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Apr 5, 2012

Your 2 hourly digest for U.S. News

U.S. News
Stories from NBC reporters around the country.
Stair climbing champ fired after being accused of cheating
Apr 5th 2012, 19:02

By Melissa Pamer,

It was almost too good to be true.

A 31-year-old Los Angeles resident surprised elite racers when he won a grueling 62-story charity stair climb in a record-breaking 7 minutes and 45 seconds.

Turns out, it probably was too good to be true.

Not on the up and up? Read the original story at

Miguel Larios was stripped of the winning time he posted ascending downtown’s Aon Center during the American Lung Association in California’s fifth annual Fight For Air Climb after other competitors raised questions about his performance.

“When this guy put in this fast time, we were like what the heck?” said Mark Trahanovsky, a 53-year-old Yorba Linda resident who’s part of a team of climbers. He posted the ninth-place time overall and the top in his age and gender category.

“We looked at this person’s body and his physique, and we knew (he did) not have the physique of an elite stair-climber. He wasn’t sweating a lot; he wasn’t tired. He was wearing basketball shoes.”

Larios’ first-place time would have been a course record. Instead he lost his winning finish -- and his job as an Aon Center maintenance worker.

Larios maintains that he completed the climb fair and square, though he acknowledged in a phone interview with NBC4 that building surveillance video shows him taking the elevator during the race.

“They said that I cheated,” Larios said. "They have video saying that I took the elevator.”

Larios said he was fired Tuesday, a day after top race participants learned that he had been disqualified.

'It's like a swimmer using fins'
Trahanovsky, who said he didn’t know Larios’ name and didn’t want to embarrass the disqualified climber, joked that he too would like to have taken the elevator.

“It’s such a painful sport, but it’s an extreme sport," Trahanovsky said. "It’s like a swimmer using fins.”

Larios said he gained a competive advantage because he knew the Aon Center intimately after working in the building for more than a decade.

“I know the stairwells. I had an advantage,” Larios said.

Now he’s out of a job, and he didn’t want to say anything else about the incident. A call to the center’s general manager was not immediately returned.

'No such thing as a winner'
It’s an unusual twist to what’s normally a light-hearted fundraiser for the American Lung Association in California. Though the event draws competitive stair-climbers, the focus is on the vast majority of the 750 participants who aren’t serious athletes, association spokesman Bo Smith said.

Some climb – with plenty of difficulty – in honor of relatives who have lung cancer or asthma, he said.

“This is fundraising event. It really is focused on climbers of all skill levels. Folks who personally take it as a race … often call it that. But it really is a fun climb,” Smith said. “We don’t have a winner of this event. There’s no such thing as a winner. “

Smith said he couldn’t say exactly how Larios got to the top or how he was determined to have cheated. Nor would Smith confirm the disqualified runner’s name. (Larios’ name is listed at the bottom of a time-keeping website for the event.)

“There was no way to validate the time, so we simply pulled that time,” Smith said. “He could have used wings. He could have flown upwards.”

The association’s next fundraiser is a swim in Santa Monica Bay on Aug. 19.

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Checkpoints in Arlington twister zone draw complaints
Apr 5th 2012, 17:54

By Scott Gordon,

Some church volunteers and construction workers complain that strict rules controlling access to the worst-damaged neighborhoods in Arlington prevent them from helping tornado victims.

City leaders say the process of requiring daily permits to get past police roadblocks is necessary to keep out looters and shady contractors.

Contractors are required to go to a police station in South Arlington to apply for a permit to get into certain areas. A homeowner must verify the company has been hired, and the contractor must provide detailed identification information. Residents also must show proof of their address to get to their homes.

Don Tate, of Tate Roofing in Mansfield, said his company wanted to help put free tarps on damaged roofs.

"You can't help people if they won't let you in the neighborhoods," he said.

Another contractor, Gerardo Gonzales, of Royalty Roofing in Fort Worth, waited at a police station for city officials to verify with a resident that his company had been hired.

"The problem is, the homeowner is not answering to verify we actually have work to do with them, so it's holding us up," Gonzales said. "All we want to do is get in, get out, and help the homeowners out."

Ken Leonard, a volunteer for Churches of Christ, said he had a truck with water and other supplies to donate to victims, but he was unable to get a city permit.

"They're locked up pretty tight right now," he said. "I'm sure things will loosen up soon and we want to be there ready to go in when they let faith-based organizations like us in."

More tornado coverage by

City leaders defend the rules as necessary to keep out unscrupulous contractors and even looters.

"The process really is to make sure we have limited access to the secured areas," Arlington spokeswoman Rebecca Rodriguez said. "As you can see, there are so many houses that are vulnerable, and that means the homeowners are vulnerable too in so many ways."

She said some homeowners had complained about questionable characters going door to door to solicit business.

Nancy McNiel, whose home of 25 years was destroyed in seconds, said she had noticed several people hauling away metal debris which she believed they planned on selling to recyclers.

"How did they get in here?" she asked.

She praised the strict rules limiting access to her neighborhood.

"I think it's a good idea," she said. "We'd have a lot of fly-by-night people coming through."

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thumbnail California school board member Mike Luis Rios accused of pimping, rape
Apr 5th 2012, 17:40

Mike Luis Rios

By By Samantha Tata,

Rape, pimping and pandering involving six victims, including two underage girls, were among the charges levied against a Southern California school board member Wednesday, according to the Riverside County district attorney.

Mike Luis Rios, 42, was arrested without incident shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday and charged with 11 felonies, John Hall, spokesman for Riverside County district attorney, wrote in a statement released Wednesday.

Rios, a board member of the Moreno Valley Unified School District, was charged with six counts of pandering – or trying to get someone to work as a prostitute, three counts of pimping and two counts of rape by force or force, Hall wrote. The rape victims are adults.

Investigators said Rios used promises of jobs or favors as a way to try to get women to work for him.

Read the full story on

In one case, Rios told a woman that he was a member of the district school board and asked if she needed a job, while another woman answered an online ad for a job, Hall wrote.

This is the second case pending against Rios, who was charged with two counts of attempted murder in February after allegedly firing a gun at two people outside his home.

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thumbnail Mixed blessing: Cleaning up pollutants fueled hurricanes, study finds
Apr 5th 2012, 17:38


This satellite-based image shows Hurricane Katrina approaching the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

By Miguel Llanos,

It's certainly not what officials had in mind when they curbed industrial pollutants called aerosols, but a new study suggests that doing so has had a big effect on Atlantic Ocean temperatures -- and in the case of the U.S. can be linked to warming seas that fueled hurricanes like Katrina.

"When industrial pollution peaked over the Atlantic, this effect played a big role in cooling the ocean beneath," Paul Halloran, a study co-author and ocean scientist with the British government's Met Office weather service, said in a statement accompanying the study. "As pollution was cleaned up -- for example after the clean air legislation of the '90s -- the seas warmed."

Earlier studies found a link between sea temperatures, hurricanes and droughts. But the new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, goes beyond that to bring manmade aerosols, which cause corrosive acid rain, into the picture.

"Our study is the first to identify how significant these human emissions of aerosols are because they capture aerosol interactions with clouds," co-author Ben Booth told

It turns out more aerosols make clouds brighter and longer lasting, thus reflecting sunlight back up and cooling seas. Fewer aerosols does the opposite, warming seas.

Using a computer model to track aerosol emissions, cloud impact and ocean temperatures, the researchers found that while volcanic eruptions also contribute aerosol pollution, the manmade effect has been much more significant.

If you're thinking that nations should increase manmade aerosols to battle hurricanes by cooling the Atlantic, the researchers say not so fast.

"While cool phases correspond to periods with lower hurricane activity in the North Atlantic," Booth said, "they are also linked with widespread persistent African drought (1970s and 1980s) -- with all the associated food and mortality related impacts."

"I think this is a very important point that we need to get across when we communicate these results," he added.

Other studies have shown that droughts in Africa and even South America are tied to changes in ocean temperature, Booth said.

"Our study focuses on how we understand these changes, previously thought to be natural oscillations," he added, and it suggests "that much of this could have been driven by human emissions and volcanic events."

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thumbnail Audio from 80-year-old who landed plane: 'I'm coming in too fast'
Apr 5th 2012, 17:34

Helen Collins, 80, who last took a flight lesson 30 years ago, was forced to land the small plane her husband was piloting after he died while in the air. Audio from the emergency landing has been released. WGBA-TV's Eileen Park reports.

By Elizabeth Chuck,

An audio recording released by Wisconsin aviation officials reveals the cool-headedness of an 80-year-old woman who took the controls of the airplane her husband had been flying until he lost consciousness.

Helen Collins was sitting in the passenger's seat of a Cessna when her husband, 81-year-old pilot John Collins, suffered a fatal heart attack.

Although Helen had taken some flying lessons decades ago, she never got her pilot license and was unfamiliar with how to fly the Cessna. The couple was six miles south of their destination, Cherryland Airport, near their hometown of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., when John slumped over.

Helen had only one choice: take the controls and radio in for a crash course in landing planes.

"I gotta land pretty quick. My back gauge shows nothing," the retired secretary says during the first of a couple of attempts to reach the runway.

On the 45-minute audio released by Door County sheriff's office (covering roughly 90 minutes of flight), Helen says little about her husband, instead answering questions about her location and speed, and learning as much as she can about the plane over the course of the recording. Her voice barely reveals any emotion, only conveying urgency about landing.

To help her out, another pilot, Robert Vuksanovic, scrambled in small plane. His wife, also a pilot, joined other aviation officials from the dispatch center.

"OK, Helen? We're going to launch another aircraft. It will come up and it will fly right next to you and it will give you instructions and it will fly right next to you and fly with you to the airport," officials from the dispatch center tell her.

Meanwhile, down on the ground, firefighters and EMTs convened in Cherryland Airport, not knowing what condition she or her husband would be in when they arrived, Door County officials said.

The audio recording is full of static, beeping, and other noises, but the only thing that seems to break Collins' concentration is a telephone call. "My cell phone is ringing right now. Is that you guys?"

Back at the dispatch center, Vuksanovic's wife tells Helen: "Just disregard it. We're all here on the radio."

Once Vuksanovic nears Helen in the air, he reaches her on the radio and tells her she's doing well as he prepares her for the final approach.

"OK, very good," he says. "Looking good, Helen, just fly down the runway."

Listen to full 45-minute audio on

"I don't think I can circle again," she says. "I'm coming in too fast."

They try several times to land, but can't position the Cessna quite right. "Turn left. Turn left. Left turn, Helen, turn left. Bring the nose up. That's it, that's it," he says. 

Then, she tells him her right engine is out. Her fuel has finally run out.

"Nose down. Nose down. Turn right a little bit. Turn right. Nose down, nose down. Come on, get down. Get down," he said. "Bring the power back. Power back. Power back. Reduce the power, over. Reduce the power. Nose down, over. Helen, do you read me?"

A second goes by and she responds in a calm voice, "I read you."

Original story: 80-year-old woman lands plane after husband passes out

The Cessna bounced off the runway and landed about 1,000 feet down the runway, The Associated Press reported.

"Great job, Helen, great job," someone says over the radio. "Outstanding, Helen."

Her son Richard Collins, who lives next door to his mom, told it's a "miracle."

"I can't even believe it. I can't even tell my mom how to run a computer!" the 55-year-old said.

Helen is recovering from a cracked rib and injuries to her spine, but is doing well, a family member said, according to The Associated Press.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Coke withdraws from group that backs gun laws
Apr 5th 2012, 16:25

By Reuters

ORLANDO, Fla., — Coca-Cola said it was dropping its membership in a conservative national advocacy group that supports "Stand Your Ground" laws like the one being used as a defense in the Florida killing of an unarmed black teenager.

In a statement released on Thursday, Coca-Cola made no direct mention of the controversial self-defense law pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

"The Coca-Cola Company has elected to discontinue its membership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)," the statement said.

"Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business. We have a long-standing policy of only taking positions on issues that impact our company and industry," it said.

Coca-Cola and other member companies in ALEC were targeted last year by the civil rights group ColorOfChange for their support of the organization, which also is behind what ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson calls "voter suppression laws" in many states.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin, Robinson said, ColorOfChange has let the corporations know that ALEC was behind a push for states to adopt legislation modeled after Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The law provides shooters with wide latitude for claiming self defense when they perceive a threat.

Martin, 17, was killed on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who has claimed he acted in self defense and has not been charged with a crime.

At a rally in Sanford on Saturday, civil rights leaders said they were considering economic boycotts of national companies that support "Stand Your Ground" laws.

In a letter to ColorOfChange dated Jan. 25, 2012, PepsiCo told Robinson that the company had decided to drop its decade-long membership in ALEC.

Robinson said Coca-Cola made its decision on Wednesday after ColorOfChange at 9 a.m. posted a Web page criticizing Coca-Cola's continued support of ALEC. Robinson said the Web page was up for eight hours before ColorOfChange removed it based on Coca-Cola's change of heart.


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