A television reporter generally has between one and two minutes to tell a story. That's not a lot of time. Sometimes important details, anecdotes and even perspective can get lost in the mix. In my blog, I'll share more information about particular stories and broader topics I'm covering, and reflect on how it all fits into the bigger picture. So that you can really see what's going on, I hope you'll take a look with me, through a wider lens.
Inside the FBI
For ten weeks, I got a chance to be a part of the FBI Citizen Academy in Springfield. I was one of roughly thirty people, and the only media representative to participate in the class. It gives civilians a chance to get an inside look at the FBI.
Each Tuesday evening, I would drive to the Springfield division headquarters on Linton Avenue. Upon entering the building, I would pick up my ID badge and would be escorted to the conference room where the meetings were held. As you can imagine, the security is very tight, and if I had wanted to slip out to the ladies room, I would need an escort! You also can't bring any cell phones into the building as another security measure.
We started learning about the basics of the FBI: who they are, what they do and where they're located. We learned information about the Springfield Division, which covers 84 counties in Central and Southern Illinois. We also learned about the divisions and priorities of the FBI, the greatest of which is to fight against terrorism.
Two of the most interesting tidbits I learned: the FBI stores fingerprints for 105 million people! Also, part of their training at Quantico requires agents to participate in real crime scenarios in a fake town they have built called Hogan's Alley. The special agents joked that Hogan's Alley has more bank robberies and drug raids than any town in the country.
The most interesting presentation we had in class (in my opinion) was about Weapons of Mass Destruction. I expected a discussion of nuclear weapons, but instead, we talked mostly about agro-terrorism and biological warfare. A portion of the lecture centered on ricin, a poison that kills and has no antidote. It comes from the castor bean. Because there is so much ricin in these beans, to peel the seed off one of the beans is a federal crime!
Though class was incredibly fun and informative, my favorite parts of the academy were all interactive. This year they added an Evidence Response Team exercise. The team showed us some of their most common tools and techniques for gathering evidence. Then some of us put on Tyvek suits (so we wouldn't contaminate the scene) and applied our new knowledge to a staged crime scene. They had staged a kidnapping, the car and evidence in a nearby garage, the suspects out of sight. We had to go through the car to find evidence to be processed. We were certainly not as good as the professionals and even overlooked a gun that had been hidden in the car. The lesson in that story: ERT members have to be incredibly methodical, detail-oriented individuals!
FBI Range Day was the highpoint of the program. On a gorgeous Saturday morning, we went to the Springfield Police firing range to see a SWAT team demonstration, to learn how to build improvised explosive devices with the bomb techs and to even shoot some of the weapons. One of the most fascinating parts of the day was a Q & A session with the snipers. They told me 99 percent of their job is to be good observers. They have to pay attention to details and communicate with the rest of the SWAT team, so the agents on the ground know what they're getting into. The snipers joked that they are the oddballs of the FBI and that they're very sensitive about their weapons and even emotionally connected to them.
I also had quite a lot of fun shooting weapons. People who know me will tell you I'm no gun nut. I've only shot a couple of times, only handguns, and only for stories. But on Range Day, that changed dramatically. I not only shot pistols and a revolver, but also an assault rifle, a shotgun, and an automatic. To be honest, the automatic was my favorite to shoot, though I doubt I'll get the opportunity to fire one again.
We also had instruction about the FBI's deadly force policy. We used the firearm training system, which is basically a simulator and a gun that shoots compressed air. There were several scenarios that would unfold and you would have to decide when to use force. I made a good judgment, though I was a pretty bad shot.
Overall, my experience in the academy was one I would gladly repeat. I learned a ton, had a lot of fun, and now see the FBI in a new way. In the future, when I report on stories that involve the FBI, I'll have a better idea of what they're doing and why they're doing it.
POSTAL MONEY ORDER FRAUD
An afternoon trip to the mailbox yielded something unexpected for Greg Wright.
"I opened the mail and I didn't see anything in the envelope at first," Wright says. "Pulled it open further, and I found this."
Inside, what looked like a postal money order, made out to him in the amount of $975. Nothing else in the envelope at all. He and his fiance took it to the post office where they learned it was a fake.
"She looked right at it and it's like she knew right away just by looking at it that it was a fictitious document," Wright says.
Postal Inspector Basil Demczak says they see this all the time.
"It's counterfeit," Demczak says. "It's fraudulent and if you cash it, the bank's going to hold you responsible for the funds."
Generally, these fake postal money orders come with a letter from out of the country scammers.
"They want you to cash that check and they'll tell you to keep a portion of that for your hassle and then send it back," Demczak says.
But these checks never clear, and you're out the cash. But it gets worse.
"You could go to jail," Wright. "This would link you right to this thing if you try to cash it."
There are easy ways to spot a fake.
"Number one you just hold it up to any light and it's got a watermark of Ben Franklin," Demczak says.
Plus, a real postal money order has an embedded silver strip that won't tear like the fake ones.
"I think it's horrible I hope they get caught," Wright says. "I really do. Because this could get a lot of innocent people in trouble."
The postal inspector tells me they have agents abroad tracking these scammers and have had success in prosecuting some of them. If you receive a money order in the mail, there's a toll free number to call: 1(866)459-7882
INSIDE AN INVESTIGATOR'S BRAIN
What a crazy couple of weeks it has been! We've unveiled our investigative Facebook page and Twitter account. We aired our first ever Dateline Central Illinois program and have had a bunch of great feedback. Not to mention the wild and fun weekend at the Celebration and of course reporting on crime, the drought and daily news happenings. Here's what I'm working on for you as we speak:
A slew of stories about scams.
A lot of these scams are happening to people right here in Central Illinois. Many are perpetrated by people outside of the country. I've been looking into how hard they are for the authorities to stop and how you can prevent becoming a victim.
A word to the wise: if it sounds too good to be true…it is!
Unsolved Murders and Crimes
We like to think of Central Illinois as relatively safe and friendly. But in our neck of the woods, people are keeping secrets. Secrets that prevent police from solving crimes and prevent the victims' families from getting justice. I'm working a couple of cases right now, to help shed light on them, with the ultimate goal of helping police find and capture those responsible.
The FBI—What you Don't Know
For the next ten weeks, I will be taking classes over at the FBI's headquarters in Springfield. I'll learn how agents work cases, what the physical demands of the job are, and what they do for you.
Please let me know what other stories need to be told. What crimes are going on in the community that need to get exposed? Who do you know who is being taken advantage of? What dangers are out there that people need to know about? Tell me. Message me on facebook or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise I'll look into it.
Synthetic Drugs: Illegal, But Still a Major Problem.
Synthetic pot and bath salts. You've probably heard of them. But many people don't know that they're dangerous and illegal. Here's the lowdown.
Synthetic Marijuana AKA K2, Spice
The packages are colorful, flavorful, even cute. But don't let the packages fool you. They hold synthetic drugs that are illegal, can be dangerous, even fatal.
Synthetic pot, commonly known as K2 or Spice used to be front and center in many convenience stores, smoke shops, and gas stations. But now the law has been changed, saying that not only the most common chemicals that make up the drug are illegal, but also any analogs or derivatives.
But local shopkeepers are breaking the law, still selling it.
The Attorney General's office has partnered with local law enforcement to seize the drugs, and get it out of Illinois Shops. It's called Operation Smoked Out, and they've collected hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the stuff.
Possessing K2 or any related chemical is a felony punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison and a 25-thousand dollar fine. If a store sells the product, it can be shut down and fined 150-thousand dollars. The seller can face up to five years in prison.
Their street name is bath salts, but they're not what you put in the tub for a good soak. They're designer drugs that are supposed to mimic the effects of cocaine or meth. But the outcome of smoking or sniffing it can be very dangerous: it can cause hallucinations, psychotic breaks and even violence or suicide.
There's been a surge in the number of nationwide calls to poison control centers. In 2010, there were only 304 calls. In 2011, the number jumped to 6,138. And though it's illegal, so far this year, there have been 1, 717 calls.
The DEA has already enacted a national ban, but the state's ban on synthetic drugs and their derivatives still applies with bath salts.
For both Bath Salts and Synthetic Pot, IL AG Lisa Madigan is pushing for tougher laws. From her website: " To complement this ban, Madigan has drafted new legislation that is currently awaiting action by the Illinois Senate. House Bill 5233 targets the retail sale of synthetic drugs by defining a "synthetic drug product" as one that contains a controlled substance not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The bill also addresses the fact that these drugs are sold in packages with misleading labels claiming the products are legal. The bill further makes it illegal under the Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act to sell these drugs and significantly increases the penalty for selling synthetic or misbranded drugs."
For more information about synthetic drugs:
Attorney General: http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/communities/syntheticdrugs.html
If you or anyone you know is using synthetic drugs and needs help, here's info about local treatment centers:
Treatment in Decatur: http://www.heritagenet.org/index.php?pr=Services#faq5
Treatment in Champaign: http://www.prairie-center.com/
Treatment in Springfield: http://recovergateway.org/drug-treatment/il/springfield/
Treatment in Shelbyville: http://www.newvision-shelbyville.com/index.html
Heroin Causing More Deaths in Macon County
Heroin overdoses are to blame for four deaths in Macon County just this year. And several more have ended up in the emergency room. That's up from previous years.
At the Heritage Behavioral Center, they treat people with heroin and opiate addictions. Bruce Angleman, who works at Heritage, says they've seen a 242 percent increase in people needing treatment for an opiate addiction over the past two years. He says it's easy to explain why the drug's grown so popular.
"Heroin is relatively cheap today, and the quality of it is higher than what was seen in decades probably," Angleman says.
Another disturbing trend, he says it's younger people who are becoming addicted many in their early 20's. And most of them snort or smoke the drug instead of injecting the drug.
The Decatur Police say their narcotics department is trying to track the source of the drug and to enforce and confiscate it when they come across it.
If you or anyone you know is struggling from heroin addiction, there are places to get help. I've listed the links for the local treatment centers for Decatur, Champaign and Springfield.
Treatment in Decatur: http://www.heritagenet.org/index.php?pr=Services#faq5
Treatment in Champaign: http://www.prairie-center.com/
Treatment in Springfield: http://recovergateway.org/drug-treatment/il/springfield/
Treatment in Shelbyville: http://www.newvision-shelbyville.com/index.html
Generally, there are several different methods of treatment. One of them (offered at all three centers) involves giving clients methadone or another analog opioid that diminishes withdrawal symptoms and blocks the effects of heroin. There are also many people who choose to go through clinical therapy without methadone.
For information about the effects of heroin on the body: http://www.justice.gov/dea/concern/heroin.html
Don't Fall for this Craigslist Scam!
If you're looking for a house to rent on Craigslist, beware. There's a scam being perpetuated by wolves in sheeps' clothing.
Here's how it works: Beautiful houses are listed "for rent" on craigslist at a great price. But they're not for rent. Scammers take actual listings from real estate websites of local homes for sale. The scammers are out of the country, many times from Nigeria, and say they need you to wire them several hundred dollars to pay for the security deposit. To make it worse, the scammers generally say they are doing good deeds, like missionary work.. or helping with the Peace Corps and need to rent out their house quickly and cheaply.
Here's an example of what one of their response e-mails looks like:
My name is Robert Bargley and i want to thank you for your interest in renting my beautiful home. I am looking for someone who can take good care of my property as i am out of the coutry right now and in Africa...Nigeria to be precise.I and my Wife barely had the chance of settling in the property and the environment as we are Missionaries who travle a lot to countries where our ministration is needed on demand which had given us a reason to put the house up for sale intially but since no one was coming forth with the asking price, we decided to put it up for rent and available at $600/mo.
We are presently in Nigeria as we got a call from an old friend of ours who is a also a minister of God and the G.O of the church of God mission Intl in the person of Arch-Bishop (Mrs.) Margaret Benson Idahosa whose call we couldn't turn down as she desperately needed our help in the reformation of the church as some of the pastors who were working with her have been called and have gone to establish their own ministries. Back to the property, we would like to thank you again for your interest in our home but also inform you that we have the keys to our home down here with us as we weren't familiar enough with anyone and couldn't leave the keys behind so for now, you may not be able to see the property on the inside but are free to drive by to see what it looks like from the outside to help make your decision.
As it is now, we would not be coming back to the states for at least the next 2-3yrs so you don't have to worry about having to move out anytime soon as we will definitely give you a 90days notice when the time comes to allow you enough time to get yourself another place. You are also free to have a pet or 2 provided they are home broken.
3BR/2BA SINGLE FAMILY HOME
DISHWASHER, WASHER AND DRYER, COOKER, REFRIGERATOR AND HOOK UPS.
CENTREL AIR CONDITIONING, HEATER, GARAGE, BASEMENT AND STORAGE.
RENT: $600...includes all utilities except Electricity which you'll be taking care of yourself
sECURITY DEPOSIT: $600...Please note that the security deposit is fully refundable!
NO PET DEPOSIT!!!
If you think we can trust ourselves and you can take proper care of my beautiful home, you can fill out the application below.
PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF:
Date of Birth:
Email Address (optional):
Co-Applicant Name (If Any):
List All Pets:
How soon can you put down the refundable deposit ($600):
Anticipated move date of:
PLEASE GIVE RESIDENTIAL HISTORY:
Month/Year Moved In:
Reasons for Leaving:
PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR CREDIT HISTORY:
Have you declared bankruptcy in the past seven (7) years? Yes___________ No____________
Have you ever been evicted from a rental residence? Yes___________ No____________
Have you had two or more late rental payments in the past year? Yes___________ No____________
Have you ever willfully or intentionally refused to pay rent when due? Yes___________ No____________
PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR EMPLOYMENT INFORMATION:
Full Time _____Part Time _____Student _____Unemployed
PLEASE LIST YOUR REFERENCES:
Personal Reference or Emergency Contact:
Please do understand that, a refundable deposit of $600 MUST be put down first before receiving the keys and paper work from me as to secure the house for you while you go through.
I will be looking forward to your details so that I can present it to my family, pray over it (because I consult the Almighty God before making any decision and if accepted, and have them stored in my file for the purpose of issuing the receipts to you and contacting you.
Feel free to contact me @ +234-806-448-6096 or 011-234-806-448-6096 as i will be waiting to hear from you.
If you see any posts like this, or have been a victim of this scam, below is information concerning where a person can file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center:
"The site for reporting internet crime is www.ic3.gov (Internet Crime Complaint Center). It is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).
They allow for the electronic filing of complaints. Complaints can also be filed with the IL Attorney General, Consumer Fraud Unit at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/index.html. Identity theft questions can also be address by the Attorney General of the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.
As always, if you know about a scam or have been a victim of it, let me know. I will personally investigate it for you.
They're one of the leading causes for emergency room trips and can be deadly. I'm talking about dog bites. But according to the CDC, there's a number of things you can do to prevent them.
Here's what the CDC advises:
"Preventing Dog Bites
Teach children basic safety around dogs and review regularly:
A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved in fatal attacks over 20 years (Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998 ). It does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic. Each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs. These bites result in approximately 16 fatalities; about 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten. These relatively few fatalities offer the only available information about breeds involved in dog bites. There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.
Many practical alternatives to breed-specific policies exist and hold promise for preventing dog bites. For prevention ideas and model policies for control of dangerous dogs, please see the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions: A community approach to dog bite prevention . *"
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESOURCES
Domestic violence is all too common in Macon County. I've compiled information about who to turn to locally for help, and some advice about what to do if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship.
DOVE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: http://www.doveinc.org/domestic_violence_program.htm
Here's a list of the services Dove, Inc. (located in Decatur) offers:
Domestic Violence Program Services
The Dove shelter is a place of safety and respite for women and children who are experiencing domestic abuse. The shelter is staffed 24 hours a day and provides not only the basic necessities for its residents but also support services. The shelter is accessible on a walk-in basis at 302 S. Union, Decatur, and through Dove's 24-hour telephone hotline: 217.423.2238. Men seeking shelter as a result of abuse from a domestic violence situation are assisted by cooperation with a local motel; call the hotline for assistance.
Individual and group counseling is provided to residential and non-residential clients. Individual counseling is also provided to male victims of domestic violence.
Legal advocacy is an integral part of the Domestic Violence Program. Staff members assist victims of domestic violence in obtaining Orders of Protection, as well as their legal options. Legal Advocates are available to accompany the victims as they maneuver their way through the court system.
Children receive specialized services such as individual and group counseling. Support and nurturing are importance components of Dove's children's program.
Dove is a cooperative member of the social service community. When necessary, Domestic Violence Program staff refer clients to other agencies or groups for matters in which Dove is unable to assist.
NDVH National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline www.loveisrespect.org
Domestic Violence Program staff provide the community with education, training, workshops and seminars about domestic violence issues on a regular ongoing basis.
And here are some tips from Susie, who is a local victim of domestic violence:
Listen to your family members to what they feel and say about the new person. Their comfort zone tells a lot. People in a new relationship only see the person we think we know as friendly, fun and caring.
