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National News Archives for 2015-12

Crowds Pack Into Times Square for Annual New Year's Bash

NEW YORK (AP) -- Thick crowds of revelers packed Times Square in the hours before the midnight ball drop, resolving to celebrate New Year's Eve with gusto and optimism, despite a year filled with headlines of extremist attacks and a heavy security presence.

 

New Years

 

Partygoers hailing from around the world began arriving at the famed Manhattan crossroads before dawn, awaiting an evening of pop star performances that culminates with a countdown and the descent of an 11,875-pound Waterford crystal ball to welcome the New Year to the nation's largest city.

 

An estimated 1 million people were expected at the celebration, protected by an armada of 6,000 police officers - some in civilian clothes, many heavily armed - as well as rigid security screenings.

 

"This is the iconic New Year's celebration for the world," New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton said. "We have no threats we're aware of directed against this event tonight but nevertheless we still plan for the worst and then expect the best."

 

Some in the crowd admitted to being nervous to gather in such a famous location in the weeks after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Just hours earlier Thursday, an ex-con was charged in upstate New York with planning to carry out a New Year's Eve attack at a bar to prove he was worthy of joining the Islamic State terror group.

 

Ashley Watters, 18, a freshman at Temple University hailing from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, called the threat of terrorism "the elephant in the room."

"I talked to my dad before I left and said 'I love you and hopefully ISIS doesn't come,'" said Watters. "My dad said, 'Keep your eyes out.' He feels the same way, you can't live in fear. I'm not going to miss out on an opportunity."

 

Others were heartened by the massive security presence, which led Mayor Bill de Blasio - who will push the button to send the ball on its minute-long descent at 11:59 p.m. - and his police team to declare the city "the safest place in the world" on New Year's Eve.

 

In addition to the swarms of police on the ground, officers kept watch over the crowd via security cameras, beaming images into a command center at police headquarters. Tactical officers spied from rooftops and a hovering helicopter. Other officers searched bags, at random, in subway stations.

"After the Paris incident we were really concerned, but we were sure that the security here would be absolutely top top," said Ann Alderton, 63, of Durban, South Africa. She was celebrating her 39th wedding anniversary with her husband, Rob. "I haven't felt alarmed or afraid."

 

Daniel Mishaan, 19, of Guatemala City, Guatemala, said that while the security precautions, which keep partygoers penned in barricaded corrals all night, are a "pain in the neck," being in Times Square at midnight was still a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

Police officials have acknowledged that there were limits to what they could do to ensure security, especially outside the tightly controlled blocks at the heart of the celebration.

 

The party to send off 2015 will feature musical acts - including Demi Lovato and Carrie Underwood - fireworks, confetti and temperatures that, to the relief of the bundled-up spectators, are excepted to stay well above freezing.

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Newly Released Emails Reveal Coordination After Teen's Death

CHICAGO (AP) -- The Chicago mayor's office, police and the body that investigates police shootings closely coordinated their actions in the days after a white officer fatally shot a black teenager in 2014, emails released Thursday revealed.

 

Emails

 

Thousands of emails were released in response to open-records requests from The Associated Press and other media regarding 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was killed in October of last year after being shot 16 times.

 

The video, which was not made public until Nov. 24, led to weeks of protests and repeated calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign.

 

In May, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins complained to colleagues that the Independent Police Review Authority's did not follow his recommendation on how to respond to a TV station about McDonald.

 

Days before the video's release, Collins wrote to police and law department representatives urging them to speak with "one voice" on the topic.

 

Emanuel's senior legal adviser, Stephen Patton, emailed Collins on Dec. 9, 2014, saying he told his staff to inform him "immediately" when a lawsuit in the case was filed.

 

The emails also included messages in which officials asked how they should respond to demands for the footage. News organizations had been pressing for the documents for weeks.

 

Emanuel and Chicago police have been under heavy scrutiny since the city, under court order, released the squad-car video last month showing officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014. McDonald, who was carrying a folded 3-inch knife, is seen veering away from Van Dyke in the video before the officer starts firing.

 

Van Dyke, who has been charged with first-degree murder, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

 

The release of the video set off weeks of demonstrations and forced the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. It also led to an ongoing civil rights investigation of the entire Chicago Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice.

 

The city released the emails a day after Emanuel said police must be better trained. His remarks came on the heels of a shooting last weekend by police that killed two people: 55-year-old Bettie Jones, who police said was shot accidentally, and 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who police said was being "combative." Both were black.

 

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said Thursday that she has asked the FBI for help investigating the deaths. She said the shooting "demands a very deliberate and meticulous independent investigation."

 

She urged the city's main police oversight agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, to perform an investigation of its own. Her office will review the results and determine if criminal charges are warranted, Alvarez said.

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Friend of California Shooter Indicted on Gun, Terror Charges

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) -- A friend of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino massacre that killed 14 people was indicted Wednesday on charges that include conspiring in a pair of previous planned attacks and making false statements when he bought the guns used in this month's shootings, authorities said.

 

The indictment by a federal grand jury avoids the need for a probable cause hearing before a judge to determine whether Enrique Marquez Jr., 24, should stand trial on the five counts that could send him to prison for 50 years if he's convicted.

 

The counts include conspiring with shooter Syed Farook to carry out attacks in 2011 and 2012.

 

Prosecutors said in court documents that Marquez and Farook planned to use pipe bombs and guns to kill people at the college they attended and to gun down others stuck in rush-hour traffic on a California freeway. The plots fizzled, and they never acted.

 

Two more counts allege that Marquez said in paperwork that two assault rifles he later gave to Farook were only for himself or his immediate family.

"Mr. Marquez is charged for his role in a conspiracy several years ago to target innocent civilians in our own backyard with cold-blooded terror attacks, and with providing weapons to an individual whose endgame was murder," David Bowdich, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement.

 

Two other counts accuse Marquez of immigration fraud for a sham marriage with a Russian woman who was the sister of Farook's wife.

 

Marquez had already been charged with the crimes in a criminal complaint filed Dec. 17 before the charges were taken to the grand jury. He has not entered a plea but is expected to do so in an arraignment Jan. 6. He was being held without bail.

 

A phone message left Wednesday seeking comment from Marquez's attorney, Young Kim, was not immediately returned.

 

In a bail hearing Dec. 21 for Marquez, Kim argued that Marquez should be credited for spending 10 days voluntarily talking to the FBI and pointed out that he is not charged with plotting the San Bernardino attacks, only with aborted attacks.

 

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a conference room full of his co-workers at a social services center Dec. 2, killing 14 people and injuring 22 others. The couple was killed in a gunbattle with authorities hours later.

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'Affluenza' Teen Remains in Mexico, Mom Deported

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The Texas teenager known for using an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving accident likely won't return to the U.S. anytime soon because of a Mexican judge's decision to delay his deportation Wednesday, but a Mexico immigration official said his mother was being flown to Los Angeles.

Richard Hunter, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service in South Texas, said during a news conference in Houston that a three-day court injunction granted to Ethan Couch will likely take at least two weeks to resolve.

 

Later in the day, however, the teen's mother, Tonya Couch, was put on a plane to be flown from Guadalajara to Los Angeles, an official with Mexico's National Immigration Institute told The Associated Press.

 

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the woman was sent to the United States because immigration authorities did not receive a judge's injunction like the one that temporarily blocked her son's deportation.

Ethan Couch remained in the custody of immigration officials in Guadalajara.

 

Authorities believe the 18-year-old Couch, who was sentenced only to probation for the 2013 wreck in Texas, fled to Mexico with his mother in November as prosecutors investigated whether he had violated his probation. Both were taken into custody Monday after authorities said a phone call for pizza led to their capture in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

 

The ruling earlier Wednesday by the Mexican court gives a judge three days to decide whether the younger Couch has grounds to challenge his deportation based on arguments that kicking him out of the country would violate his rights.

 

Hunter said the legal maneuver basically takes the decision out of an immigration agent's hands and asks a higher authority to make the deportation decision. He said such cases can often take anywhere from two weeks to several months, depending on the priorities of the local courts.

 

"It also depends on the fact the Couches have legal counsel. And it seems to me, if they wanted to, they could pay them as much money as they want to drag this thing out," Hunter said. "We're hopeful that's not the case. We're hopeful the Mexican immigration court will make a quick and decisive decision and return the Couches to America."

 

During the sentencing phase of Couch's trial in 2013, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility - a condition the expert termed "affluenza." The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation during the legal proceedings drew ridicule.

 

"Couch continues to make a mockery of the system," said Fort Worth attorney Bill Berenson, who represented Sergio Molina, who was paralyzed and suffered severe brain damage in the crash.

 

Couch's attorneys in the U.S. issued a statement Wednesday saying they couldn't comment on the case because they weren't licensed to practice law in Mexico. It wasn't immediately clear which attorneys were handling the case in Guadalajara.

 

Mexican police say Couch and his mother spent three days in a rented condo at a resort development in Puerto Vallarta before finding an apartment. One of the Couches' telephones had been used to order delivery from Domino's Pizza to the condominium complex in Puerto Vallarta's old town, far from the glitzy resorts of the city's newer section, according to a police report issued by the Jalisco state prosecutors' office.

 

Agents from the prosecutors' office went to the complex, where a tourism operator told them that the people who had occupied the condo were asked to vacate because the owners were coming to stay over Christmas, the report said. The Couches then moved to an apartment, and the agents set up a surveillance operation in the surrounding streets.

 

On Monday evening, two people matching the Couches' description were spotted and intercepted. The police report said they behaved evasively, claimed to be carrying no IDs, gave inconsistent stories about their names and failed to provide proof of their legal migratory status in Mexico.

 

They were taken into custody and handed over to immigration officials.

 

In Texas, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Tuesday that the Couches had prepared to be gone a while, even dyeing the teenager's blond hair black.

"They had planned to disappear. They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town," Anderson said. He declined to detail the party, including how many people attended.

 

Anderson said Couch and his mother apparently crossed the border in her pickup and drove to Puerto Vallarta. No immediate charges were planned for others who may have known about or assisted with the plan, Anderson said. He noted that authorities have no evidence that Couch's father, who owns a sheet metal factory in North Texas, was involved.

 

The sheriff has said he believes the two fled in late November, after a video surfaced that appears to show Ethan Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch could see his probation revoked and face up to four months in jail.

 

Authorities began searching for him and his mother after he missed a mandatory appointment with his probation officer on Dec. 10.

 

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Tuesday that she planned to ask that Couch's case be transferred to adult court, where he could face up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years' probation. If he violates that probation, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Wilson said.

 

Anderson said an arrest warrant was being issued for Tonya Couch on charges of hindering an apprehension, a third-degree felony that carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.

 

Couch was driving drunk and speeding near Fort Worth in June 2013, when he crashed into a disabled SUV, killing four people and injuring several others, including passengers in his pickup truck.

 

He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury. A judge sentenced him in juvenile court to 10 years' probation and a stint in a rehabilitation center.

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Unlicensed Driver in Crash with Secret Service

WAKEFIELD, N.H. (AP) -- Police say an unlicensed driver trying to pass a car on a snowy road in New Hampshire died after colliding head-on with a car carrying four Secret Service agents on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's protective detail.

 

The accident happened about 7 p.m. Tuesday in Wakefield, near the Maine state line.

 

Police say the agents were heading south on Route 16, when a northbound car with three people crossed a double yellow solid line and hit them.

 

Killed was 45-year-old Bruce Danforth. Wakefield Police Chief Kenneth Fifield says Danforth didn't have a valid license.

 

A Secret Service spokeswoman says the agents sustained serious, but non-life-threatening injuries. Two passengers in Danforth's car were taken to hospitals; their conditions weren't immediately known.

 

Clinton says she was saddened to hear of the crash.

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Mayor to Announce Changes to Chicago Police Training, Tasers

CHICAGO (AP) -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to announce Wednesday a "major overhaul" of police training, including a requirement that every officer responding to a call be equipped with a Taser, after a series of fatal shootings by police sparked weeks of protests and complaints that Chicago officers are too quick to fire their weapons.

 

Emanuel and Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante also will discuss changes in department policy on when officers may use physical or deadly force, with a focus on using "de-escalation tactics" to try to resolve potentially violent situations, according to a statement from the mayor's office late Tuesday.

 

The statement said the Police Department will begin to require every officer who "responds to calls for service" to be equipped with a Taser and trained to use it by June 1, 2016.

 

The mayor's office had already said some changes in training would be forthcoming in the wake of the release of dashcam video last month showing white officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014. McDonald, armed with a knife, is seen veering away from Van Dyke in the video before the veteran officer starts firing.

Van Dyke, who faces six first-degree murder counts, pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.

 

The release of the video set off citywide demonstrations, forced the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and has led to an ongoing wide-ranging civil rights investigation of the entire Chicago Police Department by the U.S.

