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Arizona Mom Freed from Mexican Jail; Dangerous Storms Still Possible; FBI Questioning Person in Ricin Probe; Three Westerners Killed in Syria

Aired May 31, 2013 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning. Free. Just minutes ago, the American grandmother accused of smuggling drugs in Mexico released from jail. This is a huge development. We are live on the scene.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Tornadoes, wildfires and a sizzling heat wave across the country. What's in store for you today?

BERMAN: And chilling new video this morning of the Boston terror suspects just days before the bombs went off.

ROMANS: And the King Bee is crowned. The winning word that won it all for this very smart New York eighth grader.

BERMAN: That's one way to put it.


BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Friday. Let's say it one more time -- it's Friday, May 31st. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

BERMAN: And we're going to begin with the breaking news this morning. This has been unfolding all night before our eyes.

The Arizona mother of seven, the grandmother, in fact, who spent a week behind bars in Mexico accused of smuggling drugs, she has been released. Authorities in Nogales arrested Yanira Maldonado after allegedly finding 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat last week, but new video evidence apparently convinced a judge to let this woman go free.

Now, we just heard from her in a statement made in Nogales after she was released.


YANIRA MALDONADO, FREED FROM MEXICAN JAIL: I have to say thank you, first, to God that now I'm free now. He sent me good people my way. And I'm very grateful that I'm free, for my family, my children. And I really thank all of the people and you guys, the media, who really, really, through you, was -- my situation was extended to the whole world. And I thank you for that.

FRANCISCO BENITEZ, YANIRA MALDONADO'S ATTORNEY: The witnesses say exactly what's happening in the video. The video was very important evidence because, while the witnesses say the declaration of Yanira -- the extension of declaration of Gary, it was tape recorded. And they're not lying. So exactly what happened in the station is the same thing what you saw in the video.


BERMAN: What you just heard was her attorney talking about the video which helped exonerate Yanira Maldonado, apparently. This was video which apparently showed her getting on this bus with nothing that could have been 12 pounds of pot.

ROMANS: A purse, two blankets and a bottle of water. The question it still raises now that she is free is what is going on that someone could just end up more than a week in jail on the word of someone who says they were smuggling drugs. I mean, it is still a very, very scary situation for travelers.

BERMAN: It's terrifying. You can see on her face the relief. You can hear it in her voice, but I'm sure as these days pass, you know, the fury that she must feel will come to the surface. We'll hear much more about that. We will be following this all morning. Stay with us on this developing story.

ROMANS: The other developing story this morning, it's just relentless. Once again, a wide swath of the country is bracing for severe weather. From Oklahoma, to the Ozarks, to the Great Lakes, tornadoes possible again today.

BERMAN: One tore through Oden, Arkansas, yesterday, ripping roofs away. There were four minor injuries there.

Meteorologist Indra Petersons is following this all for us.

Again, this is all week.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I mean, it is so hard to believe it is literally the story again today, even through tomorrow. In the East Coast, the story is still remaining, the heat.


PETERSONS (voice-over): Turbulent tornadoes touching down in Tulsa and Cushing, Oklahoma, on Thursday night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, this is our view of it. There's your wall cloud right there. Look at that wall cloud, dude. That's coming straight at us. Look at that mesocyclone.

PETERSONS: Both just north of the city of Moore that was pummeled by a devastating tornado last week.

And over in Arkansas, this tornado swirling into a waterspout over Lake Washita.

Further north in Wichita, Kansas, rain is the issue. Floodwaters rising past the headlights of cars, leaving some stranded and others just looking for a place to keep dry.

REPORTER: L.A. County Fire responded very quickly. You can see the number of fire trucks out there.

PETERSONS: And then there's the heat out west. Firefighters battling a raging wildfire near Santa Clarita, California, that has scorched at least 400 acres of land.

REPORTER: This firefight still very, very active, and probably will be for some time.

PETERSONS: In the east, the first signs of summer in New York's Central Park. From the splashes, to the scoops, to the first slathers of sun block, the heat wave has officially arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I guess I wasn't so smart so I need to go get ice cream. It melted.

PETERSONS: Melting ice cream, a welcomed sight after the late season Memorial Day snowstorm had places like Vermont measuring snow in feet. Syracuse and Binghamton weathered the late flurries and broke 40-year- old records.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was freezing like three days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You got all seasons in one week.


PETERSONS: Unfortunately, with all the wacky weather, we have a clash of the systems right in the middle of the country. You can see this morning. Look at the instability still out there. Severe thunderstorms, a lot of lightning and the threat will still be with us with the setup remaining the same.

And, once again, look at all the rainfall. Now, yesterday, Tulsa has nearly escaped a large tornado, heavy rainfall right in their area. And today again, that threat sets up the same. We still have the moist air up against the dry air. A little bit of a difference, the jet stream is not lining up perfectly today.

But regardless, look at the swath. Once again, bull's-eyeing right around Oklahoma City and Moore with the swath today sending even farther to the east. So, even, the Great Lakes region down through the Texas panhandle will be affected.

So what are we dealing with once again? Here we are looking at temperatures in the east. Definitely not as big of a story in the middle of the country, but hot if you're right here. I mean, it is so hot and humid, what a change from a few days ago.

There is a little bit of relief in sight, that's the good news. With the heat wave here in the East, notice the temperatures, those upper 80s and 90s. Just to the West, look at the difference, you're starting to see some 70s and 60s.

So, this cold air will eventually start to move in. And what does that mean? Yes, we are going to see a little bit of a chill as we go towards the weekend and some thunderstorms to the Northeast by the end of the week.

So, a little bit of good news with a lot of tough weather out there.

ROMANS: It must be a beautiful weekend in Chicago. I don't live in Chicago.

BERMAN: You're a glass half full. But, yes, exactly, nice for them.

PETERSONS: Great for them.

ROMANS: Thanks, Indra.


ROMANS: Also developing this story, a possible break into the investigation into letters laced with poison sent to President Obama and most recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his gun control lobbying group. The FBI is questioning a person of interest in Texas about those letters.

CNN's Ed Lavandera live for us in New Boston, Texas, this morning with those details.

Ed, good morning.


Well, this might be an unlikely place for this story to kind of begin unfolding here, but FBI agents spent the night staked out at the house you see behind me here in this small town, population 4,500, of New Boston, Texas, tucked away in the northeast corner of the state.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): Law enforcement officials are questioning a man at this New Boston, Texas, home, about threatening letters believed to contain ricin sent to President Obama, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a gun control group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It kind of hits home a little more when it can be somebody from just right down the street.

LAVANDERA: The three suspicious letters were postmarked in Shreveport, Louisiana. The ones addressed to the president and Mayor Bloomberg never reached them, both were intercepted at separate offsite mail facilities where letters are screened.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has emphasized in the past when other threatening letters were sent to the president. JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The mail is screamed. The mail sent here is screamed and these tests are undertaken at remote sites to mitigate the risk both to those recipients and to the general population.

LAVANDERA: The FBI is now testing the letter sent to President Obama. Meanwhile, the New York City Police Department says that preliminary testing on the Bloomberg letter came back positive for ricin, a potentially deadly poison made from beans.

The third letter sent to Washington, D.C. office of Mayors Against Illegal Guns was opened by its director. A police report says that letter contained a "whitish, orange substance."

The letters contained an ominous message, "You will have to kill me and my family before you get my guns," it read. "Anyone who wants to come to my house will be shot in the face. The right to bear arms is my constitutional, God-given right and I will exercise that right till the day I die. What's in this letter is nothing compared to what I've got planned for you."

Is the battle over gun control group really behind these threats?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Well, that's what that seems. Now, it could also be somebody on the other side, you know, trying to make their point, you know, by blaming the people who believe in gun rights.

LAVANDERA: This latest round of threats has many wondering if ricin is becoming the weapon of choice for intimidation.

BILL BRATTON, FORMER NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER: Ricin is probably one of the worst ways to try and kill somebody. So, I don't see it as a real threat in the sense of an actual capability to kill but rather to intimidate and attract publicity.


LAVANDERA: So far, Christine, the FBI has not made any official comments as to what it is doing currently this investigation. But several neighbors in this neighborhood say that late yesterday, they saw several FBI agents coming and going from the house and removing electronic equipment. And they continue to be staked out here today. So, this is a situation that we'll continue to watch up fold throughout the day today.

ROMANS: All right. Ed Lavandera -- thank you so much, Ed.

BERMAN: All right. Also, new this morning, chilling images. CNN's obtained a video that shows the Boston bombing suspects working out at a gym, this is just 72 hours before the bombs went off. Security cameras at the Y Crew Mixed Martial Arts Center show the Tsarnaev brothers arriving with a friend just before 2:45 p.m. on Friday, April 12th.

The manager says Tamerlan who was seen wearing a hat there looked different. He shaved off his beard that he apparently had for a while. That could have been a sign of things to come.


PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Shaving the beard may be a way to blend in, not to attract scrutiny from security services in carrying out the Boston attacks. We have seen, in past terrorism cases in the West, past plots, Western militants actually shaving their beards off in some cases before plotting attacks.


BERMAN: Before they even get started, Tamerlan is seen in an argument with the manager about taking off his shoes, which is apparently a policy in the gym. Then the brothers begin their workout.

Now, we're just getting our hands in this video. We're going to have much more about this later this hour on EARLY START.

ROMANS: All right. He is the King Bee. New York eighth grader Arvind Mahankali won the Scripps National Spelling Bee last night. He was cool, he was calm, he was collected throughout.

BERMAN: And his winning world, knaidel. That is a Yiddish word for a dumpling.





BERMAN: So, Mahankali is a national spelling bee veteran. He came in third the past two years, and ninth in 2010. This was his final shot at the win, a pressure player, this man. He says he's happy to be retiring on a good note.

ROMANS: And it was German-derived words that tripped him up the last couple of times. So, I don't know, we're going to find out. But since he really, you know, buckled down and studied those, that they would not --

BERMAN: Everyone knows about the problems he's had with the German words. Words of German derivation over the last few years. So, it was sort of like the curse, you know, of the bambino affecting this young spelling bee champ.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up also this morning, is this an international incident in the making? An American woman killed in Syria. Reports say she was fighting with the rebels.

BERMAN: Plus, new clues this morning one of the world's great mysteries. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Is this grainy image, an image from the ocean -- not this one, but one we're not showing you right now. And even a greater mystery, is the grainy image we are not showing you the missing piece of the puzzle?


BERMAN: Welcome back. It's 15 minutes after the hour.

New pictures out of Turkey where police used tear gas this morning to clear up protesters who are staging a sit-in in Istanbul's commercial district. Those protesters opposed a plan to build a new shopping center. They tried to block bulldozers from entering a park to take down trees.

Thursday marked the third consecutive night of protests. This informal referendum of sorts on recent Turkish government policies.

BERMAN: Another developing story this morning: an American woman killed in Syria in the midst of the civil war there. Syrian TV reports that a 33-year-old woman from Flint, Michigan, was killed by government forces. They claim she and two other Westerners died fighting for the rebels there.

Nick Paton Walsh is tracking these developments. He joins us from nearby Beirut in Lebanon this morning.

And, Nick, what do we know of this woman and why was this American woman from Flint, Michigan, doing in Syria?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is a good question, John. Certainly, what Syrian state TV are putting throughout with a series of pictures suggesting ammunitions found near them, the Volkswagen they were driving, and the identity passports and the passport, although appeared to be a British man, put out there by them is they're trying to suggest that these foreigners were somehow involved in rebel activity there.

It appears according to these media reports, none of them we can't confirmed, we just have to take Syrian state media's word for it, but they were caught in some kind of ambush. This ties in to the broader issue that both actually Western and the Syrian governments have been talking about, the incoming foreigners into the conflict, fighting on rebel sides.

The area where they were reportedly killed, hotly contested in the Idlib City, some of it held by the rebels, some held by the regime. The major fear Western governments have is the radicalization of people who may start fighting with Syrian rebels, potentially joining for humanitarian grounds.

And, of course, the Syrian state uses that as an example of the foreign-funded, foreign-fueled group of terrorists rather than a domestic insurgency, John.

BERMAN: That's right. It's clear the Syrian government is trying to portray these people, this woman particularly, as an extremist. Is there any evidence of that?

WALSH: At this point, no, we don't really know exactly why she was there. We don't quite have any independent information about that at all. And we have to go on what Syrian state media are saying, and that's intensely politicized.

So, much more digging to be done. I'm sure American officials will want to know quite why if this turns out to be an American woman what she was doing in Syria and the motivation for that journey.

BERMAN: Our Nick Walsh for us on this story, again, the news of a 33- year-old woman from Flint, Michigan, killed in a fighting in Syria. Thanks, Nick.

ROMANS: Eighteen minutes now after the hour.

Other top stories, Elvis' death coming up at Michael Jackson's wrongful death trial. AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware testified Wednesday that Presley died of a drug overdose, but when his own lawyers questioned him about it yesterday, he said Presley died of a heart ailment. The executive promoted both Presley and Jackson's last tours.

Jackson lawyers argue that he should have been more aware of drug abuse by artists, including Jackson.

BERMAN: Today, Queen Elizabeth pays a visit to the barracks in London where a British soldier was murdered last week. The 25-year-old Lee Rigby was killed in what police are treating as a terrorist attack. He was a member of the king's troop royal horse artillery which fires gun salutes during royal state ceremonies.

ROMANS: Intense rain leads to widespread flooding in parts of southern China. Floodwaters raged in some spots trapping locals. These bikers almost got away. Fallen branches and debris blocked trains, which made flooding in some areas even worse. Wow.

BERMAN: An asteroid nearly two miles wide will pass by planet Earth today, which is where we live, and at the closest point the asteroid 1998 QE2 will be 3.6 million miles away from Earth. This is going to be just before 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. So, brace yourself.

NASA says will wait more than 200 years before the asteroid gets this close to us again.

ROMANS: I love -- this story is really -- I love this story. The next one.

BERMAN: All right. That's good set up right there.

We are getting our first look at a new image this morning that could provide clues into one of the most captivating mysteries of all time. Investigators believe this grainy sonar image taken last year in the South Pacific, they think this could be a piece of Amelia Earhart's plane. Now, this is hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface. Earhart vanished in 1937 while attempting an around the world flight.

A member of the expedition team that took the image says it's the right size, it's the right shape, and it is in the right place. ROMANS: And you think of news stories my grandfather used to tell me in 1937 the world stopped. They all listened to the radio as the search began for her, where did she go, where had she been?

And when you think of sort of viral news events, that was the original viral news event of the 20th century -- the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

BERMAN: It's so true.

This grainy image which could be that missing piece of the puzzle.


All right. It just may be France's most popular export, French kiss. But there's never been an official French word for the French kiss until now. The one word verb, "galocher". That translates to kiss with tongues, is among the new entries in the just released 2014 edition of the "Petit Robert" French dictionary.

BERMAN: Those are some pretty tame kisses we are showing you right here. I think galocher is a little more intense.

ROMANS: You pronounce it galocher. I say galocher. I wonder who's right.

BERMAN: You say tomato, I say tomato. The important thing is, with tongue.

Coming up, LeBron James is hiring, but does your resume stack up? The long list of qualifications he wants in an intern.

ROMANS: He's the king after all, right? So, we're just intern to King James.


ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to EARLY START. Minding your business.

Futures are pointing to a lower open right now after stocks bounced back yesterday despite a fair of, I guess, so-so economic reports. Data just in to CNN shows unemployment in the eurozone climbed to 12.2 percent in April. That is a record high.

Meantime, here in this country, 7 million college students could soon be paying for loans, more for loans unless Congress acts today. Today, President Obama will push that issue, welcoming a group of college students to the White House.

We are talking about student loans subsidized by the government, not private loans. Those rates are set to double on July 1st to 6.8 percent, 7 million borrowers affected. The House recently passed a bill to prevent the July increase and it would link student interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note, but they would vary from year to year. President Obama wants a fixed rate and he says he'll veto the House plan if it crosses his desk. Student debt is second biggest debt Americans carry, second only to mortgages. Students who have debt on average owe nearly $27,000 in loans.

BERMAN: That's a lot of money.

ROMANS: It really is.

BERMAN: It can be decades or well into my 30's to pay off my student loans.

Coming up, on the rampage. Tornadoes tear up Oklahoma and Arkansas. Today could be even worse.

ROMANS: And were there clues to chilling new video of the Boston bombing suspect days before the deadly attack?



MALDONADO: I'm very grateful that I'm free.


BERMAN: Breaking news this morning: the nightmare is over. Just minutes ago, the American grandmother locked up in Mexico accused of smuggling drugs finally set free. We're going to hear from her live in moments.

ROMANS: And chilling new video of the Boston bombing suspects in training. New images of the Tsarnaev brothers just days before those bombs went off.

BERMAN: And then, believe it or not, still more trouble for Justin Bieber accused of dangerous driving, partying all night. Oh, no. So, is this finally reason for alarm?

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.