SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Saturday was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea as Moscow's foreign minister ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine's new authorities, whom he dismissed as puppets.
CONROE, Texas (AP) — Now that prosecutors have persuaded a judge that a Texas man accused of setting an 8-year-old boy on fire as a teenager can be tried as an adult for murder, securing a conviction in a case where the victim died 13 years after the attack could prove difficult, legal experts say.
Don Willburn Collins was 13 when Robert Middleton was attacked in 1998 on his eighth birthday, near the younger boy's home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Middleton was burned across 99 percent of his body and endured years of physical therapy before he died in 2011 from skin cancer blamed on his burns.
Collins was always a suspect but never indicted as prosecutors in Montgomery County said they didn't have enough evidence. The case was reopened after Middleton gave a videotaped deposition shortly before his death in which he accused Collins for the first time of sexually assaulting him two weeks before the attack. Prosecutors charged the now 28-year-old Collins with murder last year, but they needed to move the case from juvenile to adult court to take him to trial.
After a three-day hearing this week, state District Judge Kathleen Hamilton ruled Thursday that prosecutors could do just that.
But legal experts say securing a conviction will be difficult.
Houston criminal defense attorney Grant Scheiner, who is not involved in the case, noted prosecutors lack direct evidence against Collins. He also said that alleged confessions Collins made to others could come under heavy scrutiny at trial.
But the biggest hurdle for prosecutors will be linking Middleton's death in 2011 from cancer to the attack in 1998, he said.
"I think (prosecutors) are going to face an uphill battle here," Scheiner said.
Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York City, said he wonders if the judge's decision to transfer the case to adult court will ultimately hold up on appeal.
Collins' attorney, E. Tay Bond, had argued the case should not be transferred to adult court because in 1998, a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offense case to be transferred to adult court in Texas. The law was changed in 1999 to lower that age to 10.
But prosecutors argued the murder didn't take place until 2011, well after the law was changed.
Collins can't appeal Hamilton's ruling until after he goes through a trial.
Sabino said he thinks there are constitutional concerns about whether trying Collins as an adult is wrong.
"There is a long-standing legal precedent that laws are not applied retroactively," Sabino said.
"This (case) is fraught with peril for the prosecution," Sabino said.
Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright said he was pleased with the ruling but acknowledged the judge's decision was "step one in a lengthy process." The prosecution will now be turned over to the county district attorney's office, which will work to indict Collins. Lambright's office is responsible for matters involving juveniles.
Several witnesses testified at this week's hearing that Collins had confessed to them or others that he was responsible for the attack on Middleton. Part of Middleton's taped deposition also was shown. A detective did testify that 13 pieces of evidence in the case had been mistakenly destroyed.
Bond, Collins' attorney, questioned the reliability of Middleton's statements, as well as secondhand statements made by other witnesses.
"There is no physical evidence that links Don Collins to this case," Bond said. "There are no eyewitnesses."
Collins, who is being held on a $1 million bond, will remain jailed. He also faces a charge in neighboring San Jacinto County of failing to register as a sex offender.
Colleen Middleton, Robert Middleton's mother, said she is happy her son will finally get his day in court.
"''When Robert died we were thinking maybe nothing will ever happen, maybe someone is just going to get away with what they did to him," she said. "It's been a long road."
BEIRUT (AP) — Once a vibrant, religiously mixed community, Syria's eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former self, terrorized by hard-line militants who have turned it into the nucleus of their vision for the Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq.
In rare interviews with The Associated Press, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails. Music has been banned, Christians have to pay an Islamic tax for protection, people are executed in the main square and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding foreigners in Afghan-style outfits patrol the streets enforcing Shariah restrictions.
Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates River, is now the only city in Syria fully under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group that is considered the most ferocious of the militant factions that have latched onto the revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule. Black Islamic banners flutter on street corners and atop buildings — including churches — as the extremists put their strict Islamic stamp on the city.
"They have taken us back to medieval times," said one resident. He and three other residents — all in the city except one who recently fled to Turkey — spoke to the AP by Skype on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by militants.
It was exactly a year ago that an alliance of Islamic brigades and other rebel groups swept into the city, cheering as they brought down the bronze statue of the late President Hafez Assad. Others tore down a huge portrait of his son Bashar, the current president, hitting it with shoes in euphoric scenes captured by activists and posted online.
Raqqa, a city of 500,000, became the first and only provincial capital to fall into rebel hands, drawing comparisons to Benghazi, the first major city in Libya to revolt against Moammar Gadhafi and become a rebel stronghold. The city had been considered a bastion of support for Assad, with its tribal leaders firmly in his camp. Residents were wary about the takeover, some happy to be free of Assad's control, but many worried about how rebels would rule.
Now residents and anti-government activists say Raqqa has come to symbolize everything that has gone wrong with the revolution meant to achieve freedom and democracy after 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known by its acronym ISIL, was formed last spring by the head of al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to expand his operations into neighboring Syria. His barging into the Syria conflict sparked bloody clashes with other rebel factions and prompted al-Qaida's central command to kick him out of the terror network.
Flush with cash, weapons and experience, the group has capitalized on the weaknesses and divisions of the Western-backed opposition, and the world's failure to take decisive action to help the rebels.
In early January, ISIL fighters expelled rival rebel factions from Raqqa, including militants from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Their numbers swelled as ISIL fighters and loyalists pulled out of some areas it controlled further west in Syria and moved to Raqqa in the face of assaults and threats from rival rebels.
Now around 5,000 ISIL loyalists are in the city, almost all foreigners, including Iraqis who seized most of the key administrative positions, Tunisians, Gulf Arabs and Chechens, residents said.
"Raqqa is the nucleus for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's nascent Islamic state," said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Their laws govern virtually every aspect of public and private life."
Al-Baghdadi, he said, has "delusions of grandeur and believes that he is the rightful new Caliph."
Residents say the situation has become suffocating.
"People are scared of the Islamic State the way they used to be scared of intelligence agencies," said one resident. "You walk in the streets of Raqqa and feel that you are in Chechnya."
Once the call for prayers starts, shop owners are forced to close down to head to the mosque. Some unfurl prayer mats in front of their shops to save time.
Veiled female Islamic State loyalists bully women in the street who don't cover themselves in the all-encompassing niqab, the black robes and veil that leave only the eyes exposed, said another resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Ibrahim. Women in niqab are accosted if they don't wear gloves to hide their hands. Abu Ibrahim said he saw an elderly woman shoved by ISIL women when she lifted her veil off her face to catch her breath.
Cafes once packed with smokers puffing on cigarettes and water pipes have been closed down. Music has been banned. Alcohol bottles are smashed and cigarettes are confiscated and burned. Street posters lecture against smoking and urge women to cover up.
The city's main square, Clock Square, has been turned into an execution ground. The militants beheaded a man there in late January, accusing him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. A number of people accused of being Assad spies have been shot to death. Last month, a man and a woman accused of adultery were publicly stoned — though not to death. The militants pelted them with stones, but let them live as warning to others and imprisoned them, several of the residents said.
A report this week by the U.N.'s Commission of Inquiry on Syria cited war crimes committed by both government and opposition forces, particularly the Islamic State.
It cited several incidents that occurred in Raqqa last year. In June, a woman was tortured and threatened with rape for "disrespecting" the Shariah Council, the body set up to impose Islamic law. In October, a 26-year-old man was detained, beaten and hung up by his arms on the grounds of his sexual orientation. A school headmistress was publicly lashed for not wearing a headscarf.
In October, ISIL fighters knocked the cross off the Church of Saidat al-Bishara, replacing it with the group's black banner, and established an Islamic outreach center in the building.
More recently, the group imposed an Islamic tax on Christians in Raqqa. The Islamic State said in a statement that the Christians opted for paying the tax when they were told to choose one of three options: convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay the tax or "refuse and be considered warriors who will be confronted with the sword of the Islamic State."
The residents said most Christians, who made up about 10 percent of Raqqa's population, have long fled. One resident said around 20 families remain.
Abu Ali, a secular anti-government activist from the central city of Palmyra, moved to Raqqa and bought an apartment last year after it was "liberated," thinking he would be safer there. He recently fled to Turkey after Islamic State militants ransacked his apartment, confiscated his laptop, telephone and a pistol he carried for his own protection.
"I had to leave. Was I to wait until they kill me?"
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.
BOBTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Critics are raging after an energy giant offered pizza coupons to a community near a natural gas well that exploded last month, killing a worker.
News stories, TV shows and blogs — many sarcastic or outright scornful — spread the word far and wide. "Shame on you," one person wrote about the offer by Chevron Corp. "How insulting!" said another. Comedy Central's satirical "The Colbert Report" skewered it.
But the 750 or so residents of the hamlet of Bobtown? Not one has signed an online petition demanding an apology for the pizza offer. In fact, during a recent visit, The Associated Press found the talk of the town is more the furious response by outsiders.
"We feel it was something outside groups generated," said Pete Novak, a co-director of the Polish American Club, a local gathering spot. None of the patrons has voiced outrage, he said, and residents laughed about how people who have never set foot in Bobtown claim to speak for its citizens.
Several people noted that Chevron's pizza offer was made to apologize for traffic after the fire, not to downplay the loss of life.
"I thought it was pretty decent of them," said Ray Elli, 54, who noted that the fire was about a mile outside town, on a ridge, and that people in town didn't feel threatened.
Bill Sowden, co-owner of Bobtown Pizza, the area's only restaurant, says 12 people have redeemed the coupons distributed by Chevron. The whole issue, he said, was blown out of proportion.
"We're just a food place," he said.
The outsized reaction from people not directly affected by the accident illustrates the larger passions surrounding the fracking debate. Many critics seek stricter regulations or bans to protect air and water from pollution, while supporters speak of the economic benefits for an energy-hungry nation. Each side claims the high moral ground.
About 12,000 people have signed an online petition demanding Chevron apologize, according to petition organizer Karen Feridun.
"There are a few from nearby communities, but none right from Bobtown," Feridun wrote in emails this week to the AP. She lives about 250 miles away, at the other end of Pennsylvania. The petition isn't even on public display in Bobtown, about 2 miles from the West Virginia border.
One petition signer from New York City mentioned "Chevron's cavalier arrogance." Other signers came from Alaska, Florida and many other states, as well as Australia, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Germany and Italy.
Chevron hasn't responded to the petition, Feridun said.
Company spokesman Kent Robertson said in an email that Chevron works to be a good partner in communities, that it has been "overwhelmed by the support" from residents and that it appreciates their understanding.
For more than a century, the region around Bobtown has been coal country, and there's still an active mine nearby. But in the past five years, natural gas locked in shale deep underground became newly accessible because of the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
On Feb. 11, a Chevron well outside of town exploded, killing Ian McKee, 27, who lived about a half-hour away in Morgantown, W.Va., and worked for a contractor. Five days later, as emergency vehicles clogged some narrow roads around Bobtown, Chevron representatives visited about 100 people, seeking concerns or questions and leaving a gift certificate for a large pizza and 2-liter drink at Bobtown Pizza, which had just opened.
Elli, who was born in Bobtown, said he feels for the worker who died and his family, but that the well fire didn't threaten other residents. And while there are differing opinions about the drilling boom in the community, he doesn't see a problem with it.
"We need gas. Better than getting it from other countries," he said. His current priority is not getting an apology from Chevron, he said, but getting ready for the spring wild turkey season.
He noted that many locals have made money off the drilling boom, both from royalties — which can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for landowners — and jobs.
Overall, Pennsylvanians support the drilling boom, said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. A January poll by the school found that 64 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly favor the gas drilling industry, compared with 27 percent who somewhat or strongly oppose it. In some conservative rural areas with active drilling, the support is even higher.
"I think it's pretty fascinating that folks in the community" aren't openly upset with Chevron, Madonna said, agreeing that such kerfuffles are surrogates in the political fight over American energy production.
Novak had some advice for all the people who think they know how Bobtown residents feel: "Come to this small rural area and see for themselves."
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Search and rescue crews across Southeast Asia scrambled on Saturday to find a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that disappeared from air traffic control screens over waters between Malaysia and Vietnam early that morning, leaving the fates of the 239 people aboard in doubt.