Portland has night without tear gas as feds withdraw

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Portland had its first night in weeks without tear gas after state police took over from federal agents guarding a courthouse that has been the focal point of violence between protesters and tactical officers.

The agents withdrew under a deal between Oregon’s governor and U.S. officials to end a deployment that sparked a standoff between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic mayors over the use of federal officers in their cities.

A few hundred people demonstrated outside the federal courthouse until around 2 a.m. when they left of their own accord, according to a Reuters reporter. On previous nights they had been dispersed with tear gas and other munitions fired by federal agents.

“Things went a lot better last night, last night was the first night in about two months that our officers and agents inside the federal court building there in Portland didn’t come under a direct and immediate threat of being burned alive,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, whose Border Tactical Unit officers have been among Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents in Portland.

Oregon State Police said around 100 of its officers took over security at the courthouse with some regular Federal Protective Service agents remaining.

DHS agents remain on standby in the city and National Guard troops could be sent in should state police be overrun, DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News after Trump threatened such action on Thursday

Separately, a DHS spokesman said Wolf had ordered an intelligence unit to stop collecting information on American journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, after a media report on the practice.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported that the department compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists using a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Andrew Hay and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Federal agents found fetuses in body broker’s warehouse

Arthur Rathburn is pictured at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S. in November 1988.

By John Shiffman and Brian Grow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal agents discovered four preserved fetuses in the Detroit warehouse of a man who sold human body parts, confidential photographs reviewed by Reuters show.

The fetuses were found during a December 2013 raid of businessman Arthur Rathburn’s warehouse. The fetuses, which appear to have been in their second trimester, were submerged in a liquid that included human brain tissue.

Rathburn, a former body broker, is accused of defrauding customers by sending them diseased body parts. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is set for January.

How Rathburn acquired the fetuses and what he intended to do with them is unclear. Rathburn’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment, and neither the indictment nor other documents made public in his case mention the fetuses.

“This needs to be reviewed,” said U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee who recently chaired a special U.S. House committee on the use of fetal tissue.

Blackburn recoiled when a Reuters reporter showed her some of the photographs, taken by government officials involved in the raid.

In four of the photos, a crime scene investigator in a hazmat suit uses forceps to lift a different fetus from the brownish liquid. In three other photos, a marker that includes a government evidence identification number lies beside a fetus.

“The actions depicted in these photos are an insult to human dignity,” said U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. A Republican from Virginia, Goodlatte said that if individuals “violate federal laws and traffic in body parts of unborn children for monetary gain,” they should be “held accountable.”

Blackburn said the discoveries in Rathburn’s warehouse raise questions about the practices of body brokers across America. Such brokers take cadavers donated to science, dismember them and sell them for parts, typically for use in medical research and education. The multimillion-dollar industry has been built largely on the poor, who donate their bodies in return for a free cremation of leftover body parts.

The buying and selling of cadavers and other body parts — with the exception of organs used in transplants — is legal and virtually unregulated in America. But trading in fetal tissue violates U.S. law.

In most states, including Michigan, public health authorities are not required to regularly inspect body broker facilities. As a result, it’s impossible to know whether body brokers who deal in adult donors are acquiring and profiting from fetuses.

Blackburn’s call for action came in response to a Reuters series that exposed abuses in the human body trade and what Blackburn called “lax oversight” and “lax enforcement” of the industry.

Photos from inside Rathburn’s warehouse offered a stark example of government failures to police the industry. They include images of rotting human heads, some floating face up in a plastic cooler. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been investigating Rathburn and other body brokers, declined to comment.

Blackburn said she found other Reuters stories about the body trade disturbing.

As part of the news agency’s examination of the industry, for example, a Reuters reporter was able to purchase two human heads and a cervical spine from Restore Life USA, a broker based in Blackburn’s home state of Tennessee. The deals were struck after just a few emails, at a cost of $900 plus shipping.

“It is sickening” how easily Restore Life sold the parts to Reuters, Blackburn said.

Told of Blackburn’s concerns, Restore Life owner James Byrd said his company has “invited her to tour our facility and to review the policy and procedures we have in place.”

(Shiffman reported from Washington. Grow reported from Atlanta. Edited by Blake Morrison.)

Trump says he is sending federal help to fight Chicago crime

FILE PHOTO - Chicago police officer investigate a crime scene of a gunshot victim in Chicago, Illinois, United States, July 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Timothy Mclaughlin and Doina Chiacu

CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Friday he was sending federal help to fight crime in Chicago that has reached “epidemic” proportions.

The government is sending federal agents to Chicago and plans to prosecute firearms cases aggressively, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Fox News when asked about Trump’s statement about the plan in an early-morning Twitter post.

“Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help. 1714 shootings in Chicago this year!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The president has regularly singled out Chicago’s violent crime problem and in January decried the high crime rate in the third-most populous U.S. city as “carnage.”

In 2016, the number of murders in Chicago exceeded 760, a jump of nearly 60 percent, and was more than New York and Los Angeles combined. There were more than 4,300 shooting victims in the city last year, according to police.

The number of murders, shootings and shooting victims have all decreased slightly this year in the city of 2.7 million. There have been 320 murders, down from 322 over the same period last year. There have been 1,703 shooting victims, down from 1,935, according to police figures.

Sessions said the anti-crime policies in Chicago have not worked and police “have been demoralized in many ways.”

The federal assistance will come in the form of the Chicago Crime Gun Strike Force, a collaboration between the police and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The group, including police officers, federal agents and intelligence analysts, will work to impede the flow of illegal guns throughout Chicago and target repeat gun offenders.

“The Trump Administration will not let the bloodshed go on; we cannot accept these levels of violence,” Sessions said in a statement on Friday afternoon. The group became operational on June 1, Sessions said.

It will “significantly help our police officers stem the flow of illegal guns and create a culture of accountability” for the gangs that drive violence in the city, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement.

On Monday, the Chicago police announced that the ATF’s mobile ballistics lab had arrived in the city to help process shooting scenes.

“Six months ago we made it clear that we would welcome additional federal support, and six months later we appreciate the 20 new ATF agents that are now arriving,” Adam Collins, a spokesman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said.

“But the progress CPD (Chicago Police Department) has made this year has happened without any of the new resources from the federal government we requested.”

Chicago is also in the midst of reforming its police department after a federal investigation found officers routinely violated the civil rights of people, citing excessive force and racially discriminatory conduct.

Joseph Ferguson, the city’s inspector general, called on Chicago officials to agree to a consent decree to oversee changes to the department at a committee meeting on Tuesday – splitting with the mayor, who has said a court-enforced settlement is not necessary for reform.

In response to questions about Ferguson’s comments, Emanuel told reporters on Wednesday that the Justice Department has “walked away” from doing consent decrees, and so the city has sought a different strategy.

“There are multiple roads that allow you to make sure you make the changes and reform,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Julia Jacobs in Chicago; Editing by JS Benkoe and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. charges 61 over India-based IRS impersonation scam

A policeman escorts men who they said were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of tricking American citizens into sending them money by posing as U.S. tax officials, at a court in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department charged 61 people and entities on Thursday with taking part in a scam involving India-based call centers where agents impersonated Internal Revenue Service, immigration and other federal officials and demanded payments for non-existent debts.

The scam, which had operated since 2013, targeted at least 15,000 people who lost more than $300 million, the department said in a statement.

The defendants, who were indicted by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Oct. 19, included 32 people and five call centers in India and 24 people in nine U.S. states, the statement said.

The indictment said the operators of the call centers in Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, “threatened potential victims with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay taxes or penalties to the government.”

Payments by victims were laundered by a U.S. network of co-conspirators using prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, often using stolen or fake identities, the statement said.

The call centers also ran scams in which victims were offered short-term loans or grants on condition of providing good-faith deposits or payment of a processing fee, it said.

The investigation involved Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Treasury, Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service and police officials, the Justice Department said.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry)

More high tech gear sought by U.S. border agents

View of Border Patrol camera tower near Laredo Texas

By Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal agents who patrol the U.S. border with Mexico want 23 more miles (37 km) of fences, better radios and more aerial drones to tighten the southern frontier, according to an unpublished U.S. government study that influences budget requests.

The modest scope of the requirements, details of which were contained in internal emails seen by Reuters and described by Border Patrol officials in interviews, contrasts sharply with calls by Republican presidential candidates for more drastic measures to secure the border. Front runner Donald Trump and rival Ted Cruz have both pledged to build a border wall, a project that could cost several billion dollars.

The extra fences sought by agents in Texas and California would be the first major fencing addition to the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border in five years. They would cost about $92 million based on the costs of previous fences, though experts say that cost has risen.

Border Patrol has not asked its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to request funding for any new fences so far.

Border Patrol Chief Ronald Vitiello told Reuters that he is aware that some of his agents require “handfuls” of miles of additional fencing, though he declined to comment on the number of additional miles required.

The 653 miles of fencing currently along the southwest border is a mix of wall-like fences and more basic vehicle barriers. About half of it was built for $1.2 billion in the four years after 2007, when Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) a mandate to fence the most vulnerable sections of the 1,954-mile border.

Building those fences required the department to waive 36 environmental and tribal sovereignty laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and mired the government in costly litigation with property owners.

The CBP has for the past three years used the internal study to gauge border agents’ most urgent needs and inform Border Patrol funding requests, though the agents’ specific requirements are not spelled out in budget documents.

The study also uses a border visualization and threat simulator built by Johns Hopkins University researchers who have run similar programs for the U.S. military, according to Vitiello.

The new fencing that agents require is for three sectors of the border, and would mainly consist of metal or concrete bollards clustered closely enough to prevent people from squeezing through, according to a March email between Border Patrol officials.

Apprehensions of people trying to cross illegally into the United States over its southwest border have mostly declined since the 1980s and 1990s, and they hit a nearly four-decade low in 2011. After a small rise, they dipped to near 2011 levels again last year.

Agents have also identified more reliable radios, handheld surveillance drones and all-terrain vehicles as resources they need urgently to close border security gaps, Vitiello said.


The Border Patrol has been doubling down on a “virtual wall” of drones, blimps and tower-mounted cameras, an approach that has produced mixed results.

The bulk of the CBP’s current $447 million annual budget for fencing, infrastructure, and technology goes toward surveillance towers, unmanned aircrafts, retired military blimps, and other advanced technological equipment.

After jumping to $1.5 billion in 2007 following the Congressional mandate to build hundreds of miles of new fencing, that budget decreased for several years, but has been rising steadily since 2013.

A Senate appropriations committee spokesman confirmed that “border security remains the biggest investment area” in the DHS appropriations bill, but he and his House committee counterpart declined to speculate on future funding levels.

The DHS, which oversees the CBP, had taken ownership of more than 3,900 items of excess equipment from the U.S. Defense Department as of a year ago, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection presentation obtained by Reuters. That included “Marcbots” – wheeled robots that detect tunnels – and advanced radar surveillance systems.

But watchdog agencies and the Border Patrol agents’ union have criticized DHS and CBP for neglecting their stocks of basic equipment, such as radios, and not effectively demonstrating how new acquisitions improve border security.

DHS pledged to improve its equipment investment policies following several such reports. A senior official with the department’s inspector general said the internal review of border security gaps will help CBP “re-assess where all the risk is and then re-allocate the resources to the greatest risk areas.”

The Government Accountability Office said it is about halfway done reviewing Border Patrol’s ability to address border security gaps as part of a review requested by U.S. lawmakers on homeland security committees. It expects to release those findings in the latter part of the year.

(Reporting by Julia Harte; editing by Stuart Grudgings)

Federal Agents seize longest Mexico California drug tunnel

United States attorney Laura E. Duffy looks down the opening of a hole in the ground after the discovery of a cross-border tunnel

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Federal agents have seized a ton of cocaine and seven tons of marijuana smuggled through a clandestine tunnel stretching a half mile beneath the U.S.-Mexico border, the longest one yet unearthed in California, authorities said on Wednesday.

Six people were arrested as authorities in San Diego moved on Monday and Tuesday to shut down the tunnel, the 13th underground passageway discovered along California’s border with Mexico since 2006.

The 870-yard-long tunnel, one of the narrowest found in the region, also yielded an unprecedented cache of drugs.

“This is the largest cocaine seizure ever associated with a tunnel,” said Laura Duffy, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California.

The northern end of the tunnel, like most of the others, emerges in a narrow industrial expanse between the Otay Mesa port of entry and the California Highway Patrol’s border facility. The area, known for its heavy clay soil, is primarily traversed by trucks hauling tons of legitimate cargo between the two countries every day.

The latest tunnel, excavated 46 feet beneath the surface, ran from the bottom of an elevator shaft built into a house in Tijuana to a hole in the ground on the U.S. side enclosed within a fenced-in lot set up as a pallet business. The hole was concealed under a trailer-sized trash dumpster that smugglers used to move the drugs off the lot, federal officials said.

“They put the drugs in the dumpster and then hauled the dumpster to another location to unload it,” Duffy said. Federal agents followed a truck that carted the dumpster to a central San Diego spot about 25 miles north of the border and watched as the cargo was loaded onto a box truck, which drove away.

San Diego County sheriff’s deputies who stopped the truck seized 2,242 pounds of cocaine and 11,030 pounds of marijuana, and arrested three men, Duffy said. Federal agents searching the pallet lot and the tunnel recovered an additional 3,000-plus pounds of marijuana and arrested three more suspects, she said.

The suspects were all jailed on various drug-trafficking conspiracy charges.

Federal agents who patrol the Otay Mesa area immediately north of the border began watching the pallet company, its yard stacked with grimy, wood-frame racks, in October, Duffy said.

“The investigation began with an astute border patrol agent who identified this business as suspicious,” Duffy said. “They began monitoring this location and saw the people here conducting dry runs.”

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Andrew Hay)