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Family: "U.S. Woman Falsely Accused"; West, Texas Six Weeks Later; Zimmerman in Court Today; Supreme Court Watch; Newborn Flushed Away; Simpsons Get Upgrade at Universal Studios

Aired May 28, 2013 - 06:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: An American woman thrown into a Mexican jail accused of smuggling drugs. Was she framed?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Security compromise. Chinese hackers gain access to blueprints for U.S. weapons.

ROMANS: And an amazing rescue. A baby cut out of a sewer pipe after being flushed away by his parents. A newborn baby rescued right out of that pipe.

BERMAN: Oh, my goodness.

ROMANS: Amazing video.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It's 29 minutes after the hour right now.

We're going to begin with a developing story. An American woman accused of smuggling marijuana in Mexico may find out today if she will go free or remain in jail until her trial. Yanira Maldonado says she's innocent, and now a Mexican state official believes her, saying she was framed.


BERMAN (voice-over): An American mother of seven is behind bars in Mexico, accused of smuggling marijuana. Yanira Maldonado from Phoenix, Arizona, was traveling to Mexico with her husband Gary to attend her aunt's funeral.

While returning home the couple's bus was stopped at a military checkpoint near Hermosillo, Mexico. Police allege they found marijuana beneath Gary's seat and charged him with smuggling. Then, they released Gary and arrested his wife Yanira instead, saying the marijuana was actually under her seat.

A Mexican state official with extensive knowledge of the case believes Maldonado was framed, telling CNN she would not have been able to carry twelve pounds of pot onto the bus without being noticed. Gary visited his wife over the weekend at the women's jail in Nogales where she's being held.

GARY MALDONADO, HUSBAND: Yanira saw me from a distance and she just started like jumping up and down and gave me a big hug and we just cried.

BERMAN: The couple, who have seven children and two grandchildren between them, have denied the charges. Gary Maldonado claims they never told or even used drugs.

Their daughter, 21-year-old Anna Soto is pleading for her mother's release.

ANNA SOTO, MOTHER ARRESTED IN MEXICO: I know there's people out there saying or asking, did she really do it? Are you sure? You know, that hurts, you know, to see that. If you would have known my mom, if you just would have met her, you would have known that she had nothing to do with that.


BERMAN: Twelve pounds of pot. Yes, that would be hard to miss smuggling that on.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake says he is personally involved. He is working the case. He's had several conversations with a deputy ambassador, the Mexican ambassador to the United States. They're trying to bring Maldonado home.

Coming up at 7:30, we're going to speak to Yanira's husband Gary and her father-in-law about their efforts to bring this woman back to the U.S.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Federal aviation officials investigating a close call. A jet nearly colliding with a military helicopter near Reagan National Airport. It happened last Friday.

A U.S. Airways regional flight was approaching from the south and a military helicopter from nearby Andrews Air Force Base was playing toward that incoming plane. At one point, these two aircraft were at the same altitude within 940 feet of each other. How close were they to disaster?


STEVE WALLACE, FORMER FAA INVESTIGATOR: Well, it's natural in these situations to focus on the distance between the aircraft. What's really more important is whether the situation is being actively controlled by the air traffic controller in conjunction with the pilots. That was clearly the case here.


ROMANS: Both the plane and the helicopter landed safely.

BERMAN: A court appearance today for an Arizona man who allegedly tried to open an emergency exit door during an Air Alaska flight. Witnesses say 23-year-old Alexander Herrera began making bizarre comments and tried to pry open the exit door as the flight approached the runway at Portland International Airport yesterday. It did not take long for passengers to take action.


HENRY PIGNATARO, PASSENGER: I put him in a -- a choke hold, and kind of -- kind of went up over the seat a bit and brought him down to the ground.


BERMAN: Passengers tied up Herrera with shoelaces and seat belts, as well. The flight landed safely. Herrera's father tells CNN affiliate KGW that his son has a history of mental illness.

ROMANS: Nearly six weeks ago, a horrific fire and explosion put the small town of West, Texas, on the map. Fifteen people were killed, 200 hurt, more than $100 million in property were damaged or destroyed and this morning, it's still not clear what caused the disaster.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has been covering the story from the start. He joins us live this morning from West, Texas. Good morning, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. Well, the residents here in the town of West may never know what caused the fire that led to this deadly explosion. But they really don't have time to worry about that. They have lives and neighborhoods to rebuild.



