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Spiking Gas Prices; Freeze Fears; Danica Patrick Makes History; Man Slapped Child Now Slapped with Lawsuit; Deadly Coronavirus Threat

Aired February 18, 2013 - 08:00   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning, a double whammy potentially to your wallet. New this morning: gas prices spike again. Up nearly 44 cents in just the past month. Is there any relief in sight?

And then a potentially dangerous freeze in Florida that could destroy crops, hike prices in stores.

Christine Romans will break down both of these big stories for us this morning.

And then, new overnight, the man accused of slapping that little toddler on a Delta flight. Well, he hears from his bosses. He's out.

We're going to talk to the family and the couple's lawyer, straight ahead.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And overnight, new information in the Oscar Pistorius investigation and what this new evidence could mean for the Olympic icon at his hearing tomorrow. We will go live to South Africa.

And is a deadly new virus the next SARS? What doctors are looking for? We'll tell you in a live report.

O'BRIEN: It's Monday, February 18th, Presidents Day. And STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody.

Our team this morning: Former California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack is with us. Ron Brownstein is with us. He's the editorial director of "National Journal". Richard Socarides, former senior advisor to President Clinton, writer for John Berman and Christine Romans stick around with us as well.

Two big stories we're following. And they're both bad news if you want to hang on to your money. Cold freeze threatening crops in the South. Gas prices up for the 32nd day in a row. While you were sleeping, in fact, the price of a gallon of unleaded regular rose 1.6 cents to a new national average which is $3.73 per gallon.

Zain Asher is live for us this morning. She's in New York City, at a gas station there. What are you hearing from, I guess, taxi drivers, right? They're the ones who are really getting gouged in a lot of ways?

ZAIN ASHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Absolutely, Soledad. I mean, taxi drivers understandably upset. Every time gas prices rise, they're literally watching their take home pay shrink before their very eyes.

Now, just to give you some context, we're at a gas station on Tenth Avenue. At this particular station, regular gas, $4.15. Premium, $4.45.

Now, just to give you an idea how that compares to gas prices across the country, the average price of gasoline right now in the U.S. is $3.73. There are some states where those numbers are a lot higher. I mean, anybody in California, Hawaii knows exactly what I'm talking about. In Hawaii, gas prices are as high as $4.28 -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Wow. What a big mess there in California.

Mary Bono Mack, that's your state there that is really suffering.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You don't get a lot to complain about anything if you live in Hawaii.

MARY BONO MACK (R), FORMER CALIFORNIA CONGRESSWOMAN: That's not true. You should still complain about gas prices. We need to do something about the energy in our country.

BROWNSTEIN: It's 4 degrees outside. It's like, quit complaining in Hawaii.

O'BRIEN: And you're paying $4.26 a gallon in the state of California.


O'BRIEN: That does for everybody.

Well, let's talk about what's happening at the grocery store. I'll be the purveyor of doom and gloom this morning when it comes to the citrus crop.

Jennifer Delgado is at the CNN weather center, because the freeze is going to be a problem, isn't it?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's right. You know, we are still following those temperatures across parts of Florida. They have been below freezing. And they're slowly starting to climb. But temperatures in some of these locations have dropped down to 25 degrees. For Ocala, 27. For Jacksonville, 29. So, what does this mean? Well, it looks like it could potentially threaten Florida's citrus crop.

Now, temperatures are going to remain below freezing through about 9:00 a.m. That's why we have the hard freeze warning in place for parts of central as well as northern Florida. It looks like, by tomorrow, we'll certainly see a big improvement. And just to give you an idea of how bad the situation can get, when you get temperatures below 28 degrees for more than four hours, that can be enough to damage that vegetation.

Keep in mind, Florida provides 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes. And that means a lot of people are going to be unhappy on the gas front and on the juice front we're in trouble. Thanks, Jennifer. Appreciate it.

Let's get right to Christine Romans for more on this.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It's so interesting because inflation, you know, is benign, everyone keeps telling you. But when you take out food and energy, it's benign. When you look at food and energy, those are the things you feel the most and use the most.

So, I think the paycheck to paycheck crowd right now is really hurting for two reasons. You have the payroll tax holiday, which expired. That means it's $20 or $30 every week -- every paycheck right out of your paycheck that's going right back to the payroll tax holiday. And gas -- I mean, gas is 20 cents higher today than it was a year ago.


ROMANS: That is a tax you feel right every week.

O'BRIEN: But how has it risen 44 cents in the last 30-some-odd days?

ROMANS: The economy is doing a little bit better. There's a little bit more -- the perception of more demand. Global prices are rising.

