Oak Harbor, Ohio
Ice rescue: One person died and 134 were stranded for hours when a chunk of Lake Erie ice they were occupying broke away from shore. Most of those stranded were fishermen seeking walleye, a freshwater fish highly prized by Great Lakes anglers. Ignoring warnings from Ohio authorities, the fishermen drove snowmobiles and SUVs across a makeshift bridge onto the ice. When the wind shifted and temperatures warmed, an eight-mile section of ice broke away from shore, necessitating a Coast Guard rescue. “What happened here today was just idiotic,” said local sheriff Bob Bratton. One snowmobiler died after his vehicle plunged through the ice.
Order to reduce inmate population: A federal court this week told California to reduce its prison population by roughly 55,000 within three years, ruling that overcrowding in the state’s penitentiaries violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state currently houses 156,000 prisoners, about double the system’s capacity. Many sleep in hallways or gymnasiums in bunks stacked three high. The federal ruling would cap the state’s prison population at 101,000. Legal experts blamed the state’s so-called three strikes policy, which requires third-time felons to serve sentences of 25 years to life, for much of the overcrowding. The state said it would appeal the ruling.
Fort Detrick, Md.
Army halts germ research: The U.S. Army this week suspended dangerous germ research at a key bioweapons lab after discovering discrepancies in the lab’s inventory of lethal germs and viruses. Col. John Skvorak, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, ordered the “stand-down” after four unaccounted vials of biological toxins were found in a lab freezer. Army officials insisted that no lethal substances were missing, but said the lab had failed to account for all materials held before its records were computerized, in 2005. “It’s a record-keeping thing,” said spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden. Bruce Ivins, whom federal authorities identified last year as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax mailings, which killed five, had been a researcher at Fort Detrick before he killed himself last July.
Second peanut plant closed: The Peanut Corporation of America this week closed its Plainview blanching and roasting plant after laboratory tests indicated it might be contaminated by salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration last month identified the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant as the source of a salmonella outbreak that contributed to the deaths of eight people and sickened more than 500 in 43 states. FBI agents raided the Georgia plant this week. Former and current employees of the Texas plant called conditions there “disgusting,” including widespread rodent infestation and a leak of dirty water from the roof onto processing equipment. Texas authorities and the FDA said they lacked authority to close the Plainview plant; the company closed it voluntarily.
Cold case heats up: The FBI last week reopened the investigation into the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, searching the Boston-area apartment and storage locker of a man who had been convicted of extortion in the case. Seven people in the Chicago area died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol, but the perpetrator was never found. The FBI said it reopened the case after receiving scores of tips around last year’s 25th anniversary of the killings. Agents searched the apartment and personal effects of James Lewis, who was convicted in 1983 of writing a letter to Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson after the deaths, demanding $1 million “to stop the killing.” Lewis served an 12-year prison term. No new charges have been filed against him.
Army deserter returns: A deserter returned from Canada last week after four years on the run, surrendering to military police to face a court-martial. Cliff Cornell, 29, abandoned his artillery unit, based at Fort Stewart near Savannah, in 2005, shortly before it was deployed to Iraq. He returned to the U.S. after Canadian authorities refused to grant him asylum. Cornell, who enlisted in 2002, said he deserted to avoid killing Iraqi civilians. “I know it sounds funny,” he said before turning himself in, “but I have a really soft heart.” Cornell faces up to five years in prison if convicted of desertion.