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NC sheriff: Man held woman in ‘sexual servitude’ for 5 years

Authorities in North Carolina say a tip helped them capture a man accused of keeping a woman as a sex slave for five years

ASHEBORO, N.C. —
A man is accused of keeping a woman “in sexual servitude” for five years, authorities in North Carolina said.

Salvador Espinoza Escobar, 48, was expected in court Friday after being charged with one count of felony human trafficking, the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. He was taken into custody Wednesday, the same day the investigation began.

Information from the National Human Trafficking Tip Line helped deputies capture Escobar, the sheriff’s office said. He’s accused of withholding basic needs from the woman in exchange for forced sexual acts since January 2015.

Human trafficking isn’t highly reported in Randolph County, according to the sheriff’s office, which said this is its first arrest of this nature. The sheriff’s office is working with World Relief Triad — an organization that helps human trafficking survivors and others — to help the victim, news outlets reported.

No further information about the victim was expected to be released, for her protection and privacy, the release said.

Escobar was being held in the Randolph County Detention Center on a $100,000 secured bond. It’s unclear whether he had an attorney who could comment on his behalf.

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Cremated human remains found in California after theft

A California coastal cleanup crew ended months of anguish for a grieving family with the discovery of cremated remains that had been in a van that was stolen before a funeral service

LOS ANGELES —
A Southern California coastal cleanup crew ended nine months of anguish for a grieving family with the discovery of cremated remains that had been in a van that was stolen before a funeral service.

The crew from the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards was rappelling down bluffs to pick up trash tossed over a sidewalk railing when they decided to look more closely at a weathered cardboard box.

“We could see a plastic bag inside, and ashes, and we knew they were remains,” John McGaffin told KNBC-TV Thursday.

The box had the label of a Houston mortuary and a name, Anthony Sanchez. The crew found another container of ashes with the same label and another name, Damadis Sanchez.

Damadis Sanchez was 34 when she was killed along with her 8-year-old son, Anthony, in a traffic accident in Texas last year.

Her brother, Gerson Lopes, had the cremated remains returned to the family in El Monte, near Los Angeles. Last April, the family prepared for a memorial service, placing the two urns in a van they would be driving.

The van was stolen and the family had to hold the funerals without the remains of the deceased.

“I was pretty depressed,” Lopes said.

Nine months later, the van is still nowhere to be found. But the cleanup crew handed the remains over to Lopes, who told KNBC he was relieved.

“Just like a weight off my shoulders,” Lopes said, praising the crew for taking the initiative to look more closely and follow up.

“That team, they’re solid people,” he said. “We had a moment, and hugged it out.”

Nine months ago, Lopes and his family had made arrangements with a boat operator to take them out to sea so they could scatter the ashes. The same afternoon he received the remains, Lopes made the arrangements again, and gave his sister and nephew the ceremony he had planned.

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Philippine leader threatens to end US pact over ally’s visa

The Philippine president has renewed a threat to terminate an accord that allows American forces to train in the country unless Washington restored a visa of a political ally linked to human rights violations

MANILA, Philippines —
The Philippine president has renewed a threat to terminate an accord that allows American forces to train in the country unless Washington restored a visa of a political ally linked to human rights violations.

President Rodrigo Duterte said in an expletives-laced speech Thursday night that he would give notice to the U.S. terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement, known by its acronym VFA, if the reported cancellation of the entry visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa was not corrected.

“I’m warning you … if you won’t do the correction on this, I will terminate the … Visiting Forces Agreement. I’ll end that son of a bitch,” Duterte said in televised remarks in central Leyte province.

The security accord, which took effect in 1999, provides the legal cover for American troops to enter the Philippines for joint training with Filipino troops.

A separate defense pact subsequently signed by the treaty allies in 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowed the extended stay of U.S. forces and authorized them to build and maintain barracks and other facilities in designated Philippine military camps.

There was no immediate reaction from U.S. officials. The Philippines‘ Department of Justice said Friday it would study how the agreement’s abrogation could be done.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the Supreme Court should soon respond to a petition asking whether the Senate’s consent is needed before the executive department can terminate a bilateral agreement or a treaty that senators had ratified. The Philippine Senate ratified the VFA after lengthy debates.

Duterte first threatened to abrogate the VFA in late 2016 after a U.S. aid agency put on hold funds for anti-poverty projects in the Philippines. The 74-year-old leader, who has been harshly critical of U.S. policies while often praising China and Russia, has walked back on his public threats before.

Despite Duterte’s critical stance, U.S.-Philippine defense ties have remained robust and joint military exercises even increased in numbers last year.

Aside from threatening to take down the VFA, Duterte said without elaborating that he would ban some U.S. senators from entering the Philippines. He apparently was referring to American senators who sought to ban unspecified Philippine officials from entering the U.S. for playing a role in the continued detention of opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte’s deadly campaign against illegal drugs.

The U.S. has not released any list of Philippine officials who would be banned from entering. Duterte, who has publicly accused de Lima of receiving money from drug traffickers and called for her detention, has been invited by President Donald Trump to attend a meeting for Southeast Asian heads of state in March.

Dela Rosa had enforced Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown as head of the national police starting in June 2016, when the president took office. The crackdown has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead, alarming U.N. human rights advocates and Western governments, including the U.S.

It also prompted critics to file complaints against Duterte for mass murder before the International Criminal Court. An ICC prosecutor has been examining the complaints.

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9-year-old shot in drive-by outside California school

Authorities say a 9-year-old girl is in stable condition after she was hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting outside a Southern California elementary school

OXNARD, Calif. —
A 9-year-old girl on a playground was shot by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting outside a Southern California elementary school, authorities said Thursday.

The girl, who authorities initially said was 10 years old, was struck shortly before 11:30 a.m. during a car-to-car shooting outside McAuliffe Elementary School in the coastal city, Oxnard police said. The shooting is believed to be an isolated incident.

Witnesses reported seeing two cars driving erratically in the area, with one apparently following the other, before somebody in one car opened fire on the other, police said.

The cars fled and no arrests were immediately made.

The girl was shot in a “lower extremity” and was taken to the hospital in stable condition, police said in a statement.

“She is in good spirits,” Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney said at a news conference.

Nobody else was injured.

The Ventura County Star reported that police believe a semiautomatic handgun was used in the shooting, which took place at the back of the school. Authorities recovered shell casings in the street.

The school was on lockdown during the investigation, and all students were accounted for, authorities said. Police said no arrests have been made, but the newspaper reported that authorities have descriptions of the vehicles.

Oxnard School District officials did not immediately return calls and emails seeking additional details.

McAuliffe enrolls about 700 students from prekindergarten to fifth grade, according to the Ventura County Star.

Oxnard is a city of 200,000 people about 55 miles (88 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.

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For hippo Fiona’s 3rd birthday, zoo seeks aid for Australia

The Cincinnati Zoo is using the third birthday of its beloved hippo that was born premature as a way to raise money for Australian wildlife affected by the recent bushfires

CINCINNATI —
The Cincinnati Zoo is using the third birthday of its beloved hippo, born premature, as a way to raise money for Australian wildlife affected by the recent bushfires.

Instead of sending birthday gifts for Fiona, the Ohio zoo is asking people to buy T-shirts that will directly benefit the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund. The shirt features a koala and kangaroo giving Fiona a hug and says “Supporting Our Friends Down Under.”

All proceeds from sales of the shirts will be sent to Zoos Victoria to help them care for suffering animals. The zoo will add $5,000 to the total amount raised.

Fiona became a global celebrity after she was born on Jan. 24, 2017, weighing in at just 29 pounds (13 kilograms). The normal range for a hippo’s birth weight is 55 to 120 pounds (25 to 55 kilograms). Fiona now weighs a healthy 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms), according to the zoo.

“Fiona won the hearts of Cincinnatians when she fought to survive after being born six weeks early and terribly underweight,” Cincinnati Zoo director Thayne Maynard said. “Three years later, people all over the world are still crazy about this normal, healthy hippo.”

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California bill would make utilities pay some blackout costs

A bill in the California Legislature would require electric companies to reimburse customers when the utilities turn off power to prevent wildfires

SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
Californians left in the dark by electric companies that shut off their power to prevent wildfires could get paid for things such as lost wages or spoiled food under a bill that advanced Thursday in the Legislature.

In the state plagued by catastrophic blazes started by strong winds knocking down power lines, large investor-owned utilities have been aggressively shutting off power for millions of customers ahead of windstorms.

Utility companies cite public safety for the practice but also do it to protect their bottom line. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the nation’s largest electric utility, filed for bankruptcy last year after facing an estimated $50 billion in damages from several Northern California wildfires that were linked to its equipment. including one blaze in 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 buildings.

PG&E shut off power for more than 2 million customers in October. The blackouts caused major disruptions throughout the region, closing schools and businesses and making it more difficult for people who rely on medical devices powered by electricity.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, says the liability issue acts as a financial incentive for electric companies to err on the side of large blackouts covering more people for longer periods of time. Wiener said he designed his bill to act as an incentive for utility companies to have smaller, more targeted blackouts.

The bill would require investor-owned utilities to reimburse customers and local governments for some costs associated with blackouts. It would require an electric company’s shareholders — not its customers — to put money into a fund to reimburse customers within two weeks of a blackout. It would also ban electric companies from raising rates to cover losses from a blackout.

The California Public Utilities Commission would oversee the fund and decide how big it should be. The measure would also let the commission fine power companies up to $250,000 an hour for every 50,000 customers impacted by a power shutoff if regulators determine the utility “failed to act in a reasonable and prudent manner.”

If the penalties had been in effect last fall, PG&E could have faced fines of more than $1 billion, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

“It’s about giving utilities an incentive to use planned blackouts as a scalpel and not as a sledgehammer,” Wiener said.

Others worry the bill would spook electric companies into being too cautious with blackouts, thus increasing the risk of deadly wildfires.

“I believe it gives perverse incentives that could harm people,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa.

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, clearing the way for a vote in the full Senate next week. The bill must pass the Senate by Jan. 31 to have a chance at becoming law this year.

In a letter to committee members on Wednesday, PG&E Chief of State Government Relations DaVina Flemings said the company proactively turns off power “for one reason only and that is keeping customers and communities safe.”

However, Flemings said the bill “would put customers and communities in a very dangerous position by penalizing the utilities for deploying a public safety power shutoff.”

Wiener said the bill would not ban planned blackouts, saying “they can save lives and property.” Instead, he said it is to “incentivize the right behavior.”

“Those costs are real,” Wiener said. “For a lot of people, if you lose your refrigerator contents, that’s your food for the month.”

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Mayor: Mummers Parade ‘in jeopardy’ for repeated blackface

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has warned residents he will end the city’s annual Mummers Parade if organizers don’t curtail participants’ inappropriate behavior, including blackface

PHILADELPHIA —
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney warned residents he will end the city’s annual Mummers Parade if organizers don’t curtail participants’ inappropriate behavior, including blackface.

The mayor sent a letter to the organizers of the four Mummers divisions and requested they meet with officials following another blackface controversy at this year’s event, Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said Thursday.

“The future of the parade is in jeopardy if Mummers leadership does not make immediate changes to better control the parade,” Kenney wrote in the letters.

The New Year’s Day parade has a long history of racially and socially offensive displays. The parade features ornate costumes and musical performances and attracts thousands of spectators each year. City staffers monitoring the parade route this year saw at least one marcher wearing blackface, officials said. When they reported it, parade officials disqualified the group from competition.

The mayor criticized two men at this year’s parade for wearing blackface, calling their actions “abhorrent and unacceptable.”

“This selfish, hateful behavior has no place in the Mummers, or the city itself. We must be better than this,” the mayor tweeted shortly after this year’s event.

The men, Kevin Kinkel and Mike Tomaszewski, defended their decision and said it wasn’t racist. They said the group was paying homage to Gritty, the hairy, googly-eyed mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers that is orange all over, face included.

Many of the brigade’s marchers wore variations of face paint in the Flyers’ colors of black, orange and white. But the two men cited appeared to have just blackface.

Kenney asked the parade’s organizers to put mechanisms in place for accountability if participants violate Mummers’ rules next year.

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Prosecutor: DNA match leads to Florida ‘pillowcase rapist’

 A DNA match has led to a Florida man prosecutors suspect is the “pillowcase rapist” responsible for numerous sexual assaults of women in the Miami area during the 1980s

MIAMI —
A DNA match has led to a Florida man prosecutors suspect is the “pillowcase rapist” responsible for numerous sexual assaults of women in the Miami area during the 1980s.

Robert Koehler, 60, was arrested over the weekend in Brevard County and was being held without bond Thursday after his transfer to a Miami jail. He faces charges in one assault though authorities say as many as 25 victims could be involved.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said it will take time to locate victims and determine if there is enough evidence to prosecute all of these cases. The rapes occurred between 1981 and 1986.

She said the arrest of Koehler will “hopefully bring some justice and some measure of peace” to the victims. Rundle also said quick work by lab technicians coupled with improvements in DNA technology led to the arrest.

“They did a phenomenal job,” she said. “It’s going to take some time. But we feel confident that there are a number of sufficient cases that we can prosecute. We want to ensure that his man is never, ever free again.”

Authorities in Brevard County also found a pit of sorts had been dug under Koehler’s house, according to a search warrant. They also found several safes containing women’s jewelry and other items, including a nail file, that might be linked some some of his crimes.

The “pillowcase rapist” was so named because he used a pillowcase or other fabric to cover the faces of his victims, usually after he broke into an apartment or town home. The assaults were often committed at knifepoint, authorities said.

Alfredo Ramirez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said the investigation was a massive one encompassing much of South Florida. The series of assaults terrorized South Florida for the early 1980s.

“A lot of sweat and tears was put into this case,” Ramirez said. “We’re going to make sure he stays in jail.”

According to an arrest warrant, investigators obtained a DNA sample from Koehler’s son following an unrelated arrest. That sample was linked to one of the assaults, leading detectives to Brevard County where they followed Koehler to obtain DNA samples from objects he touched.

They had a match.

When he appeared in Brevard County court before his transfer to Miami, Koehler blurted out that he was “not guilty” of the assaults. He was convicted in a 1990 rape in Palm Beach County and sentenced to probation, which he later violated and served 120 days in jail.

That case, however, was never linked to the series of assaults in Miami and elsewhere in South Florida. Rundle said that was mainly because DNA samples were not yet mandatory.

A task force launched in the 1980s to search for the attacker was disbanded in 1987, but was recently revived by the Miami-Dade Police Department’s cold case squad.

“No matter how long ago it happened, we will never forget,” Ramirez said.

Authorities say Koehler had worked as an electrician while living in Palm Bay, Florida.

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Former Wells Fargo CEO fined $17.5M for sales scandal

Federal regulators have slapped former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf with a $17.5 million fine for his role in the bank’s sales practices scandal

NEW YORK —
Federal regulators have slapped former Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf with a $17.5 million fine for his role in the bank’s sales practices scandal. Stumpf also accepted a lifetime ban from the banking industry.

Along with its fine against Stumpf, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced Thursday it was suing five other former Wells Fargo executives for a combined total of $37.5 million for their roles in the bank’s poor practices. Two other executives also settled with regulators, paying million-dollar fines as well.

This is the first time regulators have punitively punished individual executives for Wells Fargo’s wrongdoing. The San Francisco-based bank has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties for encouraging employees to open up millions of fake accounts in order to meet unrealistic sales goals. Executives like Stumpf did give up tens of millions of dollars in bonuses and pay, but those actions were taken by Wells Fargo itself.

In its investigation, regulators laid the blame of Wells Fargo’s failures directly at the feet of its former management in its suit against the executives. As part of their settlements and lawsuits against these Wells’ executives, regulators seek to ban all of them from ever working in the banking industry again.

“The root cause of the sales practices misconduct problem was the Community Bank’s business model, which imposed intentionally unreasonable sales goals and unreasonable pressure on its employees to meet those goals and fostered an atmosphere that perpetuated improper and illegal conduct,” the OCC said in its complaint.

“Community Bank management intimidated and badgered employees to meet unattainable sales goals year after year, including by monitoring employees daily or hourly and reporting their sales performance to their managers, subjecting employees to hazing-like abuse, and threatening to terminate and actually terminating employees for failure to meet the goals.”

The highest profile former executive regulators are also suing is Carrie Tolstedt, who was head of Wells Fargo’s community banking business until her resignation in 2016. Tolstedt was the executive most directly in charge of Wells’ consumer bank, and has been largely blamed for Wells’ poor banking culture.

The OCC sued Tolstedt for $25 million for her role in the bank’s scandal, a suit that Tolstedt’s lawyers say they intend to fight. Stumpf’s fine of $17.5 million is less than Tolstedt because Stumpf settled with regulators.

“Throughout her career, Ms. Tolstedt acted with the utmost integrity and concern for doing the right thing,” said Enu Mainigi, a lawyer who represents Tolstedt. “A full and fair examination of the facts will vindicate Carrie.”

The two other executives who settled and will pay a fine include Hope Hardison, the bank’s top human resources executive, and Michael Loughlin, who was the bank’s chief risk officer. Hardison will pay a $2.25 million fine and Loughlin will pay a $1.25 million fine.

Wells Fargo, which has cycled through two permanent CEOs and a host of interim ones since the scandal occurred, agreed with the government’s decision.

“The OCC’s actions are consistent with my belief that we should hold ourselves and individuals accountable,” said Charlie Scharf, who became Wells Fargo’s CEO late last year. “They also are consistent with our belief that significant parts of the operating model of our Community Bank were flawed.”

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Advocates want to make Virginia an abortion ‘safe haven’

With a newly empowered Democratic majority at the Virginia General Assembly, abortion-rights advocates say the state has a chance to roll back decades of restrictions and become a “safe haven” for women in neighboring conservative states

RICHMOND, Va. —
With a newly empowered Democratic majority at the Virginia General Assembly, abortion-rights advocates say the state has a chance to roll back decades of restrictions and become a “safe haven” for women in neighboring conservative states.

Pro-choice groups laid out their legislative priorities this week, emphasizing a measure to undo Republican-backed laws including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, as well a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling. A Senate committee passed that bill on Thursday morning, a day after a House committee advanced that chamber’s version.

“These laws have been about shaming women, stigmatizing abortion, shutting off access, discouraging doctors from providing this care. And we say, we’ve had enough, the voters in Virginia have had enough, and now we’re going to act on it,” Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said at a press conference Wednesday.

The bills, which are part of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s legislative agenda, would also roll back the requirement that an abortion be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform them, and undo strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.

Pro-choice groups say those restrictions injected politics into a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor and made obtaining an abortion overly burdensome. Abortion opponents argued the laws protect pregnant women’s health and safety and are prudent given the gravity of the decision to obtain an abortion.

“There is no other procedure we deal with that ends the life of another person,” said Republican Sen. Stephen Newman, who opposed the bill.

The bills are advancing at a time when pro-choice advocates are increasingly worried the nation’s highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in March to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.

“If ever there is a time to protect a woman’s bodily autonomy, that time is now,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the sponsor of the Senate bill, who discussed her personal experiences during her pregnancies while advocating for the measure.

Keene said if “the worst-case scenario happens,” Virginia needs to be “a safe haven” for women in bordering states that are moving to ban abortion outright the moment Roe is overturned.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, rates Virginia’s current laws as “hostile.”

Data from the Virginia Department of Health show the number of facilities providing abortions has fallen from 20 in 2012, the first year in which the department began licensing the facilities, to 14 this year. The facilities are all located in populated areas, and the one furthest west is in Roanoke, according to the department.

Rachel Scruggs, a 25-year-old from Manassas, said Virginia’s current laws were a “demeaning” stumbling block when she sought an abortion after finding out she was pregnant with a partner who she said was emotionally and verbally abusive.

“Having an abortion was the best decision for my family, and I’ve never once regretted that decision,” said Scruggs, who was already a mother to a son with a developmental disability. “But being forced to go through a medically unnecessary ultrasound, mandated biased counseling and unfortunately to come back at another time due to the 24-hour waiting period was demeaning to me and a huge burden for my family.”

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, said Thursday she did not object to the provision removing the ultrasound requirement. But she called the 24-hour waiting period an “incredibly prudent” intervention.

Dunnavant described what she called the “painful” experience of counseling patients who acted quickly to have an abortion because they were facing pressure to do so, only to later regret their decision.

There is no harm in giving a woman a day to consider the decision, she said.

So far, abortion-rights advocates haven’t made loosening restrictions on late-term abortions a priority.

Debate over such a bill last year erupted into all-out political warfare after a video went viral of Democratic Del. Kathy Tran acknowledging that her legislation would allow abortions up until moments before birth.

Northam’s attempts to defend the legislation in a radio interview led to accusations from prominent Republicans that he supports infanticide.

“They learned their lesson last year,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation.