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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Boston Reclaims Boylston Street; Boston Stronger; Slain MIT Officer Laid To Rest; Amputee Vets Reach Out To Bombing Victims

Aired April 23, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A poisoned letter addressed to President Obama. Now the man who was accused of sending it is set free. We've got the latest in the ricin case. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Breaking news on a shocking turn in the investigation into ricin-laced letters sent to the White House and to a Mississippi senator. We learned just a few hours ago the man accused of sending those letters has been released from federal custody. As that was unfolding, we also learned that another suspicious letter has turned up, this time at an air force base not far from Washington, D.C.

First, the latest on the ricin case. Paul Kevin Curtis was supposed to appear in court today on charges that he sent threatening letters to President Obama and other officials but the hearing was canceled abruptly, and Curtis was released. His attorney says the case has not been dismissed, but she is pushing to get the charges dropped, saying her client has been set up.

To make all of this even more complicated, we're also following reports of yet another suspicious letter. This latest one was found at a mail facility at Bolling Air Force base in Maryland. According to the FBI, the letter is being tested for a potential - potential biotoxin. Leonard Cole is a bioterrorism and terror medicine expert. He joins us now live from New York.

Dr. Cole, investigators are calling it a biotoxin. Other than ricin, what other sorts of chemicals could they be testing for?

DR. LEONARD COLE, BIOTERRORISM AND TERROR MEDICINE EXPERT: For this particular mix, I'm not sure what they could be. There are numerous chemicals as well as potential biological agents. Ricin is technically a toxin. It is a product of a biological agent, namely the castor plant or castor bean.

TAPPER: But how long, Dr. Cole - how - go ahead. I'm sorry.

COLE: Yes. There is some memory of course of what happened soon after 9/11 when anthrax spores were sent in the mail. That is a purely biological agent. That is a microorganism and bacterium. If inhaled, the spores can kill people rather at a high likelihood if sufficient numbers of spores are in the air. Ricin, less worrisome, but, nevertheless, if it's formed into a fluffy powder, somebody inhales it or ingests it, it can be highly lethal.

TAPPER: Dr. Cole, how long might it take before we know what this particular biotoxin is? How long does the test take?

COLE: The test can be done initially in a few hours, but then there are refinements because there are similarities. Not just with other biotoxins or agents that could harm you, but also with relatively innocuous or innocent plants or products of plants.

So, I am sure that a lot of careful testing in sequence will be done to reconfirm whatever the previous assessments have been. It takes -- it could take another day or so, 24-48 hours, if we just have a batch newly received, newly suspected, and then go through a series of tests before you get an absolute confirmation.

TAPPER: Doctor, if it is ricin, could the properties of the toxin make it easier for investigators to link this letter to the other cases, or does ricin not work that way?

COLE: You mean the other mail ricin cases?

TAPPER: Yes.

COLE: Look, there are all kinds of possibilities, and I certainly don't have inside information about what is already known. It's possible that more than one person has decided on his own or her own to purify, if they have the ability to ,some ricin and send it out. So there may be multiple mailers or poisoners in this case, or this may all be from one person who has from the very beginning sent out the ricin letters that were first found, now the latest from that same person. And obviously it would mean that Kevin Curtis, the person who the FBI had suspected until now, would not have been the perpetrator.

TAPPER: But I guess, Dr. Cole, what I'm saying is are there particular qualities of ricin so that you could distinguish between one sample of ricin and another sample of ricin, or is it all just basically homogenous?

COLE: Of course from plant to plant, you can have variations, mutations in the plant itself. But basically ricin is an identified or identifiable product that would be quite similar in its refined form for purposes of as I say making it into a, quote-unquote, militarized or weaponized form that would be most likely to cause serious illness or death. It would be similar.

TAPPER: All right.

COLE: Sure.

TAPPER: Dr. Leonard Cole, thank you so much.

It was supposed to be the finish line. It became instead a crime scene. Now Boylston Street is opening back up for business. I will talk to a man who witnessed the bombings and fed hungry investigators at the crime scene. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper live in Boston. Lives were lost and lives changed forever here, but the city is slowly inching back to normal today as business owners, some who witnessed unthinkable horrors, came back to Boylston Street to reclaim their shops and clean the streets. Joining me now is Dan Donahue. He's managing director of the Hotel Valentis (ph), which has served as a sort of command post for investigators at the crime scene.

Describe what's been going on there. Obviously you haven't had normal guests in the last week, but you've had a different kind of guest.

DAN DONAHUE, MANAGING DIRECTOR, HOTEL VALENTIS: We have. We've had actually guests with badges and guns, which is not customary of our guests. But about an hour ago we opened our doors after being closed since Marathon Monday. The first time for our 113-year-old hotel, the first time during that time that we didn't have any guests on Monday night. Surreal.

TAPPER: And when is the hotel going to be up and running, or it now?

DONAHUE: Right now. As of 3:00 today.

TAPPER: We've heard about the emotional toll, the physical toll. Not to be crass, but what is the commercial toll? How much did it cost you to have the hotel closed, or did the special guests you have take care of the money you would have lost?

DONAHUE: Well, you know, that is yet to be determined. I can tell you that we decided -- we are a family-owned hotel, third generation Bostonians that -- you know, that was secondary to the task at hand. And that was taking care of 400 to 500 people a day, feeding them each meal. When we came into the hotel on Tuesday with the first responders kind of confiscating the hotel and assuming our meeting space, we realized these people needed a place to shower and a place to have a meal. So we just took over without even having a conversation with any authorities.

TAPPER: Did people sleep there?

DONAHUE: Well, you know what? I'll tell you something. No, the funny thing is no. They didn't get to sleep. We saw the same people on Tuesday morning and the same clothes Wednesday and Thursday. They were focused and didn't stop until it was completed Friday night.

TAPPER: You had a special front row seat to the investigation at least out there. It must have been sad, but also in a way exciting. You're seeing policemen trying to figure out what happened and crack the crime. DONAHUE: You know, the events of the marathon Monday were horrific, more than horrific actually. They could have taken, they had -- their intent was to take our spirit away and fortunately for Boston, it did the opposite. It gave us more spirit.

Watching those first responders come in and deals with the task at hand taking care of the business and making sure that they caught these guys was phenomenal. They didn't stop. That kind of, you know, propels us. We are hospitality people. We're going to serve when we have the chance, right?

We were in our element. They gave us that opportunity to see them, you know, this is the first time when I came to the hotel Monday night, the first time we ever met an FBI agent. And, you know, I can tell you I have a new found respect for someone who carries a badge.

TAPPER: One other thing that's interesting thing, you touched on this in your remarks, the pride you must feel as a Bostonian, just I say this as a Philadelphian, something of a rival.

But it is really impressive how this town has banded together, how much people rooted for the police to solve the case, how much people listened to law enforcement officials. We haven't seen a wave of hate crimes. We haven't seen anything other than the town coming together.

DONAHUE: You know, that's exactly true. I've been in Boston for going on seven years and I've always felt Boston would be very warm, inviting as a city. When we get back up and running in the next couple days we're going to be non-stoppable. It is a phenomenal city and the incidence of marathon Monday have inspired citizens and more united people.

TAPPER: All right, well, best of luck to you and your hotel. That's the Lenox. Dan Donahue, I appreciate it.

We're learning more and more about the Tsarnaev brothers, but today we're also hearing for the first time from the Tsarnaev sisters. They just released the following statement.

Quote, "Our heart goes out to the victims of last week's bombing. It saddens us to see so many innocent people hurt after such a callous act. As a family we are absolutely devastated by the sense of loss and sorrow this has caused.

We don't have any answers, but we look forward to a thorough investigation and hope to learn more. We ask the media to respect our privacy during this difficult time." That's from the Tsarnaev sisters. Last week, the FBI confiscated one of the sisters' computers from her home in New Jersey.

Coming up, we'll introduce you to the wounded warriors who have been visiting with victims of the Boston bombings.

Plus, he was killed in the line of duty today. Officer Sean Collier is being laid to rest. We're learning more about the security guard at MIT who authorities say was gunned down by the Tsarnaev brothers. We'll tell you more about his story coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper live in Boston. Funeral services today for the MIT officer allegedly shot dead by the bombing suspects. The campus of MIT will hold a public memorial for Officer Sean Collier tomorrow. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend.

We're also learning more about the moment surrounding Officer Collier's death indicating that he may never have known what hit him. Our own Deborah Feyerick has been digging into this for us.

Deb, this is really one of the empty holes in this mystery. What happened that night? What have you been learning?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, originally, Jake, some investigators thought that perhaps the officer had seen the two bombing suspects and so they panicked once they saw him, but it appears that Officer Sean Collier never saw his killers.

A source of direct knowledge of this investigation says that the MIT officer who was shot to death by the two alleged bombers Thursday night did not radio into dispatch nor did he alert dispatch that he was responding to two men who were fitting the description.

The officer didn't even have time to activate his emergency alert before being shot five times as he said Saturday in his patrol car. Now the source is telling us that it took police nearly 13 minutes to actually get to the downed Officer Sean Collier and that was because other people were calling in to 911 reporting shots fired.

The source says it is unclear why the brothers ambushed the MIT officer, but according to a source familiar with the timeline of events the suspects walked away from MIT heading east and then carjacked a black SUV taking the driver hostage then circling back in the direction they'd just come from past the location of the officer who had just been shot.

From there Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stops at a gas station and into the Bank of America in Watertown where he withdraws money and that is soon after that the massive gun fight with police ensues and the older brother alleged mastermind fatally wounded in that.

But it is stunning that they would leave -- that they would do this to this officer and circle back around in the very direction from which they've come -- Jake.

TAPPER: Deb Feyerick, thank you with the latest on Officer Sean Collier.

Coming up, they were not injured in the Boston terrorist attack, but they know what it's like to lose a limb. We will introduce you to the wounded warriors who have been visiting with victims of the Boston bombings, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper live in Boston. Many of us could not begin to imagine the painful road ahead for victims of the Boston bombings, but for amputee veterans the pain is all too familiar.

Now many of those war heroes are going out of their way to show the bombing victims here that while their circumstances have changed their lives are far from over.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously she got hurt.

TAPPER (voice-over): Veterans who lost their limbs fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are back home offering hope to victims of the Boston marathon terrorist attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This doesn't matter. It's just a change of scenery.

TAPPER: Celeste Corcoran and her 18-year-old daughter Sidney were at the Boston marathon to cheer on Celeste's sister who was running the race for the first time. They were waiting by the finish line when the bombs that would change their lives forever exploded. Celeste lost both of her legs. Her daughter was wounded by shrapnel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't do anything right now.

GABE RAMIREZ, WOUNDED VETERAN: Right now, yes. But I'm telling you, you know, with all my heart you are going to be more independent than you ever were.

TAPPER: This veteran Marine Sergeant Gabe Ramirez is also a double amputee. Doctors echo his optimism.

DR. JEFFREY KALISH, DIRECTOR OF ENDOVASCULAR SURGERY: Nearly all of the patients that have lost legs are already walking the halls of physical therapists. We are gearing up for a mass exodus to rehab hopefully in the upcoming week.

TAPPER: Almost 1,600 U.S. troops have lost one or more of their limbs since the beginnings of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lynn lost injuries that would have once been fatal are now not only survivable, but some wounded service members are even returning back to the combat zone. Military medicine has fuelled this advancement in prosthetics, but it is civilians in Boston who will benefit this time.

RAMIREZ: This is basically just a start, a new beginning for both of you.

TAPPER: Celeste is keeping up her spirits. She is even talking about running the Boston marathon next year.

CELESTE CORCORAN, BOSTON MARATHON ATTACK VICTIM: I have always joked around. I am not super athletic. I like to work out and stuff, but running has never been my thing because I get horrible shin splints so I don't have that any more.

RAMIREZ: That is the attitude right there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Family members of the Corcorans have set up a web site to help the family pay for their medical expenses. They have raised close to $600,000. You can find more about it on our web site, cnn.com/thelead.

That's it for me here in Boston. I now deliver you into the able hands of my colleague Wolf Blitzer who is in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.