We also have this seasonal changeover that usually happens a little later on. You're seeing that move. Refineries are going to start shutting down as they move onto the summer blends. This happens every single year. But it's happening a little bit earlier this year.

And the experts are saying it's happening at the same time the American economy is starting to slowly heal, and that's enough to really tip it over. And then you'll hear people talk about speculators. You'll always hear people talk about how speculators driving it up a little bit faster and drive it down a little faster.

O'BRIEN: So does that mean we don't have the summer price increase that we always have every year. I mean, if it's starting earlier, or do you also have the additional summer price increase? ROMANS: I don't think it's going away any time soon. I really don't. I think you're going to see it stuck up here at these kinds of levels and you're talking -- I mean, you're seeing above $4 gas in places like Chicago and the New York City area earlier than I've ever seen it in the spring.

So, I mean, people are complaining because they're paying more right now than they usually do for gas this time of year. And, again, the paycheck to paycheck crowd is a crowd that really gets hurt the most because they've lost money from the payroll tax holiday and now this. That's real money out of their pockets.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, all that, it seems to me a reminder that while the debate in Washington has flipped from deficits and debt, we still have a jobs and income that is crisis facing most of the country, much of the country.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely.


RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: Who says inflation is benign?

ROMANS: Well, you look at the overall CPI numbers, and it's just -- you know, it kind of goes around like this, when we look at --

SOCARIDES: But the effect -- no one says the effect is benign. No.

O'BRIEN: That's great. All right. Christine, thank you.

John's got a look at some of the other stories making news this morning.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

So, new this morning -- hazmat crews on the scene of a fire that broke out overnight at a recycling company in Tampa, Florida. The blaze is now under control. Officials say a pile of scrap metal caught fire, but they don't know how. Two workers did manage to get out safely. No one, thankfully, was hurt.

So, she lived a troubled life, and she died a tragic death. Country music singer Mindy McCready found dead in her home from an apparent suicide. Police do believe it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The 37-year-old was found in the same spot where her boyfriend and the father of her youngest child apparently took his life last month.

HLN's Dr. Drew Pinsky, who knew McCready from her stint on "Celebrity Rehab" says the outcome is tragic on many levels.


DR. DREW PINSKY, HOST, HLN'S DR. DREW: There's a cautionary tale here 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 were responding to her being hospitalized, that she actually checked herself out prematurely, and now we have what we have.


BERMAN: McCready leaves behind two sons, 10 years old and just 9 months old. She struggled for a long, long time.

Big developments this morning in the case of Oscar Pistorius. The Olympic runner from South Africa charged with murdering his model girlfriend. An official close to the case tells CNN that Reeva Steenkamp was shot four times through the bathroom door of the home of Oscar Pistorius, and that he carried her downstairs while she was still alive.

We've also learned that Pistorius has been forced to bow out of five races he was scheduled to participate in this year. You can see that one coming.

The mother of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton is crusading for gun reform in a new television ad.


CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON, HADIYA'S MOTHER: When my daughter Hadiya performed at the president's inauguration, it was the happiest day of her life. A week later, she was murdered, gunned down near her school.


BERMAN: In this ad, Cleopatra Pendleton urges Congress to pass background checks. Fifteen-year-old Hadiya was gunned down days after she took part in President Obama's inauguration celebration. Two men now face murder charges.

So, history in NASCAR. Danica Patrick becoming the first woman driver to earn the pole position at Daytona, really any other race on NASCAR's premiere Sprint Cup Circuit.

Earlier on STARTING POINT, we talked to Lyn St. James, Indy 500 Rookie of the Year back in 1992, about Ms. Patrick's history-making performance.


LYN ST. JAMES, INDYCAR DRIVER, 1992-2000: It's also a great for all women, not just women in sports and not just women in racing. You know, it's one of the sports that men and women actually compete equally. Not many sports are like that. And I think it kind of reflects society because women are just making such great inroads.

But we need reminders, if given the right 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.


BERMAN: So Danica Patrick will share the front row at Daytona with veteran driver Jeff Gordon. What I thought was the best picture of the weekend, Jeff Gordon's daughter, who knows a thing or two about racing, wanted her picture with Danica Patrick.

O'BRIEN: I love it. Forget you, dad. I want a picture with Danica Patrick, which is such a great -- what a great message for the next generation of young women.

And I do think it transcends NASCAR.

BONO MACK: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: It's all about sort of opportunity.

A new development for the man accused of hitting that little toddler on an airplane. We're going to talk to the lawyer for that boy's family. That's up next.

And then play the story of a woman who was trying to do a good deed. She gave a bunch of change to a homeless man. But in the process, she emptied out her wallet and gave him her engagement ring, too.

