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Suspect in Custody After School Shooting; Chris Christie's State of the State at 3:00; Texas Family Wants Answers on Man's Death; Officers in Thomas Kelly Death Acquitted;

Aired January 14, 2014 - 11:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Got a little bit of new we're following. A suspect is apparently being held after a shooting at Berrendo Middle School in New Mexico. We know the suspect is being held after the shooting. It is very unclear as to exactly what motive might have inspired this. There was a Facebook page that was part of this investigation, the Roswell Police Department's Facebook page indicating they were able to get some information out there. Two children taken to the hospital. We're going to continue to watch this story. Troubling, nonetheless, to see the two children taken to the hospital.

I want to get you to one of the big stories. Chris Christie's SOS. When you think it is an SOS in the conventional way, it is not. It is a State of the State, an annual address that will probably get more attention outside the state, New Jersey, than ever before. Chris Christie is making a lot of national news. He is facing two investigations, including the George Washington Bridge jam and a federal audit of a tourism ad campaign that overlapped his re-election campaign and some Sandy relief money that was used is under the gun right now. The New Jersey governor is speaking to lawmakers at 3:00 eastern. It is about three and a half hours from now.

Our Wolf Blitzer is keeping an eye on things. He joins me from D.C. with the preview.

I always wonder whether that's the best idea, especially in a circumstance where you are so formal in a State of the State, to yet again address this controversy over Bridgegate head on, in front of lawmakers and a national audience, or move on. I assume he is not making this decision alone.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: I am sure he has his advisers, although some of them are gone. He got rid of them after the scandal really exploded. I am sure he is consulting with people he trusts, presumably, his wife and others.

There are pros and cons. If you have a paragraph in there, even if it is only 30 seconds or a minute, reiterating what he said at the beginning of his news conference, apologizing, saying he had no knowledge, was blindsided. He took immediate action. That is going to get most of the attention. He has issues involving schools and education and other issues. That will certainly be the lead of whatever he says about the George Washington bridge traffic jam scandal. If he doesn't say anything, it looks like he is running away and hiding. There are pros and cons. I suspect he will say something. It will be brief and he will move on to some of the more substantive issues he wants to address.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you this. As we look at these two investigations that have been launched over the hurricane sandy relief money and the tourism ads and the traffic closures on the bridge, something else is starting to bubble as well. It is not an investigation. It is a concern being raised by the New Jersey city mayor who says that when he didn't endorse Chris Christie for governor, miraculously, sort of, all at the same time, almost all on the same day, official meetings started dropping like flies, cancellations started coming in one after the other almost within the same hour from state officials. There are even e-mails that he wrote at the time saying, "What's going on here? This better not be connected to me sort of refusing to give the endorsement." "Let me know if we can help set up any meetings for you in Trenton as you enter transition," from the Christie campaign manager. "Within the past hour, I have received phone calls from four stop state officials, they reported scheduling conflicts and offered no alternative dates." That sounds fishy. Is the mayor going to have to address that head- on?

BLITZER: Here is the problem that the governor has. Was the traffic jam incident isolated or other acts of political vendetta that are going to be documented? Other cities, Hoboken, elsewhere, they are looking into stuff that happened after a Democratic candidate didn't endorse Christie or whatever. People want to see, is this just isolated? Is it part of a pattern? Was it this political vindictiveness? Maybe there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe that's the way politics are done not only in New Jersey but a whole bunch of other states that we shouldn't be shocked, shocked, shocked when we hear that. There's going to be a lot of these kinds of investigations, a lot more stories in the coming days and weeks that are going to emerge.

BANFIELD: Wolf Blitzer, thank you for that.

Be sure to watch Wolf at 1:00 eastern in "The Situation Room," also at 5:00. Wolf always has a great take on that. A good day to be watching Wolf as Chris Christie takes to the microphone again for the State of the State.

I want to bring in columnist and progressive activist, Sally Kohn; and columnist and political commentator, Will Cain.

Sally, let me begin with you.

I was reading something you wrote earlier, Sally. You are suggesting that at the very worst, Chris Christie is like a bully who ordered and fired his staff to punish political opponents. If that's not the case, he seems like a passive leader that doesn't have a handle on the top staff. I think critics of yours would say you are delighting and licking your chops at a time when none of this is proven. This is a media darling for press good and bad. Is that fair?

SALLY KOHN, COLUMNIST & ACTIVIST: I don't know about the chop-licking part. I'm not sure I ever licked my chops.


BANFIELD: Figuratively.

KOHN: It was the folks on the right who for a long time have been out to get Christie. They are the ones that are really delighting in this. Look, of course, anyone who is a Democrat, a progressive, anyone that looked at Christie as a serious threat or contender or one of them for 2016 presidential race is going to look at this and say, you know, OK, yes, it is convenient, right? Of course. That's obviously some of why it is getting air time.

I do think there is some genuine concern here, right? Just like when we hear about any political official, left or right, Democrat or Republican. Those invested in seeing government work, in seeing government do the good of the people and be free from corruption, abuse, bullies, political retribution, are authentically and rightly concerned that something might not be right here.



BANFIELD: The reality is that there are three big questions that are now rearing their ugly heads at the New Jersey governor. Whether they are resolved or not, maybe it is just optics. Maybe it is the intense headlines. He is taking a hit in the polls. His approval ratings, personally and professionally are down. Does that matter? Can he recover? Is he the master at recovering? How much mastery does he need?

CAIN: His numbers are down in New Jersey. The numbers suggest across the nation, his perception and poll numbers across the nation haven't largely changed. Maybe a little bit. The questions become, the folks in Trenton and Christie may be shaking in their boots that they lost Sally Kohn's support that she thinks it is a big deal. How representative is that of the Independent voters. There is a should and a will question. Should it affect his numbers and will it affect his numbers? Let's just address will. I'm suggesting to you it is not going to manufacture too much of a deal here. It suggests that Chris Christie is a hard-ball politician. These scandals make him look like every other politician, straight talking, honest, anti- politician that he has painted a picture of himself as. It turns out he potentially could be another guy like every other politician in this country. That's the risk. Do Independents care about that? I don't think it's near as much as Sally --


BANFIELD: Go ahead.

I just have to cut it off there.

You know what, Sally. You, as I've heard from a little bird, are going to be co-hosting "Crossfire" tonight at 6:30. Did I hear right? KOHN: It's true. Looking forward to it.

BANFIELD: You get to say even more, then.


CAIN: Good luck, Sally.

KOHN: Thanks, Will.

BANFIELD: Check out Sally this evening, she is guest hosting "Crossfire," 6:30 right here on CNN.

Thank you to both of you, Sally, Will.

CAIN: You bet.

KOHN: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Another story on the agenda today, a Texas family wants some answers after a man dies under some very mysterious circumstances. They say investigators may not be telling us the entire truth. It all comes from a town that made some massive, massive ugly headlines over a decade ago.


BANFIELD: At a middle school in Roswell, New Jersey, the state officials are saying there is no longer any threat. They do have someone under arrest, someone apprehended. That went out via the Roswell Police Department's Facebook. They also have buses taking the children. This is apparently a school including grades 6 through 8. They are taking those kids away from the school via bus now. They are giving information locally to parents who may need to find out how to connect with their children. They are sending that out via Facebook as well. But, again, the threat is alleviated. There were two kids who were transported to a medical center in Roswell. We don't know what the condition of those kids are at this time. But there you have it, the update from Roswell.

A family is demanding some answers. They want to know about a mysterious death of a husband and dad in Texas. His name is Alfred Wright. He was found dead with severe trauma to the head and neck. Why did they get information from officials that said he died of a drug overdose? Severe trauma to the head and neck, officially a drug overdose?

Deb Feyerick has this exclusive report.

I do want to warn you, some of the images may be disturbing.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The sun was just going down when Alfred Wright pulled into this liquor store on a long, quiet stretch in east Texas. The 28-year-old physical therapist was on his way to see a patient when his unreliable pickup truck broke down again. His wife, Lauren, who was home with their two young sons, immediately sent for his parents to get him.

LAUREN WRIGHT, WIFE: The last time I called him, I just heard heavy breathing. He went into distress of some sort. He was not responding to anything I was saying.

FEYERICK: His parents were still 20 minutes away. Lauren was growing frantic, sending text after text.

LAUREN WRIGHT: At 5:57, "Trying to get to you. Answer the phone, answer the phone, please answer." At 6:16, I said, "Please answer," and that was after I had already heard him in distress of some sort.

FEYERICK: When his parents got to the store, they saw Alfred's truck but no sign of Alfred, only the clerk behind the counter.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT, FATHER OF ALFRED: I went and asked her had she saw a clean-cut young black guy in scrubs. She told me, yes, I saw him out on his cell phone by his truck. All of the sudden, he put his cell phone in his sock and took off running like the truck was going to blow up.

FEYERICK: The clerk did not want to be interviewed by CNN but told us he left of his own free will. A phrase she repeated several times.

FEYERICK (on camera): Did he have anything to be afraid of?


FEYERICK: Did he have any enemies?

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: Not that I know of.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Alfred Wright grew up in Jasper and played college football. A musical family, his dad is a pastor and middle school gym teacher. His mom raised five children, including the youngest, Savyon (ph), who tried out for "American Idol."


FEYERICK: His family said, Alfred always seemed happy.

LAUREN WRIGHT: Alfred was a man of great faith.


LAUREN WRIGHT: He loved his family, very ambitious, very driven and hard working. His work ethic was phenomenal, fun loving and brilliant.

FEYERICK: So why would he walk, especially alone in the Texas woods, when he knew help was on the way. This part of the county is about a 45-minute drive it from Jasper, the town where more than 15 years ago, James Burg Jr (ph) was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men. People who live in this area, black and white, say racial tension is always just beneath the surface and that things aren't always as they appear, which is why when Alfred's watch and items of clothing turned up on a ranch near the liquor store where he was last seen, his family raced there to try to find him. His wife was the first to spot a piece of blue cloth, the same color as the medical scrubs Alfred was wearing the last time she saw him.

LAUREN WRIGHT: It was a perfectly re rectangular piece of fabric hanging from the barbed wire fence hanging perfectly.

FEYERICK (on camera): Did it look like it had been put there, that he had been ripped off --


LAUREN WRIGHT: It definitely looked like it had been ripped off.

FEYERICK (voice-over): For more than three days, sheriff's deputies searched the area. The family's lawyer, Ryan McLeod, said the sheriff's department told them especially trained dogs lost his scent near a creek.

RYAN MCLEOD, WRIGHT FAMILY ATTORNEY: If Alfred's body is there, it is incredibly unimaginable to me that dogs would not have found his body.

FEYERICK: Tom Maddox, a sheriff in the county, was on scene during the search.

LARUEN WRIGHT: He showed me the circumference of the area. He showed me this whole circular piece here had been searched. He told me, numerous times, if he was in the area, that he would -- they would find him.

FEYERICK: The sheriff's daughter and Alfred Wright were apparently friendly and knew each other in their health care jobs. So it came to a surprise to the Wrights when, after four days, without warning, the sheriff abruptly called off the search, telling the family --

MCLEOD: Your son is just a missing person. My guys are tired. We have exhausted our resources and funds. We are done.

FEYERICK: Done with the search and done with any investigation. The Wrights say the sheriff concluded there was no foul play, even taking it a step further.

(on camera): The sheriff offered an explanation this was probably drug-related, he was probably having some hallucination that caused him to rip off his clothes. So there was no foul play. Does that sound like your husband?

LAUREN WRIGHT: Not at all. After they had found the clothing and his watch, his I.D., they told me there was still no evidence of foul play.

FEYERICK: Did you believe that?

LAUREN WRIGHT: No, I don't. FEYERICK (voice-over): Alfred Wright had been missing for 19 days, and with many questions and few answers, Thanksgiving week, dozens of volunteers did their own search in the cold and rain.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: When Pastor Luther gave the holler, everybody, come to me, come to me. I knew the sound in his voice and it was not good. It was not good. I remember asking him, is it a body, and someone say yes.

FEYERICK: In an area of the ranch supposedly already searched by deputies was the body of Alfred Wright found nearly three weeks after his truck broke down.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: When I first found him, when we found him, I walked up on him and that experience spoke out to me. He said, Daddy, I knew you were going to find me.

They say it was in this area.

FEYERICK (on camera): OK.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: His head was in this area. His feet was back here. He was neatly laid. He was neatly laid.

FEYERICK (on camera): Wearing only boxer shorts, his shoes, and a single sock with his cell phone tucked inside, it wasn't just position but the condition of the body that also seemed strange.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: This is the first thing I noticed, how smooth his forearms and his back, were just as smooth. No scratches at all.

FEYERICK: But he was missing an ear, two front teeth, and his throat appeared cut. In an echo of the sheriff's prediction, the coroner's report described Alfred Wright's body filled with drugs and ruled it an overdose.

The family had never seen Alfred take drugs. They don't believe the report and they don't believe that drugs explained the condition of his body.

(on camera): Knowing that the watch was found here, his clothes are found here and the body was found here, what does that lead you to think?

MCLEOD: It leads me to believe that there is a crime scene somewhere. And that timing is of the utmost importance. Every single day that goes by, evidence is lost or destroyed.

FEYERICK: Based on what you know, what do you think happened to Alfred Wright?

MCLEOD: I think he was murdered. I really don't have a doubt. My question now, just like the family, is who did it.



BANFIELD: Tonight, Deb Feyerick has the second part of this exclusive report, including what that autopsy report showed, and that's coming up on "A.C. 360" at 8:00 p.m. eastern tonight.


#; Two California police officers accused of beating a schizophrenic homeless man to death have been acquitted on all of the charges they were facing in court. Former Fullerton officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, heard the verdicts yesterday, not guilty on charges of second-degree murder, involuntary plan slaughter and excessive use of force. And right there you see the reaction. This is the victim in the case, 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who died several days after the incident, which happened back in July of 2011. The story sparked a massive outcry after this surveillance video was released, showing Kelly Thomas being beaten and tased by those police officers, all while he was crying out for his father. The officers argue that Thomas had been resisting and was fighting back. But his family says that the officers got away with murder.


CATHY THOMAS, MOTHER OF THOMAS KELLY: Part of me died that night with Kelly. Part of me died that night. Part of me died in court.

RON THOMAS, FATHER OF THOMAS KELLY: I can finally start a little bit of closure. It's not what I wanted. But I haven't even grieved for my son, I have been so on one track only. And it's time I do all of that.


BANFIELD: According to the "Los Angeles Times," the FBI is now saying that it is going to review all of this evidence to see if any kind of further investigation may be necessary now that that court case in California is done.

And I am joined by our legal analysts, Danny Cevallos and Lisa Bloom.

So, Lisa, let me begin with you. The FBI is getting involved. What might be up their sleeve?

LISA BLOOM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Maybe some civil rights charges. It reminds me very much of the George Zimmerman case, where there is an acquittal, a lot of people dissatisfied so we ask the FBI and feds to look into it. The reality is I think it's unlikely there will be federal charges. It's hard to get convictions against police officers. We see that in case after case. Even what is a horrific video like there is here, even when the person beaten to death is unarmed and guilty of no crime, as is the case here. It's just very difficult to get criminal charges to stick against police officers.

BANFIELD: And, Danny, why is that? Could you explain to me what objectively reasonable means when it comes to people who are resisting arrest and the kind of force that's needed for officers? Especially when it comes to what the jury is told?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: OK. So first, the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment does not require that police officers use the least intrusive method of force in effectuating an arrest. So there is no requirement. Secondly, consider this. The California jury instructions on excessive force, this is what the judge would have told the jury before they deliberated, and it's that an officer need not retreat or desist in the face of resistance. Now, think about that. That's the law. And we may disagree on whether that's fair or not, but courts have made it clear, they will look at the police officers' decision at the time based on the facts that he was confronted with. They recognize that police officers have to make split-second decisions. So courts will not engage in Monday morning quarterbacking. Rather they'll look at what was available to the officer at the time. But it's important to remember that jury was likely told by the judge that an officer need not retreat, he need not desist when a suspect is resisting arrest.

BANFIELD: Well, and even though there was all that elation in the courtroom, we saw those pictures, it may not be over if the FBI indeed decides to come down with what Lisa outlined, those civil rights violations that they might be looking at.

Lisa, good to see you as always. Thank you.

BLOOM: You, as well.

And, Danny, you too.

You both take care and thanks for your work today.

And we are flat out of time. Thanks so much for being with us. Make sure you stay tuned because AROUND THE WORLD starts right after this quick break.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: An American journalist is booted out of Russia, a reminder of the Cold War tensions of the past. Was it a Visa problem, or because he was critical of President Vladimir Putin? We're going to hear from that journalist up next.