaking to a packed church with capacity for 500 people, they said this was also a message found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, in which some passages refer to overcoming evil with good.

“The more we talked about it, the more parallels we discovered between Christian traditions and the movies,“ said Garve. “We wanted to make churchgoers aware of these analogies.“

Some on social media called the service “sinful” and “disgraceful”. But priest Eva-Maria Menard, who is mentor to the two trainees, said: “We need to address contemporary issues or our faith will not be able to carry us through it.“

►   U.S. Releases ‘Grim’ List of Nuclear Targets

“Grim and frankly appalling.“ That’s how one expert describes a recently declassified list of potential US targets in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the New York Times reports. The list titled “Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959” was written by the Air Force in 1956 and released by the National Security Archive on Tuesday. According to RT, the nearly 800-page document includes more than 1,200 cities and 1,100 airfields in Russia and elsewhere. Targets in cities like Moscow, East Berlin, and Beijing include everything from industrial facilities to the ominously nonspecific “population,“ the Times reports. “It’s disturbing, for sure, to see the population centers targeted,” says William Burr at the National Security Archive. He says it’s likely the most detailed target list ever released by the Air Force.

“It’s clear that the plan so dryly laid out by US intelligence would have resulted in death and destruction unlike anything the world had or has ever seen,“ Time says of the list. According to RT, the document calls for “systematic destruction” and aimed for a 60-megaton bomb—4,000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb—to get “significant results.“ A nuclear weapons historian tells the Times the US had a “bomb as you go” strategy for a potential war with the Soviet Union. Bombers would fly toward major cities, dropping nuclear bombs on targets as they went. It was thought such a strategy would end the war quickly as deaths skyrocketed into the millions. The National Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program director says the destruction of population centers is still “the heart of (nuclear) deterrence” today.

►   U.S. Bans UK Muslim Family From Disneyland Visit

A Muslim family of 11 had a major hiccup in their Disneyland vacation plans last week when US authorities barred them from boarding a flight from London to Los Angeles without explanation. The British family had been given travel authorization online prior to the December 15 flight, but Homeland Security officials refused to let them on the plane, reports the Guardian. Mohammad Tariq Mahmood, who was traveling with his brother and their nine children, says the plan was to meet with cousins in southern California, then visit Disneyland and Universal Studios. While authorities wouldn’t say why the family was turned away, Mahmood says “it’s because of the attacks on America. They think every Muslim poses a threat.“

He adds the airline wouldn’t refund the $13,340 cost of flights. “I have never been more embarrassed in my life. I work here, I have a business here. But we were alienated,“ Mahmood says. It isn’t clear if all members of the family were British or if anyone was on a “no-fly” list, per the Washington Post. Politicians say the case isn’t unique, noting a growing number of British Muslims are being blocked from the US without being told why. The Guardian cites the case of British imam Ajmal Mansoor, who says he wasn’t told why his visa was revoked while trying to board a flight to New York on December 17. Aides say Prime Minister David Cameron will investigate after the Mahmood family’s case was raised by MP Stella Creasy.

►   Report: U.S. Secretly Tried to Spur a Coup in Syria

For years, the Obama administration held secret back-channel talks with members of the Syrian regime in the hope of unseating Bashar al-Assad, US and Arab officials tell the Wall Street Journal. The communication came in bursts—sometimes with senior Syrian officials, other times through intermediaries including Russia and Iran. In 2011, officials identified officers who could possibly lead a military coup, they say. “The White House’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad,“ a former official says. But, as the Journal puts it, “regime cohesiveness held, and the crackdown continued”; by summer 2012, that regime-change effort was acknowledged as a failure.

And how. The Journal’s take: “Instead of persuading Mr. Assad to exit, the covert communications may have fed his sense of legitimacy and impunity.“ At BloombergView, Josh Rogin sees a shift in the US stance on Assad. As the Journal points out, the US line has consistently been that Assad must step down. “The Obama administration has been slowly altering” that, writes Rogin. Indeed, last week the US put its support behind a UN Security Council resolution “that would establish an 18-month transition process during which Assad could stay as Syria’s president and even run for elections sometime in 2017.“ Read Rogin’s full column H E R E.

►   Embassy Warns of Threat to Americans in Beijing

Security has been tightened around a Beijing bar and shopping area popular with foreigners as embassies issued warnings that foreigners should be on guard for possible threats against them. The American, British, French, and other embassies said they had received information of possible threats against Westerners in the Sanlitun area on or around Christmas Day. “US citizens are urged to exercise heightened vigilance,“ a statement on the embassy website said. Beijing police announced Thursday they had issued a yellow security alert to ensure safety during the Christmas period. According to Beijing’s security regulations, the alert is issued in the case of the receipt of threats to safety or finding suspected explosives.

►   2 Sentenced to Death for Backpacker Murders

Two bar workers from Burma have been sentenced to death for the gruesome backpacker murders that shocked Thailand last year. Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, who are both 22 years old, were found guilty on Thursday of murdering British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, the Telegraph reports. They were also found guilty of robbing the pair, whose bodies were discovered on a beach on the island of Koh Tao, and of raping Witheridge. Lawyers say they plan to appeal the verdict, which Human Rights Watch calls “profoundly disturbing” in light of allegations of police torture and questions surrounding the DNA evidence that was used to convict the two men, reports the AP.

Family members who traveled from Britain for the trial say they believe that justice has been served and that Thai police carried out a thorough investigation. “David was hacked from behind, dragged into the sea, and left to die. That will live with us forever,“ his brother, Michael, said outside the court, per the Guardian. “What happened to Hannah Witheridge is unspeakable,“ he added. “David always stood up for justice, and justice is what has been delivered today. We came to realize that the police investigation and the forensic work performed was not the so-called shambles it was made out to be.“ (After the murders, Thai authorities fearing for the tourism industry discussed issuing tracking devices to tourists.)

►   ‘Schindler of Congo’ Now Needs Others’ Help

Marrion P’Udongo is recognized simply as “pastor” by many and has pulled off a laundry list of heroic acts in the war-torn Republic of the Congo, including assisting child soldiers and rape victims and helping manage an orphanage, per NBC News. His other nickname, the “Schindler of Congo,“ came about after a 2003 massacre of ethnic Hema residents in Bunia by ethnic Lendu militiamen: P’Udongo housed 70 or so frightened Hema for about a week, but militiamen forced their way in and threatened to kill everyone—until P’Udongo successfully pleaded for their lives and they were all brought to safety. But now the people’s savior is the one who needs help as he languishes in Uganda hooked up to a dialysis machine, the result of a failing kidney he received in a 2011 transplant.

But while a new donor has been secured and a hospital in India with a high success rate for his type of procedure is ready to perform it, the $35,000 price tag is overwhelming for P’Udongo, who makes $200 a month, NBC notes. The people he’s touched are doing whatever they can to help him: The same reporter who helped fundraise for the pastor in 2011 is doing it again. “Look at the world right now … you don’t see a lot of really good people left,“ Bryan Mealer says on “This is one of them.“ P’Udongo even has a friend in Hollywood: Ben Affleck, who founded advocacy group Eastern Congo Initiative and met P’Udongo in 2008, when the actor visited northeastern Congo. Meanwhile, P’Udongo continues to fight, mostly for his wife, four kids, an orphan he’s taken in, and all the others he advocates for. “If I am not there … who will fill that gap?“ he says to NBC. “No, I should not die now … There’s still a lot to do.“ (Read what Bryan Mealer wrote about the pastor in 2011 for the Huffington Post.)

Christmas Is for Love

The Gilmer Free Press

9 Things You Didn’t Know About The Star of Bethlehem

The Free Press WV

1. The Star was historical.

Some have claimed that the Bethlehem Star is nothing more than a myth invented by the early Christians. But the latest scholarship suggests that Matthew’s Gospel is a biography that strives for historical accuracy. The story of the Magi certainly looks authentic—it is very consistent with what the Roman historian Josephus tells us about Herod’s latter years.

2. The Star was an astronomical body.

Some have proposed that the Star was a miraculous object or an angel. But what Matthew writes—in particular, his words “star” and “rising”—strongly favors the conclusion that it was an astronomical body. That the Magi were able to tell Herod when precisely the Star first appeared suggests that they were record-keeping astronomers.

3. The Star was a comet.

Some have claimed that the Star was a planet (or two), a meteor (or two), a fixed star, or a nova (exploding star). But a close study of Matthew’s account reveals that the Star could only have been a comet. The Star, after all, not only appeared suddenly and remained visible for a long time (over a year), but also moved from one part of the sky to a very different one over a relatively short space of time.

Together these facts narrow the options down to one. What the Star did to wow the Magi occurred in connection with a “rising” (i.e. a celestial body’s re-emergence over the eastern horizon after a period when it was too close to the Sun to be visible), and only a comet’s “rising” could be surprising and extraordinary.

The Star also “went before” the Magi as they traveled southwards from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then “stood over” a house. Comets are described in precisely these terms by ancient historians.

4. The Hebrew Bible looked forward to the coming of a great comet.

The Book of Moses records an oracle by the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam that spoke of the Messiah’s coming in terms of a scepter and star that would rise, implying that a long- and straight-tailed comet would mark his birth.

5. The Star was like Comet Hale-Bopp.

In 1996-97 Comet Hale-Bopp awed observers around the world with its stunning appearance. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, by far the longest of any comet in the scientific period. This is because it was large—up to 70 km in diameter (most comets are considerably smaller).

The Star of Bethlehem was also visible for over a year at least—remember that Herod established the upper limit for his slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem based on when it was first spotted. So, like Hale-Bopp, the the Star was large.

6. The Star did something astonishing at the time of its rising.

The Magi were surprised and deeply impressed by what the Star did in connection with its “rising.” The Book of Revelation discloses a key aspect of the wonder in the eastern sky that marked Jesus’s birth. It consisted of a celestial nativity drama starring the Christ Comet.

Based on Revelation’s description we are able to work out a lot about the Comet’s profile and orbit. We discover that at the time of its “rising,” when the Comet was re-emerging over the eastern horizon, it would have been indescribably bright, brighter even than the full Moon.

7. The Star went before the Magi.

Throughout the Magi’s treacherous journey westwards to Judea, the Comet would have seemed to go before them, starting each evening in the southern sky and setting each night in front of them in the west.

As they set out for Bethlehem on the final evening of their long trip, the long-tailed Comet, then in the southern sky, would have appeared to be going ahead of them. As the Comet set, its tail would have been oriented upwards, turning it into a giant pointer that, from the Magi’s perspective, highlighted one particular location within Bethlehem.

8. The Star came scarily close to Earth.

Astronomers today are worried about asteroids and comets that come close to Earth. The large Christ Comet came close enough to make even the bravest astronomer break out in a cold sweat 2,000 years later. Had it hit, it would have extinguished most, if not all, life on Earth.

9. The Star was the greatest comet in history.

To enter into the Comet Hall of Fame a comet must make a close pass by the Sun and/or Earth, and/or become bright, large, and/or long. All things considered, the Star was the greatest comet in recent millennia. The Star is worthy of its fame.

Santa’s Christmas Eve Prayer

The Free Press WV
The sleigh was all packed,
The reindeer were fed,
But Santa still knelt
By the side of the bed.

“Dear Father,“ he prayed,
“Be with me tonight,
There’s much work to do,
And my schedule is tight.“

“I must jump in my sleigh
And streak through the sky,
Knowing full well
That a reindeer can’t fly.“

“I will visit each household,
Before the first light,
I’ll cover the world,
And all in one night.“

“With sleigh bells a-ringing,
I’ll land on each roof,
Amid the soft clatter
Of each little hoof.“

“To get in the house
Is the difficult part,
So I’ll slide down the chimney
Of each child’s heart.“

“My sack will hold toys
To grant all their wishes,
The supply will be endless,
Like the loaves and the fishes.“

“I will fill all the stockings
And not leave a track,
I’ll eat every cookie
That is left for my snack.“

“I can do all these things Lord,
Only through You,
I just need your blessing,
Then it’s easy to do.“

“All this is to honor
The birth of the One,
That was sent to redeem us ...
Your most Holy Son.“

“So to all of my friends,
Least Your glory I rob,
Please Lord, remind them
Who gave me this job.“

~~  Warren D. Jennings ~~


A column by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin
The Free Press WV

Who says just kids can have fun snow days? In Wild, Wonderful West Virginia, people of all ages can enjoy the winter season by playing on the ski slopes or participating in recreational offerings like ice skating, hiking, caving or even zip lining. The wide variety of activities and events offered throughout the winter months help to make the Mountain State a true four-season travel destination.

Winter in West Virginia brings with it world-renowned skiing opportunities, as many of our ski resorts work around the clock to prepare the slopes in anticipation of holiday visitors and weekend warriors. Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Timberline Four Seasons Resort, Canaan Valley Resort, Winterplace Ski Resort and Oglebay Resort all offer downhill skiing, while others, including White Grass Ski Touring Center, Elk River Touring Center and Blackwater Falls State Park, cater to cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts.

Skiing is just one of many exciting winter activities offered on the slopes and in the backcountry of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. Other recreational offerings for family and holiday visitors include snowboarding, snow tubing, sledding, horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobiling and off-road tours.

Believe it or not, West Virginia’s winter adventures include a number of traditional spring, summer and fall activities as well. Residents and visitors alike can continue to explore our historic and beautiful cave formations. Cave tours are an ideal recreational activity offered year-round due to constant underground temperatures. In addition, many of our zip line and aerial adventure industries continue to offer canopy tours that provide a bird’s eye view of snow-covered tree tops.

Trails winding through West Virginia State Parks and Forests are open to hiking and biking all winter long, and you can even celebrate the New Year with “First Day” guided hikes at many of these locations. Likewise, the Hatfield McCoy ATV trail system in Southern West Virginia is open 365 days a year.

Our state’s resorts and parks offer a number of options to help you warm up after the day’s chilly adventures, from spa services and gaming to heated outdoor swimming pools. Or you may decide to enjoy a fireside chat with family and friends over a hot cup of cocoa.

With the holiday season just around the corner, don’t forget to take a driving tour of one our state’s many beautiful light festivals - from Oglebay Resort’s famed Winter Festival of Lights to the twinkling lights of Christmas in the Park at Chief Logan State Park.

For help planning your winter adventure, don’t forget to pick up your pocket guide, complete with a section for kids to collect stickers from each wild and wonderful adventure they take - their very own passport to winter fun in the Mountain State. Find a map of best events, activities, attractions and more at or call 800.225.5982 to request your winter guide.

Yes, West Virginia, There is an “Operation Santa”

The Free Press WV

CHARLESTON, WV - At a time when “goodwill toward men” may seem to be in short supply, many kids across West Virginia and the nation will have their holiday wishes answered by perfect strangers, just because they dropped a letter in the mail.

It’s a timeless tradition, kids writing to Santa and for more than a century, Operation Santa has allowed Postal Service employees to write back.

United States Postal Service spokesperson Darleen Reid says by the 1940s, Santa’s mailbox had grown so full that with his permission, the Postal Service invited community groups to help by “adopting” letters.

“Some folks get very surprised,“ she says. “They get a response from Santa. Some get a written response, some get a gift, some get a gift card. We let them choose how they’re going to respond.“

Anyone interested in helping with Operation Santa can visit Reid says the letters to Santa typically remain in the area from which they were mailed, and all personal information aside from the child’s age and what they are asking for is redacted.

While Santa is known for his jolly demeanor, Reid says helping him make holiday wishes come true can be heartbreaking, given the nature of some letters.

“The very first one that we read out loud was a child not asking for any toys or electronics, or anything like that, that you would expect,“ says Reid. “He asked for rice and beans. So, a lot of the letters have great need and want.“

And that even includes touching letters from adults. Reid says some locations will be answering letters right up until today, even as Santa’s sleigh is preparing for takeoff.
Dan Heyman ~~

Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

The Free Press WV

As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.

Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like nearly one in every 100 American adults today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.

Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.

Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.

It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”

Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.

Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.

Here in the United States nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.

~~  Jean Casella and James Ridgeway ~~

WV Trucking Association Offers Holiday Driving Tips

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Trucking Association, along with the American Trucking Associations and the Share the Road highway safety program are offering driving tips to keep motorists nice instead of naughty on the highways this holiday season.

According to the WVTA, more than 99 million motorists are expected to use the nation’s highways in the coming weeks.

“Safe driving is critical this time of year and there are many steps you can take to prepare for holiday travel,” said Jan Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Trucking Association. “Please take a minute to review our list of good highway safety habits before getting on the road this holiday season.”