 

Department of Justice. Protesters also have called for Emanuel to resign.

 

The mayor's office statement did not specifically mention the McDonald shooting or another shooting over the weekend in which Chicago police killed two people: 55-year-old Bettie Jones, who police said was shot accidentally, and 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier.

 

But the statement said: "The policy changes center around de-escalation tactics to reduce the intensity of a conflict or a potentially violent situation at the earliest possible moment, emphasizing that the foremost goal is to protect the safety of all involved."

 

Activists were skeptical Wednesday that the changes would reverse decades of problems and mistrust between Chicago residents and police.

 

Ted Pearson, one of the leaders of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, noted that Emanuel made leadership changes after the release of the McDonald video and gave a speech before the City Council in which he apologized, appearing at times to be near tears. Yet that didn't stop the latest shooting.

 

Pearson's organization believes the only way to bring true change is for Chicago to have a civilian police accountability council that isn't appointed by the mayor.

 

"The people have no trust in the police. They have no trust in the mayor," Pearson said. "The people in charge are continuing to give (some officers) a pass. It happens over and over and over again."

 

Police said LeGrier was being "combative" before he was shot early Saturday. Both he and Jones were black.

Police have not released the race of the officer or officers involved and will not say how many officers fired their weapons or what the man and woman were doing before they were shot.

 

Emanuel had been vacationing with his family in Cuba when the weekend shooting occurred. His office said he cut his trip short to return to Chicago on Tuesday night.

 

In a statement issued over the weekend, Emanuel said he ordered Escalante and the city's Independent Police Review Authority to review the department's crisis-intervention team training. The program teaches officers how to respond to a person in crisis or with mental health problems, and is aimed at resolving incidents without violence.

 

About 1,860 officers - or roughly 15 percent of Chicago's police force - have completed the training, according to department statistics. Advocates for the program say that number should be 25 to 35 percent.

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Chicago Officer Pleads Not Guilty to Murder Charges

CHICAGO (AP) -- A white Chicago police officer charged with murder in the 2014 fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

 

Jason Van Dyke is "hanging in there" and wants to tell his side of what happened so he's not seen "as this cold-blooded killer," defense attorney Dan Herbert said after the court hearing. Herbert added that they haven't ruled out asking for a change of venue. The case is in Cook County Criminal Court in Chicago where demonstrators have staged marches protesting the shooting and how it's been handled.

 

Van Dyke, 37, faces six counts of first-degree murder and one of official misconduct in the death of 17-year-old McDonald. The officer, wearing a dark suit and blue striped tie, appeared in court Tuesday as his lawyer entered the plea on his behalf.

 

Judge Vincent Gaughan set the next hearing for Jan. 29.

Cook County prosecutors were not available for comment after the arraignment.

 

Public outcry has been furious since a dashcam video was released last month showing the veteran officer shooting McDonald 16 times. The teenager, armed with a knife, was veering away from officers when Van Dyke opened fire.

 

The footage sparked days of street demonstrations, the forced resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and a broad federal civil rights investigation of the Police Department's practices and how allegations of officer misconduct are handled.

 

Over the weekend, Chicago police killed two other people, a 55-year-old woman who was shot accidentally and a 19-year-old man police described as "combative" before he was shot. Both were black. Police have not released the race of the officer or officers involved and will not say how many officers fired their weapons or what the man and woman were doing before they were shot.

 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, under pressure from community activists to resign since the McDonald video was released, was due to return Tuesday afternoon from a family vacation in Cuba.

Herbert, the lawyer for Van Dyke, said policy changes in the Chicago Police Department, which Emanuel's office has hinted at and may include more training, would be beneficial.

 

Van Dyke, who has been free since paying the $150,000 required of his $1.5 million bail, was suspended from the police force without pay after he was charged.

 

Following Tuesday's hearing, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald's great-uncle, called for gavel-to-gavel televised coverage of the trial. He said it would be "in the best interest of fairness and justice in this case."

Hunter added that he and others think there is a culture within the Cook County criminal justice system and the Chicago Police Department "where police feel comfortable with murdering African-American people."

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White Offiver Won't Face Charges in Killing of Cleveland Boy

CLEVELAND (AP) -- A grand jury declined to indict a white rookie police officer in the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a black youngster who was shot to death while playing with what turned out to be a pellet gun, a prosecutor said Monday.

 

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said it was "indisputable" that the boy was drawing the pistol from his waistband when he was gunned down - either to hand it over to police or to show them that it wasn't real. But McGinty said there was no way for the officers on the scene to know that.

 

"Simply put, given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police," McGinty said. He said patrolman Timothy Loehmann was justified in opening fire: "He had reason to fear for his life."

 

Tamir was shot by Loehmann within two seconds of the officer's police cruiser skidding to a stop near the boy outside a city recreation center in November 2014. Loehmann and his training partner, Frank Garmback, were responding to a 911 call about a man waving a gun.

 

Tamir was carrying a borrowed airsoft gun that looked like a real gun but shot nonlethal plastic pellets. It was missing its telltale orange tip.

A grainy video of the shooting captured by a surveillance camera provoked outrage nationally, and together with other killings of black people by police in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, it helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a statement, Tamir's family said it was "saddened and disappointed by this outcome - but not surprised." It accused McGinty of "abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment." The family renewed its request for the U.S. Justice Department to step in and conduct "a real investigation."

 

But echoing the prosecutor, the family urged anyone disappointed in the grand jury decision to express that "peacefully and democratically."

 

The grand jury had been hearing evidence and testimony since mid-October.

 

In explaining the decision not to bring charges, McGinty said police radio personnel contributed to the tragedy by failing to pass along the "all-important fact" that the 911 caller said the gunman was probably a juvenile and the gun probably wasn't real.

 

Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Meyer said it was "extremely difficult" to tell the difference between the fake gun and a real one, since the orange tip had been removed. And he said Tamir was big for his age - 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, with a men's XL jacket and size-36 pants - and could have easily passed for someone much older.

 

Before police arrived, the youngster was seen repeatedly drawing the gun from his waistband and pointing it at other children, Meyer said.

"There have been lessons learned already. It should never happen again, and the city has taken steps so it doesn't," McGinty said.

 

Among other things, the Cleveland police department is putting dashboard cameras in every car and equipping officers with bodycams.

 

Also, the Cleveland police department reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department earlier this year to overhaul its use of force. The settlement was prompted in large part by a car chase that ended with the killing of a couple in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.

 

McGinty said it was a "tough conversation" with Tamir's mother when she was told there would be no charges. "She was broken up, and it was very hard," the prosecutor said.

 

Tamir's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two officers and the city.

 

An investigation found that Tamir was shot at distance of between 4½ and 7 feet and that Loehmann fired twice, with one shot missing the boy. Both officers insisted that they shouted at Tamir repeatedly to show his hands before Loehmann opened fire.

 

"With his hands pulling the gun out and his elbow coming up, I knew it was a gun and it was coming out. I saw the weapon in his hands coming out of his waistband and the threat to my partner and myself was real and active," Loehmann told investigators.

After the boy's killing, it was learned that Loehmann had washed out from the police force in the Cleveland suburb of Independence. Loehmann had "dismal" handgun performance, broke down in tears at the gun range and was emotionally immature, according to files. He quit the force before he could be fired.

 

Two Cleveland police officers have been disciplined for failing to check Loehmann's personnel file before he was hired in Cleveland last year.

 

After Monday's announcement, Tamir's family charged that McGinty improperly hired use of-force experts to tell the grand jury that Loehmann's actions were reasonable. The family also said that the prosecutor allowed the officers to read prepared statements to the grand jury without being subjected to cross-examination.

 

McGinty urged those who disagree with the grand jury decision to react peacefully, and said: "It is time for the community and all of us to start to heal."

State Sen. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat, called the decision a "grave miscarriage of justice" but pleaded with the community to remain focused on positive change and "avoid falling into the traps that have hampered progress and the broader movement of social equality."

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More Than 1,400 Flights Canceled, 2,600 Delayed

AP - More than 1,400 flights have been canceled across the U.S. and 2,600 have been delayed due to the large storm system moving through the middle part of the country.

 

Flight-tracking service FlightAware showed that nearly half of the cancellations were at Chicago's two main airports. Another large chunk came from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport; several tornadoes touched down Saturday in the Dallas suburbs.

 

Other cities with an unusually large number of cancellations included Houston, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Lubbock, Texas.

 

A typical day sees about 150 cancelations and 4,000 delays.

 

Heavy rain and strong winds, like forecast for parts of Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas on Monday, are often more troubling for airlines than snowfall.

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Alabama Tornadoes Adds to Christmas Storm Woes

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- A Christmastime wave of severe weather continued to make its way around the South as a tornado touched down in north-central Alabama, including part of Birmingham, the state's largest city.

 

Storms Alabama

 

Witnesses spotted the funnel outside the city about 5 p.m. on Friday. An hour later, the National Weather Service confirmed that first responders were on the scene along Jefferson Avenue in a working class neighborhood about eight miles from downtown Birmingham.

 

Lt. Sean Edwards, a Birmingham police spokesman, said trees are down and people were trapped inside damaged houses, adding that several people were taken to hospitals for treatment of minor injuries, but further details were not immediately available.

Alabama Power reported Friday night that 10,000 of its customers, mainly in the Birmingham area, are without power.

 

Unseasonably warm weather on Wednesday helped spawn torrential rain and tornadoes that left at least 14 people dead in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and left dozens of families homeless by Christmas Eve.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a statement Friday night that there were reports of another death and another person missing.

"This increases the number of deaths to eight, and the number of missing persons to two," according to the statement.

 

Ruthie Green went door-to-door in her Alabama neighborhood in a coat and a bicycle helmet to check on neighbors after the storm and swept debris from her front porch as more emergency responders arrived in the neighborhood.

 

"I been listening to the news all day so I was kind of preparing," Green said. When the tornado warning came up on her iPad, Green said she ran to a closet.

"Then I heard the big roaring, it didn't last more than three minutes," Green said. "I just laid down and just kept praying."

 

Green said she was unsure of whether any neighbors had been injured or killed down the block where several homes were destroyed.

 

"We probably won't know anything until daylight comes," she said. "I'm hoping that everybody got out all right."

 

"Details are still sketchy," said Jason Holmes, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Weather radar Friday evening showed an intense system along the Interstate 20/59 corridor west of Birmingham, with the storm moving eastward. Flooding was reported in counties throughout the region, as heavy rain continued to fall.

 

Pastor Melvin Howard of the Mount Olive Full Gospel Church said he came rushing to the area of Jefferson Avenue and 50th Street in Birmingham when he heard the storm hit.

 

Howard said his church's building had collapsed but no one was inside at the time.

 

"We're just there to salvage what we can salvage," he said.

 

The Alabama tornado is the latest development in an ongoing series of storms that has hammered the South during Christmas week.

 

Elsewhere in the region, where the weather had calmed, dozens of people faced Christmas having lost their homes and possessions. But many they said they were thankful to see another Christmas.

 

Tony Goodwin ducked into a storm shelter with seven others as a storm pounded Tennessee and other states in the southeastern U.S. He emerged to find his house in Linden had been knocked off its foundation and hurled down a hill by high winds.

 

Goodwin's neighbors weren't so fortunate. Two people in one home were killed.

 

"It makes you thankful to be alive with your family," he said.

 

On Friday, parts of Mississippi remained under a flood warning. Weather forecasters from the National Weather Service warned that a strong storm crossing the central part of the state could produce hail and winds of more than 40 mph. The storm was bringing with it the risk of falling trees, downed power lines and flash flooding, officials said.

 

But that didn't stop some from spending their Christmas giving rather than receiving.

 

Nicholas Garbacz, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross of North Mississippi, said members of the Marine Corps brought donated toys to a center in Holly Springs for children whose families were hit hard by the storms. Two of the seven people killed in Mississippi were from the Holly Springs area.

Dozens of children and their families showed up Friday morning to pick up a toy or other items they might need to recover from the storm, Garbacz said.

 

More severe weather was also in store for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee that were again being pounded with rain. Residents were warned to brace for flash flooding and possible tornadoes.

 

Among the dead were seven people from Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy who perished while riding in a car that was swept up and tossed by storm winds.

Six people were killed in Tennessee, including three who were found in a car submerged in a creek, according to the Columbia Police Department. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said the victims were a 19-year-old female and two 22-year-old males.

 

One person died in Arkansas, and dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed.

 

As the rain continued to fall, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Friday issued an emergency declaration that covers any part of the state experiencing flash flooding. Officials in southeast Alabama are particularly concerned, as Pea River is approaching record-levels near the town of Elba, which has a history of severe flooding.

 

Dozens of people were injured in earlier storms, some seriously, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

 

Search teams combed damaged homes and businesses for people still missing, a hunt made complicated because so many had left for the holidays.

 

"Until they know for sure where those folks are, they're going to keep looking, because we've had in some cases houses leveled, and they're just not there anymore," Flynn said.

 

In Benton County, Mississippi, relatives helped Daisy and Charles Johnson clean up after the storm flattened their house. They carried some of the couple's belongings past a Santa Claus figure on a table.

 

Daisy Johnson, 68, said she and her husband rushed along with other relatives to their storm shelter across the street after they heard a tornado was headed their way.

 

"We looked straight west of us, and there it was. It was yellow and it was roaring, lightning just continually, and it was making a terrible noise," she said. "I never want to hear that again for as long as I live."

 

Mona Ables, 43, was driving home when the storm hit. She abandoned her car, ran to a house and banged on a window, seeking shelter.

 

The startled man inside couldn't open the door, Ables said. She huddled next to the house as another stranger pulled up, also looking for shelter.

 

"He and I just huddled together and saw trees fly past us, and a shipping container flip over," Ables said.

"And as the debris started hitting us, he just covered me, and within a minute it was all over and there was destruction all around us and we were fine."

 

Peak tornado season in the South is in the spring, but such storms can happen at any time. Exactly a year ago, tornadoes hit Mississippi, killing five people and injuring dozens.

 

Barbara Perkins was told Thursday by an insurance agent that her storm-damaged home in Falkner, Mississippi, was a complete loss. But Perkins - who survived the storm hunkered down inside a closet with her husband - said she was happy just to be alive. Two neighbors had died in the storm that swept across the southeastern U.S. earlier this week.

 

"You kind of stop and realize what Christmas is all about," Perkins said.

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After Holiday, Rockefeller Tree Used by Habitat for Humanity

ATLANTA (AP) -- Even the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has to come down after the holidays.

For the ninth year in a row, the tree set aglow during a televised ceremony and visited by an estimated 500,000 people each year, will be milled into lumber for Habitat for Humanity projects.

 

The 2014 tree, an 85-foot tall Norway spruce from Danville, Pennsylvania, is being used in five Philadelphia homes still under construction. Chris Clarke, vice president of marketing and communications for Habitat, said projects are selected close to where the annual tree grew, ensuring it's re-used close to home.

 

Habitat for Humanity

 

Each family receives a piece of lumber from the tree etched with a small Christmas tree and the year, usually placed somewhere it can be seen. Volunteers on the chosen project usually sign another piece.

 

In Lisa Wilson's newly built Philadelphia home, both pieces are visible under her basement stairs.

 

"It's an honor to have it placed in my home," Wilson, a mother of a 19-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy, said the day before her Philadelphia home's dedication ceremony. "We're a part of such meaningful history."

The partnership between the nonprofit and Tishman Speyer, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, is young compared to the tradition of the tree. Workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site in 1931 took up a collection to buy a Christmas tree, while the first official lighting was held in 1933.

 

Pamela Banks, a 49-year-old mother of seven, said she didn't know anything about the tree's history until Habitat officials at the Philadelphia affiliate delivered news that her house would include some of the 2014 lumber. She's hoping the lumber will be used somewhere visible, letting her point it out to visitors after the house is completed this spring.

 

"I'll say 'This came from New York,'" Banks said, laughing. "It's the whipped cream on top of the pie."

Banks put in 350 hours of work on other Habitat projects, a condition of the organization's mortgage program. Participants also take classes and meet with financial advisers, learning how to save a certain amount each month and preparing for other tasks that come up during homeownership.

 

Banks is looking forward to a basement where her 8- and 10-year-old sons can play, bedrooms where they can study undisturbed and enough living space to host her five grown daughters and their families for big meals.

 

Clarke said the lumber donations don't save Habitat an enormous amount of money despite the size of the tree each year. Building a house, after all, takes a lot of lumber. But the partnership does help remind people of those without safe or affordable housing, he said.

 

"The gift of the tree helps remind people there are a lot of folks who need a hand up," he said. "The holidays are generally a big time for any nonprofit to raise funds, so we do see a spike and I believe firmly that the story of the tree helps."

 

Recipients of lumber from the 2015 tree, grown in upstate New York and weighing 10 tons, haven't been determined yet. Previous homes have been in Pascagoula, Mississippi; New York City; Stamford, Connecticut; and Newburgh, New York.

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Survivors of Southern Storms Thankful to See Christmas

FALKNER, Miss. (AP) -- Barbara Perkins and her husband were hunkered down inside a closet when violent winds peeled the roof off their Mississippi home. The storm sucked the central air conditioning unit beside the couple straight up from the floor and into the howling sky.

 

As the couple surveyed the damage Thursday, broken glass and mud covered most of their home's interior. Many of their belongings had been thrown hundreds of feet away into the woods. A visiting insurance agent told them the house was a total loss.

 

Sorm

 

Newly homeless, Perkins said she was happy just to be alive - especially after learning two of her neighbors had died in the storm.

 

"You kind of stop and realize what Christmas is all about," Perkins said.

 

The unseasonably violent weather that spawned deadly tornadoes Wednesday in the Southeast forced families to spend Christmas Eve taking stock of their losses. At least 14 people were confirmed dead - seven of them in Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy who perished while riding in a car that was swept up and tossed by storm winds.

 

Six people were killed in Tennessee and one in Arkansas. Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed.

 

Unseasonably warm weather Wednesday helped spawn twisters from Arkansas to Michigan. The line of springlike storms continued marching east Thursday, dumping torrential rain that flooded roads in Alabama and caused a mudslide in the mountains of Georgia.

 

In Linden, Tennessee, Tony Goodwin ducked into a storm shelter with seven others as the storm passed. He emerged to find his house had been knocked off its foundation and down the hill.

 

He managed to climb inside and fetch some Christmas gifts that had been under his tree. Goodwin's neighbors weren't so fortunate. Two people in one home were killed.

 

"It makes you thankful to be alive with your family," he said.

 

Dozens of people were injured in the storms, some seriously, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

 

Search teams combed damaged homes and businesses for people still missing, a hunt made complicated because so many had left for the holidays.

 

"Until they know for sure where those folks are, they're going to keep looking, because we've had in some cases houses leveled, and they're just not there anymore," Flynn said.

 

In Benton County, Mississippi, relatives helped Daisy and Charles Johnson clean up after the storm flattened their house. They carried some of the couple's belongings past a Santa Clause figure on a table.

 

Daisy Johnson, 68, said she and her husband rushed along with other relatives to their storm shelter across the street after they heard a tornado was headed their way.

 

"We looked straight west of us, and there it was. It was yellow and it was roaring, lightning just continually, and it was making a terrible noise," she said. "I never want to hear that again for as long as I live."

 

Mona Ables, 43, was driving home when the storm hit. She abandoned her car, ran to a house and banged on a window, seeking shelter.

 

The startled man inside couldn't open the door, which appeared to be blocked, Ables said. She huddled next to the house as another stranger pulled up, also looking for shelter.

 

"He and I just huddled together and saw trees fly past us, and a shipping container flip over," Ables said. "And as the debris started hitting us, he just covered me, and within a minute it was all over and there was destruction all around us and we were fine."

Peak tornado season in the South is in the spring, but such storms can happen at any time. Exactly a year ago, tornadoes hit Mississippi, killing five people and injuring dozens.

 

Glenda Hunt, 69, was cooking chicken and making dressing Wednesday night at her Benton County home, where Christmas Eve lunch is a family tradition, when her daughter called to warn her of the approaching storm.

 

Hunt and her husband ducked into their storm shelter and wrestled the door shut against the wind's powerful suction. She started praying when she heard sheet metal hitting trees.

 

On Thursday, heavy farm equipment and corn were strewn across the couple's property. Their house sustained heavy structural damage but was still standing.

 

"We're OK and that's all that matters," Hunt said. "But the Lord did save my furniture."

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Ohio Mom Helped by Repo Man Gets Gifts from His Colleagues

GARFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio (AP) -- Two weeks after a man went to repossess a car and instead ended up offering to help cover a woman's payments, his colleagues showed up with another surprise: stacks of Christmas gifts for her 10-year-old daughter.

 

A repo man from Relentless Recovery had come for Diana Parks' car but wept at the story of a single mother diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that gives her seizures and trouble walking. It made her unable to work as a pharmacy technician and forced her to drop out of Cleveland State University.

 

"I was working so hard so we could do better," she said. "And then I got sick."

 

He offered to give up half his pay until her delinquent car payments were caught up, but the company decided to cover those costs. Then the staff divvied up her daughter's holiday wish list.

 

"I am overwhelmed with joy," Parks told The Plain Dealer on Wednesday as employees brought boxes of Christmas presents to her Garfield Heights home.

 

The company also established an online fundraising campaign that has generated thousands of dollars for the family.

 

Parks said the kindness shown by the Relentless Recovery employees has restored her optimism.

"I am floating on a cloud," she said. "God works in mysterious ways. We are so blessed."

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Rare Full Moon on Christmas Day

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Gaze up into the sky and you'll see something rare. And, no, it won't be Santa. He and his reindeers will have already zoomed across the horizon.

 

On Christmas Day, there will be a full moon, the first since 1977. It will reach its peak at 6:11 a.m. EST.

 

Merry Moon

 

This full moon, the last one for 2015, is called a Full Cold Moon because it happens during the start of winter. Of course "cold" is relative these days. On the balmy U.S. East Coast, some people will be tempted to celebrate the holiday in shorts and flip flops, more like Hawaiians.

 

NASA has a spacecraft currently orbiting the Earth's moon. Its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has been investigating the moon's surface since 2009. The space agency says the mission has collected a "treasure trove of data" and is "making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon."

 

A full moon on Christmas won't happen again until 2034, nearly two decades from now, NASA said. So, unless you have a very good memory, you might want to look up at the sky on Friday and marvel at the moon's magnificence.

 

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Fight Sparks North Carolina Mall Shooting; 1 Killed

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- A long-standing dispute sparked a shooting at a crowded North Carolina shopping mall on Christmas Eve, police said, and an off-duty officer fatally shot a man who pointed a gun in his direction.

 

Police said no one else was shot and there were no other reports of injuries. The shooting was not a random act but rather the result of a feud among people who knew each other - though there was no indication it was gang-related, Chief Kerr Putney of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said.

 

Mall Shooting

 

During the fight, a weapon was brandished and shots were fired about 2 p.m. at Northlake Mall in Charlotte, Putney said. Shoppers who were crowding the mall for last-minute gifts hid in stores and locked themselves inside, officials said. Police could be seen blocking all mall entrances.

 

Jake Wallace, 24, of Boone, North Carolina, was in Dick's Sporting Goods when shots rang out nearby - about 30 feet outside the store, near Journey's shoe store on the lower level, according to police.

"I thought someone dropped something. It was extremely loud. Didn't think anything of it," Wallace said. "You don't think gunshots. But then I heard a rapid fire. Once hearing that, there was no mistaking it. It sounded like someone was unloading a clip."

Chaos erupted as shoppers dove for cover or tried to get out the door, Wallace said.

 

Don Willis, who works as a valet at the mall, said he heard gunshots, then saw a wave of people exiting the mall.

 

"It was wild. I heard the first shot and I thought, 'Wait. What was that?' And kind of like started turning around and walking and saw this huge line of people - wave of people coming - and I thought a bomb was about to go off, and I just took off," he said.

Putney said Officer Thomas Ferguson was working off-duty at the mall when he heard the shots and confronted the man who pointed a gun in his direction.

The officer then "fired his service weapon," Putney said. The suspect was given emergency aid, but medics pronounced him dead shortly afterward, officials said. Police identified him as Daquan Antonio Westbrook, 18.

 

The officer was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, Putney said. Multiple weapons were found at the scene.

No officers were injured. Putney said police were trying to determine whether anyone else was shot.

"That is part of the investigation," he said. "The good thing about this case is that there are a lot of witnesses."

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Deadly Storm System Scatters Damage Across the South

HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) -- Mulester Johnson was at home with relatives in northern Mississippi when a fierce storm that has killed at least six people across the country hit.

 

The wind tore the back of Johnson's Holly Springs house from its foundation and multiple sheds were missing afterward, he said. Trees rested atop several trucks on his property, and slabs of brick walls were strewn throughout his yard after the storm.

"The chimney is the only thing that saved us really," Johnson, 67, said.

 

(AP Photo/Phillip Lucas)

(AP Photo/Phillip Lucas)

 

The deadly spring-like storms came Wednesday amid unseasonably warm weather that made the perfect recipe for destructive weather.

 

Johnson opened the door to what had been a bedroom and looked past his disheveled belongings to clusters of broken trees in the backyard. The room's walls had been blown away.

 

"This right here is a mess, but I can't complain because we're blessed," he said. Johnson planned on staying with relatives Wednesday night and said no one inside the house was injured.

 

The storms killed at least three in Mississippi, two others in Tennessee and one in Arkansas before the worst passed Wednesday night.

 

A 7-year-old boy died in Holly Springs when the storm picked up and tossed the car he was riding in, officials said.

 

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said dozens of people in the state were being treated for injuries.

 

Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said before dawn Thursday that injuries are "more than 40 for sure, and some of those are quite serious." Some of the injuries included amputations, he said.

A tornado damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Planes at a small airport overturned and an unknown number of people were injured.

 

"I'm looking at some horrific damage right now," Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett said. "Sheet metal is wrapped around trees; there are overturned airplanes; a building is just destroyed."

 

Television images showed the tornado appeared to be on the ground for more than 10 minutes. Interstate 55 was closed in both directions as the tornado approached, the Mississippi Highway Patrol said.

Along Mississippi Highway 7 close to Johnson's house, headlights from passing cars illuminated downed tree limbs, slabs of plasterboard and wooden beams that had been turned into projectiles when the tornado passed.

 

Pieces of metal tangled in drooping power lines, dangling precariously alongside the road. The smell of freshly overturned dirt and trees lingered in the air as emergency crews tended to downed lines.

In Benton County, Mississippi, where at least two deaths occurred and at least two people were missing, crews were searching house-by-house to make sure residents were accounted for.

 

In Arkansas, Pope County Sheriff Shane Jones said 18-year-old Michaela Remus was killed when a tree crashed into her bedroom. The woman and her 1 ½-year-old sister were sleeping in a bedroom of the house near Atkins about 65 miles northwest of Little Rock, when winds uprooted the tree that crashed through the roof. Rescuers pulled the toddler safely from the home.

"It's terrible that this happened, especially at Christmas," Jones said.

 

In parts of Georgia, including Atlanta, a flood watch was posted through Friday evening as more than 4 inches was expected, the National Weather Service said.

 

The threat of severe weather just before Christmas is unusual, but not unprecedented, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center.

Once the strong storms clear out, warm temperatures were expected. Highs in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve were forecast to be in the mid-70s.

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Activist: Mall of America protest 'decoy' for airport block

 (AP) — The Mall of America was used as "a decoy" to start a protest that quickly moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and blocked a terminal on a busy holiday travel day, one organizer of the demonstration said.

 

Access to one of two terminals was closed after more than 100 protesters gathered inside and blocked roads leading to the airport Wednesday, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. He said the protest caused some flight delays but no cancellations.

 

Protesters hoping to draw attention to the police shooting last month of a black man in Minneapolis had described in advance their plans to target the mall, but not the airport. They started at the shopping mecca in suburban Bloomington, where there was a heavy police presence, then took a light-rail train to the airport.

"The mall was a decoy," said Black Lives Matter organizer Miski Noor, who protested at the airport. "I think it was really effective."

 

Police said a total of 15 people were arrested at both sites, mostly for trespassing or obstruction of justice. No injuries or property damage were reported. Officials said that traffic at the airport was back to normal by Wednesday evening and that about 80 stores at the mall were closed for about an hour as officers escorted protesters off the property.

"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," Michelle Barnes of Minneapolis, one of the protest organizers, told the Star Tribune.

Gov. Mark Dayton said the moving protest created a "very, very dangerous situation."

 

Dayton questioned the need for such a demonstration, noting that federal and state investigations were ongoing into the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark, who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police responding to an assault complaint. The governor said releasing video of officers' altercation with Clark, as demanded by protesters, could jeopardize the investigations.

Before protesters gathered at the mall, stores temporarily closed their gates, kiosks were covered and even Santa left his sleigh. Numerous signs were posted saying no protests were allowed — including a long message on a screen in a central rotunda between two Christmas trees.

That didn't deter Art Seratoff, a 67-year-old protester from Minneapolis.

 

"They talk about this demonstration as being disruptive," Seratoff said. "If I think about an unemployment rate in the African-American community three times the white unemployment rate, that's disruptive."

 

About 500 protesters briefly gathered at the mall before abruptly walking out while chanting, "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" The crowd then headed to the light-rail station and onto the airport.

A similar demonstration at the Mall of America last December drew hundreds of protesters angry over the absence of charges following the police killings of unarmed black men in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri. Stores in the mall had to close, and dozens of people were arrested.

 

The massive retail center houses an amusement park and more than 500 shops spread across four floors, attracting shoppers from around the globe.

 

Neither mall officials nor Bloomington police said what security measures were put in place to prepare, though special event staff searched bags at every mall entrance before the rally. Security guards cordoned off parts of the central rotunda, and officers from several cities patrolled inside.

 

The mall had sought a court order blocking the planned protest. A judge on Tuesday barred three organizers from attending the demonstration, but said she didn't have the power to block unidentified protesters from showing up.

Mike Griffin, who joined similar protests last year, said his flight to Chicago was among those delayed.

"While I'm delayed an hour and half to get back to my family for Christmas, I know there are several black families mourning the loss of innocent black men," said Griffin, a 29-year-old from Minneapolis. "My mom is a little bit annoyed, but she's going to see me this holiday season."

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At Least 6 Killed as Severe Storm System Sweeps Across South

 (AP) — A storm system forecasters called "particularly dangerous" killed at least six people as it swept across the country Wednesday, and officials were searching for missing residents into the night.

Tornadoes touched down in Indiana and Mississippi, where three were killed. The springlike storms packing strong winds killed two more in Tennessee.

A tree blew over onto a house in Arkansas, killing an 18-year-old woman and trapping a 1-year-old child inside, authorities said. Rescuers pulled the toddler safely from the home.

A 7-year-old boy died in Holly Springs, Mississippi, when the storm picked up and tossed the car he was riding in, officials said. Police there said several homes were blown off their foundations.

Slabs of metal were tangled in drooping power lines, dangling precariously alongside the road, and the smell of freshly overturned dirt and trees lingered in the air as emergency crews tended to downed power lines.

Close by, in Benton County, Mississippi, two people died and at least two were missing. Crews were searching house-by-house and to make sure residents were accounted for.

In the northwest part of the state, A tornado damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes. Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett said the only confirmed casualty was a dog killed by storm debris. Planes at a small airport overturned and an unknown number of people were injured.

"I'm looking at some horrific damage right now," the mayor said. "Sheet metal is wrapped around trees; there are overturned airplanes; a building is just destroyed."

Television images showed the tornado appeared to be on the ground for more than 10 minutes. Interstate 55 was closed in both directions as the tornado approached, the Mississippi Highway Patrol said.

