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Wildfires Rage in New South Wales, Australia; NY Stabbing Journals Seem Ant-Semitic; Officer Fired Over Phony Complaint; Trump and Obama Tie for Most Admired Man in 2019; Netflix Reveals Top Titles of 2019. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 04:30   ET




LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight, fast-spreading wildfires turn deadly in Australia. Thousands flee their homes under a very eerie, threatening sky.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Swastikas in handwritten journals and more evidence of anti-Semitism. Hate crime charges now filed against the suspect in the Hanukkah party attack.

SANTIAGO: A Kansas cop is off the job. Why a coffee from McDonald's led to his ousting.

ROMANS: And who is the most admired man in America? Ah, a divided nation is split, very split.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Christine Romans.

Good morning.

SANTIAGO: I'm Leyla Santiago. Good morning to you. It is 4:30 right now in New York.

We begin with breaking news overnight. Dangerous wildfires raging in southeast Australia. Two people in Cobargo, south of Sydney, found dead after they were reported missing when a fire ripped through that town, smoke darkening the sky to that eerie orange, bright color.

At an evacuation center in Bateman's Bay up the coast. Thousands of people are also trapped on a beach in Mallacoota after fleeing their homes as strong winds brought wildfires and smoke so thick, the morning sky actually just turned dark. A resident tells CNN there's no way in or out.

ROMANS: The rural fire service warning people along the coast taking refuge, facing a long, difficult, dangerous night now. Across New South Wales, more than 100 fires burning with reports of people unaccounted for and feared dead. As the day wore on, the sky lightened to a bright orange as the fire spread, and all across New South Wales, smoke as far as the eye can see. Journalist 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.


SANTIAG: All right. Simon Cullen, thanks so much.

Handwritten journals and the internet search history of the New York Hanukkah stabbing suspect seem to express anti-Semitic sentiments. His journal refers to Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture, and the searches include one for prominent companies founded by Jews in America. He is 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.


ROMANS: All right. Sara Sidner, thank you for that, Sara.

The man who stopped the Texas church gunman within seconds says he had his eyes on the shooter right away. Jack Wilson is a reserve deputy and head of security at West Freeway Church of Christ. 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.


ROMANS: The senior minister at the church says he knew the gunman and ministered to him on more than one occasion, even giving him food.

SANTIAGO: The minister honored both men killed in the shooting, Anton "Tony" Wallace and Richard White, whom he 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.


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

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

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 a titan of the auto industry who successfully merged Renault and Nissan, but cracks began appearing in that alliance after Ghosn's arrest in November of 2018. 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 get out of Japan. His lawyer told reporters that his flight from Japan was a complete surprise, adding, his attorneys hold his passports.

SANTIAGO: Such a mystery.

ROMANS: It is.

SANTIAGO: I still can't fully understand that one.

All right. Security will be tight today as crowds descend right there on Times Square and pack New York City for New Year's Eve. A live look right now at Times Square from Earth Cam. I suspect it will just be a matter of hours before we start to see excitement there.

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, we'll 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.


ROMANS: Happy New Year.

SANTIAGO: Happy New Year, for sure.

And a programming note. Ring in the new year with AC squared, Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen. "NEW YEAR'S EVE LIVE" begins tonight at 8:00 Eastern on CNN.

But --

ROMANS: Oh, yes, we've get a preview here. We've get our floor manager all dressed up for the night already. I mean, it's 4:40 a.m. Eastern Time.

Our alarms went off at 2:00 a.m. We might not make it for AC squared, so thank you for playing along.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Only for you guys. I just hope you're realizing.

ROMANS: OK, love the beard. These bad boys line up. We like it.

SANTIAGO: They're not even heavy!

ROMANS: Bedazzled his beard.

SANTIAGO: Can I touch without even asking? Is it heavy? No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The flashing lights are little distracting.

ROMANS: Happy New Year. Thank you, Jimmy, for playing along.

All right, camera two.

SANTIAGO: Right there.

ROMANS: It is a sign Americans want their next car to be electric, not bedazzled, but electric. Ford says it has maxed out reservations for its first-edition electric Mustang. That's next.



ROMANS: All right, an American icon taking on Tesla, and it's off to a really strong start. Ford says reservations for the first edition of its new electric Mustang, the Mach-E, those reservations are full. Ford began taking refundable reservations at 500 bucks when it unveiled the car in October. Now, introducing an electric Mustang, just the latest sign of how Tesla has influenced the auto industry, and the popularity of electric cars is growing.

The Mach-E starts at about $45,000 with the most expensive version at $60,000. These prices are similar to Tesla's Model Y. Ford is also developing an all-electric version of the F-150 pickup truck. The Mach-E expected to come next year. Ford is still taking preorders for other versions of the crossover.

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. 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.


BIDEN: No, no, no, no, look. No, I'm serious.


BIDEN: No, here's what I mean. Let me explain that. You know, there are some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now, the well-known ones -- 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 heightened donor and polling requirements, only five candidates qualify for the debate, not including Yang. After the DNC rejected new polling, 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: To Senator Elizabeth Warren now, she's commemorating one year since launching her exploratory committee with a speech back home in Massachusetts.

And for Bernie Sanders, a clean bill of health 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: All right. The U.S. Army calls the hit social video app TikTok a security threat and is joining the Navy in barring the app from government-issued phones. The Army sent a message to soldiers this month telling them to delete the Chinese-owned app to prevent any exposure of personal information.

Senate Republicans and Democrats warned TikTok could be forced to cooperate with Chinese intelligence agency. The company, though, says all U.S. user data is stored in the U.S. and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law.

SANTIAGO: Microsoft suing a mysterious North Korean hacking operation, claiming that it steals highly sensitive information from computers in the U.S. The new lawsuit alleges that Thallium tries to access high value computer networks run by the government, 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 those sites.

ROMANS: All right, what Americans watched the most on Netflix this year might surprise you. CNN Business has the answer next.



SANTIAGO: Uber and Postmates both suing to block a California law that offers employment protections to gig economy workers. The law known as AB-5 takes effect tomorrow. The two companies compete in the food delivery market. They and others like Lyft and DoorDash argue that the state should establish regulations to protect gig workers. They say forcing them into existing employment categories violates the Constitution.

ROMANS: A stunning study suggests a strong link between opioid overdose deaths and closings of auto plants. That's a key part of the U.S. economy. The study published in "JAMA Internal Medicine" looked at the ripple effect of plant closures on the community and found an 85 percent higher opioid overdose death rate after five years.

Researchers also found the link was largest among white men. It's estimated more than 130 people die every day as the result of an opioid overdose in the U.S.

SANTIAGO: A Kansas police officer has resigned after making up a story about a McDonald's employee writing an insult on his coffee cup. Now, there have been a string of incidents involving servers writing derogatory words on to-go cups. This week, an officer claimed that someone wrote "F-ing pig" on his cup, but the Herington Police Department admits that this report was false and the officer is no longer employed.


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.


SANTIAGO: According to the chief, the officer claimed that he fabricated the story as a joke. McDonald's says that it's glad none of its employees were involved.

ROMANS: A promising Georgia Tech football recruit is hit and killed by a train in Florida just one week before he was due to join the team. Seventeen-year-old Bryce Gowdy was a standout wide receiver on the Deerfield Beach High School football team. The Broward County sheriff's office says he was rushed to hospital following an accident yesterday involving a train. Gowdy later died. The sheriff's office did not give any other details.

SANTIAGO: And the reward is growing and the search intensifying for 14-year-old Harley Dilly. The Ohio teen vanished on his way to school 11 days ago and hasn't been seen since. Investigators say they have no information to suggest that Harley was abducted or hurt.


LORIE ANDERSON, VOLUNTEER: Harley's alive and I'm going to believe that until I hear otherwise.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, I pray every day, every day. I ask my kids to pray, family members to pray, everybody to just pray that he gets brought home.


SANTIAGO: Harley is 4'9" tall, he weighs 100 pounds and has brown hair, green eyes. Police say last seen wearing glasses, gray sweatpants, a maroon puffy jacket and black tennis shoes.

ROMANS: An entire class of West Virginia correctional officer trainees fired. The entire class fired after participating in an apparent Nazi salute for a photo. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice approved the recommendation to fire all of the cadets Monday. He says the incident is completely unacceptable. The photo shows the group giving a straight-arm salute with a line of text that reads "Hail Byrd," a reference to their instructor, Karrie Bird, who is responsible for teaching the class cultural diversity.

SANTIAGO: Well, smart camera maker Wyze Lab says a data breach exposed more than 2 million customers' information to the public. The first leak exposed a database containing customer emails as well as the emails of anyone with permission to view the camera feeds. It was exposed from December 4th to the 26th due to an employee's mistake. Wyze says no customer information or passwords were unprotected. It says a second database was also exposed but gave no details about what information was in it.

ROMANS: In Nevada, two fund-raisers to promote vaccination canceled after anti-vaxxers posted social media comments harassing the venues hosting them. Immunize Nevada says it scheduled two fund-raisers this month but called them off due to online harassment and concerns about protesters at these events. Instead, the non-profit opted for a virtual event and raised more than $14,000. The money will go toward providing free vaccination for those with the greatest need.

SANTIAGO: Repair crews are quite busy in Easton, Pennsylvania, after an SUV fell into a sinkhole. This video fascinates me.

ROMANS: Whoa. SANTIAGO: This was in the middle of town Monday.

Surveillance video captured the moment that that black SUV drives right over the spot as the pavement gives way and swallows that entire vehicle. The driver was able to escape without any serious injuries. Eventually, the SUV was pulled from the sinkhole and the city of Easton says a water main break is to blame.

ROMANS: In Washington, D.C., the Newseum is set to close its doors for the final time today. The journalism museum which charges $25 for adults has struggled to compete with free museums in the district. All of its historical artifacts will go into storage. The museum is located between the White House and the Capitol. Its primary funder and creator, the Freedom Forum, hopes to reopen at another location but has not announced plans.

SANTIAGO: President Trump and former President Obama couldn't be more different, but there is one thing they can agree on and -- well, maybe anyway. They are tied as Gallup's most admired man in 2019. Both scored votes from 18 percent of U.S. adults. It's President Barack Obama's 12th time topping the list and President Donald Trump's first. Mr. Trump has previously come in second place for the last four years.

And then there's former First Lady Michelle Obama. She won the top spot -- the top slot as America's most admired woman. She is the only woman to poll in the double digits.

ROMANS: All right. Let's get a check on CNN Business this morning.

Final day of the year, taking a look at markets around the world. A mixed performance, really, even though the Hang Seng closed lower, it has risen 9 percent this year. Hong Kong markets were rattled by the trade war and by the city's ongoing protests, but that hasn't been enough to erase early gains.

Japanese and South Korean markets were closed for New Year's Eve. On Wall Street, for the last, final trading day of the decade, we're looking for maybe a little bit of a gain here, not much movement so far. Stocks finished lower Monday. The Dow closed down 183 points. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq also fell.

It was the worst one-day percentage drop for all three averages since the start of the month, but it has been a very, very good year, the best year for the S&P 500 since 2013.

All right. Good news for the Chinese economy. Government data shows China's factories performed slightly better than expected in December. It's easing trade tension with the U.S. that boosted demand.

Data points to signs of some recovery in China. The second largest economy in the world has struggled as trade talks with the U.S. continue. White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro said a phase one trade deal would be signed next week at the earliest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ADAM SANDLER AS NICK SPITZ, "MYSTERY MURDER": I don't want to give it away. It was the butler. The butler did it.

JENNIFER ANISTON AS AUDREY SPITZ, "MYSTERY MURDER": Leave my books alone, OK? Just let me read.

SANDLER: Timber.


ROMANS: In a year of huge hits, "Murder Mystery" topped Netflix's most popular releases in the U.S. for 2019. The comedy beat out some impressive titles, including "The Incredibles 2" and "The Irishman."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our kids are in danger.


ROMANS: So, why wasn't "Stranger Things" higher on the list? Netflix based its list off the number of subscribers who watched at least two minutes of a series, movie or special during its first 28 days on the service. Netflix is celebrating a great year with 158 million subscribers worldwide.

I've got to say, I personally lost a lot of time to the sinkhole of streaming services this year. I did.

SANTIAGO: I'm just bummed that today's the last day for "Friends" on Netflix. That's what I used to always watch. But I'm a true fan. I had all of the DVDs, so --

ROMANS: But it will be coming to -- you know, to a streaming service near you soon.

SANTIAGO: I'm sure. I am sure, yeah.

Well, thanks to our international viewers for joining us. Have a great rest of your day.

For our U.S. viewers, EARLY START continues right now.


ROMANS: Swastikas and handwritten journals and more evidence of anti- Semitism. Hate crime charges now filed against a suspect in the Hanukkah party attack.