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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Sniper Leaves Behind Note; Back To Tackle Fiscal Cliff; Did NBC's Gregory Break Gun Laws?; Philly High Schoolers Can Get Free Condoms; Tornadoes Tear Up South

Aired December 26, 2012 - 06:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Tornado strike. Dozens of twisters in the past 24 hours and the threat isn't over yet.

ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: A chilling find. Detectives discover a note left by the gunman who ambushed volunteer firefighters in upstate New York.

GRIFFIN: Vacation over for president, President Obama cutting his trip Hawaii short with the fiscal cliff now less than a week away.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Drew Griffin.

CHO: Look who we have here? Welcome to New York. Good morning. Good morning, everybody. I'm Alina Cho. John and Zoraida have the holiday off. It is 6 a.m. in the East and let's get started.

Up first, tornadoes and blizzards battering the Deep South and the Midwest. It's been a holiday misery for millions and mother nature isn't done yet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My God, we need to go. It's right there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Just look at that video. Mobile, Alabama taking a beating. Take a look at a tower cam video from our CNN affiliate, WALA, a twister leaving more than 25,000 customers without power. And we're now getting reports of extensive damage to homes, a high school, even a church.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It came in behind the church right there and then all green fluorescent lighting and popping transformers left and right. I hear the crash, and then the power went out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I prayed to God as loud as I could, and I was just praying for my safety, and I knew the church was shaking. I just prayed that the church stayed put.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CHO: And here is the other half of the one-two punch, blizzard conditions blanketing much of the Midwest and the northeast is next. We have team coverage this morning. Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider and correspondent George Howell monitoring these two weather threats from the CNN center in Atlanta.

George, first to you, a lot of tornado sightings in the south overnight, 30 at last count. Get us up to date. What's the latest this morning?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alina, good morning. Again, we are talking about a strong storm system that left two people dead on Christmas Day and some 190,000 without power this morning.

Throughout the night as you mentioned, there were some 30 tornadoes reported across the south according to the National Weather Service and you can see it here from the video.

Our affiliates took and from the pictures and videos people took of frightful scenes throughout the south. Strong winds and tornado touchdowns from Texas through Alabama and Mississippi that knocked down trees and power lines, and the damage on the ground is extensive.

Several homes and businesses were damaged and you see it here. You get a sense of how strong these winds were last night. Take a listen to this woman who is keeping a very close eye on a tornado that she saw just outside of her window.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Christmas Day tornado going through Mobile. My God, look, that's a tornado. Wow. Jesus, look at that tornado. My God, that's cool. Jesus, please keep your hands on whoever is over there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: I mean, this was a scary system. We got a lot of rain here in Georgia, a very dynamic storm system that brought tornadoes to the south and blizzard warnings to the north -- Alina.

CHO: All right, George Howell, live for us at the CNN Center in Atlanta. George, thank you.

GRIFFIN: You may not want to hear this, but the worst is yet to come. Heavy snow, driving winds, expected great blizzard conditions today in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. We have already seen snow as far south as Texas.

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider tracking that system for us. Bonnie, how bad is this going to be today?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's going to be bad and a lot of people traveling today. Unfortunately, we're still dealing with thunderstorms across the southeast. A lot of these do contain frequent lightning strikes. We're seeing that rolling into the panhandle of Florida and it will impact areas of Jacksonville later on today, so that's something to keep in mind as well. Take a look at current temperatures in the region, you'll find that it's definitely cold enough for that snow to stick across a good portion of Missouri and the foothills.

That's where we're seeing some of the heaviest rain. We're also seeing temperatures above freezing further on to the east. So this is a storm system that will continue to bring problems as we go through a good portion of the afternoon for today.

So keep that in mind if you are traveling. Blizzard conditions are anticipated in the forecast through the boot hill of Missouri to Paducah, Kentucky and Carbondale, Illinois.

So unfortunately, the system is setting up to be problematic as it all advances to the east and that's something we're monitoring here. We'll keep bringing you the latest on any watches and warnings as they come in.

GRIFFIN: All right, Bonnie, thanks.

CHO: Other top stories we're following this morning, brand new information about that Christmas Eve ambush that left two volunteer firefighters dead in upstate New York. Police say 62-year-old William Spengler, the man who set fire to his suburban Rochester home began firing at firefighters at they arrived at the scene, left behind a note and they found human remains inside his home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD PICKERING, WEBSTER POLICE CHIEF: Now the medical examiner has removed those remains. Again, at 191 Lake Road is where the shooter resided with his sister. The assumption is that it is the shooter's sister.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was no motive in the note. It did not speak to motive. There were some ramblings in there. He intended to burn his neighborhood down and kill as many people as possible before stopping, but as for as motive, all kinds of speculation, and truthfully, we do not know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Spengler served 17 years in prison for beating his grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980. He killed himself Monday morning after shooting four firefighters. The town of Webster paid tribute to the victim at a memorial service last night.

GRIFFIN: In Afghanistan, three people are dead, seven civilians injured, after a car bombing that targeted a U.S. base in coast overnight. The Taliban is claiming responsibility. Police say a mini-bus exploded during a security check at the game of Camp Chapman. That base was also the target of a suicide bombing that killed 7 CIA contractors and a Jordanian intelligence official in 2009 when a double agent loyal to extremist blew himself up. CHO: Syrian's military police chief has defected, dealing another major blow to the Assad regime. Major General Abdul Aziz Al-shalal in a video that aired on Arab TV Network announced he was defecting because the Syrian Army is not longer acting in the best interest of the people.

This follows two deadly attacks on hungry civilians who are waiting in bread lines. The decision comes at a time when rebel forces are making gains over government troops for control of Syria's major cities.

GRIFFIN: Former Braves great Andruw Jones free on bond this morning after being arrested outside Atlanta on Christmas, a battery charge. The Gwinnett County Detention Center tells us there was a domestic dispute with his wife. He played for the New York Yankees last year and recently signed with a team in Japan.

CHO: Japan's parliament has elected Shinzo Abe prime minister. He held the same position six years ago, but resigned because of health problems. He says he's OK now. Abe helped his conservative party dominate nationwide elections earlier this month.

He has promised to revive the economy, address Japan's debt and create a recovery plan for last earthquake tsunami and nuclear disaster. Japan's economy just sunk into recession two weeks ago.

GRIFFIN: 'Tis now the season for gift cards and those returns. Shoppers expected to flood the stores again today to return or exchange gifts that don't fit or they tonight want. An analyst tells "The Wall Street Journal" 10 percent to 15 percent of overall holiday sales come back as returns or exchanges.

CHO: I don't have anything to return or exchange, but I'm going to go to the store anyway, just to support the economy because I enjoy it.

All right, coming up, President Obama cuts his vacation short and heads back to the White House today to work on the ever looming fiscal cliff, just six days from the deadline. Can he cut a deal with Republicans?

GRIFFIN: And did you hear this? NBC's David Gregory may be in trouble of the law because of that ammo thing he has on his anchor desk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: The president heading back to D.C. tonight from Hawaii to try to keep America from going over the fiscal cliff. It comes as the House and Senate reconvene tomorrow. The clock is ticking.

Six days until the deadline, with the way things work in Washington, can they actually get something done before the end of the year? Brianna Keilar following the drama from Honolulu, what is the latest on this, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Drew. Well, President Obama will be heading home from Hawaii tonight, logical time arriving in D.C. on Thursday morning, of course, Thursday when the Senate will be reconvening, and it's the Senate, all eyes on now, as we look for the last-ditch effort to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Even though the president is returning on Thursday, we may not see the Senate roll out its bill to deal with the fiscal cliff perhaps for a couple of days. This is entirely possible we've learned from Sources as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid works to get Republican support in the Senate, which he will need if he's going to pass a bill.

And so we're still waiting to see exactly what it will look like that the White House wants for the threshold on income tax rates to cut off at $250,000. We will see if that ultimately is what Senate Majority Leader Reid rolls out.

As of this point in time, we're expecting this to be a limited measure to deal just really with the fiscal cliff, which was supposed to be appear incentive to deal with the long-term fiscal health of the country. Not part of this, obviously looking at a big package.

GRIFFIN: Brianna, realistically can they actually do this even if everything goes right, just getting all the paper work signed, getting it back through the two houses. By the way, I don't think the House is anywhere near -- they couldn't get a million dollars for the cap of those tax rates expiring. So what is the position of the White House aides and the people are you talking to there in terms much getting a deal done?

KEILAR: Well, the difference would be, and when you remember plan "B" failed. It failed to garner enough support among Republicans to pass the House. The expectation is this would be a measure to require Democratic support in the House, which Speaker Boehner was not relying on then.

So when you look at this judicially and you look at the rhythm of how things move through Congress, yes, this is entirely possible to get through Congress. The issue is, it is politically possible to get through congress? We don't know the answer to that -- Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Brianna Keilar from Honolulu. Thanks, Brianna.

CHO: Police are investigating whether NBC's David Gregory violated D.C. gun laws when he displayed what he described as a 30-round magazine during a "Meet the Press" interview. Check it out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, "MEET THE PRESS" MODERATOR: Here is a magazine that carries 30 bullets. Now isn't it possible that we got rid of these and said you can only have a magazine that carries five bullets or ten bullets, isn't it possible we could reduce the carnage?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: I don't believe that will make one difference. CHO: Well, we don't know if the magazine was authentic or a prop. But we do know this, having a large-capacity ammunition device like a magazine is illegal in Washington, D.C., if the device holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition, whether or not it's attached to a firearm.

Los Angeles, pushing up its gun buyback, in light of the Newtown massacre it was originally set for next May. Instead, it's happening today. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called it concrete action against violence. The city will hand out grocery gift cards in exchange for the guns. No questions asked.

Earlier this month, 425 guns were handed, out in a San Francisco area buybacks.

GRIFFIN: Meanwhile, they got Operation Dumbo Drop going on the Los Angeles City Council. Yes, Dumbo Drop. It will soon take a look at a proposal pushed by animal rights activists to ban circus elephants and the harsh instruments they use to push and pull them around. British circuses have already done this. They banned the use of elements and the government there has promised to ban the use of all wild animals in shows.

CHO: Interesting.

How is this interesting?

GRIFFIN: Not very much to a father. I'll tell you that.

CHO: Free condoms for high schoolers? That's right. The city of Philadelphia says it's to help stop a health crisis there. But is it just promoting sex?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Twenty minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. Let's get you up-to-date on the top stories.

The female police officer who killed an American contractor in Afghanistan is described as an Iranian national whose Afghan husband helped her get citizenship there illegally. An Afghan interior ministry spokesman says he has no evidence linking her to terror groups with ties to Iran. More than 50 people have been killed just this year in so-called insider attacks by attackers dressed just like them.

GRIFFIN: It's been calm in Cairo this afternoon after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed the country's new constitution into law. Egypt's electoral commission announced voters approved the nation's new constitution which was drafted by President Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood allies by a margin of 64 percent. That's how it won.

Cairo was gripped by violent protests that turned deadly before their vote. Critics are fearing an era of Islamic rule and fewer personal freedoms. Former President George H.W. Bush spent Christmas in a Houston hospital with his wife, Barbara, other relatives visiting right there at his side. We're told he was treated to a special holiday meal. He's 88 years old. He's been in the hospital for more than a month now, with a lingering cough. Doctors are cautiously optimistic about a full recovery.

CHO: Get a load of this. School workers in Philadelphia have an interesting assignment over the holiday break. They're filling up condom dispensers at about a third of the city's high schools.

The kids can get free condoms as long as their parents approve. Schools with the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases are getting those dispensers. Some parents, of course, are not too happy about it.

But Philly's deputy mayor for health, Donald Schwarz, says there's an epidemic of teen STDs, and that HIV is becoming a major concern. So, this is a necessary move. He will join us live at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time. I look forward to talking to him.

You know, they're saying in Philly that 25 percent of all new HIV infections are teenagers. And they're not getting the education for one reason or another. Maybe they should be, but they're not. And that this will help. Parents, of course, some of them see it differently.

GRIFFIN: I'm just going to keep my mouth shut. I wait until the interview and hear what this guy has to say.

The power of the social media helped get a stolen pooch to its new family, just in time for Christmas. Look at that guy. A heartbroken family just finishing up the paperwork to adopt that Chihuahua mix on Saturday when someone stole him from his kennel.

Oregon Humane sounded the alarm over social media. By Monday, they got a tip that broke the case.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHARON HARMON, OREGON HUMANE SOCIETY: Folks in Oregon care deeply about pets, and the social media pressure was outstanding. So I think when they realized they had a hot puppy, so to speak, they were eager to return him to the shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was in my arms when I first met him, and he is there again now, so it's good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: So what happened? We don't really know. The pup doesn't seem to care much. But no arrests so far.

CHO: It looks just like your Chihuahua, Drew.

GRIFFIN: Yes, it sure does. CHO: It's exactly what --

(CROSSTALK)

GRIFFIN: I had him on the plane last night.

A warning if you're traveling today: severe weather could disrupt your plans with possible tornadoes in some parts of the South again, and heavy snow to the North. We're going to find out where and when we could see trouble. That's coming up.

CHO: And they left down without a deal on the fiscal cliff. When Republicans and Democrats get back to D.C. tomorrow, will all of the rest -- will they be able to compromise? We will talk to New York Congressman Nan Hayworth, coming up. Congresswoman.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Severe storm threat. The risk of more tornadoes and even a blizzard across a big chunk of the nation today.

GRIFFIN: For the rest of us, the fiscal cliff countdown, six days to go. President Obama heading back to D.C. from Honolulu. And there is hope that some of this could pass before the New Year. We'll see.

CHO: And a big star with a big heart. My firsthand look at Matt Damon's quest to change the lives of people who live half a world away. He's trying to get affordable access to nearly a billion people around the world who don't have access to clean water.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody. It's 27 minutes after the hour. I'm Alina Cho.

GRIFFIN: I'm Drew Griffin. Zoraida and John are off today. Let's get started with some of the news.

Tornadoes -- our top story -- tearing up the South, blizzards battering the Midwest, and there's plenty more to come, unfortunately.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my God. We need to go. It's right there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: A lot of damage reported overnight in Mobile, Alabama. This is a tower cam video from a CNN affiliate WALA, capturing that twister blowing transformers there, knocking out more power to 20,000 customers.

The other half of the extreme weather equation: a blizzard, much of the Midwest. Now, getting targeted, the Northeast. It's coming our way.

CHO: And take a look at this. We want to show you live pictures of snow in Seymour, Indiana. You can see it's coming down pretty hard. So, we want to get to the forecast.

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider monitoring this weather for us from the CNN Center in Atlanta. Wow. Bonnie, good morning. How much snow are they expecting to get there?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Quite a bit of snow, Alina and Drew. We are looking at blizzard conditions for parts of Indiana and into Kentucky. But what we're watching right now is a line of severe weather working its way across Florida. So, we had very strong storms and even the tornado that you saw reported in Mobile, Alabama. But today, the threat continues for tornadoes, this time it's in eastern sections of Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina as well.

I want to take a look at some great video to show you of what happened when the severe weather rolled across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. What you're looking at is a waterspout. It's a tornado over water.

And sometimes when these waterspouts come on shore, they are actual tornadoes. But you can see at the bottom, the lift up of water as that waterspout worked its way across the lake. So, incredible severe weather rolled across the New Orleans and Louisiana area.

Now, the snow. You can see as the storm system advances to the east, it's bringing heavy thunderstorms. You know, if you're in Tennessee and Kentucky, one-half of the state is getting severe weather in terms of storms and the other half is getting pounded by snow. We're seeing that across lower sections of Illinois and Indiana. It's a little pressure system that's going to pull down much colder air.

And as it wraps around particularly in Indiana and Ohio, we could see up to a foot of snow. And as we go into tonight and certainly for tomorrow, this will be a storm system for the Northeast.

I don't think we're going to see snow for New York City, for example, maybe a little bit. Boston certainly is going to see some snow. But really, the coastal areas will be spared, which is good news especially for the Jersey Shore as they still continue to recover from hurricane Sandy.

Now, looking where we will see heavy snow, this is going to be a big snowmaker for the Northeast. So, much of New England will be impacted as well as the Great Lakes and you see the areas in purple, that's where we can see over a foot of snow. So, really, the last thing you want at such a busy holiday week with so many people traveling.

Here's a look at some of snowfall totals and warnings we have posted. Memphis is getting snow. We're looking at heavy amounts of snow for the heartland which includes Paducah, Kentucky, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.