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Wildfire in Montana explodes to 21,000 acres as heat wave continues

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The historic heat wave in the West is not relenting -- and the high temperatures may be contributing to a massive wildfire that's exploded in size.

Las Vegas hit 116 degrees on Wednesday, breaking a daily record, while Grand Junction, Colorado, reached 105 degrees, an all-time June record.

On Thursday, the heat moves into Northern California and the Plains.

California residents have been asked to scale down their power usage to prevent a strain on the system, reported ABC San Francisco station KGO-TV.

In Nebraska, the heat has already caused a road to buckle.

Palm Springs, California is forecast to reach 116 degrees on Thursday, while Sacramento, California could climb to 109 and Omaha, Nebraska to 103.

Record highs are possible in Des Moines, Iowa and Kansas City, Missouri.

Twelve states are on heat and fire alerts from California to Iowa; heat, gusty winds and dry conditions can help wildfires spread more easily.

In Montana, the Robertson Draw wildfire near the Wyoming border has exploded from 2,000 acres to 21,000 acres.

The heat will remain for most of the West into the weekend, with temperatures staying in the 120s in the Southern California deserts and Phoenix continuing its record streak of 115 degrees or more into the weekend.

California's scorching temperatures come amid a drought in the Golden State.

"It's a big concern because I'll have to buy extra hay this year. We didn't get as much rain and not much grass," cattle ranger Roger Tweedy told ABC Fresno station KFSN-TV. "Farmers are not going to get any water to irrigate with -- that means they have to pump. That's expensive. That drives their costs way up, therefore they push that cost off onto us."

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a tropical disturbance could become tropical storm Claudette on Friday.

Heavy rain is expected along the Gulf Coast and much of the South.

By Friday afternoon and evening, some heavy rain will begin to impact the Louisiana and Mississippi coast, including New Orleans. The worst of the heavy rain in New Orleans will be from Friday night into Saturday afternoon.

More than 1 foot of rain is forecast for parts of Louisiana. Six to 12 inches of rain is expected in Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Georgia and Alabama.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Asian woman, 94, stabbed multiple times in broad daylight: San Francisco police


(SAN FRANCISCO) -- A man is in custody after allegedly stabbing a 94-year-old Asian woman multiple times in broad daylight in San Francisco, police said.

The woman was attacked at about 10:15 a.m. Wednesday and rushed to a hospital, the San Francisco Police Department said. She's expected to survive.

"Investigators believe the attack was unprovoked and are working to determine if race was a motivating factor," police said.

The suspect, 35-year-old Daniel Cauich, was arrested at about 11:45 a.m., police said.

Cauich was booked on charges of attempted homicide, battery with serious injury, elder abuse, committing a felony while on bail or release, great bodily injury enhancement and probation violation, police said.

He's due in court on June 22.

This latest attack comes amid a surge in hate crimes against the AAPI community.

Anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the nation's largest cities jumped 145% from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed tweeted Wednesday night: "With the rise in attacks against members of our AAPI community, I want to be very clear that this type of violence is unacceptable and has no place in our city. We will not stand by as anyone, especially elderly members of our community, are harmed."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Alaska hiker found alive after reported missing and chased by bears


(NEW YORK) -- An Alaska hiker whose whereabouts were unknown for nearly two days after she reported being chased off a trail by bears was found alive Wednesday evening, officials said.

Fina Kiefer, 55, of Palmer, Alaska, emerged from the woods and was spotted on a road about a mile from the Pioneer Ridge trailhead. Kiefer was injured and was transported by ambulance to a local hospital for evaluation, according to a statement from the Alaska State Troopers.

The Alaska State Troopers were notified on Tuesday around 1:29 a.m. local time that Kiefer was alone and in need of assistance on Pioneer Ridge Trail near Palmer, about 42 miles northeast of Anchorage. Kiefer had called her husband asking for help after she said she was charged by multiple bears and had to use bear spray. But she stopped responding to telephone calls and text messages shortly thereafter, according to the state troopers.

A search was launched, with state troopers enlisting the help of volunteers and Alaska's National Guard. Teams with dogs on the ground scoured the trail and the surrounding area for any signs of Kiefer, while crews in helicopters looked from above. But after more than 39 hours, they found no evidence of the missing hiker and had to call off their efforts as weather conditions deteriorated, according to the Alaska State Troopers

Then, a volunteer who was leaving the search area saw Kiefer as they were driving on Knik River Road and notified the Alaska State Troopers on Wednesday at around 5:30 p.m. local time.

Kiefer's condition and the extent of her injuries were not immediately known. ABC News has reached out to the Alaska State Troopers for more information.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Brothers of prominent South Carolina family speak out after two relatives found dead

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- John Marvin Murdaugh and Randolph "Randy" Murdaugh IV said they "knew something was wrong" when their other brother called them both late in the night on June 7.

"He said, 'Come as fast as you can. Paul and Maggie have been hurt,'" John told ABC News in an exclusive interview that aired Thursday on Good Morning America.

"I missed some phone calls from him. I was outside with the dogs," Randy recalled. "When I came in, he was calling my wife's phone. And it was the worst phone call because of his voice, the fear. He was just distraught. I didn't know if something was still happening. He was only able to tell me it was very, very bad. He said he thought they were dead."

Their brother, Richard Alexander "Alex" Murdaugh, had called 911 just after 10 p.m. ET to report that he had returned to his family's estate in Islandton, a rural community in South Carolina's Colleton County, to find the bullet-ridden bodies of his 52-year-old wife, Margaret "Maggie" Branstetter Murdaugh, and his 22-year-old son, Paul Terry Murdaugh.

Both victims were located outside of the residence on the sprawling property and had "sustained multiple gunshot wounds," according to a press release from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the double murder along with the Colleton County Sheriff's Office.

Few other details regarding the deaths have been released. No arrests have been made and no suspects have been named.

"It changes you as an individual. It changes you as a family," Randy told ABC News. "And I can't imagine the horror that my brother's experiencing."

The Murdaughs are a prominent legal family in the Palmetto State, with three generations serving as the elected solicitor in the 14th Judicial Circuit for 87 consecutive years.

Randy, who lives in the nearby town of Hampton, said he arrived at Alex's property about 15 minutes after the telephone call. It was a rainy night and first responders were already on site, and Randy recalled seeing the covered bodies of Maggie and Paul near the dog kennels, about a quarter of a mile from the main house.

"I could see the white sheets across the way," he said. "I still couldn't believe it could be them or that it could be true."

Alex was standing at a distance from the crime scene, looking on "in disbelief, crying and sobbing, and unable to talk," Randy said.

"He would try to talk and then he would break down," Randy added. "It was very difficult."

John, who lives further away in the community of Okatie, west of Hilton Head Island, said he got there about 30 minutes later. John and Randy stayed there for hours, comforting their brother, until they finally convinced him to leave.

"He didn't want to leave them out there," John told ABC News, in between tears.

Alex tried to to call his other son, Buster, who lives a couple hours away in the city of Rock Hill, to tell him the news but "broke down and couldn't," according to Randy.

"So I got on the phone with him," Randy said. "I know he's struggling with it, and I just can't imagine what's going through his mind. His mom and his brother were just killed."

Randy and John said they don't know who could have committed the gruesome crime.

"It's just hard to imagine somebody can be so sick as to do this, intentionally kill people like that," Randy tearfully told ABC News. "I mean, we see it in the world. We see it on the news. But you don't think it's going to happen in your small community, to your family."

They don't believe Alex is involved in the murders.

"My brother loved Maggie and loved Paul like nothing else on this earth, just like he loves Buster," Randy said. "So there's no possible way he could have anything to do with this, I can assure you."

"I can tell you he was willing and still is willing to do anything that's asked of him," John added. "He wants this solved."

Just days later, the family patriarch, Randolph Murdaugh III, died in a hospital at the age of 81. From 1987 to 2005, Randolph held the job as prosecutor for Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties, like his father and grandfather did before him. In 2006, he rejoined the Hampton-based law firm that his father had started more than 100 years ago. Both Randy and Alex are lawyers at the firm, while Alex also works as a part time prosecutor for the 14th Judicial Circuit.

"We are part of the community. We're no different than anybody else," Randy told ABC News. "We've just been here as attorneys for a long time in our family."

Randy and John said their father, whom they described as "a wonderful person," had been "sick" for a while and that they would have liked his death to be more a celebration of life, but their tight-knit family was reeling from the unsolved murders.

"While we were happy he was no longer suffering, my brother's still suffering and we're suffering. The whole family is suffering," John told ABC News. "And so we said our goodbyes and tried to be in a celebratory way to my dad, but we're all hurting because of Maggie and Paul."

Paul, a student at the University of South Carolina, was awaiting trial on a charge of boating under the influence causing death in a 2019 crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach, whose body was found a week later. The boating accident led some to question whether Paul's family's legal ties affected the probe.

Randy and John said they have contacts in the investigating agencies but that they have not reached out to them or tried to influence the investigation in any way, nor has anyone in their family.

"I see words like 'dynasty' used, and 'power,'" Randy said. "But we're just regular people that are working hard and trying to do right. And I think when you do those things, people respect you. We had great opportunities."

Since the wreck, Paul had been receiving online threats from strangers that were "bothersome" but weren't believed to be "credible," according to Randy and John.

"I don't know of anybody that would truly be an enemy or truly want to hurt them," Randy noted.

Randy and John described their late nephew as a "carefree spirit" who loved being outdoors. They said Paul was also a "people person" who was "very caring" and "would help anyone." His mother Maggie, they said, was a "classy person" with a "very dynamic personality" and was the "rock of their family." The two brothers recalled how "smitten" Alex was from the moment he met Maggie and how "he truly doted on her."

The family is pleading for the public's help in bringing justice to Maggie and Paul.

"We need help finding who did this," Randy told ABC News. "The person that did this is out there."

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it continues to pursue all leads in the ongoing investigation and that anyone with information should call 803-896-2605, a 24-hour dedicated tip line for the case.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

'Megadrought' in West directly linked to climate change, experts say


(NEW YORK) -- The "megadrought" that's plaguing much of the western U.S. is a direct consequence of warming global temperatures, according to experts.

The term is used to describe a severe and intense drought that spans a couple of decades, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Brad Pugh told ABC News.

The current megadrought is further evidence that the climate has been warming over past decades, according to the experts.

"Essentially, half of the severity of the ongoing megadrought has been attributed to warming temperatures alone -- and without that warming, the drought would arguably not be a megadrought at all," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told ABC News.

