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U. S. News

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.  — NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.

The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters) — but accomplished all the major milestones.

“Goosebumps. It looks just the way we had tested,” project manager MiMi Aung said as she watched the flight video during a later briefing. “Absolutely beautiful flight. I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”

Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.

Scientists cheered the news from around the world, even from space, and the White House offered its congratulations.

“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.

This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity, the next as soon as Thursday — holds great promise, Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.

Ingenuity has provided a third dimension to planetary exploration and ”freed us from the surface now forever,” said JPL director, Michael Watkins.

Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded 178 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.

When the news finally came, the operations center filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.

“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.

Next came stunning color video of the copter’s clean landing, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said in thanking everyone.

The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on Dec. 17, 1903.

To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1% the density of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift. The Martian wind was relatively gentle Monday: between 4 mph and 14 mph (7 kph to 22 kph).

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.

Ingenuity also had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind, and is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for surviving the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield. Following Monday’s success, NASA named the area for the Wright brothers.

“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and … million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA’s science missions chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.

The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend. “Get to the chopper!” he shouted in a tweeted video, a line from his 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”

Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.

Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.

The team plans to test the helicopter’s limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.

Until then, Perseverance will keep tabs on Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny.

“Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.

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Covid-19 U. S. News

US made little progress this week preventing more COVID-19 deaths, influential forecasting team says

As health experts worry about a COVID-19 resurgence, an influential forecasting team said the country did not make significant progress against the virus this week. And it warned about Americans taking fewer safety precautions.

The forecast provided Friday by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington is nearly the same as last week’s: in the most likely scenario, 58,000 more people will die of the virus by August 1, forecasters said.

The US has been in a race to vaccinate Americans before more transmissible variants can send numbers to overwhelming levels once more.

More than 205 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the US, according to data published Saturday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 129 million people have received at least one dose and more than 82 million people have been fully vaccinated.

And though more than 30% of US adults are already fully vaccinated, experts warn that vaccine hesitancy and easing of preventative measures could keep the public from reaching the immunity levels needed to get ahead of the pandemic.

Experts have emphasized that the rare cases of adverse reactions from COVID-19 vaccines are far outweighed by the collective protection of widespread vaccination.

“The vaccines have saved thousands of lives already,” Emory University executive associate dean of medicine Dr. Carlos del Rio told CNN. “We’ve seen mortality in the US decline despite cases going up, and that’s because we’re vaccinating people.”

But as those doses are making their way into arms, distancing and mask-wearing still play an important role in the fight against the coronavirus.

“If universal mask coverage (95%) were attained in the next week, our model projects 13,000 fewer cumulative deaths,” the IHME researchers said.

But the model instead foresees people dropping mask use. “The trend toward mandate easing continues, and it appears quite possible there will be a huge behavioral rebound,” it said.

Under a worst-case scenario, 679,000 people will have died by August 1 if more people stop wearing masks and start moving around and gathering more, according to the model.

The US leads the world with more than 566,000 coronavirus deaths, with just over three million COVID-19 deaths reported globally as of Saturday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Where the numbers stand now

In several parts of the US, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again.

At least 13 states have recorded at least a 10% rise in daily average positive cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins data Friday — an improvement from 21 states on Thursday — but underscoring that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.

In Michigan, hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed and reaching full capacities in part due to the influx of new cases.

Dr. Joel Fishbain, medical director for infection prevention at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, said many patients in hospitals now are younger than those being admitted last spring.

“The people I worry about are the nursing staff,” he told CNN. “So even though there may be open beds, we may not have the staffing to staff them… All of the nurses and the support personnel are really getting tired.”

State and local officials are attempting to avoid a similar situation and are pushing to increase vaccination levels among adults, which shows continuing signs of improvement.

“We have knocked down this virus already three times, but we have to knock it down a fourth time,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.

Many states are pushing harder to increase vaccination rates.

“We know that these vaccines are really responsible primarily for the 90% reduction in deaths we’ve seen over the first 13 weeks of 2021,” Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar, said Thursday.

Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Connecticut and Georgia all highlighted increases in vaccination numbers.

New York reported its lowest number of hospitalizations since December 1 and that more than half of New York adults had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine investigated

As vaccine distribution continues, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains paused as the company waits for guidance from investigators.

A severe form of blood clot in the brain known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) may be linked to the vaccine, yet the occurrence rate is rare. So far, only six cases have been reported in the US out of the approximately 7 million doses administered to date. One person died and another is in critical condition, an FDA official said Tuesday.

One of the six cases involved a 26-year-old Pennsylvania woman, according to the state’s department of health, who recovered after receiving treatment at a hospital. The state, which is pausing J&J distribution until April 24, said that federal oversight of vaccine safety is functioning as intended.

“The safety procedures built into the vaccination process are working and should instill confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the available COVID-19 vaccines,” Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said. “I urge individuals who have appointments scheduled to receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccination to keep those appointments.”

After the CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration recommended a pause on Tuesday, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met Wednesday without voting on taking any further action, stating that more information is needed, and vaccine advisers to the CDC have scheduled a meeting for April 23 to determine whether additional intervention is required.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a decision quite soon as to whether or not we can get back on track with this very effective vaccine,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told a Congressional hearing Thursday.

Recipients of the vaccine who develop a severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider, the CDC and FDA said.

For those that received the J&J vaccine more than a month ago, the risk is “very low,” said CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat during a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

Researchers look into vaccinating children as young as 2

In many states, vaccinations are available for everyone 16 and older, but researchers have begun testing Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children as young as two.

“Stanford Medicine is one of five sites nationwide participating in a Phase 1 trial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children younger than 5 years of age,” Stanford Medicine told CNN in a statement Thursday. A Stanford Medicine spokesperson confirmed that researchers began administering doses to participants in the 2- to 5-year age group on Wednesday.

“This phase of the study, which will enroll a total of 144 participants across the country, will test three doses of the vaccine in this age group for safety and tolerability,” the statement read. “Once a safe and tolerable vaccine dose has been established, a larger study of vaccine efficacy will be launched in this age group.”

The Phase 1 study at Stanford is now fully enrolled.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have also begun testing the vaccine in young children. Dr. Robert Frenck, the principal investigator for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trials at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said Monday that the first dose was given to participants in the 2 to 4 age range last week.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital said nearly 340 children are participating in the vaccine trials at the hospital, and more will be enrolled soon.

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Covid-19 U. S. News

US setting up $1.7B national network to track virus variants

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is setting up a $1.7 billion national network to identify and track worrisome coronavirus mutations whose spread could trigger another pandemic wave, the Biden administration announced Friday.

White House officials unveiled a strategy that features three components: a major funding boost for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments to ramp up coronavirus gene-mapping; the creation of six “centers of excellence” partnerships with universities to conduct research and develop technologies for gene-based surveillance of pathogens, and building a data system to better share and analyze information on emerging disease threats, so knowledge can be turned into action.

“Even as we accelerate our efforts to get shots into arms, more dangerous variants are growing, causing increases in cases in people without immunity,” White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt told reporters. That “requires us to intensify our efforts to quickly test for and find the genetic sequence of the virus as it spreads.”

The new effort relies on money approved by Congress as part of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief package to break what experts say is a feast-or-famine cycle in U.S. preparedness for disease threats. The coronavirus is only one example. Others pathogens have included Ebola and Zika, and respiratory viruses like SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, which did not become major problems in the United States. Typically, the government scrambles to counter a potential threat, but funding dries up when it recedes. The new genomic surveillance initiative aims to create a permanent infrastructure.

“It’s a transformative amount of money,” Mary Lee Watts, federal affairs director at the American Society for Microbiology, said in a recent interview. “It has the potential not only to get ahead of the current crisis, but it is going to help us in the future. This is a program that has been underfunded for years.”