ABF Freight Bill West said winter weather can pose unique challenges to the general public as well as professional truck drivers, and everyone’s goal should be to arrive safely.

“Truck drivers are delivering many of the products that play important roles in holiday celebrations, such as decorations, wrapping paper, toys, food and so much more, so we must all work together to share the road safely in order to have happy holidays,” he said.

The group offers 12 driving tips for the holiday season:

    •  Don’t drive impaired

    •  Buckle your safety belt

    •  Slow down; fully remove ice and snow from your vehicle

    •  Prepare your vehicle for long-distance travel

    •  Be aware of the vehicle in front of you

    •  Do not cut in front of large trucks

    •  Be aware of truck blind spots

    •  Keep your eyes on the road

    •  Check your emergency kit

    •  Be aware of weather changes

    •  Avoid extreme weather conditions

In West Virginia….

The Free Press WV

►   WV House Education Chairwoman Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, to resign

Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, has announced her resignation from the House of Delegates, effective January 01, 2016.

Pasdon, appointed chairwoman of the House Education Committee last year by House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, is leaving before the end of her term. First elected in 2010, Pasdon was re-elected in 2012 and 2014.

A Republican Executive Committee from Pasdon’s district will submit the names of three Republicans to Governor Earl Ray Tomblin as Pasdon’s possible replacement.

According to House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt, Pasdon, 35, cited personal and family reasons as the reason for her resignation.

“This was a difficult decision for me,“ Pasdon said in a prepared statement. “I have truly enjoyed the past five years representing my constituents and serving in the House.

“However, after consulting with my family, I’ve decided I need to take a step back and focus on a personal matter,“ she said. “I will miss my colleagues in the House, but know they will continue to take bold steps to improve our state.“

Armstead praised Pasdon’s service.

“Amanda has been a strong, intelligent and energetic member of our caucus who has taken great strides in improving our state’s education system,“ he said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family.“

Armstead said he will pick a new chairperson for the education committee in plenty of time for January’s upcoming legislative session.

►   State Prosecutors Asking Legislature to Look Over Truancy Reforms Made Last Session

GRAFTON, WV — The prosecuting attorney in Taylor County, along with others involved in the court system are asking the state legislature to take another look at how to handle truancy.

“They’ve eliminated the court system, basically, from all juvenile status offenders in the state of West Virginia,” said John Bord on Wednesday’s edition of “The Mike Queen Show.” “At least from yesterday, from the counties that were present, the absent rate was just unbelievable.”

He was one of the organizers of a meeting in Pruntytown held Tuesday night that brought together prosecutors, lawmakers and those who work with the state’s students to address S.B. 393 and H.B. 2550.

The legislation –referred to as the “Juvenile Justice System Reform Bill” and the “Truancy Bill,” respectively– passed with bipartisan support in the most recent session in Charleston.

Proponents of the bills said it would ease up the strain on the state’s social services as children would no longer be removed from their homes because they missed too many days of school and would save the state money by replacing the court system with other services stepping in to fill the gap.

It would also take the pressure off of good students who may get severely sick by extending the number of allotted excused absences.

“What the legislature tried to do was a good idea and the idea of saving the state money, I have no objection to that,” Bord said. “The big problem was we just let a large number of kids fall through the cracks.”

Board contends that a majority of judges would only remove a child from a home if there was an issue regarding the child’s safety, which truancy was an early indicator of.

One of the agencies selected to fill the court’s role was the DHHR. However, Del. Amy Summers (R-Taylor, 49), one of the lawmakers who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said it is not as effective in counties such as Barbour or Taylor where there is only one DHHR worker assigned to that task.

“What’s been filling the void in the past has been the court system, they’ve been recognizing the problem and then getting the children the services they need. So now we’ve pulled them out of the equation but we don’t have the services in place to pick up the slack. If that’s not going to happen, then we the court system back involved.”

After hearing from the court’s side of the story, Summers and other legislators are working ahead of the upcoming session to pinpoint what needs to be fixed in both peices of legislation.

“The definitions that were put forth were way too loose,” Summers said. “Parents and children are taking advantage of that and becoming absent with all kinds of excuses that are acceptable under the current legislation. So, we’ve come up with ways to tighten all that up.”

They intend to introduce a revised version of S.B. 393. with the updates during the interim session in January.

►   Public health impact task force approves new plan

CHARLESTON, WV — The West Virginia Public Health Impact Task Force has approved the final version of a plan to redefine the mission of public health in the state and work more effectively with communities.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s health officer, says the plan, approved Tuesday, emphasizes retaining a local health presence in every county, but does not limit partnerships between counties.

Gupta says the approval will allow the Bureau to move forward in evaluating billing practices for the state’s local health department, as well as determining what services must be made available at every local health department.

The task force moved to present its recommendations to lawmakers, although task force member Lloyd White said the plan would likely not require legislative intervention.

►   Mine guards to get final paychecks after more than a year

OAK HILL, WV — More than a year after they last worked for a Frasure Creek Mine contractor in Oak Hill, about 40 mine security guards are set to soon receive their final paycheck.

TMK Security, based in St. Albans and Delbarton, left about 40 employees at Frasure Creek and more than 100 at other locations in West Virginia and Kentucky without their final paycheck in November 2014. Trinity Coal Corp. owns the Oak Hill mine.

Attorney Ben Salango says he filed a class action lawsuit against the now-defunct TMK Security in January, with the defendants having since admitted liability.

Salango says he has collected about $110,000 and expects to move through a notice process in January and February before beginning to distribute the money.

