‘Day of Fire’: Blazes ignite suspicion in Amazon town

By Stephen Eisenhammer

NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil (Reuters) – A maverick journalist in this isolated Brazilian ranching town warned his readers last month that the surrounding Amazon was about to go up in flames.

Queimadas, or burnings, are nothing new in Novo Progresso, located on the frontier where Brazil’s farmland edges the Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Para. Locals say farmers annually use fire to illegally clear pastures or newly deforested areas.

But the Aug. 5 article in the online Folha do Progresso was eerily specific about an upcoming “Day of Fire.”

It said growers and ranchers were planning to set a coordinated series of fires in the forest and nearby land on Saturday, Aug. 10, inspired in part by President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s right-wing leader has vowed to open the world’s largest rainforest to more development. Punishment of environmental crimes has plummeted on his watch.

When the day came, the number of fires tripled from the prior 24 hours. Government data recorded 124 blazes, compared to just six on Aug. 10 last year.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In an Aug. 25 message on Twitter, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Bolsonaro had ordered a “rigorous” probe to “investigate and punish those responsible” for the Novo Progresso fires.

State and federal police have since descended on this rough-edged town of 30,000. Some residents are not pleased with the sudden attention. Most farmers approached by Reuters declined to be interviewed. Many dismissed the Folha do Progresso story as rubbish, the invention of a fabulist.

“For you outsiders, we’re all criminals here,” one rancher said, declining to give his name.

Adecio Piran, the reporter who wrote the article, told Reuters he temporarily went into hiding after receiving death threats. He stands by his story.

According to prosecutors investigating the case, Brazil’s government did not move aggressively to prevent the conflagration, despite forewarning.

Prosecutor Paulo Oliveira said he notified Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, about the Folha do Progresso article on Aug. 7. The agency responded on Aug. 12, two days after the “Day of Fire,” saying it lacked the police support needed to investigate the matter, according to copies of the correspondence between Ibama and Oliveira reviewed by Reuters.

Ibama did not respond to a request for comment.

Army troops were dispatched to the area weeks later. By last Wednesday, there were about 200 soldiers camping on a dusty patch of land used for country fairs on the edge of town.

As Reuters drove the long road into town on Aug. 30, smoke still hung heavy in parts. Charred tree trunks and ash littered the ground where jungle recently stood.

Brazil’s Environment Ministry declined to comment for this story. Salles, the minister, has said previously that overly restrictive environmental policies have incited rural dwellers to resort to illegal logging and mining to make a living.

The “Day of Fire” is part of a brutal wave of destruction in Brazil’s rainforest this year. Some 6,404.8 square kilometers (2,472.91 square miles) have been despoiled, double the area felled at this point last year and larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Images of the Amazon burning have sparked international condemnation of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, who has dismissed those concerns as outsiders meddling in Brazil’s internal affairs.

Townspeople in Novo Progresso bristled with resentment at the arrival of federal police and the military. Cattle traders complained it was bad for business.

Madalena Hoffmann, a former mayor of Novo Progresso, said she did not know if the Aug. 10 fires were intentionally coordinated. She said deforestation has gone too far. But like many here, she blames the government for imposing environmental rules so complicated and strict that farmers feel they must break the law to ply their trade.

“Fundamentally it’s the government’s fault,” she said.

‘ABANDONED’

Novo Progresso dates to the early 1980s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship lured families here with the promise of land and opportunity.

The armed forces, where former Army captain Bolsonaro got his start, viewed the largely uninhabited Amazon as a vast, resource-rich asset vulnerable to invasion or exploitation by foreigners. The military built roads and encouraged settlement.

But by 1985, the dictatorship had fallen. The newly democratic government began what would become a very different policy towards the Amazon: conservation.

“We were abandoned,” said Moises Berta, a 59-year-old rancher. Sipping coffee under a dawning sky at a bakery popular with farmers, he said he moved to Novo Progresso as a young man in 1981 with hopes of starting a successful farm.

Berta said the government has left him and others in the lurch by failing to grant clear titles to lands they have worked for years. Possessing the title to one’s farm makes it easier to obtain financing and eventually sell it. Without it, ownership is difficult to prove, making illegal activity such as cutting down forest easier to get away with.

In Brazil, land ownership can be granted by demonstrating the property is being used constructively, is not owned by someone else, and is not located in a protected area – standards Berta says his holdings meet.

But 38 years after arriving, Berta still does not have the title for his ranch beside highway BR 163, a vital artery for transporting soy and cattle, despite repeatedly trying to register it with the federal government.

He might not have the rights to his land, but holding up his phone, Berta showed a document pertaining to four open cases against him from Ibama, the environmental watchdog. Asked what laws he had allegedly violated, he grinned. “I have no idea,” he said.

Ibama declined to comment on Berta’s cases, passing a request from Reuters to the Environment Ministry, which did not respond.

The town’s farmers union says 90% of farmers and ranchers here do not have their land formally recognized by the state. Locals say the process is complicated and that officials are unresponsive. Documents need to be presented in person at an office a five-hour drive away.

Incra, the government body responsible for issuing land titles, said in an emailed statement it was aware of the backlog in the Amazon and that “measures were being developed to promote the emission of the required titles.”

Farmers were further incensed by the 2006 creation of a vast reserve to the west of Novo Progresso called the Jamanxim National Forest, which they say has strangled their ability to expand. The federal government was trying to slow deforestation that had cleared much of the forest in neighboring Mato Grosso state and was heading north toward Novo Progresso along BR 163.

Complicating matters, nearly 500 farmers were already inside the reserve when it was created. Most refused to leave, creating a standoff that has yet to be resolved.

Many of the Aug. 10 fires occurred inside the Jamanxim National Forest, the most deforested reserve in Brazil this year, government figures show. Over 100 square kilometers of rainforest there have been cleared since January, an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan.

JOURNALIST IN DANGER

Agricultural interests support an amnesty that would see farmers inside the Jamanxim stay. They have found allies in the Bolsonaro administration.

On Sunday, at a nearby country fair, Special Secretary for Land Affairs Nabhan Garcia told farmers they would get their titles. The administration, he added, was reviewing the “embarrassment” of conservation areas and indigenous lands expanded under previous governments.

State police have so far interviewed about 20 people in connection with the “Day of Fire,” a person with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters. No one has been charged or arrested. State police did not respond to a request to confirm the information.

Prosecutors say they suspect organizers used Whatsapp to coordinate fires along BR 163 to show public defiance of environmental regulations. The Jamanxim forest blazes, they say, were likely the work of land grabbers.

“That’s a coordinated invasion to force the area into farmland,” a second law enforcement source told Reuters. The people requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Piran, the journalist believes he is still in danger. A pamphlet denouncing him as a liar and extortionist who lit the fires himself has circulated around town. While no longer in hiding, he still avoids going out at night. Police have asked state prosecutors that he be enrolled in a witness protection program.

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer, additional reporting by Amanda Perobelli; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson)

Special Report: Death and politics roil a Georgia jail

FILE PHOTO: The Chatham County Jail sits at sunset in Savannah, Georgia, U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Ned Parker, Jason Szep and Linda So

SAVANNAH, Ga. (Reuters) – In the summer of 2016, Georgia’s Chatham County hired jail monitor Steven Rosenberg with a mission: scrutinize the county jail’s healthcare services after a string of deaths.

In the previous 30 months, seven inmates had died at the Chatham County Detention Center, shaking public confidence. The last healthcare provider lost its contract in June 2016 after some of its own staff accused it of improper practices.

Chatham County sought a fresh start, signing a multiyear contract worth $7 million annually with a small Atlanta company, CorrectHealth LLC. The county wanted to know whether the new provider was taking the steps needed to prevent deaths.

But after several trips to the jail that summer through winter, Rosenberg’s team delivered four scathing reports. They described staff shortages, unclear health guidelines and failures to give inmates prescribed medications. Such failings, they warned, could trigger “potential loss of life.” Indeed, that September, six weeks before the second report was issued, an inmate strangled himself with a telephone cord. The death came after the monitors warned that the facility lacked written policies for suicidal inmates.

In late December, Rosenberg pressed CorrectHealth and Quick Rx, the jail’s pharmacy operator, to open their books for inspection; his firm was hired to assess the company’s compliance with the contract and tally penalties for shortcomings. Before the day was out, the county sheriff barred Rosenberg from the detention center.

Both companies were politically connected in Savannah. CorrectHealth, and its president’s wife had donated $5,000 to the election campaign of Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher. CorrectHealth also had hired a state senator to run the jail’s dental clinic. And pharmacy operator Quick Rx was owned by a powerful member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rosenberg’s team was allowed back three weeks later, but the skirmish was the start of a standoff between the monitor on one side, and county and company on the other. Within a year, the county terminated the monitor’s contract, at the sheriff’s request, and waived $5 million in fines the monitor had recommended imposing on CorrectHealth. Wilcher rebuffed a plan to hire a new provider.

Instead, commissioners in June 2018 handed CorrectHealth a new three-year deal worth $22 million. During the bidding process, Reuters found, CorrectHealth shared inflated budget costs with its competitors, allowing it to make a cheaper offer.

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Chatham County Detention Center’s troubles offer a look into the challenges American communities face in holding accountable the private companies that have been entrusted with managing healthcare services at a growing number of jails and prisons. The failed reform effort in Savannah also speaks to the power of local politics, in a county where two state officials had a piece of the jail medical contract.

After the county terminated Rosenberg’s contract in October 2017, medical and guard staff shortages persisted and medicines continued to go missing. Six inmates have died – five by their own hands – since CorrectHeath took over three years ago.

Wilcher said in a February interview he was “happy” with CorrectHealth. He declined to answer all follow up questions and referred Reuters to the county attorney, who did not reply.

