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Focus Turns to Suspects' Inner Circle; Americans Killed in 747 Crash; American in North Korea Handed Harsh Prison Sentence; Frontier Airlines to Raise Fees

Aired May 2, 2013 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much. And, hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

Up first, investigators in the Boston bombings are zeroing in on the suspect's inner circle. Right now three friends of the surviving suspect are in federal custody. They're all facing charges. And authorities have more questions for the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are accused of taking evidence from his dorm room and tossing it into a dumpster, trying to throw investigators off his trail. Deborah Feyerick is joining us now with an update.

Deb, what are we learning about these 19-year-olds and the specific charges they're facing.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, what we do know is that the lawyers for the three friends say that their clients are cooperating and that they didn't realize that they were destroying evidence connected to the bombing of the Boston Marathon. But the criminal complaint lays out a very different story, specifically with respect to an engineering student Dias Kadyrbayev. Now, apparently, when the photographs were released of the bomb suspect, Dzhakhar Tsarnaev, the friend, Dias, texted him saying, boy, you look a lot like one of the suspects. Well, the friends texted back and forth. And then Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sent a text that said, if you need anything, go to my room and take it.

Well, it turns out that Dias and two others went to the dorm room and that's when they removed a black backpack which was filled with firework canisters that had been emptied of the powder inside. That power, FBI believes, was used to detonate the explosive. They also removed a laptop computer. And according to the FBI, they say that when Dias saw those empty canisters, quote, "when he saw the empty fireworks, he knew that Tsarnaev was involved in the bomb making."

Now, Dias was also of particular interest because he's an engineering student, but also because while his friend was on the run, he actually removed a photograph of the two of them from his FaceBook page. Also, he and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev changed their FaceBook photographs very early the morning that Tsarnaev was on the run.

Now, the foreign ministry of Kazakhstan did release a note saying that, in fact, the two students from Kazakhstan are not being charged with being involved in any sort of terror group. What they are being involved of is destroying evidence. And that third suspect, Wolf, who you mentioned, he is charged with making materially false statements to FBI.


BLITZER: Yes, lying to the FBI, not a good idea at any time.

Deb, investigators also have some very, very serious questions for Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I understand they're especially curious about a conversation she had with him after his photo was released in connection with the Boston bombing. What's the latest on that front?

FEYERICK: Well, what we can tell you is, is the FBI were able to determine that right after the pictures were released, Katherine Russell, reached out to her husband via cell phone. There is a record of a call between the two phones. It's not clear what they talked about. But the FBI has been coming down, you know, pretty seriously on Katherine Russell, trying to find out who she knew, what Tamerlan's associations were, certain things that really a wife would or should know. The indication is, is that they want to see how -- what she says and whether, in fact, she could potentially turn state's evidence. That would be key for them because she knows so much of where he was, how long he was there for, items like that. But they are looking at that phone call very closely.


BLITZER: I'm sure they are. We'll see what happens on that front. Deb, thanks very much.

The father of one of the teens charged with obstruction of justice in the bombing investigation is speaking out. We were able to get access to an interview that Dias Kadyrbayev's father gave to the news website in Kazakhstan, "Tengranas" (ph). And we also got these pictures of Kadyrbayev's apartment after FBI agents raided it. The friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was initially detained on a visa violation, but is now facing much more serious charges. His father describes the son as a good person and a good student.


MURAT KADYRBAYEV, SON CHARGED IN BOMB PROBE (through translator): I could say about my son that he finished school with excellent grades. He was good at math. He helped others. When he saw that help was need, he always accommodated. I understand that there are two options right now, either they'll be deported or they'll be proved innocent. There are two options, but an American court will make the decision.


BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit more about the legal case against these three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the questions facing Tamerlan Tsarnaev's widow. Our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is joining us now from New York. A lot of us remember, Jeff, your initial response when we got that criminal complaint released by the federal authorities yesterday against these three friends was, and you said something along the lines, no one could be that stupid. You've now had a chance to think about that a little bit more. What's your latest take on this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think I'm sticking with that, Wolf. Remember, I mean, there is no allegation at this point that these three were involved in the conspiracy to commit the bombing. So that obviously is a very important question. But if that remains the case, that they were not involved in the bombing, they were certainly aware, as everyone was aware, that this was an extremely, extremely serious and devastating crime. And to take that opportunity knowing that to get involved and start destroying evidence, helping out their friend, injecting themselves into something they had nothing to do with, is just mind boggling and it's stupidity if, in fact, that's what they did.

BLITZER: Because the complaint says that when these friends -- they took the items from Tsarnaev's dorm room, they knew they suspected he was actually the one involved in the bombing. The attorney for one of these young men totally disagrees. So is this a case of what they knew and when they knew it?

TOOBIN: Yes. I mean, like a lot of cases, especially in federal court, this may well come down to, if it comes to trial, to an issue of intent. Because one of the attorneys yesterday at his press conference said, yes, he did remove the backpack. So the fact of the removal is not likely to be disputed, but what's disputed is what he was thinking when he removed the backpack.

Now, if he was simply tidying up the room, he's not guilty of any crime. But it's a pretty bizarre scenario to remove a backpack and a laptop from somebody's room for no reason. That's going to be a big challenge for the defense to explain in this criminal case. But it will really come down to the issue of intent. Why did they do what they do - what they did? Not necessarily what they did, because that -- the attorney, at least, is admitting that.

BLITZER: Because the backpack is, as the criminal complaint said, did contain some of the ingredients that potentially were used to manufacture that pressure cooker bomb that killed three people and injured, what, 250 others at the end of that Boston Marathon. So it wasn't as if it was just a backpack, there was stuff in there that was specifically used, according to the criminal complaint, to build a bomb.

TOOBIN: Exactly. And the charge is that he removed it to help out his friend, Tsarnaev.

There's actually one little item in the complaint that's very kind of mysterious and suggestive that I think really could be very important. In the complaint it says they also removed some Vaseline from the dorm room. And they say they knew that the - that Vaseline could be used for bomb making. Now, I don't - I didn't know that Vaseline could be used for bomb making. I bet not many people knew that Vaseline could be used for bomb making. So the suggestion - it's not explicit, but the suggestion in the complaint is that young Tsarnaev had said something about bomb making to his friends and said, you need Vaseline. And that suggests they might have known more about what was happening. But that Vaseline reference is actually very interesting and certainly bears further exploration.

BLITZER: Yes. Because I didn't know you need Vaseline for -- to build a bomb either. Only real experts knew that. And apparently, according to what we've learned over the past 24 hours, once you put that top on that pressure cooker and you screw it in, you've got to put some Vaseline around it, otherwise, if there's a spark and you're screwing it in, that spark could explode the entire bomb and you could die in the process. That's why that Vaseline, supposedly, is so important.

You didn't know it. I didn't know it. Most of our viewers obviously didn't know it. But for some reason they decided to take that Vaseline and try to hide it or destroy it or just throw it into a dumpster.

TOOBIN: Right, which suggests that they had had conversations with Tsarnaev about bomb making. And that puts them closer, potentially, to the conspiracy. Doesn't make them guilty of anything. We're not even clear it happened. But by putting that in the complaint, it's certainly suggestive of a longer relationship on this subject than simply helping them out by getting rid of the backpack and the computer.

BLITZER: We're going to talk later about the potential legal problems that the wife, the widow, is now facing as well, but that will have to wait.

Jeffrey, thanks very much.

We're going to get back to the Boston bombing investigation, but I want to move on to something else right now. You're about to see a truly shocking piece of video. It's not been authenticated yet, but the video appears to show the explosive crash of a jumbo jet, a cargo plane that killed everyone on board, all of them Americans. I want to warn all of our viewers, the video is very graphic. It shows this huge Boeing 747 plane hitting the ground. Here's CNN's Chris Lawrence.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The video is dramatic and disturbing. A 747 just stalls and falls back to earth. While CNN can't fully confirm how authentic the video is, it does appear to show a cargo plane that crashed Monday in Afghanistan. That crash killed seven American crewmen, including Brad Hasler.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I could trade places with him so that he could be with his family, I would in a heartbeat.

LAWRENCE: That's Hasler's brother, who says Brad's wife is pregnant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is his daughter, Sloan, whose two. And who we don't see in here is the baby that's on the way who we expect to see in October. LAWRENCE: The 747 was bound for Dubai, carrying equipment as part of the U.S. military's drawdown from Afghanistan. The civilian cargo plane was loaded with five MRATS, each weighing about 27,000 pounds.

STEVEN WALLACE, AVIATION EXPERT: Securing them is absolutely critical to safety.

LAWRENCE: Steven Wallace is the former director of the FAA's accident investigation unit. He says there's no forgiveness in a plane's center of gravity.

LAWRENCE (on camera): Basically, there can only be so much weight at each part of the plane?

WALLACE: So it's critical that the total weight be within the limit and that the plane be balanced.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The 747 can take off a couple different ways. When it's carrying passengers, it will take four to five minutes to reach 15,000 feet. But in Afghanistan, there's always the danger of being shot out of the sky. So the pilots need to gain as much altitude as possible while they're still over Bagram. A 747 carrying cargo can reach altitude almost two minutes faster.

WALLACE: The typical concern with a cargo aircraft, and this has caused accidents before, is that when the airplane is rotated with the nose up, the cargo moves aft (ph) if it's not properly secured.

LAWRENCE: The cargo is chained down. But if an attachment point fails, it could shift.

WALLACE: We don't know that that happened here. That has happened in prior accidents. Then the airplane becomes uncontrollable.

LAWRENCE: It's much harder to have a massive shift of weight on a commercial 747 because the passengers and the weight are evenly distributed in chairs.


BLITZER: Chris Lawrence reporting for us.

Let's bring in Jim Tilmon right now. He's a long-time pilot with years behind the controls of almost every commercial airframe.

Jim, thanks very much for coming in. Like all of us now, you've seen this horrifying video. When you see it, given your professional experience, what does it look like? What happened?

JIM TILMON, RETIRED AIRLINE PILOT: From my perspective as a pilot, it's one of the most horrifying events I've ever witnessed on tape because it was a nightmare from the time they pushed the throttles forward. I don't think they ever got a chance to really fly the airplane. I think they were fighting to control the airplane from the beginning. I say that because if you'll notice on the video, the landing gear is still down. They never even got to that point. And that's a point you reach very quickly, as soon as you reach airborne. So I think it was a struggle from the beginning.

Was the weight in the wrong place as they started down the takeoff row or did it shift? I don't think it makes a lot of difference. The fact is, that airplane was not controllable. And it was a horrifying few seconds that these people had to go through.

BLITZER: We have found out now that the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, they've sent a team. The team is now in Afghanistan. They are there. Their immediate priority right now is what?

TILMON: To find the black boxes, as they are called, and to look for certain kinds of telltale evidence out of some of the parts they may be able to discover. There's a jack screw that is associated with the tail control. That will give them an indication about just where those controls may have been at the time of the crash. They're going to go through this thing very carefully. We don't ever want this to happen again.

BLITZER: Yes, I hope they learn some lessons. Watching the video, and it's, you know, obviously hard to second guess, is there anything that the pilot could have done to recover, to try to get control in a crisis situation like that?

TILMON: Let me put it this way, Wolf. Let's say that you were on a seesaw and you weigh, whatever, 185 pounds and there's a 300-pounder on the other end. Is there anything you can do to get that seesaw to balance? No. And that's what happens in an airplane when you're out of CG. When you have too much weight in the one place, and in the wrong place, and that's particularly the case. So, no, I don't think they had a prayer. I think it was over before they ever even lifted off the ground.

BLITZER: What a sad, sad story. And I totally agree with you, they've got to thoroughly investigate it. I know the NTSB, they're going to spend months investigating. We'll get a final report and we'll learn lessons. Hopefully it will never ever happen again.

Jim Tilmon, thanks very much for coming in.

TILMON: My pleasure.

BLITZER: All right, I want to update you on some more information now on the Boston bombing investigations. We're just getting this in from our senior producer, Carol Cratty. She's now quoting two federal law enforcement officials as telling CNN, the FBI does, in fact, have the laptop that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left in his dorm room. One official said investigators obviously will be going through it thoroughly. They -- presumably they already are. They claim -- this official claims not to know exactly when the FBI came into the possession of the laptop, whether the analysis of the computer is still in progress. I assume it still is.

This source would only say the investigators didn't find the laptop at that landfill near the University of Massachusetts' Dartmouth campus. So they do have the laptop. This is a critical piece of evidence. Remember, in the criminal complaint against these three suspects, these three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that was released yesterday, they said that they took -- these guys took the laptop in addition to a bag containing some other stuff out of the room.

But in the criminal complaint, it never said where that laptop is, if they found the laptop at that land dump like they found some of the other stuff there, but now, we have now confirmed, CNN, we have confirmed that the FBI is in possession of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's laptop.

That's going to be a critical, critical piece of evidence because they'll be able to go back, presumably, and check all of his contacts, all of his e-mails, all of his tweets, his texting, whatever's there. They'll have a good record of which websites he was going to, what he was learning.

This is going to be a critical piece of evidence. We're going to have much more on this coming up.

Also coming up, an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. So what exactly did he do? That's a mystery.


BLITZER: An American citizen arrested six months ago in North Korea has been handed a harsh prison sentence, 15 years of hard labor for Kenneth Bae for what North Korean officials call "hostile acts" against the government.

Nobody outside of North Korea knows exactly what those so-called "hostile acts" are.

Our Dan Rivers is following the story from Seoul, South Korea.


DAN RIVERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this case may have taken six months to come to court, but the hearing itself only lasted two days.

Kenneth Bae was sentenced 15 years hard labor inside North Korea with no right of appeal, and he may have just become the latest bargaining chip in North Korea's high-stakes game of brinkmanship.

There is curiously little information about Kenneth Bae online, just this Facebook page started by his friends campaigning for his release from the secretive regime.

He's been jailed for 15 years hard labor for, quote, "his crimes aimed to topple North Korea," the official news agency claiming, quote, "his crimes were proved by evidence," a possible reference to material reportedly found on a hard drive.

One of Bae's friends suggesting it may have been as innocuous as photos of orphans begging. Whatever he's done or hasn't done, experts say he's now a bargaining chip for new leader Kim Jong-un.

JASPER KIM, ASIA-PACIFIC GLOBAL RESEARCH: I think North Korea kind of looks at any U.S. citizen in and around North Korea as a mere asset, a commodity that can be traded in the open market.

And so Kenneth Bae was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

RIVERS: And Bae's not the first. Scenes like this are becoming all too familiar. Cue emotional captives reunited with their families accompanied by a high profile politician.

This was 2009, journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee celebrate freedom, former President Bill Clinton takes the credit. A year later, it's a different former president, Jimmy Carter, with another relieved American, Aijalon Gomes.

Kenneth Bae is the sixth American in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the North Koreans may once again be holding out for a high- profile visitor before they give him up.

What North Korea wants above all else is to enter one-on-one talks with the United States to gain concessions and get an end to punitive sanctions. They may see Kenneth Bae as the perfect way to achieve that aim.

With the announcement of their third successful nuclear test in February, the stakes couldn't be higher. North Korea even threatened a preemptive nuclear strike during South Korean and U.S. war games last month. Those maneuvers are over, but it seems the brinkmanship is not.

Well, the United States has no diplomatic representation inside North Korea. Instead, Swedish diplomats, acting on their behalf, visited Bae in jail on Friday. It's still not known when or if Kenneth Bae will be set free.



BLITZER: Dan Rivers, thanks very much. We'll see what happens to Kenneth Bae.

If you think airline fees are already out of control, wait until you hear our next story. One airline is planning to punish customers who don't use its website to book their ticket.

We're going to explain what's going on.


BLITZER: Certainly all of us are getting used to paying more when we fly, but now Frontier Airlines says it will slap extra fees on passengers who don't book flights directly through the airline's website.

Our Zain Asher is in New York. She's going to get us up to speed on these changes. Zain, first of all, the new Frontier fees for overhead bags? How would that work?

ZAIN ASHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, so basically, you said it. Starting this summer if you don't book on Frontier's website and if you're not an elite member, by the way, you will have to pay to carry on your bags, $25 if you pay in advance, $100 at the gate. You're also going to be getting fewer frequent flier miles.

Frontier says one of the reasons it's doing this is because it's elite members have actually complained about overhead bins filling up before they get their bags on board. And they also want to reward loyal customers.

Frontier is already a low cost carrier. Now they've said they're going to be an ultra-low cost carrier. But it's only going to be ultra-low cost, by the way, Wolf, if you book your ticket at the right place. So you have to go to their website.


BLITZER: So if you pay to book -- to -- for your bag online, it's $25, but if you do it at the airport you said it was $100? Is that what you just said?

ASHER: Yeah. Absolutely right. $100 if you do it at the airport, $25 online.

BLITZER: To check one bag for $100?

ASHER: I know. It's hugely expensive. But they really want to reward their loyal customer. They really want people to go online at Frontier. That's why they're doing it.

BLITZER: $25 is enough.

Let's talk about something else. This summer Frontier's also going to begin charging $1.99 -- let's say $2 for coffee, tea, soda, juice.

I assume folks aren't going to be very happy about that either.

ASHER: Yeah, I mean, that's exactly right. They're taking away the last freebie. When you go on a plane you expect these type of things to be free, but they're saying that customers will actually get the full can of soda for free.

So they're not just going to be pouring it into a glass. You're actually going to get the full can for free. They're also going to be giving you free refills for coffee as well.

But there are ways to avoid the fees. That's what they're saying. They want people to become an elite member and book on Frontier's website. It's all about trying to reward the most loyal customers. Also, they're also saying you're not being charged what you don't use. So if you don't have a drink, obviously, you're not going to be charged for it. They're saying that all of these measures will actually help reduce air fares for everyone.


BLITZER: Yeah, the thing that -- I guess $100 to check one bag at the curbside or inside, that's ridiculous. But that's just me.

All right, Zain, thanks very, very much. I guess the airlines got to make some money, too.

Still ahead, we're going to have more on the Canadian boxer who may actually have inspired Tamerlan Tsarnaev. We're going to have an exclusive report from the village in Dagestan in Russia where he was killed last July.