U.S. Expands Air Passenger Rights

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) — New airline passenger protections were put into effect nationwide Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation said.

The customer protections include refunded baggage fees if bags are lost, larger compensation for passengers bumped from overbooked flight and expanded protections from long runway delays.

“The Obama Administration believes consumers have the right to be treated fairly when they fly,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a release. “The Department of Transportation’s new passenger protections will help ensure that air travelers receive the respect they deserve before, during and after their flight.”

All airlines must comply with the protections, which include requiring airline Web sites to disclose all optional fees, such as baggage fees. Runway delays have been limited to 3 hours for domestic and 4 hours for international flights, the release said.

Additional protections will take effect in January 2012, including a requirement that all taxes and fees be included in advertised fares and a ban on increasing a price after a purchase has been completed.

Mother’s Last Wish Helps FBI Find Fugitive

SALIDA, Calif., Aug. 23 (UPI) — The FBI says a mother’s dying wish to contact her fugitive son led them to him in California.

William Walter Asher III was arrested Friday in Salida, Calif., years after his ailing, elderly mother contacted him, ABC News reported.

Asher’s mother Mable Welch “asked various family members to assist her in using the ‘secret’ number to call ‘Billy,'” shortly before her death, an FBI news release said.

The FBI collected the phone records of the family members. Two phone calls where made a few days before Welch died to a residence owned by Garry Donald Webb, who investigators said “appeared to resemble an older, thinner Asher,” based on his driving license photo.

When Asher was 19, in 1966, he participated in the robbery of a San Francisco bar, during which the bartender was shot and then beaten to death.

Asher fled to Chicago after the robbery, however, was apprehended by FBI agents and returned to California. He was convicted for the crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

The convict escaped from prison eight years into his sentence with the assistance of a woman and had been on the run since.

The FBI searched throughout the United States and Canada for Asher to no avail.

“After 36 years of looking over his shoulder, William Walter Asher III, now 66 years old, is finally back where he belongs — in prison,” said a FBI statement.

Lawmaker Calls For Investigation Of Graves

ANKARA, Turkey, Aug. 23 (UPI) — The Turkish parliament should investigate mass graves found in the eastern part of the country, an opposition leader said Tuesday.

Huseyin Agu of the Republican People’s Party, usually known by its Turkish acronym CHP, said at a news conference the country must “confront the reality of mass graves, which left their mark on the darkness of the ’90s,” Today’s Zaman reported. His news conference was in response to the discovery of the remains of 15 individuals buried near a police station in Tunceli.

The Tunceli grave was excavated as part of an investigation by a special prosecutor.

The Human Rights Association says more than 1,500 people are buried in 113 graves in southeast Turkey, Aygun said. He said the pace of mass burials appears to have slowed in the past decade with only 194 people in mass burials.

The graves allegedly contain the victims of the JITEM, a secret unit set up within the police force in the 1990s.

Cypriot Leaders Back At Table

NICOSIA, Cyprus, Aug. 23 (UPI) — The presidents of the Greek and Turkish sections of Cyprus returned to the negotiating table Tuesday after a three-week hiatus.

The last session, scheduled for Aug. 5, was canceled because Cyprus President Demetris Christofias was in the midst of a political crisis, World Bulletin reported. Christofias has been under fire because of a deadly explosion at a naval base.

Christofias and Dervis Eroglu, president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, have been in intensive talks this summer in an effort to reunite the island. Cyprus has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974.

Turkey is the only country that recognizes the northern third of the island as an independent state.

The two leaders agreed during a meeting July 7 with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to hold a total of 19 meetings by mid-October.

Rising Number Of Squatters In Detroit

DETROIT, Aug. 23 (UPI) — Detroit officials say complaints about squatters have tripled in recent years but Michigan law makes it difficult to remove illegal residents.

There are more than 100,000 vacant properties throughout Detroit, many of which are increasingly being taken over by squatters, The Detroit News reported Tuesday.

City Ombudsman Durene Brown says she used to receive about 100 complaints per year about squatters but that number has recently grown to about 300.

“Squatters are nothing new, but it’s much easier with so many people losing their homes and the city’s neglect at making sure [owners] are following our code enforcement,” Brown said.

Gretchen Barrow, who fought for months to remove two squatter families from her neighborhood, said her area “has been hit with a number of abandoned houses and foreclosures, and that’s a major concern for us. I wish I knew how to tackle that, but I don’t have a clue.”

Officials say only a homeowner or a bank can evict residents and a loophole in state law allows squatters to gain possession of a home if they live in it continuously for 15 years, the newspaper said.

“We have found it difficult when you call the police that unless the person is doing something against the law, (they) don’t have proof they are not supposed to be there. It’s a Catch-22 situation,” said Tom Goddeeris, an executive director of a legal resources group.

“We should look at it both ways: How do we embrace it and turn the negative into a positive?” said Quincy Jones, head of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance. “All these homes are sitting and it’s an open invitation for squatters. It helps prevent homes from being stripped.”

U.S. Releases Plan To Cut Red Tape

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) — The Obama administration introduced a plan Tuesday for U.S. regulatory reform that officials say would save $10 billion in the next five years.

Among the 500 changes proposed are easing the visa application process, speeding up payment to Defense Department contractors and eliminating 100 regulations in the Department of Transportation, The Washington Post reported. Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, estimated the savings at $10 billion.

“But numbers do not tell the whole story,” he told reporters on a morning conference call. “There are a number of initiatives that are finished or well under way or contemplated that will make a difference to people.”

Sunstein said the administration’s goal is also to make the regulatory process more open and flexible.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who described the plan as “underwhelming,” said President Barack Obama remains unwilling to tackle regulation.

“The House will continue our jobs focus and pursue a legislative agenda that boosts economic growth through reducing the regulatory and tax burden,” he said.

New Lethal Injection Drug Combo Is Constitutional

MIAMI, Aug. 23 (UPI) — Florida’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday a barbiturate can be used in the state’s lethal injection cocktail and the execution of a convicted killer can proceed.

The drug, pentobarbital, came into question when lawyers representing Manuel Valle, who was scheduled to be executed Aug. 2, argued that the use of the drug could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, The Miami Herald reported.

The lawyer contended that because pentobarbital has not been thoroughly studied as an anesthetic, which is what it will be used for in the lethal combination of three drugs, it could be deemed cruel and unusual punishment.

A Miami-Dade judge rejected the argument, but the Florida Supreme Court postponed the execution so Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola could hold a hearing on the effectiveness of pentobarbital.

Scola took written briefs from lawyers from both sides, which were reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The high court ruled Tuesday that the use of the drug is constitutional and declined to hear oral arguments.

Valle, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 shooting and killing of a Coral Gables police officer, is now scheduled to be executed Sept. 1.

Florida had to come up with a different drug to knock out death row inmates after production of the anesthetic sodium thiopental was discontinued. Pentobarbital will now be used with a second drug that paralyzes the condemned inmate and a third stops the heart, the Herald said.

Doctor Guilty In Medicare Fraud Scheme

MIAMI, Aug. 23 (UPI) — A Miami-area doctor pleaded guilty Tuesday to his role in a scheme to bilk Medicare out of about $25 million, U.S.prosecutors said.

Jose Nunez, 63, who owns two medical offices, prescribed medically unnecessary services, including home health and therapy prescriptions, care plans and medical certifications, from about January 2006 until about March 2009 in exchange for kickbacks and bribes, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services announced.

Nunez provided home healthcare and therapy prescription referrals to ABC Home Health Care Inc. and Florida Home Health Care Providers Inc. In plea documents, he admitted he knew the Miami home healthcare agencies billed Medicare for costly physical therapy and home healthcare services that were unnecessary or never provided.

He received kickbacks and bribes from nurses, patient recruiters, and the owners and operators of ABC and Florida Home Health, court documents say.

Nunez pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud.

As part of the scheme, plea documents show, he falsified patient files with descriptions of non-existent medical conditions for the Medicare beneficiaries, including hand tremors, unsteady gait and poor vision.

Sentencing is set for Dec. 5. Conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Nunez also faces fines and forfeiture of any property or proceeds derived from the scheme.

Police: Boys Smash Windows Of 140 Vehicles

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 23 (UPI) — Three boys arrested in Minneapolis allegedly smashed windows of more than 140 vehicles, causing $100,000 to $200,000 damage, police said.

The suspects — ages 11, 15 and 16 — were taken into custody about 10:15 p.m. Monday when police spotted a vehicle that matched the description of the one they were in at 38th Street and Columbus Avenue, WCCO-TV, Minneapolis, reported.

Police said they found evidence in the vehicle linking them to vandalism that occurred Sunday and Monday nights..

Minneapolis police Sgt. William Palmer would not elaborate on the evidence or the vehicle the suspects were in, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

Police had said Sunday the vandalism may have been caused by a baseball bat wielded by two males who had been in a truck.

The three boys are suspected of vandalizing at least 126 vehicles in the Corcoran, Standish and Ericsson neighborhoods Sunday and another 14 vehicles Monday night in a 10-square-block area between between 27th and 37th avenues and 34th and 44th streets.

A fourth boy was seen “running frantically towards the vehicle,” a police report said. Palmer said he then ran away and was not arrested.

The boys were processed and released from the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, WCCO said.

Man Drags Dog To Death Behind Car

DALARNA, Sweden, Aug. 23 (UPI) — An elderly Swedish man inadvertently dragged his dog to death behind his car, officials say.

The man, 84, pulled over at a rest stop in Dalarna, Sweden, to let his dog relieve itself, The Local reported Tuesday. He then tied the dog to the tow-bar of his car while he made some phone calls in the driver’s seat.

The man evidently forgot about his dog and drove off from the rest stop.

After the man had drive almost 2 miles, another driver was able to flag him down to alert him of his mistake.

The dog was injured beyond repair and had to be put down.

The man may face charges of animal cruelty and gross negligence.