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With Julius Jones' execution date looming, family refuses to give up hope

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(OKLAHOMA) -- Julius Jones, who has spent the past 20 years on death row, has never been closer to freedom, despite the fact that last week, his execution date was set for Nov. 18.

The Oklahoma Parole Board voted 3-1 to commute Jones' sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, and now, the final decision on his fate remains in the hands of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Jones' mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, told "Nightline" the news is "magical."

"I'm still in shock, because it's not over, you know? We still have so much ground [to] cover," Jones' sister, Antoinette Jones, said. "I don't know. I can't explain it, but it was a good feeling."

Antoinette Jones said her brother was calm when he heard the parole board's recommendation, as he knows work still has to be done to secure his freedom.

"He said, 'I'm good. I'll be even better when I get out and I can hug y'all and we can start helping change the world,'" Antoinette Jones said. "It was a relief. I could breathe a little bit easier."

Jones' sister remains hopeful that he will be freed, and said she can picture justice for her brother.

"Julius being able to feel the sun on his skin, the natural sun on his skin. It looks like him having no chains [on] when he gets to go outside," she said. "It looks like freedom."

Julius Jones was 19 years old when he was arrested for the 1999 murder of Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell, and sentenced to death in 2002. What followed were decades of public scrutiny and relentless work from his legal team.

"We think Julius was wrongfully convicted and that Oklahoma is at risk of executing an innocent man," Jones' attorney, Amanda Bass, said.

Now 41 years old, Jones has spent most of his life behind bars. Even after so many years, his sister and mother have yet to give up hope.

Before he was in prison, friends and teachers knew Jones as a champion high school basketball player who attended the University of Oklahoma on an academic scholarship.

That all changed in 1999 when Howell, 45, was shot in his family's driveway after a car-jacking in the wealthy suburb of Edmond, Oklahoma.

Howell's GMC Suburban went missing and his sister, Megan Tobey, was the only eye-witness.

"Megan Tobey described the shooter as a young black man wearing a red bandana, a white shirt, and a stocking cap or skullcap. She was not able to identify the shooter's face because it was covered," Bass told ABC News in 2018.

Two days after Howell was killed, police found his Suburban parked in a grocery store parking lot. They learned later that a man named Ladell King had been offering to sell the car.

King named Chris Jordan and Julius Jones to investigators and said the two men had asked him to help them sell the stolen Suburban.

"Ladell was interviewed by the lead detectives in this case. He told the police that on the night of the crime, a guy named Chris Jordan comes to his apartment. A few minutes later, according to Ladell King, Julius Jones drives up," attorney Dale Baich told ABC News in 2018.

King accused Jordan of being the driver and claimed that he and Jones were looking for Suburbans to steal, but it was Jones who shot Howell.

"Both Ladell King and Christopher Jordan were directing police's attention to the home of Julius Jones' parents as a place that would have incriminating items of evidence," Bass said.

Investigators found a gun wrapped in a red bandana in the crawl space of Jones' family home. The next day, Jones was arrested for capital murder.

Jones' attorneys say the evidence police found could have been planned by Jordan. They say Jordan had stayed at Jones' house the night after the murder, but Jordan denied those claims during the trial.

In the years since, Jones' defense team has argued that racial bias and missteps from his then public-defense team played a role.

Jones' team has submitted files to the parole board that they said proved his innocence, including affidavits and taped video interviews with inmates who had served time in prison with Jordan. They said they allegedly heard Jordan confess to Howell's murder.

In a statement to ABC News, Jordan's attorney, Billy Bock, said that "Chris Jordan maintains his position that his role in the death of Paul Howell was as an accomplice to Julius Jones. Mr. Jordan testified truthfully in the jury trial of Mr. Jones and denies 'confessing' to anyone."

Jordan served 15 years in prison before he was released.

In 2020, Jones' story was thrown back into the spotlight when unlikely legal ally Kim Kardashian drew public attention to his case. Kardashian, who is studying to take California's bar exam, has been vocal on the issue of the death penalty and prison reform and has campaigned to free a number of men and women who were incarcerated.

"Kim Kardashian, I felt like maybe one of my sorority sisters … she was down to earth," Davis-Jones said.

Antoinette Jones said Kardashian put in the effort to help her brother.

"She sat down and she broke down my brother's case. That means that she actually did the work," Jones said. "She did the work to go back and check certain things, to point out certain things."

"The fact that she told me that she was able to go see my brother, it was almost like she took a piece of him and brought it to us and then we could feel like he was there with us," Jones added.

But despite all the efforts, Julius Jones' execution date is still in place.

His family said they have to just wait to see if Stitt will agree with the parole board's recommendation and commute Jones' November death sentence. Three members of the Pardon and Parole board were appointed by the governor, a fact that gives Davis-Jones some hope.

"I'd like for [Stitt] to do the right thing, because the truth will set you free," Davis-Jones said. "But most of all, being in leadership, I know sometimes it's hard … to make decisions, [but] you have to try to make the right decisions."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Gabby Petito case shines spotlight on other missing person cases

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(NEW YORK) -- The national spotlight on Gabby Petito's disappearance has given families of other missing persons hope that they too can amplify their stories and find loves ones.

Petito made headlines after she went missing on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend earlier this month. A body found over the weekend near Grand Teton National Park was confirmed to be hers on Tuesday. The coroner said she died by homicide, but the cause of death is pending final autopsy results.

Petito is just one of thousands reported missing each year -- the FBI had over 89,000 active missing persons at the end of 2020.

Her case also highlighted racial disparities in coverage of such cases as 45% of missing persons last year were people of color, according to the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

The Petito case also has become a point of heartbreak for other families, including the sister of Maya Millete, a California mother missing since January.

"I know the circumstances of Gabby's case are different but it just brought back a lot of pain," Maricris Droualillet told ABC San Diego affiliate KGTV.

Michael Alcazar, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department detective, told ABC News the Petito case became a national frenzy because she seemed familiar to them.

"I think people see her as someone in their family, perhaps their child or they might see themselves as Gabby, a girlfriend or daughter," Alcazar said. "I think it's like a 'damsel in distress' syndrome. That's just the culture in America -- we want to protect the females."

Her case, Alcazar added, showed the "value of social media posts and how it propelled this case nationally," and how other people may jump on the trend to "put pressure on law enforcement to utilize their manpower to solve these cases that have been going on for months."

The pressure could prompt police to reprioritize cases or recruit more help, as in Petito's case, which got FBI assistance.

He pointed to the cracking of the case of a 4-year-old girl who was murdered in 1991. Dubbed Baby Hope for 22 years, she finally was identified as Anjelica Castillo. The case went cold but was reopened in 2013, finally solved through a tip.

"On his 20th anniversary, our Chief Joseph Reznick put up more posters regarding the Baby Hope case," Alcazar explained. "I think we might have posted it in our Crime Stoppers kit. That's how we finally were able to identify Baby Hope -- somebody 20 years later called in a tip. That was through social media."

Here's a snapshot of families pushing forward with their own missing cases, hoping to find a break:

Jelani Day

In Illinois, a search was launched for Jelani Day, a 25-year-old graduate student at Illinois State University last seen on Aug. 24, according to the Bloomington Police Department. A body found near the Illinois River was identified as Day on Thursday after this story was initially published, Bloomington Police announced.

"Currently the cause of death is unknown, pending further investigation, and toxicology testing," the police said in a statement.

He was reported missing Aug. 25 by his family and an ISU faculty member. He had not shown up to class the past several days before he disappeared, police said in a statement.

A missing persons post seeks Julian Day, a Illinois State University grad student.

Day was captured on surveillance footage entering a retail store called "Beyond/Hello" in Bloomington around 9 a.m. on Aug. 24, wearing a blue Detroit Lions baseball hat, a black T-shirt with a Jimi Hendrix graphic, white and silver shorts, and black shoes with white soles.

Police found his vehicle, a white 2010 Chrysler 300, two days later in a wooded area concealed by trees. Inside, cops found the clothing he was seen wearing in the video footage but no other sign of him.

Bloomington Police said in a Sept. 5 statement that a search team found an unidentified body off the south bank of the Illinois River. The LaSalle County Coroner's Office initially said the identification process could take a few weeks.

Day's heartbroken mother, Carmen Bolden Day, pleaded for him to be found.

"I shouldn't have to beg, I shouldn't have to plead, I shouldn't have to feel that there is a racial disparity ... I want these people that have their resources to realize this could happen to them," she said on "Good Morning America."

Anyone with information about Jelani Day is asked to contact BPD Detective Paul Jones at 309-434-2548 or at Pjones@cityblm.org

Daniel Robinson

A 24-year-old geologist, Daniel Robinson, went missing outside Buckeye, Arizona, three months ago. The Buckeye Police Department said in an update last week that the search is ongoing.

Robinson was last seen June 23 after leaving a job site near Sun Valley Parkway and Cactus Road, and he didn't tell anyone where he was going, police said.

His jeep was found turned over in a ravine on July 19, 4 miles from where he was last seen, officials said. The airbags in the car had deployed and initial evidence indicated Daniel was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. Officials found clothes, his cell phone, wallet and keys.

A missing persons post seeks Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist who disappeared near Buckeye, AZ on June 23.

Later in July, a human skull was found south of where the Jeep was recovered, but it was determined that it didn't belong to Daniel, police said. No other remains were found.

Investigators have used ATVs, cadaver dogs and a drone and a helicopter to search for Robinson. His family has organized their own searches in the scorching desert.

Robinson's father, David Robinson, traveled 2,000 miles from South Carolina to Arizona to help search for his son.

"I'm not leaving," he told ABC Phoenix affiliate KNX. "I'm not leaving until I find my son."

Anyone with information that can help solve this case is urged to call the Buckeye Police Department non-emergency number at 623-349-6400.

Lauren Cho

Lauren Cho, a 30-year-old from New Jersey also known as "El", was last seen leaving a residence around 5 p.m. on June 28 in Yucca Valley in California, police said in a statement. She hasn't been seen or heard from since then.

She had moved to California from New Jersey eight months earlier.


A missing persons poster seeks Lauren Cho who went missing June 28 in Yucca Valley, Calif.

On Tuesday, the Morongo Basic Sheriff's Station announced that investigators from the Specialized Investigations Division, experts in homicides and suspicious deaths, are assisting in the search effort, investigating leads and working with Cho's family and friends.

Detectives with the Morongo Basin Station have executed a search warrant in the 8600 block of Benmar Trail, where she was last seen reportedly walking away from the residence, and conducted aerial searches of a remote mountain terrain nearby.

Anyone with information regarding the search for Ms. Cho is urged to contact Detective Edward Hernandez or Sergeant Justin Giles, Specialized Investigations Division, at (909) 387-3589. You may remain anonymous by contacting the We-Tip hotline at 800-78-CRIME (27463) or www.wetip.com.

Maya Millete

Meanwhile in California, family members of Maya Millete, a married Chula Vista mother of three, are still searching for her after more than eight months after she was last seen.

Millete, 39, disappeared on Jan. 7 without a trace.

Droualillet, Millete's sister, said the attention of the Petito case has become a painful reminder of Maya's unknown whereabouts.

"I know Chula Vista police are working very hard, but the urgency we see in this case is heartbreaking," Droualillet told KGTV.

A missing persons poster seeks Maya Millete, a mother-of-three who disappeared from Chula Vista California in January.

The Chula Vista Police Department is working with the San Diego County District Attorney's office, the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

On July 22, Larry Millete, Maya's husband, was named a person of interest in the case.

The Chula Vista Police Department said its interviewed 79 individuals and written 64 search warrants for residences, vehicles, cell and electric devices, and social media data in the case in a statement published Sept. 9.

Anyone who may have any information regarding May's disappearance is asked to please contact San Diego County Crime Stoppers at 888-580-8477 or the CVPD at 619-691-5151.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Utah city will investigate police response to Gabby Petito, Brian Laundrie dispute

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(UTAH) -- The city of Moab, Utah, will launch an investigation into the Moab City Police Department’s handling of an incident involving Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12.

The city said in a statement that the department’s police officers “have been both praised and criticized for their response and their resolution of the incident involving Ms. Petito and Mr. Laundrie.”

Cops had responded to a call to Grand County Dispatch about a possible domestic dispute between Petito and Laundrie. Body camera footage of that incident was later shared showing Petito visibly distraught.

“At this time, the City of Moab is unaware of any breach of Police Department policy during this incident. However, the City will conduct a formal investigation and, based on the results, will take any next steps that may be appropriate," the city said in a statement to ABC News.

Moab City Police Chief Bret Edge said, “The police department will identify an unaffiliated law enforcement agency to conduct the formal investigation on our behalf."

Moab city officials said, "we recognize how the death of Ms. Petito more than two weeks later in Wyoming might lead to speculation, in hindsight, about actions taken during the incident in Moab."

The city said that the police department "has clear standards for officer conduct during a possible domestic dispute and our officers are trained to follow those standards and protocol."

An outside party filed a request with the police department asking for a formal investigation into the Aug. 12 incident, Edge said in a statement.

Edge said the department welcomes the investigation and if the probe identifies areas for improvement, "we will take that information to heart, learn from it, and make changes if needed to ensure we are providing the best response and service to our community."

Body camera images from the Aug. 12 incident show Petito and Laundrie talking to an officer after her 2012 Ford Transit was pulled over by Moab police. In one image, she appears to be crying while sitting in the back of a police vehicle.

The couple told police they were arguing and that Petito had slapped Laundrie, according to the police report. The couple also stated to police that Laundrie did not hit Petito.

In a statement earlier this week, Moab police said that “insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges" in that incident.

Petito told police she suffers from severe anxiety and other medical conditions, which were redacted from the police report, and that the couple's argument had been building for days. Police labeled the incident as a "mental/emotional break" rather than a domestic assault, according to the police report.

The incident took place about two weeks before she last spoke with her family.

Petito, 22, disappeared during a cross-country trip with Laundrie and was reported missing by her parents on Sept. 11 after they hadn’t heard from her in two weeks.

Authorities confirmed Tuesday that a body discovered Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming belonged to Petito.

Now a search is underway for Laundrie, 23, around North Port, Florida. Investigators said he returned to his home on Sept. 1 without Petito but had her 2012 Ford Transit.

He has been named as a “person of interest” in the case. He hasn’t been seen since Tuesday, Sept. 14, police said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


1 dead, 13 hurt in shooting at Kroger grocery store near Memphis: Police

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(TENNESSEE) -- One person was killed and 13 others were hurt in a shooting at a Kroger grocery store in Collierville, Tennessee, near Memphis, authorities said.

The suspected shooter is dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.

Police said there were "very serious" injuries among those taken to the hospital. Twelve people were transported for injuries, while at least one person walked into the hospital.

Some hid in freezers and locked offices when the gunfire broke out at about 1:30 p.m. local time, police said.

A cashier told Memphis ABC affiliate WATN that she ran into a back room with customers. The cashier said the gunman came in shooting, striking an employee in the head, a customer in the stomach and an employee in the cheek. She said the gunman then left and continued to open fire.

The suspected shooter's car remains in the store parking lot, police said. Resources are being brought in to safely inspect the vehicle.

Collierville is about 30 miles from Memphis.

Memphis police said its officers are helping secure the scene. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also on the scene.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


COVID-19 live updates: Hospitalizations reach another all-time high in Iowa for 2021

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(NEW YORK) -- The United States has been facing a COVID-19 surge as the more contagious delta variant continues to spread.

More than 681,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 while over 4.7 million people have died from the disease worldwide, according to real-time data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The average number of daily deaths in the U.S. has risen about 20% in the last week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. is continuing to sink on the list of global vaccination rates, currently ranking No. 45, according to data compiled by The Financial Times. Just 64% of Americans ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the CDC.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Sep 23, 5:29 pm

CDC panel votes to recommend boosters for 65-plus and people with medical conditions

CDC's independent advisory panel unanimously voted to recommend Pfizer boosters for people 65 and older as well as long-term care facility residents at least six months after their second dose.

The panel also voted to allow people as young as 18 to get the booster if they have an underlying medical condition, though people younger than 49 should only get that third dose if the benefits outweigh the risks, the panel said.

The panel voted "no" for a booster for those in an occupational or institutional setting where "the burden of COVID-19 infection and risk of transmission are high."

Sep 23, 3:21 pm

More than 26 million Americans potentially eligible for booster next week

Pending the CDC panel's recommendations and the CDC director's sign-off, more than 26 million Americans could soon be eligible for a third Pfizer dose. This includes 13.6 million adults 65 and older and 12.8 million adults ages 18 to 64 who completed their primary series at least six months ago. Of those 18 to 64, anyone who is considered “high risk” could be eligible for an additional dose.

To date, more than 220 million Pfizer doses have been administered in the U.S.

Sep 23, 12:40 pm

CDC advisory panel expected to vote on Pfizer booster within hours

The CDC’s independent advisory panel is set to vote around 3 p.m. ET on which Americans are eligible now for a Pfizer booster.

After the vote, CDC director Rochelle Walensky is expected to weigh in with her official endorsement. The CDC is not bound by the panel's recommendations but usually follows it. State officials may also implement their own criteria.

The FDA granted authorization Wednesday to the following groups: Anyone 65 or older as well as people as young as 18 if they have a medical condition that puts them at risk of severe COVID-19 or if they work a frontline job that makes it more likely that they would get infected. After authorization Wednesday night, the FDA's acting commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said some of the groups that could be classified as front-line workers are health care employees, teachers and grocery store staffers, as well as people in prisons and homeless shelters.

Sep 23, 10:49 am

West Virginia, Montana case rates doubled in last month as Alaska sees record highs

Alaska currently has the country's highest case rate, followed by West Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, Montana and South Carolina, according to federal data.

West Virginia and Montana have seen their case rates double over the last month. In Alaska, case metrics are at record highs, according to federal data.

Hospital admissions are down by about 12.5% in the last week, with improvements in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, according to federal data.

Seven states, however, have less than 10% ICU availability: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas.

Even highly vaccinated states are experiencing shortages. One central Massachusetts health system, UMass Memorial Health, is running low on critical care beds following the admission of an influx of COVID-19 patients in recent weeks.

Sep 23, 8:21 am
Team USA to require COVID-19 vaccination at future Olympic and Paralympic Games

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said it will require every member of its delegation to be vaccinated against COVID-19, starting this year.

According to a new policy posted on Team USA's website, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate will take effect on Nov. 1 for "all employees, athletes, contractors and others," unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption prior to accessing U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee facilities.

On Dec. 1, that mandate will "extend to all Team USA delegation members or hopefuls for future Games." Individuals on the long list for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing must submit proof of full COVID-19 vaccination by this date or have received an exemption in order to participate in the upcoming Games, according to the policy, which was dated Sept. 21.

"The health and well-being of our Olympic and Paralympic community continues to be a top priority," Team USA says on a webpage detailing the new requirement. "This step will increase our ability to create a safe and productive environment for Team USA athletes and staff, and allow us to restore consistency in planning, preparation and optimal service to athletes."

Sep 23, 6:38 am
COVID-19 hospitalizations reach another all-time high in Iowa for 2021

More people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Iowa than at any other point
this year so far, according to weekly data released by the Iowa Department of Public Health on Wednesday.

The data shows that there are now 638 people hospitalized with the disease statewide, up from 578 last week. Although the figure is nowhere near Iowa's peak of more than 1,500 in mid-November last year, it's the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations that the Hawkeye State has recorded since December.

Sep 22, 7:48 pm
FDA authorizes Pfizer booster dose for those who are 65 and up, high-risk

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a third booster dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for people who are 65 and older or at high risk of severe COVID-19, the agency announced Wednesday.

The dose is authorized to be administered at least six months after the second shot. High-risk recipients must be at least 18 years old.

The announcement comes days after a similar recommendation from FDA advisers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory board is scheduled to vote on booster recommendations Thursday.

Sep 22, 6:04 pm
Florida letting parents choose whether to quarantine asymptomatic, close-contact children

The Florida Department of Health issued an emergency rule Wednesday that lets parents choose whether to quarantine their children if they are deemed a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

In such cases, parents can let their children "attend school, school-sponsored activities, or be on school property, without restrictions or disparate treatment, so long as the student remains asymptomatic," the emergency rule stated.

The move is the state's latest to empower parents when it comes to coronavirus measures in schools. In July, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order giving parents the choice of whether to send their kids to school with masks, setting off an intense back-and-forth between the state and districts that mandated masks in the weeks since.

DeSantis touted the new "symptoms-based approach" during a press briefing Wednesday.

"Quarantining healthy students is incredibly damaging to their educational advancement," he said. "It's also incredibly disruptive for families all throughout the state of Florida."

At least one superintendent in Florida has spoken out against the new quarantine rule.

"I find it ironic that the new state rule begins with the phrase 'Because of an increase in COVID-19 infections, largely due to the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant,'" Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, said in a statement posted to Twitter Wednesday.

"In fact, this rule is likely to promote the spread of COVID-19 by preventing schools from implementing the common-sense masking and quarantine policies recommended by the vast majority of health care professionals, including those here in Alachua County," she added.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


America Strong: Immigrant-founded nonprofit provides laptops, tech to students in need

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(NEW YORK) -- It's not easy to do schoolwork on an old laptop with a poor internet connection.

Just ask Sabina Rodriguez, who went through her junior and senior year in online learning classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her parents were both unemployed and couldn't afford new devices.

"I was literally on the world's oldest computer," Rodriguez said. Her mother is Colombian immigrant who previously worked as a house cleaner. Her father grew up in a low-income household, and chauffeured for a living.

"As a minority, especially in a financial situation, school was like our only way to success," she said. "Our parents came here so we could go to school."

That's when she discovered First Tech Fund, a new nonprofit dedicated to "closing the digital divide" among underserved high school students in New York City.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the burgeoning digital divide among students of different economic backgrounds. About 25% of all school-aged children across the U.S. live without the sufficient technology or access to Wi-Fi at home, according to the National Education Association.

It's a situation First Tech Fund co-founder Josue De Paz knew well, and when the pandemic forced kids out of school and back into their homes, it was a need he was determined to help solve.

The organization offers high school students a year-long fellowship in which they are supplied with a laptop and a Wi-Fi hotspot, with unlimited internet access. They're also paired with a mentor and are given weekly virtual workshops on digital skills, career growth and other professional development opportunities.

"I can never repay them for the situation I'm in right now," Rodriguez said. She said she's spent hours on Zoom calls with mentors and professionals who've helped edit her resume, college essays and more.

In New York City, 14% of students didn't have a computer or computing device, and 13% didn't have adequate internet access, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State Education Department.

The NYSE report showed how students in Black and Latino school districts suffered disproportionately during the pandemic: Compared with students in largely white districts, they were about four times as likely to lack internet access and three times as likely to lack a device that allowed them to complete schoolwork.

De Paz said some students were doing homework from phones or sharing devices with siblings, making it much harder to complete assignments, let alone excel among peers. First Tech Fund targets these marginalized communities.

Rodriguez said students felt more encouraged and supported throughout the school year, especially those on their way to college. One of 52 students chosen from 743 applicants in the first cohort of fellowship winners, Rodriguez is now a freshman at Fordham University, pursuing a career in psychology and medicine.

Some 23 of the 24 college-eligible students in that 2020-2021 cohort are now enrolled at a two- or four-year institution.

In this upcoming school year, outreach was expanded to 86 students out of about 200 applicants. De Paz credited donors, partner organizations and elected officials for helping him help so many.

"There's more power in the community than we often give ourselves credit for," De Paz said. "We should be leveraging it -- now more than ever -- when people need that support."

De Paz, a DACA recipient, moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 5 years old. He thanks his mother for working long hours at several jobs to provide him with a personal laptop and dial-up internet.

"I saw my mom work two to three jobs in order for me to get that access, and then I really saw how that impacted my entire educational career," De Paz said. "Even before I had a bed, my mom was like, 'You're going to have a desk, and you're gonna have a computer,' so I was sleeping on the floor, but I still had what I needed for school."

De Paz is paying forward that gratitude to help students like Rodriguez.

"I've always struggled financially, growing up," she said, "so the fact that Josue, another Hispanic who grew up in the same situation, that he actually has the courage to like be like, 'I'm going to help, I'm going to give back' ... it really comes from, like, his heart."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Convicted killers in millionaire's love triangle murder case maintain innocence

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(CA) -- Nanette Packard, who was convicted of directing her ex-NFL lover to kill her millionaire fiance, told ABC News in an exclusive interview that she still carries “a lot of guilt over what happened.”

“Had I not been having an affair ... Bill would be alive still,” Packard said. “I feel that way.”

She and former NFL linebacker Eric Naposki have spent nearly a decade behind bars as convicted killers serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murder of Bill McLaughlin. Both deny having any involvement in his death.

“I don't know for sure [who killed McLaughlin],” Packard said. “I never said that Eric did it because I couldn't say that Eric did it for sure. I don't know that. He never said that to me.”

Packard met Naposki in the early ‘90s at a gym. Naposki, who had once played for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, had left professional sports by then, and was living in California, where he worked as a security guard for a nightclub and worked as a bodyguard on the side.

The two eventually started seeing each other romantically even though Packard, who was then a mother of two in her 20s, was already in a relationship with McLaughlin. He was an entrepreneur 30 years her senior who had made millions off of a medical device invention.

Packard was living with McLaughlin in Newport Beach, California, in a luxurious home located in a wealthy, gated community. However, she told Naposki that she and McLaughlin were just business partners.

“Eric knew about Bill and Bill knew that Eric was my friend. [Bill] didn't know we were having an affair,” Packard said.

She said she met McLaughlin, a father of three, through a personal ad he had posted in the Pennysaver.

“Maybe it wasn't the most intense [relationship] romantically but I did love him,” Packard said of McLaughlin. “He was a good man and he was good to my children, and I would never have killed him and probably would still be with him today if he were alive, because I had no reason.”

McLaughlin was 55 years old when he was shot six times in the chest by an intruder while he sat at his kitchen table on Dec. 15, 1994.

Authorities did not make any arrests in connection to his death until 15 years later, when investigators re-examined the case.

Packard and Naposki were arrested separately during a bicoastal sting operation in May 2009 on murder charges.

By the time of their arrests, Packard and Naposki had gone their separate ways. Packard had gone on to marry twice more and was still living in California. Naposki, meanwhile, had briefly gone back to playing professional American football overseas before returning to the U.S., where he had a fiancée and was living in Connecticut.

The prosecutor alleged Packard was the suspected mastermind behind McLaughlin’s death and that she convinced Naposki to kill him so they could collect a substantial sum of money.

Prosecutors argued that Packard stood to benefit from McLaughlin’s million-dollar life insurance policy, $150,000 from his will and access to his beach house.

There was reason to suspect Packard. In 1996, she had pleaded guilty to forgery and grand theft after she was accused of forging McLaughlin’s name on checks and stealing from his accounts. She served 180 days behind bars.

Packard denied the murder charges against her, saying she needed McLaughlin to continue her lifestyle.

“I only gained money if Bill was alive,” she said.

According to prosecutors, Naposki’s story evolved during questioning. He initially lied about owning a .9 mm handgun, which was the same kind of weapon used to kill McLaughlin.

“The single most important piece of evidence that we had against Eric Naposki was … the way he lied to the police,” said ABC News consultant and former Orange County prosecutor Matt Murphy, who tried the case.

When asked why he lied to police, Naposki told ABC News, “I just didn't want to talk about it because, if I wasn't at the scene, and I wasn't in Newport, then I couldn't have killed the guy even if I had a bazooka.”

Naposki went to trial first and was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2011. Afterward, he met with prosecutors and told them Packard had orchestrated a murder-for-hire plot against McLaughlin, and the killer had used his gun.

“[Naposki said] he was there, in the room, when they talked about [the plot],’” said author Caitlin Rother, who wrote a book about the case titled, “I’ll Take Care of You.” “But then he says, ‘But apparently, [the killer] went behind my back and made arrangements with Nanette. So the two of them planned this. It wasn't me.’”

“The way he describes it, he is a co-conspirator in a murder case,” Murphy added. “Even if it was true, the way he describes that, he is still 100% guilty for exactly what he was convicted of.”

Packard was found guilty in January 2012 of first-degree murder and guilty of the special circumstance of committing murder for financial gain.

Naposki is serving time at Avenal State Prison in Avenal, California. He said he hasn’t spoken to Packard since everything “went down.”

“I didn't kill anybody. I'm not a killer,” he said.

Packard is serving her sentence at the Central California Women’s Facility, training service dogs through a program called Little Angels.

“These dogs, they just bring so much healing,” she said. “It also helps to make a difference for me, for me to be able to live with the fact that I'm away from my kids.”

McLaughlin’s children, who at one point thought their father’s murder would never be solved, have tried to move forward. They believe justice was served.

“[Packard and Naposki’s lives] have been taken away from them ... and hopefully they're thinking about what they did,” Kim McLaughlin told ABC News. “What I miss most about my father is just having him as a friend … and I know he'd be very proud of us and the choices we're making. And so, it's hard not to have him be able to share that here on earth with him… We miss him dearly.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Harry, Meghan visit One World Observatory in New York City

kanzilyou/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- Prince Harry and Meghan kicked off their visit to New York City Thursday by visiting the city's highest point.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex made an early morning visit to One World Observatory inside the One World Trade Center, the tallest building not only in New York City but also in the United States.

The Sussexes were joined at the observatory, the focal point of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex, by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, along with his wife, Chirlane McCray, and their son, Dante.

Harry and Meghan's trip to New York City is their first joint public trip since they moved to California last year.

It is also the first live public appearance Meghan has made since giving birth to their second child, daughter Lilibet, in June.

On Saturday, Harry and Meghan are scheduled to take part in Global Citizen Live, an annual concert event held on the Great Lawn in Central Park.

The Sussexes will appear at the concert to promote vaccine equity around the world in the fight against COVID-19.

Harry and Meghan were co-chairs in May of "Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World," an international COVID-19 vaccination effort organized by Global Citizen.

Earlier this month, Prince Harry gave an impassioned speech at the GQ Men of the Year Awards, pleading with governments and pharmaceutical companies to do more to vaccinate the world.

“Until every community can access the vaccine, and until every community is connected to trustworthy information about the vaccine, then we are all at risk,” he said, while adding about misinformation campaigns that are adding to vaccine hesitancy, "This is a system we need to break if we are to overcome COVID-19 and the rise of new variants."

The Sussexes were recently featured on Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World list, in which they were applauded for starting "essential conversations on topics from mental health to misinformation."

The TIME cover portrait featuring the Duke and Duchess of Sussex marked the first time the couple has formally posed together for a magazine cover shoot.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Brian Laundrie search presses on as death of Gabby Petito ruled homicide: Live updates

Jtyler/iStock

(NORTH PORT, Fla.) -- A massive search is continuing in southern Florida for Brian Laundrie, the boyfriend of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing on a cross-country trip and who authorities confirmed Tuesday as the body discovered on Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The search for the 23-year-old Laundrie is centered around North Port, Florida, where investigators said Laundrie returned to his home on Sept. 1 without Petito but driving her 2012 Ford Transit.

Laundrie has been named by police as a "person of interest" in Petito's disappearance. Laundrie has refused to speak to the police and has not been seen since Tuesday, Sept. 14, according to law enforcement officials.

The search for Laundrie is the latest twist in the case that has grabbed national attention as he and Petito had been traveling across the country since June, documenting the trip on social media.

Petito's parents, who live in Long Island, New York, reported her missing on Sept. 11 after not hearing from her for two weeks.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Sep 23, 2:12 pm

4 swamp buggies, drone used in search for Laundrie

North Port police shared video of the arduous effort to search through the Carlton Reserve for Brian Laundrie Thursday. Four swamp buggies and a drone from the Florida Highway Patrol are being used to search the area full of thick foliage and swamps.

About 75 personnel from 16 different agencies are on the ground Thursday, officials said.

“We’re covering many, many acres so we need all the manpower and all the staff we can grab,” Commander Joe Fussell said. “This is a tremendous mass of land … About 75% of this area is underwater.”

Early Thursday, Laundrie’s parents picked up the silver Mustang that officials towed earlier this week for processing and brought it back to their driveway. The car was towed away on Monday as a part of a search warrant related to the Petito case, the FBI said at the time.

Sep 23, 9:59 am

Search for Laundrie continues at Carlton Reserve

North Port Police shared a short video of their morning briefing with various agencies and search teams at the start of their Thursday search for Brian Laundrie at Florida’s Carlton Reserve.

Relatives told police he claimed he was heading to the 25,000-acre preserve near North Port, Florida, when they last heard from him on Sept. 14.

Authorities have been scouring the area throughout the week.

Sep 23, 9:37 am
Reported witness describes seeing Petito ‘upset’, Laundrie ‘angry’ at Wyoming restaurant

Nina Angelo opened up to “Good Morning America” on Thursday about purportedly seeing Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie at the Merry Piglets restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Aug. 27, three days after her last known sighting.

The Blue Collar Restaurant Group told ABC News it believes Petito and Laundrie were at its Merry Piglet restaurant and have notified the FBI. However, its security cameras don’t go that far back so there is no footage of the duo allegedly inside the eatery.

Angelo described Laundrie in vivid detail as "aggressive" and "angry".

She said the couple was in an angry confrontation with restaurant staff.

“He was just very visibly angry. [Petito] was really upset, she was crying and he immediately went to the hostess stand and was just going in on the hostess and waitress, then eventually the manager,” Angelo said.

“I think she was being apologetic towards the restaurant staff for his behavior. She just kind of wanted to diffuse the situation. She was like, ‘I’m sorry, come on, let's just go.’ But she was visibly upset. She was crying,” Angelo said. “You could feel his temper. He was he was angry."

Authorities previously said the last time Petito was seen was Aug. 24.

Aug. 27, the day of the alleged restaurant sighting, was the same day Petito’s mom said she received a strange text from her daughter in which she referred to her grandfather as “Stan.” Petito’s mother said her daughter “never” referred to him as Stan.

Sep 22, 7:24 pm
Search for Brian Laundrie halted for the night

North Port, Florida, police announced Wednesday evening that they ended that day's search for Brian Laundrie with no updates on his whereabouts.

The department said it will resume its search Thursday morning.

Sep 22, 4:35 pm
Man captured on wildlife camera in the panhandle not Brian Laundrie

The Okaloosa County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday afternoon that a man whose image was captured on a wildlife camera in the Florida Panhandle this week is not Brian Laundrie.

The sheriff's office said deputies tracked down the individual, who is a local resident.

The owner of the wildlife camera told ABC News that the image was taken on a wooded trail in Baxter on Sept. 20 and that he alerted the sheriff's office because the man, who was walking with a backpack, resembled Laundrie. Baxter is about 500 miles northwest of where authorities have focused their search for Laundrie in the Carlton Reserve near North Port.

Several Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies who viewed the image recognized the individual from his neck tattoo, enabling authorities to locate and speak to him, the sheriff's office said.

The report of the trail camera image set off an extensive search of the area in Baxter on Tuesday, the sheriff's office said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hip-hop artist helps bring free grocery store to his former middle school

Jasmine Crowe

(COLLEGE PARK, Ga.) -- Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Gunna grew up outside of Atlanta as one of five sons raised by a single mom, who was a school cafeteria worker.

He spent his middle school years at Ronald E. McNair Middle School, a school of around 900 students in College Park, Georgia, that is designated as a Title 1, or high-poverty, middle school.

Last week Gunna, 28, returned to the middle school to open what he hopes will be a lasting legacy, a free grocery store inside the school.

"It’s everything I wanted," Gunna said as he surprised students and attended the store's grand opening. "I’m going to continue to keep giving back."

The store, named Gunna’s Drip Closet and Goodr Grocery Store, features not only food but also clothing, toiletries and household supplies, all available to the school's families for free.

It is the result of a partnership between Gunna and Goodr, an Atlanta-based start-up that works to eliminate hunger and food waste.

Goodr's founder, Jasmine Crowe, said Gunna approached the start-up with the desire to build something in his former middle school and the grocery store was born.

"Millions of kids depend on the free breakfast and lunch that they're provided at school, but then they go home and oftentimes they don't have access to the same thing as they're getting in school, until now," Crowe told Good Morning America. "I really want to give these kids a chance to be their full selves and to not have to worry about something as simple, that I think should be human right for everybody, as just being able to eat."

Crowe went viral last week when she shared a first look at the in-school grocery store, the first-of-its-kind from Goodr, which builds pop-up grocery stores in food deserts.

The store at McNair Middle School contains fresh produce and options for different diets, including vegan, as well as packaged foods, canned vegetables and frozen foods that kids can make on their own, which Crowe said was a priority.

"You have to meet kids where they are," she said. "We have children that are going to be preparing the food, so it had to be things that not only children and youth want, but also things that they could easily make."

"A lot of these kids are adults outside of the school. They are taking care of their younger brother and sisters. They're running households. Their parents can be working two jobs," Crowe added. "You have no idea the situations that a lot of these children are facing, and now we are helping them really take control of their lives."

Students, their families and teachers at McNair Middle School can all shop for free. The store is funded through this school year and next, according to Crowe, whose team at Goodr will keep the store restocked.

The variety of options now available for free will be a life-changing opportunity for students and their families, according to John T. Madden Jr., principal of McNair Middle School.

"I'm still on a high about it, and just can't wait for our families to really start taking advantage of the store," he said. "It's like you walk into Walmart, and you just have everything there for you."

All students at the middle school are eligible for free breakfast and lunch, according to Madden, who described the neighborhood surrounding the school as high-poverty and high-crime.

"At 12 or 13, they've seen a lot that we've seen never seen in our lifetimes, and they have adult roles when they're outside of school," said Madden. "That's a battle that we fight."

Madden described trying to reach students as like "peeling an onion," as students face issues of poverty, crime and hunger at home.

"We have to peel all those layers before we can get them to sit down and actually listen to instruction," he said. "I tell our teachers all the time, 'We have to do more than just teach our children.'

When Gunna visited his former middle school last week, he delivered a message to McNair students to "stay focused" on school.

"As a student, you have to stay focused. You’ve got to stay focused. Stay focused on the books. Stay focused in school," he said. "I’m from the same place you’re from. You can overcome everything around you, anything that you feel like is preventing you … reach out. We’re here for you."

Crowe -- who is publishing a children's book, Everybody Eats, in October with the proceeds doing to fight childhood hunger -- said her hope is that the free grocery store at McNair Middle School takes away one distraction from students so that they can keep their focus on school.

Her dream is to open free grocery stores in schools across the country. In the U.S., more than 30 million children participate in the free and reduced-lunch program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"There are a lot of people that work on minimum wage, they just can't make ends meet and are always having to make critical decisions [like], 'Am I going to pay for my power bill this month? Or am I going to pay for them to have access to food?'" said Crowe. "Those are the decisions that a lot of families make, and we've got to be able to help meet them."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


16-year-old boy killed, 2 kids hurt in shooting at school bus stop in Louisville: Police

FatCamera/iStock

(LOUISVILLE) -- No arrests have been made after a 16-year-old boy was killed and two other children were hurt in a shooting at a school bus stop in Louisville, Kentucky, according to local police.

The three children were waiting for a bus when they were shot in a drive-by at about 6:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, police said.

One of the injured kids, a 14-year-old boy, is in the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, police said. The other survivor, a 14-year-old girl, was treated for minor injuries at the scene, police said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identified the slain teen as 16-year-old Tyree Smith. Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said all three victims are students at Eastern High School.

 

The school bus arrived shortly after the "traumatic" slaying, Pollio said, and a bus stop for middle schoolers was close by.

Police initially said they were looking for a grey Jeep that was reportedly in the area at the time of the shooting. On Thursday, police said the vehicle was recovered and asked anyone with information to call the authorities.

 

This marked Louisville's 145th homicide of the year, officials said.

Louisville Metropolitan Police Chief Erika Shields called it a "heinous crime."

Shields said the city is tackling gun violence and "getting violent felons off the street daily." However, she added, "the availability of illegal guns is just so widespread."

 

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Gabby Petito case example of 'missing white woman syndrome,' experts say

YuriArcurs/iStock

(NEW YORK) — In the two weeks since Gabby Petito went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, her story has gained national attention.

Petito's case has made news headlines and gone viral online, with people everywhere trying to find clues and solve the case themselves. Adding to the intrigue in Petito's case is the large social media footprint she left behind as she documented her travels cross-country with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.

Officials confirmed Tuesday that a body found over the weekend near Grand Teton National Park belongs to 22-year-old Petito, but the national fascination with the case continues, as authorities search for Laundrie, currently a person of interest in the case.

It is a fascination that families of other missing people, particularly women of color, say they wish was turned to their own loved ones' cases.

"Everybody who is missing loved ones is saying, 'Why wasn't my case done that like?'" said Paula Cosey Hill. "It's very hard because it takes you back to when your child went missing."

Cosey Hill's then-16-year-old daughter, Shemika Cosey, disappeared without a trace near her home in St. Louis, Missouri, just a few days after Christmas in 2008.

She described watching the search for Petito unfold as an "emotional rollercoaster," since she has both grieved for the Petito family and reflected on what did not happen in the aftermath of her daughter's disappearance.

"All the questions that weren't answered with my daughter, I'm checking to see if they're doing in that case," said Cosey Hill. "When you report your loved one missing, you hear, 'We'll try to get someone on this,' and they act as if they don't have enough manpower to do it."

"But as you can see, they can get enough manpower to do it," she said. "They just choose which cases they want to do."

Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., an online search agency that helps search specifically for missing Black and Hispanic children, said minority children who go missing are often classified as runaways, which can lead to less media attention and less help from law enforcement.

Minority adults who go missing are often stereotyped as being involved in crime or violence, poverty and addiction, which takes attention away from their cases too, Wilson said.

"There's frustration. There's sadness," she said of the people she works with who are searching for their missing loved ones. "We are meeting families at the worst points in their lives. They are frustrated because they're not getting help from law enforcement or they're frustrated because they're not getting media coverage."

At the end of 2020, the FBI had over 89,000 active missing person cases, and 45% of those were people of color, according to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Only about one-fifth of missing person cases involving minorities are covered by the news, according to a 2016 analysis published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

"I think oftentimes the media and even law enforcement can show that [minority] lives are not as important," Wilson said. "We have to remember that these are mothers and daughters and fathers and children that are missing and they are definitely needed and valued in our communities."

The historic tendency for national attention to gloss over cases of missing people of color was dubbed "missing white woman syndrome" by Gwen Ifill, the late PBS anchor.

Many years later, the term coined by Ifill still applies in the U.S., according to Wilson, who noted the effort to publicize missing persons of color is not meant to divert resources, but to simply "equal the playing field."

"We've been sounding the alarm for close to 14 years that this is an issue and we need to have that conversation, all of us, as to how we can change the narrative," she said. "We're not surprised by the publicity or the reaction [to Petito's disappearance] and we are also hoping and working to keep our missing in the forefront as well."

Maricris Drouaillet, of Riverside, California, said she too was not surprised by the reaction to Petito's disappearance, but said it has brought up emotions of "hurt and heartbreak."

Drouaillet and her family have spent nearly nine months searching for her sister, Maya Millete, a mother of three who disappeared from her home in Chula Vista, California, in January. Millete's husband was named a person of interest in her disappearance in July.

"Even before Gabby's case was out there, I felt that maybe if we were white or with money or had names, we probably would have gotten a different approach, more help and support," said Drouaillet, whose family moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when Millete was 12. "That's how I feel. That hurts a lot."

Drouaillet said she and her family have led searches on their own since January, and have created a website and social media accounts to organize resources and call attention to their sister's missing person case.

"Every missing person deserves to be in a headline," she said. "We have to put awareness out there and seek help from the public, because a lot of times the public are the ones who help solve the case."

In Wyoming, where Petito went missing and where her body was found, a state task force released a report in January on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

While 21% of Indigenous people, who are mostly girls, remained missing for 30 days or longer, only 11% of white people remained missing that long, according to the report.

The report also found that 30% of Indigenous missing and murdered people made the news, compared to 51% of white people. When coverage was done on Indigenous victims, it was more likely to "contain violent language, portray the victim in a negative light, and provide less information," according to the report.

Cara Boyle Chambers, director of the division of victim services in Wyoming's Attorney General office, said the Petito case has echoed the report's findings.

"It highlighted exactly what we had pointed out, the disproportionate, very positive response to Gabby's story versus a lot of other families who don't have that attention and don't have that closure that came, in the scheme of things, relatively quickly," Boyle Chambers said. "We have families that are 20, 30 years of no answers and no remains to bury and no sense of closure."

Boyle Chambers -- who pointed out that two men went missing in June in the same area where Petito was last seen -- said officials in Wyoming have worked since the report's release to improve the collection of missing persons and criminal justice data.

The Petito case has also confirmed the importance of galvanizing media attention, including social media, according to Boyle Chambers.

"I think that is the biggest takeaway too from Gabby's case, just how important the role of social media and people out there were in helping to locate her," she said. "The more eyes you have on it, the better, which is why we're having this whole conversation."

Wilson, of the Black and Missing Foundation, said individual people can make a difference by sharing alerts about missing people and talking about missing person cases, involving minorities, in particular.

"We all have a responsibility, and that is law enforcement, the media and the community," she said. "If you just have one tip, it can solve a case."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


COVID deaths surge in Alabama, after state reports more deaths than births in 2020

Tempura/iStock

(BIRMINGHAM, Ala.) -- After weeks of rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, there are signs that Alabama's latest coronavirus surge may be starting to abate. However, the reprieve comes at a high cost -- with the state now experiencing a near record-breaking surge in virus-related deaths.

"We are seeing a decrease in the number of patients that are in the hospital, but unfortunately, it's not because all of them are getting better and going home to their families... These patients are dying," Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, chief of hospital medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, told ABC News.

Statewide, there are now more than 2,100 patients hospitalized with coronavirus, and intensive care unit capacity also remains tight, with 97% of ICU beds currently in use, according to federal data.

Although numbers are now coming down, said Kennedy, this surge is different from the last one, because "patients are so sick," and are thus requiring longer stays.

"A lot of our patients that are in the acute-care settings are getting worse and requiring the ICU. I think overall, the need for ICU beds remains high across the state," Kennedy added.

Because more than 74% of the Alabama's elderly population chose to be vaccinated, they have fared better throughout this latest surge, Kennedy said. However, this latest wave has also been a particularly disconcerting experience, she added, because the patient population is much younger, and primarily consisting of unvaccinated people.

"These patients are as sick if not sicker than elderly patients, they're staying in the hospital longer and they're dying at an alarming rate," Kennedy said. "It's unlike anything that I've seen."

The new surge comes as recent data revealed that for the first time in Alabama's history, there were more deaths than births in 2020.

"Here in Alabama, we continue to see deaths at a really high rate. ... 2020 is going to be the first year that we know of in the history of our state where we actually had more deaths than births -- our state literally shrunk in 2020," Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris reported during a press conference on Friday.

In 2020, data showed that 64,714 Alabama residents died and only 57,641 were born. Even in World War II or the 1918 flu pandemic, there was never a time that deaths exceeded births, Harris added.

"It's certainly possible that could happen this year as well if we continue at the same rate that we're seeing now," Harris noted.

Even as the situation shows signs of improvement, the country is entering flu season, and public health measures have been considerably relaxed in Alabama.

"At this point, we're just kind of bracing ourselves, as we see the resumption of college football and people out in large numbers, and wondering how that is going to fare, as far as inpatient volumes both for COVID and for flu," Kennedy said.

Additionally, Alabama has one of the country's lowest vaccination rates, with just 41.6% of the state's total population fully vaccinated, putting much of the state's population still at-risk for severe infection.

"Unless we see a dramatic uptick in the number of people that get vaccinated, our concern is that we will do this again in just a few months. And every time we do it, it seems to get worse," Kennedy said.

The ongoing crisis has left front-line workers frustrated, Kennedy said, admitting that she still does not see an end in sight.

"Watching people out in the community behave as though COVID is not an issue or that it's over, is really -- it's a really sharp contrast to what we're seeing in the hospital and sometimes that's very difficult to process," Kennedy said. "We don't have to be in these situations. We are choosing illness and death in a way that is just very unnatural."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Brian Laundrie search ends for day after finding 'nothing of note': Live updates

iStock/MattGush

(NORTH PORT, Fla.) -- A massive search is continuing in southern Florida for Brian Laundrie, the boyfriend of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing on a cross-country trip and who authorities confirmed Tuesday as the body discovered on Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The search for the 23-year-old Laundrie is centered around North Port, Florida, where investigators said Laundrie returned to his home on Sept. 1 without Petito but driving her 2012 Ford Transit.

Laundrie has been named by police as a "person of interest" in Petito's disappearance. Laundrie has refused to speak to the police and has not been seen since Tuesday, Sept. 14, according to law enforcement officials.

The search for Laundrie is the latest twist in the case that has grabbed national attention as he and Petito had been traveling across the country since June, documenting the trip on social media.

Petito's parents, who live in Long Island, New York, reported her missing on Sept. 11 after not hearing from her for two weeks.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Sep 21, 11:44 pm
Search ends for another day with 'nothing of note' found

The North Port Police Department said it had ended its search of the Carlton Reserve as darkness closed in with nothing found.

"Search of the Carlton & nearby lands concluded for the evening. Nothing of note," the police department shared in a tweet. "The current plan is to return Wednesday with a similar operation."

Police shared a photo of the search operation's base in the reserve as well as one of the bloodhounds being used to look for the missing person of interest in conjunction with the death of his girlfriend.

Gabby Petito's body was officially identified on Tuesday evening after it was found near Grand Teton National Park on Sunday. The Teton County coroner said Petito died via homicide, but did not yet announce a cause of death.

Sarasota police also later debunked a rumor that Laundrie had been taken into custody. It said on Twitter that they had received several tips about him being seen, but none of them panned out.

Sep 21, 4:54 pm
Authorities investigating report of man seen in Panhandle matching Laundrie's description

The Okaloosa County, Florida, Sheriff's Office said on Tuesday that it is investigating a report that a man matching the description of Brian Laundrie was captured on a trail camera walking on a property in the Florida Panhandle area.

The individual was purportedly spotted Sept. 20 on an automatic wildlife camera in Baker, which is more than 500 northwest of where authorities have focused their search Laundrie.

"The OCSO did its due diligence in response to this report and is wrapping up an extensive search that took place in this area to include nearby farmlands. No one -- and nothing -- of note was located. The individual referenced in the post below has no known ties to our area," Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday afternoon, featuring a blurry image from the trail camera of a man walking with a backpack.

The image was initially posted on Facebook by local resident Sam Bass, who wrote, "I’m not saying this is the guy but whoever was on my trail camera this morning in Baker, Fl strongly fits the description of Brian Laundrie." Bass wrote that authorities have been contacted, and advised northwest Florida residents to be on the lookout.

Sep 21, 2:31 pm
Police release video of search for Laundrie in swamp preserve

Police released a YouTube video Tuesday afternoon showing the extensive search going on in the sprawling Carlton Reserve near North Port.

The video showed officers from multiple law enforcement agencies using search dogs, drones and all-terrain vehicles to comb the 25,000-acre preserve.

"The terrain is very difficult. Essentially, 75% of it is under water and other areas that are dry we're trying to clear," a North Port police officer said in the video. "We're expecting to get wet by the end of the day and check the entire area for Brian Laundrie."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Body found near Grand Teton confirmed to be Gabby Petito, death ruled a homicide

carlballou/iStock

(NEW YORK ) -- Officials have confirmed the body found over the weekend near Grand Teton National Park belongs to Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing while on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, the Teton County coroner said in a statement.

The initial determination is that she died by homicide, but the cause of death is pending final autopsy results, Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue said.

Authorities had said a body "consistent with the description of" Petito was discovered in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming on Sunday. At the time, a full forensic identification hadn't been completed and a cause of death was undetermined.

Petito's parents reported her missing on Sept. 11 after not speaking with her for two weeks. Her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, was named a person of interest by police last week.

Petito, originally from New York, had left from Florida with Laundrie in a van in July for their trip, which they documented on social media.

On Aug. 12, police in Moab, Utah, responded to an "incident" involving the couple, but "insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges," Moab Police Department Chief Bret Edge said in a statement last week.

Petito was last seen leaving a hotel in Utah with Laundrie on Aug. 24. The next day, she spoke to her mother, Nichole Schmidt, informing her that their next stops would be Grand Teton and Yellowstone, Schmidt told ABC News, and that was the last time Schmidt talked to her.

On Friday, it was announced that Laundrie's whereabouts were unknown. His family told police they had last seen him last Tuesday. They said he had a backpack and told them he was going to the Carlton Reserve north of Laundrie's home in North Port, Florida, where he had gone for hikes before.

A search for Laundrie in Florida was paused Monday, with police saying they "currently believe we have exhausted all avenues in searching of the grounds there." He has yet to be found.

FBI Denver Special Agent in Charge Michael Schneider said in a statement that Laundrie has been named a person of interest.

"The FBI and our partners remain dedicated to ensuring anyone responsible for or complicit in Ms. Petito's death is held accountable for their actions," he said in a statement.

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