3 dead as storm system heads east after Midwest snow and South twisters; holiday travel slows
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — An enormous storm system that dumped snow and sleet on the nation's midsection and unleashed damaging tornadoes around the Deep South has begun punching its way toward the Northeast, slowing holiday travel.
Post-Christmas travelers braced for a second day of flight delays and cancellations, a day after rare winter twisters damaged numerous homes in Louisiana and Alabama. The vast storm system stretching across numerous states has been blamed for three deaths and several injuries though no one was killed outright in the tornadoes. The storms also left more than 100,000 without power for a time, darkening Christmas celebrations.
Drenching rains and blustery winds moved early Wednesday across Georgia, a slew of tornado watches still in effect. The severe weather system was set to lash the Carolinas later in the day before taking aim next at the heavily populated Northeast corridor.
Farther north on a line from Little Rock, Ark., to Cleveland, blizzard conditions were predicted before the snow — up to a foot in some places — made its way into the Northeast.
Rick Cauley's family was hosting relatives for Christmas when the tornado sirens went off in Mobile. Not taking any chances, he and his wife, Ashley, hustled everyone down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School in Mobile.
Killer of 2 NY firemen left chilling note saying he liked 'killing people,' death toll now 3
WEBSTER, N.Y. (AP) — The ex-con turned sniper who killed two firefighters wanted to make sure his goodbye note was legible, typing out his desire to "do what I like doing best, killing people" before setting the house where he lived with his sister ablaze, police said.
Police Chief Gerald Pickering said Tuesday that the 62-year-old loner, William Spengler, brought plenty of ammunition with him for three weapons including a military-style assault rifle as he set out on a quest to burn down his neighborhood just before sunrise on Christmas Eve.
And when firefighters arrived to stop him, he unleashed a torrent of bullets, shattering the windshield of the fire truck that volunteer firefighter and police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, drove to the scene. Fellow firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, who worked as a 911 dispatcher, was killed as well.
Two other firefighters were struck by bullets, one in the pelvis and the other in the chest and knee. They remained hospitalized in stable condition and were expected to survive.
On Tuesday, investigators found a body in the Spengler home, presumably that of the sister a neighbor said Spengler hated: 67-year-old Cheryl Spengler. Spengler's penchant for death had surfaced before. He served 17 years in prison for manslaughter in the 1980 hammer slaying of his grandmother.
4 killed as Afghan bomber attacks near major US base in country's east
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A vehicle driven by a suicide bomber exploded at the gate of a major U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing the attacker and three Afghans, Afghan police said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Police Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizai said a local guard who questioned the vehicle driver at the gate of Camp Chapman was killed along with two civilians and the assailant. The camp is located adjacent to the airport of the capital of Khost province, which borders Pakistan. Chapman and nearby Camp Salerno had been frequently targeted by militants in the past, but violent incidents have decreased considerably in recent months.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an email that the bomber targeted Afghan police manning the gate and Afghans working for the Americans entering the base. He claimed high casualties were inflicted.
NATO operates with more than 100,000 troops in the country, including some 66,000 American forces. It is handing most combat operations over to the Afghans in preparation for a pullout from Afghanistan in 2014. Militant groups, including the Taliban, rarely face NATO troops head-on and rely mainly on roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
NATO forces and foreign civilians have also been increasingly attacked by rogue Afghan military and police, eroding trust between the allies.
Immigration, taxes, guns: GOP signals willingness to bend on issues after election drubbing
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For years, Republicans have adhered fiercely to their bedrock conservative principles, resisting Democratic calls for tax hikes, comprehensive immigration reform and gun control. Now, seven weeks after an electoral drubbing, some party leaders and rank-and-file alike are signaling a willingness to bend on all three issues.
What long has been a nonstarter for Republicans — raising tax rates on wealthy Americans — is now backed by GOP House Speaker John Boehner in his negotiations with President Barack Obama to avert a potential fiscal crisis. Party luminaries, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have started calling for a wholesale shift in the GOP's approach to immigration after Hispanic voters shunned Republican candidates. And some Republicans who previously championed gun rights now are opening the door to restrictions following a schoolhouse shooting spree earlier this month.
"Put guns on the table. Also, put video games on the table. Put mental health on the table," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said last week. Other prominent Republicans echoed him in calling for a sweeping review of how to prevent tragedies like the Newtown, Conn., massacre. Among those who were open to a re-evaluation of the nation's gun policies were Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
"You've got to take all these things into consideration," Grassley said.
And yet, the head of the National Rifle Association, silent for a week after the Newtown shootings, has proposed staffing schools with armed police, making clear the NRA, which tends to support the GOP, will continue pushing for fewer gun restrictions, not more.
With storms, 'fiscal cliff' worry, US holiday shopping up just 0.7 percent, weakest since 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. shoppers spent cautiously this holiday season, a disappointment for retailers who slashed prices to lure people into stores and now must hope for a post-Christmas burst of spending.
Sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report.
That was below the healthy 3 to 4 percent growth that analysts had expected — and it was the worst year-over-year performance since 2008, when spending shrank sharply during the Great Recession. In 2011, retail sales climbed 4 to 5 percent during November and December, according to ShopperTrak.
This year's shopping season was marred by bad weather and rising uncertainty about the economy in the face of possible tax hikes and spending cuts early next year. Some analysts say the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., earlier this month may also have chipped away at shoppers' enthusiasm.
Retailers still have time to make up lost ground. The final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month's sales, said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.
In shift to right, Japan's parliament returns Shinzo Abe to prime minister post
TOKYO (AP) — Old-guard veteran Shinzo Abe was voted back into office as prime minister Wednesday and immediately named a new Cabinet, ending three years of liberal administrations and restoring power to his conservative, pro-big-business party that has run Japan for most of the post-World War II era.
Abe, whose nationalist positions have in the past angered Japan's neighbors, is the country's seventh prime minister in just over six years. He was also prime minister in 2006-2007 before resigning for health reasons that he says are no longer an issue.
The outspoken and often hawkish leader has promised to restore growth to an economy that has been struggling for 20 years. His new administration also faces souring relations with China and a complex debate over whether resource-poor Japan should wean itself off nuclear energy after last year's earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at an atomic power plant.
On top of that, he will have to win over a public that gave his party a lukewarm mandate in elections on Dec. 16, along with keeping at bay a still-powerful opposition in parliament. Though his party and its Buddhist-backed coalition partner is the biggest bloc in the more influential lower house, Abe actually came up short in the first round of voting in the upper house, then won in a runoff.
Capitalizing on voter discontent with the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan, Abe has vowed to shore up the economy, deal with a swelling national debt and come up with a fresh recovery plan following last year's tsunami disaster, which set off the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Obama to cut short holiday in Hawaii, leave Wednesday for Washington as 'fiscal cliff' looms
HONOLULU (AP) — With a yearend deadline looming before the economy goes over the so-called fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama is cutting short his traditional Christmas holiday in Hawaii, planning to leave for Washington on Wednesday evening.
Obama was expected to arrive in Washington early Thursday, the White House said late Tuesday. First lady Michelle Obama and the couple's two daughters are scheduled to remain in Hawaii until Jan. 6.
In the past, the president's end-of-the-year holiday in his native state had stretched into the new year. The first family left Washington last Friday night.
Congress was expected to return to Washington on Thursday. Before he departed for Hawaii, Obama told reporters he expected to be back in the capital this week.
Without action by Obama and Congress, automatic budget cuts and tax increases are set to begin in January, which many economists say could send the country back into recession. So far, the president and congressional Republicans have been unable to reach agreement on any alternatives.
Well-wishers find ways to console, help grieving residents in Newtown, Conn., on Christmas
NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — This Christmas was unlike any other in Newtown.
When a gunman wiped out nearly an entire first-grade class and killed students and adults in two other first-grade classrooms just 11 days before Christmas, it made it impossible for the holiday to be the same this year.
Some residents, like Joanne Brunetti, have found ways to console and help their grieving neighbors. Well-wishers from around the country are stopping by to do the same.
Brunetti watched over 26 candles that had been lit at midnight, just before Christmas Day, in honor of those slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She and her husband, Bill, signed up for a three-hour shift and erected a tent to ensure that the candle flames never went out throughout the day.
"You have to do something and you don't know what to do, you know? You really feel very helpless in this situation," she said Tuesday. "People have been wonderful to everybody in Newtown whether you were part of what happened or not. My thought is if we were all this nice to each other all the time maybe things like this wouldn't happen."
Presidential pampering still available, but hotels not as busy for Obama's 2nd inauguration
WASHINGTON (AP) — Visitors coming to the nation's capital for President Barack Obama's second inauguration can't stay in the one place President Ronald Reagan's family once called an eight-star hotel. That spot is the White House, and it's booked for the next four years.
Still, inauguration-goers have a range of lodging options — from crashing on a friend's couch to reasonably priced rooms to ones that cost thousands of dollars a night.
With second inaugurations tending to draw fewer spectators, finding a place to stay in Washington won't be nearly as difficult as in 2009.
City officials are expecting 600,000 to 800,000 visitors for the Jan. 21 inauguration, far less than the 1.8 million people who flooded the National Mall four years ago to witness the inauguration of America's first black president. Back then, some hotels sold out months in advance and city residents rented out their homes for hundreds of dollars a night. This time, hotels say they're filling up more slowly, with rooms still available and prices at or slightly below where they were four years ago.
"Very few hotels are actually sold out at this point, so there's a lot of availability," said Elliott Ferguson, CEO of the tourism bureau Destination DC, who added that he expected demand to pick up after Christmas.
Former Braves OF Andruw Jones arrested outside Atlanta on battery charge; released on bail
DULUTH, Ga. (AP) — Former Atlanta Braves star center fielder Andruw Jones was free on bond after being arrested in suburban Atlanta early Tuesday on a battery charge, according to jail records.
Around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, police responded to a call for a domestic dispute between Jones and his wife in Duluth.
Gwinnett County Detention Center records say Jones was booked into the jail around 3:45 a.m. and was released on $2,400 bond by 11 a.m.
Once one of the premier players in the big leagues, Jones broke into the majors with the Atlanta Braves in 1996 and won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1998-07 as their center fielder. He has 434 career home runs over the span of 17 seasons in the majors.
Jones earlier this month signed a $3.5 million, one-year contract with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan's Pacific League.