National News

Lottery addictions are not being addressed seriously, experts say

Scott Olson/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Tvonia Thomas said that scratch-off lotto games were consuming every aspect of her life in Virginia.

Even though she rarely won big jackpots, Thomas told ABC News Live that the rush of going out to the convenience store for those tickets was stronger than the urge to eat a meal.

"It feels like your heart's going to explode, but you love it," the recovering gambling addict said. "You don't know what's going to be behind that glitter that's underneath that ticket."

Thomas is not alone. Some addiction specialists say more people are fighting these extreme compulsions for scratch-off tickets and that state officials need to step up to curb the problem that they say disproportionately affects minorities and low-income players.

A 2022 nationwide investigation of state lotteries by the Howard Center For Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found stores that sell tickets are disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities in nearly every state where the game is played.

The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, said approximately 60% of state lottery earnings go directly to the winners.

Les Bernal, the national director for the nonprofit group Stop Predatory Gambling, told ABC News that while states use the revenue from lottery sales to fund services like education, they are doing so off the backs of low-income residents.

"This is definitely a form of systemic racism that has occurred," he said. "They have shifted the tax burden away from middle-class taxpayers [and] from property."

Billy Hoffman, a gambling counselor, told ABC News that even if they don't win, gambling addicts still have the compulsion to seek out more attempts at the jackpot.

"They're trying to find a way out, and it just gets them further and further in the hole," he said.

Thomas said her addiction got so tough that she had suicidal thoughts. Eventually, she secured a scholarship to an addiction recovery program at Williamsville Wellness in Virginia.

"On the first day, it was like a breath of fresh air. I was saved from myself. I didn't have the opportunity to gamble," she said.

Lottery critics have called out states for failing to distribute revenue to necessary public services and programs to fight gambling addiction.

The Virginia Lottery, which uses revenue from games to fund public schools, received a “D” grade in 2022 from the nonprofit group, The Education Law Center, for how it allocates money to high-poverty districts.

In a statement to ABC News, the Virginia Lottery said it, "has a proven track record of working to raise awareness of problem gambling and gambling addiction, going far beyond what is required by law to do."

"While Virginia law requires all lottery profits to go to K-12 education, the lottery has been repeatedly recognized as a leader in the industry when it comes to using its resources and high public profile to raise awareness and encourage responsible play," the Virginia Lottery said.

Hoffman said that more lottery profits need to go to help people who are battling addiction.

Thomas agreed, and urged others who are struggling with these compulsions to seek help.

"It wasn't about the money, it was about the continuing to play and to escape and to be in my dream world," she said.

If you need help with a gambling problem reach out to 1-800-Gambler. If you are having thoughts of suicide or other mental health crisis call or text 988.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

How Vegas is changing the odds for blackjack players

Duncan Nicholls and Simon Webb/Getty Images

(LAS VEGAS) -- Blackjack players say they've been noticing a difference at the tables in Las Vegas lately.

Even if they hit that lucky 21, they say they're not getting the same amount of winnings as they did in the past.

Blackjack and casino experts, like Mike Aponte, who was part of the infamous MIT card-counting team, say this is no fluke, as casino owners have found ways to get more money from gamblers.

Aponte spoke with "Start Here" Thursday about the latest trend.

START HERE: [Aponte] says across the board, every game at the casino is designed for the house to win. But some are more tilted than others. You might have a good night or a bad night, but if you play thousands of hands the casino should only take a bit of your money.

MIKE APONTE: If you follow basic strategy, then the house edge only is about half a percent.

START HERE: But last year, according to data from the Nevada Gaming Commission, blackjack players lost more money than they have in nearly two decades. That’s not just because there are more people playing. In part, it’s because the odds have changed.

APONTE: It kind of started about 15 [or] 20 years ago where the casinos started introducing rule changes to kind of increase their advantage.

START HERE: So remember the basic rules of blackjack: You get two cards, the dealer gets two cards. Whoever’s closest to 21 without going over, wins. Simple. You put down 10 bucks, you get 10 bucks in profit.

Except when you get dealt exactly 21. That’s a blackjack.

APONTE: The beauty of blackjack is that the player will get a 3-to-2 [odds] payout on their wager, which is equivalent to 150%.

START HERE: Oh, so you put down $10 [and] instead of getting $10 now you get 15 bucks back next to your chips?

APONTE: Exactly.

START HERE: That little bonus payment, Mike says, is key. It’s one of the biggest reasons you can make back your money quicker. It’s why the house's edge is so low. Well, casinos have slowly lowered that blackjack payout.

According to John Mahaffey, the founder of a group called Vegas Advantage which literally goes around counting table stakes, about two-thirds of blackjack tables now only give you 6-to-5 odds for a blackjack.

Which didn’t sound like a big deal to me at first. But Mike, our blackjack expert, says that means Vegas is taking more of its customers’ money.

APONTE: To simply lower that payout to 6-to-5 [odds], now the house edge goes up to 1.9%. I mean, it nearly quadruples.

START HERE: The reasoning for casinos seems pretty simple. If there’s more money to be taken, take it. But you might think: Wait a minute, won’t that stop gamblers from coming to Vegas? Mike says he thought it would, but it’s been just the opposite. Last year was a record year for casino gambling.

As Vegas becomes more of a tourist destination than a gambling destination, the gambling dollars actually get bigger. And that’s when Mike said something that blew my mind.

APONTE: They can really get away with it at the lower limit tables, because they don't institute that at a higher limit table. They're never going to do 6-to-5 [odds].

START HERE: There might be different odds in different areas of the casino. You're saying high rollers are, all of a sudden, [seeing] different odds, maybe?

APONTE: Yes. So that's a big change back from when I first started playing. When I started playing, the rules were the same throughout the entire casino for the most part.

START HERE: And this is the real takeaway here. High rollers were always treated differently in Vegas from the rest of us. But now, just like in so many aspects of life, the rich have a chance to get richer, quicker, while those with shorter stacks are seen as a bit more expendable.

That said, if you want to keep more of your money, Mike says the answer is not to find a table with higher stakes and better odds. The answer is to treat it like entertainment and set a limit, because the house is winning either way.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Indianola mayor urges 'patience' amid probe into police shooting of 11-year-old boy

ABC News

(INDIANOLA, Miss.) -- Ken Featherstone, the mayor of Indianola, Mississippi, urged his community to "trust the process" amid an investigation into the police shooting of 11-year-old Aderrien Murry after he reportedly called 911 for help during a domestic disturbance at his home.

Featherstone spoke out about the incident, which has drawn national attention, in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday after the shooting rocked Indianola – a small town with a population of less than 10,000 located in the northern part of Mississippi in Sunflower County.

He told ABC News that "emotions are raw" and that there's "a lot of unease right now."

"To the citizens of Indianola – trust the process, please be patient. We're trying to do everything by the book, and not make any mistakes that will embarrass our town," Featherstone said. "A lot has happened and we've gotten a lot of negative press as a result of this. I'm a brand new mayor, just a little over a year into my office. [This is] certainly not the kind of media attention I would have liked to bring to Indianola."

Aderrien was shot by an officer in the early morning of May 20 after the boy called 911 when his mother's ex-boyfriend showed up at their home and his mother asked him to call police, she told ABC News. The boy was released from the hospital last week.

The 11-year-old spoke about the harrowing experience in an exclusive interview that aired on "Good Morning America" and "GMA3" on Tuesday.

"I came out of the room like this," Aderrien said with his hands above his head as he reflected on the incident in an interview with "GMA3" co-anchor DeMarco Morgan.

"It felt like a Taser, like a big punch to the chest," he added.

Featherstone said that he met with Aderrien after the shooting and he and his wife delivered a care package to the Murry home over the weekend.

"Our thoughts and our prayers go out to him as well as his family," the mayor said, adding that he knew Aderrien before the shooting because he supported the boy's little league football team.

"We would see each other at football games … we would see each other around town," he said. "He's a big hugger, great kid, wishing all the best for him. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to him as well as his family for [a] full recovery."

The Murry family filed a federal lawsuit against the city and police on Tuesday, claiming that the boy was shot without warning after he and his family members were ordered by police to leave their house.

The suit, filed in Mississippi federal court on behalf of Aderrien and his mother, Nakala Murry, claims the officer who fired the gun, Greg Capers, was "reckless."

"This is a claim for negligence and excessive force," said the complaint.

The Indianola Police Department did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

ABC News has also attempted to reach the officers named in the lawsuit.

Featherstone, who previously identified Capers as the officer who shot Aderrien to ABC News, confirmed Wednesday that Capers "was suspended with pay pending psychological examination."

The lawsuit was filed amid an ongoing investigation into the incident by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

Featherstone said that the MBI "will complete their investigation very soon" and the case will be turned over to the state's attorney general's office.

"They will make their recommendations from that point," he said.

Featherstone addressed the "public outcry" calling for the release of the police body camera video of the incident and said that the video is currently "in the possession of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation."

"At some point, they will render their findings and they will be turned back on over to us," he said.

Asked about a timeline for its release, Featherstone said that the city had a special meeting on the incident with the city aldermen on Tuesday and they decided not to release it yet due to "pending litigation."

"We didn't want to taint the process at all," he said. "The board voted overwhelmingly to follow the advice of legal counsel."

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the state AG did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Child accidentally kills another child with father's gun

Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

(RIVER GROVE, Ill.) -- A child accidentally shot and killed another child in River Grove, Illinois, on Wednesday, according to police. The gun used in the incident belonged to the father of the deceased child, police said.

River Grove police said the child was severely injured and later succumbed to their injury. Both children lived in the same household.

There have been at least 122 accidental shootings by children in the U.S. this year, as of May 16, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Fifty-three of those have been fatal. The total number of accidental shootings -- 0.9 per day -- is down slightly from last year, when there were 0.97 per day, according to data from Everytown.

The father of the child who was killed told police he was outside when he was alerted of the accidental shooting.

The father immediately called 911 for emergency services and is cooperating with investigators, police said. He holds a valid Illinois gun license and a concealed carry permit. He admitted to investigators that he owned the handgun used in the accidental shooting.

The father claimed the gun was stored on a high shelf in a closet, according to police.

The incident is still being investigated and those involved are being interviewed by police. Police said they would not release any additional information at this time.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Search suspended for man who fell overboard from Carnival cruise ship near Florida

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(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended its search for a Virginia man who fell from a cruise ship balcony earlier this week.

Ronnie Peale Jr., 35, went overboard from a Carnival Magic cruise ship traveling off the coast of Florida on Monday, the Coast Guard said.

After searching more than 5,171 square miles over the course of 60 hours, the Coast Guard said Wednesday night that it has suspended search efforts for Peale.

"The decision to suspend the active search efforts pending further development is never one we take lightly," Coast Guard District Seven search and rescue mission coordinator Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Hooper said in a statement. "We offer our most sincere condolences to Mr. Peale's family and friends."

Carnival Cruise Lines personnel contacted Coast Guard watchstanders at 6:36 p.m. on Monday to report that a passenger had fallen off the ship, which was 186 miles east of Jacksonville, the Coast Guard said.

Peale's companion reported him missing late Monday afternoon and "an initial review of closed circuit security footage confirms that he leaned over the railing of his stateroom balcony and dropped into the water at approximately 4:10 a.m. Monday," Carnival Cruise Line said in a statement to ABC News.

His partner, Jennilyn Blosser, told Richmond ABC affiliate WRIC that the footage showed him leaning over the railing and that it looks like he accidentally fell.

"It's not like he was like jumping, like you know, it wasn't like that at all," Blosser told the station.

Blosser said she woke up at 11:30 a.m. that morning and spent hours trying to find Peale. His mother, Linda Peale, told WRIC she knew something was wrong when her son didn't call that day to check in on his dogs.

Peale, from New Hope, Virginia, was on his first cruise and was celebrating Blosser's birthday with her family, Linda Peale said.

She described her son as "full of life" and someone who loved old cars, gardening and cooking.

"My son was a wonderful man," Linda Peale told WRIC.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Son of Home Depot worker who was fatally attacked during theft seeks crackdown on organized retail crime

Courtesy of Rasor Family

(HILLSBOROUGH, N.C.) -- On Gary Rasor's 80th birthday, his children asked him to retire because there was no financial need for him to work. Rasor refused and told his children that he loved working at Home Depot, where he trained young employees and enjoyed interacting with customers.

Rasor continued to work for more than two years at The Home Depot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, until he was confronted by a man stealing three pressure washers last October. The man violently pushed Rancor, who crashed to the floor and was taken to the hospital -- where he died of his injuries a few days after turning 83.

"He was just going to ask him for a receipt," Rasor's son Jeff said of the man who attacked his father.

The elder Rasor was attacked in the course of what authorities call organized retail crime -- the large-scale theft of high-value items, which are then illegally resold.

In an interview airing tonight on "Nightline," Jeff Rasor told ABC News' Erielle Reshef that he wants authorities to crack down on the growing phenomenon.

"There has to be consequences in my mind, and the consequences have to fit the crime," he said. "I can't imagine that any piece of equipment in Home Depot is worth a life -- and so when you find out it's $837, it's just pretty bad."

Five months after Gary Rasor's death, another Home Depot employee was killed after confronting a shoplifter in a California store. Blake Mohs, a 26-year-old loss prevention employee, was shot in the chest while trying to stop a theft at a Home Depot in April. Two people have been arrested on murder charges in the case.

The two deaths come as law enforcement officials and advocates warn of an increase in violent and brazen acts during the commission of organized retail crimes.

According to a report released by the National Retail Federation in April, stores and retailers reported that the number of organized retail crime incidents increased by an average of 26.5% between 2020 and 2021.

"It's growing double-digit year over year," Scott Glenn, The Home Depot's vice president of asset protection, told ABC News. "We don't have enough resources to handle, [so] we have to prioritize the biggest impacts."

"More and more we're seeing the risk being brought into the stores, and people being hurt or people even being killed in many cases because these folks, they just don't care about the consequence," Glenn said.

In response, Home Depot stores across the country have implemented increased security measures, including more cameras and security guards, and have added new technologies to track merchandise.

"The 500,000 orange hooded associates that are working in our stores and distribution centers, we want them to feel safe when they come to work," Glenn said.

Jeff Rasor told ABC News that his father would want the "appropriate measures" to be implemented to discourage retail theft and to help people avoid a life of crime.

"He [wouldn't want] this guy to be in jail the rest of his life," Jeff Rasor said of the man who fatally attacked his father and has since been arrested on a murder charge. The case against him is still pending.

"He would rather that guy be graduating from law school and be on an internship right now somewhere," Jeff Rasor said. "That's what he'd want. But he's not, he's sitting in jail."

ABC News' Claire Pedersen contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Structural engineer reported issues ahead of Iowa building collapse, documents show

Scott Olson/Getty Images

(DAVENPORT, Iowa) -- The city government of Davenport, Iowa, has released dozens of documents in connection with an apartment building that partially collapsed as three residents remain missing and the community demands answers.

The documents were published Wednesday evening on the city's website. Three of the files were reports by a structural engineer who inspected The Davenport at 324 North Main St. earlier this year. The city had ordered the building's owner to hire an engineer following various complaints from residents.

During an emergency site visit on Feb. 2, David Valliere from Select Structural Engineering reported seeing "a localized area of brick [that] is cracked and crumbling" on the west exterior wall of the six-story property, which housed commercial space at the street level and residential units in the floors above.

"This engineer determined that this is not an imminent threat to the building or its residents, but structural repairs will be necessary," Valliere wrote in a letter dated Feb. 8.

During a follow-up site visit on Feb. 23, Valliere reported that the recommended repairs were being performed by a mason and appeared "to be going to plan," but "the mason pointed out that the area immediately to the north of the work area has a large and potentially dangerous void beneath the façade wythe of clay brick."

"This void appears to have been caused by the collapse of some mass of clay brick between the façade and CMU," Valliere wrote in a letter dated Feb. 28. "This collapsed mass is now settled and piling up against the inside face of the façade, pushing it outward. This will soon cause a large panel of façade to also collapse, creating a safety problem and potentially destabilizing the upper areas of brick façade. This condition was not visible in the early inspection(s) and did not become apparent until repairs were under way and an opening was made by a smaller area of failing façade."

The engineer made another follow-up site visit on May 23, five days before the building partially collapsed. During that visit, Valliere reported seeing "several large patches of clay brick façade" that were "separating from the substrate" on the west exterior wall of the building.

"These large patches appear ready to fall imminently, which may create a safety hazard to cars or passersby," Valliere wrote in a letter dated May 24. "The owner has already blocked off the area with cones and has begun removing drywall from the inside of the wall to get a view of what might be happening."

"Inside the first floor, the drywall is being stripped away. This reveals that the window openings were never filled with brick or block. Rather, the clay brick façade was just run right over the openings, unsupported," the engineer added. "This lack of bracing helps explain why the façade is currently about to topple outward. The brick façade is unlikely to be preserved in place, but it can be brought down in a safe, controlled manner."

When ABC News called Select Structural Engineering for comment on Wednesday, the person who answered the office telephone said, "We are aware of the incident and do not have any more comments at this time as we are still trying to determine the details of the situation."

Davenport Development and Neighborhood Services Director Rich Oswald said at a news conference Thursday that an inspector mistakenly issued a permit to start repair work at the building as "pass" last week, when it should have been marked as "incomplete." Then a system error changed it to be viewed as "fail" on the public-facing system, he said.

"We had an inspector go down on [May] 25, they made a field inspection," he said. "That inspector left for the weekend. And when they returned on May 30, they went into the system to update their notes from that inspection, and noticed that they had in error they had marked it 'pass' when they created the permit."

"Our IT department has worked to resolve that glitch," Oswald said, adding that the employee involved resigned on Wednesday.

A section of the building collapsed on Sunday afternoon. More than a dozen people evacuated at the time and eight others were rescued in the 24 hours that followed. Several pets were also rescued.

On Monday, officials said there was no credible information that anyone was missing and the city would move forward with plans to begin demolishing the remaining structure the next day. But that night, rescuers found a ninth person alive inside and pulled her out of a fourth-story window. It was unclear how the woman was not found earlier by crews using thermal imaging, drones and service dogs. The development prompted protests from members of the community calling for the demolition to be delayed.

On Tuesday, the city's demolition plans were put on hold as officials announced that five residents were still unaccounted for, including two men -- Branden Colvin and Ryan Hitchcock -- who may be inside. Crews rescued several more animals from inside the structure that afternoon but no human activity was detected, according to officials.

Then, on Thursday, officials announced that only three people remain missing -- Colvin, Hitchcock and a third resident who lived in the impacted area of the building and with whom authorities have not been able to make contact.

Police on Thursday called it a "recovery situation" for Colvin and Hitchcock, noting that they're likely inside the apartment building in an area that's "not sustainable for life."

Officials have warned that the structure is unstable and continues to degrade. Crews are working with structural engineers on how to best search the building while avoiding the pile of debris, which is currently contributing to the stability and its "removal could jeopardize or accelerate the inevitable collapse of the building," according to the city government.

The city has fined the building's owner, Andrew Wold, $300 for failing to maintain a safe and sanitary building, plus $95 for court costs. Wold is expected to appear in court on June 9.

When asked for comment, Wold and the property management team told ABC News in a statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with our tenants and families during this difficult time. We would like to thank the brave men and women of Davenport fire, Davenport police department, and all other first responders for their tireless efforts to ensure everyone’s safety. We have been working closely with the American Red Cross and other agencies to assist the displaced tenants."

They are also working to refund all deposits to tenants as quickly as possible, a property manager told ABC News.

ABC News' Laryssa Demkiw, Alexandra Faul, Jessica Gorman, Ahmad Hemingway and Darren Reynolds contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Top DHS official warns of 'absolute threat' to public safety, economy from organized retail crime

The Home Depot

(NEW YORK) -- The surveillance video, from earlier this year, is startling: Four masked men march in a line through a Home Depot store in New York -- two of them looking like menacing bodyguards -- while the two others confidently push carts stacked with almost a hundred boxes of high-value items that they take but never pay for.

When the same crew, allegedly doing the same thing, was approached by a security officer at another Home Depot store nearby, one of the men threatened the guard.

"I'll knock you out. This isn't worth dying for," he said, according to prosecutors.

As Home Depot executives describe it, that New York-area crew is part of a growing threat to Americans across the country: so-called organized retail crime, where groups of criminals steal prized items to sell online or elsewhere.

While this kind of theft has been around for years, retailers say it's reached unprecedented levels, sparking deadly violence at some stores. And federal authorities now warn it's become an "absolute threat" to public safety and public health, declaring that violent gangs, dangerous international crime syndicates, and even groups with suspected ties to terrorism are increasingly dabbling in organized retail crime across the United States.

"These criminal networks, they may be full-time drug traffickers, but they see an opportunity to work with a crew that's already stealing," said Raul Aguilar, who oversees international organized crime cases for Homeland Security Investigations, the primary investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "And because it's hundreds of millions of dollars, [the money they make] can easily be diverted for [other] kinds of activities."

'Theft for greed'

"Organized retail crime is what I call theft for greed, not theft for need," said Scott Glenn, vice president for asset protection at The Home Depot, which has been hit hard by organized retail theft. "[But] they don't just come to a Home Depot and then decide to go home ... they go to Target, they go to Lowe's, they go to CVS, they go anywhere."

The groups behind organized retail theft can be expansive -- "like your traditional organized crime families," as Glenn put it -- or, as Aguilar noted, they can be just two or three people working together.

They target stores big and small, and they take whatever they know they can sell -- from power tools and spools of wire worth $3,000, to designer clothes and even medical supplies, officials told ABC News.

"They do a lot of research about what is profitable," Aguilar said. "They have shopping lists."

Glenn said The Home Depot investigated about 400 cases of suspected organized retail theft in the past year alone -- more than one per day -- and that the numbers are "growing double digits year over year."

The National Retail Federation's most recent survey of retailers across the country reported a 26% jump in organized retail crime between 2000 and 2021, amounting to tens of billions of dollars in losses. Home Depot alone loses "billions of dollars a year" to organized retail crime, according to Glenn.

Asked what's behind the recent spike of organized retail crime, Glenn cited two things in particular: the proliferation of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed people to stay "a little bit more anonymous," as he put it, and the explosion of online marketplaces, where people can be even more anonymous.

According to the National Retail Federation, online sellers like Amazon and eBay have been particularly popular with retail thieves, but criminals are increasingly using peer-to-peer sites such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, which offer more direct transactions.

'Keeps you up at night'

A Homeland Security Investigations report issued last year said estimates regarding organized retail crime found "the average American family will pay more than $500 annually in additional costs due to the impact."

But there are also much broader -- and potentially more concerning -- implications, according to retailers and law enforcement officials.

"This isn't just shoplifting," noted Aguilar, saying that it impacts the supply chain -- "and that has effect on the economy."

At the stores themselves, according to authorities and retailers, thieves are often armed with guns, knives, bear spray, or even tools taken from store shelves.

"We're starting to see a lot more violent acts taking place," said David Johnston of the National Retail Federation. "It greatly impacts the retailer's ability to keep their environment safe."

At a Home Depot in Pleasanton, California, in April, Blake Mohs, a 26-year-old employee set to be married in August, was fatally shot after he tried to stop a suspected thief. Two people have been arrested on murder charges in the case.

And late last year, 82-year-old Gary Rasor, a retiree working at The Home Depot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, died after being shoved to the ground by an alleged thief, who was then arrested on a murder charge. The case against him is still pending.

"It's unconscionable," Glenn said of the deaths. "That's something that keeps you up at night."

Homeland Security officials are also concerned about who's sometimes behind organized retail theft. Gangs and other dangerous groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood and crime rings from Eastern Europe and South America, have used organized retail theft to raise funds, according to Aguilar. And there are "definitely ties" between certain organized retail thieves and drug-trafficking organizations, including some of the cartels identified by the U.S. government as a global threat, Aguilar said.

In addition, said Aguilar, "some of these networks are tied to the terrorist financing networks around the world."

When pressed for more details, he said, "There's still too many active investigations, so I can't really specifically get into those."

Some media reports and others have questioned whether law enforcement officials and retailers have been exaggerating the scope of organized retail theft and the threat it poses to the U.S. homeland. As far back as 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that although retail and law enforcement sources cite "eye-popping figures," there is "reason to doubt the problem is anywhere near as large or widespread as they say."

But Aguilar rejected such suggestions, insisting organized retail theft "absolutely is a threat."

'Part of the solution'

Glenn said The Home Depot is looking to stem the tide of organized retail theft by "taking a multifaceted approach": locking up often-targeted items behind cages, launching new forms of technology, and pushing Congress and law enforcement to do more.

Retailers expect the newly-passed INFORM Act, which requires online retailers to verify certain information about their sellers, to help combat the sale of stolen and counterfeit goods -- but they say they also want Congress to allocate funds for a federal task force specifically targeting organized retail crime. The Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, which would establish a coordinated multi-agency response and create new tools to tackle evolving trends in organized retail theft, was introduced by the House of Representatives in February.

"The feds ... actually have some really, really good data-sharing and intelligence-sharing capabilities," Glenn said.

Meanwhile, as local and state authorities try to tackle the issue in their communities with nearly a dozen state task forces, Homeland Security Investigations is "using all of its investigative authorities" to do what it can, Aguilar said.

Over the past three years, the agency has tripled the number of cases it's investigating, often using fraud-related and money laundering laws to open cases, he said.

But Aguilar said that to really help stop organized retail crime, consumers need to be "part of the solution."

"I think the first thing they could do is pay attention to what they're buying online," he said, advising consumers to be skeptical of items being sold as new with deep discounts.

"Pay attention to who's selling them, make sure to read the reviews," he said.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Three teens charged after village's swan killed, then eaten: Police

James Warwick/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A beloved swan was reported missing from a New York state village's pond on Monday. Three teenagers are now accused of killing the mother swan, who was then eaten, authorities said.

The three teens face felony charges in connection with the death of Faye, as well as the theft of her four cygnets -- fixtures at the Manlius Swan Pond in Manlius, a southeast suburb of Syracuse, police said Wednesday.

The teens -- friends from Syracuse -- were arrested and charged with grand larceny and criminal mischief, both felonies, as well as conspiracy and criminal trespass, both misdemeanors, Manlius police said.

An 18-year-old suspect was arraigned and released on his own recognizance, police said. He is scheduled to appear in court on June 15. The other two suspects -- a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old -- were released to their parents because they are juveniles and will appear in court at a later date, according to police.

The teens allegedly hopped a fence overnight over the Memorial Day holiday weekend and captured Faye, who was nesting with her cygnets, and killed her at the pond, according to Manlius Police Sgt. Ken Hatter.

"Family and friends did consume the adult swan," Hatter said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

The teens reportedly believed the swan was "just a very large duck," and did not realize she was not a wild animal but property of the village of Manlius, Hatter said.

"They were hunting, is what they told us," Hatter said.

Tips from citizens led investigators to a business at Shop City Plaza in the town of Salina, where they found two of the cygnets, police said Tuesday. The other two cygnets were subsequently found at a residence in Syracuse, police said.

The juveniles reportedly told police they wanted to raise the cygnets, which have since been turned over to a biologist, Hatter said.

Swans have been a fixture of the village since 1905, according to Manlius Mayor Paul Whorrall.

A male swan named Manny, who was Faye's mate, was unharmed in the incident. He will be removed from the pond because he could become combative due to the loss of Faye, Whorrall said, while noting that swans mate for life.

The town is looking into increasing security measures at the pond in the wake of the incident.

"We've had swans for over 100 years, we're going to continue to have swans as part of this village," Whorrall said during Wednesday's briefing.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Elderly man, passerby help save sleeping family from New Jersey house fire


(NEW YORK) -- A father and his four children were saved from an early morning house fire by a neighbor and a passerby who saw smoke coming from the home's garage and were able to alert the sleeping family, police said.

The fire was reported around 5:35 a.m. Wednesday at a home in South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, local police said.

A man who lives on the block told police he looked out his window at about 5:30 a.m. and "noticed puffs of smoke that looked like fog" over the corner of his neighbor's garage, the South Brunswick Township Police Department said in a statement.

When the man -- identified by police as 85-year-old Santo Livio -- went outside to further check, he saw a woman who regularly walks in the neighborhood coming down the street as well.

"I yell to her, I said, 'Is that a fire, you think, that smoke is?' And she says yes," Livio told ABC News.

The woman ran up the driveway and started banging on the front door to the house, while Livio started banging on a window, he said.

Livio said he banged on the window for about a minute or two before running back home to call 911 while the woman continued knocking on the door.

"When I got back to my door, I saw the people that lived in the house come out and she told them their house was on fire. And the man said, 'What fire?' And she says, 'Look,'" Livio said. "He looked up and he said, 'Oh my God.'"

The family was sleeping at the time and were woken up by Livio and the woman banging on their front door and bedroom windows before evacuating uninjured, police said.

Three fire departments responded to the scene and were able to extinguish the fire in about 20 minutes, police said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The blaze appears to have originated in the garage, but the source and official point of origin are pending further investigation, police said.

South Brunswick Fire Chief Chris Perez told ABC New York station WABC-TV that there were smoke detectors in the home but they were not operational.

The children's mother works overnight as a nurse and wasn't home at the time of the fire, according to Livio, who said the family came by afterward to thank him.

The father told WABC his family is safe and that they are grateful to first responders, Livio and the mystery woman. He told ABC News in a brief phone call that he was working on finding them a place to stay Wednesday night.

A police spokesperson told ABC News the woman who helped left amid the fire response and they are working to identify her so they can give her recognition.

"I credit Mr. Livio, along with the unidentified woman, and their quick thinking and heroic actions, with saving the family," South Brunswick Township Police Chief Raymond Hayducka said in a statement.

Livio said wouldn't call himself a hero, but a "good neighbor."

"I hope that what I did for somebody they would do the same for me," he said.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Inside the movement to ban caste discrimination across the US

ABC News

(LOS ANGELES) -- Some South Asians, many miles away from their homes, say they are suffering from experiences with discrimination that dates back to thousands of years.

From job rejections to unsupported marriages, they claim that severe harassment from the caste system crossed over into America and has gone unchecked.

"When we talk about our personal experience, people don't believe me," Prem Paariyar, a Nepalese immigrant who said he was discriminated against because of his caste both back home and in the U.S., told ABC News Live. "Not just my experience, our experience."

But state and local leaders on the West Coast are seeking to address the issue with legislation that anti-caste advocates say could help curb this inequality.

The caste system started as a social construct created over 3,000 years ago in South Asia. People are born into distinct groups, that came with their own social hierarchy and political and economic status, according to Anupama Rao, a history professor at Columbia University.

Brahmins, or ritual specialists on top are considered the top caste, followed by the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, then the Waishyas, which was the caste that represented farmers, traders or merchants, and finally the Shudras, who are also known as the "untouchables."

Rao told ABC News that members of Shudras were forced to do the worst kind of jobs including hauling caucuses and excrement. She said they are sometimes referred to as Dalit, which is a term of militant self-identification, that means ground down, broken, crushed.

"Caste operates as an engine of social hierarchy and as a form of political and economic inequality," she said.

Although the Indian government banned caste discrimination in 1948, it has still existed culturally, according to Rao.

"The ways in which caste operates is subtle and not so subtle," she said. "People trying to figure out what your caste is through your last name, people being very interested in knowing about your cultural and social practices, all trying to get a sense of ways in which you can cut into somebody's caste identity."

Alok Kumbhare said he has faced discrimination all of his life because of his name and caste. He remembered a music teacher in India discouraged him from learning music after learning his name as a child.

Kumbhare held back tears recalling a former landlord in India who harassed him over his caste and told him, " You stink up the toilet too much, I should’ve made you clean and that's what you're good for."

"This implicit notion of superiority and inferiority creeps in all the time," the married father of one told ABC News Live.

Paariyar said his family was brutally attacked in Nepal by members of a dominant caste and he fled to the U.S. seeking political asylum.

When he arrived in America, however, Paariyar said that his harassment didn't go away.

After getting a job at a restaurant, Paariyar said he was denied housing that those workers typically used because they were all part of the dominant caste.

"After a month, I was homeless…I was in a van," he said.

Pariyar would eventually graduate from California State University with a degree in social work, and spearheaded efforts to end caste discrimination on campus.

Some South Asian Americans said that the discrimination is strong even in bigger organizations and groups.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a South Asian-American activist, and the executive director of Equality Labs, told ABC News that she was originally invited to speak at Google about caste bias but her invitation was rescinded after some employees complained.

"I had a Google V.P. news manager tell me, 'Well, you know, caste is not a protected category,' and that's just me as a speaker imagining what they're telling to workers," Soundararajan said.

She said that after the incident, she had to live in a safe house because of threats.

Google claimed in a statement to ABC News, "In this instance, there was specific conduct, and internal posts, that made employees feel targeted and retaliated against for raising concerns about a proposed talk. We made the decision not to move forward."

"Caste discrimination has no place in our workplace and it’s prohibited in our policies. We have long hosted a variety of constructive conversations with external guests on these sorts of topics," the company said in a statement.

Soundararajan and other anti-caste advocates have long been calling on the government to address the issue and recently local leaders have been pushing legislation that bans caste discrimination.

