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Wildfires Hit Parts of Southwest; Families Recover from Tornadoes in Oklahoma; House to Hold Hearings on IRS Scandal; Star Jones Calls Attention to Murder Case

Aired June 4, 2013 - 07:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Our STARTING POINT this morning, fire and floods. Mother Nature wreaking havoc from Colorado to California. Wildfires just forcing evacuations and flood waters rising along the Mississippi.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Oscar Pistorius returns to court. The judge tells him he's facing a, quote, "trial by media." But is that good or bad for the Blade Runner?

BERMAN: And they've spoken to their son just once since he's been in custody. What the alleged bomber told his parents from prison. And then --


ROMANS: His cymbals came flying out of his hand as he played the "Star Spangled Banner," but he turned an embarrassing moment into a patriotic one. See what he did, next.

BERMAN: Genius. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Tuesday, June 4th, welcome to STARTING POINT.

Happening right now, homes destroyed by destructive wildfires in three states leaving hundreds of families reeling. In Evergreen, Colorado, thousands of residents are being warned to remain vigilant after being allowed to return to their homes. A wind driven fire there has already scorched dozens of acres. There's also an 8,000 acre fire burning right now north of New Mexico. The 32,000 acre powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles destroyed six homes now. That situation, though, appears to be improving. For more on that, go to Stephanie. She is live this morning from Lake Hughes, California. Good morning, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. Things are looking better here at the powerhouse fire, where it's now 60 percent contained. But when you look at the fires overall in the western region they're up against rough terrain but the firefighters are getting in there by many different ways to control these flames.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ELAM: Into the night, firefighters in Colorado battling a wild fire that erupted in the foothills west of Denver on Monday forcing thousands to evacuate and now being allowed to return home. The bluebell fire burned dangerously close to homes. From Colorado to the fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico to the power house fire near Palmdale, California, these flames consuming much in their path.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a battle. This hill, that hill, and this hill were all going at once and they're right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's devastating and I feel bad for all of my neighbors. I feel luckily for the firefighters to have saved our house.

ELAM: The wildfire in New Mexico was spread over 8,000 acres forcing residents with 100 homes to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's nerve-racking not knowing if your land is OK or not.

ELAM: True so its name, the powerhouse fire packed a punch scorching more than 30,000 acres of land, threatened 1,000 homes and destroyed at least six, homes like the one where the Stilson family used to live, reduced to rubble. The family is used to wild fires because they're a family of firefighters. Retired firefighter Captain Patrick Stilson now picking up the pieces of his parent's home. Like so many residents he spent his life saving.

PATRICK STILSON, PARENTS LOST HOME: I just couldn't believe it how the fire spread. Now, it's -- some of the wheelbarrows that I pushed when I was a teenager over there all melted.

ELAM: And sifting through what's left of the home where he and his wife tied the knot, he happily discovers that one of his mother's most beloved keepsakes still stands.

STILSON: The most important thing for my mom is St. Francis over there. That's her patron saint.


ELAM: Out here there's a little bit of smoke blowing by behind us. That's what firefighters are trying to do, keep the hotspots down and people able to come home and no more evacuations.

ROMANS: Hopefully no more. Thanks, Stephanie Elam.

BERMAN: Now you should go. That's what residents of West Alton, Missouri were told after a levee breach put them in harm's way. Hundreds of people were evacuated. The flood threat this morning remains very, very real, with the Mississippi river threatening to swamp low lying communities in the St. Louis area. That's where we find Martin Savidge live from West Alton, Missouri. Good morning, Martin. What's the latest there?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Morning, John. It's been a rough night for the people in the small town here. We should point out, this is the second round of flooding they had on this part of the Mississippi in the last six weeks. That means the flood protection system, the sandbags, they have all been under a lot of strain. And for West Alton, it was just too much last night.


SAVIDGE: Danger in the darkness in the small Missouri town of West Alton. A levee breach sent emergency teams rushing to help get hundreds of people to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People can be locked in their house. If the water gets two or three foot deep then they're stuck if their house if they don't evacuate.

SAVIDGE: As the flood waters from the nearby Mississippi River threaten, many residents didn't need to be told twice to pack up and go.

HEATHER WENDLE, RESIDENT: I want to be safe than sorry, you know? I don't want to take the chances.

SAVIDGE: In many place as long the Mississippi near St. Louis, high water threatens small towns. Sandbags and temporary dikes are the only thing standing between a surge of storm water and Main Street. In some communities, commercial districts are already under water. Other towns are isolated as the rising river closes roads.

As bad as it is, it could have been worse. In most places the water is expected to crest an inch shy of what is regarded as major flooding. But what makes this event so dramatic is just five months ago the Mississippi was at near record lows due to drought.

I'm actually standing on the exposed bottom of the Mississippi River.

Since then, the river shot up close to 45 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's pretty crazy to see how fast it came.

SAVIDGE: There had been fears the draught would close the river to barge traffic. That never happened until Monday when the coast guard shut down a section of the river in St. Louis, saying it was too dangerous to navigate because the water was so high.


SAVIDGE: And the river is expected to crest in this area sometime today. Until it does, many people in this community and elsewhere will be keeping a very close eye on it.

BERMAN: Martin Savidge along the Mississippi River, it's a beautiful shot behind you, but it could be a dangerous day there. Thanks martin.

ROMANS: The death toll in Oklahoma, 18 since Friday's violent storms, and the possibility severe weather could return there today. But there's another big story developing too, the potential for more heavy rain in Florida from a storm system that may soon become a tropical depression. Meteorologist Indra Petersons has the latest for us. Good morning.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning. It's unbelievable, seven inches of rain in seven days, and now the remnants of tropical storm Barbara accrues into the Gulf. There's a low pressure system trying to form but only a 30 percent chance it will form into a depression. But either way this moisture is tracking right into Florida. Let me show you the next five days. Unbelievable amount of rain expected to build here, four to six inch of rain possible. That's going to be up the eastern seaboard. It brings heavier showers in the mix there. Speaking of the flooding we continue to follow the Midwest, storm after storm inundated the area with rain.

We keep mentioning this, the beginning of the year, St. Louis Missouri negative 4.5 feet below. So we're going from the top 10 driest level of river all the way to the top 10 highest now at 40 feet, unbelievable the amount of rain in the area and high waters out there. We do still have the slight risk area in the bull's eye today for the Oklahoma area. So definitely a lot out there weather wise we'll be watching, especially Oklahoma City once again under the gun today.

ROMANS: Once again under the gun. Indra, thank you.

BERMAN: A new report due out today shines a spotlight on the way the IRS handles its own business expenses. The report focuses on IRS conference spending, including a 2010 event where IRS workers stayed in presidential suites, rooms that go between $1,500 and $3,500 a night. Training videos produced for that conference cost the IRS more than $60,000. This one features a "Gilligan's Island" theme.

This latest bombshell comes on a day when the House Ways and Means Committee will hear from conservative groups who say they were unfairly targeted by the IRS. A lot going on with this. CNN's Brianna Keilar is live in Washington with a preview of today's events. Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, John. Yesterday we heard from the IRS itself as well as the inspector general that investigated the controversy. Today we'll hear from the alleged victims in the case as they testify before the very powerful House tax writing committee. And we caught up way couple of them before they testify.


KEILAR: Becky Gerritson will tell congressional investigators this morning that her tea party group in Alabama was unfairly scrutinized by the IRS. In 2010 just before the midterm elections where victories by Tea Party candidates gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, the group applied for tax-exempt status and was sent a 90 question form.

BECKY GERRITSON, WETUMPKA TEA PARTY: They wanted to know volunteers, donors, and every speech we had ever given. I felt like it was an oppression over me as a citizen. I live in America and I should be able to express my views. I felt like it was very unfair. It was a little scary.

KEILAR: After nearly two years Gerritson's group finally did get IRS approval. Susan Martinek is president of a small antiabortion group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She says the IRS granted them tax-exempt status, but a worker at the Cincinnati IRS office asked them to agree not to picket Planned Parenthood offices.

SUSAN MARTINEK, COALITION FOR LIFE OF IOWA: And she required their entire board would sign a letter under perjury of oath that we would not protest or picket at Planned Parenthood.

KEILAR: After the group's attorney sent a letter asking the basis for this demand, Martinek says it was dropped. By tend of the week Congress will have had half a dozen hearings on the IRS controversy. Monday the new acting commissioner pledged to clean up the agency. Daniel Werfel and the inspector general who first investigated the allegations also denied knowing of any direct White House involvement.

REP. NITA LOWEY, (D) NEW YORK: Is there any evidence that the White House directed, requested, recommended, or in any way supported such a review?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not aware of any evidence of that.


KEILAR: The next IRS hearing we'll be watching happens this morning at 10:00 eastern, the second of three high stakes hearings this week.

BERMAN: Yes, this is a busy, busy week in this swirling controversy. Brianna Keilar this morning for us at the White House, thanks so much.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, star Jones is making a personal plea to our own Nancy Grace. She wants to raise awareness of a horrific crime. The sister of her close friend murdered, her body found floating in a Michigan lake partially clothed. Nancy Grace breaks down the evidence.

Plus, the Tsarnaevs has had exactly one conversation with alleged bomber and youngest son Dzhokhar since he was taken into custody. So what did he tell his parents? Find out.


BERMAN: Former "View cohost Star Jones crusading for a grieving friend whose sister was murdered. She's getting people's attention on Facebook and Twitter and making a plea to find this woman's killer.


BERMAN: Star Jones is calling national attention to a mysterious and disturbing murder that hit close to home. A friend's sister was found dead in a Detroit suburb. Police say she had been strangled, and now the former "View" co-host has turned to the public for help. On Facebook she wrote "I'd like to bring some media attention to this case for all kinds of reasons, but most of all because it's personal. Rhonda was my friend's sister."

Rhonda was the name friends and family used for Rosaline Ransom Lee (ph), the 32-year-old mother of three who was last seen alive around 3:00 a.m. on May 26th driving away from her Pontiac, Michigan home in this white dodge minivan. Fishermen found her half naked body Sunday morning floating in nearby Terry Lake.

RICHELLE RANSOM, ROSALINE LEE'S SISTER: We must find out who committed this heinous crime against my sister. We're concerned with justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Richelle Ransom brought attention to her sister's killing by tweeting asking for any information that might lead to an arrest. Star Jones, Richelle's close friend and sorority sister immediately made a public pledge to use her celebrity to seek justice for the family.

RANSOM: She said we have to get Rhonda's story out so do you mind if I reach out to my colleagues and I said of course not. We would be appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jones tweeted if anyone has any clues to please call authorities. Soon, news of Rhonda's death had caught the attention of Holly Robinson Pete, Kim Kardashian, Russel Simmons and HLN's own Nancy Grace.

RANSOM: My sister she was a quite girl and didn't demand a lot of attention.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now the family is praying that this attention will prompt witnesses to come forward and help police catch the killer.

RANSOM: If you live in Pontiac, Michigan and you saw anything, please contact the Oakland county sheriff's department.


BERMAN: HLN's Nancy Grace is here with us now this morning. Nancy is dedicating a lot of time to the story. And Nancy, you know, Star personally reached out to help from you in this case. She's a friend of the victim's family. Star Jones will be on your show tonight talking about this horrible murder. I guess the question is what caught your attention in this case?

NANCY GRACE, HOST, HLN'S "NANCY GRACE": Well, I would never have even known about the case. And I study 50 to 125 or so cases every morning starting at about 5:00 a.m. And I had not even heard about this case until Star Jones sent me an e-mail. I saw a random e-mail. I didn't even think it was for real and I opened it up and realized it was from Star.

Star and I used to work together a long time ago at Court TV. That's how I know Star. I started reading the facts and it seemed to me that the case of Rosaline Ransom Lee was somehow getting lost. That it didn't seem to me -- other than the police and her family, that anybody cared about it at all and I want to emphasize something, this is not some girl that;s hanging out at a bar that you think, oh, well, some random stranger got her going to her car.

No, this is a mother of three and I'm not denigrating any other murder victim. What I'm saying is this was a young lady that minded her own business. She had three children she was taking care of, and I find it very, very interesting. I do not think this was a random crime. Why? Because the discovery of the body was staged.

She did not die of drowning in a little residential lake. The lake is only 12 acres. It's surrounded by a community. It's like a centerpiece of a community. It's not a boating or excursion lake, and somebody knew her and staged the discovery of the body. She was not murdered in that water. She was manually strangled. You can tell that by the medical examiner report. Someone strangled her with his bare hands. Somebody that knew her.

ROMANS: You point out she is a mother. Three young children, a 12- year-old son, a 6-year-old son, a 9 month old infant. And Rosaline's sister Richelle says the 6-year-old son is asking where his mother is.

You have heard as a former prosecutor stories like this so many times. What does the family do as the investigation comes underway and as more people are talking about it and there's more awareness and maybe some leads, how does the family cope at this point?

GRACE: Well, when I hear the word cope or closure -- in a crime victim's world, there is no such thing. You just wake up in the morning and for a minute before you really are awake you think it was a bad dream and it's not real and then you wake up and you realize it is real and it comes crashing down on you every morning that you wake up if you got to go to sleep the night before.

And I'm thinking about these children that you correctly named out their ages, can you even imagine? My children are now 5 1/2. Every day I do a million things for them. What are they going to do without their mommy? Somebody else can dress them but it's not the same. It's not the same and it never will be the same, and by God I want to find out who did this to this girl.

BERMAN: Nancy you were a former prosecutor. When attention like this comes to a case like this from around the world, from people like you and Star Jones, do investigators welcome this heightened attention?

GRACE: It's a mixed bag. Sometimes they resent it because it brings more scrutiny on whatever they have done in the investigation and somebody will start screaming oh the cops did this wrong and the cops did that wrong. But for the most part I think they welcome it because it brings more attention, more eye balls to it and that may reach somebody that has the key to unlocking this case.

I want to point out one more thing, why I think this is not random. Who in the hay is up -- she had a reason for being up and about that morning. I'm not going to reveal that right now because I promised I wouldn't. But she had a legitimate reason for being up and going where she went at 3:00 a.m. It's a worthy cause. You have to trust me on that if my information is true. Who would be up at 3:00 a.m.? Who would be up and about and see her in her mom's minivan just like mine and attack her? Who?

ROMANS: And that's what maybe this new scrutiny, this new attention will bring to the case some leads, Nancy that will help answer that question, who. And bring some justice to this mother and her children.

GRACE: God willing.

ROMANS: Nancy grace, thanks for joining us.

BERMAN: Don't forget --

GRACE: No, thank you. Thank you guys for putting more light on you. Thank you.

BERMAN: And you will be putting more light on it again tonight. You will interview Star Jones that's on HLN at 8:00 p.m. eastern time.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, the parents of alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are releasing details of their first conversation with their son since he has been taken into custody. Hear what he tells them about his life in prison.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Minding your business this morning. Stock futures are mixed but we're watching for another super Tuesday. Did you know the Dow has risen the past 20 Tuesdays? That's the longest winning streak for any day of the week since the year 1900. Look at the size of the gains. The Dow had more than 1500 points on the Tuesdays in 2013. The stock market loves Tuesdays. We'll see if it holds today.

Forget the bread or the English muffin, use a doughnut instead. Check out the new breakfast sandwich from Dunkin Donuts. It's a fried egg and bacon, sandwiched between two glazed donuts. You see that? Berman just ran out of the NEWSROOM. He's running down the street right now. Company is rolling it out nationwide on Friday. For those counting calories it checks in with 360 calories, 30 calories less than the turkey sausage breakfast, which it considers a reduced fat option.

BERMAN: We talk about Google, we talk about Apple but I think we ignore the fact that some of our greatest innovation right now is happening in breakfast sandwiches.

ROMANS: This is true. Well, we have the taco waffle.

BERMAN: Yeah, this is big.

ROMANS: That's being tested from Taco Bell in California.

BERMAN: Big one. ROMANS: There it is. America out innovates the rest of the world.

BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, can you afford a trip to Disney with your family? We're going to look at what it costs for a family of four to hit the Magic Kingdom. The staggering numbers just ahead.

And then, he turned embarrassment into patriotism. See what this young man did after his symbol went flying during a school concert. It is ingenious, it is awesome. You're watching STARTING POINT.