We'll tell you the crazy story of how she got it back. That's ahead.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. New this morning, a passenger accused of slapping a toddler on an airplane is now out of the job. Joe Hundley is accused of calling the baby the N-word and then smacking the kid. The parents of 19-month-old Jonah Bennett -- Hundley -- say that was crying as the flight was going in for a landing, because obviously his ears were bothering him, and according to a federal complaint, Hundley told Jonah's mother, shut the baby up and used a racial slur. He allegedly slapped the baby near the eye with an open hand.

Here's the mom.


JESSICA BENNETT, SAYS TODDLER WAS ASSAULTED ON PLANE: I could not believe that he would say something like that to a baby or about a baby and then to hit him was just -- I felt like I was in another world.


O'BRIEN: The FBI has charged 60-year-old Hundley with assault of a minor.

John Thompson is the attorney for Jonah's parents. Thanks for talking with us, sir. So, you know that Mr. Hundley lost his job. And I've had so many people on Twitter even saying to me not enough that this would happen. What do you make of the latest development in this case?

JOHN D. THOMPSON, ATTORNEY FOR JONAH BENNETT'S PARENTS: Well, we heard Friday, I believe it was, the company issued a statement that he'd been suspended. And then Sunday, yesterday, we learned that he'd been terminated. We're not sure what happened in the meantime other than a lot of bad publicity.

But I guess I'd have to agree with those who would say that's not enough. The family wants to make sure that Mr. Hundley and anyone like Mr. Hundley never does something like that again.

O'BRIEN: You're -- the mom, we've heard the mom in various interviews talking about how Mr. Hundley was drunk and kind of ended up sprawling over her to get to her son, said the N-word, and I believe she asked him to repeat it because she was so shocked. What happened then?

THOMPSON: Well, she was in complete disbelief. He then essentially fell over on her, kind of sloppy drunk. His head hit her cheek, and then his face kind of slid down towards her ear and directly into her ear, he repeated the racial epithet -- at which time Jessica basically pushed him back upright so that he wasn't, you know, leaning on her anymore, and that's the time that he lashed out and slapped Jonah.

O'BRIEN: Oh, my goodness.

SOCARIDES: You kind of wondered if there was alcohol involved.

O'BRIEN: You know, well, she's described him as being very, very drunk.


THOMPSON: There was alcohol involved from before the flight even started, unfortunately.

O'BRIEN: What did other people on the plane do?

THOMPSON: Well, they heard the words, and several of them stood up. Apparently, one gentleman from 12 rows in front started walking back towards them, and unfortunately, no one got close enough to prevent the slap, but immediately after the slap, apparently, a rather large gentleman assisted Jessica to his seat, gave her his seat, and then he sat down next to Mr. Hundley, as I understand, for the last few minutes of the flight.

O'BRIEN: Yes, he's like try that. We'll see what happens if you smack me. Let me ask you a question.


O'BRIEN: The FBI assault charges that he faces now, would that bring prison time potentially? THOMPSON: Yes, because it was a minor that was assaulted. He could serve up to one year in prison, according to the statute that they charged him with.

O'BRIEN: Would the parents want to pursue any kind of legal avenue themselves, some kind of, you know, using you to file some, I guess, civil charges in some way?

THOMPSON: We're investigating sort of the full -- you know, trying to get a full understanding of what happened from before he even got on the plane until after he left. We understand he hasn't even been arrested yet. And so, no decision like that has been made, but I'm sure that they want to see Mr. Hundley punished so that he understands that this is not acceptable in today's society.


O'BRIEN: Yes. Let me ask you about the couple before I let you go. I mean, are they like freaked out about flying again with a toddler? I mean, which is already stressful. Do they just feel like, as White parents to a Black child who they've adopted, they feel like this is a conversation they're suddenly having that they weren't prepared to have maybe?

THOMPSON: Yes. They were talking about how they felt that they might ultimately, obviously, have to deal with this race issue and talk to Jonah about it and so on. The thing that has just completely thrown them for a loop is that they're having to deal with this at such a young age that somebody would actually directly make a racist comment to him at such a young age. They're really having a hard time getting their arms around that issue.

O'BRIEN: My goodness. John Thompson is a lawyer for Jonah's mom and dad. Thanks for talking with us this morning. We appreciate it.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

Well, you can forget resumes. Your next interview could be on Twitter. Can you imagine? Lordy. New age of job hunting, 140 characters or less, tell me why you want this job

And the cruise ship disaster gets the SNL treatment. We'll tell you why reading a newspaper was probably the worst thing that passengers could do. That straight ahead. We're back in a moment.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Today, "Smart is the New Rich." What you need to know? The market closed for Presidents Day. Quick, name your favorite president.


SOCARIDES: Bill Clinton! ROMANS: That's why stocks are closed because we're honoring presidents today, but the markets still on a tear and within reach a record highs. The S&P 500 up nearly 10 percent over the past three months. A lot of important economic data this week. So, maybe it will drive it, maybe not. Two readings on the housing market plus consumer and producer prices. More squeezing from the dreaded sequester. Some 2.1 million federal workers are now facing furloughs, unpaid days off.

A controller for the Office of Management and Budget told a Senate panel last week won't happen until after March 1st. That's when those massive spending cuts begin if Congress doesn't act. Federal employees have to get 30 days notice before any furloughs and the unions that represent those workers likely to have a big part in determining how and when the furloughs happen, but 2.1 million people not having potential spending. That's a big deal for the economy.

All right. Forget the suit. Your next job interview could be on Twitter. A twitter-view is a new service that some tech, media, and marketing companies are using to find potential employees. Basically, companies tweet out a question, and you tweet back an answer in 140 characters or less, of course. You can even go off the record for more personal or private tweets to try to get the job.

Obviously, this is mostly social media, tech, marketing kinds of jobs, but some of these are high paying jobs. Get rid of the traditional interview, trying to find people --

SOCARIDES: Cleverness. Tech cleverness.

O'BRIEN: What do you get out of 140 characters?

ROMANS: Because you need to find people who know how to make money in 140 characters or less.

O'BRIEN: So, my nine-year-old knows how to tweet. What does that prove? I mean, --

ROMANS: I think labor laws --




O'BRIEN: All right. Trending on CNN this morning. Beyonce fans getting an intimate look at the superstar in an HBO special. Her daughter stole the show, though. "Life is But a Dream" featured 13- month-old Blue Ivy Carter. Beyonce opened up about being a mom, her previous miscarriage, and why she fired her father as her manager.

Also trending, "Saturday Night Live" spoofing the Carnival cruise disaster this weekend with a skit that showed two crew members attempted to entertain the sea weary passengers. Here's a little bit of how it went. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted the helicopters flying above is drive down a couple of papers so we thought we'd catch you up on what you miss this week. All right?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There ain't no God!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, hey, hey. There is a God.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a God. He has not abandoned us. OK? All right. Let's see what's in the news. The pope resigned. Oh, Lord.




O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT, President Obama's immigration plan leaks over the weekend. Lots of Republicans on Capitol Hill are not happy about it. Is a bipartisan proposal dead in the water as some have now said? We're going to break it down in "Politics to the Max" straight ahead.

And a deadly new virus infecting more patients. Are you at risk? We'll take a look at that. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. An update this morning on a mysterious and dangerous new virus. The World Health Organization says a coronavirus infection in the United Kingdom is bringing the number of known cases now to 12. This potentially fatal SARS-like virus is first identified in September of last year. Experts say they wouldn't be surprised if it showed up in the United States.

Our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, has more on just how deadly this virus is. Walk us through what the coronavirus is and how does it appear in people?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, it's called the coronavirus because, when you look at it, like those images we just saw, it has sort of a crown around it. So, a coronavirus can cause anything from the common cold to SARS, as you mentioned, and now, they're seeing what they're calling a novel coronavirus.

Now, sometimes, it doesn't cause too much trouble, but it can be very deadly. Out of the 12 people who have gotten it, five have died. It can cause kidney damage and kidney failure. It can also cause pneumonia. Now, it's the bad news about this virus. The good news, if you want to call it that about this virus, is it's hard to catch.

It is not like the flu. We're not seeing it going from person to person to person to person. In fact, the only suspected human to human transmission is when people are living in the same household -- Soledad?

O'BRIEN: So, then, how are people getting it?

COHEN: Well, it's thought that people are getting it from animals, and there's some suspicion that maybe it's specifically from bats, but they're not exactly sure. So, as I said, there's only a couple of cases where they even suspect human to human transmission, but it's not the kind of thing where you sit next to the guy on the plane and you get sick from him.

That's not what they're seeing. What they're seeing is it's actually going within households.

O'BRIEN: Wow. All right. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you for that.

I sat next to someone on a plane who was sick, and I got swine flu that one year that it was -- so, I'm glad to know that it can't be transmitted that way.

All right. John's got a look at some other stories making news this morning.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Soledad.

A passenger has been charged with trying to board an airplane with a loaded gun. This happened at Newark International Airport Sunday morning. Port authority police arrested the 59-year-old Pennsylvania man shortly after 6:00 a.m. inside terminal "C." Officials say Robert Kellerman told them he forgot the 22-caliber gun was even inside his handbag. He was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon.