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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Obama Calls German Chancellor About Ukraine; Mom Arrested After Driving Kids Into Ocean; Blade Runner's Ex: "He Cheated On Me With Reeva"

Aired March 7, 2014 - 19:00   ET

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


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Next, Vladimir Putin defiant a day after his call with President Obama. The Russian president tightens his grip on Crimea tonight.

Plus, charges filed against a pregnant woman who drove her children into the ocean. Hear the 911 call from her sister.

Potentially damming testimony at the Oscar Pistorius trial. The "Blade Runner's" ex-girlfriend tells the court about his anger issues and love for guns. Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good Friday evening, everyone. I'm Erin Burnett. We begin OUTFRONT tonight with the breaking news. President Obama calling on a major ally tonight to help bring President Putin back from the brink. We have just heard from the White House that the president spoke on the phone with German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas making Merkel the most crucial player when it comes to putting pressure on china. There are no signs that Russia is backing down tonight. Leaders of the parliament they would only suggest attempts tonight. The Crimean authorities are cracking down. They've had their signals blocked on television.

One of them says Russian state TV is now actually being broadcast instead. I want to show you this dramatic new video that we have. This is a Bulgarian journalist being beaten by unidentified masked men group. That guy put a gun to his head. Those mask men are identified.

But that was a journalist, as we said, from Bulgaria, and our own journalist on the scene, Anna Coren, was temporarily forced to stop broadcasting. We weren't sure if we were going to get her, but she is available right now.

Anna Coren joins me now. Anna, what can you tell us about what you've experienced? We just saw that footage of the Bulgarian journalist. Where are you tonight? How are you able to get up and able to talk to us?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Erin, we had to change premises. The hotel we were staying told us that we had to stop broadcasting that, you know, basically we had to shut down our operation. That was just before we went to air last night. Yes, we've moved premises, our broadcasting for now, but as you would have seen from that CCTV footage, that Bulgarian journalist, it's scary to what is going on here.

You know, there's a real angst here and hostility towards the media and the government here, the self-appointed government here in Crimea, which has only been in power for a week, they are cracking down on any dissent, any opposition. You mentioned those television stations. You know, the two Crimean television stations. They don't want any other opposing voices in this region certainly on the lead up to that referendum.

Now the other disturbing events that have just taken place this afternoon. Russian troops, unidentified Russian troops, Erin, they've tried to storm a Ukrainian base, about an hour and a half from where we are here. They had surrounded the base. They told the Ukrainians to surrender. The Ukrainians refused.

They then got their truck and rammed the gates and got into the base. Apparently the Ukrainians formed a human shield and basically stopped them from coming in. The Russians were given orders to retreat. They did that. The problem is when the local militia arrived. They clashed with some journalists. Things are changing here, Erin, very, very quickly. There's this angst and hostility towards the media and towards the west.

BURNETT: All right, thank you very much. Anna Coren, as we said they were able to broadcast. She had to put incredible effort into being able to do that.

I want to bring now in the former intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Colonel Cedric Leighton and Keith Darden, author of "Resisting Occupation in Eurasia." Great to have both of you with us.

Colonel, let me start with you. You heard Anna Coren reporting. It's very difficult there to get a broadcast signal up. There's a lot of animosity to the west. The Russians appeared to be fully at this point in control of Crimea to external view that's what it seems to be.

Vladimir Putin defying warnings from the United States saying, you know what, bring them on, in terms of sanctions. I'm not worried it. They'll, quote/unquote, "boomerang." Does the United States have anything it can do here or is this done? This is a done deal. Crimea is now part of Russia.

COLONEL CEDRIC LEIGHTON, FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, U.S. AIR FORCE: Well, I think that's exactly what Putin wants to believe he is in control of everything that is going on in the cry mere yes, which is journalist -- he's using that as a way in the media and as well as with the audience. He's thinking that if he does this, he will gain the upper hand and he will basically outlive sanctions. He will be able to circumvent them in various ways. He thinks they will have that. He's basically going for broke.

BURNETT: Keith, it also brings in how important the breaking news that we just had, which is that the president of the United States just spoke with the chancellor of Germany. You know, the United States could put sanctions in place and obviously the world pays attention to that and it's significant.

I don't mean to minimize it. The most important thing frankly is what Angela Merkel and other European leaders do. If she doesn't say I'm going to take the pain. I'm not having Russian natural gas, which she may well not want to do, then where is the leverage.

KEITH DARDEN, AUTHOR, "RESISTING OCCUPATON IN EURASIA: That's right, Erin. I don't think the germ manages are going to cut off the natural clause. I think I agree with the Putin is not in control in any ways. He's reacting to events in Kiev to a great extent. If we can work with the government in Kiev, there are things that Putin wants. There are reasons why he intervened in this case.

And if we can say decentralize some authority in Kiev so he is less threatened by having an opposition government in power. I think we might be able to get him to walk back from this in a way that might be even more effective than sanctions.

BURNETT: Colonel, what about what else we heard? Which is that the Pentagon first of all, was saying that they knew about this well in advance. There's been a big fight in Washington. You've had people in Congress saying, you know what, intelligence failure again. You didn't know it was happening. You didn't know it was happening.

Well, the intelligence community in the U.S. is fighting back and fighting back big time. This is Lt. General Michael Flynn from Defence Intelligence Agency on NPR today. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN, DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I think for easily seven to ten days leading up to the Russian troops as we see them now into Crimea, we were providing a very solid reporting on what I would describe as strategic warning where we moved from one level of a condition of warning which I would just describe it and we believe they are imminent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Well, it sounds like they're trying to say that they knew all the way along. All right, so first of all, do you buy that? But also, if so, why has the U.S. not been able to do anything about it?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think what General Flynn was talking about. Predictive capabilities aren't what they used to be when it comes to intelligence. And quite frankly, I don't believe, you know, as an experienced intelligence officer, I don't believe they did all of they needed to do to find out what the Russians were up to.

There was no way that they got into the Russian's head and were able to actually say, OK, Putin, is going to do this tomorrow or whenever and that is what's missing from our intelligence picture at this point. BURNETT: Interesting point on their credibility and Keith, to that point, when the colonel talks about what's getting in their heads, the Pentagon today said they are studying Vladimir Putin's body language. That they say that they can actually maybe get some sense of what he's doing. Maybe think of the George Clooney movie, you know, about staring at goats, right, psychoanalysis but --

DARDEN: Or we could just look into his eyes and read his soul as some previous administrations are trying to do.

BURNETT: Is this something to take seriously in any way, shape or form? Are going to read his body language, what are they going to get out of that?

DARDEN: No, I think it's very obviously. I mean, it's not surprising that we saw troop movements. Seven to 10 days before they moved into Crimea, Ukraine was on the brink of civil war and Ukraine is Russia's neighbour. It's not too shocking that they were moving their troops surrounding those border areas. I think it's more likely, you know, that -- to interpret Putin's actions, we, you know, we can judge his reaction to what's been happening in Kiev. And he's not been happy with what's been going on Kiev.

And so to a certain extent, if we can influence that process, we can get a sense of how he'll behave. I don't think he know what he was going to do seven to 10 days before -- to move these troops into Crimea. It had a lot to do with the fact that Yanukovych government was overthrown.

BALDWIN: All right, well, thanks very much to both of you and in that word overthrown is the key to everything because here's the question, is Vladimir Putin in the right? Is he in the right? It's a crucial question, he maybe and we are going to have the answer to that or tried to later on the show.

OUTFRONT next, charges filed against a pregnant we drove her children into the ocean. Hear the 9/11 call from her sister just before the horrific incident.

Shocking testimony today at the Oscar Pistorius trial. This was the most shocking day so far, face to face with his ex-girlfriend.

And one of the most corrupt towns in America. Why lawmakers might wipe this dukes of hazard-like town off the map?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: The woman who drove her three children into the ocean has now been arrested and charged with three counts of attempted first degree murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse. Tonight, we are hearing the 911 call that Ebony Wilkerson's sister made just hours before Ebony drove her children into the water.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My sister was getting abused by her husband. I tried to take her to the hospital yesterday. She's getting a little bit better, but she's still not all here. She's trying to drive and I'm trying to stop her. She has her kids. I took her keys. She is talking about Jesus and that there's demons in my house and that I'm kind of controlling her, but I'm trying to keep them safe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: We've reached out to Wilkerson's husband as well. We have not yet heard back from him, but the 911 operator said she was going to send an officer to the home. That though -- it happened too late. Wilkerson found a second set of keys and left in her car. I want to note something important because police pursued it then. They did catch up to her.

But then according to the report that they filed when they found her before she drove the car in the ocean, I want to emphasize, they said she's suffering from some sort of mental illness, but they said she was lucid so they let her go. Subsequently she drove that mini van into the ocean. Officials say that Wilkerson who is 27-1/2 weeks pregnant with her fourth child then intentionally locked the van, raised the windows and drove her children into the water.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF BEN JOHNSON, VOLUELA COUNTY, FLORIDA: She actually told them to closed their eyes and go to sleep. She was taking them to a better place. The children said, Mama's trying to kill us. We had witnesses who tried to get the children out of the car, which she tried to keep them from rescuing the children. She definitely tried to kill her children from everything we have seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Joining me now is criminal defense attorney, George Parnham who served as Andrea Yates lawyer. Yates confessed to killing her five children by drowning them in a bathtub. You all probably remember that horrible story. She was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. Also joining me is psychotherapist, Rubi Ludwig.

All right, great to have both of you with us. I appreciate it. Robi, here with me, let me start with you. The sheriff said that they didn't find any past mental health issues. Interesting that they stopped her before she did this. Just imagine if she had successfully killed her children. How we'd be looking at that moment now where they said, well, she mentally not with it, but lucid so we let her go.

ROBI LUDWIG, PSYCHOTHERAPIST: I can't imagine why anybody would make that kind of intervention unless they didn't have knowledge about how mentally ill people can be dangerous when they're not well. Just because this woman doesn't have a documented history of a mental illness, it doesn't mean that she wasn't battling with a long time mental illness that either went untreated or just wasn't quite as obvious.

You know, there are a lot of stressors in this woman's life that could make her florally psychotic because it does sound like this woman was psychotic according to the sister's report.

BURNETT: So George, how does it play in here with what we've just heard the sheriff say that she told the children they were going to a better place. She put up the windows. I mean, she clearly was preparing for what she did. It was purposeful. She knew what she was doing. Do you see it any way to plead insanity in that case?

GEORGE PARNHAM, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Sure. There's no question but that the insanity standard in the state of Florida comes into play in this situation. Remember that to commit an act that is prosecuted as a crime, one has to intent to commit that particular act. But individuals that are insane intend to commit acts all the time.

And consequently cannot be -- if they are in fact determined to be insane cannot be held responsible criminally for their particular actions. I think insanity will comes into play. I also had that question that was raised earlier -- we've got the sister making the call about the safety -- concern about the safety of the children.

BURNETT: Right.

PARNHAM: And that 911 call, we've got the officer stopping this woman and determining that she evidenced mental illness, but yet is lucid wonder if in fact the second prong of the Baker Act in dictating an involuntary examination. If that was taken into consideration, the sister's phone call about the safety of the kids and what is lucid --

BURNETT: That's a big question. I want to play to your point, George, what the sheriff said about after the incident when she had driven the car into the ocean, what sort of state of mind she appeared to be in. Here's the sheriff again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNSON: She was very cooperative, very calm, very lucid. Apparently I thanked, according to her, she had some college education. I figured it was very calm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: What say to you?

LUDWIG: Listen, this woman could have felt comfortable being, you know, not being able to act on her impulses. She might have felt comfortable that she was safe now. That people had her in custody. I just want to point out that if she were psychotic, she was could have believed that, you know, because she saw bird flying over the ocean.

It was a sign that she should kill children because it was altruistic and being heaven would be safer than being around an abusive husband. I mean, we don't know what her mind set is. Her intention to kill might have been not to harm, but to save her kids in some bizarre illogical psychotic way.

BURNETT: It's impossible to imagine, George and so horrific that act that she apparently, again, apparently, we don't know allegedly intended to commit, but what sort of sentence might she -- she face. I mean, I guess, whether she's, you know, insane and that works or obviously she is not insane, I would imagine that will be death. But what about if she is insane?

PARNHAM: I think if the jury determines that she doesn't meet the insanity standard in the state of Florida, then she could receive up to life in the penitentiary. I would certainly urge her court appointed defense attorney or retained defense attorney to get in there immediately and see her even videotape her if in fact, she presents physical manifestations of a mental illness. A person who is psychotic frequently will talk in terms of disorganized thought.

This whole issue that the sheriff talks about, about being calm. I've seen many, many instances where individuals are legally insane and yet act as calm as a cucumber after the act that the commit that lands them in jail charged with an offense. So that isn't necessarily determined of the state of mind of that person.

BURNETT: All right, well, thanks very much to both of you. A lot to think about there. Hard to imagine the context of the horrible thing that almost happened.

Still to come, government waste gone wild. We are going to take you in a special OUTFRONT investigation to one of the most corrupt towns in the entire United States of America. The mayor is in jail. They are shady accounting and there is a lot of missing money.

Plus an ex-girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius takes the stand talks about their relationship, his anger issues and this incident --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw Oscar and take his gun and shoot out of the car roof.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Oscar Pistorius came face to face with his ex-girlfriend today in some of the most dramatic testimony we've heard so far. The "Blade Runner's" ex-girlfriend told the court about his temper, his guns and his alleged infidelity with the woman he killed. Robyn Curnow is OUTFRONT in Pretoria.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He cheated on me with Reeva Steenkamp.

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fighting through the tears the ex-girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius testified against the athlete, who is accused of murdering Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day last year. Pistorius denies cheating on Samantha Taylor when the two dates in 2011 and 2012. During the on again, off again relationship, they appeared on a South African television show.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sam, what have you come to love about Oscar?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is lots of fun. He has so much energy.

OSCAR PISTORIUS: She's just really laid back. She understands some of the demands that I have, and it makes my life a lot easier spending time with someone that's very caring.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're both blush being.

CURNOW: But in court, Taylor told of a much different story and spoke about their often rocky relationship.

SAMANTHA TAYLOR, PISTORIUS EX-GIRLFRIEND: He would scream out of anger.

CURNOW: She told the court about reckless behavior saying she once saw him shoot through a gun at sunroof after police pulled him over.

TAYLOR: Oscar and Darren were pretty anxious and a little bit irritated with the policeman. About 2 minutes after, I saw Oscar take his gun and shoots out of the car roof.

CURNOW: Pistorius denies that shooting ever took place. Though the Blade Runner's ex testified Pistorius kept a gun with him at all times including when he slept.

TAYLOR: He placed his fire on next to his -- on the bed side table or next to his legs on the floor.

CURNOW: Pistorius showed no visible signs of emotion as Taylor challenged the defense's claim that the screams witnesses heard the night of the shooting came from Pistorius and not a woman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Heavy screams and he is really anxious, he sounds like a woman.

TAYLOR: That is not true. He sounds like a man.

CURNOW: Prosecutors also called a security guard on duty the night of the shooting. In a potentially damning testimony, he told the court that shortly after shots were fired, he called Pistorius to make sure everything was OK.

PETER BABA, SILVERWOOD ESTATE SECURITY GUARD (through translator): I then spoke to Mr. Pistorius. That is when Mr. Pistorius said to me, "Security, everything is fine."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CURNOW: What was seen over this first week of the trial is a lot of scene setting type of witnesses, the neighbors who heard noises, heard what they thought were gunshots. What we haven't heard are from the expert witnesses, the police, forensics, ballistics. We haven't had a pathology report. So it's that kind of information, hard evidence that we are expecting to see in this court over the next week or so. Back to you, Erin. BURNETT: All right, thanks so much to Robyn. Don't miss Robyn's special in the Oscar Pistorius trial. You've seen her reporting on the show all week. She has a great show tonight, tonight at 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

Still to come, Vladimir Putin defiant. But could the Russian president actually be in the right.

Plus, a major grocery store chain gobbled up by an investor. Is your grocery store going to go up while that investor's tax bill goes way down?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: More on our top story tonight, which is the crisis in Ukraine. We're learning that President Obama this afternoon called the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and they spoke about the crisis in the Ukraine. Of course, as we've been telling you, Merkel is perhaps the most important player here in terms of the Western perspective. Germany is the biggest single buyer of Russian energy. Energy, of course, is Russia's biggest export. That makes Merkel the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin.

OUTFRONT tonight, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton. Also the author of a cover story for "The Nation" this week called "Media Malpractice: Putin, Sochi, and Ukraine." And also journalist and author Carl Bernstein; also a CNN political commentator. We have the heavyweights here on this story tonight.

But this is crucial question about who's in the right and what's really happening. Let's start with this call to Angela Merkel. This was a significant moment for the president, perhaps even more important than his calls with Vladimir Putin, which seemed to be a lot of rhetorical swordsmanship.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First of all, I'm not sure I would go that far because the essential conversation is Putin and the president of the United States. Merkel has a key position, a key role because she has an ongoing conversation with Putin, who she does not like. He knows that he has her respect in a grudging way and vice versa. We don't know yet what was said.

One thing: it's been a big mistake to lump the Germans as "the Germans" here. She presides over a coalition. She would like to have much tougher sanctions along the lines of what the president wants. Others in her coalition do not. And I think part of the conversation might well be - and this is total speculation - that there is much more unanimity both in Germany and Europe that unless Putin takes a step back that he is now being regarded in the Western world, in the form communist east even as a Cold Warrrior. Going back to a dangerous time that Russia will never be respected as an equal power with any kind of -- moral equivalency is the key word here. And shame is the tool.