LAVANDERA (voice-over): Right in the middle of that chaos was firefighter Robert Payne, which makes seeing him now, six weeks later, all the more remarkable.

(on camera): The explosion, do you remember it?

ROBERT PAYNE, FIREFIGHTER: Don't remember it at all. Not at all. No.

I watch it in video and see how violent it is and how loud it is -- no, I don't remember any of that at all. I don't really remember anything really until the next morning. Waking up in ICU.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): This was the blast site. Payne was trying to retreat and made it about 35 yards away behind a fire truck, which apparently shielded him just enough.

The truck was left a mangled ruined, somehow Robert Payne survived.

PAYNE: When I visited with the guy that rescued me, Brad, he filled me in on a few things about where I was found, and about the fact that I was blown out of my boots. My boots were in one place, and I was, he described I think about as 35 feet away. LAVANDERA: Payne has nerve damage in his right arm, broken ribs, broken facial bones and bone chips in his leg. And he needs surgery to repair his right eardrum. But he's alive.

Twelve other first responders weren't so lucky.

MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA, WEST, TEXAS: Those are some of the firefighters that we lost.

LAVANDERA: West Mayor Tommy Muska took us to the fire station. The names of the firefighters who died are still on the lockers. There are two new donated fire trucks, and West firefighters just resumed handling calls again this past week.

(on camera): It's got to be hard for these guys to come in here.

MUSKA: They may not want to get back on that horse but they're going to have to get back on that horse. That whistle blows, we're in charge of this place now and we've got to go on the truck and go.

LAVANDERA (on camera): The calls keep coming.

MUSKA: They don't quit.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): But the hard work is just beginning.

(on camera): This is the foundation from the building --

MUSKA: Mm-hmm.

LAVANDERA: -- that blew up.

MUSKA: Yes. There's pieces all over this place.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Mayor Mushka needs $4 million just to fix sewer and water lines and several hundred homes need to be rebuilt. But he does say one building won't be welcome back, the fertilizer plant.

MUSKA: We don't have the ability to say you can't -- you can't build here.

LAVANDERA (on camera): And what do you think the town reaction would be?

MUSKA: The town reaction would probably be to the point where they wouldn't want to rebuild anyway.


LAVANDERA: And, Christine, investigators say that the cause of the fire is still undetermined. They have three theories that haven't been ruled out yet. One of them is an electrical short in the building that caught fire. A golf cart that may have caught on fire as well. There's the possibility that this fire was intentionally set. One man, a former EMS worker here in the town of West, a man by the name of Bryce Reed is arrested on an unrelated firearms charge, and is still in custody and awaiting trial. But his attorney and several city officials here say they don't believe he had anything to do with this explosion -- Christine.

ROMANS: The cause still a mystery. Ed Lavandera -- thanks, Ed.

BERMAN: A dire warning that a new security plan for the Statue of Liberty would actually leave it more vulnerable to attack. Since September 11th visitors have gone through airport-style security checks in Manhattan or Jersey City before boarding a ferry to the statue. The new Park Service plan would instead screen visitors on Liberty Island, and nearby Ellis Island once they arrive. New York Senator Chuck Schumer says it's a bad idea.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Can you imagine if airplane passengers were not screened before they boarded a plane and instead they were screened after the plane landed? That makes no sense. It would be unimaginable. But that's what the Park Service is doing here with trips to the Statue of Liberty.


BERMAN: Park Service officials said the plan does not compromise the safety of visitors or security at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island.

ROMANS: Chinese hackers reportedly gained access to designs for some of the most sensitive U.S. weaponry. "The Washington Post" says designs for more than two dozen major weapons systems were compromised by cyber spies. They include designs for combat aircraft and ships, as well as missile defenses fatal for Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf.

BERMAN: Coming up, cars submerged in the heavy rain and the severe weather may not be over yet. We will have the forecast for you, next.

ROMANS: Plus the incredible video you can't miss this morning. A baby rescued from a sewer pipe.


ROMANS: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Parts of Missouri deluged by torrential rain, leaving numerous vehicles stuck in high water, more than an inch of rain coming down in less than an hour. Several thousand homes are still without power this morning. Storm system also spawned several tornadoes in nearby Kansas.

BERMAN: Let's go straight to Indra Peterson for a look at the weather across the country and what it looks like today. Good morning, Indra. INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning. We're still talking about all this rain in the Midwest. It's about so tough for them. The last 48 hours, just take a look at these rain totals: eight to ten inches of rain.

Keep in mind there's still more rain in the forecast. Two to four inches are possible. There's no question that we're dealing with flood watches and flood warnings throughout the area. Unfortunately, it looks like more thunderstorms will continue to be in the forecast here for the next day or so.

Speaking of the rain -- head over to the Northeast, it was gorgeous yesterday. It dried out. But today, that warm front will start to make its way to the north. Meaning, more rain and the threat for some light hail and even some stronger winds will be in the forecast there.

Jersey, good chance for a little bit of hail out there today. Look at the temperature difference. Now, this is what we're going to be talking about. Notice the cool air: 60s in Salt Lake City and these 90s when you get towards Amarillo.

This is that setup. We got a low moving through right towards the plains, you get the contrast between those two temperatures and we have that severe weather setup. That's what we have today, but also more importantly tomorrow as the jet stream really makes its way right over the low. We're talking about that risk enhancing.

So potential for tornado outbreak is possible tomorrow, again, right in the peak area, right around Wichita and even Oklahoma area. Something we'll be monitoring. A lot of us seeing that as well today. The risk from Philadelphia down through Texas and once again up through the Dakotas.

This is something we'll be monitoring, guys. But, unfortunately, even a bigger threat out for tomorrow.

BERMAN: All right. Stay alert out there. Indra Peterson, thanks so much.

George Zimmerman will be back in court today, two weeks before his murder trial is set to begin. His attorneys are expected to ask the judge to delay the trial. They're also going to request jurors be allowed to visit the scene where Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin last year and they want to block testimony from an audio expert who says he heard Martin begging for his life in the background of a 911 call.

More now from CNN's David Mattingly.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin buys some Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, walks toward a condo where he's staying with his dad.

That's when he catches the attention of neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. It's not long before a wave of frantic calls to 911.

DISPATCHER: So, you think he's yelling help?


DISPATCHER: All right. What is your --


CALLER: There's gunshots.

DISPATCHER: You just heard gunshots?



CALLER: Just one.

MATTINGLY: Just one shot to the heart, ending the life of Trayvon Martin. A bloodied and bruised George Zimmerman tells police it was self-defense.

Zimmerman is not arrested. Florida law allows people to use force in self-defense, the "Stand Your Ground" law.

A fire storm of protest descends on Sanford.

PROTESTERS: Justice for Trayvon! Justice for Trayvon!

MATTINGLY: Forty-four days after he shoots and kills Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder.

(on-camera): Since getting out on a million dollar bond, Zimmerman's sightings have been few and far between. His attorney says that he fears for his safety and never ventures out in public without a disguise and always wears body armor.

(voice-over): Each time he shows up in court, his weight gain is astonishing. Zimmerman's attorney says he's put on 120 pounds. Prosecutors may try to portray him as a profiler and a killer. Zimmerman's defense is building its own profile of Trayvon Martin as a troubled youth. No stranger to pot, guns, and fighting.

MARK O'MARA, ZIMMERMAN DEFENSE AGENCY: He's very used to fighting, that he has used some drugs in the past, and again, many 17-year-olds have, but then he has as well.

MATTINGLY: Will a jury be allowed to see these images of Trayvon Martin? Prosecutors will argue against it, one of the many pretrial issues looming in an already contentious case.

David Mattingly, CNN, Sanford, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: Six kids burned in a Memorial Day boat explosion in Maryland. Two of those kids burned very seriously when a flash ignited after someone tried to restart stalled motor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mom was throwing -- just throwing the kids overboard, in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was crazy. We thought at first it was a joke, and then, we're like, who would do this? The water is so cold. This is freezing. Then it was like, you could see they were just frantic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The gentleman was pushing them off. All of a sudden, he started taking life jackets and throwing the life jackets off.


ROMANS: A fire official says none of the burns appear life threatening. Two adults were also hurt. The flash fire triggered the boat's fire protection system which then quickly snuffed it out.

BERMAN: The Supreme Court watch is on between now and the end of June. The high court expected to issue 30 rulings, some of them very important. The list includes several politically explosive cases. Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage, the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the future of the voting rights act, also gene patents. The justices have scheduled five public sessions over the next month to announce their decisions.

Work crews are trying to remove all of the debris from last week's bridge collapse in Washington State. There's a lot of twisted metal along with a truck, a trailer, and a car in the Skagit River that need to be hauled off before a temporary bridge can be installed to handle the traffic. A permanent new bridge that will be built alongside the damaged one scheduled to open by September.