"For this reason, the temperature-driven portion of this is not going to reverse itself this century -- even if we see a higher precipitation period that otherwise would have broken the megadrought," Swain said.

Nearly 75% of the American West is currently in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The situation in the Southwest has origins dating back to the late 1990s, but the ongoing megadrought has intensified in the last year, Pugh said.

"The major factor in the development and intensification of the drought across the Southwest was tied to one of the driest monsoons on record during 2021," Pugh said.

Precipitation was "well below average" across Arizona and New Mexico during July, August and September.

Typically during the summer months, much of the southwestern U.S. is dry because the jet stream pushes northward and big rain systems don’t reach the desert. During winter, as the jet stream shifts southward, rain and snow tend to return to parts of the region.

This is not the first time the American West has been in a megadrought, Richard Saegar, a research professor at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, told ABC News.

Tree ring records "have made clear" that the U.S. has experienced megadroughts over the last millennium, including a series during the Medieval period comparable to the current one, Saegar said.

"When the tropical Pacific Ocean becomes cooler than normal for long periods of time -- which it can due to internal atmosphere-ocean variability -- it alters the pattern of rainfall over the tropical Pacific, which can then alter the global atmosphere circulation and it does this in a way that can cause megadroughts in the American West and southern South America," Saegar said.

Severe drought is not reversed quickly, and because of climate change reversing this latest megadrought might not be as straightforward as a seasonal change, Saegar added.

"Due to rising greenhouse gases, droughts that occur now are warmer than droughts used to be because they are occurring against a background of global warming," Saegar said. "The current megadrought has been driven by reduced rain and snow but has been made worse by warming temperatures due to climate change."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Crisis at the border: How it happened and what is being done


(NEW YORK) -- When President Joe Biden took office in January, there was an expectation that changes to policies on the southern border would help reverse the crisis there.

But what resulted was a surge in arriving migrants, some believing that Biden's friendlier approach toward immigration compared to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, would make the end result of the arduous process easier.

In addition, hopes of reuniting families of children separated by Trump's controversial separation policy have also been slow-going and the issue of immigration generally has been a source of contention for the new administration.

Illustrating the turmoil is a dramatic surge in unauthorized U.S. southern border crossings. There were 180,000 just last month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- a two-decade high and a 76% increase since February.

During the Trump administration encounters with migrants were lower with monthly totals peaking at nearly 150,000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, overwhelming immigration authorities and leading to overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities. The Biden administration has handled the elevated volume through a combination of efforts including the transformation of ICE detention facilities into rapid processing centers and the expansion of migrant child care facilities.

Changing demographics of migrants and recidivism

Biden administration officials have underscored the elevated rate of repeat offenders as well as the shifting demographics of those coming across.

The number of single adults increased from April to May by about 10,000 while the number of families and children declined, according to CBP data. Adults are often easier to repatriate while children pose additional challenges of care, education, housing accommodations and health care needs.

Recidivism was also up with 38% of those arrested or detained in May having tried to cross at least one time before in the past year. That's up from an average one-year recidivism rate of 15% between 2014 and 2019.

A majority of those who made illegal crossings were sent back immediately or "expelled" under the controversial "Title 42" process. The order, critics say, drastically cuts access to humanitarian programs for asylum seekers and incentivizes families to send their children across the border alone as it facilitates the return of migrants, including families, to Mexico in a matter of hours. Children have been exempt from the rapid removal protocols since a November court ruling last year forced the Trump administration to stop sending them back.

"The large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of non-citizens making multiple border crossing attempts, and means total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border," CBP said in a recent statement.

Some success but challenges remain

As a result of the Biden administration's efforts to reunite children in U.S. custody with families and sponsors, the number of minors in the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement care has dropped from about 23,000 to about 16,000 in recent months.

The numbers remain at record levels compared to previous years, but the administration has opened a series of emergency sites to handle the intake and processing and give children a safe, clean place to stay before they are matched with sponsors.

Not all facilities have met government standards, however. One center in Houston was shuttered for failing to comply with federal guidelines. Sources familiar with the facility's operation said the girls housed there, aged 13-17, were at times instructed to use plastic bags for toilets because there were not enough staff members to accompany them to restrooms.

Until its closure, the Houston facility had been run by a local nonprofit with no prior experience housing unaccompanied migrant children.

So far, the HHS facilities designed to alleviate crowding in Border Patrol stations have not been met with the pushback that accompanied them under the Trump administration. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., referred to some government facilities as "racist child prisons" when the prior administration moved to house children at an Army based once used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans in World War II.

Changes and clearing the backlog

One of the principal issues is a major backlog in processing deportation cases, including for those who may be eligible for asylum. According to researchers at Syracuse University there are more than 1.3 million pending cases as of May 2021, a number which has steadily grown since the late '90s.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Biden administration updated expedited criteria policy allowing individuals with urgent humanitarian needs to move through the system faster.

The agency also reinstated its policy of allowing immigrant applicants, including those seeking asylum, to be notified of disqualifying elements in their applications and make corrections.

This is a reversal of a Trump-era policy that allowed for immediate cancellation of applications with errors without notice. Green card applicants can now get a work permit for two years instead of one before needing to reapply.

USCIS is also working to build operating capacity with fewer COVID-19-related restrictions.

High-traffic application support centers, where people go to get fingerprinted, are open for extended 12-hour periods after many were shuttered during the pandemic. USCIS is also allowing applicants to skip re-submitting biometric data if that information is already in the system. The measures have led to a 33% reduction in the wait queue for applications, according to one Biden administration official.

'Do not come'

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has the border as part of her portfolio, recently announced during a trip to Guatemala and Mexico task force groups for smuggling, trafficking and corruption, assistance for housing and entrepreneurs and a $40 million young women's empowerment initiative.

Yet benchmarks, timelines and exact goals of the programs remain vague and apparently long-term. Harris also took the opportunity to issue an urgent-sounding message to those planning migration.

"I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur, but we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration. And I believe, if you come to our border, you will be turned back," she said.

The vice president's comments were widely criticized as insensitive to real asylum claims, which migrants have legal rights to initiate upon arrival in the U.S. even if the means of arrival are unlawful.

In a gaggle with reporters on the tarmac in Guatemala City earlier this month, Harris defended her message to migrants.

"I'm really clear we have to deal with the root cause," she said. "And that is my focus. Period."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Hope dims for American hostage as US hastily exits Afghanistan

Courtesy Charlene Frerichs

(NEW YORK) -- The Illinois family of a U.S. Navy veteran who has been held hostage by the Taliban has said for the past year that he might get left behind by his own country. With the accelerated and chaotic exit from Afghanistan by America's remaining military forces, their worst fears may be realized.

Once American military and special operations personnel have left Afghanistan -- which some officials anticipate will happen by July Fourth -- experts say the U.S. will lose most of whatever leverage it might have to free civil engineer Mark Frerichs through one of the limited number of tracks the government has already contemplated or acted upon during his 17 months of captivity.

Frerichs, 58, from Lombard, Illinois, was kidnapped in January 2020 in the capital city of Kabul after being lured to a business meeting that was a ruse, officials have told ABC News. Officials believe he is being held by the Taliban's Haqqani network, which has kidnapped other American and British citizens for ransom or prisoner swaps over the course of the two-decade war.

Critics say the Trump administration was slow to raise Frerichs' captivity last year with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, during negotiations to end the long war which followed the 9/11 attacks. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-American diplomat, did not publicly mention Frerichs until months after he had forged a pact to withdraw U.S. military forces, which was signed just a few weeks after the U.S. citizen's abduction.

The options that have been considered for freeing Frerichs include trying to arrange a controversial prisoner exchange involving an Afghan druglord, encouraging Pakistan to influence the captor network, or staging a high-risk rescue operation if Frerichs can be located, numerous officials told ABC News in recent weeks on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.

Hope has dimmed this year for the first option, which would involve President Joe Biden issuing the commutation and release of convicted Afghan drug trafficker Hajji Bashir Noorzai after serving 16 years of his two life sentences. Taliban officials have requested Noorzai's release numerous times over the years, including during negotiations since 2020 to end the U.S.-led war, though never specifically promising Frerichs' freedom in exchange.

Since Frerichs' location is unknown and U.S. special mission units' presence in Afghanistan is all but gone, the hostage-rescue option is seen as even less likely than Biden commuting Noorzai's prison sentence.

A key U.S. special operations air base in Jalalabad, Eastern Afghanistan -- where U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011 launched their raid over the border to Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama Bin Laden and where other SEALs launched raids in Afghanistan last year to attempt a rescue of Frerichs -- closed a month ago.

Only Bagram Airfield and the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul will still be in American hands by next week.

That leaves the third option as the one that current and former senior U.S. officials view as the best hope -- pressuring, or offering incentives to, the Pakistan Army's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy service to lean on the Haqqani captor network to free the American hostage.

U.S. intelligence is now assessing rumors that the Pakistani ISI already has gotten involved in the Frerichs matter, one source told ABC News. Many assume he is being held captive inside Pakistan, like most of the Haqqani network's Western hostages in the past.

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) acknowledged that Biden may deem it necessary to release Noorzai, but he told ABC News that he opposes the move. Instead, Waltz said the Pakistan option is more logical because Biden's order to exit Afghanistan by this coming Sept. 11 has left the U.S. with little leverage to win Frerichs' freedom through negotiations with the Taliban.

"We absolutely should do it," Waltz told ABC News last week regarding the Pakistan option. "The Pakistanis could get Mark out tomorrow and we could get him home tomorrow."

Some former officials in the Obama and Trump administrations believe Pakistan's ISI service would derive little benefit from the Taliban-requested release of Noorzai, who was arrested by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2005 and later convicted of running a substantial heroin network from Afghanistan. But they may see helping to secure an American hostage as a way to ingratiate themselves with the Biden administration, the former officials said.

"I believe the Pakistani authorities can often influence these situations -- but in this case, they can benefit more from intervening sooner than later," said ABC News contributor Thomas Bossert, former Special Assistant to President Trump for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. "The pending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan adds a great deal of uncertainty to Mr. Frerichs' future, and uncertainty is the enemy."

The Biden official who would lead any possible effort to press Islamabad to take an active role with Frerichs' liberation is U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs Ambassador Roger Carstens, who, like Khalilzad, is a holdover from the Trump administration who was asked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stay on and continue to aggressively seek the freedom of U.S. hostages abroad. Earlier this month, while in Doha, Carstens participated in a virtual conference on hostages organized by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and the New America Foundation.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Frerichs' home state of Illinois said helping to secure her constituent's return must be a top priority.

"Without getting into specifics about any ongoing discussions or proposals, those participating in these negotiations should explore all the options and take the perspectives of those with expertise in these sorts of situations into account," Duckworth said in a statement to ABC News. "Mark Frerichs is an American citizen and Illinoisan who served his country in uniform, and our nation should leave no stone unturned as we work to secure his safe return home."

Pressuring Pakistan to act on a hostage case has succeeded in the recent past. In 2017, the Trump White House initiated secret efforts to cajole Pakistan into resolving the case of Pennsylvania backpacker Caitlan Coleman, who was a hostage of the Taliban for five years in Pakistan's Northwest tribal belt, ABC News has reported.

Coleman was abruptly freed by the Haqqani network, along with her Canadian husband and their three children born during their captivity, when a car in which they were stashed was stopped at a Pakistan Army checkpoint in October 2017. Pakistani officials at the time falsely claimed the family had been held in Afghanistan and were freed during a daring rescue operation and shootout by their forces when the car crossed the border, and Trump publicly praised Pakistan's help.

But as ABC News reported at the time, Coleman was held in Pakistan for much of her captivity, and the interdiction had actually been arranged by the ISI and Haqqani network following threats from U.S. intelligence officials who were tracking the captive family's location and movements in the car, with SEAL Team Six at Jalalabad Airfield poised to launch a raid into Pakistan to rescue Coleman if necessary.

"It is in the interest of the ISI to help get Mark Frerichs out, to gain favor with the U.S. by helping us bring an American back home -- and they are well advised that they do it now if they can," said retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Costa, also a former Special Assistant to President Trump for Counterterrorism and Hostages, who is now executive director of the International Spy Museum.

"They are often interested in deriving a benefit with a successful operation, be it counterterrorism or a hostage recovery," Costa said.

Frerichs' sister, Charlene Cakora, urged Washington to pull every political lever with time running out.

"If there are countries out there that can help -- whether Pakistan, Qatar, or any others -- we are begging for their help to bring Mark home," she said in a statement to ABC News this week.

Rep. Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who authored the memoir Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret's Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, said the hasty U.S. exit leaves the administration with few options for freeing the last hostage, Frerichs, or for determining the fate of another American missing in Afghanistan for years, author Paul Overby.

"Zal [Khalilzad] deserves a lot of the blame," Waltz said. "Mark should have been more of a priority way before a lot of the decisions were made" about withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades."

But Khalilzad has insisted in recent months that he has raised Frerichs' captivity directly with his counterpart in Doha, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He has not disclosed what response he has received, but sources say the Taliban chief has not denied that the group's Haqqani faction has held the American.

"In my meetings with the Taliban, I have demanded his release," Khalilzad told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 18.

While Baradar has, since last summer, asked repeatedly for the release of Noorzai, federal law enforcement officials within the U.S. Department of Justice have balked at the Taliban's requests for Noorzai's return in exchange for hostages, insiders have said.

Career officials pushed back on the idea while Trump was still in office, and Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland, has also privately opposed Noorzai's sentence being commuted in exchange for Frerichs' release, according to three senior officials who have served in both administrations. One of the officials said flatly that Noorzai, who was an original financier of Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the 1990s and one of the biggest heroin traffickers in the world, "isn't going anywhere."

"The sentence handed him was a reasonable one, as are DOJ's concerns about releasing him," said Gretchen Peters, a former ABC News correspondent in Islamabad and author of Seeds of Terror, about the Taliban's opium business.

"The question is, do we value the life of an American hostage over the message it sends to free a major drug trafficker? Jailing Noorzai didn't stop heroin trafficking in Afghanistan. It's a difficult decision," Peters said.

Some U.S. officials have questioned whether swapping Noorzai for Frerichs would be another lopsided trade more beneficial to the Taliban, not unlike the five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo who were controversially swapped in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Haqqani prisoner for five years.

Frerichs, who had almost no online footprint when he was abducted, was a Navy diver in the 1980s and for the past decade was a civil engineering contractor most recently working on a water project in Afghanistan. Despite a range of rumors, he was not involved in any military activities, according to the family members and numerous officials familiar with his case.

His sister said that time has almost run out.

"We understand that the Taliban wants one of their guys released from U.S. custody in exchange for Mark. This guy [Noorzai] has been in prison for 16 years and the war is coming to an end. We think people on both sides should be able to go home when it ends," Frerichs' sister Charlene told ABC News.

"If the Justice Department is opposed based on precedent or principle, let me ask what those officials would do if it was their son or brother?" she said. "President Biden told us he wants Mark home. This war is ending and Justice needs to understand that we're running out of options to save my brother."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Airplane debris discovered in California lake not from doomed 1965 crash: Sheriff


(NEW YORK) -- The wreckage of a small airplane researchers for a sonar company recently discovered on the floor of a Northern California lake is not the remnants of aircraft that crashed in 1965, killing four people, authorities said on Wednesday.

The Placer County Sheriff's Office said an in-depth search of the wreckage in Folsom Lake northeast of Sacramento determined the plane is one from a 1986 crash and that no fatalities occurred in the incident.

"For now, the plane will remain at the bottom of the lake," the sheriff's office said in a statement Wednesday.

Researchers from Seafloor Systems, an underwater surveying company, were testing a new sonar device at Folsom Lake last week and picked up what appeared to be the debris of a small plane they initially suspected was a Piper Comanche 250 that crashed on New Year's Day in 1965, killing all four people aboard. The bodies of three of the people who perished in the crash were never recovered.

While the fuselage, engine, propeller, right-wing and tail were visible in the sonar images sent to the surface by the company's small remote-operated underwater vessel, or ROV, the researchers could not make out the aircraft's tail number or see inside the cockpit.

The discovery prompted the Placer County Sheriff's Office to conduct an investigation.

"Dive Team sergeants from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office and the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office went back out with Seafloor Systems technicians (on Tuesday) to get more in-depth images of the plane. From the images, they determined that the aircraft was from a 1986 case where a plane went down and NOT the 1965 crash," the sheriff's office statement reads.

Sheriff's officials said the 1986 plane crash had been reported and thoroughly investigated.

The sheriff's office also noted that relatives of those who died in the 1965 crash do not wish for others to search for the plane or the remains of their loved ones.

"They would like the final resting place for their family to remain at the bottom of Folsom Lake," the sheriff's statement reads.

After news broke this week of the discovery, Katherine Radican, whose late husband's brother, 15-year-old Glen Amick, was aboard the doomed 1965 sightseeing flight, told ABC News he had spent most of his life searching the lake for the plane.

She said her husband, Frank Wilcox, who died nearly three years ago, was just 3 years old when his brother was killed and had promised his mother he would find his sibling's remains someday and perhaps finally give him a proper burial.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

US Marshals lack resources to keep judges safe: Inspector general report


(NEW YORK) — The U.S. Marshals Service, one of the nation’s oldest law enforcement agencies, lacks the resources needed to ensure the safety and security of federal judges and other people it's meant to protect, the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General found.

“The USMS does not have adequate proactive threat detection capabilities to monitor the current threat landscape, including in online and social media settings,” the inspector general report, released on Wednesday, said. “Resource limitations and competing agency budget and staffing priorities have impeded the USMS's ability to provide the level of protective services that it has determined is required given the increasing number of threats directed at the judiciary.”

The U.S. Marshals Service is the primary security agency for the more than 800 federal judges in the United States.

“This is particularly concerning given that from FY 2016 to FY 2019, the USMS experienced an 89% increase in security incidents involving, and inappropriate communications and threats made to, USMS-protected officials,” the report said.

In July 2020, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas and her family were targeted at her home.

Daniel Anderl, Salas’ 20-year-old son, was killed in the family’s home after answering the door to a man allegedly dressed as a FedEx delivery person. Her husband, attorney Mark Anderl, was also shot multiple times.

After the shooting, Salas called for more resources for the U.S. Marshals Service, deeming it "a matter of life and death.”

The report also highlighted the budget shortfalls that USMS faces, one of which is that they don’t have the funds to properly train deputy marshals as full-time district threat investigators.

The inspector general found that there are 43 full-time staff in the protection unit, with an additional 200 deputy U.S. Marshals working part-time as security for federal judges.

“We found that the DUSMs (Deputy U.S. Marshals) responsible for conducting district-level threat investigation and mitigation perform this function as a collateral duty, and therefore are only dedicated to this responsibility on a part-time, rotational basis," the report said.

The inspector general also found that the Marshals Home Intrusion Detection System "offers limited or outdated equipment options to its users, which could dissuade judges from opting into the program or force them to choose an alternative security system that suits their needs better but operates outside of the USMS's purview.”

Training for federal judges and others being protected by the USMS is also lacking, according to the report, and there is no refresher course on security for federal judges other than the one that is given when judges are first appointed to the bench.

The U.S. Marshals Service agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations, which ranged from improving the training and home security systems for judges to better threat identification training.

"“The U.S. Marshals are responsible for the protection of the federal judicial process, and we take that responsibility very seriously," the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement. "Ensuring that the judicial process operates independently and free from harm or intimidation is paramount to the rule of law and the reduction of violent crime. The integrity of the judicial process is predicated on the safe and secure conduct of judicial proceedings and the protection of judges, jurors and witnesses.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Dangerous heat wave in the West won't end any time soon: Latest forecast


(NEW YORK) -- The heat wave pummeling the West won't be leaving this week and could make wildfires even more dangerous to residents.

Dozens of record high temperatures were broken on Tuesday, including Denver at 101 degrees, Palm Springs at a scorching 120, and Palmdale, California, clocking in at 107.

Salt Lake City tied its all-time record high temperature of 107 degrees.

The sweltering heat will not end any time soon.

On Wednesday temperatures are expected to climb to 114 degrees in Palm Springs; 115 in Phoenix; 103 in Sacramento; 113 in St. George, Utah; 116 in Las Vegas; and 98 in Denver.

By Thursday the temperature is forecast to reach 110 degrees in Sacramento. By Friday, the heat will climb to 118 degrees in Phoenix.

Red flag warnings and heat warnings have been issued from Montana to Southern California where the record heat, gusty winds near 50 mph and bone-dry conditions could easily spread wildfires.

Evacuations have been ordered in Montana as the 2,000-acre Robertson Draw Fire spreads near the Wyoming border. Firefighters expect the blaze to grow even more due to the hot, dry and windy conditions, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast is preparing for the likely development of a tropical depression or tropical storm, which would be named Claudette.

From Houston to New Orleans, residents are expected to get heavy rain and gusty winds Friday into the weekend.

The worst conditions are forecast to come ashore Saturday morning.

Louisiana could see 1 foot of rain.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

The fight to preserve California's mighty sequoia trees as fire seasons, climate change worsen


(THREE RIVERS, Calif.) -- The resilience of some of Earth’s timeless towering treasures, the ancient sequoia trees, is being tested by the very thing they rely on to survive: fire.

“Up until just a few years ago, it was just virtually unheard of that fire could actually kill these incredible trees,” said Clayton Jordan, the superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

The massive trees, which shoot up hundreds of feet into the sky, date back multiple millennia. But human-caused climate change is fundamentally altering the fabric of the planet’s forests, and with it, experts say, the earth’s sacred sequoia groves.

Sequoia Trees only grow along the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of the roughly 70 groves of the towering trees that exist in the wild, 40 of them live in Sequoia National Park, according to the National Park Service.

One of these groves, the NPS says, includes what’s considered the largest-known single stem tree by volume in the entire world: the General Sherman tree, which is 275 feet tall and over 36 feet wide.

Massive sequoias like the General Sherman are key to the fight against climate change. Altogether, the sequoia groves are among the world's most efficient at sucking up carbon dioxide and converting it to oxygen, according to Christy Brigham, the chief scientist overseeing the sequoias at Sequoia National Park.

“They produce oxygen, they store carbon, they hold the soil in place, they make places for bird nests," Brigham told ABC News.

But last August, even these masters of survival couldn’t hold on as the Castle Fire raged through Sequoia National Park.

“It’s heartbreaking and devastating,” Brigham said.

A report expected to be released later this month details the incredible toll that the Castle Fire had -- it wiped out 10% of the world’s native sequoias, according to Brigham and the National Park Service.

“It's thousands of years of living history that were lost in one fire event that we cannot get back in our lifetime," she said. "It's going to be hundreds of years."

While the Castle Fire began via natural causes, firefighters say part of the reason it charred 273 square miles of the national park was because of mistakes in previous forest management efforts and climate change.

Firefighters had previously worked aggressively to extinguish every single forest fire. But that strategy, along with recent bone-dry conditions year-round, have created a perfect storm for fires to spread. Normally, the smaller fires would go out on their own after burning through the smaller vegetation.

“If you had the absence of fire for a period of time, you [would] have a lot of other trees that are growing up that wouldn't normally be there in a natural healthy forest,” Clayton said.

The unchecked growth gave the flames a ladder to reach the higher up sequoias, providing the fire with more fuel to spread.

“When the fire was burning, we got together and rapidly tried to prioritize all the groves that we thought the fire might get through and talk to the fire team about, 'Can you back burn some of these to protect them,'” Brigham said.

The firefighters' valiant efforts last year weren’t enough. Dozens of trees that had lived since the Middle Ages burned to the ground.

This fire season, firefighters are taking proactive measures to keep Sequoia National Park and its precious sequoias safe.

It may seem counterintuitive, but crews are lighting parts of the forest on fire in an effort to save it.

Prescribed burns help reduce the potential fuel on the forest floor that can turn natural, low-intensity fires into blazing infernos.

“We realized that we really need to take a proactive approach to fire management. We can't just be playing defense anymore," Mike Theune, the fire public information officer at Sequoia National Park, told ABC News.

Along with the smaller fires helping to prevent overgrowth underneath the sequoias, the sequoias also rely on the low-intensity flames to crack open their seeds, allowing them to germinate and grow.

Some officials at Sequoia National Park are gearing up for what they call the fight of their lives -- preserving the towering sequoia for future generations.

“I don't have any plans to leave," Brigham said. "They've been here for 2,000 years. The least I can do is put in a good 10 or 15 [years] on their behalf."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Portland police officer indicted on assault charge over alleged use of force at protest


(PORTLAND, Ore.) -- A grand jury indicted a Portland, Oregon, police officer on an assault charge for what prosecutors allege was an "excessive and unlawful use of force" during a protest last summer.

Portland Police Bureau Officer Corey Budworth was indicted Tuesday with one count of fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, stemming from the August 2020 incident, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said.

Budworth, who at the time was on the bureau's Rapid Response Team, which does crowd control, is accused of striking a woman in the head with a baton during the Aug. 18, 2020, demonstration outside the Multnomah Building. The indictment marks the first time a Portland police officer has faced prosecution for striking or firing at someone during a protest, according to the Oregonian.

"When that line is crossed, and a police officer's use of force is excessive and lacks a justification under the law, the integrity of our criminal justice system requires that we as prosecutors act as a mechanism for accountability," Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in a video statement announcing the indictment. "Public trust requires nothing less. And in this case, we allege that no legal justification existed for Officer Budworth's deployment of force, and that the deployment of force was legally excessive under the circumstances."

The Portland Police Bureau placed Budworth on administrative leave Tuesday, officials said.

The Portland Police Association, the union representing officers, said in a statement that Budworth was "caught in the crossfire of agenda-driven city leaders and a politicized criminal justice system." The union said Budworth accidentally struck the woman, Teri Jacobs, in the head with his baton while trying to break up a riot.

"The location of Officer Budworth's last baton push was accidental, not criminal," the union said in its statement. "He faced a violent and chaotic, rapidly evolving situation, and he used the lowest level of baton force -- a push; not a strike or a jab -- to remove Ms. Jacobs from the area."

The union also alleged Jacobs was interfering with an arrest.

Jacobs filed a civil lawsuit against the city over her alleged physical and emotional injuries from the incident, which was settled earlier this year for $50,000, according to ABC Portland affiliate KATU-TV.

In an open letter published in April, Jacobs called on Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to "hold the people responsible for this criminal behavior accountable."

Jacobs said she was wearing a press badge at the protest and was never arrested or cited over the incident.

In a statement Tuesday, Wheeler said he "take[s] this matter very seriously" and "hold[s] Portland Police Bureau members to a very high standard of professional conduct," though did not comment further on the indictment as he is the final decision-maker in police disciplinary matters.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell also did not provide additional details on the case due to his role in the internal investigation.

"PPB has worked hard over the years to revamp our policies and training and we continue to look for additional ways to maintain our community's trust," he said in a statement Tuesday. "I ask for the community's patience as we follow the guidelines of the established internal accountability process."

During near-nightly social justice protests in Portland last year sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Portland police used force more than 6,000 times between May 29 and Nov. 15, according to a Department of Justice report.

"One indictment won’t fix policing. The legal system may hold Budworth responsible for unlawful conduct and punish him, but it won’t bring about the wholesale change we need," the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which represented Jacobs, said in a statement Tuesday. "Portland's elected leaders and PPB leadership are responsible for making change and should be accountable."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Firefighters injured in massive chemical plant fire


(ROCKTON, Ill.) -- A massive explosion at a northern Illinois chemical plant ignited a fire and prompted evacuations Monday, less than a month after the plant was inspected by a federal agency. The fires continued to burn as of Tuesday.

The fire at Chemtool has forced over 125 homes and businesses within a one-mile radius to evacuate as a precaution. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, according to authorities. All 70 workers were able to get out safely.

“This is a large-scale operation that's going to take some time,” said Rockton Fire Protection District chief Kirk Wilson.

Bob Snyder, the vice president of operations at the parent company Lubrizol Corporation, addressed the fire during a press conference on Tuesday. He said the focus is on the community.

“We're going to do everything we can to do the right thing and support, not only Chief Wilson and all the other resources in terms of addressing the fire and affecting the right emergency response, but also in supporting the community in the aftermath of the cleanup,” said Snyder.

“We apologize to the people that had to be evacuated whose property and other things may have been impacted by the fire,” he added.

Overnight Monday, half a million gallons of oil were left to burn amid concerns that using water to extinguish the flames could send runoff into the nearby Rock River. On Tuesday, teams trained in industrial fires set up barriers to protect that water and doused the fire with a special foam to get it under control.

“We are doing everything we can to both suppress the fire, protect our air quality and protect our water quality for the long haul,” said Dr. Sandra Martell, the public health administrator for Winnebago County.

Although the black smoke had mostly cleared from the sky Tuesday, authorities were asking anyone within a 3-mile radius to wear a mask outdoors as officials continued to test the air and water quality.

Prior to the incident, the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed in a statement to ABC News that inspectors from the U.S. Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) had opened a health investigation at Chemtool Inc. in Rockton, Illinois, on May 20.

As of Tuesday, the OSHA said it’s opened another investigation into what caused Monday’s explosion. No further information will be available on either of the investigations until OHSA has completed its internal investigation, the agency said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Suspect in 2019 Colorado school shooting found guilty of murder

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(DENVER) -- One of two suspects in a 2019 school shooting in Colorado has been found guilty of murder.

A jury found Devon Erickson, 20, guilty Tuesday on all 46 counts in a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, near Denver, in which one student was killed and eight others were injured.

Erickson faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to ABC Denver affiliate KMGH. His sentencing has been scheduled for Sept. 17, during which two additional crime of violence charges filed as sentence enhancers also will be considered.

A second suspect in the shooting, Alec McKinney, pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after deliberation, last year. He was sentenced to life in prison.

According to police, on May 7, 2019, two suspects entered the K-12 charter school armed with handguns and weapons hidden in guitar cases and opened fire in two separate locations of the school. Kendrick Castillo, 18, one of several students who tried to confront the shooters, was shot to death.

McKinney and Erickson were both students at the school at the time.

Erickson pleaded not guilty to the charges, which also included multiple counts of attempted murder, arson and burglary.

Defense attorneys argued Erickson, 18 at the time of the shooting, was pressured into participating by McKinney, then 16, KMGH reported. But prosecutors said the two friends were partners in a "shared scheme," and McKinney also testified against Erickson that they were equal partners in the shooting, KMGH reported.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Boat explosion at Lake of the Ozarks injures 6 people, including 3 minors


(LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo.) -- Six people in Missouri, including three minors, were rushed to hospitals with varying injuries Tuesday after the boat they were traveling in at Lake of the Ozarks exploded, investigators said.

The incident took place around 1:40 p.m. near the 10.4 mile marker of the Osage Arm, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The six passengers, who hailed from Nebraska, were aboard a 2007 26-foot Sea Ray Sundeck boat, the accident report said.

James Hohenstein, 47 the driver, Kari Hohenstein, 46, and Brad Vanwinkle, 36, and three passengers aged 16, 12 and 2, were taken to area hospitals. All of the passengers except for the 2-year-old were suffered "serious injuries," and the toddler only suffered minor injury, the report said.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.

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