And there's still - what this conversation, I suspect, with Putin last night, the president talked at gret length about the off ramp. That's the question. Is there room for an off-ramp given what Putin has said about Crimea?

BURNETT: Why should there be an off-ramp, Steve? That's my question. If Putin can - now I know you raised the crucial point of moral equivalency, Carl. But if Putin can make the argument that he's in the right. After all, he is the one calling for a democratic referendum in Crimea. He is the one saying the guy who was elected president of Ukraine should be the guy treated as the legitimate government. I mean, in a sense, he's got the U.S. arguments behind his point of view.

STEPHEN COHEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF RUSSIAN STUDIES, NYU: I don't fully understand the expression "off-ramp," but I guess it means way out. Let's - let's just remind ourselves where we are. What used to be the divide of the Cold War in Berlin is now in Russia's border, Ukraine. However dangerous the Cold War is, this is five times more dangerous. This is the worst international crisis since the Cuban missile crisis.

BURNETT: That's a big thing to say.

COHEN: It is a big thing to say.

BURNETT: Ukraine.

COHEN: It's the worst since the missile crisis. Let me tell you what the next step may be. They're talking past each other, the White House and the Kremlin. They're talking right past. People were clamoring in Washington and in Europe to move NATO troops, our military alliance, to the Polish western Ukrainian border in response to what's going on in Crimea. This has been discussed if we, our governments, do this, Putin will send 150,000 troops from inside Russia -- they're not in Crimea, they're in Russia - into southern and eastern Ukraine. And then it is certainly worse than the Cuban missile crisis because we're eyeball to bam ball.

Now, will they take that step? I don't know. And now here's where Merkel becomes significant. I don't agree with Carl about Germany, but let that stand. Merkel and Putin, because he's a fluent German speaker --

BERNSTEIN: She's a Russian speaker also.

COHEN: Well, but they speak in German because - for whatever reasons.

To be able to speak to somebody in a crisis situation in their own language is very important -

BURNETT: Yes, yes.

COHEN: There's a certain - if not empathy, at least they're on the same page.

Secondly, she has vested interest in Russia that are being endangered now. And thirdly, remember one thing: when George Bush the second tried to bring Ukraine into NATO - I forget the year, it might have been 2008 - she vetoed it. She vetoed it. She has sided with Putin in many crises. She's not siding with him now, but Putin doesn't trust Obama. He trusts Merkel. So they should talk.

BURNETT: But what about this issue of legitimacy? I mean, you talk about this moment on the border, which is huge. What about to the rest of the world, Carl? I mean, you know Putin - I know you're going to laugh, and a lot of people laugh, you know, dismiss this. But in the kind of dismissive way people in Washington may, right? Putin gets nominated this week for the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in Syria.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: OK, right. But there are people who think that, oh, he's the one who's been pushing for a political solution. He seems to be trying to get people behind him as some sort of a leader, as a you know what? Come behind this guy because he is going to stand up to the United States.

BERNSTEIN: Steve has been very eloquent about this. Part of the roots of this is that he believes in a manifest destiny of a new Russo- Eurasian empire. Call it what you will. Let by himself, by Russia. It's a dangerous notion the way he's pursuing it, particularly in Ukraine, which he saw Ukraine slipping from the Soviet - from the Russian orbit. And now he's trying to reel it back in.

What has got people back to what Steve is saying, so concerned in Washington is that we don't believe that Putin has a plan. We believe he's doing this on the fly. That he --

COHEN: Oh, he knows exactly what he wants.

BERNSTEIN: Well, he -- he knows what he wants, but he doesn't know what he - he hasn't planned this step by step. He said three days ago, for instance, that Crimea would not become part of the Russian federation. Now he's talking about as if it would become part of the federation. They are absolutely convinced in the national security -

(CROSSTALK)

BERNSTEIN: -- about the danger of the situation is, they think - and Merkel thinks - that he is unpredictable because he is desperate to come out of this thing whole, both in terms of respect for him and the Russian position -

BURNETT: Steve, before we go -

BERNSTEIN: -- without the so-called off ramp, which is what Merkel is going to try to do is somehow offer him a way out. But how can that be - let me ask Steve this. How can you have a way out -

BURNETT: All right.

COHEN: Who's in charge here?

BERNSTEIN: But let me ask. How can you have a way out if the Crimea becomes part formally of the Russian Federation?

COHEN: Yes, I hope that doesn't happen.

(CROSSFIRE)

COHEN: You have to let me finish now, Carl. You spoke eloquently. Let me speak clumsily.

BURNETT: All right. You get the final word here.

COHEN: There's a politics in Russia, believe it or not. And you're a political man. Putin's getting conflicting advice. Crimea belongs to us, it has for hundreds of years, bring it in. Other people say don't do that. Just let Crimea vote for home rule or something. For two reasons. We don't want to provoke the situation, and we keep Crimea as a bargaining card when Obama finally gets his head screwed on and sits down. Don't play the Crimean card so fully.

I haven't seen the language of the resolution, and nobody else has. It hasn't been decided in the Kremlin. When it's decided, we'll analyze this. But let me tell you now. - let me tell you now. We are witnesses to the most fateful and possibly worst turning point in modern history. These leaders better get their act together -

BURNETT: And I have to leave it there.

COHEN: And Putin - blaming Putin is not a way of getting -

BURNETT: I'm going to leave it there, but I think it's a fascinating point you raise, especially in light of a lot of our viewers and people say, look, why do people care about Ukraine? Why do people care about Crimea? We have Syria. We have tens of thousands of people dying. Why do you care? And you make a strong case for why it matters.

COHEN: (INAUDIBLE) That'll focus your attention.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thanks very much to both of you. We appreciate it. There we go.

Now a story that got our whole staff talking today. The second-biggest grocery store operating in the United States has been - is being bought - by a very hungry private equity firm, which is right at the heart of an issue that we care very deeply about on this show. Safeway, bought for $9.4 billion by Cerberus Capital Management, it's a private equity firm, and they're going to merge it with Albertson's. Cerberus is hoping the massive chain will be able to cut costs and compete with retailers, including Wal-Mart and others. Safeway shares fell.

Joining me now, Daily Beast columnist Dan Gross. All right, Dan, I just have to ask you because this story was trending on every single Web site today, and at first we thought why, and then, well, our staff spent 20 minutes discussing it. Here's the bottom line: what does it mean for prices for people who shop at either Albertson's or Safeway?

DAN GROSS, DAILY BEAST COLUMNIST: Well, they don't overlap all that much. Albertson's is basically in 16 states, mostly on the West Coast and the central part of the country. Safeway is everywhere, but they're really heavily concentrated on the East Coast. So, there aren't that many jurisdictions where - say with Burger King or McDonald's, there will be two in the same town and one of them will get shut down.

So those sort of antitrust issues probably will not come into play here.

BURNETT: Here's the thing, Dan. When I said who bought it, I said the name Cerberus. A lot of people probably haven't heard of it. It's a big private equity firm. That means if you know this show, you know that means the bosses of Cerberus get to pay half the taxes as other Americans. So whatever profit they make on this deal, they're going to - well, make a lot more profit than you or I would.

GROSS: Absolutely. You know, Cerberus isn't just any private equity firm. These guys owned Chrysler and GMAC in 2007 and 2008, both of which went bankrupt and required government bailouts. So the - when these guys make bad decisions, there can be cost to the taxpayer. And when they make good decisions, i.e. when they make a lot of money, the taxpayer pays as well because they're taxed - the carried interest rate is taxed at a much lower interest rate than the income that a store manager at Albertson's would make.

BURNETT: Right. Store manager pays 40 percent, boss at Cerberus, everyone, just to rub it in, 20 percent.

And we take you to a Florida town that is so corrupt that it's on the verge of being wiped off the map. A special OUTFRONT investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gary, there are a bunch of critics (ph) and a bunch of really stupid people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Tonight, the most corrupt town in America. The small town of Hampton, Florida may just have that honor. The recently elected mayor in jail for selling drugs. But that's not all. There's accusations of nepotism and a lot of money that's missing. State lawmakers have an idea of clean it up. They want to wipe it off the map. But you know what, it isn't as easy as it should be. And Ed Lavendera has our OUTFRONT investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to the twilight zone of government gone wrong. Hampton, Florida, population 477.

GORDON SMITH, BRADFORD CO. SHERIFF: In all back can relate to it was the old Dukes of Hazzard. They can make (INAUDIBLE) look like a Sunday school teacher.

LAVANDERA: It started a few years ago when the city of Hampton sanctioned a speed trap along Highway 301. The tiny town had 19 police officers. That's one officer for every 25 visits, writing tickets to boost the city's coffers.

Sheriff Gordon Smith says one of the officers was nicknamed "Rambo."

SMITH: He was actually getting out of the car with an AR-15 strapped across his shoulder, had like, SWAT tactical gear on.

LAVANDERA: To write tickets?

SMITH: To write tickets.

LAVANDERA: This is crazy, right?

SMITH: Let me tell ya, that's way above crazy.

LAVANDERA: It wasn't illegal but in three years, officers wrote about $600,000 in traffic fines. But when state auditors examined the city's books, they found a rotten cesspool in this swampy landscape. For starters, how that money was spent is unclear and it's triggered a state criminal investigation.

A few weeks ago, this bombshell was dropped here on the front porch of city hall: an audit of the way the city of Hampton has done its business. Inside, 31 different findings of inappropriate action: questionable recordkeeping. Shady accounting. Accusations of nepotism. Money that's missing. You name it, it's in here. And now some state lawmakers want to make the city of Hampton disappear, wipe it off the map.

According to the audit, several city employees were overpaid roughly $9,000. A state credit card had $27,000 of questionable charges, and $132,000 were charged to a city account at the convenience store next to city hall. City officials say they are reviewing their operations and considering the audit's recommendations.

BARRY MOORE, HAMPTON MAYOR: That's a lot of money.

LAVANDERA: But nothing symbolizes Hampton's woes quite like this. We found the elected mayor sitting in the county jail. He was in office a month-and-a-half when he was arrested in an undercover sting and charged with selling oxycodone. He denies dealing drugs, and he's not connected to the city's financial mess.

The impression right now is that the people who have been running Hampton are just a bunch of crooks.

MOORE: Exactly. And I think that's not very far from the truth at all. They're either a bunch of crooks or a bunch of really stupid people. I hate to say it like that, but it's the truth, you know. I mean, it looks more like they're crooks more than anything.

LAVANDERA: But you've given the situation where you're in -

MOORE: Yes, I look like a crook sitting here in an orange suit, don't I?

LAVANDERA: The city's former clerk, Jane Hall, is one of the central figures in the state's audit. She hasn't been accused of any crimes, but the audit was highly critical of how she handled city business.

After we left, Paul e-mailed us. She wrote the questionable expenditures were for city-related business and is documented. She added, "there has been a deliberate campaign to make me look like some kind of criminal mastermind. That would be like saying Snoopy is Cujo's twin brother."

Told us to make sure we watch the "no trespassing" sign, gave them a chance to talk to us, and they didn't want to.

Former mayor Jim Mitzel walked off the job several years ago. He isn't suspected of any wrongdoing, but Mitzel says the mayor's $125 a month paycheck isn't worth the headache. City officials are asking state lawmakers who want the city shut down for one last chance to fix its problems. The former mayor thinks they should get that chance.

JIM MITZEL, FORMER HAMPTON MAYOR: The government bailed out General Motors; the government bailed out Chrysler. Why can't the state of Florida bail out Hampton? Don't shut our town down. Our town should not be shut down?

LAVANDERA: The saga of a town lost in the woods, mired in a mess that might shut it down forever.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: Ed, that was incredible. I just like watching you go up to each of those doors trying to get people to talk to you. But your conversation with the mayor in jail? That was surreal.

LAVANDERA: The surreal thing about that is actually he went into office because he had heard about all of these things kind of going on. And the irony here is that he wanted to help clean it up in some way. Obviously he wasn't in office long enough.

But you know, now the city of Hampton has been basically given a list of demands essentially from state lawmakers they must comply with in the next few weeks. That means everyone in city government has to go. City council members, mayor, police chief, everybody, as well as some other demands. And if they can meet those demands, state lawmakers might consider giving them another chance. But if not, the wheels are in motion to dissolve the town.

BURNETT: All right. Ed Lavandara, thank you very much. I mean, it's just incredible. And I think the way Ed told the story is amazing. Reihan Salam is with me now, CNN contributor, familiar face to all of our viewers. All right. Ed goes to this town. This town is little. This town is utterly and incredibly corrupt. How common is this?

REIHAN SALAM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The thing is that in Hampton the corruption was spectacular and obvious. You know, you have corrupt money changing hands.

The real problem is, you've got a lot of towns out there where the corruption is subtler. It's not as obvious. You don't see it immediately. Like Bell, California, a town in L.A. County. And this was a town that people didn't pay attention to. You don't have a ton of smart, investigative journalists covering the city hall of Bell, California. And so, a lot of people can get away with a lot of skullduggery and a lot of corruption that just doesn't rise to that spectacular level.

BURNETT: All right, but the point it, it sounds like what you're saying it happens everywhere in different ways at different levels. But this is a huge problem when you talk about waste in a country that has a debt problem and is trying to cut back. I mean, how hard is it for a state to dissolve a town like this? Did you sort of take a gasp as I did when Ed reported the state of Florida might bail this town out?

SALAM: Yes, I certainly did. And the problem is, we have tons of little governments. We don't just have town governments, we have water utility districts, we have school boards. We have so many different governments that you don't always have a lot of accountability there. And that's very hard to undo because they all have vested interests. They all have people who are on the take who make money from the fact you have a ton of these invisible governments.

BURNETT: So Ed, why would they not dissolve this town? Did anyone make an argument to you that made sense?

LAVANDERA: Well, the argument there is that the city runs essentially the water system, which when you read the audit is just apparently full of all sorts of issues that need to be addressed.

But this is a city that has been around for a long time. It's a small town, but there's a great many people in that town who would like to make sure and see that it is saved. A lot of people believe there's some sort of vendetta against the town, that they're trying to dissolve it for whatever reasons. And there's kind of a complex series of reasons for why they believe that. But they feel like they should be able to run themselves. They would essentially be dissolved into Bradford County, and they don't want to see that happen.

BURNETT: But I mean, Reihan, it's interesting what Ed's reporting. I mean, Hampton is an egregious example, but it's not anywhere near as egregious as let's say, Chicago, where corruption apparently -- University of Illinois study. So its own state, not biased, $500 million in corruption, city of Chicago. And you see this the most corrupt cities in this country. It's not going to shock anybody. Chicago, L.A., New York, Miami and Cleveland. You can't dissolve Chicago, L.A. and New York. But that is a cancer that has to be fixed.

SALAM: Well, the thing is, those cities actually have a big advantage. They employ lots of people. And you're going to have some corruption. The cities where you've got a real problem, think about those little suburban cities just south of Chicago. Think about some of those suburban towns in L.A. that don't get the attention, that don't have the smart guys like Ed, the smart reporters uncovering the stuff all the time because they don't have the resources. That's where you have the really big problems, I fear. Whereas New York, Chicago, L.A., you've at least got people who are trying to root out that corruption who are paying attention.

BURNETT: Right. And you have media, certainly we see those reports all the time here in New York. But Ed, from your reporting, why is it so difficult to stop this? I know you looked at Hampton specifically. But do you get the impression that well, nobody really wants to deal with it because that corruption at a different level is happening even above Hampton, even in other places, and nobody wants to draw attention to themselves?

LAVANDERA: Well, I think the oversight issue is the bigger thing, whether it be news media oversight or just internal oversight, where you have people kind of watching each other. When you're kind of out away maybe from an urban center, maybe you're more prone to see this. But you know, a couple of people we talked to, running cities whether it be a small thing -- a small city or a large city it complex these days in many ways. And the sheriff there was wondering whether or not there was just kind of the brain power to handle it all.

BURNETT: All right. Thanks very much to both of you. I appreciate it. Pretty incredible report. We're going to put that online. And we really want your comments on Ed's great report on Hampton.

OUTFRONT next, a man sentenced to death finds unexpected help.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: And we have breaking news right now. Malaysia Airlines confirms it has lost contact with a plane carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Flight MH 370 was headed to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It was a Boeing 777-200. It was expected to land at 6:30 a.m. local time. Now, it's almost 9:00 in the morning in Beijing right now. That means that plane is two-and-a-half hours late. Malaysia Airlines says a search and rescue team has been activated to locate the aircraft.

On Sunday, there's a new series that debuts on CNN, "DEATH ROW STORIES," that attempts to unravel the truth behind capital murder cases. I wanted to show you a little piece of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN SARANDON, NARRATOR: A 34-year-old law student named Diana Holt came to the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center as a summer intern. One of her first assignments was reviewing Edward Elmore's case. DIANA HOLT: The first time I saw the name, Elmore, I was reading through a transcript.

SARANDON: Diana started having suspicions that Elmore's trials weren't fair. She was troubled that Elmore's defense attorney didn't call any expert witnesses and rarely challenged any of the prosecution's evidence. Diana knew that an incompetent defense was grounds for an appeal.

HOLT: I felt like there was something wrong. I needed to meet Eddy and give him an eyeball up and down, size him up.

SARANDON: And who she met wasn't what she expected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: "DEATH ROW" series premieres Sunday night 9:00 Eastern. As you know, Susan Sarandon, the voice you'll hear right here on CNN. Anderson starts right now.