Gunman who killed 2 firemen left note he wanted to ‘do what I like doing best, killing people’
WEBSTER, N.Y. (AP) -- The ex-con who lured two firefighters to their deaths in a blaze of gunfire left a rambling typewritten note saying he wanted to burn down the neighborhood and "do what I like doing best, killing people," police said Tuesday as they recovered burned human remains believed to be the gunman’s missing sister.
Police Chief Gerald Pickering said 62-year-old William Spengler, who served 17 years in prison for the 1980 hammer slaying of his grandmother, armed himself with a revolver, a shotgun and a military-style rifle before he set his house afire to lure first responders into a death trap before dawn on Christmas Eve.
"He was equipped to go to war, kill innocent people," Pickering said.
The rifle he had was a military-style .223-caliber semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle with flash suppression, the same make and caliber weapon used in the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., Pickering said.
The chief said police believe the firefighters were hit with shots from the rifle given the distance but the investigation was incomplete.
Syrian rebels capture town, attack air base in new gains
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels fully captured a northern town near the Turkish border on Tuesday after weeks of heavy fighting and attacked a regime air base in a neighboring province, activists said.
The air base is in Aleppo province, where opposition fighters have already captured three other large military bases in recent months. Rebels have also laid siege to the international airport in the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and launched an offensive on the police academy near the city.
With steady rebel gains across the north, President Bashar Assad’s regime is having increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province, especially after rebels cut a major thoroughfare from Damascus. It is just another sign that the opposition is consolidating its grip across large swathes of territory in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
In his traditional Christmas address, Pope Benedict XVI decried the slaughter of the "defenseless" in Syria, where anti-regime activists estimate more than 40,000 have died in fighting since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in March 2011.
In another blow to the regime, activists said that Mohammed Adnan Arabo, a member of Syria’s parliament has left the country and joined the opposition. Ahmad Ramadan, an executive council member of the opposition Syrian National Council group, and other activists said Arabo arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.
Egypt’s election commission says constitution passes with 63.8 percent ‘yes’ vote
CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s disputed Islamist-backed constitution passed with a 63.8 percent "yes" in a referendum, the election commission announced Tuesday, rejecting opposition allegations of significant vote fraud.
Turnout of 32.9 percent of Egypt’s nearly 52 million registered voters was quite a bit lower than most other elections since the uprising nearly two years ago that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Mohammed Badie, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, offered congratulations on the passing of the constitution and said Egyptians continue to "teach" the world.
"Let’s all begin to build the renaissance of our country with free will, good intentions and strong determination, men, women, Muslims and Christians," Badie said on his Twitter account. The Brotherhood was the main group that backed the charter.
This is the first constitution since Mubarak’s ouster. The opposition had campaigned against it with massive street protests that sometimes turned deadly, arguing that it will usher in Islamic rule in Egypt and restrict freedoms. It has vowed to challenge the referendum results and fight for a share of power in the upcoming parliamentary vote expected within two months.
Pope’s Christmas message: Peace in Mideast, more religious freedoms in China
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- In his Christmas message to the world Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to the slaughter in Syria and for more meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while encouraging more religious freedom under China’s new leaders.
Delivering the traditional speech from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.
The pope prayed that China’s new leadership may "esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other" to help build a "fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people."
It was a clear reference to the Chinese government’s often harsh treatment of Catholics loyal to the pontiff instead of to the state-sanctioned church. Earlier this month, the Vatican refused to accept the decision by Chinese authorities to revoke the title of a Shanghai bishop, who had been appointed in a rare show of consensus between the Holy See and China.
As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled up in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the pilgrims, tourists and Romans below backing St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers.
Venezuelan VP says Chavez up and walking but doubts persist on his condition
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Vice President Nicolas Maduro surprised Venezuelans with a Christmas Eve announcement that President Hugo Chavez is up and walking two weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba, but the news did little to ease uncertainty surrounding the leader’s condition.
Sounding giddy, Maduro told state television Venezolana de Television that he had spoken by phone with Chavez for 20 minutes Monday night. It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official had confirmed talking personally with Chavez since the Dec. 11 operation, his fourth cancer surgery since 2011.
"He was in a good mood," Maduro said. "He was walking, he was exercising."
Chavez supporters reacted with relief, but the statement inspired more questions, given the sparse information the Venezuelan government has provided so far about the president’s cancer. Chavez has kept secret various details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer. His long-term prognosis remains a mystery.
Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, said it was an encouraging sign that Chavez was walking, and it indicated he would be able to return to Venezuela relatively soon. But he said the long term outlook remained poor.
Obama urges gun restrictions after tragedy, but U.S. gun support runs deeper than politics
BRYAN, Texas (AP) -- Adam Lanza’s mother was among the tens of millions of U.S. gun owners. She legally had a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and a pair of handguns, which her 20-year-old son used to kill 20 children and six adults in 10 minutes inside a Connecticut school.
In the raw aftermath of the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history, countless gun enthusiasts much like Lanza’s mother complicate a gun-owning narrative that critics, sometimes simplistically, put at the feet of a powerful lobby and caricatured zealots. More civilians are armed in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, with Yemen coming in a distant second, according to the independent Small Arms Survey in Geneva.
Take Blake Smith, a mechanical engineer who lives near Houston and uses an AR-15 style rifle in shooting competitions.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who famously claimed to have shot a coyote while jogging with a pistol holstered to his running shorts, has signed a half-dozen certificates applauding Smith as one of the state’s top marksmen. "But I won’t call myself a fanatic," said Smith, 54, whose father first let him handle a gun around age 6.
"I sit at a desk all day. And when I get out to the range, I don’t hear any gunfire going on," said Smith, who likens his emotional detachment to his guns to the way he would feel about a car or any other machine. "I’m so intent on my sight alignment, my trigger pull, my position. I don’t worry about anything. I don’t think about anything. It’s relieving. It’s therapeutic. Everybody has to have their Zen."
Nasty storms moving across southeastern U.S. blamed for man’s death in Texas; travel tough
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Freezing rain and sleet made for a sloppy Christmas trek in parts of the nation’s midsection, while residents along the Gulf Coast faced thunderstorms, high winds and tornadoes that were doing damage in some areas.
Winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, where authorities warned would-be travelers to stay home.
Trees fell on a few houses in central Louisiana’s Rapides Parish but there were no injuries reported so far and crews were cutting trees out of roadways to get to people in their homes, said sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Carnline. Possible damage also was reported near McNeil, Miss.
Fog blanketed highways, including arteries in the Atlanta area where motorists slowed as a precaution. In New Mexico, drivers across the eastern plains had to fight through snow, ice and low visibility.
At least three tornadoes were reported in Texas, though only one building was damaged, according to the National Weather Service. Tornado watches were in effect across southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
Charles Durning, Oscar-nominated king of the character actors, dies at 89
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Charles Durning grew up in poverty, lost five of his nine siblings to disease, barely lived through D-Day and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.
His hard life and wartime trauma provided the basis for a prolific 50-year career as a consummate Oscar-nominated character actor, playing everyone from a Nazi colonel to the pope to Dustin Hoffman’s would-be suitor in "Tootsie."
Durning, who died Monday at age 89 in New York, got his start as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, N.Y. When one of the comedians showed up too drunk to go on, Durning took his place. He would recall years later that he was hooked as soon as he heard the audience laughing.
He told The Associated Press in 2008 that he had no plans to stop working. "They’re going to carry me out, if I go," he said.
Durning’s longtime agent and friend, Judith Moss, told The Associated Press that he died of natural causes in his home in the borough of Manhattan.