CorrectHealth did not respond to interview requests or questions sent in writing. Quick Rx told Reuters it won the work on merit, not politics.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners than any other wealthy democracy, and an increasing number of local jails, housing over 700,000 inmates, contract with for-profit healthcare companies. The companies offer local governments ways to control jail spending and manage a notoriously unhealthy population.

Yet the for-profit industry operates with little local or national oversight, monitored only if localities volunteer to seek review by non-government accrediting groups. Despite the Georgia jail’s continued problems with suicides, it received coveted accreditations from a national industry body for inmate medical and mental health care.

“Healthcare providers do what they want to do. There’s often nobody monitoring the contract,” said U.S. Justice Department consultant Steve Martin, a former Texas Corrections Department general counsel who has inspected some 500 prisons and jails.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Carlo Musso, an emergency room doctor who founded CorrectHealth in 2000, has built an operation that now holds 41 contracts at jails across Georgia and Louisiana, with 2017 operating revenue of nearly $45 million. He is also a generous donor to politicians and sheriffs and a fundraising stalwart for the Georgia Sheriffs Association. Musso, his wife and companies donated $363,000 over a dozen years to Georgia politicians seeking state office, records show.

In Chatham County, Musso’s chance came in August 2015 when the jail’s healthcare contract opened for bidding. The relationship between the county and the jail’s previous medical provider, Corizon Health Inc, had deteriorated after a string of deaths, straining their ability to work together and ultimately leading to its loss of the contract. In a letter to the county, Corizon said it had been made a “scapegoat” for problems.

Musso promised sweeping change at the Chatham County Detention Center.

That November, the county sheriff at the time died of cancer, triggering a special election. Wilcher, a 40-year veteran of local law enforcement, won in March 2016. Pitching himself as a reformer, he vowed to “make the sheriff’s office great again.”

In June 2016, CorrectHealth won the deal, taking over the jail’s healthcare that August. The county viewed the new tender as a way to improve jail medical care. “The old contract really had no teeth in it,” said Roy Harris, the acting sheriff before Wilcher was elected.

The new contract set requirements for medical staffing and fines for failing to meet them. Intake screenings had to be completed within four hours or the company faced a $500 penalty per violation. Inmates had to receive medications within two hours of their prescription schedule; violations brought $100 fines per case.

As CorrectHealth won the job, Musso promised to retain the jail’s pharmacy firm, Quick Rx, owned by Ron Stephens, a titan of the state Republican Party and two-decade veteran of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Quick Rx had held the jail contract since the 1990s, but faced recent criticism. In 2014, jail medical staff said a pharmacy technician, not a licensed pharmacist, was taking prescription orders in violation of Georgia law, leading to medication errors. Quick Rx denied the allegation, saying it adheres to state laws.

Musso initially wanted to hire another drug supplier, not Stephens’ company, said Karen Cotton, a retired major in charge of jail operations in 2016 with first-hand knowledge of the negotiations. “It was a political thing. Musso had to back off,” she said.

Stephens said his company was hired because it provides “exceptional pharmacy services” at good rates. CorrectHealth did not respond to queries about the hiring.

Musso had also forged a partnership with another politician, State Senator Lester Jackson, a Democrat popular with Chatham’s black community, who had served on the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2012.

Jackson owned a dentistry practice, Atlantic Dental Associates, that worked with Musso across the state since 2014. Today, Atlantic runs dental services at 18 jails with CorrectHealth.

Atlantic landed the Chatham County jail’s $197,500 annual dental contract from CorrectHealth a few months before Jackson appeared in pamphlets for Sheriff Wilcher during the white Republican’s campaign for a full four-year term that November. The image of a smiling Jackson shaking the sheriff’s hand cut across racial and partisan lines in the largely Democratic county, which is 41% African-American. It was a blow to Wilcher’s rival, McArthur Holmes, a black Democrat.

“See how politics comes into this thing?” Holmes said in an interview.

Jackson said he did not formally endorse Wilcher, but considers him a friend and did not object to the use of his picture. Holmes never sought his endorsement, he added.

Wilcher won by 10 percentage points, emerging as a steadfast CorrectHealth defender.

THE MONITORS

In July 2016, the county hired Rosenberg’s firm, Community Oriented Correctional Health Services. Founded in 2006, the Oakland nonprofit has served as a consultant to local governments in New York, Florida, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., at times called to testify before Congress.

In Savannah, it would assess the jail’s medical operations. If CorrectHealth performed poorly, it would suggest fines. Rosenberg’s account is taken from his team’s confidential reports, which Reuters obtained through an open records request.

Almost immediately, he and CorrectHealth began clashing.

At the end of CorrectHealth’s first month at the jail – August 2016 – the monitors urged the company to craft policies for dealing with mentally ill inmates, and told the county the provider was struggling to hire registered nurses for inmate intake screenings.

Long-running challenges over staffing “have not been rectified by CorrectHealth,” the monitors reported.

Soon, CorrectHealth grappled with its first inmate suicide.

At 5:19 a.m. on September 30, Guy Leonard hanged himself with a telephone cord barely three hours after he was booked. On an intake form, the nurse wrote that Leonard said he had no plans to hurt himself and did not appear intoxicated, though he had been arrested on a charge of public drunkenness.

After the suicide, the nurse changed the original intake form to say Leonard looked intoxicated at booking. The sheriff’s department scolded the medical team in a letter, saying altered forms “will give the appearance of impropriety by CorrectHealth.” The sheriff also fired two guards over their failure to check Leonard’s cell in the hour before he died, while a third officer resigned.

The monitors returned in November and reported that “not all inmates” were getting a full physical and mental health assessment in their first 14 days – a standard recommended by the correctional industry’s medical accreditation body. The reason, the monitors reported, was “staffing shortages.”

They also reported a breakdown in the delivery of prescriptions. Medications ordered for inmates were sometimes missing; at times, an inmate would be listed for the same prescription twice. CorrectHealth told the monitor the Quick Rx records system did not synchronize with its own electronic records, leading to prescription mistakes.

Nearly three months later, the monitors reported that a guard told them nursing staff had falsely claimed inmates were refusing medications, “when they actually just did not have the medication to administer to the patient because it had not been received from the pharmacy.”

The questions over Quick Rx were a potential embarrassment for the sheriff. Quick Rx owner Stephens, the ranking Savannah Republican in Georgia’s state house, had supported Wilcher with a $1,000 campaign donation. Stephens said the two have been friends “for many years” and that he contributes to many local officials.

In February 2017, Rosenberg’s firm recommended $3 million in fines for CorrectHealth over its staffing failures and the late delivery of medicines. By June 2017, the monitors had raised their fine recommendation to $5.2 million.

SUICIDES, QUESTIONS

On March 11, 2017, Demilo Glover, jailed a week earlier after an arrest on a drunk driving charge, told a nurse his medications had been changed and he hallucinated that a little boy had appeared in his room holding a can of green beans, a department report said. The CorrectHealth team moved him to a rear infirmary cell. Throughout the night, he screamed. Earlier, Glover, who described himself as bipolar, told medical staff he had not taken his antipsychotic and antidepressant prescriptions for one to two days before his arrest and made bad decisions when not medicated.

The next morning, March 12, two guards collected his breakfast tray and asked Glover if he was OK. After they left, Glover knotted his bed sheet around his neck and slung it from a pipe. Minutes later, the guards returned to the cell, finding his corpse.

Twice in the months before the suicide, monitors warned that the infirmary’s cells were dangerous for suicidal inmates. When the monitors told Wilcher the infirmary did not have enough nurses, he bristled. The sheriff, they wrote, “does not want to hear about anything having to do with CorrectHealth.”

FILE PHOTO: Jerome Hill climbs the stairs at the Chatham County Detention Center shortly before his suicide in Savannah, Georgia, U.S. in this September 30, 2016 handout photo. Chatham County Detention Center/Handout via REUTERS

On April 3 of that year, Jerome Hill, 36, was arrested for allegedly threatening his girlfriend with a handgun.

Barely 90 minutes after being jailed, Hill said he wanted to kill himself, a department internal affairs report said. At 6:20 p.m. on April 7, guard Sharon Pinckney opened Hill’s cell in the mental health wing to take him for a shower. Hill raced up the stairs to the wing’s second floor and, ignoring her pleas, jumped from the walkway’s railing, landing head first. He died 18 days later, while in a coma at a hospital.

Pinckney told investigators “she did not understand why she was alone dealing with inmates on suicide watch and who had other mental issues.”

The internal affairs report into Hill’s death makes no mention of his meeting CorrectHealth’s psychiatrist in his four days at the jail.

SHERIFF PUSHES BACK

As the deaths mounted, the sheriff began pushing back against the monitor’s scrutiny. In a June 2017 email, an aide to the sheriff told Rosenberg’s team they didn’t need to visit the jail so often.

On August 24, 2017, Wilcher emailed the county manager he “WOULD LIKE TO GET THE COACH [monitors] GONE THANKS SHERIFF.” He contended they hadn’t offered “one piece of advice” on how to correct problems.

Within two months, Rosenberg’s contract was terminated. At the same time, Wilcher was advocating that CorrectHealth’s contract be extended.

As the sides negotiated new contract terms, CorrectHealth balked at the millions in pending fines. At this impasse, county administrators began negotiating with Virginia healthcare provider MHM Centurion. CorrectHealth quoted a contract price of $8.6 million, saying the county had pressed it to hire more staff. But then Centurion quoted the county budget price of $7.1 million, and won the job.

At a county commission meeting October 20, 2017, Wilcher chastised the county. “I am happy with the provider I got,” he said.

Commissioners rebuffed him, voting 6-3 for Centurion. The company was supposed to take over one week later. But suddenly, the sheriff announced he could not finish the background checks for Centurion’s medical staff in time.

Faced with uncertainty, Centurion walked away. In turn, commissioners approved CorrectHealth staying on through June 2018 – ahead of the awarding of a new three-year contract. Centurion declined to comment.

The county waived CorrectHealth’s fines. Just one county commissioner, Chester Ellis, objected. “I think that was a conflict of interest because of the campaign donation,” he told Reuters, citing Musso’s donations to Wilcher.

INFLATED NUMBERS

In April 2018, CorrectHealth bid on a new healthcare tender. Among three bidders, its proposal received the poorest score from a county screening committee, but offered the lowest bid. One reviewer wrote: “1/10 on suicide prevention. Very little detail; Not thorough.”

Wilcher continued to back the company.

Without debate, County Commission Chairman Al Scott called an up or down vote on keeping CorrectHealth in June 2018. The vote was 6-1 in favor, with Ellis dissenting. Scott told Reuters the jail was the sheriff’s jurisdiction, so he followed Wilcher’s suggestion.

During the bidding, Reuters found, the company had inflated the costs of providing medical care when the county requested numbers to provide rival bidders.

Musso told the county he spent just over $1 million on drug costs. However, a Reuters review of CorrectHealth’s invoices from Quick Rx shows the actual spending on drugs in 2017 was $280,000 less. The inflated number allowed Musso to offer a lower bid than competitors. Musso did not answer questions about the conflicting numbers.

As CorrectHealth won the contract renewal, Wilcher hired his own monitor to offer guidance on securing a coveted accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, an industry body that provides voluntary health standards for jails and state prisons and offers its seal of approval.

“We are not interested in, nor have or will we engage in, ANY activities or work that can be perceived to discredit you, the County, or its contractors,” monitor Ken Ray wrote the sheriff in his proposal. Ray did not respond to interview requests.

That June, NCCHC accreditation teams toured the jail and, two months later, the group sent notice it was granting a preliminary accreditation for the detention center’s healthcare services. The NCCHC also said it was awarding the jail the group’s first-ever certification for mental health services. At the time of its visit, the group said, the jail had not had a suicide in 12 months.

That was true, but the letter omitted the subsequent death of inmate Mosheh Underwood, 24, who hung himself in his cell August 4, 2018.

Upset after a call with his lawyer, Underwood had asked for paper to cover his cell window so he could have privacy to use the bathroom. A guard provided it – despite previous warnings from Rosenberg’s team about letting inmates cover their windows.

An hour later, Underwood, who hanged himself, was found dead.

Jaime Shikmus, the NCCHC’s vice president, said the sheriff’s office was not required to disclose the suicide because it occurred after the surveyors visited.

In the 48 hours before the jail’s certifications were formally unveiled, the sheriff and county worried in internal documents that its standing would be in peril if the organization got a complete picture of its problems.

In one email, jail administrator Todd Freesemann, then the sheriff’s policy and accreditation supervisor, advised Wilcher that the jail “does not have adequate mental health professionals to deal with the volume of mental health requirements.” In another, the county’s attorney warned the sheriff that the lack of registered nurses “jeopardizes your accreditations.”

On February 14, 2019, the news was officially announced. The Chatham County jail had won full accreditation for its mental health and healthcare services, becoming the first local jail to win this honor.

Four months later, a fifth inmate killed himself on CorrectHealth’s watch. Guards and medical staff rushed to resuscitate the inmate, but when they tried to revive his heart with a defibrillator, the first device was broken and the second’s battery was uncharged, a jail report said.

Today, CorrectHealth continues to hold its $22 million contract.

(Additional reporting by Peter Eisler and Grant Smith. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Probe of California boat fire begins as grim search goes on for bodies

A woman pauses as she looks over a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Omar Younis

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Federal safety investigators on Tuesday promised an exhaustive probe into the fire that killed 34 people on a dive boat as many of the charred bodies remained trapped in the sunken wreckage off the California coast or missing in the ocean.

After recovering the remains of 20 people from the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception or from the waters where the dive ship sank off Santa Cruz Island, officials said they believed none of the 14 victims initially classified as missing had survived the fast-moving flames.

“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

“Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims,” he said.

The five survivors, including the boat’s captain and four crew members, were above deck when the blaze broke out at about 3:15 a.m. Pacific time and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who perished was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception would remain on the ocean floor, more than 60 feet below the surface, until a site survey had been completed.

A few scant details about the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 60, began to emerge as emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the remains of the 20 bodies recovered so far. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY”

A memorial to the victims grew alongside a dock not far from where the ship was usually docked in Santa Barbara as members of the close-knit boating community reeling from the tragedy wove flowers into a wood and wire fence and constructed a makeshift memorial.

“It’s just such a horrific notion to think what the people down in the below decks, the people sleeping down there must have gone through,” said Judy Weisman, 72. “How terrifying.”

An audio recording of a desperate call made to the U.S. Coast Guard as flames engulfed the boat offered a glimpse into that terror as a man could be heard pleading for help.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in the garbled recording of the call.

“That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.

“Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,” said the man, using the abbreviation for “people on board” a vessel. “I can’t breathe! … Twenty-nine POB.”

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently failed to respond.

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad co-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good lord,” Harmeling said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

A seashell inscribed with the name “Kristy” was hung on the wooden fence at the dock.

(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

New York coroner ‘confident’ Epstein’s death was suicide: New York Times

An exterior view of the Metropolitan Correctional Center jail where financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

(Reuters) – New York City’s chief medical examiner is confident Jeffrey Epstein died by hanging himself in the jail cell where he was being held without bail on sex-trafficking charges, but is awaiting more information before releasing her determination, the New York Times reported on Sunday, citing a city official.

An autopsy was performed earlier in the day on the disgraced financier found unresponsive on Saturday in a New York City jail, chief medical examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said. A private pathologist observed the autopsy on behalf of Epstein’s representatives, which she called “routine practice.”

A determination on the cause of death “is pending further information at this time,” Sampson said in a statement.

The suspicion in Epstein’s death was hanging, said a city official not authorized to speak on the record.

The Times did not say why it could not identify the source of information on the medical examiner’s likely determination of the cause of death.

Epstein, 66, was not on suicide watch at the time in his cell in the Special Housing Unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a source said.

Epstein, a well-connected money manager, was found hanging by his neck, according to the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The wealthy financier, who once counted Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former President Bill Clinton as friends, was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of underage girls as young as 14, from at least 2002 to 2005.

The FBI and the Department of Justice’s Inspector General opened investigations into his suicide while he was in federal custody.

Last month, Epstein was found unconscious on the floor of his jail cell with marks on his neck, and officials were investigating that incident as a possible suicide or assault.

Despite that incident, Epstein was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, and he was alone in a cell in the unit of the correctional center used to isolate vulnerable prisoners when his body was found.

It was not immediately clear why Epstein was taken off suicide watch, a special set of procedures for inmates who are deemed to be at risk of taking their own lives.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates the MCC, provided no explanation beyond its terse statement that Epstein was found dead in an apparent suicide.

His death touched off outrage from Attorney General William Barr, politicians and many of Epstein’s alleged victims, who fear that they may lose their day in court now that Epstein is dead.

That investigation into conduct described in the indictment, including the conspiracy count, will continue despite Epstein’s death, Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said on Saturday.

The indictment – which accused Epstein of knowingly recruiting underage women to engage in sex acts, sometimes over a period of years – came more than a decade after he pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor in a deal with prosecutors that has been widely criticized as too lenient.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Rigby)

Puerto Rico governor resigns, protesters warn successor: ‘We don’t want you either’

Demonstrators celebrate after the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – People danced in the streets of San Juan’s old city on Thursday, after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello bowed to protesters’ demands and said he would quit over profane chat messages and a corruption scandal that have sparked massive demonstrations.

The continuing celebrations were tempered by the fact that protesters weren’t enthused over Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez being next in line to succeed Rossello based on current cabinet vacancies.

One protester waved a sign reading “Wanda, we don’t want you either” and another shouted, “Wanda, you’re next!”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks as he announces his resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early July 25, 2019. La Forteleza de Puerto Rico/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks as he announces his resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early July 25, 2019. La Forteleza de Puerto Rico/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

After 12 days of sometimes violent demonstrations, first-term governor Rossello said he would step down on Aug. 2, having failed to soothe critics by vowing not to seek re-election and giving up the leadership of his political party.

“To continue in this position would make it difficult for the success that I have achieved to endure,” Rossello said in an overnight address, listing accomplishments in office that ranged from creating new industries to promoting equal pay for women.

Rossello’s term as governor has seen the island hit with back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed some 3,000 people and wreaked widespread destruction, just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Thousands of protesters in San Juan’s historic Old City erupted in joy when news broke that Rossello was stepping down.

“Man it’s amazing, man, it’s wonderful, man I’m so happy,” said 19-year-old Leonardo Elias Natal. “I’m so proud of my country.”

Others, including Natal’s girlfriend, were more measured.

“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” said Julie Rivera, 21, who was already planning to return after dawn for another protest against the woman Rossello has tapped to succeed him.

Vazquez, a 59-year-old former district attorney, was too close to Rossello, Rivera said.

Vazquez rejected charges of improper past business ties leveled in Puerto Rican media.

“During our career in public service, we’ve shown that we’ve worked in a righteous and honest manner to benefit the public,” Vazquez told Puerto Rican media.

After celebrating late into the night, hundreds of protesters joined a morning rally in the city’s financial district to mark the governor’s resignation and make clear their opposition to Vazquez.

U.S. Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, said she welcomed Vazquez’s elevation.

“I turn to all my fellow Puerto Ricans to ask them for peace and tranquility,” said Gonzalez, a Republican and member of Rossello’s party. “The new governor, Wanda Vazquez, has all my support, experience and resources.”

‘PEOPLE … ARE AT STAKE’

Multiple Democratic members of U.S. congress urged their colleagues not to use the political turmoil as a reason to limit federal funding for the disaster-rocked island or to block a plan to increase federal Medicare funding for the island by $12 billion over four years..

“The people of Puerto Rico are at stake here, not any particular individual that happens to be in the governor’s seat right now,” U.S. Representative, Raúl Grijalva the Democratic chairman of the National Resources Committee, said in a video posted online.

Weary of crisis and a decade-long recession, Puerto Ricans were angered when U.S. authorities on July 10 accused two former Rossello administration officials of pocketing federal money through government contracts.

The final straw for many on the island came July 13 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of chat messages between Rossello and 11 close allies.

In messages between November 2018 and January 2019, the group made profane and sometimes violent statements about female political opponents, gay singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.

The chats tapped into simmering resentment toward the island’s political elites, drawing an estimated 500,000 people onto a San Juan highway on Monday to demand that Rossello quit as governor of the island’s 3.2 million people.

Rossello also faced the twin threats of an investigation by the island’s Department of Justice and political impeachment by its legislature.

Not all Puerto Ricans were delighted at Rossello’s fall.

While Ricky Shub, 33, agreed that the former scientist in his first elected office should step down, he said Rossello had become a lightning rod for decades of pent-up anger.

“He’s taking the fall for a bunch of past governors that put us in this position,” said Shub, watching the celebrations in the old city from his friend’s roof deck. “Everyone here is right to do what they’re doing, but they should have done it 20 years ago.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan, additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz and Marco Bello in San Juan and Karen Pierog in Chicago, writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)

Chicago will sue actor Jussie Smollett after he refuses to pay for police overtime

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett makes a court appearance at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 14, 2019. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Chicago will sue actor Jussie Smollett for the costs of police overtime spent investigating his claims that he was the victim of a hate crime, which prosecutors say were false, a city official said on Thursday.

The lawsuit was being prepared after Smollett, 36, refused a demand by the city for $130,000, said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Law.

“Mr. Smollett has refused to reimburse the City of Chicago for the cost of police overtime spent investigating his false police report on January 29, 2019, McCaffrey said. “The Law Department is now drafting a civil complaint that will be filed in the Circuit Court of Cook Country.”

Smollett, who is black and gay, touched off a social media fire storm by telling police on Jan. 29 that two apparent supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him.

But the actor, best known for his role as a gay musician on the Fox Television hip-hop drama “Empire,” was charged in February with staging the incident himself and filing a false police report.

Last week prosecutors dropped all charges against Smollett, infuriating police and outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Prosecutors said they stood by the accusation but that an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

The case file was sealed by a Chicago judge, which critics suggested was evidence of a cover-up.

The actor’s criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos, could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, some 300 people, including off-duty Chicago police officers, took to the streets to protest, calling on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to resign over her handling of the case.

Foxx, who recused herself from the case before charges were filed, citing conversations she had with one of his relatives, has defended her actions and those of her prosecutors.

Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of “Empire” this season after he was charged with staging the hate crime. Fox executives have not said if he will return should the show be renewed for another year.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. investigators to begin hunt for cause of Texas petrochemical disaster

FILE PHOTO: A petrochemical facility is shown after Hurricane Ike hit in Deer Park, Texas September 13, 2008. REUTERS/David J. Phillip

By Collin Eaton and Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. investigators hope this week for the first time to enter the site of a massive fuel fire and chemical spill outside Houston to begin the hunt for a cause and to determine whether the operator followed safety regulations.

The blaze, at Mitsui & Co’s Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) storage facility in Deer Park, Texas, began March 17 and released toxic chemicals into the air and nearby waterways. Shipping along the largest oil port in the United States remained disrupted on Monday, as did operations at two nearby refineries.

Fumes from benzene-containing fuel and fear of another fire have prevented investigators from going into the tank farm’s “hot zone,” officials said Monday. Three tanks holding oils remain to be emptied this week, and responders continue to sop up fuels on the tank farm grounds.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local authorities, plan to enter the site once it is safe.

Access to the site, along the Houston Ship Channel, will help determine what happened and how a fire at one tank holding tens of thousands of barrels of naphtha spread quickly to 10 other giant tanks.

“The escalation of the event, looking at how the fire spread from a single tank to others in the tank battery, is certainly something we’re interested in,” said CSB lead investigator Mark Wingard, who arrived in Houston last week.

Before CSB investigators enter the site, possibly later this week, they will focus on interviewing ITC personnel and witnesses of the fire, and collecting documentation on the facility and its tanks. The CSB’s investigation will also examine the “outside impacts” of the fires, Wingard said.

“There’s huge public interest in this case,” he said. “People in this community want to know what happened and what they were exposed to.”

Access also could provide officials with information critical to state and local lawsuits accusing the company of improperly releasing tons of volatile organic compounds into the surrounding air and water.

“We need to get to what was the root cause of this event and then begin to understand any aspect of negligence or obstruction that led to the event,” Harris County Commissioner Adrián García said in an interview.

The county last week filed a lawsuit against ITC seeking to recoup the costs of emergency responders and healthcare clinics set up in response to pollution from the fire. The county has not yet estimated the cost, which Garcia said is “going to be very significant.”

An ITC spokeswoman declined to comment, citing pending litigation. In the past, a company official said ITC responded immediately to the fire and had no lack of resources to put out the fire.

Asked how long it would take for investigators to get onto the grounds, ITC Senior Vice President Brent Weber said he hoped it would be days not weeks. “They have been on the site,” Weber said on Monday. “They’re staying out of the hot zone right now.”

Fumes and clean-up efforts continued to affect shipping for a third week. Twenty-two cargo vessels were able to transit the area near the ITC tank farm on Sunday, the Coast Guard said, between 40 percent and 50 percent of normal.

Another 64 were in a queue waiting to pass on Monday. In total, 118 ships were anchored outside the port, said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Derby Flory.

In addition to the state and county lawsuits, seven members of a Houston family have filed suit, claiming injuries from air pollution caused by the fire. Their lawsuit, which seeks $1 million in damages, alleges ITC failed to prevent the fire and did not adequately warn residents of the dangers once it began.

The seven were exposed to toluene, xylene, naphtha and benzene “causing them severe injuries and damages,” according to the lawsuit.

“The warnings were too little, too late,” said Benny Agosto Jr., who represents the family and whose firm is among at least four working to bring cases against the company.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston and Erwin Seba in Pasadena, Texas; editing by Gary McWilliams and Steve Orlofsky)

U.N. investigator calls on Saudi Arabia to open Khashoggi murder trial

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s secretive hearings for 11 suspects accused in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi fall short of international standards and should be open to the public and trial observers, a U.N. human rights expert said on Thursday.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who leads an international inquiry into the murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, called on the kingdom to reveal the defendants’ names and the fate of 10 others initially arrested.

“The Government of Saudi Arabia is grievously mistaken if it believes that these proceedings, as currently constituted, will satisfy the international community, either in terms of procedural fairness under international standards or in terms of the validity of their conclusions,” she said in a statement.

The Saudi public prosecutor indicted 11 unnamed suspects in November, including five who could face the death penalty on charges of ordering and committing the crime.

The CIA and some Western countries believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to Prince Mohammed fired over the killing, is not among the 11 suspects on trial at secretive hearings in Riyadh despite Saudi pledges to bring those responsible to justice, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday.

Callamard, referring to diplomats from world powers on the U.N. Security Council who have attended some of the four hearings thusfar warned: “They risk being participants in a potential miscarriage of justice, possibly complicit should it be shown that the trials are marred by violations of human rights law”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Saudi rights official dismisses Khashoggi inquiry as foreign interference

FILE PHOTO: Turkish police forensic experts and plainclothes police officers stand at the entrance of a villa in the Samanli village of the Termal district in the northwestern province of Yalova, Turkey, November 26, 2018, as police search inside in relation to the investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the state-backed Saudi human rights commission dismissed an international investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as interference on Thursday, and said everyone accused was already facing justice in the kingdom.

Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban made the comments as Turkey’s Justice Ministry said Interpol had issued red notices – asking police worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition – for 20 people regarding Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, provoking an international outcry.

In his remarks, the first substantive comments on the case by Saudi Arabia at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Aiban said those on trial for what he described both as an “unfortunate accident” and a “heinous crime” had attended three hearings so far with their lawyers present. He gave no names or other details.

Three dozen Western countries, including all 28 European Union members, called on the kingdom last week to cooperate with a U.N.-led investigation.

But Aiban said Saudi Arabia would not accept what he termed as foreign interference in its domestic affairs and judicial system.

“Justice in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia operates pursuant to international law and it does so in all transparency,” Aiban told the Geneva forum during a review of Saudi Arabia’s rights record.

“We are indeed horrified by what has happened pursuant to this unfortunate accident and we have taken those measures required for us to resolve this heinous crime,” added Aiban, who headed the official Saudi delegation at the hearing.

The Turkish Justice Ministry said it had requested Interpol red notices for 18 people on Nov. 15 and for two more on Dec. 21 without identifying the individuals. The notices were issued on March 1, it said.

Interpol declined to comment.

Ankara has repeatedly pressed Riyadh to reveal more details of the killing. It said earlier on Thursday that Saudi authorities should disclose the names of defendants and the charges they face if it wanted to avoid questions over the “sincerity of judicial proceedings in the kingdom”.

It also criticized Aiban’s rejection of any foreign investigation. “We find it difficult to understand why an official working in the area of human rights would possibly be unsettled by efforts to shed light on all aspects of the Khashoggi murder,” the Turkish presidency said.

Riyadh has rejected accusations by the CIA and some Western countries that the crown prince ordered the killing.

After making numerous contradictory statements, it said Khashoggi was killed after negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed – and later that 11 Saudis had been indicted and referred for trial over the case, without identifying them.

The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of them.

The killing has severely strained ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has good ties with the Saudi monarch, King Salman.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun, Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)