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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Columbine-Style Plan Caught by Police; Could the West, Texas, Explosion Been Prevented?; Busy Month Ahead for Supreme Court; Obama's Second Term Derailed by Controversies; Short Arms, Big Talent; Patient Plays Guitar During Brain Surgery

Aired May 28, 2013 - 08:30   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So, following new developments this morning in an alleged plot to blow up an Oregon high school. The 17-year-old suspect, Grant Acord, he'll be in court later today following his arrest. He's caused of planning a Columbine-style attack at West Albany High School. Police say they found numerous explosives and a journal detailing his plans. They found it in his bedroom.

BERMAN: Grant Acord, caused of planning a Columbine style high school. They found numerous explosives and a journalist detailing plans.

CNN's Miguel Marquez has been following this story. He is live in Oregon for us. Good morning, Miguel.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning there, John. This is a very, very disturbing story but it is fortunate the police caught him. It was a very mature plan, they are saying, and it sounds as thought either a friend or family turned him in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Police say 17-year-old Grant Acord planned and was prepared to carry out a coordinated bomb and gun attack against his school.

JOHN HAROLDSON, BENTON COUNTY OREGON DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This is the case of a planned assault on a target-rich environment. And that target-rich environment is the West Albany High School.

MARQUEZ: Hidden in a secret compartment under the floorboards of his mother's house, police say they found six explosive devices, including a napalm bomb, a pipe bomb, bombs made from Drano, and Molotov cocktails.

ALLI LADD, STUDENT, WEST ALBANY HIGH SCHOOL: Me and my friend were just like in shock, like how could someone even think of this? Like, that wouldn't even like cross our minds.

MARQUEZ: Acord will be charged with, among other thing, manufacturing and possessing destructive devices, unlawful possession of a deadly weapon, and attempted aggravated murder. Authorities laid out their theory. HAROLDSON: In this case, we would be relying upon evidence of plan. In other words, what is the intent, diagrams, checklists, a plan to use explosive devices and firearms to carry out a plan specifically modeled after the Columbine shootings.

MARQUEZ: That's the 1999 in Columbine, Colorado, carried out by seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who used bombs and several powerful guns against students and teachers, killing 13 and wounding 21.

Authorities are not yet saying how far along Acord was in his planning. Neighbors say Acrod was a quiet teen and doesn't fit the bill of a killer.

KEN HART, NEIGHBOR: You just don't think that's going to happen in your neighborhood. And especially by a quiet young man.

MARQUEZ: Authorities say the 17-year-old will be charged as an adult.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUEZ (on camera): Now, the parents of Mr. Grant have released a statement saying that their son suffered from Pandis, which is a very rare disease that triggers a sort of OCD or Tourette's-like symptoms who people who experience strep throat or any sort of bacterial infection, in very, very few people. That's the only thing they have said for. They've expressed, certainly, concern about what's happened here. We expect to hear more possibly from them, but certainly more from authorities today. when Mr. Grant is arraigned here in Corvallis. John?

BERMAN: As you said, a disturbing story, Miguel, but as you pointed out, lucky it was caught. Miguel Marquez in Corvallis in Oregon. Thanks very much, appreciate it.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, to Chicago now. A 6-month- old girl shot and killed while sitting in her father's lap could finally get justice. Police announcing an arrest in the Jonylah Watkins case. Her father was wounded in that shooting, it was March 11. Police say 33-year-old Coleman Willis thought the baby's father had stolen a video game console, and he was out for revenge. Willis is a gang member with nearly 40 prior arrests.

BERMAN: So could the deadly explosion in West, Texas, have been avoided altogether? The Dallas morning news reports that McLelland County, where West is, could have implemented a fire code that would have prevented this.

So are investigators any closer to knowing what caused the blast? Ed Lavandera is in West, Texas, this morning with the latest. Good morning, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Well, people here in the town of West, Texas, know that so far investigators have only been able to come up with an official explanation that is simply labeled as "undetermined." And for that now that could very well be the best answer they get.

But they can't stop there. Many of the people still have to keep on rebuilding and healing themselves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(EXPLOSION)

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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVENDERA: And, John, that immediate area around the blast site is still pretty uninhabitable for many of the people who still live in those homes. And as we drove around here the last few days, you see people beginning the process of cleaning up, tearing down their homes, rebuilding, trying to figure out if they'll rebuild or have to start all over.

And what is really striking here is the two schools, the middle school and the high school, they're very close to the blast site, those two buildings destroyed, unusable. And the mayor here says that it will take at least two years before those students will be able to come back and learn in those schools. So they will be learning out of temporary school housing here for the next two years. John.

BERMAN: A lot of work ahead. A long road. Ed Lavandera in West, Texas, for us this morning. Thanks, Ed.

ROMANS: A busy month ahead from the Supreme Court. Between now and the end of June, the high court expected to issue 30 rulings. That list includes several politically explosive cases. The Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage, the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the future of the Voting Rights Act and gene patents. The justices have scheduled five public sessions over the next month to announce sessions.

Bipartisanship will be on display today when President Obama gets together again with New Jersey's Republican governor Chris Christie for a look at post-Sandy progress on the Jersey Shore. It'll be dramatically different from what they witnessed seven months ago. He may also score some political points, but big picture, the president has his second term work cut out for him. He thought he'd be moving forward on some key agenda items, but right now the administration has been sidetracked by controversy. CNN's Brianna Keilar has more on that live from the White House. Good morning, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Christine. Immigration reform, the economy, gun violence -- those are the things that President Obama wanted to be focusing on during his second term. But instead, he's been plagued by controversies. It hasn't affected his approval rating, you might be surprised, at least not so far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): Benghazi, the Justice Department surveillance of journalists, and the IRS. Controversies are swirling at the White House and Republicans smell blood.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH) HOUSE SPEAKER: What we're seeing from this administration is an arrogance of power.

KEILAR: Three congressional hearings, so far, on the IRS targeting conservative groups seeking tax exempt status, condemnation from the president.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it.

KEILAR: The head of the IRS' tax exempt unit was placed on administrative leave last week.

LOIS LERNER, IRS: I have not done anything wrong.

KEILAR: After invoking her Fifth Amendment rights before Congress, the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation, but it's the Justice Department at the center of another controversy, seizing phone records from journalists at the Associated Press and phone records as well as personal e-mails from Fox News reporter, James Rosen, even though attorney general, Eric Holder, told Congress this.

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved and heard of or would think would be a wise policy. KEILAR: Holder okayed justice officials seeking a search warrant to get Rosen's private e-mails, a warrant that alleged Rosen could be a possible co-conspirator. Now, the president has ordered Holder to review guidelines for investigations involving reporters and to consult with media organizations.

OBAMA: And I'm troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

KEILAR: A conflict of interest, Republicans say.

SEN. TOM COBURN, (R) OKLAHOMA: But allowing the very person that authorized the two things that we are very aware of today, to investigate whether or not he did that appropriately is inappropriate. KEILAR: And then there's Benghazi. Did the administration downplay the role of terrorism in the attack in Libya that killed four people, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens? Questions continue as several suspects have been identified though not arrested in Libya.

U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-author of an internal State Department review, has agreed to brief members of Congress.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (on-camera): So, how is President Obama weathering all of this? Quite well -- so far, anyway. His approval rating has remained steady through these controversies, likely buoyed by the economy. Unemployment is down to 7.5 percent. And in a recent CNN/ORC survey, one-third of Americans polled said that economic conditions are good. That is up from March and up from December. John and Christine.

ROMANS: Yes, certainly the conversation in Washington has not been about recent progress in the economy; it's been about these controversies indeed. All right, Brianna, thanks.

BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, this is pretty incredible. Actulaly, I'm going with wicked incredible. A man undergoing brain surgery, he's playing guitar while it's happening, during the operation. That story coming up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. So what's it doing outside? Let's go to Indra Petersons with a look at the weather.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's getting wetter in a lot of places. I mean, it's already been raining in the Midwest for days.

ROMANS: That's a broken record on the record.

PETERSONS: I feel that away! I'm sorry everyone's actually sitting in it, right? We're talking 8 to 10 inches of this rain over the Midwest. Some areas seeing maybe 4 to 5 inches today; another 2 to 4 inches is possible. So with that, we know the flooding concerns are still out there. Look at all of the watches and warnings in the Midwest.

Now they're not the only ones, now. Even us in the Northeast, we're going to be talking about more rain. But with that, as the warm front passes, look at these temperatures jump. I mean, 25 degrees warmer behind the warm front. Exactly why we call it a warm front, right? Even Texas, things drying out. Not too bad. A little tidbit there for you.

Now, here, unfortunately, the one thing we're really concerned with this week. We're talking about all that warm, moist air from the Gulf, that cold air clashing with the system that brought rain to California yesterday. Now, as it made its way over the Rockies and now is entering east of the Rockies, we're talking about the threat for severe weather setup. And unfortunately it looks like that slight risk today will enhance even through tomorrow, a potential for a tornado outbreak through Wichita and Oklahoma tomorrow again.

BERMAN: Again.

ROMANS: May is tough in Tornado Alley.

PETERSONS: It really is.

BERMAN: All right, Indra, thank you so much.

ROMANS: A teenager in Utah celebrates what he is able to do even though he has only three fingers on each hand and no elbows that bend. His passion? Playing the piano. But Landon Week's don't end there. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has his story is this week's "Human Factor".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Nothing makes Landon Weeks happier than singing and playing his piano. But as you listen to him play, look closely. Something about this 16- year-old may surprise you. Weeks was born with a condition called fokomelia. It's a rare birth defect that mostly affects the development of upper limbs.

LANDON WEEKS: Well in my case it's a fused radius and ulna, their shorter and my elbow is like bent backwards, so it's in and I have two fingers and my slanted thumbs.

GUPTA: And yet there are few things Weeks can't do. He's been zip lining, horseback riding and he's one of a small number of Boy Scouts to earn every available merit badge.

WEEKS: This is drama and you have to like make up like a pantomime thing and like act it out. Let's see. There's cycling. You have to do a 50-mile bike ride.

GUPTA: But playing the piano that's his first love. Weeks started lessons in the fourth grade and today he practices two hours a day. And says his dream is to play for audiences around the world.

WEEKS: When I see my arms there's not a thing that I would change because they are amazing just the way they are --

GUPTA: He's already won over local audiences. Playing at assemblies around his hometown of Ogden, Utah, he's even got fan mail.

WEEKS: Dear Landon, you were -- you were awesome and you are better than anyone in the world.

GUPTA: Weeks says that his short arms are a gift, not a disability and he shares his wisdom with the children he performs for.

WEEKS: Keep going and never give up. And just -- if it's hard just keep trying and it will come to you eventually.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That kid is amazing.

ROMANS: Never give up. Never give up.

BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, take a look at this. This guy, he's playing guitar, what else is going on? Doctors are operating on his brain -- brain surgery. We will speak with the surgeon who made this possible, you're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back.

There are remarkable advances in medical technology on display at UCLA Medical Center. I mean look at that, wow, as a patient undergoes brain surgery, he's awake and strumming his guitar.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At least I have principles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because they don't cost anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brother against brother.

ROMANS: You may recognize Brad Carter from his roles on "True Blood" or "CSI".

BRAD CARTER, ACTOR AND MUSICIAN: In fact I see now.

ROMANS: But it's what he's doing off screen that he may be most remembered for. The 39-year-old actor and musician is about to undergo brain surgery to correct a condition called "benign central tremors."

CARTER: I've been putting it off. Trying to figure out why this is happening. So hopefully this is going to help that today.

ROMANS: The neurological disorder causes Carter's hands to shake. And to treat it, his doctors at UCLA Medical Center must operate while he's awake. Doctors even had Carter play guitar during the procedure. Strumming the guitar chords helped guide surgeons as they placed an electrode in his brain.

CARTER: My music is really important to me, so I am hoping that this will allow me to do that, to play a guitar. I'm a finger picker. And I want to record. I want to perform live again.

ROMANS: Carter, the 500th person to undergo the surgery at UCLA. He's the first in the world to have his brain surgery covered live for the world to see on Twitter and short video share app, Vine. UCLA said it hopes sharing the videos and photos will help other patients battling this disorder.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Joining us now from LA is the neurosurgeon who led Brad's operation team Dr. Nader Pouratian. It's so nice to see you. The Twitter feed is just amazing, the pictures are amazing. So that didn't hurt him? He wasn't in any pain and by playing, by strumming the guitar it was guiding you for what to do? Explain that to us.

DR. NADER POURATIAN, M.D., NEUROSURGEON, UCLA MEDICAL CENTER: Right absolutely. So you know we do the surgery to help patients with tremor. And we want to make sure that we personalize the surgery and we're treating the symptoms that are most important to the patient and they're able to do what's the most important.

So we had him bring his guitar because that was such an important factor in his life and we were able to see how he played the guitar before we put the electrode in his brain and then once we put it in and we were stimulating the brain, we were able to see an improvement in the performance.

BERMAN: So awake?

POURATIAN: And he doesn't -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

BERMAN: I'm sorry -- he's awake during brain surgery. It just seems so strange playing guitar during brain surgery.

POURATIAN: Right. And so you know we haven't -- we do this all the time this is our standard protocol for how we do the surgery. We make sure the patient is absolutely comfortable throughout it all. But the reason why we do it awake is because everyone's brain is a little bit different. No matter how perfect we think we're doing the surgery, we like to do the testing during the surgery and make sure that we are actually getting the response that we want.

ROMANS: The paid from the surgery probably comes from the incision and opening the skull -- if I'm right -- but it doesn't hurt to actually be, you know, doing surgery on someone's brain?

POURATIAN: No. Absolutely not. So once -- like you said, the skin incision and opening the skull can be a period of discomfort. We keep the patient a little sedated during that period. But then once everything is opened, there are no pain within the brain itself so we're able to put those electrodes in and do the testing without an significant discomfort for the patient.

BERMAN: So not only did you have musical accompaniment with this brain surgery from the patient himself, but you're putting it out live on Twitter while you were doing it. Why the social media component?

POURATIAN: You know, in this age of Internet technology, a lot of patients doing more and more research on their own. We thought this would be a good opportunity for a medical center, an expert center to put out some information about this type of therapy. You know there's a lot of people who don't know about deep brain stimulation or this brain pacemaker that can help the tremor. For those who do know about it, there's a lot of fear about it. We thought this was a good opportunity to teach them.

ROMANS: So your team shot a video before the surgery, where his hand is tremoring, this essential tremor that he has, and after the surgery, you noticed an improvement. We're going to show that video but tell me how he's doing?

POURATIAN: So he's doing great. You know, he left the hospital the very next day. As you might expect with brain surgery, he's a little bit tired, but he's recovering really well. Just with a little bit of pain, but doing quite well. You know, we do the surgery in two stages. We were able to control the tremor immediately during the surgery.

But he'll come back for a second-stage surgery, where we put the generator in, and that's when we'll start turning it on and see the improvement long term and he will really be able to enjoy the benefits of the surgery.

ROMANS: You've done this some 500 times. That's just amazing to see. Dr. Nader Pouratian, thank you so much for joining us and bringing us that story. We really appreciate.

BERMAN: So cool.

Can't wait to hear the new song when he comes back.

STARTING POINT, back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right. That's it for STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman, "NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now.