BERMAN: Incredible rescue to show you right now. A newborn baby rescued from a sewer pipe.

ROMANS: And the disturbing part, it appears the infant had been flushed down a toilet. CNN's Hala Gorani has more.


HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The dramatic rescue began after cries from a fourth floor apartment toilet. Alarmed neighbors saw a tiny foot and called the fire department. Unable to pull the baby out, rescuers went to the floor below and sawed away the entire section of sewer pipe. But still, the baby remained wedged inside.

So, sewer section and baby were taken to the local hospital, where firefighters and surgeons working together, carefully began removing the pipe, piece by piece. An hour later, success. A newborn baby rescued. The afterbirth still attached. Chinese media said he's a baby boy, now in stable condition. Police say they're looking for the parents. They say no one has yet come forward to claim the child.

Hala Gorani, CNN.


ROMANS: Oh. And just how careful they were with that pipe taking a section. Just amazing.

All right. Ahead on EARLY START, you know, don't like a call in a tennis game? No problem. Pull out your iPhone. that's what happened at the French open yesterday. Details next in "Bleacher Report."


BERMAN: So, welcome back, everyone. After sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs are heading back to the NBA finals once again.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes joins us now with more in the "Bleacher Report." Good morning.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Hey, good morning, guys. This group of Spurs players have really cemented themselves as one of the greatest teams of all time. Just to put it in perspective of how great they are, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are the first trio not from the Celtics or the Lakers to reach the NBA finals four different times together.

Now, last night's close out game, it was the Tony Parker show. The Spurs point guard scored a season-high 37 points as San Antonio led wire to wire to win game four, 93-86. And Parker said he promised Duncan last year that they would make at least one more great run together, and sure enough, the Spurs are back in the finals for the first time since 2007.


TONY PARKER, SAN ANTONIO SPUR: Every year, it gets tougher and tougher. Every team wants to beat you. And that's why it makes it even more special to go back after all those year than playing at the high level with the same coach, with the same big three.


SCHOLES: One of the top stories in the line-up of, today is Brittney Griner's rim rattling WNBA debut. Last night, the fourth quarter of the Mercury Sky game, Griner throws it down with the one handed slam there, then moments later. She goes up for the two- handed. Thisis the first time in WNBA history that a player dunked twice in one game. And in spite Griner's rim play above the rim, Chicago would go on to win the game 102-80.

A week ago, Robert Griffin III tweeted out a pick of him laying on all the empty boxes from the wedding presents he received from fans filling orders off his bed, bath, and beyond registry. Now, he's busy sending out those thank you notes. One of those fans who send RG3 and his fiance, Rebecca, a gift received a thank you note and he tweeted it out and included a nice handwritten message and an autograph from RG3. Pretty cool deal there.

On the French open yesterday, Sergiy Stakhovsky was taking on to (INAUDIBLE). And now, Stakhovsky's forehand is called out here by the chair umpire. Now, Stakhovsky was so set on the fact that his ball was in he pulled out an iPhone, went over and took a spot of where the ball landed out on the clay court. Now, he eventually tweeted out this pic, guys, and you take a look at it.

It's close, it's certainly debatable whether it was in or out. We gather round the sports office and took a look at this picture for about five or ten minutes, still couldn't figure out what we thought if it was in or out. What do you, guys, think?


BERMAN: I can't see the mark.

ROMANS: Five hours -- I say that's a Rorschach test. In the eye of the beholder. I don't know.

SCHOLES: He was certain it was in and decided to try to get everyone on Twitter behind him. I don't know. It's pretty debatable --

BERMAN: And I'm sure the chair ump loved to be shown up like that after that really went well for the rest of the match. All right. Andy, really appreciate it.

All right. So, America's favorite cartoon family getting an upgrade at Universal Studios in Florida. The popular Simpsons attraction at Universal will be expanded with a life-size version of Springfield surrounding it. Of course, Springfield is the home town of Homer, Marge, Bart, and Maggie Simpson. Visitors will be able to get Krusty burgers and donuts from Lard Land and beer at the Duck Brewery would exclusively for the team park. There will also be Moe's Tavern and a Kwik-Mart.

ROMANS: Can't wait.

BERMAN: Fantastic. Hmm, donuts.


BERMAN: That's EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. "STARTING POINT" begins right after this break.