In February, Seattle became the first major city outside of South Asia to ban caste discrimination.

On May 11, the California state Senate passed SB 403 which would make caste a protected category in California's anti-discrimination laws. The law is working its way through the state Assembly.

"As our state becomes more diverse, our laws need to go further and deeper in communities and tackle the issues that matter to them," State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the lead sponsor of the bill, told ABC News Live.

The bill, however, was met with resistance from some South Asians who contend that caste discrimination isn't as prevalent as some others claim.

Puspita Prasad, a member of the group The Coalition of Hindus of North America which has opposed SB 403 and Seattle's law, told ABC News Live, the nature of the legislation is discriminatory

"We object to this word caste. The word caste is in the Western lexicon. It's a Hindu phobic term. It is not a neutral term," Prasad said.

Rao acknowledged that most people associate the term caste with the Hindu religion but said "caste and caste-like differences and exclusions are also in evidence in Muslim and Christian communities across South Asia."

Alok and other anti-caste advocates say the Seattle and California movements are positive signs that people are becoming cognizant of the issue and are willing to make change to end the cycle of discrimination.

"This ordinance is all about hope," he said of the Seattle legislation. "It will create this ripple effect [that] can create a more inclusive environment," he said.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Man with weapons arrested after allegedly spotted with gun near a California movie theater: Police

Placer County Sheriff's Office

(TAHOE CITY, Calif.) -- A man found with an arsenal of weapons was arrested after a person near a local California movie theater spotted him with a gun and called 911, authorities said.

Police arrested 42-year-old Thomas Alexander of Oregon after conducting a traffic stop near the Cobblestone Movie Theater on May 19. Authorities discovered multiple weapons in his vehicle, including a loaded handgun holstered on his hip, a loaded rifle with four high-capacity magazines, two additional loaded handguns and prescription pills, the Placer County Sheriff's Office said.

Alexander is facing multiple charges, including carrying a loaded firearm in public, illegal possession of a rifle, transporting a rifle and possession of a controlled substance, according to the sheriff's office.

Law enforcement officials responded to an emergency call from a concerned citizen at the Tahoe City-area movie theater inquiring about California's gun law on open carry, after the citizen allegedly saw Alexander with a weapon, according to the Placer County Sheriff's Office.

Prior to his arrest, Alexander allegedly inquired about the arrival time of theatergoers, according to police.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, California is home to the strictest gun laws in the U.S.-- some of which were enacted in response to several violent mass shootings in recent years, including a bill from February that expanded the state's gun licensing system and strengthened gun training requirements.

Despite its tough laws on firearms, California has been the site of a handful of mass shootings so far this year.

Eleven people were killed and nine injured at a dance studio in Monterey Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, on Jan. 21 during a Lunar New Year celebration.

On Jan. 23, seven people were fatally shot in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, after a suspect open fired on two farms in the rural town, according to officials.

California voters passed Proposition 63 in 2016, which requires background checks for purchasing ammunition and prohibits possession of large-capacity magazines. A red flag law also went into effect that year, which prevents certain people from acquiring firearms.

Alexander's attorney did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

His next hearing is on June 7, according to court records.

ABC News' Julia Jacobo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

South Carolina teen falsely accused of shoplifting fatally shot by store owner: Police


(SOUTH CAROLINA) -- A South Carolina gas station owner was charged with murder on Monday after allegedly shooting and killing a 14-year-old boy he wrongly believed had shoplifted several bottles of water, according to police.

Rick Chow, 58, was arrested and charged in connection to the fatal shooting of Cyrus Carmack-Belton in Columbia, South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff's Office said.

In a news conference on Monday, Sheriff Leon Lott said the teenager did not shoplift from the Shell gas station, despite Chow's belief that he did.

"He did not shoplift anything. We have no evidence that he stole anything whatsoever," Lott said.

ABC News reached out to Chow's attorney, James Snell, Jr., on Wednesday, but his office declined to comment.

According to a sheriff's office incident report obtained by ABC News, the shooting was "not a bias motivated incident."

Police said there was a verbal confrontation inside the store before Cyrus left and took off running.

Lott said the convenience store owner, who police said was armed with a pistol, and his son chased after the teenager toward an apartment complex.

Cyrus fell during the chase, got up and was allegedly shot in the back by Chow, police said.

"Even if he had shoplifted four bottles of water, which is what he initially took out the cooler and then he put them back, even if he had done that, that's not something you shoot anybody over, much less a 14-year-old," Lott said. "You just don't do that."

Richland County coroner Naida Rutherford told reporters at the press conference on Monday that Cyrus died from "a single gunshot wound to his right lower back" that caused "significant damage to his heart and hemorrhaging."

She added that his injury was consistent with "someone who was running away from the assailants."

Attorney Todd Rutherford, who is representing Cyrus' family, told ABC News in a statement on Wednesday that the teenager's fatal shooting is "something that the Black community has experienced for generations."

"What happened to [Cyrus] wasn't an accident. It's something that the Black community has experienced for generations: being racially profiled, then shot down in the street like a dog. Words can't describe the pain I feel having known this family for decades," Rutherford said.

"One beacon of hope is seeing the resilience of the Black community as they wrap their arms around this family that has joined the club that no Black family ever wants to be a part of," he added.

Lott said that "at some point" during the chase, the son said that the teen had a gun.

"At that point the father shot the young man in the back," Lott said. According to law enforcement, a gun was found close to the teen's body.

"Right now we don't have anything that says that he did not have that gun on him," Lott said during the press conference Monday when asked if Cyrus was in possession of a gun during the incident.

But Lott added that the investigation found that Chow "did not have that gun pointed" at him and he did not fear for his life when he shot Cyrus.

"You don't shoot somebody in the back who's not a threat to you," Lott said, adding that Cyrus was "running away" when he was shot.

Naida Rutherford added that "there's no indication" that Cyrus was physically fighting with the store owner before he ran out of the store.

Following a peaceful protest at the gas station Monday, there was alleged vandalism and looting, which Lott condemned during a second press conference Tuesday, saying those who took part would be held responsible.

According to a police report, protesters shattered the business' window, vandalized gas pumps, spray-painted outside the store and left the scene carrying beer and other food items.

Chow is being held at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, according to police.

Veronica Hill, a public information officer for the Richland County Sheriff's Department, confirmed in a statement to ABC News on Wednesday that over the past five years the sheriff's department has received "hundreds of calls for service" at the gas station owned by Chow related to cases of "assaults, larceny, shoplifting, motor vehicle theft, vandalism, robbery and burglary."

She also said that Chow was involved in two incidents -- one in 2018 and another in 2015 -- where Chow confronted shoplifters and fired a weapon, but his conduct in those incidents "did not meet the requirements under South Carolina law to support criminal charges."

According to Hill, in 2018 Chow confronted a shoplifter who then assaulted Chow, leading Chow to fire twice, and striking the assailant in the leg.

"That individual was treated at a local hospital and later pled guilty to charges stemming from this incident," she said.

"In 2015, Mr. Chow attempted to stop an individual stealing items, that individual then entered a vehicle and threatened to shoot Mr. Chow. Mr. Chow fired approximately six shots at the vehicle. No one was injured," she added.

Chow appeared in court on Tuesday, according to ABC affiliate in WOLO in Columbia, South Carolina, but a bond hearing has not been scheduled yet, the sheriff's office told ABC News on Wednesday afternoon.

ABC News' Brittany Gaddy and Ahmad Hemingway contributed to this report.

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Lawyer arrested in over decade-old rapes after being identified by genetic genealogy

urbazon/Getty Images

(BOSTON) -- Police have arrested 35-year-old Matthew J. Nilo, a former Boston attorney, in connection with several decades-old rapes that took place in Boston. Officials said they were able to identify the suspect using forensic genetic genealogy.

Nilo has been charged with three counts of aggravated rape, two counts of kidnapping, one count of assault with intent to rape and one count of indecent assault and battery, according to Boston police.

The sexual assaults were allegedly committed on Aug. 18, 2007; Nov. 22, 2007; Aug. 5, 2008; and Dec. 23, 2008, in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, according to police.

"This arrest cumulates the investigation that employed the use of genetic genealogy from recovered evidence. All four cases are DNA connected," Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said at a press conference.

Nilo was arrested in New Jersey following an investigation between the Boston Police Department, the New Jersey Police Department and Boston's FBI office.

"These investigations utilized sexual assault evidence collection kits with the assistance of detectives in identifying the suspect as the investigations continued," Cox said.

Additional resources for the investigation came from the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Grant, which helps the city investigate unsolved sexual assault crimes, according to Cox.

Efforts were launched in May 2022 to review unsolved sexual assault cases that posed the most threat to public safety, Cox said.

Authorities announced in 2008 that the cases were connected through DNA evidence, but had no suspect at the time. Through genetic genealogy, detectives can search for relatives of an unknown suspect through DNA voluntarily submitted to public databases and then narrow the family members down to a likely perpetrator.

"While we know today's arrest of Mr. Nilo cannot erase the harm he allegedly inflicted upon his survivors, we believe we have removed a dangerous threat from our community," FBI Boston Division Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta said at the press conference.

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Man arrested in slaying of New Jersey councilwoman apparently knew victim from church

Borough of Sayreville

(VIRGINIA) -- A Virginia man has been arrested for the murder of New Jersey councilwoman Eunice Dwumfour, who was gunned down outside her home in February.

Rashid Ali Bynum, 28, who apparently knew Dwumfour from church, was taken into custody Tuesday morning on charges including first-degree murder, Middlesex County Prosecutor Yolanda Ciccone announced at a news conference Tuesday.

On Feb. 1, Dwumfour, a 30-year-old mom and church leader, was shot multiple times while she was in her SUV outside her townhouse.

According to Ciccone, Bynum was a contact in Dwomfour's phone under the acronym "FCF," which authorities believe stands for "Fire Congress Fellowship," a church that the congresswoman was previously affiliated with, "which was also associated with the Champion Royal Assembly, the victim's church at the time of her death."

On the day of the shooting, Bynum allegedly searched online for information on the Champion Royal Assembly church and the Sayreville area, according to Ciccone.

In the days before the murder, Bynum allegedly searched online for what magazines were compatible with a specific handgun, she said.

Bynum's phone traveled from Virginia to New Jersey at the time of the murder, and Bynum's physical description matched a witness description of the suspect at the scene, Ciccone said.

Officials did not discuss a possible motive and did not take questions from reporters.

Ciccone called it a "complex, extensive case."

For Dwumfour's family, the last few months have "been a rollercoaster of emotions," family lawyer John Wisniewski told ABC News on Wednesday.

And while the family is glad a suspect was arrested, Wisniewski said they're also left with more questions.

Bynum "is not a name or a face that they're familiar with," Wisniewski said, and the family is "struggling for understanding what this man's connection to their daughter was, what was his thinking."

Dwumfour, a business analyst and a part-time emergency medical technician, was elected as a Republican to the Sayreville Borough Council in 2021, defeating an incumbent Democrat.

"There are no words that can be said to you to make you whole," New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said to Dwumfour's family, who attended the press conference. "I did not know Eunice. I wish I had. But I know that she was a public servant."

"I hope that today is the beginning of a healing process, and also the beginning of a sense of justice," he added.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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