After an EF-1 tornado struck the south Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood, television stations showed pictures of damage including a portion of a roof blown off a veterinary office.

The biggest threat for tornadoes was in a region of 3.7 million people in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas and parts of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, according to the national Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma. The center issued a "particularly dangerous situation" alert for the first time since June 2014, when two massive EF4 twisters devastated a rural Nebraska town, killing two people.

The greatest risk for a few "intense, long-tracked tornadoes" will be through Wednesday night.

About 120 miles east of the tornado, Brandi Holland, a convenience store clerk in Tupelo, Mississippi, said people were reminded of a tornado that damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses in April 2014.

"They're opening all our tornado shelters because they say there's an 80 percent chance of a tornado today," Holland said.

Elsewhere, skiers on the slopes out West got a fresh taste of powder and most people in the Northeast enjoyed spring-like temperatures as they finished up last-minute Christmas shopping.

"It's too warm for me. I don't like it. I prefer the cold in the winter, in December. Gives you more of that Christmas feel," said Daniel Flores, a concierge from the Bronx, his light jacket zipped open as he shopped in Manhattan with his three children.

Only about half of the nation, mostly in the West, should expect the possibility of a white Christmas.

In the small coastal town of Loxley, Alabama, Mandy Wilson watched the angry gray sky and told drivers to be careful as she worked a cash register at Love's Travel Stop.

"It's very ugly; it's very scary," Wilson said. "There's an 18-wheeler turned over on I-10. There's water standing really bad. It's a really interesting way to spend Christmas Eve eve."

In parts of Georgia, including Atlanta, a flood watch was posted through Friday evening as more than 4 inches was expected, the National Weather Service said.

The threat of severe weather just before Christmas is unusual, but not unprecedented, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center.

Twisters hit southeast Mississippi exactly a year ago, killing five people and injuring dozens of others. On Christmas Day in 2012, a storm system spawned several tornadoes, damaging homes from Texas to Alabama.

Emergency officials in Tennessee worried that powerful winds could turn holiday yard decorations into projectiles, the same way gusts can fling patio furniture in springtime storms, said Marty Clements, director of the Madison County Emergency Management Agency in Jackson, the state's largest city between Memphis and Nashville.

"If you go through these neighborhoods, there are a lot of people very proud of what they've put out and they've got stuff everywhere — all these ornaments and deer and everything else," Clements said. "They're not manufactured to withstand that kind of wind speed, so they become almost like little missiles."

In Arkansas, Pope County Sheriff Shane Jones said 18-year-old Michaela Remus was killed when a tree crashed into her bedroom. The woman and her 1 ½-year-old sister were sleeping in a bedroom of the house near Atkins about 65 miles northwest of Little Rock, when winds uprooted the tree that crashed through the roof.

"It's terrible that this happened, especially at Christmas," Jones said.

Forecasters said by Wednesday night, the severe weather threat could shift east into the southern Appalachian Mountain region.

Once the strong storms clear out, warm temperatures were expected. Highs in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve were forecast to be in the mid-70s.

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Suspect in Vegas Strip crash is distraught, attorney says

 (AP) — A woman accused of intentionally plowing a car carrying her child through crowds of pedestrians on a Las Vegas Strip sidewalk is distraught and overwhelmed, her defense attorney said after she briefly appeared in court for the first time.

Lakeisha Nicole Holloway, 24, pursed her lips and blinked Wednesday as she was led in shackles into a courtroom. She was not asked to enter a plea, but she nodded to acknowledge that she would remain in jail through the holidays while both sides investigate Sunday's crash that killed an Arizona woman and injured dozens of others.

"This is sad and tragic for everybody involved," defense lawyer Joseph Abood said after the hearing, adding, "Just because she's charged, doesn't mean she's guilty."

A coroner later ruled the death of Jessica Valenzuela, 32, of Buckeye, Arizona, a homicide. The finding means it wasn't an accident but doesn't find fault. Valenzuela died from multiple blunt-force injuries, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg said.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys called the ruling expected. Abood said it didn't reveal new details about the case.

"It says this victim died as a result of her injuries," Abood said. "It doesn't answer the surrounding questions. We still don't have enough information to know how or why this happened."

Prosecutors aim to show Holloway meant to kill and injure people when she drove her car onto the sidewalk in front of the Planet Hollywood and Paris Las Vegas resorts, District Attorney Steve Wolfson said.

Casino and street surveillance video of the crash is "superb" quality, Wolfson said, adding that he believes it clearly shows Holloway's intentions. The video may not be made public until a later court hearing.

Holloway is charged with murder, felony hit-and-run and child endangerment. Additional charges are likely, depending on the results of drug and alcohol tests and police findings, Wolfson said. They could include multiple counts of attempted murder with a deadly weapon.

"If you intentionally try and run somebody over, that certainly qualifies as an attempted murder charge, and that's one we are strongly considering," he said.

Police and firefighters say hospitals treated at least 35 people from several states, Mexico and Canada. Six people remained hospitalized Wednesday, including two in critical condition.

A judge set a Jan. 20 date to schedule a preliminary hearing of evidence that police say they're still collecting. Holloway plans to plead not guilty when the time comes, Abood said.

The deputy public defender, who represented another driver in a similar crash on the Strip in September 2005, said the defense team needs to see police reports, witness accounts and video before deciding on Holloway's defense.

Holloway is on suicide watch in jail, where she is being held without bail. Her lawyers said Holloway's mental health could become an issue, but that she had not had a psychological evaluation.

Abood said he and co-counsel Scott Coffee had heard nothing but good things about Holloway's past.

"This is a surprise to everyone," Abood said. "We have a lot of investigating and a lot of work to do."

Holloway was from Portland, Oregon, and had been in Las Vegas for about a week, authorities said.

She told police after she was arrested that she was broke, homeless and tired of being shooed away from casino parking garages, where she and her daughter had been sleeping in a 1996 Oldsmobile. The girl wasn't hurt in the crash, and child welfare officials are caring for her.

In Oregon, where she changed her name in October to Paris Paradise Morton, Holloway won honors for overcoming a rough childhood and homelessness to graduate with acclaim from an alternative high school.

The U.S. Forest Service hired her in 2009 to do administrative work in its Portland office. Holloway took a four-month break in late 2010 and resigned in 2012, spokesman Glen Sachet said.

The nonprofit Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, which helps at-risk youths with education and job training, featured Holloway in a 2012 video in which she said she was going to college and entering the workforce.

"Today I'm not the same scared girl I used to be," Holloway said in the video. "I'm a mature young woman."

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