If you notice disturbing anger issues early, end it. It only gets worse.
You can't change an abusive person. Don't get trapped in believing that your relationship is so special that nothing bad would ever happen.
Take close notice how the new person interacts with your friends. They should act in the same way as they do with you when you're alone. If they are outgoing alone with you and act withdrawn while around your friends...take note, especially if those actions continue after several occasions with the same friends.
If you do end it and problems arise: protect yourself with any means possible.
Have a thorough plan of safety for yourself
If you have cause, get an Order of Protection as soon as possible.
Seek help from Dove, if anything for their advice alone.
Let family and trusted friends know of your situation and have a plan with them incase of any further instances.
Have some form of protection in every room in your house. Including bathrooms, kitchens, basements, porches, and garages.
VETERANS BENEFITS BACKLOG
Almost a million vets have claims pending, more than 65 percent of them waiting more than 125 days. One of the reasons for the backlog--evidence must be collected and reviewed--which can be a lengthy process. But there are organizations and people that can help you through the process.
The state's department of Veterans Affairs maintains a staff of Veteran Service Officers (vsos) throughout the state to assist Illinois veterans in filing claims with the USDVA. By statute, each VSO must be a wartime veteran. Additionally, other veterans organizations such as (but not limited to) the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, etc. maintain their own list of service officers who will also assist veterans with their claims against the USDVA.
Here are a couple of helpful links to learn more about the organizations that can help you:
Additionally, filing online can speed up the process by not having to wait for snail mail and by keeping your status and information in a central location.
The Veterans Benefits Administration is trying to speed things up with a new web portal, but it will take years to catch up on the backlog. Even still, sometimes the process can take more than a year.
BEWARE "Erase Bad Credit" Signs
Getting rid of your bad credit score for a flat fee, sounds easier than spending years rebuilding it. But credit advisers say don't fall for it.
You may have noticed little red signs if you've gotten stuck at a red light in town. They promise to erase your bad credit for $250 and giving a phone number to call.
Investigator Paula Thornton called twice, asking how it works. Both times, the woman who picked up said she was enrolling another client and hung up.
Barry Schmidt is president of the Decatur Earthmover Credit Union. He says companies like this work by disputing credit claims. Until the creditor can prove the credit score, it is temporarily fixed.
"But usually within 30 to 60 days, the company is going to verify, no that is correct. And all that information goes right back onto the credit report," Schmidt says.
The company from these signs goes by a bunch of different names: Lexington Credit Services, BFS Empowerment Services, and they answer the phone as Erase My Credit Today.
But no matter the name, it's the same deal: a flat fee of $250, a monthly fee of $50, and after five days they won't refund your setup cost.
So calling the number on the sign, is no quick fix. .
"Ignore them. It takes time to build up a good credit score and to repair one as well. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to make bad credit go away."
The Better Business Bureau also gives the company an "f" rating. And the FTC says don't give up your money. Don't trust any company saying they can erase bad credit.
But here are some tips to fixing bad credit:
Here's another great resource for DIY credit repair: http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/cc/20011008b.asp
I've always been a very curious person. I was that annoying kid in class, hand raised, armed with fifty questions. I was also the person who would deconstruct what my teacher was saying and point out what didn't make sense to me or what was illogical. As a student, these may be frustrating characteristics for a teacher to handle. But as an investigator, I use my natural curiosity and skepticism as my guiding light. However, there's something else that can be an even bigger help. More on that later.
You may wonder why you rarely see me on TV with stories on Wednesdays and Fridays. These days happen to be my "discovery days." My news director has generously given me these days to call people, look over documents, and dredge up all the information I can find for my investigations. I also schedule shoots and do interviews for my investigations on these days.
I'm very lucky to have these days and am trying to optimize my time. The best way I can do this is by getting tips from you. I want to tell your stories. But in many cases, in order to do that, you have to help bring them to my attention. When you guys drive around, when you're at work, when you're just hanging out, you notice things. Things that don't pass the "sniff test." You can see government waste, businesses scamming people, huge safety hazards, people who are being used. I want to illuminate this, so there are fewer victims and the problems get solved.
For example, I once did a story because a woman named Amber Powell gave the station a call. She had dialed 9-11 with a cell phone and it rang off the hook. I asked her specific details about her experience and then took that information to the Macon County Department who handles these calls.
I learned that if you call 9-11 from a cell phone, the call bounces off your provider's nearest tower, which could be in another county. If it lands in another county's dispatch center, they don't have access to local maps, information, and can't contact local fire departments or police. The dispatchers have to call your county's dispatch before anything can happen. As you can imagine, this process takes minutes and can be the difference between life and death. By programming local dispatch into your cell phone, you can bypass that whole process and get help immediately.
Doing a story like this has the potential to help people. And the idea that spawned the story came from a viewer. If you notice something isn't right, that there's some problem you can't fix on your own, give me a call at 217-425-6397 ext 1144. I will try my very hardest to help you out, and inform others in the process. Also, feel free to shoot me emails at email@example.com. Any tips I get that yield a story can help make our community a more well-informed and safer place!
Save Your Kids from Danger with a Cheap, Easy Fix!
I cannot imagine the agony a parent feels, or the terror a child experiences when furniture or a big screen television fall on top of and injure that child. But as I found out, it is becoming more and more common.
Every other week, a child dies when a TV or furniture falls on them. There have not been any local deaths caused by TVs falling on kids just yet, but that's why I'm bringing you this story. so you won't have to go through the tragedy
Furniture and TVs crashing down on top of kids send more than 22 thousand children a year to the ER
Dr. Maria Granzotti has treated kids injured from falling furniture and TVs
"Head injuries, neck injuries, facial injuries, some chest trauma," Granzotti says. "These injuries can be fatal."
And they have been in our state. One-year-old Shawn Brown was playing in his Chicago house on a Tuesday afternoon when a 100 pound tv fell on him, killing him.
And mom Sylvia Santiago couldn't believe when a falling TVkilled her daughter Janiyah while she slept.
"I just saw her legs under the TV," Santiago says. "You just don't think of televisions or bolting your dressers to the wall."
But doing just that could save your child's life.
"Lots of times they're not secured, they're not fastened to a wall so they're really easy to tip over depending on what's in the dresser or stand underneath," Granzotti says.
So anchoring furniture and TVs to the wall is a safe, quick, and inexpensive fix. And Granzotti says and if your kids are around an unsecured TV, pay close attention.
"Young kids, they've never maybe been a climber before but they can always become a climber."
Because in an instant, your child's life, could come crashing down.
The problem is real. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says over the past ten years, there have been more than 250 tipover deaths, most of those children under the age of five.
If you'd like more info about how to keep your kids safe from tipovers, this is a great resource: http://www.cpsc.gov/onsafety/2010/09/prevent-a-tv-fall-in-your-house/.
A Blood sport Right Here in Decatur
As a dog lover, and someone who adopted a dog from a shelter, it is really hard for me to see animal abuse. So to me, it was very upsetting to find out that dog fighting is a problem here in Decatur.
Back in September, when our camera followed Hazel hope into the Bel Aire Pet clinic, we received a glimpse inside dog fighting. The pit bull pup had broken bones, cuts all over her body, and was thrown in a trash bin, left to die in a Decatur alley.
"My biggest suspicion unfortunately is she is what's called a bait dog," says veterinarian Dr. Holly Brophy.
Brophy says she was likely hanging from a tree as other dogs trained to kill attacked her. At Macon County Animal Care and Control, Warden Roy Austin says they see this sort of abuse all the time.
"Oftentimes we find the losers, he says. "What we expect has been the loser in a fight. In Decatur, what we find is what I term "street fighters" mostly dogs that are like an extension of a person."
And sadly, these people train their dogs to be vicious. Often they will have a setup in a backyard where there are multiple pit bulls chained up and separated. They may have little food and water to drink. There may be ropes and weights hanging from tree limbs, and sometimes other animals may be strung up from trees used as bait. This is how the dogs learn to fight and kill.
"Greed and status are the two main motivations around here," Austin says.
Though too often they find the bruised and broken victims, Sheriff Tom Schneider says it's hard to find a fight in action.
"Dog fighting is done in a controlled area, basement, contained, away from main roadways so it is more covert in nature," Schneider says.
So what happens to the dogs goes unreported and unpunished.
"It's cruel. It's inhumane to the animal," Austin says.
Hazel Hope was lucky. Dr. Brophy took care of her. Now she's healed, adopted, and happy in her new home. But unlike Hazel, many fighting dogs have no hope.
In Decatur, most of the dog fighting activity takes place in abandoned homes and properties. Here are some of the locations where Animal Control has found fighting dogs over the past few years.
153 W. Packard- This dog was being trained to fight by two teenage boys who had tied a stray cat to a rope and was allowing the dog to attack the cat. The dog was eventually euthanized as it was physically and emotionally abused to the point of being very aggressive to people and other animals.
650 Rt 51- these dogs were all part of a large breeding program that had multiple violations of animal control laws. Some of the animals had physical signs of having been fought. The blue pit's face for example was swollen, infected and scarred. Allegations of fighting and selling puppies to be fought was the reason animal control investigated. Most of the animals from here were saveable and were placed in loving homes after being fixed and made healthy. A few adult pit bulls were too aggressive and were euthanized.
1270 W. Church - classic victims of a "street fight" Animal control called about a group of people standing around watching two dogs fight. Upon arrival, no one was around. One of the dogs had been placed in an abandoned garage and the other was running loose. Both dogs were extremely animal aggressive. Both had serious and multiple bite wounds. Both dogs were euthanized.
1735 E Walnut - dog was found running loose. It's wounds are typical of a dog that had been in a fight with another dog. Dogs that lose fights or are not aggressive enough are often turned loose if they are lucky. Many are brutally destroyed.
1215 W. Green - breeding operation - dogs were all far too aggressive from the abusive manner in which they had been treated and were euthanized.
1013 E. Mueller - same as 1215 W. Green
Since many of these cases are ongoing, the names of the individuals are not immediately available.
For more information about dog fighting, click this link:
If you suspect anything at all, better be safe than sorry. Call Macon County Animal Care and Control at 425-4508.
Getting Every Fact Right
I'd like to use this space to clarify a story I reported on about former Eisenhower Assistant Principal Mylai Donnell Tenner, who resigned in December.
In the story, I referred to Mr. Tenner as a convicted felon. He is not.
According to court documents from Ramsey County, Minnesota, Tenner pleaded guilty to charges of Theft by Swindle in 2006. The case was originally brought up as a felony, but was reduced to a misdemeanor when conditions were met. He paid restitution of $9,712.54.
In 2001, Ramsey County court documents show Tenner was charged with domestic assault, but pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to a stay of imposition, 40 hours of community service, domestic abuse program treatment and no contact with the victim except for visitation.
In 1994, Tenner was convicted of Criminal Damage to Property Damage-Tresspassing, according to Lyon County court documents. It was originally brought up as a felony, but the offense level was reduced to a gross misdemeanor.
As a reporter, it is my mission to get every detail right. I sincerely regret the oversight.
Buyer Beware with Prepaid Credit Cards!
Mattoon mom Lisa Chounard is in an unfamiliar situation. She has bills piling up, and doesn't have a way to pay for them.
"I wanted to rebuild my credit. I wanted to better my life, my kids' life, and in the process of trying to better my life, i destroyed it."
Chounard is on Social Security disability. She had to switch her account to direct deposit, but didn't have good credit, so she went online to get a pre-paid credit card. She settled on one from Bank Freedom, a company that promises to help regardless of your credit score.
"I'm in a really bad predicament. They have my money, they won't release it. Now they're denying they have my money"
Social security officials say Bank Freedom has it, and have traced it there. But the company denies it. But until social security recovers that money, Chounard will not get a new check. And so, the bills are piling up.
"Not only is it horrifying because that's how I support my children and myself, you know it's devastating because it's right before Christmas and that's a big deal to an 8 year old and a 6 year old."
She's called multiple times to fix the problem, with no luck.
Credit adviser Barry Schmidt says opening a local account is safer than a pre-paid credit card.
"The larger the company, the harder it is to reach somebody" Schmidt says. "They are convenient and yes you can do it online, it seems like everything's nice and easy, without having that local relationship if you do have problems, you have no one to go to."
If you'd like to check out more about the company Lisa tried, here's a link to their site:
And here's a website that compares credit cards, banks and rates. It is a great tool, and could save you a lot of money! bankrate.com
Fewer Schools Making AYP...But the Standards are Higher
The state has released new school report cards, and fewer schools are making adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. The goal keeps getting higher each year, and this year, the benchmark was set at 85 percent.
But many local schools miss the mark by a lot. If you'd like to go school by school in Decatur, here's the link : http://iirc.niu.edu/District.aspx?districtid=39055061025
If you'd like to check out the state's report card to check out how other school districts fared, go to http://iirc.niu.edu/
Are Local High School Students Prepared for College?
For the first time this year, the state has released information about how well high schoolers do at state colleges. And to a certain degree, the findings are what you'd expect: students' GPAs tend to dip once they graduate.
But the data is broken down by school, and it raises the question of how well each school is preparing students. I've crunched the numbers for some local schools in our area, to see how they stack up against each other.
ACT COMPOSITE: 24.8
AVG. CREDIT HOURS: 25.0
CUM GPA: 2.90
HS GPA: 3.3
COLLEGE GPA: 3.08
ACT COMPOSITE: 25.0
AVG. CREDIT HOURS: 27.2
CUM GPA: 3.01
HS GPA: 3.45
COLLEGE GPA: 3.16
ACT COMPOSITE 23.4
AVG CREDIT HOURS 25.2
HS GPA: 3.45
COLLEGE GPA: 2.94
MAROA-FORSYTH HIGH SCHOOL
ACT COMPOSITE: 23.6
AVG. CREDIT HOURS: 25.3
CUMULATIVE GPA: 2.80
COLLEGE GPA: 2.94
EISENHOWER HIGH SCHOOL
ACT COMPOSITE: 20.7
AVG. CREDIT HOURS: 22.7
CUMULATIVE GPA: 2.49
HS GPA: 3.37
COLLEGE GPA: 2.7
Warrensburg-Latham has the smallest difference between high school and college GPAs and Eisenhower has the largest.
If you'd like to see how your school stacks up, here's the link to the website: http://www.ibhe.state.il.us/HSCSR/default.htm
Gold and Silver Sellers---do your research!
A lot of people are looking to make money by selling scrap gold and silver, and traveling shows advertise top dollar. The Treasure Hunters Road Show, a company that operates under a bunch of different names, sets up shop in towns like Decatur and promises a good deal for your scrap metal. I wanted to find out just how good of a deal it was. Before the show was shut down, I used a hidden camera to go inside the road show and was surprised by their offers.
Decatur Coin and Jewelry owner Bennie Strumpher gave us 925 dollars worth of gold and silver to be valued by THR and another local pawnshop. Decatur Jewelry and Pawn owner Perry Lewin said he would give roughly a thousand dollars for the amount. But when I sat down with an appraiser from THR and associates, his first offer was just $210. More than 700 dollars less than Strumpher would have paid for it! But when I told the THR appraiser I would take the pile to local pawnshops instead, he offered me more money. After I said no repeatedly, he brought over his manager, who gave the final offer of $1050.
Both Strumpher and Lewin recommend consumers do their research before selling, going to several local stores first before going to a roadshow. They also both say that local dealers will give you a better price.
When I asked a spokesperson from THR about the low-balling tactics I experienced, he said though their first offer was much lower, their final offer was actually higher than local dealers. He also stated that they generally beat the prices of local dealers. The spokesperson at THR also recommended that consumers should do their research before selling precious metals.
HOWEVER, the show will not go on.
Macon County Sheriffs Officers arrested three people from the Treasure Hunters Road Show -- or THR-- for noncompliance with the pawnbroker regulation act. The act was put in place to protect the public by regulating the gold buying and selling market. It requires 30 days notification to the Sheriff prior to holding a sale at local venues. It also requires a 100 registration fee that must be paid, and a list of all purchasers involved during an event must be made available so the Sheriff can do background checks. In this case, there were four purchasers when only one was listed. The sheriff made three arrests, and as a result, the show was shut down.
THR is not certified by the Better Business Bureau. They've had 19 complaints, five of which have not been solved. They currently have a B plus rating.
They were also involved in recent litigation with WGBH Educational Foundation, producer of the PBS television show "Antiques Roadshow." US Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore entered a consent order, making THR limit their use of the term "Roadshow."
For more information on THR, visit their website at www.TreasureHuntersRoadshow.com.
To read more about the Pawnbroker Regulation Act: http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=1188&ChapterID=20
To get more tips on getting the best value for your gold: http://www.bbb.org/blog/2011/08/get-the-most-when-selling-your-gold-for-cash/
9-11 Calls a Problem for People Using Cell Phones in Rural Areas
When we call 911, we expect someone to answer immediately, and for help to be on the way ASAP. But as I found out, if you're calling from a cell phone, that might not be the case. And it's becoming a bigger problem as more Americans are ditching their landlines and going mobile-only.
The problem was brought to my attention last week. Amber Powell, who lives in Warrensburg, was a Good Samaritan and called 911 when she observed a train crash. But instead of getting patched through to dispatch, she waited on the line for 20 rings before hanging up. She was upset and worried. After all, she is a cell phone only consumer.
I wanted to find out why it took her so long for her call to be answered. I called the Emergency Communications Center, who handle emergency calls in Decatur and Macon County. They ran a test, determined they never received Amber's call. I asked why that might be.
What they told me is scary. Because a cell phone does not have a fixed location, the call to 911 can get bounced off of whichever cell phone tower is available at the time, and sometimes that means one farther away. Then it is up to that emergency responder to patch you through to your local call center. But the biggest problem? That takes a lot of time, and in many cases, precious minutes can be the difference between life and death.
So, what's the solution? As more of us rely on our cell phones, we need to be able to place calls out to 911. Unfortunately, the only fix is the cell phone provider building a tower in the problem area….which is not exactly cost effective.
However, if you've called from a cell phone and the phone is ringing, they advise people NOT to hang up the phone. The technology is currently lacking…so that if you make a call with your cell phone and hang up before they pick up, they can't call you back.
This is an issue I want to keep following. Let me know if you've had any trouble calling 911 from your cell phone or otherwise.
For more information, check out this link about calling emergency services from your phone: http://transition.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/wireless911srvc.pdf
ALSO, if you live in Macon County and want to test where your 9-11 call goes, call the Emergency Telephone System Board at 217-424-1002, who can run a test on your cell phone, so you'll know what happens and where the call will go before you're in trouble.
Childhood Lead Poisoning
Some of us may not think of lead in our homes as a threat anymore. But as I found out, 60 children in Macon County were lead poisoned just last year. And with symptoms like abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, and irritability, it is nearly impossible to diagnose by symptoms alone.
The good news is that the number of cases of lead poisoning has decreased dramatically over the past decade. In 2000, more than 300 children in our county were lead poisoned.
Although there are fewer cases of lead poisoning now, the lead nurse at the Macon County Health Department says most are confined to individual homes. Because maintenance and repairs are hard to enforce, the cases are harder to close than in the past, and the kids get exposed to more lead.
Homes built before 1978 are more likely to have lead paint in them, and if the home has not been carefully maintained and repainted, there's a greater risk. Remediation however, does not have to be expensive. Some quick, cheap fixes, like repainting with latex paint, and wet dusting can help a lot.
As promised, here are some resources about lead poisoning at the local, state, and federal level.
General info: http://www.idph.state.il.us/public/hb/hblead.htm
Prevention tips: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm
Percent of children with elevated blood levels by county: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/state/ildata.htm
Info about local program: http://www.maconcountyhealth.org/Services/EnvironmentalHealth.aspx
September 22, 2011
As some of you may have noticed, I am no longer reporting out of Champaign. For nearly a month, I've been reporting out of our hub in Decatur. The new job has meant big changes: I'm no longer a one-woman-band reporter, I've been working nightside, and I've taken over the investigative mantle.
Coming from a background in investigative work, it's safe to say I'm more than excited. My biggest dreams are to tell stories that call people to action, stories that can create change. I love being able to take more time on a story and to seek out answers to questions that have been left open ended.
But like any investigative reporter, many of the best stories I cover will come from viewers. To a certain degree, investigative reporters rely on the public for stories even more than general assignment reporters do. I want to tell stories that matter to you. If you feel like you've been taken advantage of, if you feel like there's something in your neighborhood no one is talking about, if you feel like someone in power isn't being held accountable for their actions, I encourage you to reach out to me. You can friend me on Facebook or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm so happy to be working for a station that values investigative reporting, and I'm so thankful for the opportunity to report in Decatur. I've been repurposed in the best way possible.
June 24, 2011
Yesterday, I was reporting on a story out in Rantoul about a ban on the sale of liquor at drive-up windows. I had just finished shooting a stand-up (the part of the story where the reporter talks to the camera) near a busy road. As I was starting to bring my gear back to the Stormcenter 17 vehicle, a woman was distracted by me, and rear-ended the truck in front of her. Fortunately, she and her son are ok, but her car was pretty damaged.
This got me thinking: losing focus for a few seconds can result in thousands of dollars in damages that will take months to pay off. Not to mention the shock of being in an accident, and the potential risk of serious injury or even death.
In the media, we constantly report about the dangers of texting while driving or talking on the phone driving. But in this high-tech world, we often forget that there are risks every single time we get behind the wheel. We've rolled our eyes at Mom's advice to "keep your eyes on the road," but we shouldn't. An accident happens when you least expect it.
I am so happy that the driver and her child are fine, but as I'm driving around Central Illinois I will pay extra attention to the road. And if you see me out reporting while you're driving, be sure to watch at 5, 6, and 10 pm and not from behind the wheel!
May 12, 2011
Education on my Mind
For those of you who are following this blog, please do not fret! Jillian and I survived the 10K. I haven't written in a while simply because I've been swept up in a sea of daily news. But the one thing that hasn't left my mind, even as I've been reporting on waves of different topics, is education.,
In my Save our Schools report which will air tonight, I journeyed to Barkstall Elementary in Champaign. Why, you might ask? Because the school was one of just 459 across the state to earn an Academic Excellence Award from the board of education. And what truly amazed me is that Barkstall has more than double the percentage of low income students compared to the majority of Academic Excellence Schools. So of course, I wanted to put my reporter cap on to see how they accomplished such a feat.
I spoke with the principal of the school, Trudy Walters. She informed me that they do not "teach to the test" but instead try to make students well rounded by challenging them intellectually, and addressing each child's individual needs. But I was surprised to learn that their biggest learning philosophy wasn't academic, but environmental.
Walters told me that by creating a nurturing environment that students enjoyed, they in turn, would thrive. And they clearly did! I visited Debra Costello's fourth grade classrooms to find a bunch of quiet kids, noses in books. Costello would make her way around the room, talking to each student, urging them to think critically and use figurative language in their book reports. In other words, Costello was asking a lot from her students. And they were prepared to give her their best in return.
After spending time at the school and speaking with the students about how much they loved going there, it made me realize just how much having a positive environment for children makes sense. If they get individual attention and feel comfortable in their surroundings, they are more likely to ask questions and absorb information with their spongy brains.
I think this is a question that we tend to overlook. Just how important is the educational environment, and how can early environments affect kids' educational outcomes and outlooks later in life?
I do not pretend to be an educator. However, I find myself lucky to travel to public schools where you see children succeeding, ready to take on the future. I hope to see more of this, and to tell you all about it.
April 21, 2011
No longer running scared
People who know me will tell you I am not a worrier. But believe me, today I woke up worried. In just over one week, I'm running a 10k in the Illinois Marathon with WAND's Jillian Deam. But I'm not worried any more. More on that to follow!
I know in the grand scheme of running, a 10k is not very far. My feet will only be pounding the pavement for a smidgen over 6 miles. But I have not trained properly and I have a damaged knee.
In high school, I played water polo. The egg beater motion you make with your legs to tread water is very hard on the joints. My kneecap likes to dislocate itself, and pop right back into place. The thought of this happening as I am running on the Champaign-Urbana streetscape is scary!
But this morning in an effort to shake off my fears, I decided to read up on people who have gone the distance. People who have challenged themselves and overcome obstacles most of us couldn't.
I am truly inspired by the story of Cpl. Daniel Lasko. He lost his foot in 2004, after tripping on a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Instead of letting this get him down, he persevered. He found out about "Team Semper Fi," an organization that raises money for injured marines. And now, he runs triathlons and marathons.
If a person can fight for their country, lose a limb, and then push themselves to that level, I can certainly overcome my injured knee. Don't worry Mom and Dad! I will listen to my body, tape my knee, and ice it. But I'm no longer worried, because I know I can succeed if I try my hardest, go into this with a positive attitude, and do not allow my past to become a barrier against my future goals.
Cpl. Lasko's valor and intense love of life should make us ask ourselves how we make excuses in our daily lives. How many times have we said, ‘I'm too tired, I'll go exercise tomorrow,' or ‘I had a hard day; I've earned this spot on the couch!' I think the struggles he overcame should remind us how lucky most of us are, and how we should push ourselves to get the most we , can out of life.
March 28, 2011
Heroes Among Us
As a kid, each Saturday morning I would race downstairs and plop down in front of the TV to watch cartoons with my brother. I remember how my eyes would grow wide, watching Batman with his grappling hook or Professor X and his enormously powerful brain. Feats of heroism that guaranteed the reign of good over evil for another day.
Now that I'm a bit older, I'm still impressed by acts of heroism, only these are grounded in reality. On Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to attend the third annual Heartland Heroes event, a dinner held by the Mid-Illinois Chapter of the Red Cross. They highlighted the good deeds of local people who have changed lives in a big way.
Some of these people have done things most of us will never do, like 6-year-old Anastacia Clem, who woke up her family and in doing so, saved their lives as their house burned down. Or Sgt. Jesse Tilton, a soldier in Iraq who gave up his own life to save another. These acts of heroism are on such a grand scale that many of us will never be able to make such a difference.
But one of the stories I found most inspiring (thank goodness for the handy tissues on the table!) was that of Pat Garlick. When her son was stationed overseas, she sent him a care package. He told her that many people deployed with him had no one at home to send them anything at all. Immediately, Garlick's heart went out to these people who gave up so much for their country and got so little comfort in return. So she started sending packages to these soldiers, complete strangers, to show them how much she cared. Small things, like socks and candy bars to heal the wounds of homesickness and loneliness. Small things that make a big , difference in individual lives.
Hearing Garlick's story, I wondered how we ca,, n make changes in our own lives by doing little things each day to make someone smile or feel comforted. People are suffering right here in Central Illinois, and by offering a helping hand we can lessen the pain of others.
So dear reader, I challenge myself, and I challenge you: let's do something good today! Let's take small steps toward an extraordinary goal!
March 15, 2011
Caught between a rock and a hard place
As you may have noticed, I've been doing a bunch of stories on education for Save Our Schools. At every school I visit, teachers and administrators are frustrated about the same thing: the state's inability to pay bills.
Administrators say they're confronted with tough decisions they don't want to make. To balance the budget they either cut jobs, programs, or both. All of these options hurt students.
In Villa Grove, the board decided to make programmatic cuts to save jobs. But some parents I spoke with say the district has already eliminated all AP classes, and without competitive, challenging classes, community growth will stagnate.
In Wisconsin, where state employees have just lost their collective bargaining rights, teachers across the state are getting layoff notices, forcing class sizes to grow and giving each student less individual attention.
There's also the option that teachers and administrators could elect to take pay cuts, but with the cost of gas, food and health care climbing, it's unlikely.
So then, what is the answer? How can school districts preserve the quality of education with a dwindling money supply?
Many districts are holding out hope that the income tax increase in Illinois will improve matters. But even if districts can benefit from this revenue stream, it will take time. And for now, it seems inevitable that public schools will continue their struggle between a rock and a hard place.
Can you think of any creative solutions that could guarantee students a quality education without getting rid of staff? Maybe I'm an optimist, but I think the answe, r might just be something we haven't thought of yet.