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Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien

Winter Storm Whips Through Midwest; Newtown Shooter's Mother Was Away; Army To Seek Death Penalty For Bales; Senator Inouye To Lie In State At U.S. Capitol; American Crowned Miss Universe 2012; Obama Appoints Gun Violence Team; Newtown Citizens Demand Action; "Project Nim" Film On HBO

Aired December 20, 2012 - 07:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: She is the digital editor for Thomson Reuters. It's nice to have you all. We saw each other last night at a Christmas concert at our kids school and we were like now we have to go to bed. It's nice to have you all with us.

Of course, John is sticking around as well. We appreciate that. If you're watching us at the airport, you're probably delayed. Watching more of millions of Americans trying to beat the holiday travel rush and they might have to resort to a backup plan because of this huge winter storm that's whipping through the Midwest right now.

We're going to show you some live pictures ahead this morning as we continue to monitor the storm. But look at that, that's a blizzard warning in effect for half a dozen states, the system stretching all the way from Colorado into the Great Lakes in Wisconsin.

In Colorado, they have already felt the brunt of the season's first big winter storm, 156-mile stretch of I-70 shut down in the rocky mountain state both directions because of the snow yesterday. This winter weather system is packing wind gusts of more than 60 miles an hour.

Parts of Iowa could see up to a foot of snow today. Let's get right to our meteorologist, Alexandra Steele, she is tracking the storm from all fronts at the extreme weather center in Atlanta. Alexandra, good morning.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: No pun intended, right? We certainly do have some very strong fronts out there, incredibly powerful and energetic system. You know, Soledad talked about airport delays. Chicago already cancelling 90 flights and this will be Chicago's first snowstorm of the season.

The latest they have ever gone without snow. But we're not seeing snow yet in Chicago around 9:00, 7:00 to 9:00 tonight, we're going to see the rain change over to snow and the winds really kick in, so the worst is far yet to come.

It will be later this afternoon and tonight for Chicago so a classic setup. The northern tier, there's the snow, severe weather on the southern side. You can see that's a tornado watch box in the southeast. Mississippi, Alabama all seeing the potential for tornados.

Southwest Alabama has tornado warnings posted right now. Already reports from this morning of damage in Mobile. Here's the northern tier of this thing. This is where the blizzard warnings are. Omaha, Des Moines, right along this I-80 corridor, that's where we will have blizzard conditions.

Iowa virtually shut down with a foot of snow that will fall today. Also Green Bay, you're expecting nearly a foot of snow coupled with strong, gusty winds. So it's a snow maker. But what is making this storm so powerful are the winds.

Now, this is the next six hours. The access of the strongest winds, Lincoln, Des Moines, Kansas City right now gusting to 50, but as we head through the next six hours after this, so from the afternoon tonight, we'll watch that 40 and 50-mile axis of winds move toward Green Bay, Madison and Chicago.

That's what's setting Chicago up and all those Midwest airports for real troubles tonight. It's all going to move out again tonight. Chicago changes over to snow and then the winds come in, guys. Tomorrow morning in the northeast from New York to Washington, it's just a rain maker and it moves out by tomorrow afternoon.

O'BRIEN: What a mess. All right, Alexandra Steele for us this morning. Thank you for monitoring that. Let's get right to John. He's got an update on the day's top stories.

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "EARLY START": Thanks, Soledad. We're learning more about the days leading up to the Newtown massacre. Friends of Nancy Lanza, the shooter's mother saying she was in New Hampshire taking a vacation at a hotel.

That's about a four-hour drive from Newtown in the days before the attack. They say she felt comfortable leaving him alone for three days. The morning after her return, she was dead.

Take a look at this photo. All but one of the students in this first grade class picture were killed, all but one. That's really another reminder of the enormity of this tragedy.

Today, funerals for three more children, two teachers and Sandy Hook's Elementary Principal, Dawn Hochsprung. Sandra Endo is in Newtown following these developments. Good morning, Sandra.

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. That's right, six more funerals here in Newtown today and 6-year-old Allison Wyatt, 6-year-old Benjamin Wheeler, 6-year-old Catherine Hubbard, teacher Lauren Rousseau and teacher Anne Marie Murphy as well as beloved principal Dawn Hochsprung will all be laid to rest.

Hochsprung will actually be laid to rest in New York. She is being credited for approaching the shooter initially and for implementing tougher security at Sandy Hook Elementary so devastating day today for this community as they play more of their loved ones to rest. And this has been becoming a daily ritual here in Newtown. We see processions of cars and funerals all throughout the day as well as into the night. We've seen people line up around churches, waiting in the freezing bitter cold just for a chance to say goodbye.

We also understand that tomorrow at 9:30 in the morning there will be a moment of silence marking one week since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and the governor also calling for churches around the area to ring their bells 26 times -- John.

BERMAN: Sandra, thanks. It will be another sombre remembrance. Sandra Endo in Newtown, Connecticut. Coming up, we're going to talk to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who has been talking to people in Newtown about coming up with sensible gun legislation.

Other top stories this morning, military prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty for Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. He's accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a shooting rampage earlier this year. More than half of them were children. His lawyer claims he had PTSD and was on his fourth deployment and he slammed the Army for putting the death penalty on the table.

In about two hours from now, the casket carrying the late Senator Daniel Inouye will arrive at the U.S. capitol. He will lie in state in the rotunda so the public can pay their respects.

The Democrat from Hawaii was a World War II hero, a witness to Pearl Harbor and the second longest serving senator in U.S. history. Senator Inouye's funeral is tomorrow at the National Cathedral.

And guess what, there's a new Miss Universe this morning. For the first time in 15 years, she's an American.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And Miss Universe 2012 is -- USA! Olivia Culpo!


BERMAN: Olivia Culpo hails from Rhode Island. She was crowned Miss USA back in June.

O'BRIEN: I'm so excited for us, America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The peanut gallery goes wild.

O'BRIEN: We had no idea.

BERMAN: I just got caught up in the moment there for a second.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: There was that dramatic pause, a 5-second pause.

O'BRIEN: It went on a long time. I enjoyed it.

All right, still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a controversial documentary. It is crazy about a chimp that went to live with a family in the 1970s, where the family treated it as a human child. We're going to hear from a woman who was just a teenager herself when the chimp came to her home. We'll talk about that and the documentary straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Today in Newtown, Connecticut, three children, two teachers will be laid to rest along with the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal, Dawn Hochsprung. The mass shooting has put the focus on gun violence in this country. A subject that President Obama says will now be at the forefront of his administration moving forward. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: So I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. We won't prevent them all, but that can't be an excuse not to try.

It won't be easy, but that can't be an excuse not to try and I'm not going to be able to do it by myself. Ultimately, if this effort is to succeed, it's going to require the help of the American people.


O'BRIEN: Yesterday, a citizens group in Newtown, Connecticut, that's pushing for strength in gun control measures met to speak with the residents who had gone to Washington, D.C., and discussed gun legislation.

Senator Richard Blumenthal was at that meeting. He's a Democratic senator from the state of Connecticut. It's nice to have you with us this morning.


O'BRIEN: Appreciate your time. So they have called for sensible legislation. What does that mean to them and what does that mean to you?

BLUMENTHAL: It mean beginning with some common sense, common ground solution, ban on assault weapons of the type that was used in this horrific massacre as well as high-capacity magazines, also enabling this killing to take place.

Better background checks. Right now only 60 percent of all sales involve any background checks and improving those background checks, and of course, keeping guns out of the hands of deranged people.

And mental health efforts, outreach and better treatment for people who may suffer from some kind of mental illness, and perhaps some approach to cultural violence, the celebration of violence in the media. But there's no one single, simple solution to this problem. And nothing that will prevent all of them perhaps, but as the president said so forcefully yesterday and Sunday night at the vigil where he spoke powerfully to the families and first responders as well as others of us who were there, we need to try.

We need to do something. That's what I'm hearing from all the families as well as the law enforcement people around the state.

O'BRIEN: There are some people who would say by focusing on the assault weapons, the ban on assault weapons at the end of the day removes 2 percent to maybe 8 percent of the violence.

That the bulk of the violence is actually handguns and to not take a look at handguns really leaves a massive portion of where the actual violence is taking place sort of unchallenged. Would you agree with that? What would you do with that?

BLUMENTHAL: I do agree that handguns are a threat on the streets of big cities like Bridgeport, Hartford, New York, killing children. And the president is right to focus on our children, who are the victims of this horrific massacre last Friday, but also day by day, the drive- by shootings in many of these big cities.

And so better tracing, better kinds of apprehension of stolen handguns, often the source of violence in our big cities, and law enforcement will tell you, and I've worked with them for 20 years as the state's attorney general before that as a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, that the proliferation of handguns is a major threat to them as well as to our children.

SOCARIDES: Senator, can I ask you, I mean, I thought the things you mentioned were a very good list. But it's the same five things that we talk about every time this sort of thing happens. Do you think it's going to be any different this time?

And I think that you especially coming from Connecticut are in a powerful position to take the lead on a lot of this stuff. I know you're trying to do that. But what about it is going to be different this time?

BLUMENTHAL: What's different about it is the victims, these children, I think, are different not only in number, but age and innocence and of course, the teachers. Yesterday, I went to the funeral of Vicki Soto, a beautiful young woman with riveting blue eyes and a dedication to her children who stepped in front of the killer trying to protect them.

And today, tragically, there are more funerals, more calling hours such as I've attended. I think they have really captured the nation's attention and we need to seize this moment. That's why Senator Feinstein and I have moved ahead forcefully action even during this period of mourning.

Because we need to bring together the movement in the community, which is articulated by Newtown United, I met with them in my office in Washington and then again last night in Newtown and I think that we are at a historic moment.

SOCARIDES: How will we know? What will we know if it's different? At what point can citizens say it's taking too long or the NRA is slow walking this stuff again? It seems to me every time we say it's going to be different also that's another similarity.

O'BRIEN: We had that same conversation after Columbine, which I covered. We had that same conversation after Aurora, which I covered and all the other ones in between same conversation.

BLUMENTHAL: Remember that the first gun assault law, assault weapons law took five years to pass. It was first proposed in 1989 after the Stockton shooting and Senators Metzenbound and Feinstein worked on it five years. I'm determined, I'm committed.

But the president is absolutely right, that the American people have to stand up. I'll tell you what also is different. I've talked to a lot of these families and I am so impressed by their strength and courage and they say to me we want to be there. We want this work to go forward.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Senator, CNN reported last night that there are tens of thousands of criminals who have lied on their background checks. That the FBI has identified and turned over to the Department of Justice and they simply haven't been prosecuted. In terms of enforcing laws on the books, what can the administration and the Senate do now irrespective of new legislation?

BLUMENTHAL: Excellent point. And as a law enforcer, and that's what most of my career was about, I know that we need not only to improve existing laws and close these loopholes, the gun show loophole, but also better enforcement. The best laws on the books are dead letter unless they are vigorously enforced.

And the Department of Justice, AT & F, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agency, which has jurisdiction here should be permitted to share more information. Right now there are amendments on the books that prohibit effective enforcement.

And it may seem like technical details, but vastly important and you're absolutely right, more resources. More support and I hope that the kinds of outcry that we've seen will be translated into money for the Department of Justice as well as other kinds of support.

O'BRIEN: Senator Richard Blumenthal with us this morning. We could talk about this all morning, it's fascinating. We'll see. I'd hate to think we'll have to wait five years to have some actual tangible change. It's nice to have you with us. We appreciate your time.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a very bizarre book and documentary tells the story of a chimp that was sent to live with a human family back in the 1970s.

It's called "Nim's Story" and it is very controversial and sad too. We'll meet a woman who was just 13 when the chimp basically became her brother. That's straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: A controversial story of a chimpanzee sent to live with a human family in order to learn sign language. It happened back in 1970s. Columbia University Psychology professor Herb Terres brought the chimp to New York to live with one of his former students and her family.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wouldn't it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and teach him sign language and that's essentially why I started "Project Nim."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything was about treating him like a human being. He loved driving fast in cars. He liked alcohol. I breast fed him for a couple of months. It was the '70s.


O'BRIEN: That last one there was Jenny Lee. She was 13 years old when Nim came to live with her family on the upper Westside and she says he became like a brother to her. The story is the subject of a documentary called "Project Nim." It debuts tonight on HBO. It's nice to have you with us, Jenny Lee. Appreciate your time this morning.


O'BRIEN: This seemed so crazy and also so sad. Tell me about what it was like to be 13 years old and have your new brother be a chimpanzee.

LEE: It was the most exciting thing that could have ever I mean happened to me at that age and the whole family. We were a blended family. My mom remarried, there were seven kids all of a sudden and instead of three and four together it was the brady bunch gone --

O'BRIEN: With an ape.

LEE: Exactly. And I thought what greater thing could happen than having a chimp and it was announced to us we're going to get a chimp and teach him sign language, great!

O'BRIEN: It seems so weird now but the things in the house, was it complete chaos?

LEE: It's described in the film. There's one of the other researchers describes coming into the house saying it's complete chaos. In some ways it was chaotic, but what house with seven kids is not chaotic. We were all high school and middle school, so coming and going and everybody had a different schedule and all of that sort of stuff.

O'BRIEN: Your mother was breastfeeding the chimp. LEE: This is a very controversial issue. Yes. Everyone goes what? And I have to say at the time, I was not aware, I don't think anybody in the family was particularly aware that she was doing that. So it wasn't like, you know, you hear about the strident breastfeeding women nursing their 5-year-old sons.

O'BRIEN: Compared to that?

LEE: He was an infant. He was a newborn, helpless infant and I have a daughter and I, you know, when he came to the house, you're bonding and he's helpless sort of and all this, and she had three kids.

And it was I think very natural for her to try to comfort him in that way and it didn't, you know, sort of knowing that later that that had gone on it didn't really strike me as that weird because he was so close to, I mean, he was most of the time a brother.

O'BRIEN: The story is so sad.

LEE: It's a very sad story.

O'BRIEN: He ended up leaving your house, went to another home and eventually went back out to Oklahoma.

LEE: That's right.

O'BRIEN: And then he was sold for research.

LEE: That's correct.

O'BRIEN: So this little infant became aggressive and hostile.

LEE: Well, he grew up, and chimps are very strong, and he was not a particularly aggressive chimp. He was just a chimp and so he became unmanageable. It was unsafe to keep him in a situation without more control, you know, separation.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, DIGITAL EDITOR, THOMSON REUTERS: How horrible for him. If you were feeling he was your brother you must have felt he was, too.

LEE: Heartbreaking.

FREELAND: To go from being treated human to a medical research.

LEE: Absolutely, so from my looking -- that all happened the year I graduated from college and part of me and my friends were sort of like we're getting in a van, we're going to drive to upstate New York.

And we're going to rescue him and then it's like, and then what am I going to do? He's a full grown chimp at that point, but the fact that the scientific community as a whole would let him down is what was so upsetting to me.

SOCARIDES: It seems to me in all of this, important issues raised about how we treat chimps especially in captivity now and while this is an interesting personal story for you, right, there are many larger issues about finding a way to treat chimps and other like species. Because they're very much like humans and they are often not treated with respect and the dignity they deserve.

LEE: Brutal. I worked for 14 years at the Bronx Zoo, was part of the team that designed the Congo exhibit and it's like well all those gorillas are in captivity and you struggle with the issue. And what I found the way you resolve that, this colony of gorillas is, A, well cared for, B, there's a plan for their entire life. They're going to be taken care of.

O'BRIEN: Unlike Nim and he died at an early age, it's called "Project Nim." Thank you for talking to us. The breastfeeding thing is still odd.

LEE: Still a little odd.

O'BRIEN: A lot uncomfortable actually.

LEE: You should have seen him with the birthday cake on the table. He was really happy.

O'BRIEN: It's nice to have you with us.

LEE: Thanks.

O'BRIEN: Strange story though. Still ahead this morning, testimony in Washington, D.C. today on all the things that went wrong, very wrong in Benghazi that led up to the attack on the U.S. Consulate. Who was to blame and is anyone going to be fired over it.

We'll talk about that. Senator Johnny Isakson is going to join us this morning and a passionate speech from Winthrop University's basketball coach about a tough loss, but wasn't talking about basketball. He was talking about Newtown, Connecticut, and the action everyone needs to take next. That's ahead.