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Deadly Wait List: New Allegations Against VA; Tornadoes Touch Down; Kidnapped Girl: Found 10 Years Later; Russia Signs Major Gas Deal

Aired May 22, 2014 - 04:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A deadly wait list. New allegations this morning of V.A. hospitals leaving their patients suffering, waiting for appointments and then covering it up. This morning, the embattled V.A. secretary back on Capitol Hill as President Obama vows to fix veterans' health care problems.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Severe storms barreling across the country this morning. Tornadoes destroying homes, floods just inundating streets and hail as big as baseballs, sending many running for cover. We're tracking the areas hardest hit and who is in the storm crosshairs today.

ROMANS: Finally free. A 15-year-old girl kidnapped from her home 10 years ago, she's found alive this morning. She's alive. She's finally back with her family. That story ahead.

BERMAN: What a story that is.

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: Great to see you today. I'm John Berman. It's Thursday, May 22nd. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And we do begin with the shocking, new allegations this morning that the V.A. may be mistreating some of the veterans most in need of medical care. In a story first seen right here on CNN, a doctor at the Phoenix V.A. says injured veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being given priority appointments, despite a national mandate that puts them at the very front of the line, or is supposed to at least.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell told Drew Griffin this is happening as recently as a few weeks ago.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: You're telling me that our troops coming back from war, now separated from active service --

DR. KATHERINE MITCHELL, PHOENIX V.A. HOSPITAL: Who should have priority for scheduling do not.

GRIFFIN: -- who are coming to the Phoenix V.A. for follow-up care for war injuries --

MITCHELL: Correct.

GRIFFIN: -- are being put on a waiting list and being made to wait six to 10 months?

MITCHELL: Yes, or longer.


BERMAN: Again, this is a new report on top of everything else Drew Griffin's been reporting about the V.A. scandal right now. The Phoenix V.A. is one of 26 facilities now under investigation accused of falsifying employment records with sometimes deadly consequences.

In Seattle, a family is suing the V.A. saying scheduling delays are responsible for a veteran's death because his cancer was able to spread.

And in Portland, Oregon, V.A. officials say schedulers made veterans wait more than 14 days for an appointment some 30,000 times. The president says he's outraged at these allegations and he's promising punishment if they're proven true.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to fix whatever is wrong. And so long as I have the privilege as serving as commander-in-chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve now and for decades to come. That is a commitment which I feel the sacred duty to maintain.


BERMAN: The president says someone will be held accountable, but for now, he is standing behind Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Today, Shinseki will be on Capitol Hill holding closed door meetings on the scandal. This all coming as the president's point man of the crisis, Rob Nabors, the deputy chief of staff, visits the Phoenix V.A. to see for himself what is being done there.

ROMANS: All right. Now to Nigeria, where this morning, more U.S. service members and some critical technology have joined in the search for more than 200 kidnapped girls who have been held for more than a month. The Pentagon has put 80 service members on the ground in neighboring Chad, equipped with a predator drone.

Vladimir Duthiers is live in Abuja with the latest for us.

And, Vlad, what kind of difference can these extra troops make?


Well, clearly, since the Nigerian military has been unable, almost six weeks since these girls have been kidnapped to do anything to find them, President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria says he has 20,000 Nigerian troops in Borno, in northeastern Nigeria to look for these girls, and so far, they are coming up empty.

So, I think with U.S. technology, with U.S. know-how, they're going to be able to make quite a difference, because they're going to be flying aerial manned and unmanned surveillance flights over this area. It's a very large area, the size of West Virginia. And I think with that technology and with other countries lending a hand, perhaps we'll see some resolution to this in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, Christine.

ROMANS: You know, predator drone having some technology, that's going to be key, of course, but this is -- tell us a little bit about the areas where they'll be searching. It is rough, it is very difficult terrain, and we think these girls may have been separated. Give us a little bit about sort of what they face in this search.

DUTHIERS: Enormous challenge, Christine. As you say, U.S. intelligence reports suggest that perhaps these girls have been split up, trafficked into neighboring Chad, Cameroon, Niger. This is an area with very poor border security. It's a dense area that is known to be a stronghold of Boko Haram. They operate freely between Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad.

You're talking about a terrorist also that has a very strong defensive fortification in these areas. They are armed to the teeth, rocket- propelled grenade launchers, and for countries like the United States, that will be flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights, they are known to have acquired antiaircraft weapons, Christine.

So, it's going to be very, very challenging. And, you know, when you're talking about 20,000 Nigerian soldiers on the ground and you're adding another 80, which most likely these are not combat troops. We must stress, these are not combat troops. These are mostly folks that are going to be maintaining the aircraft that are used to provide the surveillance flights. It's going to be a pretty difficult challenge, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Vladimir Duthiers, we hope they can use all that technology to the fullest. Thank you.

BERMAN: Five minutes after the hour.

Happening today: the first meeting of a House committee looking in the attacks on a diplomatic U.S. compound in Benghazi, in Libya. Those attacks, of course, left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead. Republicans still allege the White House has been covering up what really happened ever since.

Now, Democrats have agreed to take part in this investigation, naming five seasoned lawmakers to serve as their representatives on this panel, including Maryland's Elijah Cummings, who will represent -- will be his party's ranking member.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I feel that I owe it to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other brave Americans who lost their precious lives to bring some minimal level of balance to this process and to check false claims wherever they may arise.


BERMAN: The committee chairman, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy is promising to lead a fair investigation.

ROMANS: Also today, the House is set to vote on a bill to change the way the NSA collects bulk phone records, but it's not the bill lawmakers had earlier approved. Under this plan, phone companies would keep those records, not the NSA, and the agency would have to get court approval to see the data for itself. But the bill now allows for wider searches not necessarily tied to a specific person. Civil liberties groups are calling the revised law overly broad.

BERMAN: A warning this morning from eBay -- change your password, this after the site says hackers got into a huge database containing personal information about more than 230 million customers.

ROMANS: Uh-oh.

BERMAN: They apparently stole passwords, names, addresses, phone numbers, even dates of birth. There's no evidence any credit card information was taken, however. EBay says it is working with the FBI and other agencies to try to track down the hackers.

ROMANS: We've heard that story before, haven't we? Just the same song, different singer, I guess.

Time for an EARLY START on your money this morning. Stocks trading slightly higher across Europe. Dow futures higher as well.

The big story, though, is General Motors. Another recall. Another recall bringing this year's recall total to 29 separate recalls. That's 14 million recalled vehicles in the U.S., nearly 16 million worldwide. Now, G.M. has recalled more vehicles this year, John, than it has sold. It has recalled more than it has sold.

BERMAN: That's not a good business model.

ROMANS: No, it's not. CEO Mary Barra showed extreme caution following the botched ignition switch recall earlier this year. That defect led to 13 deaths and put G.M. on high alert after word got out that the company knew about the defects for years before acting.

So, the big question everyone's asking, are these vehicles safe? Are G.M. vehicles safe? The answer is yes. G.M. still has a 4.4 safety rating from NHTSA, the same organization supervising these recalls. And of all the traffic deaths that occur each year, so few are tied to vehicle defects, but the number's even calculated, it's a fraction of a fraction of a percent.

While some of G.M.'s recalls have been tied to accidents or have required cars to be pulled off the road immediately, many are for smaller issues that don't make cars unsafe to drive. Think of tail lamp wiring, think of lots of things that are a pain to get fixed, they need to get fixed, but are not necessarily dangerous.

BERMAN: A lot of people don't respond to the recalls either when they happen.

ROMANS: No, they don't. They don't. That's right.

All right. Now, to your weather and it could be very dangerous today for many of the country. Severe storm threat from the Central Plains all the way to the Northeast.

BERMAN: Denver in the crosshairs again this morning after a day when the weather just pounded the city. Rain, hail, golf ball-sized, golf balls as opposed to baseball-sized in Denver. Several inches fell, enough to damage planes at the Denver airport.


BERMAN: Wow. There were multiple tornadoes spotted on the ground, including a funnel cloud. You can see it right there.

And winds were strong enough to bring down trees like this one that fell right on to a house. Look at that. The thunderstorms, of course, also brought a lot of rain, flooding in the streets, the driving there extremely dangerous.

ROMANS: The same story in Pennsylvania.


ROMANS: These pictures are from Elk County, northeast of Pittsburgh. Several serious thunderstorms rolled through there, dropping two to four inches of rain in just an hour.

And this is why we will continue to tell you, do not drive through standing water. This is from Ohio, not very far from Dayton. Heavy rainfall there flooding the streets, stranding that car. Several interstates had to be shut down for hours.

Some drivers were left stranded until crews were able to push the water out of the way. Be careful!

BERMAN: Be careful. That was crazy. I want to know where the rain is headed next.

Let's go to Chad Myers for a look at the forecast today.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Christine and John, some of the severe weather could move your way this afternoon, into the northeast. There is an area that will be warm very close to you in Upstate New York and in parts of Pennsylvania. That warm sector right through here is where those storms could pop up later on today.

There will be some storms across parts of Tennessee. And just like yesterday, storms into the front range. We're talking about Denver, Colorado, maybe Cheyenne, maybe Pueblo could see some of those storms.

Highs today, you'll notice a big difference up to the Northeast. The air 84 in D.C. That's the heat that's going to try to make it all the way up to the Poconos and could cause that severe weather later on this afternoon into the Northeast, even into New York City.

The storm moves by tomorrow. The colder air comes in. Rain showers for tomorrow are still in the plains. Heavy rain for some spots and even some -- I don't want to say drought-breaking record rainfall, but certainly some rain across parts of the Southwest that could really use it because the storm is digging down through here. That's why it's cold.

You see that green. That's 50s in the mountains west of Denver, a high of only 70 in Denver tomorrow and a high of 75 in D.C.

Guys, back to you.

BERMAN: All right, thanks to Chad Myers for that.

Some weather issues out in Arizona, near Sedona this morning. Thousands of residents on alert as a major fire rages. Look at these pictures. The slide fire has now consumed some 4,500 acres, shut down a main route between Sedona and Flagstaff.


BERMAN: It's a beautiful area. Sad to see it being burned right now. More than 3,000 residents have been put on notice, they should be ready to evacuate at any time.

ROMANS: My goodness.

BERMAN: Coming up for us next, this is an incredible story. Kidnapped, raped, held against her will for 10 years. This morning, a California woman is finally free. Her accused captor is behind bars.

How did this happen? How did she make it back home? We'll tell you, just ahead.

ROMANS: And a tainted beef recall expands. Nearly 2 million pounds potentially contaminated with a dangerous bacteria, and there are new states affected. We've got those for you next.


BERMAN: This may be one of the most remarkable stories you've heard in a long, long time. It comes from California. A 25-year-old woman has been found alive, 10 years after her mother's live-in boyfriend allegedly abducted her.

I want you to look at the suspect right now, 41-year-old Isidro Garcia, arrested Wednesday, booked on suspicion of kidnapping, rape, lewd acts with a minor, false imprisonment. The victim, who is not being identified, was 15 when she was allegedly drugged by Garcia, snatched from her mother. Listen to neighbors who knew Garcia and the girl. They're just stunned by this news.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She always seems happy and he always makes for parties for her and everything.

REPORTER: How about Isidro?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, he was a really quiet man. He always say hi to everyone, but --

REPORTER: And did it appear to you that she was under duress, or --


REPORTER: Nothing to indicate that she was being kept against her will?



BERMAN: Police say Garcia forced the victim to marry him in 2012 using fake names, fake documents and father a child with her as well. We're told she was kept in a locked garage at times to keep her from escaping. This case finally came to light when the victim found her sister on Facebook, and then the authorities were contacted.

ROMANS: We're learning new details this morning in the Boston marathon bombing case, including that the bombs used in the deadly attack were constructed in part using Christmas lights and model car parts. Prosecutors also revealing in court records that the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wrote a note while wounded and hiding from police in a boat, saying he was jealous of his dead brother, Tamerlan, for going to the garden of paradise. He also asks Allah to make him a martyr.

Lawyers for Tsarnaev are fighting to keep the note and statements he made from his hospital bed out of his upcoming trial.

BERMAN: Investigators in the Aaron Hernandez case are looking for help from tattoo artists. The heavily inked former NFL star is charged with murder in two separate incidents, the 2013 shooting death of a semi pro football player and a 2012 double homicide in Boston. Prosecutors say the artist who did work on Hernandez's right forearm could have crucial evidence. Hernandez is being held on bail and scheduled to be held on new charges on May 28th.

There has been talk about the art on his arms, whether it's gang symbols or anything like that. First, I've heard that the tattoo artist may have information about these crimes.

ROMANS: That's really interesting. All right, there could be trouble on the tax front for Donald Sterling. L.A. County is investigating two properties, including Sterling's childhood home, for potential tax fraud. They're reportedly looking at whether sterling and his sister duped the county out of thousands in property taxes by failing to report that the owners of record have been dead for decades. The official owners were Sterling's late mother and grandmother. As a result, officials say they were paying decades-old property tax rates.

BERMAN: Same-sex marriages will continue in Pennsylvania now that the governor has decided not to appeal a federal judge's ruling throwing out that state's marriage ban. Governor Tom Corbett said in a statement that while he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, he doubts the state could succeed on appeal. And with the attorney general having also passed on defending the law, it appears there's really no one left to appeal the ruling to a higher court.

So, Pennsylvania joins the list of states where same-sex marriage is now legal.

ROMANS: All right. This morning, more states could possibly be affected by the recall of potentially tainted ground beef. The government released a list of retailers in nine states that may have carried this meat. It's suspected of containing dangerous E. coli. Eleven people have fallen ill.

Nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef have now been recalled. It was produced by the Wolverine Packing Company between March 31st and April 18th. Consumers are being told to look for this code -- ready? -- EST-2574B. You can see it on your screen. EST-2574B.

BERMAN: Here's the conundrum, they tell you when you order beef at a restaurant, like a hamburger now, you should order it well done because it needs to be thoroughly cooked. Who wants a well done hamburger?


BERMAN: Really?


BERMAN: See, I think this is the real issue here that should be dealt with.

ROMANS: You're a medium rare?

BERMAN: Medium rare, which is cooked. It's not like it's raw. But they say well done. Listen to what they say, apparently.

ROMANS: They. The royal they.

BERMAN: Nineteen minutes after the hour.

Russia defying the West and making new allies in the East. This is a huge economic and diplomatic coup. Russia signing a $400 billion energy deal with China. So, is the Kremlin now immune from U.S. sanctions?

We are live in Moscow right after the break.


ROMANS: It's the third day of martial law in Thailand, and another meeting is set for today between political factions trying to work out an end to this crisis.

CNN has learned one proposal being floated at those meetings calls for the current prime minister to step down and be replaced with an interim government. New elections would then take place in six to nine months. The first meeting between all sides on Wednesday is reported to have gone well.

BERMAN: This morning, Russia is celebrating just a huge deal. Despite sanctions from the West, Vladimir Putin has signed a contract to sell hundreds of billions of dollars in natural gas to China. This is an epic deal and it comes at the same time U.S. sources say Russian troops appear to be preparing to leave the Ukrainian border, just days before Ukraine votes for its next president.

Our Phil Black is in Moscow this morning, joins us by phone.

Phil, first of all, tell us about this deal. Hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. Vladimir Putin has been meeting with the Chinese leader about this. This is very much the deal he has wanted.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, indeed, John, because we know that most of Russia's natural gas exports currently flow West to Europe, and it is those European countries, since the Ukrainian crisis, which are now saying they want to wean themselves off their dependency on Russian gas. They want to find other sources.

So, from a business point of view for Russia, this is really important, because Russia needs to diversify its customer base.

But this is also strategically important for Russia as well. There's a big political message, that despite what the U.S. says, Russia still has friends, it can still do business. Russia is not isolated.

So, many analysts believe that's why this deal has suddenly come together after 10 years of negotiations. That's how long Russia and China have been haggling over the price. And the theory is that Russia has now accepted a cut-price deal because of the political benefits, John.

BERMAN: China apparently got a very, very good deal on this, Phil, but it is something as an end run, and to use another metaphor, you know, a game of diplomatic chess right here. Vladimir Putin just made a key move.

Let's talk about Ukraine, what's going on there right now. The U.S. military saying it's seen the very first signs that Russia is, in fact, pulling some troops back from the Ukrainian border. Why would Vladimir Putin be doing this now? BLACK: Vladimir Putin said he's doing this as an additional step to help create a favorable environment for Sunday's presidential elections in Ukraine. He doesn't want there to be any doubt, doesn't want to be accused that Russia is playing a spoiler-type role.

So, Russia is going out of its way to be seen to be playing nice. Putin describes the election as a positive step. But really, the key reaction from Russia will come Monday morning, after this election has been held, whether or not Russia accepts the result, whether or not Russia will see the new president of Ukraine as someone that they recognize and can do business with and can negotiate with.

Because the big challenge in holding this election for Ukraine, they're trying to hold it particularly in the east of the country where there are still huge areas of territory under the control of pro-Russian militias. So, a big logistical challenge, a big challenge in trying to make these elections fair, free, credible and internationally recognized as well, John.

BERMAN: Big days ahead for Ukraine and Russia. Phil Black from Moscow on the phone. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

ROMANS: All right, new allegations of patient mistreatment at V.A. hospitals across the country. What's happening today? That's right after the break.