►   Bankruptcy judge OKs Alpha’s bond deal with West Virginia

CHARLESTON, WV — A federal bankruptcy judge has approved a deal resolving a dispute between coal operator Alpha Natural Resources and West Virginia regulators over the company’s mine reclamation bonds.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin R. Huennekens’ order said the agreement is fair and equitable, and represents “a sound exercise of the Debtors’ business judgment.“ He overruled an objection filed by the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Cindy Rank with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy said Wednesday that the groups are disappointed but have not decided how to proceed.

Tuesday’s order, filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Virginia, authorized Alpha to enter into a consent order with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Under the consent order, Alpha agreed to reduce its self-bonding obligations and to continue reclaiming mining operations in the state.

Alpha also will provide $39 million in financial commitments to back its remaining self-bonded obligations. The company has more than 500 mining permits for its operations in West Virginia.

Alpha had said in a court filing that it issued self-bonds to cover more than $244 million in reclamation obligations. After the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August, it told the DEP that it might no longer meet criteria for self-bonding. The agency then ordered Alpha to replace the self-bonds with other forms of bonding.

Alpha’s December 07 filing said company believed the DEP did not have the authority under bankruptcy law to require it to post a commercial bond or collateral to cover the self-bonded obligations. But the company was not certain it would prevail if it litigated the dispute.

The environmental groups argued that the agreement violates federal law requiring West Virginia to order mine operators who don’t have adequate bonds to cease operations and begin reclamation. Their court filing also said the agreement will leave no money to support bonding for reclamation in other states, except Wyoming.

In October, Huennekens approved an agreement between Alpha and Wyoming that gave the state priority access to $61 million in case either or both of Alpha’s two coal mines there closed and needed to be reclaimed.

►   Regulators Approve Rate Hikes for Mon Power, Potomac Edison

West Virginia regulators have approved a $96.9 million rate increase for Mon Power and Potomac Edison to cover the utilities’ fuel and other costs.

The Public Service Commission also has approved a separate rate hike of nearly $36.7 million to cover the cost of the First Energy subsidiaries’ vegetation management system.

Both rate increases approved this week will be effective January 01.

Mon Power and Potomac Edison said Wednesday in a news release that the rate increases will add about $9 to the monthly bill of a typical residential customer using1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Both rate increases were negotiated by the utilities and the PSC staff, the Consumer Advocate Division, West Virginia Energy Users Group and the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.

►   WV Underground Mine Fire Being Monitored

West Virginia environmental officials say they’re monitoring an underground coal mine fire in Preston County.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection says the fire near Thornton has not risen to the level of an emergency. That’s when federal officials say the fire should be snuffed.

The DEP said the fire has been burning for about three years. Drilling is planned in January to assess the extent of the fire.

In USA….

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►   Kentucky governor orders clerks’ names removed from marriage licenses

Kentucky’s new governor on Tuesday ordered county clerks’ names removed from state marriage license forms at the center of a controversy involving Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed after refusing to issue licenses to gay couples.

Governor Matt Bevin had said shortly after his election in November, as only the second Republican governor of Kentucky since 1971, that he would change the forms that had drawn objections from Davis and some other clerks.

“To ensure that the sincerely held religious beliefs of all Kentuckians are honored, I took action to revise the clerk marriage license form,“ Bevin said in a statement.

It was unclear what effect his executive order would have on Davis’ case.

She made headlines by refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, even after the U.S. Supreme Court in June legalized same-sex matrimony across the United States.

Citing her Apostolic Christian beliefs defining marriage as a union exclusively reserved for heterosexual couples, Davis spent five days in jail for defying an order by U.S. District Judge David Bunning to comply with the high court’s decision.

Her jailing drew international attention and demonstrations from both sides of the issue. Davis, 50, also briefly met Pope Francis in September in Washington during his visit to the United States.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, representing couples who had sued Davis, said Bevin’s move only “added to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over marriage licenses in Kentucky,“ as clerk names are required by state law to appear on the licenses.

Mat Staver, a lawyer for Davis, called the governor’s action “a wonderful Christmas gift” allowing the county clerk to celebrate the holidays without having to choose between her faith and her job.

  Davis took steps to remove her name and office from the forms after she was released from jail, and a deputy clerk has issued licenses on her behalf.

Davis repeatedly urged then-Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, to remove clerk names from the form or provide other relief so she would not violate her religious beliefs.

She has also appealed Bunning’s orders to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bunning and the appeals court have repeatedly denied her stays in the case.

Beshear had said he had no authority to relieve county clerks of their statutory duties by executive order and that the state legislature could address the issue.

►   Vietnam Vet Finds Lost Love, New Mystery

In January, Jim Reischl will visit Vietnam for the fifth year in a row. But this visit will be different. For four years the Vietnam vet has been searching for his long-lost love, whom he last saw in person when he shipped out in 1970. Now, he’ll finally see her again, face to face. “I almost can’t believe this,“ says Minnesota native Reischl, 68, who teamed up with to track down his “first girlfriend,“ Kim Hoa, whom he met in a bar in Saigon in 1969. In September, Reischl’s story was featured in a Saigon newspaper along with a photo of Reischl and Kim and portions of a letter he’d written her. He wrote about how he never forgot her and always wondered if some of her last words to him—“I’m pregnant"—were actually true, reports the St. Cloud Times. In Giang Province near the Cambodian border, Kim was browsing the news on her iPad and saw the story.

She called the paper, which contacted Reischl’s Vietnamese translator and guide, Phan Hung. Phan met Kim, who told stories about living in an apartment with Reischl in Saigon. In a video taken by Phan, Kim’s “mannerisms, the laugh, the smile—that verified it for me,“ says Reischl. The pair now talk on a messaging app almost daily but “I just want to sit down and have a nice chat with her,“ Reischl says. He plans to travel to meet Kim next month, then his next search will start. Kim says she was indeed pregnant when Reischl left Vietnam and gave birth to a daughter, Thui Thi, in Vinh Long on December 18, 1970. A friend told her she’d take the baby to an orphanage but disappeared with the child, says Phan. Kim told him she spent years searching to no avail. She eventually got married and had a son and daughter, but Thui Thi could still be out there, says Reischl. His first stop: Vinh Long.

►   Man Opens Fireplace, Finds Century-Old Letters to Santa

When Peter Mattaliano decided to redo the fireplace in his NYC apartment, he called his construction-savvy brother to help him bust open the sealed unit. “We were joking that we might find Al Capone’s money,“ Mattaliano tells the New York Times. “Then my brother yelled to me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.‘“ He had unearthed letters written to Santa, signed by two children named Mary and Alfred. “I want a drum and a hook and ladder,“ read Alfred’s letter from 1905, while a 1907 letter from Mary was stuffed in an envelope tagged for Santa in “Raindeerland.“ “The letters were written in this room, and for 100 years, they were just sitting there, waiting,“ Mattaliano says. After poking around on genealogy websites, Mattaliano found that Mary and Alfred were the kids of Irish immigrants Patrick and Esther McGann and the letters were written after Patrick died in 1904.

Those letters presented a poignant picture of a turn-of-the-century family that likely lived in poverty. Most striking was Mary’s slightly singed letter, which read: “Dear Santa Claus ... My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.“ After her signature, she added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.“ Her words floored Mattaliano. “This is a family that couldn’t afford a wagon, and she’s writing, ‘Don’t forget the poor,‘“ he says. “That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?“ Mattaliano found Alfred had died in 1965, Mary in 1979—both in Queens. The letters, which Mattaliano calls his “most treasured possessions,“ are now framed on his fireplace mantel—as are the doll and tiny wagon he added this year. “I wanted them to have a Christmas present, even if it was 100 years too late,“ Mattaliano says. (Read the entire story in the New York Times.)

►   More E. Coli Cases Linked to Chipotle

The CDC said Monday it is investigating a more recent batch of E. coli cases linked to Chipotle, and that it does not know yet if they are linked to a larger outbreak that began in October. So far, the agency said five people have been reported sick in the new outbreak, with illnesses starting between November 18 and November 26. All five said they ate at a Chipotle the week before they got sick. They include one person in Kansas and one in North Dakota—both of whom ate at the same Kansas location—and three in Oklahoma. The development is the latest bad news for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which saw its sales plummet after a larger E. coli outbreak that sickened 53 people in nine states. Chipotle rep Chris Arnold said in an email Monday that even the most recent exposures reported by the CDC are now a month old.

“We have indicated before that we expected that we may see additional cases stemming from this, and CDC is now reporting some additional cases,“ Arnold wrote. Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells says he doesn’t think the company will ever know for sure the exact ingredient that sickened customers in the larger outbreak, but that he believes it was bacteria in fresh food like tomatoes or cilantro. In its annual report, Chipotle has said it may be at a higher risk for outbreaks of foodborne illnesses because of its “fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and our reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation.“ To begin its image rehabilitation, Chipotle last week took out full-page ads in 61 newspapers around the country apologizing for the illnesses. Chipotle has also been linked to norovirus cases.

►   Man Loses Money Stealing Tip Jar

Danny Ocean, he’s not. UPI reports a thief was operating at a loss when he made off with a restaurant’s tip jar while leaving behind the food he’d already paid for Friday in New Zealand. Security footage from Nando’s Riccarton shows a man putting a tip jar containing $6.77 in his bag, then heading for the restroom. According to Stuff, the wife of restaurant owner Yateen Lallu noticed the jar was missing, and Lallu confronted the man outside the restroom, where the empty jar was found on the floor.

“I said to him, ‘There’s our tip jar,‘ and he said, ‘It wasn’t me; it must have been someone else,‘“ Lallu tells Stuff. “He told me to check his bag and check the security cameras, and I started to doubt myself.“ While Lallu was reviewing the security footage, the man ran off, UPI reports. But he left behind his meal, for which he paid $9.82. “So it wasn’t worth it,“ Lallu tells Stuff. “He had a bad day. It was not good karma for the poor bloke.“ So crime really doesn’t pay—to the tune of -$3.05.

►   Man Opens Fireplace, Finds Century-Old Letters to Santa

When Peter Mattaliano decided to redo the fireplace in his NYC apartment, he called his construction-savvy brother to help him bust open the sealed unit. “We were joking that we might find Al Capone’s money,“ Mattaliano tells the New York Times. “Then my brother yelled to me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.‘“ He had unearthed letters written to Santa, signed by two children named Mary and Alfred. “I want a drum and a hook and ladder,“ read Alfred’s letter from 1905, while a 1907 letter from Mary was stuffed in an envelope tagged for Santa in “Raindeerland.“ “The letters were written in this room, and for 100 years, they were just sitting there, waiting,“ Mattaliano says. After poking around on genealogy websites, Mattaliano found that Mary and Alfred were the kids of Irish immigrants Patrick and Esther McGann and the letters were written after Patrick died in 1904.

Those letters presented a poignant picture of a turn-of-the-century family that likely lived in poverty. Most striking was Mary’s slightly singed letter, which read: “Dear Santa Claus ... My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.“ After her signature, she added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.“ Her words floored Mattaliano. “This is a family that couldn’t afford a wagon, and she’s writing, ‘Don’t forget the poor,‘“ he says. “That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?“ Mattaliano found Alfred had died in 1965, Mary in 1979—both in Queens. The letters, which Mattaliano calls his “most treasured possessions,“ are now framed on his fireplace mantel—as are the doll and tiny wagon he added this year. “I wanted them to have a Christmas present, even if it was 100 years too late,“ Mattaliano says. (Read the entire story in the New York Times.)

►   Creationist Leads State Senate Education Panel

The new chief of Arizona’s Senate Education Committee has some beliefs that put her at odds with most science educators. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake, has courted controversy over the last few years by declaring that the Earth is 6,000 years old during a hearing on mining rights and making a Facebook post suggesting that she believes the conspiracy theory that the government is manipulating the weather with “chemtrails” sprayed from aircraft, 12 News reports. She has been appointed to manage a committee that decides the future of education-related legislation, reports the Arizona Republic, which notes that Allen graduated from high school but did not go to college.

Allen made headlines earlier this year when she suggested bringing in a law to make church attendance mandatory, but state lawmakers from both parties say she is a capable legislator and they expect her to do a good job with the education committee. Her beliefs probably won’t be an issue, Democratic Senator Steve Farley tells the Republic. “She’s made some interesting comments to the public, but it’s not like she’s going to be teaching,“ he says. “We have accredited teachers for that.“ (Last year, Pope Francis told creationists that they shouldn’t think of God as “a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything.“)

►   Man Arrested, School Locked Down Over Star Wars Spoilers

An 18-year-old Montana man turned to the Dark Side last week, allegedly threatening to shoot a friend for spoiling Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the AP reports. Police say Arthur Roy sent his friend a picture of himself with a gun—which he implied had a “hair trigger"—on Thursday and threatened to come to his school to shoot him. His friend’s offense? Revealing some plot details of The Force Awakens over Facebook. The friend told school officials about the picture. And according to the Billings Gazette, the friend’s school, Front Street Learning Center in Helena, was locked down Friday morning over concerns about Roy’s threat.

Police arrested Roy on Friday afternoon, and on Monday he was charged with felony assault with a weapon, the AP reports. According to the Billings Gazette, Roy remains in custody on $10,000 bond. The gun in the picture turned out to be a BB gun. Roy is also facing charges for felony sexual intercourse without consent in an unrelated incident. Police say Roy had sex with a 14-year-old girl—who is legally too young to give consent in Montana—in October.

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►   Italian Town Fights Smog With ... Pizza Ban?

Few things are more Italian than baking pizza in a perfectly smoldering wood-fired stove, so San Vitaliano’s move to ban the beloved practice comes as a surprise. The town of 6,000 north of Naples has some of the worst air pollution in Italy—Il Mattino says its air quality is worse than Beijing’s, while Naples is “a perfumed garden” in comparison—but environmental tests have failed to identify the source. In an effort to “take maximum precautions to ensure the problem doesn’t deteriorate,“ Mayor Antonio Falcone has banned “agricultural, artisanal, industrial, and commercial producers … from burning solid biomass such as wood, woodchips, coal, and charcoal,“ unless filter systems are in place to eliminate 80% of pollutants, reports the Local. The rule will be in place until at least the end of March, reports the BBC.

The Local reports the plan is to relieve the rule in July, August, and September—the situation is poorest in winter, Falcone says—but most pizzerias and bakeries will be forced to change their fuel sources, buy expensive filters, or face fines up to $1,100. “Shocking, it’s so ridiculous,“ a rep from a local pizzeria tells Il Mattino. “We make about 34 pizzas a day, how do they think we are responsible for the pollution problems around here?“ “We can’t be the cause of the smog,“ a local who protested outside San Vitaliano’s town hall on Sunday adds, per Corriere della Sera. “Naples has many more pizzerias than San Vitaliano but doesn’t have the same pollution levels. It’s clear that they don’t want to pinpoint the real cause. This order is a very costly mistake for us.“ The BBC reports San Vitaliano residents saw 114 days of unsafe air levels in 2015, compared to Naples’ 86.

►   Muslims Save Christians in Kenya Bus Attack

Al-Shabab militants attacked a bus in Kenya on Monday but were thwarted by Muslims who protected Christians on board. Officials say the militants stopped a bus carrying more than 100 people from Nairobi to Mandera, near the border with Somalia and Ethiopia. Buses travel with police escorts because the route is so dangerous, but a police car accompanying the bus had broken down, Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya’s interior Cabinet secretary, tells CNN. Witnesses say more than 10 militants were waiting in bushes a few hours down the road and sprayed the bus with bullets before boarding and asking Muslim passengers to separate from Christians. The Muslim passengers refused and hid Christians behind bags. “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly,“ a Muslim passenger tells Reuters.

“They told them, ‘If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no Christians here,‘“ another passenger adds, noting a Christian man who tried to run away was shot and killed, along with the driver of a truck that came upon the scene. A police rep says four others were injured. The gunmen eventually left, telling passengers they would return, but security forces were in “hot pursuit of the criminals,“ Nkaissery says. “We are all Kenyans, we are not separated by religion,“ he adds. “We are one people as a nation. And this is a very good message from my brothers and sisters from the Muslim community.“ Mandera’s governor tells the Daily Nation that “the locals showed a sense of patriotism and belonging to each other.“ The BBC notes that al-Shabab has carried out numerous attacks in Kenya recently, including two attacks on buses last year that left 64 dead.

►   Scientists Accused of Spreading Tree-Killing Disease

Nine scientists—plus one public official—tasked by the EU with preventing the spread of a plant-killing disease in Italy have been accused of actually spreading the disease, polluting the environment, and “disfiguring natural beauty” by Italian authorities, Nature reports. “We are shocked,“ one scientist says. “The accusations are crazy.“ According to the BBC, the EU ordered the destruction of olive trees infected by Xylella fastidiosa—which first appeared in Italy in 2013—as well as thousands of healthy trees in order to create a 6-mile buffer zone to keep the disease from spreading. On Friday, Italian authorities ordered a stop to those efforts, saying there is no connection between Xylella fastidiosa and the dying trees. reports Italian prosecutors claim the EU has “inaccurate facts” about the disease and is actually making things worse.

Farmers and environmental activists have been fighting against the destruction of the olive trees—some of which are more than a century old—and Italian courts have been ruling in their favor, Nature reports. According to, more than 1,500 trees have been destroyed to fight Xylella fastidiosa, which is deadly for more than 200 plant species. Italian prosecutors haven’t released any evidence against the accused scientists but claim the disease may have gotten loose during a scientific workshop or during experiments, Nature reports. Scientists say it’s more likely the disease came from plants imported from Costa Rica. The EU had already been accusing Italy of dragging its feet on handling Xylella fastidiosa, and now that looks unlikely to change.

►   Door Panel Saved Man Buried in Landslide for 60 Hours

A migrant worker was pulled out alive Wednesday after he was buried for more than 60 hours in a massive landslide that swept through part of a major manufacturing city in southern China. A spokesman for the Shenzhen Emergency Response Office said that the man, Tian Zeming, was rescued around dawn on Wednesday. “The survivor had a very feeble voice and pulse when he was found alive buried under debris, and now he’s undergoing further checks,“ a doctor told a news conference in Shenzhen, according to a transcript posted by the district government that covers the area.

State broadcaster CCTV reported that Tian later underwent surgery for a broken hand and on his foot, which had been wedged against a door panel. It said he had been trying to get out of his room when the building collapsed, and the door panel created a space for him to survive. More than 70 people are still missing from the landslide that happened Sunday when a mountain of construction waste material and mud collapsed and flowed into an industrial park in Shenzhen. The Ministry of Land and Resources has said a steep man-made mountain of dirt, cement chunks, and other construction waste had been piled up against a hill over the past two years. State media reported that the local government identified problems with the mountain of soil months earlier and warned of a “catastrophe.“

►   Judge: Kim Dotcom Can Be Extradited to U.S.

A New Zealand judge ruled Wednesday that colorful Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom and three of his colleagues can be extradited to the United States to face criminal copyright charges. Dotcom’s lawyers say they will appeal the decision. Judge Nevin Dawson’s ruling came nearly four years after US authorities shut down Dotcom’s file-sharing website Megaupload, which was once one of the Internet’s most popular sites. Prosecutors say it raked in at least $175 million, mainly from people using it to illegally download movies. The US has charged the men with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, racketeering, and money laundering. If found guilty, they could face decades in jail.

The case could have broader implications for Internet copyright rules. Dotcom’s lawyer said earlier that if the US side prevails, websites from YouTube to Facebook would need to more carefully police their content. The case also raises questions about how far US jurisdiction extends in an age when the Internet has erased many traditional borders. Dotcom says he has never set foot in the US. New Zealand Justice Minister Amy Adams is required to sign off on any extraditions, and in a statement she said she would wait for the conclusion of any appeals before making a final decision. The men, including former Megaupload officers Mathias Ortmann, Bram van der Kolk, and Finn Batato, remain free on bail pending their appeals. “This is my weirdest Xmas ever,“ Dotcom tweeted before the ruling.

►   Thai Junta: Our Poll Says 99.3% Like Military Rule

An astonishing 99.3% of Thais are perfectly happy with life under the country’s ruling military junta, according to a poll carried out by the country’s ruling military junta. Thai authorities say the poll of 2,700 people found that 98.9% believe the junta could solve Thailand’s problems and 99.3% are satisfied with its overall performance since seizing power in a coup last year, reports the Guardian. Since the coup, the junta has been sending journalists, academics, and dissenters to military camps for what it calls “attitude adjustment,“ the Guardian notes, which may offer a clue to the whereabouts of the dissatisfied 0.7%.

In a year-end speech on Wednesday, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha said the second phase of the military’s reform plan will soon be underway and it will hold elections in July 2017, reports Reuters, which notes that he was “visibly” angry when he addressed accusations of human rights abuses. Prayuth blamed the detentions on dissenters, for violating laws against dissenting. “The law says you can’t do this and yet they still do it,“ he said. “Now they say I violate human rights.“ Those dissenters include dozens of students detained earlier this month for protesting alleged corruption involving the construction of a lavish monument on a military base, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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DEP and DNR Teaming Up for Christmas Tree Recycling Event January 02, 2015 at Capitol Market

CHARLESTON, WV – On January 02, 2015 the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan (REAP) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) will accept donated Christmas trees that will be repurposed as fish habitat in lakes and rivers.

Trees will be accepted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Capitol Market in Charleston.

Any size tree will be accepted, provided that it is a real tree.

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All lights, ornaments, and tinsel must be removed before the tree is donated.

This year donated trees will be used for fish habitat in Stonecoal Lake, Burnsville Lake, Big Ditch Lake, and Tygart Lake.

Those who donate trees can sign up to win one of several prizes.

One prize packet is two all-day lift tickets, ski rental, and a ski lesson at Winterplace Ski Resort.

Canaan Valley Resort has donated 18 holes of golf for four people.

Other prizes include three one-night stays at Chief Logan State Park and a $25 gift certificate to Capitol Market

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