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May 25, 2012

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thumbnail California high school football star cleared of rape 10 years later
May 25th 2012, 15:27

A former California high school football star, Brian Banks, has been cleared of a rape and kidnapping conviction that derailed his life more than 10 years ago. Now, he is hoping to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.

By NBC News

Former high school football start Brian Banks said he's "happy to be free" after a California judge exonerated him of a 2003 rape conviction because his accuser recanted her testimony.

"It was bittersweet, you know, just happy to be free now, happy to clear my name, but also very much in a reflective state and just remembering everything I've been through to get to this point," Brian Banks told TODAY's Ann Curry Friday.

In high school, Banks was awarded a scholarship to the University of Southern California and was regarded as a top college football prospect with good chances of going into the NFL, but his professional sports prospects were derailed by the conviction.

Though Banks, now 26, had always maintained his innocence, he pleaded no contest a decade ago to charges that he raped a fellow student. A plea deal meant he served nearly six years in prison, instead of the 41 he could have faced.

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Banks had tried to win release while he was in prison, but Justin Brooks, a law professor and head of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego, said he could not have been exonerated without the woman coming forward and recanting her story.

"Brian’s story is so compelling, and his case for innocence so clear, we knew we had to take this on," Brooks said in a press release. “Brian lost a huge part of his life when he was unjustly sent to prison."

Brooks said it was the first case he had ever taken in which the defendant had already served his time and had been free for a number of years.

Banks remained on probation, however, and was still wearing his electronic monitoring bracelet at the hearing Thursday. He also had to register as a sex offender. His lawyer said the first thing the two planned to do was report to probation officials and have the bracelet removed.

"The charges are dismissed now," Brooks said. "It's as if it didn't happen. ... It was the shortest, greatest proceeding I've ever been part of."

Banks' accuser, Wanetta Gibson, reportedly friended Banks on Facebook after he got out of prison, saying she wanted to "let bygones be bygones."

According to documents in the case, she met with Banks and said she had lied, and she offered to help him clear his record.

But she later refused to repeat her statements to prosecutors because she was worried she would have to return a $1.5 million payment from a civil suit brought by her mother against the Long Beach Unified School District.

She told Banks, "I will go through with helping you but it's like at the same time all that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don't want to have to pay it back."

In a brief hearing Thursday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark C. Kim told attorneys that the case was dismissed based on documents filed by Banks' attorneys.

"This is a kid who was a superstar,'' Brooks said. "He would be playing the NFL now if this hadn't happened.'"

Banks tweeted Wednesday, "So many people coming to show support tomorrow!! ‪#fullhouse‬ nothing but love and I love y'all back x2!!"

According to his website, he wants to produce a documentary about his life, and is hoping to return to football. He's been training since his release from prison in 2007.

"I think that any team that gives me an opportunity would be really impressed with what I can do despite all of what I've been through these past 10 years," Banks told TODAY's Curry.

He also said he hasn't thought about what should happen to Gibson.

"I do believe that everyone should be responsible for their actions, and if that action warrants some type of consequence, then I feel that, you know, it's justified," Banks said Friday, adding that he no longer feels angry and vengeful toward Gibson.

"I've had my moments where I was very angry and very vengeful but I know it was best for me to try and move forward in a positive manner for the betterment of me," he said. "It hurts no one but myself to hang on to that type of negative energy."

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thumbnail Police seek help identifying three young children found abandoned in Oregon
May 25th 2012, 15:07

Portland Police Dept. / Portland Police Dept.

Three children were found abandonded in a shed in Portland, Ore.

By Elizabeth Chuck,

Three small children were found abandoned in a shed in Portland, Ore., on Thursday and were taken into protective custody as police try to identify them and find their parents.

The oldest of the kids, a boy, is approximately 3 years old. A girl, about 2, and an infant girl, believed to be somewhere between 8 and 15 months, were found with the boy Thursday morning, authorities said.

Around 9:30 a.m., a man called 911 to report hearing children's voices from a shed behind his house in Southeast Portland.

The shed was on the property of a vacant residence, police said in a statement.

Officers said there were homeless people "on the premises" who told them the children were abandoned there the night before by a woman they believed to be their mother.

It's not known, however, if the children are siblings. The Department of Human Services took them into protective custody and gave them medical evaluations.

A resident on the street where the kids the kids were discovered said she had noticed strangers walking across from her home on Thursday morning, where the empty shed is.

"We have a real homeless problem in our neighborhood, so I keep an eye across the street," Judy Baxter, a homeowner on Southeast Rhine Street, told

She said she saw a man and a woman walk into the backyard of a vacant house on Thursday morning, so she called the property owner to suggest he report them. Soon after, police arrived.

Baxter told that officials led the kids out of the shed through pouring rain; the toddlers held the hands of state welfare workers, while a police officer carried the infant out.

The kids were wearing coats and had backpacks, she said. Authorities who responded to the scene gave them stuffed animals, she told

Jennifer Estus, who lives next to the vacant property, told that homeless people often sleep in the driveway behind the home.

Police said the two older children weigh 28 pounds, and the infant is 15 pounds. All three have olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes.

A call to the Portland police on Thursday from was not immediately returned.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the DHS Child Abuse Hotline at 503-731-3100.

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thumbnail Harley-Davidson motorcycle swept away by Japan tsunami to be preserved in museum
May 25th 2012, 14:13

Peter Mark / The Canadian Press via AP

A rust-encrusted Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was swept away by the Japan tsunami in March 2011 was found by Peter Mark in April, washed up on an island off the coast of British Columbia. It's now headed to a Harley museum.

By James Eng,

A Japanese man’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle that washed up on the shores of western Canada more than a year after it was swept away by the devastating tsunami will be preserved in a Harley museum in the U.S.

The 2004 FXSTB Softail Night Train motorcycle will be permanently housed in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., as a memorial to the victims of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which swamped several coastal towns in northeastern Japan and left more than 15,000 people dead.

“It is truly amazing that my Harley-Davidson motorcycle was recovered in Canada after drifting for more than a year,” said the bike’s owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, in a press release issued Friday by Deeley Harley-Davidson, the Canadian distributor of Harleys. “I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt appreciation to Peter Mark, the finder of my motorcycle. Due to circumstances caused by the disaster, I have been so far unable to visit him in Canada to convey my gratitude.”

Mark found the motorcycle, still bearing its Japanese license plate, while driving his ATV on an isolated beach on Graham Island on the west coast of British Columbia on April 18. The bike, along with several other items, was inside a rusted cargo van container that apparently drifted more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

“You just never know what you’re going to stumble upon when you go for a drive, and lo and behold you just come across something that’s out of this world,” Mark told CBC at the time.

The motorcycle was eventually traced to the 29-year-old Yokoyama.

The tsunami destroyed Yokoyama’s home in Miyagi prefecture and also claimed the lives of three family members, according to Japanese media reports. Yokoyama currently lives in temporary housing in Miyagi prefecture.

He said the motorcycle was being kept in a storage container behind his house when the tsunami struck.

Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada

The Harley will soon be transported to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

Harley-Davidson offered to return the rust-encrusted bike to him and to restore it to running condition but Yokoyama respectfully declined, the company said.

“Since the motorcycle was recovered, I have discussed with many people about what to do with it. I would be delighted if it could be preserved in its current condition and exhibited to the many visitors to the Harley Davidson Museum as a memorial to a tragedy that claimed thousands of lives,” Yokoyama was quoted as saying in Friday’s press release.

Harley-Davidson has offered to fly him to visit the museum and meet Marks, the Canadian who retrieved the bike. Yokoyama said he would like to do so “when things have calmed down.”

“My heart really goes out to Ikuo Yokoyama and all the survivors of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami for everything that was taken from them. I cannot even begin to comprehend the loss of family, friends, and community,” Mark was quoted by Harley-Davidson as saying. “I think it is fitting that the Harley, which was swept across the Pacific Ocean by the tsunami, will end up in the Harley-Davidson Museum as a memorial to that tragic event. It has an interesting and powerful story to convey preserved in its current state.”

The motorcycle has since been transferred to a Harley dealership in Vancouver. Plans for its transportation to the Harley museum are being developed.

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thumbnail Accused Etan Patz killer taken to hospital on suicide watch
May 25th 2012, 12:23

A former bodega stock clerk has been arrested for allegedly kidnapping and killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in 1979. WNBC-TV's Jonathan Dienst reports.

By Jonathan Dienst and Shimon Prokupecz,

A former bodega stock clerk arrested for allegedly luring 6-year-old Etan Patz off a SoHo street in 1979 and strangling him in a basement has been placed on suicide watch as a precaution, has learned.

Pedro Hernandez, 51, was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center Friday, a source familiar with the case said. He is in isolation and receiving a medical evaluation at the hospital. Relatives have said Hernandez has a history of mental issues.

Another source told that Hernandez is still scheduled to be arraigned later in the day, but the precise timing is unclear.

Police announced Hernandez's arrest Thursday in the missing child case that has mystified New York City for decades.

Patz vanished on his way to a school bus stop 33 years ago today. The case drew international attention and changed the way parents felt about letting their young children go off alone.

Police announced Thursday that Hernandez, 51, told them he lured Patz into a bodega where he worked, near the boy's house, and attacked the child, choking him to death in the basement. He told them he got Patz to come with him by promising him a soda.

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Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said police focused on Hernandez, who now lives in Maple Shade, N.J., after the Missing Persons Squad received a tip from someone who remembered Hernandez speaking of having killed a child.

"In the years following Etan's disappearance, Hernandez had told a family member, and others, that he had 'done a bad thing' and killed a child in New York," Kelly said.

Based on that information, police went to question Hernandez.

Kelly said Hernandez, who worked at the bodega for about a month, confessed to police after he was picked up Wednesday night. Some of the interviews were conducted at the scene of the crime, Kelly said.

Kelly said the suspect had not given a reason for attacking Patz and said there was "no reason at this time" to suspect the boy was sexually abused. He said it was "unlikely" Patz's remains would ever be found and that Hernandez told them he put the boy's body in the trash.

Police said Hernandez doesn't yet have a lawyer.

His sister, Maria, who did not want her last name used, told on Thursday that her heart ached over the news of her brother's arrest and said she couldn't believe it. She said Hernandez had three children of his own and came from a family of 12 that emmigrated from Puerto Rico in 1973.

Mayor Bloomberg said Thursday that the disappearance of Patz "broke the hearts of millions" across the nation, especially parents, and expressed sympathy again for the boy's family.

"I certainly hope that we are one step closer to bringing them some measure of relief," he said.

Neighbors near Hernandez' house in Maple Shade, N.J., said he lived with a woman and a daughter who attends college.

"I can't believe something like that," said Dan Wollick, 71, who rents the other apartment in the home. "This guy, he doesn't seem that way."

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance had pledged to reopen the decades-old cold case when he took office in 2010.

See a timeline of the case here

The exhaustive search for Patz was renewed several weeks ago when police dug up the basement of a handyman's workshop near where Patz disappeared. A new layer of concrete had been laid over the foundation of the basement shortly after the boy vanished.

That search yielded no new evidence.

A lawyer for the handyman, Othniel Miller, said his client is "relieved by these developments, as he was not involved in any way with Etan Patz's disappearance."

One other man had remained a longtime possible suspect: Jose Ramos, a drifter and onetime boyfriend of Patz's baby sitter. But there was no hard evidence linking Ramos to the crime.

He is in prison in Pennsylvania on a separate case.

The boy's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment, down the street from the building that was examined in April. They have endured decades of false leads, and a lack of hard evidence.      

Police said the family had been notified of the arrest.

Stan Patz had his son declared legally dead in 2001 so he could sue Ramos, who has never been criminally charged with the boy's death and denies harming the boy. A civil judge in 2004 found Ramos to be responsible for the child's death.

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