Archive for January, 2011

Police Officer Shot in Takoma Pk. Bank Robbery

Friday, January 28th, 2011

PALMER PARK, Md. – A Prince George’s County police officer was shot this morning after an armed man took hostages at a Takoma Park bank.

The suspect, whose name has not yet been released, was shot and killed by police as he left the Capital One bank at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard with a female hostage. The hostage, whose name was not released, was “shaken,” but otherwise unhurt, Prince George’s County police said.

The officer who was shot has not been identified by police. He suffered minor injuries and was taken to a local hospital, said Prince George’s County Police Lt. Col. Gary Cunningham.

Cunningham declined to offer details about the officer’s condition.

Details of the shooting were unclear, but Prince George’s police spokeswoman Michelle Reedy said it’s a possibility the officer was accidentally shot by another officer when responding to the bank robbery. She did not have any other specific details shortly after noon Friday.

The attempted bank robbery occurred the same morning Prince George’s police planned to announce the closure of their fifth case related to the county’s spate of murders this month.

Prince George’s police arrested a suspect in the Jan. 8 killing of Alejandro Marcos Diaz Vasquez, 30, of the 7900 block of 15th Avenue in Langley Park, Md.

Police said a Hyattsville 16-year-old confessed Jan. 24 to stabbing
Vasquez in the 1400 block of University Boulevard. The teen suspect is being charged as a
juvenile with first- and second-degree murder.

Cunningham said the killing does not appear to be gang related, and that
there is no apparent relationship between the suspect and victim. He
said a motive has not been established because the suspect has provided
“conflicting stories.”

“He did admit to stabbing him,” Cunningham said.

Police said they did not know if the teen suspect had legal representation.

Prince George’s County was plagued by 12 criminal homicides in 13 days
at the start of 2011. Two murders have occurred since, with the last coming
Monday afternoon when police found Mckinney Antonio White Jr., 34, dead
in the 5700 block of Silver Hill Road in District Heights.

The pace of homicides has slowed in recent days.

“Obviously we’ve done some things to reduce the rate,” Cunningham said. “The
first 12 days we had 12 homicides. The last two weeks that number is
significantly reduced. So … we hope the trend continues.”

–By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Day off at U. of Md. Dampened by Power Outages

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Clusters of University of Maryland students scoured Route 1 for an open restaurant Thursday morning in the aftermath of a thunderous snowstorm that left many homes and apartments in the area – and the region – without power.

The campus was closed for the day, and quiet.

Along the strip of restaurants just south of campus, people futilely shook the doors of restaurants to see if they were open. Noodles & Co. was one of the few that was, and the line there stretched out the door at times.

“I can’t make food, because there is no power in my apartment, and now all these places are closed, too,” said junior history major Gary Roberge, who lives in College Park. “At this point, I’m willing to eat anything.”

Power went out in South Campus Commons around 9 p.m., returned at 9:30 and went out for the night around 10 p.m. Power returned at 11:04 a.m. Thursday, and heat returned to the rooms, said resident assistant Robbie Rosenthal.

The University View, an off-campus apartment building, lost power from 8 p.m. Wednesday until 11 a.m. Thursday, and an alarm went off between 8 p.m. and midnight, residents said.

Rosenthal, a junior government and politics major, was the resident assistant on duty in the Commons Wednesday night. Rosenthal was on fire watch because the fire alarms were not working, due to the lost power. RAs walked around with megaphones in case there was a fire, so they could tell students to evacuate.

“There were a lot more parties than usual,” Rosenthal said. “People were assuming there would be no class,” because of the driving snow that fell throughout the afternoon, ending just before midnight.

More than 7 inches fell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and a foot of snow fell in other parts of the state, the National Weather Service reported.

Students flocked to the Eppley Recreation Center on campus Thursday morning. Junior economics and psychology major Chris Chan had to wait to use most of the equipment.

“Right around noon, everyone—and I mean everyone—came out,” he said.

