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Gas Prices Increase in U.S.; Paralympian Charged with Murder; Danica Patrick Wins Pole Position in Daytona 500; Interview with Lyn St. James; Obama Golfs with Tiger Woods

Aired February 18, 2013 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning, new this morning, a double wallop to your -- a double danger, rather, to your wallet. Gas prices spike again, up once again this morning, 44 cents from the last month. Plus, citrus crops in danger from a potential Florida freeze. Coming up, we'll tell you what you need to watch for at the pump and at grocery store.

And a tragic end to a troubled country music star's life. New details about the death of Mindy McCready.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And new fallout this morning for the man accused of slapping a toddler on an airplane. What his bosses are now sawing?

And she's speeding through the glass ceilings. Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to win the pole position at the Daytona 500. What she is saying this morning about her chances of winning the whole thing?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And from search giant to retail giant, why a Google store may be popping up near you.

O'BRIEN: Packed show for you this morning. We're going to talk to Lyn St. James. She's the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. Texas Congressman Michael Burgess will join us. Oscar nominated actress Quvenzhane Wallis is going to be with us. And Sarah Darling, she's the woman who accidentally handed off her engagement ring to a homeless man. Well, he returned it. We'll have that story this morning for you as well.

It's Monday, February 18th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning, welcome everybody. There are two big stories we're following this morning. It could mean you are paying more for the very basics, food and fuel. A cold freeze could ruin crops in the south. Gas prices are now up for the 32nd day in a row. While you were sleeping gas rose 1.6 cents overnight, bringing the new national average to 3.73 a gallon. Increases come at a terrible time for millions Americans. Zain Asher is at a New York City gas station. So the drivers must be complaining this morning, Zain.

ZAIN ASHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Soledad. Drivers here understandably upset. We're at a gas station on Tenth Avenue. The average price of gasoline, $3.73 across the country. This particular gas station, gas prices are a lot higher, #4.15. As I mentioned, U.S. national average, $3.73. In Hawaii, higher still, the most expensive place to buy gas right now. $4.28. California not far behind, $4.10. The cheapest place to buy gas is actually in Wyoming, $3.17.

As you mentioned, Americans right now spending a lot more money on heating bills, and that, of course, means they don't have much money to spare in terms of gas prices. Also, we've got taxes going up for a lot of Americans. A lot of people seeing their paychecks shrink. I did speak to some taxi drivers, saying they are spending upward of $40, $50, $60 per day. It really is having a huge effect on people.

O'BRIEN: What a big mess. Thanks, Zain, appreciate that.

Jennifer Delgado in the weather center this morning with a freeze warning that could spell some serious trouble for Florida citrus crops. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Soledad. The sunshine state desperately needs the sun to come out because temperatures right now still in the mid-20s. We have a hard freeze warning in place anywhere in blue. Of course, this is affecting northern and central parts of Florida. Temperatures as I said have been in the mid-20s. Of course, we get temperatures like this, it is dangerous to the vegetation.

And we'll continue to see these numbers flirting with the mid 20s, even as we get into about the 8:00 hour. By 9:00 a.m., the hard freeze warning will expire. Just to give you an idea of how potentially dangerous this could be for crops there, keep in mind, typically when you have temperatures at 28 degrees or below, you start to see is vegetation being injured by that after about four hours of exposure. Of course we'll be watching that because we all love our orange juice, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jennifer Delgado with some seriously bad news on that front. Appreciate it. Thank you.

It's been called a tragic end to a talented life. That's how one country music star is remembering Mindy McCready this morning. She died yesterday in an apparent suicide. Her chart-topping career was plagued by personal problems, drugs, alcohol. Police found the 37- year-old McCready dead at her home in Arkansas yesterday. They believe a gunshot wound to her head was self-inflicted. Plus McCready's boyfriend, the father of her youngest son, died also from an apparent suicide. She talked about that experience just a few weeks ago in her very last interview with NBC.


MINDY MCCREADY, COUNTY MUSIC SINGER: I have never gone through anything this painful, nor will I ever again go through anything this painful.


O'BRIEN: She really struggled. CNN's Nischelle Turner live for us in Los Angeles this morning. NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Soledad. A very talented and troubled life she led. Mindy McCready recently was seeking help, reportedly checking into rehab earlier this month. She appeared with HLN's Dr. Drew on his show, "Celebrity Rehab." And he says as far as he knew, she was trying to get better. He spoke to CNN's Don Lemon last night.


DR. DREW PINKSY, HLN HOST: She had actually been doing very well. Things were looking up for her. She had children with a boyfriend who ended up killing himself a few weeks ago. She was struggling after that, actually admitted herself to a psychiatric facility. And there is a cautionary tale about the stigma of mental illness and the way in which the public attacks celebrities who take care of themselves. She became so fearful of the stigma and the way people responding to her being hospitalized that she actually checked herself out prematurely, and now we have what we have.


TURNER: And at the heart of McCready's struggle, she ultimately leaves two kids without their mother, two sons six-years-old and 10 months old. That's the heart-breaking aspect to the tragedy. Soledad, McCready made a lot of public declarations about her life. And last year on a website dedicated to fans, she wrote "I've been beaten, sued, robbed, arrested, jailed, and evicted. But I'm still here. I'm a fighter. I'm down but I'll never be out." Sadly, yesterday it seems like the probably ended.

O'BRIEN: She had a rough time and a lot of struggle. Nischelle Turner with a look back at Mindy McCready's life. Thank you.

And major developments to tell you about this morning in the case of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner from South Africa who was charged with murdering his model girlfriend. An official close to the case tells CNN that Reeva Steenkamp was shot four times through a bathroom door of Pistorius' home. And he carried her downstairs while she was still alive. We've also learned that Pistorius has been forced to bow out of five races that he's been scheduled to participate in this year. Robyn Curnow is live for us from Johannesburg, South Africa, with the very latest. Robyn, good morning.

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. It just gets sadder and sadder, the more we learn about what happened early on Valentine's Day morning. Another bit of information that this official told CNN, that Reeva was there at Oscar's house to spend the night with her boyfriend because they found an overnight bag as well as her iPad on the floor.

Also, in a really strange twist, an eerie twist perhaps, she was seen and heard on South Africa's television screens this weekend.


CURNOW: Just days after being shot and killed at the home of her boyfriend, Olympian Oscar Pistorius, Reeva Steenkamp appeared on South African television.

REEVA STEENKAMP, LATE GIRLFRIEND OF OSCAR PISTORIUS: You fall in love with being in love, with love.

CURNOW: This is how her reality show began on Saturday. But while her television debut aired, her boyfriend, the double amputee and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, spent the weekend in this jail. Prosecutors plan to charge Pisotrius with murder, a charge strongly rejected by Pistorius and his family. This is his uncle flanked by his sister, who struggled to keep herself together as they make a brief statement to the media.

ANTHONY PISTORIUS, OSCAR PISTORIUS' UNCLE: As you can imagine, our entire family is devastated. We're in a state of total shock. They had plans together and Oscar was happier in his private life than I've seen him in a long time.

CURNOW: Investigators who are combing through his house in the high- security complex are starting to piece together what they think happened early on Valentine's Day. CNN has been told and local media reporting police believe Pistorius shot Steenkamp four times through a bathroom door and carried her downstairs where she died. Neighbors have told police they heard shouting before the shooting, but there's still no solid explanation of why he might have shot her.

Pistorius appears in court on Tuesday for his bail hearing. While Pistorius is in court, Reeva's family says there will be a memorial on Tuesday. Still South Africans will be able to watch her beach adventures on a reality show which airs for another nine weeks. Producers released this final message from her, meant to be to the cast, but which now becomes her last words, her last goodbye.

STEENKAMP: I take with me so many amazing memories and things that are in here, that are in here. I will treasurer forever. I'm going to miss you all so much. I love you very, very much.


CURNOW: Oh, dear. Imagine you have family and her friends and you watch this, and it's going to be on air for the next nine weeks. Some people argue here this reality show continuing to air this footage of Reeva is in poor taste. Others say it's just a fitting tribute. Back to you.

O'BRIEN: And her family supported it as well. Thank you. Appreciate it. The update on that tremendously complicated case.

John Berman has a look at some of the other stories making news this morning.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. New this morning, a two-alarm fire burning at a recycling company in Tampa, Florida. Officials believe a pile of scrap metal caught fire, but they don't know how. Two workers did manage to get out safely. No one was hurt. Fire crews plan to use foam to put out the flames, and later this morning they will use a bulldozer to try to move the scrap metal. We have learned this morning an aerospace executive has been fired after he allegedly slapped a crying toddler on a Delta flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta. The company who employed 60-year-old Joe Hundley called his behavior offensive and disturbing. Hundley is charged with assault. The father of little Jonah Bennett says he hopes Hundley gets what he deserves.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The evidence is sufficient enough to support what we're saying, and we hope he's punished as much as he possibly can be.


BERMAN: More in a live report in the bottom of the hour. We'll talk with the attorney for little Jonah's parents.

Also new this morning, President Hugo Chavez returning to Venezuela from Cuba where he underwent cancer surgery in December. Chavez says he will continue treatment in Venezuela. The type of cancer he is battling has not been revealed.

Danica Patrick going where no female NASCAR driver has ever gone before. She beat Jeff Gordon. She beat all the men to win the pole position at next Sunday's Daytona 500. This is their Super Bowl of NASCAR racing. Patrick is the first woman to secure the top spot for any race in NASCAR's premiere circuit, the Sprint Cup series. CNN's Joe Carter is live in Atlanta with more on this truly historic achievement.

JOE CARTER, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, what a milestone yesterday, John, for the sport of NASCAR and for women out there. Danica Patrick has got to be happy, very proud, and also relieved, because yesterday she had to wait over two hours to secure that pole win. She went out eighth out of 43 cars, 35 cars had to qualify after her, so it took a while for her to find out she was making history. We've seen her make racing history before, but not like this. To be the first woman to secure the top spot in NASCAR's premiere race is by far the big achievement in her stock car career. She addressed that last night on CNN's Don Lemon show.


DANICA PATRICK, NASCAR DRIVER: I think understanding the scope of what that means and what that will end up meaning, or if anything, is something that happens down the road. In the moment it's about thinking about what I need to do for next Sunday and trying to make some more history.


CARTER: And while this helps her, obviously on Sunday, it does not guarantee her any sort of win. It's been 13 years since somebody won the pole at the Daytona 500 as well as the race itself. It does help her, but doesn't give it to her. BERMAN: Historic achievement. Her car was so fast all weekend, a lot of people talking about that this morning. Our hat's off to Danica Patrick.

O'BRIEN: More on Danica's history-making run. Coming up next we'll talk to Lyn St. James, a former racer herself and a mentor to Danica. We'll talk about what this poll position means.

And we have some business news to look at as well.

ROMANS: Millions of federal workers are facing furloughs if Congress doesn't get its act together. Will Congress come back to work and save the day?


O'BRIEN: Returning to one of our top stories this morning, NSACAR racer Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to win the pole position at the Daytona 500, getting a first row start on Sunday. Lyn St. James, was an Indy car racer, she was the 1992 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year, the first woman to win that award. Nice to have you with us this morning. Thank you for talking us with.

LYN ST. JAMES 1992 INDIANAPOLIS 500 ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Thank you. It's great.

O'BRIEN: I appreciate that. Listen, are you obviously a trailblazer, when you look at this historic moment for Danica Patrick, what do you think?

ST. JAMES: Well, first of all, I'm incredibly proud and happy for her. I've known her a long time and I know what a racer she is. This is huge for her, but it's also a great milestone for all women, not just women in sports and not just women in racing. It's one of the only sports that men and women actually compete equally. Not many sports are like that. And I think it reflects society, because women are just making such great inroads, but we need reminders that if given an opportunity, given the right equipment, given the right skill, opportunity, and support, that women are very capable and so we need reminders of that. That's what she's doing.

O'BRIEN: Here is what she said about understanding she is making history. Listen.


DANICA PARTICK, DAYTONA 500 POLE WINNER: I think understanding the scope of what that means and what that will end up meaning is -- or if any, is something that happens down the road. In the moment, it's about thinking about what I need to do for next Sunday and trying to make more history.


O'BRIEN: She said you were her role model and you've been a mentor to her. What have you been able to I guess give to her that maybe you didn't get a generation ahead of time?

ST. JAMES: Well, back when she was 14 and she came, I had a program, and I've been doing it for 17 years, helping young up and coming drivers, it's more about the skills that you don't realize you have to have. We always focus on being in the race car and doing that job and learning about the technology and all the engineering aspect of it, you about the outside of the cockpit to learn how to deal with the media, about, you know, all of the sort of outside of the things that nobody tells you. Physical fitness. She's incredibly fit and all of those are things I talked about. And to really understand who you are, because you will get pulled a lot of different directions and the more successful you are, the more people will influence you and want from you. And it's important to have a grounded sense of who you are. And that really hit home with her.

O'BRIEN: I remember looking at a shot of Jeff Gordon's daughter, clamoring to take a picture of Danica Patrick. And I thought I wonder what the impact is on the next generation of little girls who look at her as their role model what do you think?

ST. JAMES: We're in the 41st year of title nine, the anniversary of title nine. And it takes generations, sometimes, before things really start to have the ripple effect. And I -- she doesn't understand right now what effect she's having and that's okay. Because she's focused on getting the job done, bought there is going to be -- the next generation coming up will have I think a much different view of what women can do than let's say my generation and even Danica's now. My daughter is the same age as Danica, you know, so I really get a reflection of that, not only from her, but also from my daughter.

O'BRIEN: My daughters are the same age as Jeff Gordon's daughter, and so it's really fun to see excited to see how excited they are even though they never even thought about being race car drivers. It is really, really cool. Lyn St. James, nice to talk to you. Thank you for being with us this morning, we appreciate it.

ST. JAMES: Thank you. Cheer for her next Sunday.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. We will.

President Obama hit the links with tiger woods. Nobody was really allowed to see it, though. There was a press blackout. We'll talk about that, straight ahead. Watching STARTING POINT. back in just a moment.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. "Minding your Business" this morning. Market is closed for President's Day. Stocks still within reach of those record highs. The S&P 500, on a seven-week winning streak. Up nearly 10 percent over the past three months. That's good. Solid start to 2013. A lot of important economic data. We're going to get two reading on the housing market plus consumer and producer prices.

You're taking home less pay because the payroll tax holiday expired. Plus, gas prices are 20 cents higher than this time last year. Now, more squeezing from the dreaded sequester. Some 2.1 million federal workers are facing furloughs, those are unpaid days off. A controller for the office of management and budget told a Senate panel last week that it won't happen after March 1st. That's also when those massive spending cuts begin if Congress doesn't act. Federal employees must get a 30-day notice before furloughs and unions representing these workers likely will have a big part of determining how and when those furloughs will happen. Of course, 2.1 million with less spending power, not good for the economy.

Google is going retail. According to tech blog Nine to Five Google, this tech giant is planning to open standalone retail shops in the U.S. The stores will give Google the opportunity to sell directly to consumers, like Chrome book laptops and Nexus smartphones and tablets. The flagship stores would reportedly open in time for the holidays. Still awaiting official confirmation about when and if that's going to happen.

O'BRIEN: It wouldn't be 9:00 to 5:00, right? they won't be able to make a single sale if they do it that way. They have to compete with everybody. That's interesting.

All right, our team this morning. Former Florida Congressman Connie Mack back with us. Ron Brownstein, editorial director at "National Journal" is with us again. Richard Socarides, former senior advisor for President Clinton, writer for "" joining us this morning. Nice to have you all with us. How do you feel about President Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods?

CONNIE MACK, FMR CONGRESSMAN, FLORIDA: I wonder if Tiger played lefty. Because I'm pretty sure the president played that way (ph).


O'BRIEN: You might be saying to me, why Soledad, where are the photos of said golf outing? Well, that's because there are none. It took four years for it to happen. The two men met back in 2009 at the inauguration, and vowed to play a round of golf one day. Just a few months before that sex scandal. Remember that? That broke and then the first lady decided to take the first daughters skiing in Colorado.

She was away. The president hit the links in Palm City, Florida. Houston Astros owner Jim Crane as well and the outgoing U.S. trade rep Ron Kirk joining the foursome.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, FMR SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'll tell you, the kind of thing that happens right before the president wants to do something like this. The president must have really, really wanted to play golf with Tiger Woods, because I'm sure that nobody on the White House staff thought it was a good idea and probably tried to maneuver around it. And that's why they didn't have pictures, the staff didn't want pictures.


RON BROWNSTEIN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": Is that the moment where the president says to the staff, if you are so smart, how come I'm president?


O'BRIEN: The administration talks about transparency. A lot of angry White House correspondents because they wanted to see photos of this outing.

MACK: You know what thought? Let him play golf. Really? I'm sorry.

O'BRIEN: I have no dog in the fight. I just ask the questions.

MACK: If you want to play golf and don't want the press there? Who cares?

SOCARIDES: What I think is interesting about it too, is it shows there is kind of a new Obama. This is another side of Obama. He's going to do what he wants, both in the way he conducs himself and also on a lot of policy stuff. I mean he's really shown that there is a new boldness to him. He doesn't care what a lot of people think. He's not running for re-election.

BROWNSTEIN: In terms of Tiger Woods, it was in 74 (ph) the most famous wrong thing said about America, was when F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. There are only second acts in American life. And third and so this is the way it goes.

O'BRIEN: And there is so it's said.

President Obama's immigration plan leaked over the weekend. We'll talk about Republicans who are not very happy about that. The bipartisan proposa that's already been discussed. Is it now dead in the water? we'll talk to Republican Michael Burgess straight ahead about that.

And remember Marco Rubio needing a drink of water? We predicted it would be spoofed on SNL, and it was. He was funny talking about it himself, the senator. That ahead. Back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody 7:30 on the east coast. STARTING POINT this half hour, a man accused of slapping a crying toddler on board a Delta flight is now out of a job. According to the company 60 year old aerospace executive Joe Hundley is, quote, "no longer being employed." The parents of the 19-month-old boy are still in shock over the incident CNN's Rene Marsh following the story for us live from Washington, D.C. Good morning Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Fired, that's the word from Joe Hundley's company. Hundley is the Idaho man accused of using a racial slur, then slapping a crying toddler on a Delta Airlines flight on February 8th. The court documents paint a picture of what allegedly happened on this flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta. Two-year-old Jonah, who was seated with his mother, started crying as the plane made its dissent because of the altitude change. Now, Hundley, who was seated next to the mother, Jessica Bennett, and her son, allegedly told her to shut that "n-word" baby up. Then, with an open hand he slapped the baby, causing him to cry even louder. That's according to the FBI affidavit. Take a listen to the mom.