Special prosecutor to examine Jussie Smollett case in Chicago

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski/File Photo

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A Chicago judge on Friday ordered a special prosecutor to examine the handling of actor Jussie Smollett’s discredited claim that he was the victim of a hate crime, setting up the possibility he could be criminally charged a second time, a police spokesman said.

Smollett, who is black and gay and at the time had a role on the television show “Empire,” ignited a firestorm on social media after he told police on Jan. 29 that he was attacked on a street outside his Chicago home.

He said two apparent supporters of President Donald Trump struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.

Police later charged Smollett with filing a false police report and accused him of paying $3,500 to two men to stage the attack to generate public sympathy. Prosecutors dropped the charges in March, saying an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

Trump, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor at the time; and the city’s police superintendent criticized the decision by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office to drop charges.

Former Illinois appellate court judge Sheila O’Brien has since submitted a petition to Cook County Judge Michael Toomin requesting a special prosecutor to examine Foxx’s handling of the Smollett case, according to local media.

Toomin issued an order on Friday appointing the special prosecutor, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed by phone.

The special prosecutor will look into the “whole investigation” and as a result “Mr. Smollett could face charges,” Guglielmi said by phone.

“We stand firmly behind the work of detectives in investigating the fabricated incident reported by Jussie Smollett #ChicagoPolice will fully cooperate with the court-appointed special prosecutor,” Guglielmi wrote on Twitter.

Mark Geragos, an attorney for Smollett, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Foxx recused herself from the case before charges were filed against Smollett because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives, according to her spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Foxx’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The initial reports of two Trump supporters attacking a gay, black celebrity drew widespread sympathy for Smollett, particularly from Democrats. That faded quickly after the actor’s arrest.

Smollett turned 37 years old on Friday.

“Empire” creator Lee Daniels confirmed earlier this month that Smollett would not be returning to the show.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump calls Smollett case ’embarrassment,’ announces review

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the Department of Justice will “review” the case of actor Jussie Smollett, who was charged with staging a fake hate crime in Chicago before prosecutors abruptly dropped the case this week.

In an early morning tweet announcing the review, Trump said the case had embarrassed the nation.

Smollett, who is black and gay, said two men attacked him at night in January, making homophobic and racist remarks and putting a noose around his neck while shouting support for Trump.

Investigators later charged Smollett with paying the two men to pretend to attack him in order to garner public sympathy for himself. Prosecutors dropped the charges on Tuesday, saying they stood by the accusation but that an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

The county prosecutors’ decision stunned the city’s police chief, prompted the police union to demand a federal investigation and enraged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, who called it a “whitewash” that made a fool of the city.

Trump, a Republican, echoed those remarks early on Thursday.

“FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. “It is an embarrassment to our Nation!”

Smollett, 36, says he is innocent and did not stage the attack. His spokeswoman and his lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday. The Department of Justice declined to comment.

The FBI has already had some involvement in the case, with agents investigating a threatening letter Smollett said he received prior to the attack, according to the Chicago Police Department.

The initial reports of two Trump supporters attacking a gay, black celebrity drew widespread sympathy for Smollett, particularly from Democrats. That faded quickly after the actor’s arrest, and the case was seized on by some as an example of what Trump likes to deride as “fake news.”

Smollett is best known for playing a gay musician on the Fox drama “Empire.” His lawyers said he hopes to move on with his acting career, but it remains unclear whether he will return to “Empire” after being written out of the last two episodes of the most recent season.

Chicago’s chief prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, has defended her office’s decision as proportionate to what she described as relatively minor charges, saying that even if Smollett had been convicted he would likely not have faced prison time.

Foxx recused herself from the case after acknowledging she had discussed it with a relative of Smollett.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Chicago mayor demands answers after Smollett hoax charges dropped

FILE PHOTO: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during an interview at City Hall in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Wednesday he wanted to “find out what happened” to cause prosecutors to abruptly drop charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a hoax hate crime to boost his career.

The saga began in January when the actor, who is black and gay, said two men had attacked him on a Chicago street, putting a noose around his neck and shouting racist and homophobic slurs.

Prosecutors on Feb. 21 accused him of paying two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, $3,500 to carry out an attack they called a hoax to advance his career but abruptly dropped the charges on Tuesday.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this,” Emanuel said in an ABC News interview. “Let’s find out what happened.”

Emanuel said Smollett had “abused” the city of Chicago, a day after the actor walked out of court saying he had been vindicated in insisting he had not staged a racist assault against him in January.

Smollett, who plays a gay musician on Fox’s hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” had been charged with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct alleging he gave false accounts of an attack on him to police investigators.

On Tuesday, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said it stood by its accusation against Smollett but was dropping all the charges, saying the actor’s prior community service and his agreeing to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

“The state’s attorney’s office is saying he’s not exonerated, he actually did commit this hoax,” Emanuel said in the ABC interview. “He’s saying he’s innocent and his words are true. They better get their stories straight, because this is making fools of all us.”

Chicago’s chief prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, defended her office’s decision in an interview with WBEZ on Wednesday as proportionate to the charges.

Foxx had recused herself from the case prior to Smollett’s being charged because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives, according to her spokesman.

“There’s some people who were never gonna be satisfied unless Mr. Smollett spent many nights in prison, and then there were others who believed that the charging of 16 counts of disorderly conduct was excessive,” she said in the interview. She said the charges Smollett faced were unlikely to have led to a prison sentence if he had been convicted.

“What I can tell you is that most people who come through the criminal justice system don’t give up $10,000 of their hard-earned money, or engage in volunteer services connected with an alleged offense, without viewing that as a way of being held accountable,” she said.

Smollett initially earned widespread sympathy from celebrities and some Democratic presidential candidates over his account of the alleged assault.

The Chicago Police Department released what it said were all its records from the case on Wednesday, totaling 61 pages, with some names and other personal details redacted.

The records conformed with the information included in court filings, including summaries of interviews with the Osundairo brothers who said Smollett gave them a $3,500 check and $100 in cash to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps used in the attack.

On Tuesday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson also criticized the prosecutor’s decision, saying it did not serve justice.

Smollett had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and told reporters on Tuesday he had been “truthful and consistent” in maintaining his innocence.

His lawyers said he hopes to move on with his acting career, but it remains unclear whether he will return to “Empire” after being written out of the last two episodes of the most recent season.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Chang)

Chicago mayor lashes out after prosecutors drop Jussie Smollett charges

Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

By Brendan O’Brien and Gina Cherelus

CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel angrily lashed out on Tuesday after prosecutors dropped charges that had accused “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett of staging a phony hate crime that hit hot-button issues of race, sexuality and America’s political divide.

Smollett, who is black and gay, had earlier described the move as a complete vindication, and said he had told the truth when he said two masked men threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs in January.

Emanuel criticized the move by Cook County prosecutors, saying he stood by the police investigation.

“This is a whitewash of justice,” Emanuel told a news conference. “From top to bottom, this is not on the level.”

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for a response.

That came hours after Smollett stood by his earlier accusations, which drew worldwide attention.

“I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one,” Smollett told reporters earlier on Tuesday outside a Chicago courthouse, where he posed for photos with supporters after a brief court hearing during which prosecutors abandoned the case.

Prosecutors had charged Smollett on Feb. 21 with filing a false report, accusing the actor of paying two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack in an effort to use the notoriety to advance his career.

The brothers, who were arrested after getting captured on surveillance footage near the site of the alleged assault, confessed to their role in Smollett’s plot and were released without charges, authorities said in February. One of them had worked with Smollett on “Empire,” Fox’s hip-hop drama, according to police.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

Police say actor Smollett staged Chicago attack to advance career

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks about the Jussie Smollett case at a news conference at Chicago Police headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

By Karen Pierog

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Actor Jussie Smollett paid two brothers thousands of dollars to beat him in a staged racist and homophobic attack because he was dissatisfied with his salary on the hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” Chicago’s police chief said on Thursday.

Actor Jussie Smollett, 36, appears in a booking photo provided by the Chicago Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., February 21, 2019. Courtesy Chicago Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

Actor Jussie Smollett, 36, appears in a booking photo provided by the Chicago Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., February 21, 2019. Courtesy Chicago Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

Smollett, who is black and openly gay, was arrested on Thursday and charged with lying to police in connection with the alleged attack on Jan. 29. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Thursday was visibly angered as he condemned his actions.

Police did not spell out how Smollett hoped to boost his salary by staging a supposed racist, homophobic attack by supporters of President Donald Trump. “Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson told a news conference, adding that the actor paid $3,500 to the brothers to stage the supposed hate crime.

“This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with this salary. He concocted a story about being attacked,” Johnson said. “We gave him the benefit of the doubt.”

Police did not say anything about the amount of Smollett’s salary. If convicted, the 36-year-old actor could face a prison sentence of one to three years.

Smollett had claimed that two apparent Trump supporters had struck him and put a noose around his neck. It was initially reported that an unknown substance was poured over him, but Johnson on Thursday said that was unclear.