A number of students looking for a place to study gathered in the food court of the Stamp Student Union.

“I’m going to study all day,” said freshman letters and sciences major Cassie Dafin. “There’s not a lot of work yet, but I don’t want to fall behind.”

–by Maryland Newsline’s Collin Berglund

BGE: More Outages This Year Than During 2010 Blizzards

Thursday, January 27th, 2011
Mike Murtha, 43, his son Sasha, 10, and daughter Kristina, 9, shovel snow in front of their home on Poplar Avenue in Arbutus, Md., on Thursday. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexander Pyles)

Mike Murtha, 43, his son Sasha, 10, and daughter Kristina, 9, shovel snow in front of their home on Poplar Avenue in Arbutus, Md., on Thursday. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexander Pyles)

ARBUTUS, Md. – As Mike Murtha worked with his family to clear the sidewalk and driveway at his home on Poplar Avenue, he couldn’t help but think how lucky he was.

Murtha, 43, never lost power at his southwest Baltimore County home as snow fell Wednesday afternoon and evening, though there were a few moments when he was nervous.

“We had some [light] flickers,” he said. “But we lucked out.”

Murtha wasn’t kidding; more Baltimore Gas and Electric customers lost power as a result of Wednesday’s snowstorm than in 2010’s back-to-back blizzards, a BGE statement said, because of the wet snow that dragged down trees and power lines.

As much as 12 inches of snow fell in some parts of the state, including Baltimore and Montgomery counties, the National Weather Service reported.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, more than 12,000 customers remained without power in Baltimore County, a total exceeded only by Anne Arundel County’s 37,780 customers.

In total, nearly 77,000 BGE customers were still without power, less than half of the original total of more than 200,000 customers since Wednesday.

“We are working to get everyone back as safely and quickly as possible,” said Linda Foy, a BGE spokeswoman.

Foy said crews were on the way from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and North Carolina to assist in the restoration of power, but some of those reinforcements may not arrive in the area until Friday. More than 1,000 BGE employees already in Maryland are working, she said.

Employees are working 12- to 16-hour shifts in the field, and at the storm center, call center and other locations, a BGE statement said.

Repairs have been slow in some areas, Foy said, because trucks may not be able to traverse tight side streets. Other equipment may not be accessible due to road conditions.

“There are some challenges,” Foy said. “Depending on the conditions or the situation, we may not necessarily have to wait [to restore power to an area], but if you’re not able to get your bucket truck, for instance … sometimes the crews will have to actually take the equipment they can carry.”

BGE has not provided an estimated completion time for all power restoration, Foy said, in part because that is dependent upon how quickly reinforcements arrive.

Meanwhile, Pepco announced that it expects all power to be restored in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C., by 11 p.m. Friday, its website said.

Montgomery was hit especially hard, and still had more than 113,000 customers without power Thursday afternoon. That’s more than 37 percent of Pepco’s total number of customers in that county.

Less than 12 percent of Pepco customers in Prince George’s County were without power as of Thursday afternoon, or about 22,000 people.

Less than 10 percent were without power in the District.

Even for those still with power, Thursday was a challenge. Will Sipes, of Arbutus, said he was one of the last on his block out to shovel the sidewalk.

“I’m the late guy,” he said, hat pulled tightly over his ears. Sipes said he likes snow but “not when it’s a lot.”

Murtha and his family, including 9-year-old Kristina and 10-year-old Sasha, who helped their father shovel the sidewalk Thursday afternoon, were just grateful there wasn’t as much snow on the ground as last year.

“Yeah, I like the snow, I like the thought of the snow,” Mike Murtha said. “This is easy compared to last year.”

His shoveling job was made easier, he said, by snow plows that hit his one-lane street earlier than usual. The road surface was largely without slush and stripped down to blacktop Thursday morning.

And Murtha had a theory for why his little street received such quick attention.

“I think it helps that [former Maryland governor Robert] Ehrlich used to live in Arbutus,” he said. “So I think he still has some pull.”

