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N.Y. Sniper Leaves Chilling Note; "The Gun Owner Next Door"; The Gray versus the Brown; Car Bomb Outside U.S. Base

Aired December 26, 2012 - 17:00   ET


JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: You're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, a pair of wounded firefighters tell the nation "thanks for caring," while the search continues for clues about the arsonist and sniper who shot them, killed, three others, and then himself.

A small town newspapers sparks national outrage by publishing the names and addresses of thousands of handgun owners and is perfectly legal.

And, right on schedule. It's winter. Watch out.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Joe Johns. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.



JOHNS: We begin with today's heartfelt thank you from two survivors of a Christmas Eve shooting that left four people dead in upstate New York. Firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino had just arrived at a burning home when a sniper opened fire severely wounding them and killing two of their comrades. The sniper, apparently, took his own life and his sister's body was found in the burned out home.

Today, the two wounded men put out a statement saying they're humbled and a bit overwhelmed by the national outpouring of concern. CNN's Poppy Harlow joins us now live with the latest on the shooting investigation, including a chilling letter left by the gunman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM: Well. Joe, police describe this as a, quote, "raging inferno." As you said, these four firefighters first responders coming on Monday morning Christmas Eve to address the typical house fire, then they were immediately shot at. Two were killed. Two were severely injured. And police now are saying that they believe that the gunman left a letter.

Now, the gunman, 62-year-old William Spengler, long criminal history, convicted in 1981 of killing his grandmother, served time in New York prison until 1998 when he was released. And then, he was on parole until 2006 and then this. But I want to you listen to the letter that he left behind after killing himself by shooting himself in the head. It is incredibly disturbing.


CHIEF GERALD PICKERING, WEBSTER, NEW YORK POLICE: I will read to you one of the sentences out of the two-page or two or three-page typewritten note that really clearly goes to his intent while the note does not go to motive. Quite, "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best, killing people," unquote.


HARLOW: And police say that this man, William Spengler, had three guns on him, a revolver, a shotgun, and a Bushmaster 223 caliber riffle, the same type of gun used in the Newtown shooting. Joe, no motive is known at this time, but police do believe that they have found the remains of this man's 67-year-old sister, Cheryl Spengler, in the house that he set fire to and burned down.

JOHNS: Poppy, I understand there was a vigil held for the firefighters. Could you talk about that, and also, tell us more if you know about the firefighters shot and injured?

HARLOW: Sure. Well, the two firefighters that did survive very, very brave people, Joseph Hofstetter and also his colleague, Theodore Scardino. They're in the local hospital. They are in guarded condition which means they're still in the ICU, but the doctors do expect that they will remain to get better.

As of yesterday, they were alert, they were talking, which is a good sign. But I also want to show you the two that were murdered on Monday on Christmas Eve. Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini, you see him there, and his colleague, Tomasz Kaczowka. Just to tell you a little bit about them. Lt. Michael Chiapperini was also a police officer in town.

So, he really wore two hats. On top of that, he was named firefighter of the year by his colleagues, both very brave men, and then, we'll show you some video of these vigils that were held for the two men yesterday in Webster, New York right by Rochester on the lake front there.

Colleagues saluting their firefighters, fellow firefighters. Tears in the eyes. A candlelit vigil there on Christmas and an unbelievable tragedy, Joe, that is shooting like this happens just after what happened in Newtown.

JOHNS: Absolutely. Thanks so much for that report, Poppy Harlow.

The Christmas Eve shootings in upstate New York coming so soon after the massacre in Newtown reinforces the nationwide debate over gun violence and gun rights, but the debate turned to outrage for thousands of gun permit holders north of New York City when a newspaper published their names and addresses for an article called "The Gun Owner Next Door." CNNs Brian Todd is here with more. This is an interesting story.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Joe. And it was, really, the interactive map that accompanied the article that has drawn so much controversy here with just a couple of clicks. You can see who in two large counties may well have guns in their home and you can also figure out who may not.


TODD (voice-over): It's a local suburban newspaper outside New York City with a large circulation. Its editors say the Newtown, Connecticut shootings and the issue of gun control are foremost in the minds of their readers. So, the "Journal News" did something extraordinary, publishing on an interactive map information on where all handgun permit owners in the New York counties of Westchester and Rockland live.

(on-camera) On the "Journal News" website, all you have to do is zoom into a neighborhood and the locations of any gun permit holders will show up with red dots. Tap one of those dots and the name and the address of the permit holder pop up.

(voice-over) The newspaper got that data by filing freedom of information requests with clerks of those counties. The exact types of handguns in those homes is not on the maps. The maps don't indicate whether the residents actually own guns, just that they're legally able to. And homes with shotguns or rifles are not included because in those counties, those can be bought without permits.

But the move has brought serious backlash against the "Journal News." Larry Pratt of the Gun Owners of America voiced the same complaint made by some readers.

LARRY PRATT, GUN OWNERS OF AMERICA: I think it was a very irresponsible thing for the news paper to do. They were telling burglars go to the house next door, they're not likely to have a gun because they don't have a permit which is required to buy a handgun in New York state.

TODD: Or he says thieves who want to steal guns will know where to get them. At this gun store in Virginia, which the manager didn't want identified, I spoke to a gun owner.

Would you be less likely to buy a handgun or any kind of weapon knowing your name and address could be published?


TODD: Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it's a matter of public record, anybody can find out anyway.

TODD: The newspaper also has considerable support for the maps. In a tweet to CNN, a resident of Westchester County said parents have right to know. Another tweet, "Please thank them for me. This could be a turning point. I do not want my daughter playing in a house with guns". Privacy advocate, Marc Rotenberg, says this.

MARC ROTENBERG, ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER: Well, for the news organization, I think it's a very clever use of public information certainly provides something that people are interested in knowing. But for gun owners, of course, it raises a concern because information that they thought would be kept private has now been made public.


TODD (on-camera): The editors and the publisher of the "Journal News" declined our repeated request for an on camera interview, but in two separate statements they said, quote, "Our readers are understandably and keenly interested to know about who owns guns in their neighborhoods. We felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings" -- Joe.

JOHNS: But as it turns out, the tables have sort of been turned on the newspaper anyway, right?

TODD: That's right. An attorney has posted information on his blog that includes the home addresses, the phone numbers, in some cases, Google zoom maps and even pictures of the homes of the editor of that newspaper, a reporter, and the visual editor of that -- of the "Journal News" newspaper. This attorney saying that it was dangerously risky for them to publish the names and addresses of the gun permit holders.

So, he basically responded in kind and published their addresses on his blog. So, it's getting a little ugly.

JOHNS: We have to keep following that.

TODD: Right.

JOHNS: Thanks so much, Brian Todd.

We now turn to a significant loss for the regime of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. His country's military police chief just switched sides and joined the rebels. CNNs Mohammed Jamjoom is monitoring the situation from Beirut, Lebanon and joins us now live -- Mohammed.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Joe, the day began with news that Major General Abulaziz al-Shalal, the chief of military police in Syria, had defected and decided to join as he called it the People's Uprising. Now, he posted a video on social media sites just a few days ago in which he stated his reasons for why he was defecting.

One of which he said was that the Syrian military had betrayed the ideals of Syria and gone after the Syrian people. Now, we heard from rebel-free Syrian army members throughout the day that, in fact, the FSA had helped transport the major general across country lines from Syria into Turkey. They say that he is safe, that he is in turkey now.

They've also said that they're willing to help other military officials in Syria defect, but that they wouldn't be willing to help for much longer. The rebels feel that they have the upper hand right now. They're saying that it's only a small window of time, they're giving other military officials in Syria to defect and join their side.

Otherwise, they're not going to forgive them and they're not going to look kindly upon their actions. The rebels believe they have the wind at their back right now, that they're gaining momentum. We've not yet heard a lot of detail from Major General al-Shalal about what kind of intelligence he might have about the regime. We're waiting to hear more in the days to come -- Joe.

JOHNS: And just another terribly sad story that we're hearing coming out of there. You've learned of a story involving twins getting killed?

JAMJOOM: This is absolutely horrific and really shows the tragic human toll, the cost of the Syrian civil war. This is an amateur video that posted online just a few hours ago. We spoke to the citizen journalist who shot this in Hama Province, and it show as grief stricken and frantic father who's looking for the bodies of his two twin sons. They're toddlers named Mohamed and Ahmed.

We're told that the mother of these two boys put them on the roof of the house so that they would get warm in the sun, they could play on a blanket up there, and that a few minutes after that, there was an air raid in that town and because of the shelling not only where the two twin boys killed, but their bodies were destroyed.

This video is absolutely heartbreaking. Not only do you see the father going around trying to find body parts of his two sons, but you also hear the voice of the mother as she's wailing in agony off camera. It's horrific, it's horrifying, and it really goes to show what families are dealing with there. And we should add that we're told by opposition activists at least five kids were killed in that air raid today in Hama Province -- Joe.

