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Deadly Fires Spread in Australia; Hate Crime Charges Amid Disturbing New Evidence; Officer Fired Over Phony Complaint; Most Admired Man. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 04:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight: Fast-spreading wildfires turn deadly in Australia. Thousands flee their homes under an eerie, threatening sky.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN ANCHOR: And swastikas and hand-written journals -- more evidence of anti-Semitism. Hate crime charges now filed against the suspect in the Hanukkah party attack.

ROMANS: A Kansas police officer is off the job. Why a coffee from a McDonald's led to his ouster.

SANTIAGO: And who is the most admired man by Americans? A divided nation is split and -- well, quite split. Very, very split, I might add.

ROMANS: I'd say so.


Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a very special New Year's Eve edition of EARLY START. I'm Leyla Santiago. R

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, December 31st, New Year's Eve, 4:00 a.m. exactly in New York and 34 days to go to the Iowa caucuses.

But we begin in Australia. Breaking overnight, dangerous wildfires raging in southeast Australia. Two people south of Sydney found dead after they were reported missing when a fire ripped through that town. Smoke darkening the sky to an eerie orange color.

At an evacuation center in Batemans Bay up the coast, thousands of people are trapped at a beach in Mallacoota, after fleeing their homes, as strong winds brought wildfires and smoke so thick, the morning sky turned dark.

A resident tells CNN there's no way in or out.

SANTIAGO: And the rural fire service warning people along the coast, taking refuge or facing a, quote, long, difficult, dangerous night. Across New South Wales, more than 100 fires burning with reports of people unaccounted for, and so the fear is that they may be dead.

As the day wore on, the sky lightened to that bright orange that you see right there, so ominous as the fire spreads.

And all across New South Wales, smoke as far as the eye can see.

Simon Cullen is there.


SIMON CULLEN, JOURNALIST: Christine, Leyla, this is a fire crisis that continues to get worse every day. As you can see behind me, the air is thick with smoke, there is bush fire ash falling from the sky. In fact, the nearest fire front is just a few miles behind me over the Hill.

Now, this is a state, New South Wales, where dozens of fires are continuing to burn out of control, tragically claiming more lives, including that of a young fireman who died when the truck he was in flipped over in hot, gusty winds. He sadly leaves behind a young, pregnant wife.

Now, further south in the state of Victoria, thousands of people there have been forced to flee their homes and seek shelter on the beach front. Now, there is nowhere for them to go because major roads have been cut and authorities are saying it is too late to leave. Now, these people are gathered on the beach front just watching and waiting to see what the weather conditions bring, but it is a very scary time on New Year's Eve.

Nationally, of course, many states have imposed total fire bans, which has forced the cancellation of New Year's Eve celebrations. Fireworks in many towns and cities has been canceled tonight, but Sydney has applied for and been granted an exemption, despite public pressure for them to be canceled as well. They will go ahead tonight, but the thick smoke that's in the air is just an eerie reminder that this bush fire crisis is far from over -- Christine, Leyla.


ROMANS: All right. Thank you for that.

All right. Handwritten journals and the Internet search history of the New York Hanukkah stabbing suspect seemed to express anti-Semitic sentiments. His journal refers to Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture. His searches include one for prominent companies founded by Jews in America. He's now facing federal hate crime charges on top of several state counts.

CNN's Sara Sidner has the latest from the scene in Monsey, New York.


SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Leyla, the suspect in this vicious stabbing attack at a rabbi's home during a Hanukkah celebration is now facing at least 11 charges. He has pled not guilty to five attempted murder charges and a burglary charge, but he is now facing even more charges, federal charges, federal hate crime charges. There are now five of those.

After investigators combed through his handwritten journals. They also say they are looking through his electronics as well. And in those handwritten journals, they found references to Nazis and Hitler, as well as a star of David and a swastika. They also found searches when they looked through some of his electronics for synagogues in New York and New Jersey.

Now, according to the complaint against Grafton Thomas, he also appeared to make a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement, which is linked to one of the attacks and the attackers in the New Jersey attacks that left four people dead in a kosher market. Now, while investigators say there is evidence of anti-Semitism here, his attorney and pastor say this is simply a man who suffers from mental illness.


The attack has left the large Hasidic community here in Monsey, New York, reeling. We spoke with Josef Gluck. He was inside of the home when a man wielding a huge knife or sword came walking in.

JOSEF GLUCK, SURVIVED STABBING ATTACK IN RABBI'S HOME: There were kids in there, so I decided to run back in. So I came back in through the front door and he was still in the kitchen. And I heard people screaming, "hide, hide." One person was pushed into a coat closet. There was a boy, a 5, 6, 7-year-old boy, hiding beneath a pile of coats.

SIDNER: Was he saying anything?

GLUCK: Nothing. He didn't say a word to anyone inside. He just spoke to me outside once.

SIDNER: What did he say?

GLUCK: "Hey, you, I will get you." That's when I threw the table at him.

SIDNER: Eventually, the suspect left the home and started walking next door towards this synagogue that is right next door. Gluck decided to follow him at a distance, concerned he would get in there, but indeed, he went to his car, and that is when Gluck had the presence of mind to take down his license plate.

He shared that with police, and about an hour later, the suspect's plate was picked up by a plate scanner on the George Washington Bridge going into New York. Soon after, the suspect was arrested. He now faces, again, 11 charges in this case -- Christine, Leyla.


SANTIAGO: All right. Sara Sidner, thanks so much. The man who stopped the church gunman in Texas within seconds, six

seconds to be exact, tells CNN affiliate KTVT that he had eyes on the shooter right away. Jack Wilson is the head of security at West Freeway Church of Christ in the Ft. Worth -- in the Ft. Worth suburb of White Settlement rather. Wilson is now being called a hero for stopping the gunman almost immediately.


JACK WILSON, STOPPED CHURCH SHOOTER: My training, you know, says that if I see a weapon, especially in that scenario, because that's my job. You train, but you hope you never have to go to that extreme, but if you do, your training will kick in, and that was evident yesterday.


SANTIAGO: Evident indeed. The senior minister at the church says that he knew the gunman and even ministered to him on more than one occasion, even gave him food as well. The minister honored both men killed in the shooting, Anton "Tony" Wallace and Richard White, whom he actually called his best friend.


BRITT FARMER, SENIOR MINISTER, WEST FREEWAY CHURCH OF CHRIST: We're choosing to step over the line of death, whether it's physical, spiritual, sinful, and we proclaim Christ's name to a fallen world. We will not be swayed by evil speech or evil acts, and we will stay strong in the midst of the adversity that we know came on us because we know that God is with us.


ROMANS: The gunman had several arrests and convictions over the past decade, lived on the streets for a time, according to police, and his sister. In a phone interview, she expressed sympathy for the victims and said they were caught in the crosshairs of childhood trauma. She said the gunman and a younger brother were homeless for a time, the younger brother dying by suicide in 2009.

SANTIAGO: Well, security will be tight today as crowds descends on Times Square and they pack New York City for New Year's Eve. That's always so exciting. The weather expected to be relatively mild tonight in the low to mid-30s for the Northeast and New England. Snow and ice early today ending later.

So, what to expect once the New Year begins?

Meteorologist Ivan Cabrera is in for us this morning.


IVAN CABRERA, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, better conditions this year for New Year's Eve in New York City. It's not going to be pouring rain or snowing. Temperatures actually comfortable, 40 degrees. We'll be into the 40s across the Eastern Seaboard. These are temperatures in the forecast at midnight. So, we'll be looking at teens and 20s across the Midwest and then the new storm system that's moving into the Pacific Northwest. So, those are the wet areas we're looking at, Portland and Seattle for midnight.

But this is what we're going to get rid of for today. So these winter storm warnings and the ice storm warnings, those will expire later on today. We still have some leftover snow, and that will be accumulating. A couple more inches, but not going to be a huge deal as things begin to improve as these slowly lift to the north and leave us alone here. So, we'll be in much better shape by midnight.

And in fact, over the next several days, where is winter, right? The Arctic outbreaks? Not seeing those. In fact, temperatures going in the other direction. Ahead of the next boundary will have some showers, but temps back in the 50s for the weekend and then heading into early next week, another front comes in, into the lower 40s.

Happy New Year, Christine and Leyla. Back to you.


SANTIAGO: And happy New Year to you.

A programming note -- ring in the New Year with Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen, AC squared. "NEW YEAR'S EVE LIVE" begins tonight at 8:00 Eastern on CNN.

ROMANS: We will have to take a nap to stay up that late, because it's 4:00 a.m. in the East right now.

SANTIAGO: For sure.

ROMANS: All right. A major figure in the business world has fled to Japan while awaiting trial. Carlos Ghosn, the embattled former Nissan chief is now in Lebanon.


He has fled Japan.

In a stunning statement, Ghosn said: I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant and basic human rights are denied. I have not fled justice. I have escaped injustice and political persecution.

Ghosn was seen as the titan of the auto industry who has successfully merged Renault and Nissan, but cracks appeared in the alliance after his arrest in 2018. And he faces a number of charges in Japan, including allegations he understated his income and funneled $5 million of Nissan's money to a car dealership he controlled.

Ghosn has both French and Lebanese citizenships. It's not clear how he was able to leave Japan. A bit of a mystery there, really. His lawyer told reporters that the flight from Japan was a complete surprise, adding that his attorneys hold his passports. SANTIAGO: Such a mystery there.

ROMANS: Cloak and dagger. Right.


All right. An official testified Mike Pompeo was in the loop on withholding Ukraine's military aid. So, what will the secretary of state hear when he meets Ukraine's president face-to-face? We'll see.


SANTIAGO: All right. One month, three days to the Iowa caucuses. Joe Biden signaling how far outside the box he might go to beat President Trump. One woman in New Hampshire told the former VP that he'd have to pull out all the stops. Then she relayed a question from her 21-year-old son. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wonder if Joe Biden would consider choosing a Republican as running mate?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The answer is, I would, but I can't think of one now.


No, I'm serious. No, here's what I mean. Let me finish. You know, there are some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now -- they've got to step up.



ROMANS: Andrew Yang criticizing the DNC over the January 14th debate. Yang was the only nonwhite candidate on stage in December right now under tightened donor and polling requirements, only five candidates qualify for the debate, not including Yang after the DNC rejected new polling and Yang said the committee should push harder to expand the stage.


ANDREW YANG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If they heard back that it was not going to be in time for the January 10th deadline, they should say, why don't you start it as soon as possible? The DNC saying we can do nothing about it seems disingenuous because they can clearly reach out to any of the approved polling organizations and ask for a poll to be conducted in a given timeline.


SANTIAGO: As for Senator Elizabeth Warren, today, she commemorates one year since she launched her exploratory committee with a speech back home in Massachusetts and a clean bill of health for Bernie Sanders after a heart attack earlier this year. The attending physician at the U.S. Capitol says that he has the mental and physical stamina to undertake the rigors of the presidency.

ROMANS: On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will fly to Ukraine, the country at the center of President Trump's impeachment. Pompeo's set to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials. Several witnesses testified the White House withheld military aid and meetings with Zelensky until investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden were announced.

Ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, even testified Pompeo specifically was, quote, in the loop on this deal.

SANTIAGO: And just yesterday, "The New York Times" reported Pompeo attended a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting where top officials tried but failed to convince the president to release the aid. The current top diplomat in Ukraine, that would be Bill Taylor -- you see him right there -- he actually will not be there for Pompeo's arrival, that's according to a source. He will hand off his duties on the day before. Taylor was an early voice raising concerns about withholding aid for political reasons.

ROMANS: All right. A federal judge side-stepping a ruling on the extent of the White House's immunity. He dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Trump national security official Charles Kupperman, who challenged a House subpoena in the impeachment inquiry.

Now, the House withdrew the subpoena. The judge says since there is no expectation the house will reissue it, the lawsuit is unnecessary, but he noted, things may change in the future. Important because the White House claimed immunity for many witnesses in the probe. House members believe Kupperman had firsthand knowledge of President Trump's decisions regarding Ukraine.

SANTIAGO: A Chinese national has been arrested for allegedly entering a restricted area at a naval basis in Key West, Florida, and taking some pictures there. Court documents say he passed a security fence with numerous warnings and continued to walk, even after witnesses verbally warned him. However, he did tell officials that he reads English better than he actually can speak it and he said he was just taking some sunrise photos, gave military police permission to look at the camera.

And here's what they found. When they found images of government buildings, they charged him with entering a military property to photograph defense installations.

ROMANS: Microsoft suing a mysterious North Korean hacking operation, claiming it steals highly sensitive information from computers in the U.S. The new lawsuit alleges that Thallium tries to access computer networks run by the government, by universities, think tanks and groups that work on nuclear issues and human rights. Microsoft wants companies that host web domains tied to Thallium to hand over control of the sites. SANTIAGO: Seven people have now been arrested in connection with last

month's LeBaron family massacre. Three women and six children, all members of a Mormon community holding dual U.S./Mexican citizenship gunned down in three cars on a remote dirt road south of the U.S./Mexico border. Mexican officials say arrest warrants were issued December 26th against three men for their alleged involvement in the killings. They say because of the secrecy of the investigation, the attorney general will reveal more on the four others detained at a later, unspecified date.

ROMANS: Such a tragedy there.

All right. Is there a connection between opioid deaths and a key part of the U.S. economy? Important, new research, next.



ROMANS: Uber and Postmates both suing to block a California law that offers employment protections to gig economy workers. The law known as AB5 takes effect tomorrow. Now, the two companies compete in the food delivery market. They and others like Lyft and DoorDash argue that states should establish regulations to protect gig workers. They say forcing them into existing employment categories violates the Constitution.

SANTIAGO: A stunning study suggests that a strong link exists between opioid overdose deaths and a lack of economic opportunity. It looked at the ripple effect an automatic plant closure had on its surrounding community and found an 85 percent higher opioid overdose death rate in affected counties after five years. The study published in "JAMA Internal Medicine" suggests that when people's economic opportunities collapse, it harms their health.

Researchers also found that the magnitude of the association between plant closures and opioid overdose deaths was largest among white men. It's estimated that more than 130 people die every day as a result of an opioid overdose in the U.S.

ROMANS: No question, no question there's a link between the labor force participation rate and these places with high opioid prescription rates. I mean, you lay these two maps of the country on top of each other and you can see where the opioids are, the workforce drops away. Which came first, that's part of the question, but really interesting stuff.

SANTIAGO: All right. A Kansas police officer has resigned after fabricating a story about a McDonald's employee writing an insult on his coffee cup. There's been a string of incidents involving servers writing derogatory words on to-go cups, but the Herington Police Department admits this report was false. It was the officer who made this up and is no longer employed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHIEF BRIAN HORNADAY, HERINGTON POLICE: The duty of every police officer is to protect and serve with the highest level of integrity and trust. This incident has been an obvious violation of that public trust.


ROMANS: This is what happened. The officer claimed the expletive written on the coffee cup was meant to be a joke. McDonald's is glad the evidence confirmed none of its employees were involved.

SANTIAGO: In Washington, the Newseum is set to close its doors for the final time today.


It comes as the journalism museum, which charges 25 bucks for adults, has struggled to compete with free museums in the district. All of its historic artifacts will go into storage. So sad hearing this.

ROMANS: I know --

SANTIAGO: The Newseum is located between the White House and the Capitol. And its primary funder and creator, the Freedom Forum, hopes to reopen it at another location. We're certainly rooting for that, but hasn't announced plans.

ROMANS: President Trump and former President Obama couldn't be more different, but there is one thing they can agree on, maybe -- they are tied as Gallup's most admired man in 2019. Both men scored votes from 18 percent of U.S. adults. It's Barack Obama's 12th time topping the list. It's President Trump's first.

Mr. Trump has previously come in second place for the last four years. Former First Lady Michelle Obama won the top slot as America's most admired woman. She is the only woman to poll in double digits.

SANTIAGO: Actress Sharon Stone is back on the dating app Bumble after being blocked this week. This was a surprising story for me, but go, Sharon. The 61-year-old "Basic Instincts" star revealed her account was shut down after some users reported her profile as fake. In a tweet, she said -- there it is right there -- I went on Bumble dating site and they closed my account. Some users reported that it couldn't possibly be me. Hey, bumble, is being me exclusionary?

Bumble was quick to restore her account and make amends. The site says it is honored Ms. Stone wants to be a part of the hive.

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-six minutes past the hour.

Breaking overnight, raging wildfires turning deadly in Australia. Thousands now trapped on a beach after fleeing their homes.

SANTIAGO: And hate crime charges now filed against a suspect in the Hanukkah party attack. What turned up in handwritten journals, next.