For real-time updates on outages, check BGE’s power outage map and Pepco’s outage map.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Despite Snow, State Police Report No Major Accidents

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Highways were slushy, slippery and crowded statewide for much of rush hour Wednesday night, but no traffic fatalities or other major accidents were reported, Maryland State Police said early Thursday.

But as the region attempts to dig out of up to a foot of snow and road crews remain at work today, police spokesman Elena Russo said it is too early to determine its total impact.

Russo did say state police have been kept busy with reports of minor traffic accidents, but she couldn’t quantify those.

“At this point it is too early to see how many serious accidents the snow caused,” Russo said. “We’ve got scores of minor crashes that we responded to, but a lot of times we might not even be called out to [some of those].”

Police were also still trying to clear abandoned vehicles from highways, she said. More than 150 vehicles were towed, awaiting owners to pick them up.

Each police barrack has separate tow company information, Russo said, and people looking for their vehicles should contact their local barrack to determine where their vehicle has been taken.

Cars were abandoned alongside northbound Interstate 95 as early as 6 p.m. Wednesday, as snow fell steadily and brought traffic to a crawl between the Capital Beltway and Baltimore.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Baby, It’s Snowy Outside…

Thursday, January 27th, 2011
GradHillsSnow2

University of Maryland doctoral student Yiqun Chen, 24, clears her windshield at the Graduate Hills apartments in Hyattsville Thursday morning. "I came here from Pittsburgh, so I'm used to this," she said. "It's just cold out here." (Capital News Service photo by Jessica Harper)

HYATTSVILLE, Md. – After a few misses, snow finally hit the D.C.-metro area in a big way, falling at a rate of up to 2 inches an hour from late Wednesday afternoon to the early hours of Thursday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Parts of Baltimore County and Montgomery, Harford and Howard counties saw some of the highest totals in Maryland, with about 12 inches accumulating, according to unofficial reports published by the National Weather Service.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport saw 7.6 inches, Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., reported 7.3 inches, and Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., recorded 5, said NWS meteorologist Kevin Witt.

The accumulation actually came in two storms, Witt said, with the first arriving Tuesday night through Wednesday morning.

Moderate to heavy snows combined with wind gusts caused fallen tree limbs and power outages across the region.

Residents at the Graduate Hills apartments in Hyattsville, Md., were fortunate to have power, and some used the day off to spend time with their families.

“Well, I’m from Michigan, so this is good springtime weather,” said William House, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.

House’s 2-year-old son, Robbie, played in the snow as he chatted with passersby. House said this is only the second time Robbie has seen the snow.

“We could probably go out in a little while, but I don’t think we will,” said House. “On a day like this, I just choose to stay home with my son.”

Economics doctoral student Yiqun Chen, 24, was a little less enthusiastic.

“I came here from Pittsburgh, so I’m used to this,” she said, as she scraped mounds of snow from her windshield. “It’s just cold out here.”

For more, see the National Weather Service snow map.

–By Capital News Service’s Jessica Harper, with Maryland Newsline’s Maite Fernandez

Water Main Break Gives Church Hope

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
Pastor Stephanie Stratford (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexandra Wilding)

Pastor Stephanie Stratford (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexandra Wilding)

CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. – At 8 a.m. Monday, Pastor Stephanie Stratford of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center got a call from her leasing office urging her to come to the church right away. 

“I didn’t have any idea it was complete and total devastation until I got here,” said Stratford, as she walked through what remained of the church she established and has led since 2007.

In what was once her office, decorated with a sofa and various knickknacks, there is now only mud, dehumidifiers to prevent mold, and remnants of walls that were ripped apart by the force of rushing water.

The water, about 50 million gallons of it, gushed around 3:30 a.m. that morning from a broken water main after reinforcing wires snapped. It rushed into the office park housing the church and onto the nearby inner loop of the Capital Beltway, causing about 400,000 Prince George’s County customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to lose water pressure and to be advised to boil their water for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and food preparation.

With low water pressure, there is an increased risk of contamination.

The exact cause of the water main break is still being determined, but the main’s reinforcing wires appear to have been invaded by corrosion, said I.J. Hudson, a spokesman for the WSSC. The 54-inch main is 40 years old.

The boil-water advisory is still in effect for customers in the area south of Central Avenue and Route 202. The WSSC plans to make an announcement about the advisory sometime Thursday, Hudson said.

On Tuesday, crews contracted by the WSSC cleaned up the area surrounding the broken pipe, piling up chairs and other debris that floated out of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center when their glass windows shattered under the water’s pressure.

In terms of property damage, this was a bad incident, said WSSC customer advocate Kevin Woolbright. As the rushing water snaked through the church, it displaced furniture, shattered windows and tore down walls.

The church, which serves 60 families with Sunday services and Thursday evening Bible study, will not be torn down, but the inside of the building including walls, windows and carpeting will have to be replaced, a process that could take four to six weeks, Stratford said.

The cost of the repairs will be covered by the WSSC, officials said.

Robert Jennings, a youth minister with the church and Stratford’s son, expressed optimism about the church’s future, despite the damage to the building. “We are excited about where God is taking us,” he said. “It’s a great loss, but it’s not a setback.”

This Sunday, Stratford, joined by members of her congregation, will preach at both Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland and Brown Memorial AME Church in Washington.

Despite the damage to her church, Stratford spoke calmly and with a smile about the future.

“I’m excited because I know that what I lost is going to be nothing compared to what I receive in return,” she said.  “So, I think that this is also a defining moment in the life of our church and in the development of the faith of our congregation.”

For more information on the water advisory and to find affected areas, visit http://www.wsscwater.com/.

More photos in Newsline slide show.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding

House Votes to Eliminate Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Just over a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on campaign finance, the House Wednesday passed a Republican- sponsored bill to eliminate the public financing of presidential campaigns and party conventions.

Republican supporters said the legislation would reduce the deficit by cutting $617 million over 10 years. Democrats countered that the legislation would expand the Citizens United decision that allowed corporate entities to fund independent political ads and decrease the power of individuals in elections.

The White House budget office released a statement in opposition to the bill stating the effect of the legislation would be “to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.”

Several members criticized President Obama for opposing the bill because his 2008 campaign opted out of public financing and instead raised record funds through individual donors. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said Obama broke his pledge to participate in the program she called “outdated.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said “The idea that Americans need this program in order to support candidates is absurd. It’s not 1971 anymore.” Republican members called on passage of the legislation as a way to reduce the federal deficit. Maryland Rep. Roscoe Barlett, R-Frederick, was one of the bill’s 20 co-sponsors.

Under current law, citizens may check a box on their tax return to designate $3 to a fund for distribution to candidates who meet certain eligibility requirements. Candidates must agree to funding limits and must meet certain reporting requirements by the Federal Election Commission.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, spoke in opposition to the bill. “Rather than presidential candidates trafficking in secret slush funds our nation decided that our democracy would be better served by a system of public disclosure, contribution limits, and emphasis on smaller dollar contributions, matched by the presidential financing fund,” he said.

Van Hollen called for a revision rather than elimination of the 1974 tax code provision that established the program. He and Rep. David Price, D-N.C., introduced legislation to amend the current law.

Several Democratic members expressed concern that the end of public financing would increase the power of special interests in elections. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said the bill added “insult to the injury” of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year. “Now my Republican colleagues propose to further erode whatever protections our government has left against a state of democracy for the highest bidder,” she said.

Ten Democratic members voted in favor of the legislation which passed the House with a vote of 239-160.

-By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Supreme Court Sends Six to SOTU, Despite Obama’s Criticism

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

“I’m willing to bet a lot of money there will be no Supreme Court justice at the next State of the Union speech,” University of Texas law professor and Supreme Court historian Lucas Powe told ABC’s Jake Tapper last year.

No one took Powe up on his offer, and it’s a good thing for him. Six justices showed up for last night’s State of the Union address — the same number as last year.

“Jake can’t have my money,” Powe said with a laugh in a phone interview Wednesday.

Powe said he was stunned last year when Obama called out the justices during his speech for their ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which loosened restrictions on corporate campaign contributions. Obama’s remarks prompted Justice Samuel Alito to mouth the words, “Not true.”

Powe said he agreed with Obama’s take on the case, but the State of the Union wasn’t the right venue to express distaste for the decision.

“I thought what Obama did last year was absolutely uncalled for,” Powe said. …The polite thing to do is not attack people who can’t leave.”

That’s why Powe said he figured none of the justices would show up to the State of the Union this year. But Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts were all in the House of Representatives chamber to hear the speech last night.

The justices are not asked, encouraged or required to attend the State of the Union. They may go or not go of their own volition. Six justices have attended the previous two years and in the early part of the decade it was more common for only one or two to show.

Obama’s remarks last year did not seem to have a marked effect on attendance this year, and Powe said that in retrospect he probably should have known that at least some justices would attend.

Kagan and Sotomayor were appointed by Obama, and Breyer has spoken publicly about his affinity for the State of the Union address.

The presence of Roberts, the chief justice, was less of a sure thing. After last year, he openly questioned the usefulness of having Supreme Court justices at what he said had become “a political pep rally.”

But this year’s address was decidedly less peppy and partisan in the wake of the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., with a bullet wound to the head.

Democrats sat with Republicans, there were far fewer party-line standing ovations than usual and no one felt entrenched enough to scream “You lie!” at the president as happened during a September 2009 speech the president made to Congress.

James O’Hara, a former Loyola (Md.) University law professor and chairman of the publications committee of the Supreme Court Historical Society, said anticipation of the different atmosphere probably played into Roberts’ decision attend this year.

The other three conservative members of the court — Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — were not attending and the court was in danger of appearing unduly partisan at a time when the nation had little patience for partisanship.

“If Roberts had not gone, then it might have looked as if all of the liberals were going and all of the conservatives were not going,” O’Hara said. “Then the next time there’s a Republican president does it get reversed? At that point it does involve the court in an arena that the court, I think, doesn’t like to get involved in.”

Powe agreed that Tucson probably played a role in Roberts’ attendance and cautioned against any speculation about the justices’ political ideologies influencing their decision to sit in on the speech.

“Scalia and Thomas didn’t show up for Bush, so I think we have to give them a pass,” Powe said.

– By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

District Heights Killing Is Pr. George’s 15th

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

A District Heights man was shot and killed late Monday afternoon, Prince George’s County police said.

Mckinney Antonio White Jr., 34, was found by police in the 5700 block of Silver Hill Road at about 5 p.m. Monday, a police statement said.

Police do not yet have any suspects or a motive.

“We’re still pleading with the public for information,” said police Cpl. Erica Johnson.

White, of the 6800 block of Atwood Street, is the 15th person killed this year in the county, including 13 homicides that occurred by Jan. 13.

Johnson said there is no indication that White’s slaying is connected to any previous case.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Obama Will Urge Cooperation, Innovation

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama will invoke the space race with the Soviet Union to challenge Congress to tone down partisan rancor and work with him to usher in a new age of American innovation in his State of the Union address.

With Republican and Democratic senators and representatives planning to sit together in a symbolic gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, Obama will push for investment in research and education as the key to keeping the nation competitive in the global economy.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama will say, according to excerpts released by the White House, referring to the Soviet satellite that first orbited the earth in 1957 and startled the United States into a flurry of scientific breakthroughs.

Obama will make the case that breakthroughs in green energy, information technology and biomedical research will grow new jobs where the recession has washed them away and that he will be sending a budget to Congress that includes government investment in those areas.

Government investments to spur new technology could be a bone of contention between Obama and Republicans, many of whom were elected on a platform of reducing government as the best path to economic growth just a few months ago.

– By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso