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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Arizona Mom Coming Home; Severe Weather Threat; Heat Wave In The East; Person In Texas Questioned About Ricin Letters; Three Westerners Killed In Syria; American Woman Killed in Syria

Aired May 31, 2013 - 06:00   ET

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


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: -- the first words out of her mouth when she walked out of that prison, and when we had a chance to speak with her, it was that she was just very grateful, very glad to see her husband. She spent nine days in custody, and so as you can manage, she's just happy to be back with her family. Let's listen to what she had to say, just a few moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YANIRA MALDONADO, FREED FROM MEXICAN JAIL: I'm free! I'm like, I'm free. I'm free, I'm free. I was innocent, so I was very, very happy to be out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMO: and now she is cross the border. She is on American soil, with her family, with her husband, and is suspected to travel tomorrow to the Phoenix area, the city of Goodyear, where she lives -- Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: So going home to Phoenix. Did she say if she'll ever return to Mexico? I mean, she said that she goes every year. She has family in Mexico. This must be -- it will give her pause. No question.

ROMO: That's right. She's a native of Mexico. She migrated to the United States when she was 17 years old. She still has a lot of family there. As a matter of fact, she was arrested after attending a funeral for her aunt. So it is a very bitter situation what happened to her, but she was asked that specific question this morning, and this is what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MALDONADO: I love Mexico. My family is still there. So Mexico -- it's not Mexico's fault. So it is a few people who, you know, did this to me and probably to other people, who knows? You know, so I probably will go back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMO: Something that she told me on Wednesday, when I sat down for an interview, inside the prison, was that the reason why they were traveling by bus was because they thought it would be safer. And as it turns out, it ended up being a really bad choice -- Christine.

ROMANS: Could there be any blowback to the authorities who detained her?

ROMO: It is a possibility. First of all, the soldiers who arrested the Maldonados, because her husband, Gary, was also arrested originally, did not show up for testimony on Wednesday. They were supposed to be the main part of the evidence, the strongest testimony for the prosecution, and they didn't show up. And it is not known, exactly, where they're standing right now, but what I can tell you is there seems to be a lot of conflict between what the state government was doing for her and what the federal government did to her -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, high drama there and we're so glad that she's on her way home. Thanks so much, Rafael Romo.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also developing this morning, a dangerous threat of tornadoes. It's moving east, Oklahoma up to the Great Lakes, bracing for severe storms today. One tornado tore through Odin, Arkansas, yesterday, just ripping roves away. Severe weather now blamed for nine injuries in that state.

ROMANS: Our meteorologist, Indra Petersons is following all of the severe weather for us. Good morning.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning. It doesn't even seem real anymore, right. We just keep talking about day after day. Today, another threat for that, and the story still on the east coast with the big heat wave.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's your wall cloud right there. Look at that wall cloud, dude. It'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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 it wasn't the smartest idea to go get some ice cream. It's melted.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was freezing like three days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've had all seasons in one week.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PETERSONS: Definitely, this wild weather continues. And unfortunately, right in the middle of the country is where it all comes together and we see this unstable air and all these showers. Look at the story just this morning, all of this stability, all this lightning. The severe weather threat is on again today.

In fact, a moderate risk will be with us one more time. Now, overnight yesterday, we saw a lot of rain, even a tornado scoot right by Toledo. And unfortunately, it was so close, but really large amounts of rain were in the area, and unfortunately we're looking at that threat again today. Look at the severe outlook for you right now.

We're talking about a huge swath there, large moisture banking up against the dry air. We've been doing this day after day, mainly because this has been the situation day after day. Again, we're looking at that huge swath, anywhere from the great lakes all the way down to Oklahoma City and notice where we're talking about a bull's- eye again, Oklahoma, Missouri, and also through Arkansas, another tough day in store for us.

BERMAN: Again, I just don't remember a threat lasting this long. It has been every day. It has been relentless.

PETERSONS: Yes, really. It's just that time of year.

BERMAN: All right, Indra, thanks so much.

Also developing this morning, a trail of ricin-laced letters has brought FBI investigators to Texas to question a person of interest there. They're looking at threatening letters sent to President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that are suspected of containing the poison ricin.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in New Boston, Texas this morning with all these details. Good morning, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Well, the neighbors in this quiet neighborhood in the town of New Boston, Texas, tucked away in the north east corner of the state never expected this investigation to land on its front doorsteps here, but throughout the night we've seen two FBI agents staked out at the house you see behind me.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It kind of hits home a little bit more when it could be someone right down the street.

LAVANDERA: The three suspicious letters were postmarked in Shreveport, Louisiana. The one addressed to the president and Mayor Bloomberg never reached them. Both were intercepted at separate off- site mail facilities where letters are screened. White House Spokesman Jay Carney has emphasized this in the past when other threatening letters were sent to the president.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The mail is screened. The mail sent here is screened and that 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 caster 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 until 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 really behind these threats?

REPRESENTATIVE 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 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 as a capability to kill, but rather to intimidate and attract publicity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: FBI officials have not made any official comment yet as to where this investigation is headed and what exactly they're doing here in this neighborhood. But several neighbors say late yesterday, they saw teams of FBI agents going in and out of this house, and taking away electronic equipment in many of their visits inside that house. We'll continue to follow this throughout the day -- John.

BERMAN: All right, thanks, Ed, for being there in New Boston, Texas, Ed Lavandera.

I want to get back to the breaking news this morning. The American woman jailed in Mexico over charges of drug smuggling, she is now free and she is on the phone with us right now. Yanira Maldonado and her husband, Gary, join us right now. Guys, thank you so much for being with us. Yanira, let me ask you right off the bat, how you doing?

MALDONADO (via telephone): I'm doing fine. I'm here with my husband and my in-laws.

ROMANS: When are you going to go home? You want to go home soon, I hope, you want to see your kids? When will you be leaving the country?

MALDONADO: Yes, we are hopefully going today to see the kids.

BERMAN: Yanira, I've been listening to you all morning speaking about your release. You say you screamed in excitement when you found out you were finally getting out of jail and you've handled this with such poise and such grace. But I have to ask, were you just enraged and infuriated over the last week? I cannot imagine being put in jail for something like this when there's simply no connection to reality.

MALDONADO: Yes, I was very, I was --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got to go, sorry.

BERMAN: All right, I think we have lost Gary and Yanira on the phone right now. But it is nice to hear she's doing well even nice to hear her answer to your question, Christine, that she is headed back to be with her family soon.

ROMANS: I don't think you've breathed a final sigh of relief until you're actually home in your living room with your kids, across the border, back home, trying to get back to normal.

BERMAN: Coming up, the king of pop and the king, such a bizarre twist. Why the death of Elvis is playing a major role in the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial.

ROMANS: And a major clue in one of the world's most enduring mysteries. Is this what's left of Amelia Earhart's plane?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back. A developing story, an American woman killed in Syria in the midst of its civil war. Syrian TV reports that a 33-year-old woman from Flint, Michigan, was killed by government forces. They claimed she and two other westerners died fighting for the rebels.

Nick Paton Walsh tracking these developments, he joins us live from Beirut, Lebanon this morning. Nick, what more do we know about this woman and what she was doing in Syria?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Syrian State TV is quite clear. They peg this as an example of foreign terrorist influences within the ranks of the insurgency that they've been fighting. They've shown the identity card, the passport of her and actually of what appears to be a British man alongside her, also killed, showing them the gruesome pictures of their bodies and also the Volkswagen they appeared to have been ambushed in when they were in the city in the north called it Idlib.

Now Idlib has been hotly contested between the rebels and the regime for quite some time now. The rebels are getting more and more control over it. Quite what she would have been doing there, we don't know. They've also shown ammunition that apparently was seized alongside, the allegation being that she was part of the foreign influence among the rebels that they've been fighting. They tried to betray that whole insurgency as some sort of foreign-fueled al Qaeda-linked terrorist plot -- Christine.

ROMANS: Is there any evidence of that? I mean, that's what state TV appears to be making out to her, as an extremist, possibly affiliated with al Qaeda. Any evidence?

WALSH: At this point, no, from the people we've been spoken to. We're not naming the woman. There hasn't been 100 percent identification made by officials and relatives.

So, we're still right to piece together elements of that, but there is no obvious evidence at this point. It's simply allegations being made by Syrian television. We're still trying to work that out, Christine.

ROMANS: Meantime, President Assad speaking out. He's talking about future talks with the opposition. What's he saying?

WALSH: Well, he has said that they would attend this Geneva 2 peace talks that the U.S. and Russia have been pushing for potentially at some point next month. But there's a real hurdle here. The Syrian opposition themselves, and their first really coherent statement, they're notoriously divided, came forward and said they wouldn't attend talks if Assad himself was part of the political process. That's pretty much a fatal precondition, certainly in the eyes of Moscow and Assad.

Here's what Assad had to say about the opposition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA (through translator): We will have an official delegation to attend this conference, as legitimate representatives on behalf of the Syrian people. Who will they represent? When the conference is over for us, we will return to Syria and to our homes and to our people. When the conference is over for them, where they will return to, the five-star hotels?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALSH: Now, really, bizarrely, Assad and some parts of the rebels reading off the same script. The rebels have been, just a couple of days ago, equally critical of their civilian opposition leadership in exile, saying it has to do with the revelation that they were fighting day to day on the ground, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, live for us this morning in Beirut, Lebanon -- thanks, Nick.

BERMAN: Also new this morning, images of the Boston bombing suspects together just days before the attack. CNN has obtained this video that shows the Tsarnaev brothers working out at a gym, just 72 hours before those bombs went off.

Security cameras at the Y Crew Mixed Martial Arts Center in Boston. It shows the Tsarnaevs arriving with a friend just before 2:45 p.m. on Friday, April 12th. The bombing was Monday.

The manager says Tamerlan seen wearing a hat looked different than he was used to. He'd shaved off his beard that he'd had for a while. This could have been a sign of things to come.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Before they even got started is with their workout, Tamerlan is seen getting into an argument with the manager about taking the off his shoes, which apparently is a policy at the gym. And the brothers begin their workout. The manager says he was so annoyed with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that he tried to have him banned from the gym.

ROMANS: 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's lawyers argue that he should have been more aware of drug abuse by artists including Jackson.

BERMAN: We're getting our first look at a new image this morning that could provide clues into one of the most enduring mysteries of all time. This is Romans' favorite story of the day. This grainy sonar image taken last year by an expedition team in the South Pacific, they believe 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 that took that grainy image you just saw says it's the right size, it's the right shape, and it is in the right place. Again, this is one of the most enduring mysteries really of the 20th century, lasting into the 21st now.

ROMANS: All right.

OK, we're just hours away from an asteroid -- an asteroid passing by our planet. It's nearly two miles wide, but at its closest point, just before 5:00 p.m. Eastern, it will be 3.6 million miles away. Hold on to your hat!

But NASA says it will be more than 200 years before the asteroid gets this close to Earth again. This is Berman's favorite story of the day.

BERMAN: That's my favorite. I love when asteroids pass 3.6 millions miles.

ROMANS: No, this next one.

BERMAN: Oh, no, this one. Not that it needed, but after centuries of just doing it, the French finally have a word to describe the French kiss. The one-word verb which is galocher, that translates into "kiss with tongues," is among the new entries in just released 2014 edition of the "Petit Robert" French dictionary.

Galocher, you're looking at it right there, kind of tame version of galocher.

ROMANS: That's a petite galocher.

BERMAN: That's a petite galocher.

ROMANS: Coming up, losing weight while eating at McDonald's. Losing weight. The company's CEO says, hey, it worked for him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

New numbers this morning showing unemployment in Europe, record high, 12.2 percent. Let's compare that with the U.S. The unemployment rate here, 7.5 percent. Still going in the wrong direction in Europe.

Stocks on Wall Street set to struggle, Dow futures down 90 points right now. We'll continue to watch that for you.

President Obama will be surrounded by college students at the White House today to warn that they'll soon be paying a lot more for their student loans. Interest rates on government-backed loans are set to double on July 1st unless Congress acts. That means student loan interest rate will go up to 6.4 percent. This will affect 7 million college students.

The House recently passed a bill that would prevent this increase and link the interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note, which is way, way lower. But President Obama wants a fixed rate and says he will veto that House plan.

Trying to find a checking account with clear rules and few overdraft fees? Good luck. A new Pew survey looked at the nation's 50 biggest banks. None of them got a perfect score, 14 of them were so bad about making it count policies public. They couldn't even be ranked.

So, which checking accounts do make the cut? Ally Bank, Charles Schwab, First Republic. But Pew says that even with those, there is room for improvement.

Is it possible to lose weight while eating McDonald's every single day? The CEO of McDonald's says not only has he done it, but he's lost 20 pounds. Don Thompson says he's been eating McDonald's every single day, but he also recently decided to, quote, "get his butt up and working out." No word on exactly what he's eating --

BERMAN: You know, I talked to different people over the years who've done so-called junk diet. Calories are calories. It's just what you take in. If you watch them, you can lose weight. The issue is vitamins and nutrients and things like that and balance and everything.

ROMANS: My diet is watching every calorie as it goes right down the gullet.

BERMAN: This is breakfast for Christine Romans. This weighs like 14 pounds. I've been doing bicep curls with her breakfast.

More on that lately.

ROMANS: You just want some of that.

BERMAN: Twenty-five minutes after the hour.

And coming up, a night of devastating storms. Tornadoes take aim at Arkansas and Oklahoma. Homes and businesses damaged and the threat remains this morning.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Out of jail. Breaking news this morning, an American woman freed after being accused of smuggling drugs in Mexico. Hear from her, coming up.

BERMAN: This severe weather just keeps slamming the country. Tornadoes in the heartland, wildfires out West, and a heat wave that is cooking the East Coast. What you can expect today.

ROMANS: And Boston Strong. A heartwarming tribute to the victims of the Boston terror attack with some of the biggest names in music.

BERMAN: What a concert there.

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

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's 30 minutes past the hour on this Friday.

Breaking news this morning: Yanira Maldonado is a free woman this morning. A Mexican judge released her just hours ago, after a week in jail.