JOHNS: Just unthinkable. Mohammed Jamjoom in Beirut.

A major winter storm is plastering the eastern U.S. with snow and ice this afternoon. The same storm spawned tornados that have hundreds of people picking up the pieces today while thousands more shiver in the cold with no electricity.


JOHNS: Wild winter weather carrying heavy snow, rain, and even tornadoes is making things far from merry for travelers this day after Christmas. Three people were killed in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma because of the storms. People in Alabama spent Christmas dodging twisters like this one. More than 30 tornadoes swirled out of the system across Alabama and other parts of the south last night. Hundreds of thousands of customers in several states have no power. Look at this damage in mobile where the city's historic Murphy High School took a terrible hit. School officials are already assessing the destruction to the city landmark. Some say it is, in word, "totaled." We go now to Alabama and reporter, Christina Leavenworth of CNN affiliate, WEAR, at the demolished school.

CHRISTINA LEAVENWORTH, REPORTER, WEAR: Joe, the damage is widespread. Emergency management officials say the tornado touched down in five different spots, the hardest hit here at Murphy High School. Behind me is the athletic facility and this is where baseball players and football players would work out and practice. Completely destroyed. A mangled mess.

And over here, check this out, this used to be classrooms. Several portable classrooms. And it has just completely gotten looked like it exploded. You can make out some desks and chairs and some books. But what really gives you an idea of how strong this tornado was, many of these items in both buildings flew more than two football fields over in to the main building.

We saw sheets of plywood slam into the cafeteria. So, a lot of damage over there, especially roof damage. We see some windows that have just completely shattered. And the band hall which is just right over there literally picked up off of the structural wall, moved over, set back down, so we do see some gaping holes over there.

JOHNS: Joining me now by phone is the person in charge of that destroyed school, Martha Peek, superintendent of the Mobile school system. Superintendent Peek, just how bad is the damage there?

VOICE OF MARTHA PEEK, SUPERINTENDENT, MOBILE SCHOOL SYSTEM: Well, it's very far reaching. It has affected most of the buildings on campus. Certainly, we are very thankful, though, that we were closed for the holidays and we didn't have any injuries or any deaths because we had no one on campus at the time.

JOHNS: So, you're on holiday break. When will students be returning to the school?

PEEK: Students are scheduled to return to school next Wednesday, January 3rd. So, we have a lot of planning and a lot of work to do between now and opening school next Wednesday. We have several plans in place. Students may return to the campus if we have usable buildings that are certified safe.

If not, we'll make other arrangements, but we want to get our students back in class next Wednesday.

JOHNS: Let's talk a little bit about the rebuilding process that you're obviously going to have to go through. When is it going to start and just how big of a job are we talking about?

PEEK: Well, it started actually last night with debris beginning to be cleaned up as soon as the storm had subsided. It began today. It will be extensive. We're still getting estimates because it is a historic facility that was built in the mid 1920s. So, we have to be very careful about the architectural details there.

So, it will take a period of time, but it's under way now. We're optimistic that we can have everything back in shape for the school to be completely occupied by the end of this quarter we're entering by March. And then after that, we hope to move forward and have funds secure that we can restore to its original historical shape.

JOHNS: Martha Peek, superintendent of Mobile County public schools, thanks so much. We'll be watching to see how you all do.

PEEK: Well, thank you very much. And like I said, we're just thankful no one was hurt.

JOHNS: The northeast has been bracing for this massive storm. And now, it has arrived. Check out this video we got in from CNN photojournalist, Jeremy Moorehead (ph), who had to practically crawl along the highway at no more than 25 miles an hour to get it to us.

Earlier, Indiana was blasted, as well. Blizzard warnings have been lifted, but there's lots of snow on the ground. Reporter Jill Glavan of CNN affiliate, WXIN, joins me now from Indianapolis -- Jill.

JILL GLAVAN, REPORTER, WXIN: Hey, Joe, yes. We are in the south side of Indianapolis and this blizzard at this point has moved through for us, but we're still seeing a lot of problems in this area. We're right along one of the busiest interstates here. This is I-65. It goes north to Chicago, south to Louisville.

Our traffic at this point is moving pretty quickly, but my photographer and I were actually out on the roads this afternoon as this storm was at its worst. We saw a lot of cars that were going off the road. A lot of people since this is the day after Christmas had tried to get out early, maybe had more people on the roads than you would normally want to have during a storm like this, and we did see a lot of people sliding off, a lot of problems they were having here.

At this point, we've still seen some problems off the interstate because we did get so much snow in such a short period of time during the day today. People now are trying to go out and get what they need, and they are still having some issues here in Indianapolis -- Joe.

JOHNS: So, Indiana gets pretty much its share of bad weather. What are people saying about this storm?

GLAVAN: Yes. Well, you know, it's been a couple of years since we've had a bad storm like this in Indianapolis. Last winter was pretty mild. We did have quite a bit of warning, Joe. We had about 24 hours to go that where we all got a blizzard warning to our phones from the National Weather Service, but people I talked to today still said that they were surprised at how bad it got and how fast a lot of places opened up this morning.

Employees were there, and then they realized, you know what, we really need to get home because this is not getting any better. And I want to show you real quick before we go back, we're actually next to a semi-truck that got stuck right next to our live shot location. So, this is an indication that we still have a lot of snow on the ground and we're still having a lot of problems out here.

JOHNS: Got it. Wow. Looks pretty rough. Thanks so much for that, Jill Glavan in Indiana.

Five time baseball all-star is in trouble with the law. In a minute, we'll tell you why police arrested Andrew Jones.

And, think you can guess which movie won the Christmas battle at the box office? The answer is coming up.


JOHNS: What or, should I say, who goes around and comes around in Japanese politics. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what do you have?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Joe. Well, Japan actually has another new prime minister. Fifty-eight-year-old Shinzo Abe was elected today by the Japanese parliament as the country's seventh prime minister in six years. Abe resigned abruptly from the post in 2007 after just a year on the job, triggering the revolving door prime ministers.

Abe vows to boost Japan's sagging economy and defend Japanese interests especially territorial dispute with China over a group (ph) of violence in the East China Sea.

And at least one person was killed and dozens more are seriously injured from an explosion and fire in a Lagos, Nigeria marketplace today. Fireworks believed to have in stored illegally in a warehouse sparked that blaze. The flames spread quickly from building to building. And one officials says the advancing fire triggered a stampede which caused a number of injuries.

And police say former Major League outfielder, Andrew Jones, faces battery charges after Christmas morning domestic dispute with his wife. Jones was booked in wee (ph) hours yesterday in the suburb northeast of Atlanta. He posted bond several hours later. Jones played for the Atlanta Braves from 1996 through 2007.

And then, he bounced between teams until recently when he signed a one year contract with the Japanese team.

And no surprise here, "Les Miserables" Christmas opening was far from miserable. The Hollywood reporter says the adaptation of the Broadway musical it grossed $17.5 million on its one day holiday debut. And not far behind, Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" at 14 million. "The Hobbit" already in least, slipped to number three with just under $11 million. So, it sounds like a lot of people spent yesterday --

JOHNS: At the movies.

SYLVESTER: Yes, at the movies. I'm not surprised. Are you going to go to see "Les Mis?"

JOHNS: Absolutely. "Les Mis" and Django are both in my list.

SYLVESTER: Yes. It's like when we have time.

JOHNS: Right.


JOHNS: What an epic --

SYLVESTER: I know. I know.

JOHNS: -- these sweeping pictures.

SYLVESTER: And it's got some great names, you know? Anne Hathaway is in there, Hugh Jackman. So, I'm looking forward to it. It's on my list, as well.

JOHNS: All right. Lisa, thanks.

President Obama's Christmas vacation will be over in a matter of hours. We'll have the latest inside information on whether he'll get a deal or more frustration when he arrives back here in the nation's capital.


JOHNS: President Obama is cutting short his Hawaiian holiday and heading back to Washington. He is not alone. Members of Congress also are due back for one last attempt at avoiding the fiscal cliff. Those sharp tax increases and across the board spending cuts scheduled to take effect next week.

CNN White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is traveling with the president.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Joe, President Obama will leave Oahu tonight, travel overnight and arrive in Washington late Thursday morning as the Senate is set to reconvene. All eyes right now are on the upper chamber of Congress as this really is coming down to Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, trying to cobble together a measure to avert the fiscal cliff.

They can get Republicans support in both the Senate and the House. Whether that can be achieved is still very much up in the air. As of right now, President Obama has gone back to his original demand that the Bush era tax cuts be extended only for the first $250,000 in earnings. The White House is talking to Senate Democrats about what their proposal may look like.

But as of yet, neither is in communication with Congressional Republicans. And as the White House hashes out details of the Reid plan with Senate Democrats, it's at this moment unclear exactly what form it will take, what it will look like other than to deal, no doubt, with tax cuts. Details may not be released by Senate Democrats for a few days as they try to get Republican support yes but also try to put pressure on Speaker Boehner by moving a vote in the Senate closer to the New Year, trying to say to House Republicans and the speaker take up this bill that we may pass or take the blame for going over the fiscal cliff -- Joe.

JOHNS: Brianna Keilar in Hawaii there. There's a fight over what programs to keep funding when it comes to the fiscal cliff and it's not just between Republicans and Democrats. And to explain that is CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He's the editorial director of "National Journal."

Now, you talk about in this article that I just read as fascinating, two groups, the brown and the gray. What are the differences between them and how are they clashing now that we get closer and closer to this fiscal cliff?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The brown and the gray is a phrase I've been using for the last few years to describe the two giant generations that really are going to shape American life in the coming decades. The brown is the millennial generation, the most diverse generation in American history. Over 40 percent nonwhite.

The gray is the aging baby boom which is joining the silent generation in a huge senior cohort that is 80 percent white. And they have very different political inclinations, very different political preferences and very different interests at stake in the fiscal cliff and the budget negotiations.

On the one hand, taxes versus spending have generational implications and so does the kind of spending. Discretionary spending, mostly investments in the future. Entitlement spending, mostly income security for the older generation.

JOHNS: So who benefits if we do cross the fiscal cliff?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think the -- there is no question that getting the debt and deficit under control is in the interests of younger generations so they are not saddled with debt solely for our current consumption. But how we get there matters an awful lot. I mean, if you raise taxes on people at the top, that affects people mostly in their peak earning years, which is the late 40s to their late 50s.

If you focus the spending cuts on discretionary spending which is what we've done so far, you squeeze investments in the next generation. Education, infrastructure, research. There really needs to be a balance both between taxes and spending and then on the spending side between restraining discretionary spending and restraining entitlements which are overly aimed at today's seniors.

JOHNS: You know, very interesting, so many times we've heard in the past talk about generational warfare between old and young.


JOHNS: Especially over entitlements. But this is a little bit different.


JOHNS: Is it not?

BROWNSTEIN: First of all, there is no -- today the generational warfare is more in the opposite direction. The polls show that young people by and large are willing to pay for entitlements for today's seniors. What's eroded is the willingness of today's seniors to pay for social spending that benefits today's young people.

You know the federal government today spends $7 per capita on seniors for every dollar it invests in kids. And the electoral paradox here is that, you know, Democrats are winning overwhelming majorities over these nonwhite young people. Sixty percent of white seniors voted for Mitt Romney and yet it is Democrats who are very reluctant to look at restraining entitlements in the long run even though there's a risk that over time if they're not restrained, they could squeeze out spending investment on young people which are much more their constituency at this point.

JOHNS: A lot of this sort of reminds us of 1995 or thereabouts when there was an issue regarding the shutting down of the government --


JOHNS: -- between President Bill Clinton and the congressional Republicans. Is this really that similar? And it seemed at that time it was sort of advantage president or whoever it was in the White House. Is that the same sort of scenario we're seeing right now or is it possible for this president to overplay his hand?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, I think to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we are defining dysfunction down. I mean, the willingness -- maybe we will get an 11th hour agreement that avoids the fiscal cliff, but it will be a fairly minimal agreement. Nothing like what we are talking about in terms of a big comprehensive deal.

I think both sides but especially the Republicans are having difficulty making the compromises you need to move forward in what is a very closely divided society. I mean what is the alternative here? You have a Republican House that's been re-elected but a Democratic president that's going to be there for four years and a reasonable prospect if Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, a Democrat could hold the White House then.

What are we waiting for in terms of making the deal? Both sides are here. In 1997 even more than '95, when Democrat -- when a Democratic president was reelected along with a Republican Congress, they looked at each other and said, none of us are going away, we've got to make a deal. That's not really happening yet.

JOHNS: So the glass is half full for you? You think it can still happen?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it can still happen, but I think the only -- look, I think -- I have felt for a long time there are only two choices. Either we go over the cliff and try to clean it up after, or John Boehner has to be abandon what's known as the Hastert rule in which -- which, you know, the majority they have said they will only bring a bill to the floor if it's supported. Not only a majority of the House overall, but a majority of the majority.

There-- I don't think there is a bill that a majority of House Republicans will vote for that President Obama could sign. So the critical decision, even if it gets out of the Senate is whether he is willing to pass a bill that a majority of House Republicans vote against and that wins the majority mostly with votes from Democrats.

JOHNS: Well, he'd take tremendous heat from that.

BROWNSTEIN: And that is -- there is obviously an enormous risk in that. But the problem with the Hastert rule as it's called, is it gives a veto power to the most ideological wing of each party. And if the only bill that he will bring to the floor is one that has a majority of support among Republicans, it's very hard to see how you can thread the needle to have something that's also going to be acceptable to the president.

The difference now of course compared to the debt ceiling in 2011 is that inaction does favor the president and after new year's when the taxes go up on everyone, there will be more pressure on Republicans to come to his position and reduce them for voters below a certain threshold.

JOHNS: Ron Brownstein, always good to see you.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, Joe. Happy holidays.

JOHNS: Happy holidays to you.

Military investigators say we've reached another milestone in the long fight in Afghanistan.


JOHNS: A car bomb detonated outside a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan today killing a security guard and two truck drivers who were delivering supplies. The attack comes just days after a female Afghan police officer shot and killed a U.S. contractor, an incident that mark as disturbing new first in the war.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us with more on that attack -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joe, it's hard to know what to make of this case, but tragic news, of course, for an American family at the holiday season.

This woman now, said by the Afghan authorities after holding a press conference, to actually have an Iranian passport. An Afghan police woman they say who was an Iranian citizen. They showed her passport. They showed other documentation which they said included some fake identity papers. She was wearing an Afghan police uniform. She apparently went to Kabul police headquarters supposedly looking for someone important to kill.

At least that's what Afghan authorities are saying. And she had a weapon hidden on her person. She brought the weapon out, she walked up behind this American man and shot him dead. By all accounts the first time we've seen one of these incidents where the perpetrator is a woman. But there have been a growing number of these throughout the year tragically involving U.S. troops, NATO troops, contractors and even Afghan forces -- Joe.

JOHNS: And just let's talk a little bit more about how unique this really is. Give us sort of the 30,000 foot view, Barbara.

STARR: Well, you know, the biggest problem they're having probably is figuring out why these incidents are happening. They all seem to be a bit different. There is always the talk, could this woman have been a Taliban infiltrator. Could she have had ties to an Iranian terrorist group? Was she working on behalf of someone else?

In all of these incidents, they've tried to figure that out and in many of them, what they've simply found is these are, if you will, grudges, cultural differences between Afghan security forces and those that they set out to hurt or kill.

A lot of these incidents we're told have been stopped in their tracks. We don't hear very much about the number of those, but so far this year, some 50 coalition troops, contractors have been killed in these incidents -- Joe.

JOHNS: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you for that.

STARR: Sure.

JOHNS: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Lisa.


Well, Egypt's new Upper House of Parliament convened for the first time today. Under Egypt's newly approved constitution, the council will have legislative powers until a lower house is elected. Signed into law today, the controversial charter was approved in two weekend rounds of voting but turnout was just 32 percent. Critics say the constitution excludes minority rights. Supporters say it boosts Egypt's political stability.

And the recovery in the housing remains on pace. Home prices up 4.3 percent in October over last year. That is the biggest percentage increase in more than two years. Near-record low mortgage rates and fewer foreclosures are helping spur sales which in turn is boosting prices. And the world's longest high speed rail line is up and running and it's in -- where else -- China. The 1,428 mile line spans more than half of the country linking the capital of Beijing to the southern Chinese boom city of Guangzhou. Trains will run at 186 miles an hour on average and China aims to have more than 74,000 miles of high speed rail line by the year 2020.

And civil rights icon Nelson Mandela has been discharged from a South African hospital. The 94-year-old former president will continue treatment at his home. He was hospitalized with a lung infection on December 8th. One week later he had surgery to remove gall stones -- Joe.

JOHNS: That man is the definition of resilience.

SYLVESTER: And 94 years old. I mean, let's put this into context. We're talking about a 94-year-old man but he is doing well. He is out of the hospital, and I'm sure a lot of folks are really happy to hear that -- Joe.

JOHNS: Thanks, Lisa.

A school custodian in Missouri got an extra special Christmas present. See how some students and their parents gave him back his smile.


JOHNS: Some Missouri students and their parents came up a touching Christmas present for one of the workers at their school.

Reporter Lindsay Shively of CNN affiliate KSHB has the story.


LINDSAY SHIVELY, KSHB REPORTER: You can see it on their faces. And these kids have one guy in mind.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Mike is your dad? Really?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you say Mr. Mike, it's almost a legend.

SHIVELY: Who is Mr. Mike?


SHIVELY: For seven year, Mike Nitsch has kept Shoal Creek Elementary in order as custodian. He doesn't mind the work. And he loves the kids.

NITSCH: I've seen one group go from kindergarten all the way through.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Mike is one of the hardest custodians I've ever seen work.

SHIVELY: He's a friendly force, whether a helping hand at lunch or the smile that greets kids every day.

NITSCH: I try to know as many of them as I can.

SHIVELY: But the last three years have been tough on Mr. Mike.

NITSCH: I try not to think about it. Just -- you know, from getting the initial diagnosis of cancer.

SHIVELY: Tonsil cancer didn't take his life, but it did take his teeth. Mike thought he might never get teeth at all facing a more than $4,000 bill for a complete mouth makeover. Mr. Mike's smile started fading. A prayer group of school moms wouldn't have it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We wanted to bring that smile back. And for him to be able to eat again.

SHIVELY: So what started as a list of friends --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One hundred and sixty families give $25, we can do this.

SHIVELY: -- turned in to a Facebook movement. "Smiles for Mike."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The next morning, I couldn't get out of my pajamas because people were coming to the door to give checks.

SHIVELY: The kids wanted to help, too, so they sold candy grams, many of them sent to Mr. Mike himself. Or even notes written from tiny hands.

NITSCH: A little girl here said, we thank you for working your soul out for us. And that just -- you know, that gets to you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on down, Mr. Mike.

SHIVELY: And so does this. The kids raised hundreds of dollars selling candy grams. The dentist heard and cut his bill in half. Add that to the donations that poured in from as far as Colorado.


SHIVELY: So four days ago, he got his new smile.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's really happy that he gets to smile again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's your soul. I mean, your smile is the gateway to who you are. It's beautiful.

NITSCH: I'm practicing my smile, yes, trying to get it back.

SHIVELY: What does it look like now? (LAUGHTER)

And that is something to smile about.


JOHNS: Thanks to Lindsay Shively of CNN affiliate KHSB for filing that report.

Mr. Mike's smile isn't the only Christmas present making news today. There are two things you need to know before we show you a video that's going viral. Next month Notre Dame plays Alabama in college football's national championship game and one particular Crimson Tide fan surprised his dad with a ticket to the big game. His reaction is one for the ages. Check this out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hot diggity dog. I needed this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'll give you the receipt just in case --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What size is it? What size is it?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to the game, pop. We're going to the game.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, just me and you.


JOHNS: Wow. The big game, of course, is January 7th.

It turns out the just completed holiday shopping season wasn't nearly as good as merchants had hoped it would be. Despite the recovering economy, sales were only up a little over last year.

CNN's Alison Kosik has a closer look.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Joe. It's only the day after Christmas, but the numbers are already rolling in. Spending polls says sales from October 30th to December 24th were up less than 1 percent. That's the weakest in three years. These numbers are early, though, and we will continue to get more throughout the coming days. So they may change, but they're still not a great sign and other analysts don't have high expectations either.

Shopper Track recently dialed back expectations for holiday sales. And the National Retail Federation says sales won't be as good as last year. A lot of the blame goes to the fiscal cliff. Americans are very aware of the financial implications of it, especially higher taxes. Another factor, a spending poll says Superstorm Sandy hit sales in the mid-Atlantic region in early November.

After-Christmas spending should help a bit, but the impact is limited because a lot of people are using gift cards and making returns. The National Retail Federation says we typically return $60 billion worth of merchandise after Christmas, so early indications seem to show that holiday sales are looking like the rest of the economy, growing but not outstanding -- Joe.

JOHNS: Alison Kosik.

As it comes to a close, we remember 2012 as a year of surprises. A South Korean rapper gets newfound fame thanks to YouTube and Rihanna and Chris Brown back together again?

CNN's top 10 showbiz stories of the year are just ahead.


JOHNS: Here's a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."

In Thailand, villagers ride motorcycles through flooded streets after a flash flood. In Israel, an archaeologist displays clay figurines, unearthed from the ninth or 10th century B.C. In the UK, a young rider heads out into the countryside on a pony for the traditional Boston Day hunt. And in Prague, onlookers watch from a bridge as swimmers climb out of a river after diving into the icy cold water.

"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.

2012 has been a year of surprises. Some good, some-not-so-good in the world of showbiz.

CNN entertainment correspondent Nischelle Turner has a rundown.

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Catchy dance tunes, celebrity breakups, and the tragic death of a singing icon. Just a few of the topics that had people talking in the world of showbiz. Here's a look at CNN's top 10 entertainment news stories from 2012.


TURNER: The song was almost inescapable. Carly Rae Jepsen's viral sensation, "Call Me, Maybe." It earned the young singer two Grammy nominations and countless reenactments online, like this video posted by the U.S. Olympic swim team.

"The Force" is now strong with Disney. In a move that caught many by surprise, the "Star Wars" franchise's fiercely independent creator George Lucas sold his company Lucas Films to the entertainment empire for more than $4 billion. What's more? Disney's announced plans for three more "Star Wars" films. It's the superstar relationship that has Hollywood asking, are they or aren't they? Chris Brown, who beat his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, in 2009, said in October that he's renewed his friendship with the singer. But is it more than just friends? Song collaborations and vague tweets from Rihanna have suggested otherwise.

JEN GARCIA, SENIOR WRITER, PEOPLE: They want to keep everyone guessing, and they don't want to explain what's going on with their relationship to anyone in the world.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Jacksons, their family drama turning into one big reality show.

TURNER: More turmoil for the Jackson family last summer as Michael Jackson's teenage daughter, Paris, announced on Twitter that her grandmother and guardian, Katherine Jackson, was missing, forcing a judge to suspend her guardianship of Michael's three kids.

BALDWIN: Katherine Jackson, she's back home. She says she wasn't kidnapped.

TURNER: Michael's siblings disputed the claim, saying their mother was resting in Arizona under doctor's orders. A judge later restored Katherine as permanent guardian of Michael's children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lindsey's tearing on my pants, mama.

TURNER: Whether it was a pleasure or a guilty pleasure, audiences couldn't turn away from TLC's hit reality show, "Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo" about a child beauty pageant contestant and her family.

Rapper Psy went from a relatively unknown performer to a worldwide phenomenon after his catchy dance tune "Gangnam Style" hit the Web. The music video featuring the South Korean star's song and trademark dance shattered records online, becoming the number one watched video on YouTube, with more than 970 million views. But Psy's newfound fame wasn't without controversy. Harsh anti-American remarks he made during a performance in 2004 resurfaced online. He apologized, saying his lyrics were emotionally charged and resulted from events in the war with Iraq.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: New sexual misconduct accusations against the former voice of Elmo.

TURNER: In one of the most surprising stories of the year, Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash was forced to resign from "Sesame Street," after being accused of engaging in sexual relationships with minors. His lawyer says the cases are without merit, but Clash still opted to leave "Sesame Street" after 28 years.

"Twilight" stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson had been one of the hottest celebrity couples, until a highly publicized fling between the actress and the man who directed her in "snow White and the Huntsman" rocked Hollywood.

GARCIA: Kristen Stewart moved out of the home that they share together. She released a very public statement, asking Robert for forgiveness.

TURNER: Pattinson apparently did forgive, just in time for the premiere of the "Twilight" saga, "Breaking Dawn: Part II" in November.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Celebrity splits sending shock waves through the entertainment world.

TURNER: After nearly six years of marriage, Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise in June, blindsiding Hollywood's biggest movie star.

GARCIA: What was so incredible is how Katie Holmes had everything, just so well prepared.

TURNER: Although Holmes asked for full custody of their daughter, Suri, the couple eventually settled amicably on the divorce, just two weeks later, ending one of the most high-profile celebrity marriages.

PIERS MORGAN, HOST, "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT": You're watching CNN, with breaking news of Whitney Houston's death.

TURNER: It was a tragic end to an iconic singer's successful but often troubled career. Whitney Houston, who battled with drugs and alcohol for decades, died February 11th in a hotel bathtub at the age of 48. The night before the Grammy Awards. Houston's death was an accidental drowning with the effects of heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors.

Nischelle Turner, CNN, Hollywood.


JOHNS: Don't miss our top 10 of 2012 special, CNN revisits the biggest stories of the year.

Happening now, snow, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. We're watching a dangerous mix of winter weather and frustrating travel delays.

A gun buyback is underway. Is it making the streets safer after the Connecticut school massacre?

And Starbucks plans to send an urgent message to President Obama and Congress, along with cappuccinos and lattes.

Wolf Blitzer is off today, I'm Joe Johns. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.