The Biden administration’s move comes as a variant known as B117, which first emerged in the United Kingdom, has become the predominant strain in the U.S. In hard-hit Michigan, the more transmissible mutation accounts for more than half the cases, according to CDC data. That’s also the case in Minnesota. Vaccines are effective against the so-called U.K. variant, but other mutations circulating around the globe have shown resistance to currently available vaccines.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday the U.S. is now averaging nearly 70,000 new coronavirus cases daily, up from about 53,000 just four weeks ago. Hospitalizations have been trending higher, too, and deaths were up for the third day in a row. Along with relaxed restrictions on gatherings and indoor dining, the emergence of variants that spread more easily is part of the reason for the worsening trend.

Of particular concern are two variants that for now only have a toe-hold in the U.S. They are P1, first detected in travelers from Brazil, and B1351, identified in South Africa. The reason scientists are watching those variants is that they have shown some level of resistance to antibodies, defensive proteins produced by the human body in response to vaccines or a previous infection.

“In order for us to even have the possibility of getting back to normal by the fall we need to massively scale up our genomic surveillance,” said Esther Krofah, who directs the Faster Cures initiative of the Milken Institute. “It’s the insurance program that you need to have in place not just now, not just for COVID, but going forward for other pathogens of concern.”

Genomic sequencing essentially involves mapping the DNA of an organism, the key to its unique features. It’s done by high-tech machines that can cost from several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million or more. Technicians trained to run the machines and the necessary computing capacity add to costs.

Another hurdle is getting local, state and federal labs all working together. “There are lots of cats that need to be herded,” said University of Wisconsin virologist Thomas Friedrich.

At the end of last year, the CDC and collaborating labs were completing only 116 coronavirus gene sequences a week, according to the CDC’s website. “We started in a hole,” said Slavitt.

The White House says the weekly count is now about 29,000, but experts say in a large, diverse country like the U.S. those numbers need to be much higher to keep pace with potential changes to the virus. Viruses are highly efficient at spreading, developing mutations that enable them to keep reproducing.

White House officials said the government is releasing to states and territories an initial $240 million out of $1 billion allocated to expand genomic sequencing. Another $400 million will go to launch the six research partnerships with academic institutions, dubbed Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology. Finally, $300 million will go to set up the data sharing system, which is being called the National Bioinformatics Infrastructure.

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Crime & Safety U. S. News

Chicago 13-year-old boy wasn’t holding gun when shot by cop

CHICAGO  — Disturbing bodycam video released Thursday after public outcry over the police shooting of a 13-year-old boy shows the youth appearing to drop a handgun and begin raising his hands less than a second before an officer fires his gun and kills him.

A still frame taken from Officer Eric Stillman’s jumpy nighttime body camera footage shows that Adam Toledo wasn’t holding anything and had his hands up when Stillman shot him once in the chest about 3 a.m. on March 29. Police, who were responding to reports of shots fired in the area, say the teen had a handgun on him before the shooting. And Stillman’s footage shows him shining a light on a handgun on the ground near Toledo after he shot him.

The release of the footage and other investigation materials comes at a sensitive time, with the ongoing trial in Minneapolis of former Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd and the recent police killing of another Black man, Daunte Wright, in one of that city’s suburbs. Before the Civilian Office of Police Accountability posted the material on its website, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the public to keep the peace and some downtown businesses boarded up their windows in the expectation that there could be unrest.

“We live in a city that is traumatized by a long history of police violence and misconduct,” Lightfoot said. “So while we don’t have enough information to be the judge and jury of this particular situation, it is certainly understandable why so many of our residents are feeling that all too familiar surge of outrage and pain. It is even clearer that trust between our community and law enforcement is far from healed and remains badly broken.”

Nineteen seconds elapsed from when Stillman got out of his squad car to when he shot Toledo. His bodycam footage shows him chasing Toledo on foot down an alley for several seconds and yelling “Police! Stop! Stop right (expletive) now!”

As the teen slows down, Stillman yells “Hands! Hands! Show me your (expletive) hands!”

Toledo then turns toward the camera, Stillman yells “Drop it!” and midway between repeating that command, he opens fire and Toledo falls down. While approaching the wounded teen, Stillman radios in for an ambulance. He can be heard imploring the boy to “stay awake,” and as other officers arrive, an officer says he can’t feel a heartbeat and begins administering CPR.

In a lengthy email, Stillman’s attorney Tim Grace said Toledo left the officer no choice but to shoot.

“The juvenile offender had the gun in his right hand … looked at the officer which could be interpreted as attempting to acquire a target and began to turn to face the officer attempting to swing the gun in his direction,” Grace wrote. “At this point the officer was faced with a life threatening and deadly force situation. All prior attempts to deescalate and gain compliance with all of the officer’s lawful orders had failed.”

But Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, an attorney for Toledo’s family, told reporters after the footage and other videos were released that they “speak for themselves.”

Weiss-Ortiz said it’s irrelevant whether Toledo was holding a gun before he turned toward the officer.

“If he had a gun, he tossed it,” she said. “The officer said, ‘Show me your hands.” He complied. He turned around.”

The Chicago Police Department typically doesn’t release the names of officers involved in such shootings this early on in an investigation, but Stillman’s name, age and race — he’s 34 and white — were listed in the investigation reports released Thursday.

Weiss-Ortiz said that she looked into Stillman’s record but found no prior disciplinary issues.

Lightfoot, who along with the police superintendent had called on the police accountability board to release the video, asked the public to remain calm but decried the city’s long history of police violence and misconduct, especially in Black and brown communities. She said too many young people are left vulnerable to “systemic failures that we simply must fix.”

Choking up at times, Stillman described watching the video footage as “excruciating.”

“As a mom, this is not something you want children to see,” she said.

In addition to posting Stillman’s bodycam footage, the review board released footage from other bodycams, four third-party videos, two audio recordings of 911 calls, and six audio recordings from ShotSpotter, the technology that alerted police to gunshots in that area of Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhood on the city’s West Side, and led officers to head there that morning.

Toledo, who was Hispanic, and a 21-year-old man fled on foot when confronted by police. The 21-year-old man was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

The review board initially said it couldn’t release the video because it involved the shooting of a minor, but it changed course after the mayor and police superintendent called for the video’s release.

Previous police shooting videos that went public have sparked major protests, including one released in 2015 showing a white officer shooting Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him. The officer was eventually convicted of murder.

Before the latest video’s release, some businesses in downtown Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” shopping district boarded up their windows. Lightfoot said the city has been preparing for months for a verdict in the Chauvin trial and that it had activated a “neighborhood protection plan” ahead of Thursday’s release.

“It happens now that these circumstances are sitting next to each other,” she said.

The Toledo family, meanwhile, issued a statement urging people to avoid violent protests.

“We pray that for the sake of our city, people remain peaceful to honor Adam’s memory and work constructively to promote reform,” the family said.

Lightfoot and attorneys for the family and city said that in addition to the release of the video, all investigation materials should be made public, including a slowed-down compilation of what happened that morning.

“We acknowledge that the release of this video is the first step in the process toward the healing of the family, the community and our city,” they said in a joint statement. “We understand that the release of this video will be incredibly painful and elicit an emotional response to all who view it, and we ask that people express themselves peacefully.”

Whether the officer is charged with a crime is up to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, which gets the accountability board’s report after it completes its investigation.

The Chicago Police Department has a long history of brutality and racism that has fomented mistrust among the city’s many Black and Hispanic residents. Adding to that mistrust is the city’s history of suppressing damning police videos.

The city fought for months to keep the public from seeing the 2014 video of a white officer shooting McDonald, and also tried to stop a TV news station from broadcasting video of a botched 2019 police raid in which an innocent, naked, Black woman wasn’t allowed to put on clothes until after she was handcuffed.

Categories
Covid-19 U. S. News

CDC reports 5,800 COVID infections in fully vaccinated people

About 5,800 people who have been vaccinated against coronavirus have become infected anyway, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells CNN.

Some became seriously ill and 74 people died, the CDC said. It said 396 — 7% — of those who got infected after they were vaccinated required hospitalization.

It’s the first indication from CDC of how effective the vaccine is in real life — and the first indication the vaccines do not protect completely against severe disease and death.

“So far, about 5,800 breakthrough cases have been reported to CDC. To date, no unexpected patterns have been identified in case demographics or vaccine characteristics,” the CDC told CNN via email.

So far, about 77 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, according to a CNN analysis of CDC data. The CDC’s reports on breakthrough cases will lag day-to-day reports of vaccines given, so may not reflect the most current events.

It’s not unexpected to see breakthrough cases. The vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing infections and as tens of millions of people are vaccinated, more and more such cases will be reported.

Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine was 95% effective in preventing symptomatic disease in clinical trials, and earlier this month the companies said real-life data in the U.S. shows the vaccine is more than 91% effective against disease with any symptoms for six months.

Moderna’s vaccine was 94% effective in preventing symptomatic illness in trials, and 90% effective in real life use. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was 66% overall globally in trials, and 72% effective at preventing disease in the U.S.

CDC will be looking for clues about who is most prone to become infected despite having been vaccinated.

“Vaccine breakthrough infections were reported among all people of all ages eligible for vaccination. However, a little over 40% of the infections were in people 60 or more years of age,” the CDC said.

Most, 65%, were female and 29% of the so-called breakthrough infections were asymptomatic. “CDC is monitoring reported cases for clustering by patient demographics, geographic location, time since vaccination, vaccine type or lot number, and SARS-CoV-2 lineage,” the CDC said.

Plus, samples from cases will be tested to see how many are caused by variants and if so, which ones.

“CDC has developed a national COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough database where state health department investigators can currently enter, store, and manage data for cases in their jurisdiction,” the CDC said.

“Vaccine breakthrough infections make up a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated. CDC recommends that all eligible people get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is available to them. CDC also continues to recommend people who have been fully vaccinated should keep taking precautions in public places, like wearing a mask, staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and washing their hands often.”

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Crime & Safety U. S. News

2 suspects arrested in 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart

Two men were arrested Tuesday morning in connection with the disappearance of Kristin Smart, the California college student who vanished in 1996, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said at a news conference.

Authorities have not found Smart’s body, Parkinson said, but they have come across forensic physical evidence that they “believe it is linked to Kristin.”

The sheriff talked to her family twice Tuesday, he said.

“I think they are feeling a bit of relief, but as you can imagine until we return Kristin to them, this is not over,” he told reporters. “We have committed to them that we are not going to stop until Kristen has been recovered, no matter what the cause, no matter what the time, we’re committed to that.

The family later released a statement calling it a “bittersweet day.”

“It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family; we pray it is the first step to bringing our daughter home,” the family said. “While Kristin’s loving spirit will always live in our hearts, our life without her hugs, laughs and smiles is a heartache that never abates.”

“We are pleased that Kristin’s case has now moved to the district attorney’s office, where we know we will be in good hands, and look forward to the day when there will be ‘justice’ for Kristin,” they said.

The two suspects have been booked into the San Luis Obispo County Jail, according to online inmate records.

Paul Flores, 44, has been booked on a murder charge, the records show. No bail amount is listed. Ruben Flores, 80, has been booked on an accessory charge and is being held on $250,000 bail.

The pair are expected to be arraigned on Thursday, though the elder Flores is eligible for bail. CNN has reached out to attorneys for both men.

Reached earlier by phone, Robert Sanger, an attorney representing Paul Flores, said he would not comment on “pending cases.”

District Attorney Dan Dow said his office is looking at the case.

“We are carefully reviewing the evidence and will provide more information as it becomes available,” Dow said in a statement.

Long-time suspect

Last month, authorities searched Ruben Flores’ home in Arroyo Grande.

“Additional evidence related to the Smart investigation was discovered at that time,” the sheriff said, without specifying what was found.

Paul Flores has been the prime suspect in the decades-long missing persons case. Officials have said Flores, who was 19-year-old freshman at the time, walked Smart home. He was the last person to see her on May 25, 1996, authorities have said.

Smart was last seen near her California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly) dorm, but she never made it to her room, police said. Friends and family never heard from her again.

She did not have identification, money or extra clothing when she disappeared, police said. Smart was declared dead in 2002.

Last year, investigators searched Paul Flores’ home, and said they found “items of interest” on the property.

At that time, Flores was detained at his San Pedro, California, home and released back to his home after the search, Tony Cipolla, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said at the time.

A massive search and repeated interviews with a student who walked with her that night yielded no breaks, and Smart was declared dead in 2002.

In 2016, following leads indicating her body was buried on campus, the FBI flew in three cadaver dogs from its Quantico, Virginia, training facility, and investigators dug up part of the hillside near where the school’s trademark “P” is embedded, to no avail.

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U. S. News

Va. police officer fired after Black Army officer pepper-sprayed during stop

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. — One of two Virginia police officers accused of being involved in a traffic stop incident involving a Black U.S. Army officer in uniform has been fired.

A release from the town manager of Windsor stated that officer Joe Gutierrez was terminated following an internal investigation of the incident that occurred on Dec. 5.

The news comes just hours after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation into the incident, which began when Gutierrez and officer Daniel Crocker conducted a traffic stop of U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario.

The officers are accused of pointing their guns at Nazario, who is Black and Latino, and using a slang term to suggest he was facing execution.

Nazario was also pepper-sprayed and knocked to the ground by the officers, according to a lawsuit he filed earlier this month against them.

In the release, officials say “the pursuit and ultimate stop which resulted in the use of pepper spray against Lt. Caron Nazario by Officer Gutierrez” required an internal investigation to determine the appropriateness of Gutierrez’s action.

“At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed,” officials said.

The investigation resulted in disciplinary action and additional department-wide training, which began in January and is still ongoing, according to the release.

“Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future,” officials said.

“Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable,” he said.

Northam ended his statement with an invitation for Nazario to meet and talk with the governor regarding the incident.

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U. S. News

Millions of taxpaying immigrants won’t get stimulus checks

PHOENIX — The $2.2 trillion package that Congress approved to offer financial help during the coronavirus pandemic has one major exclusion: millions of immigrants who do not have legal status in the U.S. but work here and pay taxes.

That includes Carmen Contreras Lopez, a 48-year-old housekeeper who, though she earns low wages, files a tax return each year. Since the virus took hold, she has lost most of her clients and is getting by with help from her oldest son. But she won’t see a penny of the money promised to most Americans in response to the pandemic.

“It’s hard because to the government, we don’t exist,” said Contreras Lopez, who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years and has four grown children who are U.S. citizens.

The government expects to begin making payments to millions of Americans in mid-April. Anyone earning up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income and who has a Social Security number will receive $1,200. The payment steadily declines for those who make more. Legal permanent residents, or green card holders, are expected to benefit.

Roughly 4.3 million mostly unauthorized immigrants who do not have a Social Security number file taxes using what’s known as a taxpayer identification number, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Many say they pay federal taxes because they hope it will one day help them achieve legal residency and because they feel it’s the right thing to do.

“We made that decision because we’re living in a country that’s welcomed us with a lot of love,” said Ingrid Vaca, a house cleaner in the Washington, D.C., area.

Vaca said immigrants take care of communities, children, the elderly and homes, but they will not receive any help themselves. Also left out are the workers’ 3.5 million children, many of whom are American citizens.

“This is a nightmare to me and many of my colleagues,” Vaca said, lamenting the lack of income for rent and basic necessities. “We need for us to be respected.”

Asked how immigrants without legal status will survive the pandemic’s economic toll without any aid, President Donald Trump acknowledged the difficulty but said many citizens without work need help first.

“It’s a really sad situation, and we are working on it. I will tell you I’m not going to give you a hard and fast answer because I just want to tell you it’s something I think about,” Trump said.

Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation last week in the House and Senate that would allow immigrants to access relief funds.

“COVID-19 does not care about your immigration status, so neither should our response,” U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said in a statement.

Maria Zamorano, a day laborer in the Los Angeles area, has also been left without work. Until recently, she worked seven days a week cleaning houses, earning roughly $700 weekly. But all of her employers canceled services. After she did an interview with The New York Times about her situation, two of those employers decided to keep paying her, she said, but she doesn’t know for how long. She’s still short on cash for food, rent and bills.

“Like thousands of others who don’t have legal status, we are left empty-handed in this crisis,” Zamorano said. “I pay taxes, but the government doesn’t consider that we should get help.”

In rural Massachusetts, Jose Martinez said a pandemic stimulus check could have helped cover at least a month’s worth of expenses, if he had qualified. The 34-year-old Mexican crossed the border illegally about 15 years ago and lives near the Vermont state line with his 4-year-old American-born daughter.

Martinez, a house painter, says work has dropped off during the pandemic. His boss still owes him more than $500 for recent jobs, and the restaurant where he washes dishes part-time has also been temporarily shuttered.

“The check would have given me the opportunity to stay at home, avoid sickness and keep my family safe,” Martinez said, referring to the stimulus money. “But I have to keep looking for work and exposing us to risk. I don’t know what else to do.”

Luis Jiménez, a 35-year-old Mexican who takes cares of calves in New York, near Canada, said he feels forgotten by the government even though his work is vital to feed Americans.

“We are essential to the economy and to feed this country, but we don’t get any help or support,” said the father of three, who has lived in the United States without legal status for 16 years.

Jiménez, who lives with his kids and spouse, said he makes about $38,000 a year and pays about $6,000 in taxes annually. He has been paying them since 2005, he said.

“Every day we go to work and we are exposed to everything. In the farm, there are hardly any protection measures” against coronavirus, he said.

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U. S. News

Man who embezzled $36M from L.A. firm sentenced to prison

LOS ANGELES — A man who embezzled more than $36 million from a Los Angeles company was sentenced Thursday to 10 1/2 years in federal prison and ordered to repay the money.

Paul McDaniel, 44, used most of the funds he embezzled to pay off $23 million in credit card debt, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

McDaniel embezzled the funds over more than seven years while working as accounting manager for Hypermedia Systems Inc., a media technology services firm based in downtown L.A., prosecutors said.

McDaniel obtained the money by creating and approving false vendor invoices from a Nevada corporation he created, and the money went into a bank account he controlled, authorities said.

McDaniel fled to Costa Rica, where he was arrested in 2017. He was extradited to the United States in 2019 and pleaded guilty that year to one count of wire fraud.

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Covid-19 U. S. News

Trump permits Nat’l Guard to get federal aid in COVID-19 efforts in MT

President Donald Trump gave Governor Steve Bullock authorization for his request for the National Guard to get federal assistance in their fight against COVID-19 in Montana.

According to a release from the Governor Bullock, Trump approved his asking to be a Title 32 standing, which means the federal government will pay for all authorized National Guard costs. However, the release says Governor Bullock still has executive control over the Montana National Guard.

“I’m pleased the President recognizes that Montana is working hard to fight this virus,” Governor Bullock said in the release. “With this federal support, we can fully utilize the Montana National Guard to aggressively respond to COVID-19 and prevent further spread, and we can ensure that our guardsmen and women receive the resources they deserve.”

Below is the full release from Governor Bullock:

“Governor Steve Bullock today announced federal support for the National Guard to respond to COVID-19 in Montana after President Trump approved the governor’s request for Title 32 status. Title 32 status means the federal government will cover all approved costs incurred by the National Guard, even though the Montana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen remain under the command and direction of the Governor.

‘I’m pleased the President recognizes that Montana is working hard to fight this virus,’ Governor Bullock said. ‘With this federal support, we can fully utilize the Montana National Guard to aggressively respond to COVID-19 and prevent further spread, and we can ensure that our guardsmen and women receive the resources they deserve.’

With authority under the Stafford Act, the president issued a memo on April 7 announcing Montana and several other states will receive full funding from FEMA to cover costs from using National Guard forces to prevent, mitigate, and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19.

Last week, Governor Bullock activated the Montana National Guard under state active duty authority and funding to assist in screening individuals arriving in Montana airports and rail stations. The Guard’s presence extends the state’s ability to enforce the travel quarantine order and make sure that people arriving in Montana aren’t bringing new COVID-19 cases with them. The National Guard is also assisting the local operation in Toole County. This recognition of the needs within the state allows for full federal funding of the National Guard operations while Governor Bullock retains command and control of the Soldiers and Airmen of the Montana National Guard.”