“@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

20th Century Fox Television, which airs “Empire,” said in a statement on Thursday: “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office approved felony criminal charges against Smollett for disorderly conduct and filing a false police report, police said on Wednesday. He has a bond hearing scheduled for later on Thursday.

A spokesman for the lawyers, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, said on Thursday in an email, “once we are ready to make statement we will do so.”

In a Wednesday statement, Smollett’s lawyers said they were conducting a thorough investigation to form an aggressive defense.

During the investigation, police interviewed more than 100 people, reviewed video from more than 55 police and private-sector surveillance cameras and executed more than 50 search warrants to determine their findings.

On Feb. 13, police arrested the two brothers who were recognized from surveillance footage of the area where Smollett said the attack occurred. One of the brothers worked with Smollett on “Empire,” according to police and their lawyer.

Near the end of the 48 hours in which police are allowed to detain potential suspects without charging them, the brothers “decided to confess to the entirety of what the plot was,” Johnson said. They became cooperating witnesses and were released two days later without charges.

Since the alleged attack, Smollett had received support on social media, including from several celebrities and Democratic presidential candidates. But others were skeptical of the incident, which Smollett said occurred around 2 a.m. on a Chicago street during one of the city’s coldest weeks in recent history.

In an interview with “Good Morning America” last week, Smollett said he was angry that some people questioned his story, and he suggested the disbelief might come from racial bias.

Johnson called for Smollett to apologize to the city.

“How can an individual who has been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?” the police superintendent said.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; and by Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

Thousands brave freezing cold in vigil for Illinois shooting victims

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

By Robert Chiarito

AURORA, Ill. (Reuters) – More than 2,000 people braved icy rain in sub-freezing temperatures in Illinois on Sunday for a vigil paying respects to five people killed and five police officers wounded by a factory worker who opened fire on Friday after losing his job.

Solemn mourners stood before five white crosses with the names of the dead that became a shrine to the victims bearing pictures and hand-written remembrances outside the factory where the shooting took place in Aurora, about 40 miles (64 km) west of Chicago.

“My heart is broken again for the family members of the victims,” said Mary Kay Mace, mother of the late Ryanne Mace, who was killed 11 years ago in a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University.

“I’m living proof that you can survive it, however. It’s a hard, difficult trek but it can be done,” said Mace, 55, who drove three hours from Petersburg, Illinois, and wore a university pin to honor shooting victim Trevor Wehner, a 21-year-old intern from NIU who was on his first day on the job.

The other fatal victims were Josh Pinkard, the plant manager; Clayton Parks, the human resources manager; Russell Beyer, a mold operator and union chairman; and Vicente Juarez, a stock room attendant and forklift operator.

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

A sixth employee and five police officers responding to the scene were wounded. The gunman himself was slain about 90 minutes later in a gunfight with police who stormed the building.

Friday’s bloodshed marked the latest outbreak of gun violence in a nation where mass shootings have become almost commonplace and came a day after the first anniversary of the massacre of 17 people by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Several local pastors spoke and the vigil drew people of many ages.

Barbara Fultz, a 72-year-old retired woman who has been living in Aurora for more than 50 years, said her church, Main Baptist Church in Aurora, had told members about the vigil and she has a cousin who works at the Henry Pratt Company factory, a maker of industrial valves.

“It’s a tragedy all over,” Fultz said. “We’ve never had anything like this here. It’s so sad.”

Michelle Lamos, a 40-year-old healthcare worker, stood with her 14-month-old daughter.

“We need to come together. This is awful,” Lamos said.

The gunman was a violent felon who obtained a state permit to buy a firearm despite being legally barred from owning one, officials said.

(Reporting by Robert Chiarito; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Icy blast begins to ease in U.S. Midwest, Northeast

A worker from AAA aids vehicle trapped in snow during the polar vortex in Buffalo, New York, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

By Michael Hirtzer and Gina Cherelus

CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Frigid weather that paralyzed a large swath of the United States this week and caused at least 21 deaths began easing on Friday as an Arctic air mass pulled away, setting the stage for a warmer weekend in the Midwest and the Northeast.

Temperatures from southern New England to the Upper Midwest should reach the mid-40s to low 50s Fahrenheit through the weekend and Monday, forecasters said, after a record-breaking cold snap that stopped mail deliveries in some parts of the Midwest and shuttered schools and businesses.

In Chicago, which experienced temperatures as low as minus 22F (minus 30 Celsius) earlier this week, temperatures of 19F (-7C) on Friday morning felt positively balmy as a measure of normalcy returned to the nation’s third-largest city.

“It feels like summer,” said Dolores Marek, 57, as she got off her commuter train in Chicago wearing a long parka coat as set out on the 1.5 mile-(2.4 km) walk to the local college where she works. “This is much better than it was.”

Meteorologists linked the spell of brutal cold to the so-called polar vortex, a cap of icy air that usually swirls over the North Pole. Changing air currents caused it to slip down through Canada and into the U.S. Midwest this week.

Bryan Jackson, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the core of the vortex was pulling north into eastern Canada, though residual icy air was still pushing over to the U.S. Northeast.

Temperatures on Friday morning ranged from below zero Fahrenheit to the teens in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Washington D.C. area, which had 20F (minus 7C) temperatures, was under a winter weather advisory until the afternoon as around one inch (2.5 cm) of snowfall accumulated during the morning.

“That cold air that was over the Great Lakes, over the Midwest, has shifted off. Now the high pressure is over Pennsylvania and New York,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “As it moves east, it’ll bring in air from the south and we do expect it to warm up over the weekend.”

Rachel Liao, 29, a student at the New School in New York, said she wished classes had been canceled due to the cold.

A woman takes a selfie in front of a mostly frozen Bryant Park fountain, as record low temperatures spread across the Midwest and Eastern states, in New York City, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A woman takes a selfie in front of a mostly frozen Bryant Park fountain, as record low temperatures spread across the Midwest and Eastern states, in New York City, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“I just want to stay inside,” Liao, a New York native, said. “I’m not used to this.”

Temperatures in the Upper Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, will reach well above zero F (minus 18C) on Friday, with highs making it into the teens and low 20s.

Even so, parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa were still experiencing temperatures in the negative single digits, Jackson said.

The lowest temperature recorded early Friday morning was minus 34F (minus 37C) in Stonington, Michigan, according to the National Weather Service.

By Saturday, highs will be in the 30s and even low 40s in the Midwest. The central Plains will be in the low 60s, nearly 20 to 25 degrees above normal, the weather service said.

More than 40 cold-temperature records were broken on Thursday, the coldest morning since the polar vortex moved in late on Tuesday. The mass of Arctic air had clung to a swath of the United States from Iowa and the Dakotas across the Great Lakes region and into Maine for days.

Officials across multiple states linked at least 20 deaths to the deep freeze. The death toll rose after at least nine more people in Chicago were reported to have died from cold-related injuries, according to Stathis Poulakidas, a doctor at the city’s John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital.

Amtrak train services that had been halted since Wednesday in Chicago’s hub resumed on Friday, as did U.S. postal service that was halted or limited in six Midwest states.

Thousands of flights were canceled and delayed earlier in the week, mostly out of Chicago, but on Friday the flight-tracking site FlightAware reported cancellations in the United States down to more than 400.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Gabriella Borter in New York and Michael Hirtzer in Chicago; Editing by Larry King, Jonathan Oatis and Frances Kerry)

Heavy snow hammers U.S. Midwest after holiday weekend

A driver clears the snow off his car during an early season snowfall in the Boston suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

(Reuters) – Commuters in Chicago and across the Midwest faced inches of heavy, wet snow as they headed back to work on Monday after the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with the storm knocking out power, icing roads and canceling some flights.

The National Weather Service ended blizzard warnings early on Monday in northeast Missouri through the Chicago metropolitan area and northeast into Michigan, but noted strong winds of up to 45 miles per hour (72 kph) would continue to blow around drifts of the snow accumulated overnight.

“Snow will continue to taper off to flurries and then end this morning,” the service’s Chicago office said in a statement, warning drivers to take extra caution on slippery roads in low visibility.

“The drive into work was NASTY,” Diane Pathieu, an ABC7 Chicago news anchor, wrote on Twitter of her pre-dawn commute. “Roads barely plowed, wind blowing snow everywhere. Proceed with caution!”

North of Chicago, the city of Evanston’s police department said in a statement its power had been knocked out by the storm, although it was still able to receive 911 calls.

Dozens of school districts in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas canceled classes due to the weather. Chicago public schools were expected to open.

The storm canceled 1,270 flights on Sunday, a busy day for travelers trying to get home after the Thanksgiving weekend.

That included about 900 flights to and from Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway Airport and almost 200 flights at Kansas City International Airport.

On Monday morning, about 500 flights to and from O’Hare had been canceled, about 17 percent of all scheduled flights, according to the FlightAware flight tracking service.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Sunil Nair, Louise Heavens and Frances Kerry)

U.S. and Mexico to set up joint team to fight drug cartels

FILE PHOTO: An agent of the office of the Attorney General of Mexico carries a package of seized marijuana at the site of a passageway Mexican authorities on Thursday attributed to the cartel of fugitive kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in Tijuana, October 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

By Karen Pierog

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexico will set up a joint team in Chicago targeting Mexican drug cartels and their leaders and finances, to try to stem a flow of drugs that has led to a spike in U.S. overdose deaths, officials said on Wednesday.

DEA Chief of Operations Anthony Williams said at a joint news conference with Mexican government officials in Chicago that targeting cartel finances was key because “the sole purpose of these entities is one thing and one thing only – money.”

Mexico remains the principal highway for cocaine to the United States and has become the top source of heroin, which is fueling a surge in opioid addiction in the United States. It is also a major supplier of methamphetamines.

“It’s not just a Chicago problem, it’s a national problem. Actually, it’s an international problem,” Brian McKnight, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago Field Division, said at the news conference.

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning nationalist, has vowed to shake up Mexico’s war on drug cartels after he takes power in December. He wants to rewrite the rules, aides have said, suggesting negotiated peace and amnesties rather than a hardline strategy that critics say has only perpetuated violence.

However, a change of direction without the United States could increase friction between the neighbors, who have been often at loggerheads since Donald Trump became U.S. president.

Trump has irked Mexico with demands that it pay for a border wall and his comments that it does nothing to slow illegal immigration. He has also pushed to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to favor the United States.

But despite difference with the Trump administration on migration and trade issues, officials and security experts in the United States have applauded long-running bilateral efforts to crack down on drug gangs.

For the past 12 years, Mexico has fought the violent cartels by deploying thousands of police, soldiers, and intelligence officers.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog, Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Passengers recount escape from burning Mexican plane

Firefighters douse a fire as smoke billows above the site where an Aeromexico-operated Embraer passenger jet crashed in Mexico's northern state of Durango, July 31, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Proteccion Civil Durango/via REUTERS

By Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Shortly after boarding her flight in the northern Mexican state of Durango afternoon on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Garcia had a premonition that something was wrong.

The 17-year-old high school student from Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, was one of 65 U.S. citizens among the 103 passengers and crew aboard the Aeromexico passenger jet that crashed near the runway shortly after take-off.

Settling into her seat, Garcia saw a storm was gathering fast in the distance, and by the time the aircraft began preparing for takeoff it was battered by strong winds, hail and rain. Garcia captured the scene through her window with her cellphone.

“I had a gut feeling: just record it, just record it,” said Garcia. “I was like, there’s no way we are taking off, it’s too risky.”

The flight crashed moments after taking off, skidding to a halt in scrubland near the runway, a wing in flames. Passengers described how they followed escape procedures, enabling everyone to evacuate without any fatalities.

“We had been told so many times what to do,” Garcia said of the safety protocol passengers around the world are taught every time they board a plane. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen until it happens to them. We were there for each other… That’s how we were able to get off safely.”

Investigators found the Embraer passenger jet’s recorders on Wednesday and have still to determine the cause of the crash. Aeromexico said 64 people have been released from hospitals. Two people, including the pilot, were more seriously injured.

Garcia was returning to the United States with three cousins after a two-week trip to visit relatives, traveling from Durango to Mexico City to catch a connecting flight to Chicago.

Liliana Gallarzo, Garcia’s cousin, thought the bumpy take-off was turbulence until the aircraft began skidding and panic set in.

“We were screaming,” said Gallarzo, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago. “Everyone was trying to get away from the plane, trying to get out.”

They smelled the smoke right away. But the cousins were seated in the middle of the cabin, and passengers were exiting from the front and rear doors, as the emergency exits in the middle of the plane were unused due to the fire near the wing, Garcia said.

Filing behind fellow travelers, they made their way toward the rear as the aircraft filled with smoke. Garcia grabbed her phone but left her luggage behind, losing her glasses in the shuffle.

When they reached the exit, there were no emergency slides, meaning they had to jump, Garcia said. A trampoline was there to cushion their fall, and fellow passengers helped them make the jump.

Once off the plane, Garcia coughed and vomited, choking for air. A flight attendant directed the cousins to get as far away as possible from the plane, which was soon engulfed by the fire, leaving only smoldering wreckage after firefighters extinguished the blaze. They walked through the rain, their clothes soaked.

After waiting for further direction, they headed closer to the runway, where firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel sprang into action, checking passengers for injuries. Suffering from minor scratches and bruises, Garcia was taken to the hospital, where she underwent X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before returning home that night.

She said the compassion shown to her by emergency personnel affirmed her desire to be a police officer. She has a flight home booked for Friday.

“I didn’t think I would be able to get back on a flight, but I have experienced the worst,” Garcia said. “So now, whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.”

(Reporting by Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon; writing by Julia Love; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)