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Florida teen accused of stabbing a cheerleader 114 times pleads guilty to murder

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A Florida teen accused of stabbing a 13-year-old cheerleader 114 times nearly two years ago pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Monday, authorities said.

The plea in the brutal stabbing of Tristyn Bailey came one day before jury selection was to begin in the trial of Aiden Fucci, who was 14 when he was arrested in the May 9, 2021, killing, the state’s attorney’s office for Florida’s Seventh Judicial District said in a statement.

13-year-old Tristyn Bailey.
13-year-old Tristyn Bailey.St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office / via Twitter

“Today was a major event in this case,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza said.

Prosecutors will seek the maximum penalty, he added — a life sentence.

The office’s statement said no plea offer had been made. A lawyer for Fucci did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Tristyn’s family said that they were confident prosecutors would have secured a guilty verdict but that the surprise plea brought “significant relief,” according to the NBC affiliate WTLV of Jacksonville.

“Just as Tristyn fought for her life, we equally fought for her and would not agree to any plea deal,” the statement said. “We were fully aligned with the prosecutor in rejecting the proposed plea deals mentioned by the Public Defender during the plea hearing.”

Tristyn was found dead in woods outside Jacksonville. According to a probable cause affidavit, Fucci told authorities that he got into an argument with Tristyn and pushed her to the ground after they left a mutual friend’s before dawn on May 9.

While he was still considered a witness, Fucci snapped a photo of himself in the back of a police vehicle flashing a peace sign and posted the image to social media with the caption: “Hey guys has inybody seen Tristyn lately.”

He was arrested May 10 and initially accused of second-degree murder.

Days later, a grand jury indicted him on a first-degree murder charge, and Fucci was to be tried as an adult. At the time, Larizza said the sheer number of stab wounds the girl suffered supported the charge and showed the attack was premeditated.

Fucci is expected to return to court Feb. 23, when a judge will schedule a sentencing date.

Biden expected to visit Poland this month to mark first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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President Joe Biden is expected to travel to Poland this month to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to three people familiar with the planning.

Current planning underway is for Biden to visit Poland near the end of February, the sources told NBC News.

The sources noted that the trip is not final until the White House announces it and that the plans could change.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment.

It was not immediately clear whether additional stops would be added to the trip.

NBC News was first to report last month that Biden was considering a trip to Europe, including possibly Poland, to mark the one-year anniversary of the war which began on Feb. 24, 2022.

Sources at the time said the White House was considering ways Biden might mark the milestone with the aim of drawing attention to Ukraine’s resilience against Russia’s brutal military campaign and to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with the Ukrainian people as the conflict enters a new phase.

Visiting Europe would give Biden an in-person opportunity to foster greater unity within the U.S.-European alliance. Biden commented on the importance of that unity when he announced on Jan. 25 that the U.S. would send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

“I’ve been saying this a long time — the expectation on the part of Russia is we’re going to break up, we’re not going to stay united. But we are fully, thoroughly, totally united,” Biden said.

Since Russia’s invasion, the Biden administration has committed more than $29.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, the Defense Department said last week.

Zoë Richards contributed.

Father of 2 missing children allegedly abducted by their mom speaks out

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A father who has been reunited with his two missing children after nearly a year said that his ex-wife, who is accused of kidnapping, kept them out of school and limited who they interacted with so they wouldn’t be found.

The children, 11 and 12 years old, were reported missing in Missouri on March 15, and were found at a Florida grocery store last week.

“My kids were missing. I didn’t know where they are. … That’s the biggest fear in the world,” Blake Gilley, 38, said Monday afternoon in an exclusive interview. “It is an understatement to say I was terrified and freaked out.”

Gilley said the kids told him that they haven’t been to school since they disappeared and that they avoided detection by bouncing from one rural Airbnb to another in multiple states.

The children were found Wednesday at a Winn-Dixie in High Springs, Fla., with their non-custodial mother, Kristi Nicole Gilley.

The 36-year-old woman was arrested on an active kidnapping warrant out of Clay County, Missouri, police said. Officers found the kids after a routine tag check on Gilley’s vehicle, which indicated that the vehicle’s owner was a fugitive, police said.

The three were identified, despite having disguised their identities. It was not immediately clear how exactly their identities were disguised.

“These children and their abductor were passing through the area and had no residency connection to Alachua County, Florida, nor were they enrolled in any schools,” Florida police said Monday in a statement.

The family was “en route to an Airbnb right outside of our area,” High Springs Police Chief Antoine Sheppard said.

Airbnb did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blake Gilley, of Texas, said that he was reunited with his children Friday and that they told him their mother tried to keep them inside, but when they were in public, they were to avoid speaking with people, especially the boy who is non-verbal and has Down syndrome.

He said that his kids told him that “Kristi would never tell them what town they were in or anything. If they were in a car, they had to keep their heads down. My son still does that.”

Blake Gilley said that the children said their mother instructed them not to speak or to look anyone in the eyes. He said because of that, his son will “just look at the ground. He’s getting better now. I’ve been telling him, ‘Hey, you’re good, buddy, look up.'”

Kristi Gilley was listed as an inmate Monday afternoon in the Alachua County jail.

Her attorney Maurice McDaniel said Monday night that she will fight extradition to Missouri because she wants to become a Florida resident.

McDaniel said he spoke to Kristi Gilley for an hour in jail Friday and denied allegations that she kept her children hidden by bouncing from one Airbnb to another. He also said that the mother did not indicate to him that she had instructed her children to limit their interactions with others.

County court documents in Florida said Gilley pleaded not guilty and was held on no bail on Thursday. A representative with the Alachua County Clerk said no other court dates have been set.

Blake Gilley said that the couple divorced in 2016 and that Kristi Gilley disappeared last year before they could resolve a custody dispute.

A probable cause statement out of Clay County, Missouri, said the pair had a joint custody agreement out of Randall County, Texas, prior to April 14, 2022.

But the father was granted sole custody after Kristi Gilley failed to appear in court, according to court documents. At one point, she was living with her sister and the children, in Liberty, Missouri, in the Kansas City area, the report said.

“Kristi had been making it increasingly more difficult for Blake to visit or speak to the children for quite some time, and had refused to let Blake visit or speak to the children at all, since 3/15/2022,” the court report said.

The report said authorities checked for the children and mother at a grandparent’s home in Chico, California, where they discovered that the grandparent no longer lived there.

An advocate for Kristi Gilley stated that the mother would no longer cooperate with the court in Clay County because she believed she was being denied due process, according to the report, which added that the children were safe and being homeschooled, according to the advocate.

A parental kidnapping warrant was filed for Kristi Gilley on July 13, 2022.

Blake Gilley said his children were not physically harmed, but emotionally, “They are still in shock. You can see this is bothering them.”

He is hoping to get his children counseling and back in school: “To give them a fighting chance in life.”

Police deserve a lot of credit for finding his children, he said.

“They worked their butts off,” Gilley said.

Fearing an explosion, officials release toxic chemical after Ohio train derailment

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Officials on Monday completed the release of toxic chemicals that had been carried on a train that derailed over the weekend in eastern Ohio. Officials had warned that the chemical could be deadly if inhaled.

The release of vinyl chloride, a toxic, flammable gas used to produce vehicle interiors and PVC piping, was completed late Monday afternoon after evacuations were expanded from East Palestine, Ohio, the site of Friday night’s derailment, to an adjacent community in Pennsylvania.

The release was “successfully completed,” according to the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern. A burn-off of material would continue past nightfall, it said.

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.
Parts of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night were still on fire in East Palestine, Ohio, at midday Saturday.Gene J. Puskar / AP

A federal Emergency Alert System message on Monday urged residents in East Palestine and Pennsylvania’s Darlington Township to leave immediately.

The office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday night 500 people had defied orders to leave, but on Monday he said he believed all had left.

The Ohio National Guard was deployed to the area late Sunday, and authorities went door to door urging stragglers to move out, DeWine said at a news conference Monday.

“Those in the red area are facing grave danger of death if they are still in that area,” he warned.

Two of five train cars believed to be carrying vinyl chloride were likely to have been filled with the gas, and temperature changes could have set it off, officials said at the news conference.

That left leaders with two bad choices: release a gas known for its deadly potential if inhaled and associated with a higher risk of cancer or stand back for an extended period of time with the potential for an explosion.

Authorities said an explosion would come with two dangers, including the same one that comes with a controlled release, exposure to a hazardous material.

“The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes,” DeWine said.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
A black plume rises as a result of a controlled detonation Monday of part of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains in East Palestine, Ohio.Gene J. Puskar / AP

Both of cars believed to be filled with vinyl chloride contained 177,000 pounds of the chemical, a National Guard official said. It was not clear how much was in the others. All five were subject to the controlled release and subsequent burn off, officials said.

Released material would reach an adjacent pit and ignite from flares placed in the feature, officials said.

“We’re going to place a small-shaped charge. It’s going to create a hole about 2 to 3 inches into the tank car,” said Scott Deutsch, a hazardous materials regional manager for Norfolk Southern. “This will allow the material to come out of the tank car.”

Environmental Protection Agency personnel have been in East Palestine since Friday night, and they were monitoring air and water, with no sustained signs of toxicity for East Palestine, agency officials said Monday.

A state environmental safety official said that runoff from the train’s subsequent fire and firefighting efforts reached a natural waterway that but officials stemmed the flow. Fish in the area were affected, the official said.

The derailment was reported at 8:55 p.m. Friday as the 150-car train was headed from Matteson, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. It was estimated that 50 cars were off the track.

No injuries were reported, including among the train’s three-person crew.

Initial observations from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, include video and inspection evidence of a broken axle on one of the cars, a board member said Sunday.

Josh Cradduck, Clare Secrist, Cristian Santana and Marin Scott contributed.

Beyond magnitude: A shallow earthquake hammered Turkey

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“Ten major cities were affected by shaking,” Tobin said. “The scale is remarkable.”

The location of the earthquakes wasn’t a surprise. They ruptured near what seismologists call a “triple-junction” — where the African, Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates meet. The East Anatolian Fault is a known, mapped fault system. 

The East Anatolian, like the San Andreas Fault in California, is a strike-slip fault. The earthquake was the result of stress — and then a slip — as tectonic plates rubbed against one another laterally.

Unlike other types of earthquakes, such as those produced by subduction zones, strike-slip faults are known to produce shallow earthquakes that cause shaking relatively close to the Earth’s surface. 

Tobin said it was what he considers a “long” earthquake, meaning energy traveled for a great distance along the fault line. 

“The length of the fault and the size of the slip is what generates the very large shaking, which causes such damage,” Tobin said. 

In this case, the shaking most likely destabilized another fault line that branches off within the East Anatolian Fault system, touching off a 7.5-magnitude earthquake.

The affected areas in Turkey are especially vulnerable, because many buildings were constructed with unreinforced masonry or brick and concrete that is brittle and unable to withstand strong and prolonged shaking, according to the USGS.

Tobin said early videos from Turkey showed collapsed buildings next to other buildings that appeared to be largely intact, a sign that those that weren’t constructed to modern seismic standards were at great risk, although shaking can vary over short distances. 

“This region unfortunately had a great deal of risk of substandard structures for earthquakes, and that’s what we’re seeing play out right now,” Tobin said. 

Dozens of aftershocks have been recorded already, and they could be a danger for some time as the network of faults in the area absorbs new changes to the stress in the Earth’s crust.

CORRECTION (Feb. 6, 2023, 7:01 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the U.S. agency that tracks earthquakes. It is the U.S. Geological Survey, not the U.S. Geological Society.

What’s the deal with Twitch’s ‘Seinfeld’ parody AI and why was it banned?

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A viral Twitch stream that produced an endless AI-generated “Seinfeld” parody show has been banned from the platform for violating community guidelines.

“Nothing, Forever,” a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week show, had become a sensation on Twitch, racking up thousands of viewers. The show featured crudely drawn recreations of characters from the comedy sitcom “Seinfeld” that played out scripts created by using OpenAI software. OpenAI, an artificial intelligence company, has become wildly popular in recent months for its chatbot ChatGPT, which generates conversational text.

The Twitch stream follows the fictional “Larry Feinberg,” a play off of the titular character from “Seinfeld,” which aired on NBC for nine seasons from 1989–1998 (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News). The stream also has characters that parallel the show’s other famous protagonists, including “Yvonne Torres” (Elaine), “Fred Kastopolous” (George) and “Zoltan Kakler” (Kramer), who sit around “Larry’s” apartment making AI-generated jokes. Just like real “Seinfeld” episodes, “Nothing, Forever” begins with a cold open of “Larry” doing stand-up comedy before the show progresses into his apartment.

Prior to being removed from the platform, the Twitch show appeared pixelated and low-quality — imagine a low-resolution Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up in front of a brick wall — that evoked a nostalgia for the early days of the internet.

On Sunday night, “Larry” began his stand-up set by making transphobic remarks. He noted that his crowd wasn’t laughing and asked for suggestions for the routine.

“I’m thinking about doing a bit about how being transgender is actually a mental illness,” he said in the stand-up remarks. “Or how all liberals are secretly gay and want to impose their will on everyone. Or something about how transgender people are ruining the fabric of society. But no one is laughing, so I’m going to stop. Thanks for coming out tonight. See you next time. Where’d everybody go?”

As of Monday afternoon, the Twitch page of “Nothing, Forever” showed visitors a message: “This channel is temporarily unavailable due to a violation of Twitch’s Community Guidelines or Terms of Service.”

Twitch’s community guidelines state the platform “does not permit behavior that is motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance,” which includes “sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation” among other forms of discrimination.

A spokesperson for Twitch did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the suspension.

“Nothing, Forever” also did not immediately return a request for comment.

VICE reported that the team behind “Nothing, Forever” was forced to switch to an older OpenAI chat-generating bot after the current version the show typically runs on failed.

A show staff member posted on Discord that the show was forced to switch from “GPT-3 Davinci” to “GPT-3 Curie,” which led to the transphobic remarks, according to VICE.

OpenAI did not immediately return a request for comment about the older version of GPT-3 being the cause of the remarks.

Downed Chinese balloon was 200 feet tall, U.S. military says

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Pentagon officials said last week they didn’t want to shoot the balloon down over the continental U.S. for fear the debris could cause civilian injuries or death and property damage. The balloon had been flying at about 60,000 feet — close to 12 miles.

VanHerck said that another concern was that the balloon could have been carrying explosives “to detonate and destroy the balloon.”

Military divers were in the water with robotic underwater equipment collecting debris Monday after weather conditions prevented diving Sunday.

As of Monday afternoon, the debris field off of the South Carolina coast was about 1,500 square meters, or about 15 football fields by 15 football fields, the general said.

Image:
A fighter jet passes a large balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday. Chad Fish via AP

“We are still in the recovery of this device, and still trying to gain more intelligence about it,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

VanHerck said the military took “maximum protective measures” to “prevent any intelligence collection” while the balloon flew across the United States.

“We did not assess this balloon posed a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese,” he said, and officials believe they learned more by monitoring the balloon itself.

It “gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, (and) what kind of transmission capabilities existed,” VanHerck said. “We were able to get significant analysis throughout this process.”

The Chinese foreign ministry has acknowledged the balloon came from China but claimed on its website that it “is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” and that had “deviated far from its planned course” because of strong winds and a lack of steering ability.

Pentagon officials dismissed those claims as hot air; they maintain the balloon was clearly meant for surveillance. “It has the ability to maneuver,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters last week.

Judge allows Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes into evidence at murder trial, a pivotal win for the prosecution

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In a pivotal moment in the double murder trial against Alex Murdaugh, a South Carolina judge ruled Monday that he would allow financial crimes allegedly perpetrated by the once-powerful lawyer to be admitted into evidence for the jury to hear.

The move comes after Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman was presented testimony from several witnesses, including from Murdaugh’s former law firm colleagues and banking associates, without the jury present so that he could decide on the relevance of the allegations.

Murdaugh, 54, is accused of fatally shooting his wife, Margaret, 52, and their youngest son, Paul, 22, on the evening of June 7, 2021. State prosecutors contend the murders were committed to cover up a slew of financial misdeeds by Murdaugh, who they say stole about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims and sought to garner sympathy ahead of being publicly exposed.

Alex Murdaugh looks at paperwork during his double murder trial in Walterboro, S.C.
Alex Murdaugh looks at paperwork during his double murder trial in Walterboro, S.C., on Feb. 3, 2023.Sam Wolfe / The State via AP, Pool

“I find that the jury is entitled to consider whether the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh because of his dire financial situation and threat of being exposed for committing the crimes of which he was later charged with resulted in the commission of the alleged crimes,” Newman said. “While motive is not a necessary element, the state must prove malice, and evidence of motive may be used to prove it.”

Murdaugh’s defense team objected to the judge’s ruling. His lawyers have previously said in court that his finances are only being used to vilify him and the state hasn’t offered any evidence showing Murdaugh would have reaped a financial windfall from the deaths of his wife and son, such as a life insurance payout, nor that they knew of any alleged impropriety, which he sought to conceal by killing them.

“They’ve got a whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they do about evidence of guilt in a murder case. And that’s what this is all about,” defense lawyer Jim Griffin said Friday.

Newman had said last week that it was the defense who “opened the door” to allowing Murdaugh’s financial situation to be up for review when they asked witnesses on the stand about his character and if there was any reason they could think of that Murdaugh would kill his wife and son.

“Evidence of other crimes or bad acts is necessary if it is an essential part of the crimes on trial,” Newman said.

From left, Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.
From left, Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.via Facebook

The trial, now in its third week, has captured attention as a sprawling saga that began as an unsolved double homicide in 2021, but eventually unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hitman plot and drug addiction, and revived questions into other deaths linked to the Murdaughs, a prominent legal family in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh had been awaiting trial on three felony counts of boating under the influence for a 2019 boat crash in which a 19-year-old occupant was killed. Prosecutors say the case only drew more scrutiny on the Murdaughs and placed financial strain on Murdaugh as the family faced a wrongful death lawsuit.

Dennis Bolt, a retired attorney in Columbia, South Carolina, who is not affiliated with the case but has served on prior cases with members of Murdaugh’s defense team, said the judge’s ruling hands the prosecution an obvious advantage “because it allows the state to try to prove that if you are a thief, you are ipso facto a murderer.”

But Bolt said he doesn’t believe the finance-related evidence shown so far is proof that Murdaugh committed the murders.

Should Murdaugh be found guilty, however, the defense could cite the judge’s ruling as grounds for an appeal.

“It’s interesting to me to ponder how the prosecution will use it in their closing argument,” Bolt said of the financial crime allegations. “They cannot argue anything that is not evidence or law. Since there is no evidence factually linking the financial wrongdoing to the murders, what will they say to the jury?”

Sprawling saga surrounds Alex Murdaugh

Chief prosecutor Creighton Waters said he expects to begin introducing the alleged financial misconduct for the jury to hear starting Tuesday.

Among those who testified Monday was Muschelle Smith, a caregiver for Murdaugh’s mother, Elizabeth. Murdaugh has said he visited his ailing mother on the night of the murders as part of his alibi.

Smith testified that it was unusual for Murdaugh to visit his mother late at night, and in the days after the murders, he told her that “if somebody asks you, I’ve been here 30 to 40 minutes.” But she recollected that he had only been there for about 20 minutes.

On cross-examination, Griffin established for the defense that Smith had not seen any evidence of blood when he visited his mother.

Also at the heart of Smith’s testimony was a blue tarp that she said she saw Murdaugh carry into the home in the days after the murders.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors suggested they found a blue raincoat in a closet in the home and it tested positive for gunshot residue.

Griffin unfurled a blue tarp for Smith to make clear what she saw. “A tarp like this, that would maybe cover up a car, is that right?” he asked her. “Any way to confuse this with a rain jacket?”

Smith responded “no,” and that the tarp was “balled up.”

A state law enforcement agent later testified that the raincoat was tested for blood, but none was found.

As Democrats oust Iowa from atop presidential calendar, here’s a look at how they got here

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Democrats voted this past weekend to say goodbye to Iowa as the first state on their presidential nominating calendar, a move likely to end the state’s almost 50-year history leading off the Democratic race for president.

Iowa has had a strong history of picking Democratic candidates that ultimately win the party’s nomination — Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all won Iowa caucuses the year their party tapped them as its presidential nominee.

But that wasn’t the case in 2020, when Democrat Pete Buttigieg ultimately won a caucus mired by technological mishaps that delayed the reporting of the results for days. It was that mishap, along with concerns from many Democrats about the lack of diversity among the electorate picking winners in each of the first two nominating states (Iowa and New Hampshire) that helped pave the way for this weekend’s vote.

For more on the Democrats’ history with the Iowa caucus, and how it’s mattered in key presidential races over the years, check out this deep dive from ahead of the 2020 caucus written by NBC News and MSNBC National Political Correspondent Steve Kornacki.

Scenes of grief, destruction after devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

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Photos: Scenes of grief, destruction after devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria