Nation roundup for March 22


Fourth body found in N.J. shore motel blaze

POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. (AP) — A fire early Friday destroyed a New Jersey shore motel that was housing people displaced by Superstorm Sandy, killing four people and injuring eight, authorities said.

The blaze erupted at the wooden Mariner’s Cover Motor Inn in this popular summer resort town at around 5:30 a.m., and flames were shooting out the building by the time firefighters arrived. At least one person leaped from a second-floor window to escape.

Three people were injured critically. Other injuries included broken bones.

The discovery of a fourth victim was announced Friday afternoon just before firefighters removed the body on a stretcher. Authorities said all remaining occupants had been accounted for.

The victims were identified as male adults, but the prosecutor’s office said no positive identifications had been made yet and the cause of the blaze was unknown.

Investigators interviewed motel management, and determined about 40 people were staying there when the fire broke out, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. The motel’s office was destroyed and many records were lost, he said, making an accurate accounting difficult.

Firefighters climbed ladders to reach charred second-floor units and search through them. An aerial ladder was also used to maneuver a firefighter into position to peer into burned rooms.

Survivors described a chaotic scene of flames, smoke and screaming.

Peter Kuch said he smelled smoke and opened his door to find a lounge area engulfed in flames. He dialed 911 to seek help, and by the time the call was completed, the flames were at his door and licking at the windows of his second-floor unit.

He decided to jump.

“I had to, there was no other way out,” he said. “My window was only open an inch and flames were already starting to come through it. There just was no other choice.”

He suffered a sprained ankle but said he was otherwise all right.

Foreign adoptions by Americans fall sharply

NEW YORK (AP) — The number of foreign children adopted by U.S. parents plunged by 18 percent last year to the lowest level since 1992, due in part to Russia’s ban on adoptions by Americans. Adoptions from South Korea and Ethiopia also dropped sharply.

Figures released Friday by the U.S. State Department for the 2013 fiscal year showed 7,094 adoptions from abroad, down from 8,668 in 2012 and down about 69 percent from the high of 22,884 in 2004. The number has dropped every year since then.

As usual, China accounted for the most children adopted in the U.S. But its total of 2,306 was far below the peak of 7,903 in 2005.

Ethiopia was second at 993, a marked decline from 1,568 adoptions in 2012. Ethiopian authorities have been trying to place more abandoned children with relatives or foster families, and have intensified scrutiny of orphanages to ensure that children placed for adoption are not part of any improper scheme.

Russia had been No. 3 on the list in 2012, with 748 of its children adopted by Americans. But that number dropped to 250 for 2013, representing adoptions completed before Russia’s ban took effect.

The ban served as retaliation for a U.S. law targeting alleged Russian human-rights violators. It also reflected resentment over the 60,000 Russian children adopted by Americans in the past two decades, about 20 of whom died from abuse, neglect or other causes while in the care of their adoptive parents.

Moving into the No. 3 spot for 2013 was Ukraine, currently engaged in political conflict with Russia. Ukraine accounted for 438 adoptions, followed by Haiti with 388, Congo with 313 and Uganda with 276.

Despite the relatively high numbers of adoptions from the Congo, that African country has been the cause of heartache from some American families trying to adopt Congolese children. In several instances, U.S. parents have obtained court approval for adoptions and taken custody of the children, only to be denied exit permits that would enable them to bring the children to the United States. They face a choice of living in the Congo with their children or returning to the U.S. without them.

“It’s a terrible shame,” said Susan Jacobs, the State Department’s special adviser on children’s issues.

Along with Russia and Ethiopia, the biggest contributor to the one-year drop was South Korea, which accounted for 627 U.S. adoptions in 2012 but only 138 last year. Jacobs said this decline was due primarily to new adoption procedures implemented by South Korea.

The last time there were fewer foreign adoptions to the U.S. was in 1992, when there were 6,472, and the downward trend has dismayed many advocates of international adoption.

Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council of Adoption, contended that the decline stems in part from the way the State Department has applied the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption, which establishes ethical standards for international adoptions

The U.S. entered into the agreement in 2008 with strong support from adoption advocates who hoped it would curtail fraud and corruption, and then lead to a boom in legitimate adoptions. Instead, the decrease has continued.

“The U.S. has encouraged and in some cases strong-armed impoverished countries to sign the Hague Convention and then cites their inability to comply with strict Hague standards as a reason for not doing intercountry adoption with them,” Johnson said.

Johnson expressed hope that Congress would support a bill introduced with bipartisan support last year — the Children in Families First Act — that would encourage more adoptions of foreign orphans. It would create a new bureau in the State Department assigned to work with non-governmental organizations and foreign countries to minimize the number of children without families — through family preservation and reunification, kinship care, and domestic and international adoption.

Concerns about corruption, child-trafficking and baby-selling have prompted the United States to suspend adoptions from several countries in recent years, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala and Nepal.

However, Jacobs said some adoptions from Vietnam — mostly involving children with special needs — were expected to resume soon. She said a Vietnamese delegation was due in the U.S. next month to interview U.S. adoption agencies with the aim of selecting some to operate in Vietnam.

“One thing that remains constant is our support for intercountry adoptions and our determination that they are done ethically and transparently,” Jacobs said. “I can’t think of anything worse than for a child to be consigned to an institution when they should be with a family.”

The State Department reported that 84 American children were adopted by residents of foreign countries last year — 35 of them went to Canada and 38 to the Netherlands.

Wal-Mart’s new tool gives competitors prices

NEW YORK (AP) — The “Every Day Low Price” king is trying to shake up the world of pricing once again.

Wal-Mart told The Associated Press that it has rolled out an online tool that compares its prices on 80,000 food and household products — from canned beans to dishwashing soap — with those of its competitors. If a lower price is found elsewhere, the discounter will refund the difference to shoppers in the form a store credit.

The world’s largest retailer began offering the feature, called “Savings Catcher,” on its website late last month in seven big markets that include Dallas, San Diego and Atlanta. The tool compares advertised prices at retailers with physical stores, and not at online rivals like Amazon.com that also offer low prices on staples.

The move by Wal-Mart, which has a long history of undercutting competitors, could not only change the way people shop, but also how other retailers price their merchandise. After all, Americans already increasingly are searching for the lowest prices on their tablets and smartphones while in checkout aisles.

Shoppers do this so often that big retailers that include behemoths like Target and Best Buy have started offering to match the lower prices of rivals — but only if shoppers do the research on their own. The idea behind Wal-Mart’s online feature, on the other hand, is to do the legwork for customers.

Citibank launched a similar program two years ago that sends Citi credit card customers a check for the difference if Citibank finds a lower price from an online retailer. But Wal-Mart is the first traditional retailer to offer such a program, and if it’s successful, others may follow.

Ken Perkins, president of retail research firm Retail Metrics LLC, said the move will “put pressure on everyone else to follow suit.” But he and other industry watchers voiced concerns that the tool doesn’t compare prices of online retailers.

After sending queries to some of Wal-Mart’s competitors, it wasn’t clear on Friday afternoon whether they planned to follow the move. And Wal-Mart did not immediately answer questions about why it does not compare online prices.

But Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer for Wal-Mart Store Inc.’s U.S. discount division told The Associated Press that shoppers are looking for “technological answers to saving them money and time.”

Wal-Mart built its business on offering lowest prices on staples such as milk, bread and laundry detergent. But Wal-Mart’s “every day low price” model is under attack from dollar stores and grocery stores like Kroger in addition to the Amazons of the world. On top of that, the retailer’s primarily lower-income customers continue to cut back on spending during the economic recovery.

As a result, Wal-Mart’s U.S. discount division recorded its fourth consecutive quarter of declines in revenue at stores opened at least a year, a critical yardstick for measuring a retailer’s health. The discounter also has seen a decline in the number of shoppers going to its stores.

Wal-Mart has had a price matching strategy for several years. In 2011, it simplified the policy by making sure workers have the advertised prices of competitors on hand at the register, eliminating the need for shoppers to bring in an ad from a rival store. But unlike rivals like Target and Best Buy, Wal-Mart’s policy does not include matching prices with online rivals.

Wal-Mart said the idea for Savings Catcher was born last year during a focus group. The idea instantly resonated with the group, the retailer said, and by last summer, Wal-Mart was testing it in four markets on an invitation-only basis. Last month, the company began rolling it out to the seven markets that also include Charlotte, N.C., Huntsville, Ala., Minneapolis, and Lexington, Ky.

Here’s how the tool works: A customer has to set up an account on www.walmart.com, log onto the Savings Catcher page and type in the number on their receipt.

Savings Catcher compares prices of every item on the receipt to a database of advertised prices of competitors that’s provided by an undisclosed third party. The tool doesn’t apply to general merchandise like clothing or electronic gadgets.

Wal-Mart prices are matched to stores based on geographic location. For example, in Atlanta, Wal-Mart compares prices to nearly 20 rivals, including Aldi, CVS, Food Lion, Target and Dollar General.

Any difference in prices is put on a Wal-Mart online gift card. Customers can accumulate savings or use the credit immediately. They can redeem in stores or online by printing out the gift card receipt.

Wal-Mart’s MacNaughton said preliminary data shows that in the markets that have the Savings Catcher, shoppers are putting more items in their basket and the checkout lines are faster because people don’t feel like they have to pull out their smartphones or circular ads to check prices. The company declined to say when the program could be expanded nationally.

Anne Jurchak was part of Wal-Mart’s focus group. She said she’s been getting back $5 to $7 on her weekly trips to Wal-Mart in which she typically spends $200 to $250. Jurchak has used those savings to buy holiday stocking stuffers and a case for her e-reader.

As a part-time marriage counselor and mother of two sons, Jurchak, 41, said she’s never had time to take advantage of price matching.

“They’re doing the work for me,” said Jurchak, who lives in Belmont, N.C. “The only thing they’re not doing is putting the groceries away.”

Officials: FBI agent cleared in Florida shooting

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Florida prosecutor has cleared an FBI agent of any criminal wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a Chechen man as he was being questioned about a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation said Friday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Friday because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the case, said State Attorney Jeff Ashton won’t bring charges against the agent who shot Ibragim Todashev, a 27-year-old mixed martial arts fighter.

The circumstances surrounding Todashev’s death have remained mysterious: Officials initially said the man had lunged at an agent with a knife while FBI agents and Massachusetts state troopers were questioning him about his friendship with suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Later, they said it was no longer clear what happened.

Todashev’s father, Abdul-Baki Todashev, insisted during a May news conference that his son was unarmed and has maintained his son’s innocence. He presented photographs, which The Associated Press could not authenticate, showing his son was shot six times in the torso and once in the back of the head.

The Washington Post first reported the prosecutor’s decision. Ashton’s office said in an emailed statement that he has not made a final decision regarding the investigation into Todashev’s death and denied sharing any such decision with federal officials.

The Justice Department also has been investigating but has not yet released its findings. A third law enforcement official said the Justice Department is expected to reach the same conclusion, based on a recommendation from the FBI.

Federal prosecutors have said in court filings that Todashev named Tsarnaev as a participant in an earlier triple homicide in Massachusetts. The filings were made in the case against Tsarnaev’s brother, surviving bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

According to the filings, Todashev told investigators Tamerlan Tsarnaev participated in a triple slaying in Waltham on Sept. 11, 2011.

In that case, three men were found in an apartment with their necks slit and their bodies reportedly covered with marijuana. One of the victims was a boxer and friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The filing was prosecutors’ attempt to block Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from getting certain information from authorities, including investigative documents associated with the Waltham slayings.

Authorities allege that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechens from Russia, planned and carried out the twin bombings near the finish of the marathon on April 15. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces 30 federal charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction and 16 other charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a gunbattle with police as authorities closed in on the brothers several days after the bombings.

Shootings by FBI agents are almost never deemed unjustified, and the internal investigations into those shootings are typically not reviewed by outside agencies, said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in police accountability and use of force. Walker pointed to FBI documents obtained by The New York Times under a Freedom of Information Act request last year showing that no FBI agents were found at fault in about 150 shootings between 1993 and 2011.

Most major police departments have several layers of review of officer shootings to improve tactics, training and policies, Walker said.

“It is my opinion that the FBI is still an insular organization. It’s not part of the municipal police. There has been some real progress there in terms of post-incident review in shootings. That’s what doesn’t happen with the FBI, and that’s what I think needs to happen,” he said. “The FBI is not a part of that world. They think they’re better, they are above that.”

It’s also very rare for any law enforcement officer to be charged with a crime in the shooting of a suspect, Walker added.

“The standard is so high in terms of proving criminal intent,” he said.

The executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida, which has been working with Todashev’s family and conducting its own investigation, said he wants to see the details of Ashton’s report. Hassan Shibly pointed out that Todashev’s live-in girlfriend and others connected to the case have been deported since the shooting.

“The DOJ’s and the State Attorney’s investigations relied on evidence gathered by the FBI, and the only person who can contradict first-hand their narrative is dead,” Shibly said.

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