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Latest Developments on Capitol Hill; Two Dozen Former Hostages Abducted from Africa Return to Philippines; Mardi Gras Update

Aired February 17, 2007 - 11:00   ET


The news is unfolding live on this Saturday, the 17th day of February.

Good morning to you all.

I'm T.J. Holmes.



DR. SHELLEY FERRILL: What have you done to me, your wife? What have you done to your children?


NGUYEN: Murder for hire -- emotional testimony as a wife confronts the husband who tried to have her killed.

HOLMES: Also, a Britney Spears shocker -- the pop star is now bald. Yes, that's her. She shaved her head.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she just wanted something real small on her wrist, something dainty. She got some cute little lips on her wrist, red lips, sort of a little pink.


NGUYEN: Some may say this obviously troubled celeb is crying out for help, but she's also sporting two fresh tattoos. New video just released to CNN. We'll show you more of that.

HOLMES: Also, not in the will -- major legal confusion over Anna Nicole Smith's fortune.

Who gets her inheritance?

You are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

Yes, it is the big buzz this morning. These details and pictures just in to CNN. That is Britney Spears you're looking at and she has gone bald. She didn't go bald -- she shaved that head of hers at a salon. She also got tattooed up a bit.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she just wanted something real small on her wrist, something dainty. She got some cute little lips on her wrist, red lips, sort of a little pink.


HOLMES: Well, in addition to the lips on her wrists, Spears also got a cross on her hips. A parlor employee says Spears showed up unannounced, stayed about 90 minutes. Fans and photographers certainly gathered outside. The entertainer, as you know, recently filed for divorce and has been featured, as usual, in several tabloid magazines partying with friends. And the new doo will certainly not keep her out of the tabloids, you could imagine.

NGUYEN: Let's get you to some real news now.

A rebuke in the House for President Bush and his Iraq War strategy. Now, the debate moves to the Senate. A test vote expected three hours from now on a non-binding resolution opposing the so- called troop surge plan. Now, the move comes one day after 17 Republicans joined Democrats in the House in opposing this plan.

CNN's Dana Bash keeping track of the latest developments on Capitol Hill.

She joins us with what she is hearing today -- Dana, good morning.


And this certainly is a rare event, this Saturday vote in the United States Senate. But bottom line is the Senate has been tied in procedural and political knots over this issue, an Iraq resolution. And the Democratic majority is under some pretty intense pressure to at least try one more time to have a vote, or at least move to this issue, before the Senate goes home for a week long recess.

And they are hoping in the Senate that the vote yesterday in the House gives them some momentum.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The concurrent resolution is accepted.

BASH (voice-over): The House rebuke of the president's Iraq strategy was the first vivid display of Democrats' new power.

PELOSI: The stakes in Iraq are too high to recycle proposals that have little prospect for success. BASH: But the resolution opposes the president's decision to send more troops to Iraq but has no force of law. Democrats insisted it's the message that matters.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL, (D), ILLINOIS: From the beginning, this war has been a saga of miscalculations, mistakes and misjudgments for which America will pay in many ways for years to come.

BASH: Four days of spirited and, at times, emotional debate.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), OHIO: What we have done in Iraq is worth any sacrifice.


Because it was our duty.

BASH: Seventeen Republicans joined Democrats to repudiate the president.

REP. WALTER JONES (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Our troops have done a magnificent job and they cannot afford to continue to be policemen in a civil war. It does not -- it's not fair and it makes no sense at all.

BASH: For the most part, Republicans who opposed the resolution did not defend Mr. Bush.

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R), OHIO: We all agree that this administration has made mistakes in Iraq.

BASH: Instead, the president's GOP allies warned against the Democrats' next move -- restrict funds for the Iraq mission.

REP. ROY BLUNT (R-MO), MINORITY WHIP: We've already heard the Democrats calling the debate this week the bark before the bite -- their so-called slow bleed approach is the bite that will surely hurt those fighting under America's flag overseas.


BASH: And in about an hour, the Senate will start debate on this issue of Iraq. And despite the fact that senators are trudging into the Senate on a Saturday, canceling plans that they had over the weekend, it is unlikely, very unlikely, both sides admit, that they are going to have the 60 votes needed to actually move to this issue. Republicans are still demanding that they get a vote, too, on their resolution, that is to say that the Congress still supports funding the troops. Democrats are still not allowing that.

That is why we are still going to likely be in the same situation we are now, which is a deadlock.

But so, what we are going to see is some debate for a couple of hours and we may see a few more votes for the Democrats' point of view, some Republicans switching over. But, again, it's unlikely we are going to see the 60 votes for this actually to move forward, as Democrats hope it will -- Betty.

NGUYEN: All right, CNN's Dana Bash, live on Capitol Hill.

Dana, thank you.

HOLMES: The debate in Congress over President Bush's war strategy having an impact on the campaign trail. Today's vote in the Senate forced several presidential contenders to rearrange their schedules. Right now, Republican candidate John McCain is the only senator with an eye on the White House who is not expected to take part in today's vote. He will be spending the day in Iowa.

Senator Joe Biden also focusing on Iowa. The Democrat attended a town hall meeting there yesterday and after today's vote, the Delaware Democrat plans to head back to the state.

Senator Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire this morning before flying back to Washington. She's canceled a campaign event in Portsmouth because of the Senate vote.

And another Democrat, Senator Barack Obama, is sandwiching the Senate vote between two campaign trips. He returns to the Senate after a campaign rally in South Carolina. After the vote, he plans to campaign in Virginia.

NGUYEN: Well, let's take you to Iraq today.

Back to back explosions in the country's northern oil hub of Kirkuk. Two car bombs killed at least six people and injured 45. The explosions hit a crowded shopping area and a bus depot.

Condoleezza Rice makes a surprise visit to Baghdad. The secretary of state met with U.S. and Iraqi officials and she also voiced optimism about the coordinated sweep against militants in Baghdad.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have been reviewing the prospects for the Baghdad security plan, what the United States can do to support it. I want to say that we are very impressed with the leadership of the prime minister and his team thus far. We believe that they're clearly showing that this can be a new phase for the people of Iraq.


NGUYEN: Rice is also visiting Israeli and the Palestinian Territories.

HOLMES: Two dozen former hostages abducted from their freighter in Africa are back home today in the Philippines. They arrived this morning in Manila after militants held them captive for 25 days in a jungle camp in Nigeria.

More on the homecoming from CNN's Dan Rivers, who is in Manila. DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You joined me outside the Malakayang Palace, the presidential palace in the heart of Manila, where these 24 hostages have been received as VIPs. Inside, they have been finally reunited with their families, their wives, with their children, with their parents. And there have been really jubilant scenes inside.

They're sitting down to a banquet dinner before meeting the president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo.

I've talked to several of the hostages and they've described their ordeal. They said they were terrified during the time that they were held by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, these rebels in Nigeria. But all of them have said they were well treated by these men, that they weren't harmed in any way, and, in fact, some of them were even allowed to leave to go back onto their ship to freshen up and have showers from one day to the next while the rest were held in this camp.

So all of them felt that they would eventually be released.

I asked them what they know about the circumstances of their release, if any ransom had been paid. None of them knew anything about the negotiations. And the Filipino government here is saying that all the negotiations were handled by the Nigerian authorities.

Dan Rivers, CNN, Manila.

NGUYEN: Well, this just into CNN.

After a lengthy court battle following the death of Anna Nicole Smith, we understand that today, at this hour, the body of Anna Nicole Smith is being embalmed there in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Let's go on the line now to CNN's Susan Candiotti with the latest on this -- good morning, Susan.


Yes, it took a court order to do it. Officially that order was signed yesterday. And, in fact, at about 9:15 this morning, Eastern time, the embalming process did get underway.

It is currently going on. And according to the medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, here in Fort Lauderdale, the process should be complete by about noontime today.

Our viewers will recall that this embalming process was requested by Howard K. Stern, the partner of Anna Nicole Smith, in the Bahamas. He wanted to have that done so that her body could be preserved.

But, naturally, there is still a battle over where she will be buried at the same time. Stern wants her returned to the Bahamas. Her mother, Virgie Arthur, wants her flown back to Texas for burial. And that issue has yet to be decided. There will be a court argument about it on Tuesday. That is the next major development in this case, when Howard K. Stern has been ordered by the court to appear before a judge to testify about this custody matter.

NGUYEN: And just to be very clear, even though this embalming is underway, all of the DNA and all of the fight over that has been resolved and the DNA has been secured should more samples or testing be needed?

CANDIOTTI: Actually, all the samples that are necessary have been taken during the autopsy and earlier in the week there was also a court order for yet another fresh sample taken from the inside of her mouth to be done.

All of those samples remain under lock and key at the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office.

The latest sample was taken because of a paternity suit that was filed some time back. That's the ex-boyfriend, who claims that he's the father. And so -- Larry Birkhead is his name. That is being maintained, everything, at the Broward County Medical Examiner's office.

NGUYEN: And the question now is who is the father of her child, where will she be buried and, you know, the latest on this battle over her estate.

So we'll be following all of that.

CNN's Susan Candiotti joining us by phone from Fort Lauderdale.

Thank you.

We wanted to let you know, our viewers, that the chief medical examiner, Joshua Perper, is going to be joining us live at 12:00 noon Eastern. So you'll want to stay tuned for that.

HOLMES: Meanwhile, for U.S. troops in Iraq, it's a never ending battle.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're like brothers. You know, we fight together, we move around together, we go through a lot of hardships together. So that -- that type of environment fosters, you know, that bonding between, you know, between the people in our unit.


HOLMES: Soldiers coping not only with the danger, but with the loss of their comrades. We'll have that story.

Also this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FERRILL: How could you not imagine the hell you were planning for your children?


HOLMES: A wife confronts her husband in court for planning her murder.

NGUYEN: Take a look -- Britney Spears shaves her head. She has everyone talking about this this morning. And all these stories are going to have us talking right here in THE NEWSROOM.

Don't go away.


NGUYEN: Stories Across America now.

Check this rescue out in Washington State. A kayaker pulled from chilly waters off of a lake by a couple of canoeists. They tried to warm the kayaker up until an ambulance arrived and apparently he is going to be OK.

HOLMES: Also, people in Amarillo, Texas say they saw the cloud of smoke some 60 miles to the north from this Texas refinery fire. Actually, there was a blast there that injured more than a dozen people. Some were seriously burned.

The fire started in an area where fuel is processed at extremely high temperatures.

NGUYEN: We've got some dramatic courtroom confrontation to show you. A spurned wife, a cheating husband, a big insurance policy. But this was no movie of the week. Oh, no.

From Houston, Kym Alvarado-Booth reports.

She's with affiliate KPRC.


FERRILL: How could you not imagine the hell you were planning for your children?

KYM ALVARADO-BOOTH, KPRC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dr. Shelley Ferrill lived to tell her husband off in court after he plead guilty to a plot to have her killed. John Sheroke was caught on tape by police asking a hit man to make his wife's murder look like a carjacking last October.

FERRILL: What need, what desire would -- could possibly influence Katelynn (ph) and Garrett's (ph) need for a mother?

ALVARADO-BOOTH: In her victim's impact statement, Ferrill says her 8 and 6-year-old children are scarred for life. FERRILL: Katelynn refuses to put words to all her pain. She bears the weight of your sudden departure so (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And I'm trying to help Garrett deal with his emotions. He is acting out his frustrations at losing a father.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: Without a trial, we don't know John Sheroke's true motive for murder, but prosecutors say he was having an affair and he would have collected millions in insurance money. Dr. Ferrill hinted to Sheroke's shortcomings.

FERRILL: You coveted everything I worked for and yet resented my success. You expected a profession from me that you could never have lived up to. You refused to put in the work to create the life you wanted.


NGUYEN: The judge sentencing John Sheroke to 12 years in prison. Now, some suggestion of jealousy here. Sheroke worked as a physician's assistant. Dr. Ferrill maintained a successful family medical practice.

HOLMES: Well, the big news about the big doo from Britney Spears this morning. That's her. She has shaved her head. Stick around here. We've got the inside scoop for you.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, it's so fortissimo (ph).


NGUYEN: I love to see pictures like that. Home from war and home for good. A new morning, new beginning in Virginia. We have the story here in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: Also, we can let the good times roll in New Orleans, as the city takes a break to party. We're taking you to Mardi Gras.

You're in the NEWSROOM.


NGUYEN: Home from war...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so glad you're home. Thank you. Oh, love, I love you, I love you, I love you.


NGUYEN: A homecoming this week near Richmond, Virginia. Nearly 300 members of the National Guard returning from more than a year's duty in Iraq. They served in the volatile Anbar Province and they lost two of their own in battle.

These troops have been released from active duty with no plans to return to Iraq.

HOLMES: Of course, life on the front lines of the Iraq War can be deadly duty. Some U.S. soldiers tell CNN's Arwa Damon how they cope knowing any step could be their last.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Any door could be booby-trapped, a sniper in any building, a roadside bomb in any pile of trash. Surviving is about controlling fear and staying alert.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's always in the back of your mind what could happen. But you try not to think about it right when you're out working.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you talking to me, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How far down the route?

DAMON: In a single morning, these soldiers held a brief memorial for one soldier and learned four more of their battalion had been killed. The toughest lessons of war are learned on the job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was just saying I was ready to come over here. But when you get here, it's different than what you think it's going to be, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before I came over here, I took for granted a lot -- family, you know, the luxuries of life. And then you come over here and it's -- whoo, it's crazy.

DAMON: Here on the base, a poignant reminder of those who have fallen in the battle for Diyala. While no one who fought with them will ever forget them, commanders say the toughest part is talking to their families and worrying about how they will fare. They say the two most common questions from loved ones are, "Did my son die alone?" and "Was he in pain?"

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We took a couple of shots at it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It didn't turn out to be anything.

DAMON (voice-over): The troops don't like to talk about it, but they admit privately that the mission here takes a massive emotional and mental toll. They say people back home can't understand, but what they share creates a bond between soldiers unlike any other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're like brothers. You know, we fight together, we move around together. We go through a lot of hardships together. So that type of environment fosters, you know, that bonding, you know, between the people in our unit.

All right.

DAMON: A bond strengthened with time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this is my second tour. I feel better, safe, you know, kind of being trained up a little bit than the ones that's been here for the first time because this isn't easy.

DAMON: It's not easy, but they do it, even if some have doubts on the mission. They say they do it for each other.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Baquba, Iraq.


HOLMES: For Anna Nicole Smith -- the body, the baby -- but did the blond bombshell get the last word?

Also, the buzz this morning is over that young lady right there in the middle of your screen.

Do you recognize her?

The last time you saw her, she probably had a full head of hair. That is Britney Spears. She has shaved her head. That story in THE NEWSROOM.


I'm Susan Roesgen live on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and I'll show you what some people will do to watch the parades.

You'll be part of the party, when we come back.


HOLMES: Now in the news, Senate Democrats trying to follow the House and rebuke the president's Iraq policy. Republicans expected to block that effort in the Senate this afternoon, however.

The House approved a non-binding resolution 246-182. Seventeen Republicans broke with the president and voted to oppose the troop build-up.

NGUYEN: Baghdad drop-by -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Baghdad today in an unannounced trip. She alluded to the political climate in Washington. Rice told U.S. staffers that their efforts are appreciated despite what they're hearing from home. Rice also met with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is under intense pressure to stop the violence in Iraq.

HOLMES: Dual car bombs ripping the Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk. They went off one after the other in a shopping district. Authorities count at least six dead, 45 others wounded. Attacks in Baghdad, the capital, are actually down since the security push. Some suggest now that insurgents are taking their bombs to other towns like Kirkuk.

NGUYEN: We have a Pennsylvania tragedy to show you. Six children and one adult killed today in a house fire in Greene County. Several adults got out of that house. One is still in the hospital.

Authorities don't know what caused the fire. They suggest, though, that it could have started in a heater.

HOLMES: And new concerns today just about how Britney Spears is doing. That is the pop singer there in the middle of your screen. She has shaved her head. She did this last night; also got a couple of tattoos. Well, the gossip blogs and everything else out there, the celebrity chatter quote the tattoo shop workers as saying Spears was "flipping out." One called the mother of two a celebrity on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

No official word from Britney Spears' representatives, though.

NGUYEN: Well, more than a week after Anna Nicole Smith died, her body is just now being embalmed. The procedure got underway just a short time ago in Broward County, Florida. Also today a lot of legal confusion over Smith's will. The document released yesterday raises more questions than it answers. Here's the CNN's Susan Candiotti.


CANDIOTTI (voice-over): The court document was the object of very close public scrutiny. A week after her death, the last will and testament of Anna Nicole Smith is just the latest chapter in a national drama. Reporters trying to answer this burning question: who will get Anna Nicole's money, reportedly almost half a billion dollars if she finally inherits part of her dead billionaire husband's estate. Her son would have been the beneficiary but he died of a drug overdose last September and the will was never changed. Her infant daughter would be next in line, but for some unexplained reason, Smith's will says she has intentionally omitted to provide for future spouses and children. Some legal experts say the estate is likely to be at the center of a messy all-out courtroom battle. Her partner and lawyer, Howard K. Stern, will be in the thick of it. He's the will's executor. That's just one of the mysteries surrounding Anna Nicole Smith's life and death. There are plenty of others, including even the disposition of her remains.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where do replace the body of Ms. Smith which, which location, is it Texas or is it the Bahamas?

CANDIOTTI: Her estranged mother wants Anna Nicole buried in Texas or she might wind up in the Bahamas where her son is buried, and there is the major question of her baby's paternity. Howard K. Stern says he's the father, but so do three other men, Anna Nicole's ex- boyfriend, her ex-bodyguard and Zsa Zsa Gabor's current husband, husband number eight if you're counting. This tavern owner in Ft. Lauderdale says it's become a major topic in his barroom. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've had seven or eight of my regular customers who want to file a class action claiming they could be the father also. That's only a joke, but it's just intriguing.

CANDIOTTI: With all the attention it's a struggle to find dignity in this death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're beginning to give her peace.

CANDIOTTI: The story touches universal themes, a glamorous life mysteriously cut short, an unclaimed baby and, of course, an unclaimed fortune.

KRISTA BARTH, HOWARD K. STERN'S ATTORNEY: If all of us had been in a situation where haven't lost someone yet, now everybody is looking at this and saying, wow, this is something I need to start talking about. This is something that I need to address.

CANDIOTTI: And after today, a possible courtroom drama over millions and millions of dollars. Susan Candiotti, CNN, Ft. Lauderdale.


HOLMES: We turn to New Orleans now which just opened for business. The city facing plenty of work in the years ahead, but this weekend taking a brief pause to party. Mardi Gras is in full swing today and our Gulf coast correspondent and resident party animal Susan Roesgen is there and I guess Susan, still for a lot of folks, it seems kind of tough or strange to be partying when there's so much work to be done.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, T.J., this is part of our culture here. Mardi Gras is part of New Orleans. Before Katrina and after Katrina, it always will be and Mardi Gras here in New Orleans is sort of like Christmas anyplace else, except it goes on for two weeks. People here are on St. Charles Avenue. This is where the locals gather to watch the parades come down. You can see in the median of St. Charles Avenue already people have their chairs out. The ladders are out so that they can really reach up to the floats and yell "throw me something, mister." You reach your hands out and you say "Mister, mister, throw me something.

Now they are waiting for the parade to come here and right here on this very corner, one family has been gathering for 33 years, T.J.. They come out here. They cook out here, I wish you could smell it, the chicken and steaks on the grills. They gather their friends around and they just sort of park it here. Now today, they are waiting for two daytime parades and then tonight the big night time parade, the big super crew of (INAUDIBLE). And in fact, they have been waiting here all week and they plan to stay here all the way through Mardi Gras day, Fat Tuesday and when I say stay here, I really mean it. Look at this, T.J.. They sleep here.

HOLMES: Oh, wow. ROESGEN: Some of the people out here actually sleep here. I've got Kathy (ph) Miller with me. Kathy, you and your dad sleep here for an entire week. Why is Mardi Gras so important?

KATHY MILLER: It's our holiday. We give up all other holidays to be here.

ROESGEN: But why? I mean people don't understand always what's so important about Mardi Gras and why do you stay here for a whole week's worth of parades?

MILLER: It's about being from New Orleans and it's the family and the feeling of being out here.

ROESGEN: You know, the anchorman back in Atlanta said why are people partying when there's still so much work to be done? What would you say?

MILLER: It's a relief. Last year, a lot of people condemned us because of it. But at the gutted (ph) homes, I was in the lost parish. I was in Placamine (ph), the whole parish was gone. We needed a break and it gives us that break from life to come out here and do this.

ROESGEN: If there's room I might join you here. She's got the best spot for the parade, St. Charles Avenue again is where all the big ones come down. You'll be here right through Mardi Gras. We may come back and if we need a place to stay T.J., we got one, but cooking for us and a place to sleep and a port-a-potty, their own private port-a-potty which is very important on parade day.

HOLMES: All right and I think I heard you say, you're asking for the beads. People just put their hands up now and say, hey, throw me something. I thought they used to do something else to get...

ROESGEN: Hey, throw me something, mister.

HOLMES: That's all they do now.

ROESGEN: You learn to do that from a young age here. You learn it from a young age here.

HOLMES: All right, our Susan Roesgen down there where the party is in New Orleans. Thank you so much, Susan. Have a good time.

NGUYEN: I think Susan is holding back a little bit on that info.

But as Susan reported, many residents of the city are still struggling, complaining that they are not getting the help that they need from the government. CNN's Joshua Levs joins now with a reality check on exactly what it is that they still need. Joshua?

JOSHUA LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Susan gets to go party and I get to come along and say here's everything depressing you need to know about New Orleans. What's that about? Hey everybody. It is true though. I mean while we're looking at the celebrations over the next few days, you're going to see lots of partying, which is great. We've also got to come along and say, you know what, still right now, 18 months after Katrina, people are not only not getting everything they need, they are not getting everything that's been promised. You ask why? It depends on who you're asking.


LEVS (voice-over): Yes, they are gearing up for Mardi Gras with events like this, more family-oriented parade but throughout much of the city, you still see Katrina's ruins. New Orleans once had more than 400,000 people. About half of them have returned, and many of them struggle without basics. Thousands of uninsured recently lined up for services at a temporary health clinic. The director told CNN --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There seems to be a different country here, it really does.

LEVS: What's going on? The mayor says the Federal government isn't pulling through.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: I just want the money that you've already allocated to go to my citizens to make their lives better.

LEVS: The Federal government says local authorities need to work out plans for the funds.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We want to get the money out to the state as quickly as we can, but the decisions about how to build a community are local decisions.

LEVS: Both sides say the state should be doing more. Governor Kathleen Blanco says it's just not that easy. All this spins into political gridlock. The Federal government has promised $110 billion to the Gulf coast for rebuilding. About half has been received. City services are severely limited and crime is at a higher rate than it was before Katrina, 161 murders last year. But New Orleans was grappling with this before the storm. Here's what the city council president told CNN's "AC 360."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: New Orleans has been too violent for too long.


LEVS: Now it's not all bad news. I do get to bring you some good here. For example, the hotel rates, hotel occupancy 90 percent right now, which is great. Also, the airport has had to add more than 60 flights just to get in all these visitors for Mardi Gras and of course to get them back out afterwards. All of that is very good signs of economic recovery, great for New Orleans right now. Still just keep in mind as you're seeing the celebrations over the next few days, for the residents who have moved back, there is that flip side to their reality.

NGUYEN: It's why it's called a reality check. All right, flamboyant, noisy and a whole lot of fun. One of the world's most famous events Carnivale kicks off in Rio de Janeiro. Tens of thousands of people are just jammed into the Brazilian city to take part in the festivities, but a wave of violence in recent weeks has raised concerns about safety. In response, extra police officers are now patrolling those partying streets.

HOLMES: And you've probably heard this one, Tim Hardaway (ph), he sure crossed the line but was it an intentional foul? The former NBA star opens his mouth and nets nothing but trouble.

NGUYEN: Plus this, Britney Spears bald. What do you think of Britney's new look? Is it hot, or not? I'll have the results of your quick vote next. That's from the dot com desk.


NGUYEN: You heard it there, oops she did it again. Britney Spears in the spotlight. This time for her new do or lack of it. She's bald. Check out these pictures just in to CNN. The pop queen shaved her head and got tattooed. Earlier this morning, I spoke with Bradley Jacobs at "Us" magazine about what he's hearing.


BRADLEY JACOBS, US MAGAZINE: this morning is reporting that Britney Spears yesterday flew coach from Miami to LA., then drove from the airport to her home where she stayed for about 20 minutes. Then she got back into her car, went to a Tarzana hair salon and asked them to shave her head. The hair stylist refused so she literally went and picked up the clippers herself and shaved her head clean off bald.

NGUYEN: Do you know what that conversation was like when she tried to get the hair stylist to do it? Did she say why she wanted it shaved bald?

JACOBS: Well, later on she went from there to a tattoo parlor and she told the people at the tattoo parlor that she wasn't embarrassed at all. She had a kind of to hell with it attitude, that's what the tattoo parlor staffer tells She had her hood off. She said I just don't want people touching me. I don't want people touching me. She wasn't really making any sense. The staffers at the hair salon and at the tattoo parlor just said she was sort of incoherent and didn't really make sense.

NGUYEN: There are all these reports that she was in rehab and maybe she wasn't in rehab. Does this have anything to do with that?

JACOBS: Yes. I'm sure that they are all related. There are unconfirmed reports right now that she spent less than a day at a rehab center in Antigua called Crossroads. She may have been there Wednesday into Thursday, unconfirmed, as I say it's unconfirmed, but we do know for sure that after her week or so in New York last week partying, she did go to - she did end up in Miami. She flew from Miami to LA. An after this long cross-country flight, she just went and shaved her head and then got two tattoos. NGUYEN: I'm just wondering, one, is this a cry for help or, two, is this a way of self-cleansing? There are some beliefs when everything is really just going wrong in your life, you simply shave your head and it's just a way of starting anew. But then you look at some of these pictures and sometimes you see her with a Kabala bracelet on and then some of these latest pictures you see her with the Star of David around her neck.

JACOBS: That's right. Everything you just said was true. It certainly looks like a cry for help. We do know this week that her former assistant and very close friend and confidant of 10 years Felicia Calada (ph) wrote an open letter to fans on the web site, on a website called saying I want you to know that we, as in her family and nearest and dearest, all of them are not on the payroll any more, are doing everything in our power to help Britney but she said I cannot save her from herself nor can I commit her to any type of treatment program against her wishes and will. So even her closest, closest friends are basically saying they don't exactly know what's happening with Britney right now and there have even been reports that her own mother was behind her assistants writing this note on the web site.

NGUYEN: Really, very interesting.

JACOBS: So check out. You can get the whole story, more than I just explained on and of course in our new issue which will be out Wednesday. We'll be following it all weekend.

NGUYEN: I'm sure we'll hear much more about story. Bradley Jacobs with "Us" magazine. We thank you.

JACOBS: Thank you.


HOLMES: Well, it's time now to see what people are watching online and Veronica, does it have anything to do with the bald-headed pop star?

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNN.COM: T.J., how much do you want to bet that Britney Spears is the number one story at right now. Let's take a look at the list. There you go. Since 8:23 this morning, Britney Spears, the story, it's been number one. Everyone wants to read about how this pop princess went from Britney Spears to Britney Shears. She just heard the story. She apparently shaved her head after she walked into a salon. The hairdresser refused to do it for her and she shows up unannounced at a tattoo parlor and then she gets two tiny tattoos on her wrist. Apparently it was a pair of pink lips and a pair of red lips, just in case you were wondering. She stayed for about 90 minutes while fans gathered and they gawked outside to check out Britney's new do.

So we're asking you, T.J., what do you think? Do you think Britney's new look is hot or not? You can weigh in with your thoughts on your quick vote. T.J., you wouldn't believe how many people really want to voice their opinions on this one. So far about 20,000 people have voted since 8:00 this morning and only about 2,000 or 10 percent agree with you, they think it's hot, while about 18,000 or 90 percent of the votes think that it is not hot. So there you go, nearly 20,000 people right now. Do want to remind you that the quick vote is not scientific. It only reflects the opinion of those who do choose to participate. T.J. if you want to get your vote in, you can log onto and click on the quick vote and I actually want to throw another quick vote idea out there to you guys, T.J. and Betty bald, hot or not?

NGUYEN: Not, a resounding not and let me just say they added to my head.

DE LA CRUZ: T.J. actually looks pretty good.

NGUYEN: T.J. looks good.

HOLMES: I might try that tomorrow, Veronica.

NGUYEN: But I look like a Conehead so can we just get rid of this quickly?

HOLMES: Put a hat on Betty's head. Veronica, thank you so much.

DE LA CRUZ: Of course.

HOLMES: Former NBA player who sports a bald head as well. He's been banished from the all-star weekend in Las Vegas. It has nothing to do with his hair style though. It has to do with his anti-gay tirade. Now Tim Hardaway speaking out about the controversy. We'll get into this in the NEWSROOM.


NGUYEN: Frigid weather still causing a whole lot of problems today across a big part of the country. This scene in Columbus, Ohio where the bitter cold was caused -- actually this water main break was caused by that bitter cold. The area is near Ohio State University and in Pennsylvania, reeling from the monster storm system that pounded the region with ice and snow, a lot of damaged vehicles blamed on, of course, what else, the weather.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A large sheet of ice about the length of a car flew off the top of the tractor trailer and headed right into my windshield.


HOLMES: Right now at least two dozen deaths are blamed on the storm system and the cold weather that hammered the Midwest and parts of the northeast.

Turning now to the NBA. The NBA's all stars are descending on Las Vegas for the big game and for the first time a city without an NBA team is playing host. Off the court, however, there's a big uproar playing out. It involves a former NBA player and another player who is also making some news, both former players. One of them came out and the other just flat went off. Here now our Carol Costello.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John Amaechi never made the record books during his four-season NBA career, but he's making history now as the first former professional basketball player to openly say he's gay. He details his life in the sports closet in his autobiography "Man in the Middle." reaction to the news was mixed and relatively muted until another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway said this.

TIM HARDAWAY: Well, you know, I hate gay people. So I let it be known. I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people. I don't, you know, I am homophobic.

COSTELLO: Amaechi says he wasn't completely surprised by Hardaway's harsh remarks.

JOHN AMAECHI, RETIRED BASKETBALL PLAYER: I was prepared through this process to hear some comments that I didn't like to hear.

COSTELLO: And Hardaway later apologized and apologized.

HARDAWAY: I'm very, very sorry about it, but, you know, a lot of people don't think so, but I am.

COSTELLO: But the damage has been done.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's apologized for this, is that enough?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, enough for what. I think it's good that he's apologized. I think anyone who holds views like that has to think about it.

COSTELLO: NBA Commissioner David Stern banished Hardaway from the all-star weekend saying his views are not consistent with the league's. As for John Amaechi, he says he's pleased Hardaway was ousted from the all-star weekend and he says he does not accept Hardaway's apology.

AMAECHI: I think that his words of hate cannot be unsaid no matter how many apologies. The problem with his words is that they ricochet around the corridors of schools, around workplaces and make life ever more difficult for gay and lesbian people.


HOLMES: Tim Hardaway you may remembered played for the Miami Heat from 1995 until 2001. The comments have cost him an endorsement deal at least for men's grooming products. Gay activists are calling on the NBA as well as the NFL to hold sensitivity seminars for their players. NGUYEN: IF that story has you talking, just wait because the NEWSROOM continues at the top of the hour with Fredericka Whitfield. She joins us with the latest. Good morning.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good to see both of you. Of course something else that has a whole lot of people talking, Britney's new do or lack thereof. Clearly, she is going through something. So might this new buzz cut mean that she's crying out for help? We're going to explore who is in her inner circle? Who is there looking out for her best interests at heart?

And then in our 2:00 p.m. hour, our residential legal experts will be weighing in on the latest Anna Nicole Smith legal tangles, a few new developments, the will, what's being revealed about it as well as the fact that she is being embalmed. What does that mean? We're going to explore all that with our legal experts coming up in the 2:00 p.m. hour.

NGUYEN: All the celebrity news.

WHITFIELD: I know. Celebrity news that's become front-page news. (INAUDIBLE)

NGUYEN: It is the news (INAUDIBLE).

WHITIFIELD: I hear phones ringing.

NGUYEN: It's what everyone is talking about.

WHITFIELD: It is interesting.

NGUYEN: That's the buzz. Thank you, Fred (INAUDIBLE). Speaking of that news, is it a pop star stunt, or just a cry for help?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Christina Aguilera needs to step in and, you know, just to "I want to help you."


NGUYEN: Britney Spears is all the talk today, but should her friends step in before any more danger is done? Stop laughing, T.J.. This is a serious matter. Serious news here at CNN, saving Britney in the NEWSROOM. Don't miss it.



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