Showing posts with label Health. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Health. Show all posts

Rescuers end effort to find body of man presumed dead in sinkhole

SEFFNER, Florida -- Florida rescue workers have ended their efforts to recover the body of a man who disappeared into a sinkhole that swallowed his bedroom while he slept in a suburban Tampa home, and the house will be demolished, a public safety official said on Saturday.

Jeff Bush, 36, who is presumed dead, was asleep when the other five members of the household who were getting ready for bed on Thursday night heard a loud crash and Jeff screaming.

Authorities have not detected any signs of life after lowering listening devices and cameras into the hole.

"Our data has come back, and there is absolutely no way we can do any kind of recovery without endangering lives of workers," said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Dam.

The sinkhole also has compromised the house next door, officials said Saturday.

Officials planned to let family members, accompanied by firefighters, into the threatened  home for about 20 minutes to gather some  belongings, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera told reporters Saturday.

She said demolition of the home would begin early on Sunday.

Bush's body hadn’t been removed by Saturday afternoon and the ground near the home was still "very, very unsafe," Rivera said at a televised press conference Saturday.

"At this time we did some testing and we determined that the house right next to the house that’s actually damaged is also compromised by the sinkhole," Rivera said.

Jeff's brother, 35-year-old Jeremy Bush, jumped into the hole and furiously kept digging to find his brother.

"I really don't think they are going to be able to find him," Jeremy said on Saturday. He "will be there forever."

A small memorial of balloons and flowers for his brother had formed near the house on Saturday morning.

"I thank the Lord for not taking my daughter and the rest of my family," he said.

Jeremy himself had to be rescued from the sinkhole by the first responder to the emergency call, Douglas Duvall of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. When Duvall entered Jeff Bush's bedroom, all he saw was a widening chasm but no sign of Jeff.

"The hole took the entire bedroom," said Duvall. "You could see the bed frame, the dresser, everything was sinking," he said.

Norman Wicker, 48, the father of Jeremy's fiancee who also lived in the house, ran to get a flashlight and shovel.

"It sounded like a car ran into the back of the house," Wicker said.

"There is a very large, very fluid mass underneath this house rendering the entire house and the entire lot dangerous and unsafe," Bill Bracken, the head of an engineering company assisting fire and rescue officials, told the news conference late on Friday.

"We are still trying to determine the extent and nature of what's down there so we can best determine how to approach it and how to extricate," Bracken said.

After suspending the search overnight, it resumed at daylight on Saturday, with engineering consultants trying to determine the extent of the collapse so that a perimeter boundary can be established for setting up heavy equipment for future excavation.

Several nearby homes were evacuated in case the 30-foot wide sinkhole got larger but officials said Friday it only appeared to be getting deeper. Soil samples showed that the sinkhole has compromised the ground underneath a home next door, engineers said Saturday.

The residents of that house were allowed 20 minutes in their home on Saturday to gather belongings. Firefighters and residents formed an assembly line to move items out of the house into SUVs and trucks.

Rescue officials said that in addition to soil samples, they were focusing on engineering analysis, ground penetration radar and other techniques to determine the extent of the ongoing collapse. Listening devices were being used to detect any evidence of life although Bush was presumed dead.

The Bush brothers worked together as landscapers, according to Leland Wicker, 48, one of the other residents of the house.

The risk of sinkholes is common in Florida due to the state's porous geological bedrock, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. As rainwater filters down into the ground, it dissolves the rock, causing erosion that can lead to underground caverns, which cause sinkholes when they collapse.


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Redflex execs out as scandal grows in red light camera firm

The president, chief financial officer and top lawyer for Chicago's red light camera company resigned this week amid an escalating corruption scandal that has cost Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. its lucrative, decadelong relationship with the city.

The resignations came as Redflex said it was winding down a company-funded probe into allegations of an improper relationship between the company and the former city transportation manager who oversaw its contract until 2011, a relationship first disclosed by the Tribune in October. A longtime friend of that city manager was hired by Redflex for a high-paid consulting deal.

The company recently acknowledged it improperly paid for thousands of dollars in trips for the former city official, the latest in a series of controversial revelations that have shaken Redflex from its Phoenix headquarters to Australia, the home of parent company Redflex Holdings Ltd.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration banned the company from competing for the upcoming speed camera contract and went further last month by announcing that Redflex would lose its red light contract when it expires in June. The Chicago program, with more than 380 cameras, has been the company's largest in North America and is worth about 13 percent of worldwide revenue for Redflex Holdings. Since 2003 it has generated about $100 million for Redflex and more than $300 million in ticket revenue for the city.

In an email addressed to all company employees, Redflex Holdings CEO and President Robert T. DeVincenzi announced the resignations of three top executives in Phoenix: Karen Finley, the company's longtime president and chief executive officer; Andrejs Bunkse, the general counsel; and Sean Nolen, the chief financial officer. Their exits follow those of the chairman of the board of Redflex Holdings, another Australian board member and the company's top sales executive who Redflex has blamed for much of its Chicago problems.

"Today's announcement of executive changes follows the conclusion of our investigation in Chicago and marks the dividing line between the past and where this company is headed," said DeVincenzi, who took over as CEO of the Phoenix company. "This day, and each day going forward, we intend to be a constructive force in our industry, promoting high ethical standards and serving the public interest."

The company also held town hall meetings in Arizona to unveil reforms, including new requirements to put all company employees through anti-bribery and anti-corruption training, hiring a new director of compliance to ensure that employees adhere to company policies and establishing a 24-hour whistle-blower hotline.

The resignations and a second consecutive halt to public trading of the company's stock are the latest in a string of events that followed Tribune reports last year regarding 2-year-old internal allegations of corruption in the Chicago contract that the company previously said were investigated and discounted.

The scandal now enveloping the company centers on its relationship to former Chicago transportation official John Bills, who retired in 2011 after overseeing the company's contract since it began in 2003.

A whistle-blower letter obtained by the Tribune said Bills received lavish vacations directly on the expense report of a company executive and raised questions about improper ties between Bills and a Redflex consultant who received more than $570,000 in company commissions.

Bills and the consultant, a longtime friend, have denied wrongdoing.

The company told the Tribune in October that its investigation into the 2010 letter found only one instance of an inadvertent expenditure for Bills, a two-day hotel stay at the Arizona Biltmore expensed by the executive. Redflex lawyer Bunkse told the newspaper that the company responded by sending the executive to "anti-bribery" training and overhauling company expense procedures.

But after additional Tribune reports, the company hired a former Chicago inspector general, David Hoffman, to conduct another investigation. Hoffman made an interim report of his findings to company board members this month. That report prompted the company officials to acknowledge a much deeper involvement with Bills, including thousands of dollars for trips to the Super Bowl and White Sox spring training over many years.

The chairman of the company's Australian board of directors resigned, trading on company stock was temporarily suspended and the company acknowledged that it is sharing information with law enforcement.

Trading was halted again this week pending more details about the company's latest actions.

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Tax on pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago up $1 to $6.67

On the eve of a $1-per-pack Cook County cigarette tax increase, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the glow of X-rays showing damaged lungs, surrounded by some of Stroger Hospital's top pulmonary specialists as she discussed how smoking shortens people's lives.

The setting and talking points made clear the message Preckwinkle wanted to convey Thursday: This is a public health problem, one she plans to fight by giving smokers an incentive to quit and teens a reason not to start.

But the county's tax increase is more than just a campaign to protect people from emphysema and lung cancer. Preckwinkle is counting on $25.6 million this year from the move to help balance the budget. The history of cigarette tax increases suggests the county will be lucky to get that much in 2013 and should expect diminishing returns in the years ahead.

Smokes are a financial well that public officials have gone to repeatedly to shore up shaky finances at the local and state level. When the county tax increase takes effect Friday, a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago will come with $6.67 tacked on by the city, county and state. That's just behind New York City's nation-leading $6.86 in taxes per pack. It will also push the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to as much as $11.

Recent cigarette tax increases have had only a short-term benefit to the government bottom line. Some people quit, while others buy cigarettes online or outside the county or state.

When the county last raised the cigarette tax — by $1 per pack in 2006 — collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, hitting $203.7 million, county records show. But by 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mayor Richard M. Daley bumped up the city of Chicago's share of the cigarette tax by 32 cents in 2005 and another 20 cents in 2006, to 68 cents per pack. He saw collections rise from $15.6 million in 2004 to $32.9 million in 2006, according to a city report. But city cigarette tax revenue fell to $28.4 million in 2007, and continued dropping to $18.7 million by 2011, records show.

At the state level, Quinn pushed through a $1-a-pack hike in June.

Before that, state lawmakers and Gov. George Ryan agreed on a 40-cent increase in 2002. Cigarette tax proceeds went up by more than $178 million in 2003, to $643.1 million, and rose to $729.2 million in 2004. The revenue then fell steadily to $549 million by 2010 before edging back up to $580 million last year, according to state records.

The county is preparing for the windfall from the $1 increase to be strong this year, then decline. County officials project that after bringing in $25.6 million for the remainder of this budget year, the increase will net about $29 million for 2014, $21 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and just $9 million in 2017.

Preckwinkle says that's OK with her.

"My hope would be that over the long run this is no longer a way in which governments look to raise money, because fewer and fewer people are smoking," she said. "So I would hope that we have the effect of reducing our revenue because more people quit."

The county could end up saving money as cigarette tax revenue falls because uninsured people with ailments related to smoking are such a heavy financial burden to the public hospital system, Preckwinkle said.

In the meantime, Preckwinkle pledged to hire more staff this year to crack down on stores selling untaxed packs and large-scale tobacco smuggling from surrounding states. "We anticipate that there may be some noncompliance, as there always is when you institute an increase like this," she said.

Preckwinkle also acknowledged that the higher tax rate will push some smokers into surrounding counties or Indiana to pick up their packs, but she predicted such cross-border runs will not last.

"While people may initially, when the prices rise, go to other states — Indiana, Wisconsin or wherever — over time that trek gets very tiresome and time-consuming, and they return to their former habits of buying their cigarettes nearby," Preckwinkle said.

But David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he thinks the cigarette taxes in Cook County are now so high compared with surrounding areas that smokers will continue to make the longer drive, and Illinois stores near jurisdictions with lower taxes will struggle even more.

"You might see people return to their old patterns if we were talking about a slight disparity, say 25 cents a pack," Vite said. "But now we're talking about a difference of nearly $3 a pack compared to Indiana, almost $30 a carton. You're going to see guys working in factories saying, 'It's my week to make a run,' heading to Indiana and coming back with $1,500 worth of cigarettes for all their co-workers."

Twitter @_johnbyrne

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Chicago archdiocese to close 5 schools in cost-cutting move

Budget cuts announced Wednesday by the Archdiocese of Chicago signal that the area's Roman Catholics are entering a period of austerity when there will be less money for their parishes and schools.

The cuts, which were officially announced as Cardinal Francis George and other leaders of the church gathered at the Vatican to select a new pope, include closing five schools, eliminating 75 positions at the archdiocese's headquarters and placing a moratorium on loans to parishes from the archdiocese bank for three years. Other changes include creating stricter guidelines for local parishes applying for subsidies and reducing the number of the agencies in the archdiocese.

George, who spoke publicly about the cuts when asked by reporters in Rome, said they are needed to address the archdiocese's chronic financial problems. The archdiocese has run deficits of more than $30 million annually over the last four years, including being $40 million in the red for the fiscal year ending in June 2012.

All told, the measures will save tens of millions of dollars over the next few years, officials said.

“The expenses have gone up, and the income is pretty well flat,” George said after a news conference in Rome about Pope Benedict XVI's last audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square. “We tried to ride out the recession without making any changes — and we can't do that. We're giving more grants to parishes and schools that need more money. The budget is not balanced. Not just layoffs, but a lot of other things being done, other ways to use the resources we have.”

The archdiocese sold $150 million in bonds in 2012 that helped it get through a cash-flow problem, but ultimately that wasn't enough, George said. He hopes the cuts will enable the archdiocese to balance its budget in two years.

Although the cardinal's announcement made headlines, the archdiocese's financial situation has been no secret to its priests. Several clergymen said they knew the archdiocese had planned to scale back loans to parishes.

“We have already made adjustments,” said the Rev. Dennis Ziomek of St. Barbara Parish in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. “We have to be responsible stewards with the money.”

In a letter posted on the archdiocese website, the cardinal thanked parishioners for their generosity and asked them to pray for the employees now out of a paycheck.

At the archdiocese's Pastoral Center headquarters on Wednesday, people funneled in and out of the building during their lunch breaks but declined comment on the layoffs. Before the announcement, staffers received memos asking them to report to their desks early Wednesday.

Of the 75 positions, 55 were full-time jobs. Sixty people were let go, while the remaining posts had been vacant. Those cuts are expected to save $11 million to $13 million annually by fiscal 2015, George wrote in his letter.

Employees who received pink slips will get job counseling, extended health benefits and generous severance packages.

“We're keeping up counseling for helping people find jobs, looking for places where they might look for jobs,” George said.

Along with the layoffs, the archdiocese will reduce the number of capital loans and grants it gives parishes, while creating “stricter criteria” for them to qualify for the financial assistance.

A Parish Transformation initiative in the works for at least two years will also try to save money by laying out measures to provide more financial stability, though the letter did not give details.

Those cuts are expected to save an additional $13 million to $15 million annually by fiscal 2015, the letter states.

By next year, the archdiocese will reduce its aid to Catholic schools by $10 million. It plans to give scholarships to children affected by the five school closings so they can attend nearby Catholic schools. Officials said low enrollment was a key factor for closing the schools: St. Gregory the Great High, St. Paul-Our Lady of Vilna Elementary and St. Helena of the Cross Elementary in Chicago, plus St. Bernardine in Forest Park and St. Kieran in Chicago Heights.

Now, Catholic schools will start relying on scholarships for student financial aid instead of grants from the archdiocese to make tuition affordable, Superintendent Sister Mary Paul McCaughey said.

She pointed to a new partnership with the Big Shoulders Fund, a charity supporting urban Catholic schools, that will help families pay for school with scholarships.

McCaughey did not expect tuition at other Catholic schools to immediately rise because grants from the archdiocese have been reduced. About two-thirds of schools already have posted their tuition rates for the upcoming school year, she added.

“Although things are challenged, I think (Chicago) is a Catholic community that's always supported its schools,” McCaughey said. “I think the support will be there.”

Outside of St. Bernardine Elementary in west suburban Forest Park, one of the schools that will close this summer, Maria Maxham said she was devastated when she heard last month that she'd have to send her children, one in second grade and the other in fourth grade, to a different school.

Maxham, who lives in Forest Park, said she is not sure the two will attend another local Catholic school because some lack what she thought was St. Bernardine's strength.

“There is so much diversity at St. Bernardine, and that's part of what makes it so fantastic,” Maxham said. “It was a special place and a second family for us.”

The school, which has been open since 1915, has about 100 students currently enrolled in its preschool-through-eighth-grade classrooms.

Administrators, teachers and parents were notified of the closing in January, when McCaughey led a meeting at the school and explained the large amount of money that the archdiocese needed to reduce from the schools budget, Principal Veronica Skelton Cash said.

One family left the school shortly after hearing the news, she added.

Cash, who joined the school in the fall, said there was much frustration among staff members afterward. Many believed they would have at least a few years to turn things around.

“I could see a lot of things changing for the better at this school,” Cash said. “The culture of the community is changing, and we were getting more and more inquiries about the school. There was momentum going forward.”

Current employees were given guidance on severance and benefits by the archdiocese's human resources officials, Cash said. Teachers without jobs will also be placed on a priority list for future employment with the archdiocese, she said.

“I'm incredibly disheartened,” said Daniel Kwarcinski, who hopes to find a job at another private school after teaching art for seven years at St. Bernardine. “There's a need for a school like this where we are at.”

In Rome, George said the decisions to let people go and reduce aid were not easy. But he reiterated that the archdiocese's financial situation drove the decision.

“We have to balance the budget, especially if it's precarious,” he said. “The growth being very slow means we can no longer ignore the kinds of deficit situations that have been imposed on us. We have to take action.”

Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear reported from Rome, with Tribune reporters Bridget Doyle and Jennifer Delgado in Chicago.

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Kelly easily wins Democratic race to replace Jackson Jr.

Former state Rep. Robin Kelly easily won the special Democratic primary Tuesday night in the race to replace the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, helped by millions of dollars in pro-gun control ads from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political fund.

A snowstorm and lack of voter interest kept turnout low as Kelly had 52 percent to 25 percent for former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and 11 percent for Chicago 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale with 99 percent of precincts counted.

Kelly will formally take on the winner of the Republican primary in an April 9 special general election in the heavily Democratic district. In the GOP contest, less than 25 votes separated convicted felon Paul McKinley and businessman Eric Wallace.

Kelly framed her win as a victory for gun control forces.

"You sent a message that was heard around our state and across the nation," Kelly told supporters in a Matteson hotel ballroom. "A message that tells the NRA that their days of holding our country hostage are coming to an end.

"To every leader in the fight for gun control ready to work with President (Barack) Obama and Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel to stop this senseless violence, thank you for your leadership and thank you for your courage," she said.

Halvorson told supporters to rally around Kelly as the Democratic nominee. But Halvorson also made it clear she believed her biggest opponent was the mayor of New York, whose anti-gun super political action committee spent more than $2.2 million attacking her previous support from the National Rifle Association while backing Kelly.

"We all know how rough it was for me to have to run an election against someone who spent ($2.2) million against me," Halvorson said at Homewood restaurant. "Every 71/2 minutes there was a commercial."

Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC was the largest campaign interest in the race and dominated the Chicago broadcast TV airwaves compared to a marginal buy by one minor candidate.

Beale also called Bloomberg's influence "the biggest disservice in this race."

"If this is the future of the Democratic Party, then we are all in big trouble," Beale said.

Bloomberg, an Emanuel ally in the fight for tougher gun restrictions, called Kelly's win "an important victory for common sense leadership on gun violence" as well as sign that voters "are demanding change" in a Congress that has refused to enact tougher gun restrictions, fearing the influence of the NRA.

But as much as Bloomberg sought to portray the Kelly win as a victory over the influential NRA, the national organization stayed out of the contest completely while the state rifle association sent out one late mailer for Halvorson.

Be it the TV ads or a late consolidation toward Kelly in the campaign, the former Matteson lawmaker made an impressive showing with Democratic voters in suburban Cook County, where the bulk of the district's vote was located, as well as on the South Side.

Despite the size of the field, Kelly got more than half of the votes cast in the two most populated areas of the district. Halvorson won by large percentages over Kelly in Kankakee County and the district's portion of Will County, but those two areas have very few votes.

The special primary election, by its nature, already had been expected to be a low-turnout affair — an expedited contest with little time for contenders to raise money or mount a traditional campaign.

Adding to the lack of interest was the fact that there were no other contests on the ballot in Chicago and most of the suburban Cook County portion of the district. Few contests were being held in Kankakee County and the portion of Will County within the 2nd District.

Turnout was reported to be around 15 percent in the city and suburban Cook. More than 98 percent of the primary votes cast in Chicago were Democratic, as were 97 percent of those cast in suburban Cook.

On the Republican side, the unofficial vote leader was McKinley, 54, who was arrested 11 times from 2003 to 2007, mostly for protesting, with almost all of the charges dropped. In the 1970s and '80s, McKinley was convicted of six felony counts, serving nearly 20 years in prison for burglaries, armed robberies and aggravated battery. He previously declined to discuss the circumstances of those crimes but has dubbed himself the "ex-offender preventing the next offender" in his campaign.

Records show McKinley also owes $14,147 in federal taxes, which might explain his answer at a forum when asked if he would cut any federal programs. "Certainly," he said. "The IRS."

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Chicago could see 6 inches of snow in Tuesday storm

Abundant sunshine and temperatures close to 50 degrees in the past few days teased sober Midwestern sensibilities.

Encouraged perhaps by spring training photos, some people deliberately ventured outside. Some even hopped on bicycles for spins. Maybe they dared to think that spring could break a little early this year.

But on Tuesday morning, for the second time in less than a week, a blustery mix of freezing rain, sleet and snow is forecast to hit the Chicago area. Accumulations could reach 6 inches.

Sure, weather predictions being what they are around here, many will shrug off the warnings and be brazenly optimistic. But it might be best to recall the adage that those who ignore history are sure to be victimized by it.

Chicago has plenty of late-season snow history and, regardless of what materializes, the prudent will keep their salt dry, snow shovels handy and snowblowers primed for the next couple of months.

National Weather Service records from 2011 show that 54 of the previous 139 years — nearly 40 percent — experienced at least one day with an inch or more of snowfall on or after March 25. A total of 17 of those years brought multiple days with more than an inch of snow to Chicago.

One year, 1926, included six days when more than an inch of snow fell after March 25.

And, like some cruel trick, the later in the season the snow falls, the heavier and deadlier it tends to be. On the other hand, it also generally melts faster.

Among the grimmest of those late snowfalls was the deadly storm of April 15-17, 1961, when a rainy low-pressure system stalled and kept looping over the Chicago region. It transformed cold rain into nearly 7 inches of snow. Six people died from the storm's effects; four were victims of snow-shoveling heart attacks.

That storm remains the latest major snowfall of 6 inches or more in the Chicago area.

More recently, the area was hit with nearly 2 inches of snow on March 27, 2008. On March 29, 2009, 1.2 inches accumulated. A week later, more than 2 inches of snow fell.

Tuesday's forecast, which calls for heavier snow north of Interstate 80 and winds whipping up to 35 mph, weighed on Jason Marker's mind while he stood at the Downers Grove Metra station Monday.

"I have a job interview tomorrow," said Marker, 30, of Downers Grove. "It's going to be tough getting there because I have to ride my bike."

Still, he said the winter has been a moderate one so far, "but maybe it will catch up with us tomorrow."

Ashley Feuillan and Bernard Thomas, also of Downers Grove, will be commuting in opposite directions Tuesday morning. Thomas commutes to a job in Aurora, which he starts at 7 a.m. Feuillan hops the train to Columbia College Chicago three times a week.

Both said they plan to leave earlier Tuesday.

"I actually like the snow," said Feuillan, 24, "but it can be a hassle when you're trying to get someplace."

Rather than focusing on what could be a nasty storm, Thomas, 40, kept an upbeat perspective.

"It hasn't been a bad winter," he said. "We haven't really had any big snowstorms."

If the forecast is accurate, Jake Weimer could receive a little relief.

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State lawmaker's bill seeks to limit use of drones to fight crime

SPRINGFIELD — As the Obama administration comes under fire for its use of unmanned drones in foreign lands, a state senator is pressing to have Illinois join the national debate on whether states should regulate drones to ensure the high-tech snooping isn't used to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens on U.S. soil.

Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss has introduced legislation that would require police to get a search warrant before using a drone to gather evidence. Along with banning the use of lethal and nonlethal weapons on the drones — except in emergencies — the proposal would require information a drone gathers to be destroyed unless it is part of an investigation.

Under the legislation, Illinois would step up to combat the issue of drones flying over U.S. airspace. President Barack Obama signed a Federal Aviation Administration mandate last year requesting the agency integrate unmanned aircraft into the national system.

With the possibility of drones becoming the latest aircraft traversing the skies, Biss said this is "the exact moment states should be looking into" unmanned aircraft legislation.

"We're heading into a world where technology surveillance is unreal," the Evanston lawmaker said.

More than 20 states are pursuing similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While some states are trying to regulate unmanned aircraft use, others are trying to impose moratoriums that ban them, Biss said.

Virginia lawmakers approved a two-year moratorium on the aircraft in the state last week to allow time for a study. The legislation awaits the governor's signature.

In Illinois, authorities in Cook and Champaign counties are considering the use of drones to combat crime.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is in the "exploratory stages" of looking into drone technology for future operations, spokesman Frank Bilecki said. If the county were to employ any drones, they would be "specifically for law enforcement use" and not to invade personal privacy, Bilecki said.

Dart's thinking is that drones would be cheaper to use and cost less taxpayer money than using helicopters for aerial operations, Bilecki said. A small, unmanned aircraft used for search and rescue can cost on average between $38,000 and $50,000, much less than in years past, said James Hill, president of AirCover Integrated Solutions, a California-based drone manufacturer.

To gain traction at the Capitol, Biss potentially might have to overcome resistance from law enforcement leaders. To that end, Biss said he's talking with police chiefs, the Illinois State Police and other police agencies to iron out any wrinkles.

The American Civil Liberties Union thinks the time is ripe to look at drone regulations.

"Technology is changing," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU's Illinois chapter. "And the idea is we need to get ahead of the technology to be better prepared."

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2 hurt, 19 arrested in melee near Ford City Mall

Two people suffered minor injuries and police arrested 19 teenagers during a disturbance involving crowds of young people Saturday at Ford City Mall on the Southwest Side, authorities said.

About 4:45 p.m., a large group of disruptive teens ran yelling through the mall, which is located at 7601 S. Cicero Ave., according to a mall official.

Officials closed the mall minutes later, but the chaotic scene continued outside, where police found between 100 and 200 people damaging vehicles in the shopping center's parking lot, according to a police report.

Two people were taken to hospitals, according to Chicago Fire Department Chief Joe Roccasalva, a department spokesman.

A CTA bus driver suffered minor injuries and was taken to Holy Cross Hospital, said Roccasalva, who added he did not know what happened to him.
A “kid’’ was also hurt, and that person was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, also in good condition, Roccasalva said.

About 50 police squad cars assigned to multiple South Side districts, including Chicago Lawn, Englewood and Deering, and a helicopter responded to the scene, police said.

Traffic came to a standstill as teenagers jumped on cars, both parked and moving, according to a police report obtained by the Tribune. Many of those involved ignored orders to disperse, and police arrested 19 people between the ages of 13 and 17, according to police.

The teenagers all face minor misdemeanor charges.

Officers did their best to control the disturbance, "trying to get everyone out of there safely," Chicago Police Department News Affairs Officer Veejay Zala said.

During the disturbance the CTA had to reroute the No. 79 buses, which travel on 79th Street, as well as other buses in the immediate area.

Earlier in the afternoon, members of the teen band Mindless Behavior had appeared at the mall food court from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to promote their new release, "All Around the World," said John Sarama, the mall's senior general manager.

The band's autograph signing drew approximately 1,000 parents and children, primarily mothers and girls between the ages of 6 and 13, Sarama said.

About 45 minutes after the band left, the chaos began, Sarama said.

"A group of older youths came into the mall with the intent of causing havoc and chaos and were running through the mall, screaming, yelling and so forth," he said.

Security staff contacted the police department, and mall officials closed the mall about 5 p.m., Sarama said.

The mall did not sustain any property damage apart from a single broken planter, and it will reopen Sunday at 11 a.m. as usual, Sarama said.

In the meantime, mall officials are at a loss as they try to understand what happened.

"Ford City is a family-oriented mall," he said. "We have not had an incident like this [in the past], and I’m still in a little bit of a state of shock actually.

"What would make these youths comes here to try and cause this kind of commotion and trouble?" he continued. "I don’t know. But they did have a plan in mind."

Tribune reporter Adam Sege contributed.

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Jail officers accused of ordering an inmate beaten

Two Cook County Jail officers overseeing a psychiatric ward ordered two inmates to beat up another inmate who had angered them and then tried to cover it up by claiming the battered victim attempted suicide, prosecutors said Friday.

"This is what happens to you (expletive) when you step out of line. You disrespect us, we disrespect you," prosecutors said the officers announced to the entire tier after the beating last February.

Delphia Sawyer, 31, and Pamela Bruce, 30, both six-year veterans with the sheriff's office, were charged with official misconduct, obstructing justice, perjury and mob action. Judge Edward Harmening set bail at $50,000 each and ordered them to turn over any firearms.

A photograph taken of the victim, Kyle Pillischafske, on the day after shows he sustained two black eyes and severe swelling on his face. Prosecutors said the damage took place despite the officers yelling for the two inmates to hit Pillischafske with "body shots" so his injuries would be less visible.

The inmate's mother, Morgan Pillischafske, of Mount Prospect, told the Tribune that she was shocked when she learned about the beating and later heard from her son that he thought he was going to die. He had been doing well there, receiving treatment for his bipolar disorder while awaiting trial on an aggravated battery charge, she said.

"Not only did these guards mistreat Kyle, they took advantage of two other inmates as well, all because they were supposedly called a name," she said Friday in a telephone interview. "You have to have thicker skin than that."

Sawyer and Bruce were working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift in the psychiatric tier in maximum-security Division 10 when inmates tried to light a makeshift cigarette in an electrical outlet, sparking a small fire and cutting power to part of the tier, Assistant State's Attorney Nicholas Trutenko said.

The officers, believing Pillischafske was partly to blame, confronted him, prompting a heated exchange, the prosecutor said.

The officers instructed "two of the larger inmates" to go into his cell and beat him, Trutenko said.

Sawyer and Bruce are alleged to have stood watch while the two inmates struck Pillischafske in the face and head. They then joined in, hitting him with their radios and kicking him in the side, the prosecutor said.

To cover up their misconduct, the officers misled a supervisor to believe that Pillischafske hurt himself by banging his head against a shower wall during a suicide attempt, the charges alleged.

The two later lied repeatedly to a grand jury investigating the beating, Trutenko said.

After their arrest Thursday, both officers were stripped of police powers and suspended with pay pending an internal disciplinary hearing next week, said Frank Bilecki, the sheriff's spokesman.

A lawsuit filed by Pillischafske against the officers, the county and Sheriff Tom Dart is pending in federal court.

Bruce, of Chicago, and Sawyer, of Justice, are both married mothers of two and have no criminal records or disciplinary history with the Sheriff's Department, according to their attorneys.

Peter Hickey, Sawyer's attorney, noted she was in charge of a very volatile tier of "psychiatrically disturbed patients."

"These aren't choir boys from St. Patrick's parish," Hickey told the judge.

Pillischafske, now 19, was jailed at the time of the beating on a charge he intentionally caused a car crash in a botched suicide attempt, injuring a woman in the other car. He pleaded guilty a few weeks later to aggravated battery and was sentenced to probation, court records show.

Pillischafske's mother said despite her son's mental health issues, he is a "pretty likable kid" who loves music, plays bass guitar and is hoping to go to college.

"Kyle needs to move on from this," she said. "The whole thing was very unfortunate."

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Storm begins to coat Chicago area with snow

Between and inch-and-a-half and two-and-a-half inches of snow has fallen across much of the Chicago region, though the snow is expected to turn to freezing drizzle in the next couple hours.

Meteorologists have scaled back their predictions on snow fall totals from the storm, though.

Illinois State Police described conditions as "horrible" and have responded to about 15 crashes already.

State Police are in a "snow plan" and aren't responding to accidents without injuries - those are supposed to be reported later.

"It will be tapering off from the south in the next couple hours, possibly some freezing drizzle across whole area," said Mark Ratzer, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "We may end up coming in a little less."

The city of Chicago has sent 199 plows to work clearing main thoroughfares, according to the streets and sanitation department.

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Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Tribune exclusive: 'We were just regular parents who were slapped in the face'

The parents of slain teen Hadiya Pendleton talk about her life and death and the issues raised after she died. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

Hadiya Pendleton’s parents haven’t had much time to reminisce about their daughter’s life and death before Wednesday, when they sat down for an exclusive interview with the Tribune.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton recalled getting the phone call on Jan. 29 that her 15-year-old daughter had been shot, and rushing to the hospital only to find out it was too late, her daughter was dead.

A whirlwind of activity followed as Hadiya became a national symbol of gun violence and her parents traveled to Washington for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.

“I’m not going to be extremely political, but if I can help someone else not go through what we’ve gone through, then I have to do what I can,” Cowley-Pendleton said. “These are the cards we have been dealt. If these are the shoes I need to walk in, I don’t mind walking in them.”

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Blackhawks make history in shootout win over Canucks

Three times the Blackhawks broke in alone on Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider during the opening period. Three times they came away empty.

For a while, it appeared that for the first time all season maybe it wouldn't be the Hawks' night as they faced their archrivals Tuesday night at the United Center.

Yeah, forget that.

The Hawks wobbled but came away with a 4-3 shootout victory over the Canucks and in the process made a little history. With their 16th consecutive game to start the season without a regulation loss, the Hawks equaled the Ducks' 2006 league record. At 13-0-3, the Hawks have captured 29 of a possible 32 points.

Andrew Shaw scored the game-winner in the shootout, Marian Hossa had two goals and Patrick Sharp also scored in regulation to provide the offense. Ray Emery earned the victory in goal despite yielding two scores late in the third period to send the game to overtime.

"It's probably not the way we'd want to pull that one out but give credit to our team to respond after they tied it up," Sharp said. "We have to find a way to tighten things up late in games, whether it's to be more disciplined, staying out of the box or whatever it may be. Credit to the guys, we pulled out the win and we can feel good about it."

The loss could prove costly as Hossa took a forearm to the back of the head from the Canucks' Jannik Hansen in the third period and did not return. Hossa suffered a serious concussion during the playoffs last season and was not cleared to play until mid-November. The Hawks were already without the services of defenseman Brent Seabrook, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Daniel Sedin, Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa scored for the Canucks in regulation but it wasn't enough as Schneider couldn't stop Patrick Kane and Shaw in the shootout.

The game had a postseason-like feel with physical play and a heart-pulsing pace that included five breakaways during a span of 7 minutes, 41 seconds in the first.

"There were some big hits out there — some questionable hits on both sides," Sharp said. "That's to be expected when these two teams face each other. There's obviously a lot of bad blood."

Said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville: "It was an amazing pace. When you play Vancouver the pace is as good as there is in the game. It was an exciting hockey game as far as the quantity and quality of chances at both ends."

The Hawks will look to set the record to start a season Friday night when they face the Sharks at the United Center.

"It's a remarkable start," Quenneville said. "Guys should be proud of the achievement and where they're at.

"Especially in a 48-game season, it has put us in a real good spot."

Twitter @ChrisKuc

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Rose returns to 5-on-5 drills for first time since injury

A sense of doubt has evolved into a hint of optimism about Derrick Rose's comeback from knee surgery.

The Bulls guard, who last week mentioned the possibility of sitting out the season, appeared to take another step Monday as he participated in 5-on-5 drills during practice.

"He was able to get out there, and it's good," teammate Kirk Hinrich said. "It was something that (we) as a team needed, as far as every individual coming off the (All-Star) break needed to scrimmage a little bit. And I'm sure it was good for (Rose), helpful to ... give him a good gauge of where he's at."

Coach Tom Thibodeau said Rose did "what everyone else did'' and said his participation wasn't out of the ordinary based on the previously stated outlook. The plan all along was to have Rose return to 5-on-5 action after the break.

Rose cited his inability to dunk as the reason he knew he hadn't fully recovered, and Joakim Noah said Rose still wasn't dunking Monday. The Bulls went through three scrimmages of seven to eight minutes, during which Rose ran full-court. It was unclear how much contact Rose endured or how much pressure he put on his left knee.

"He's doing what he should be doing,'' Thibodeau said. "He's focused on his rehab, doing more and more. We just have to be patient. When he's ready, he'll go.''

Thibodeau reiterated how his players need to pick up their intensity after dropping five of the last seven games and six of the last 10. A Rose return would instantly inject life into the 30-22 Bulls, although they've performed admirably at times in his absence while currently holding the Eastern Conference's fifth seed.

Until Rose steps on the court for a game, his teammates have to lean on each other.

"When we're right and we're playing the right way, we've proved that we can beat everybody,'' Noah said. "We've also proved that if we don't come with the right (attitude), don't play together, we can lose to anybody.''

The return of Hinrich to the lineup for Tuesday night's game in New Orleans should provide a boost. The Bulls went 2-5 with Hinrich sidelined by a right elbow infection and committed 15.6 turnovers per game in the losses.

With all due respect to Nate Robinson and his scoring ability, Hinrich runs the offense more efficiently and is a better defender.

"He's a huge part of what we do, and it just feels good to have Kirk back,'' Noah said. "What he brings to our team, it's hard to measure. His defensive intensity, the ball movement ... it's all big.''

The Bulls have lost two straight and take on a 19-34 Hornets team that has won its last two and is 5-5 over the last 10. Four of the Bulls' next six opponents have sub-.500 records, but the Heat (36-14) and Thunder (39-14) are in that stretch too.

"We have to clean some things up offensively and defensively,'' Thibodeau said. "But the biggest challenge is going to be the level of intensity, to get that back.''

Twitter @vxmcclure23

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Hutchinson expected to drop out, endorse Kelly in Jackson Jr. contest

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson is expected to drop out of the 2nd District special Democratic primary on Sunday and throw her support behind former state Rep. Robin Kelly in the contest to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, multiple sources said late Saturday.

The move, expected to be announced in a morning news release, shakes up the Democratic field just nine days before the Feb. 26 primary election.

Hutchinson recently experienced a pair of setbacks during the short campaign. A super political action committee run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg started airing a TV attack ad backing Kelly and attacking Hutchinson and another candidate, former one-term U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Crete, for past support from the National Rifle Association. Gun control has loomed as a big issue in the contest.

In addition, Hutchinson had to deal with a recent news report detailing how she paid her mother as a campaign consultant. Hutchinson also was not listed as a participant in upcoming WTTW-Ch. 11 candidate forums.

Hutchinson's camp began contacting supporters tonight telling them of her intention to drop out of the contest, said two sources with knowledge of the decision. Word of Hutchinson's plan to endorse Kelly on Sunday via a news release also surfaced, according to a source familiar with the situation.

If Hutchinson exits the contest, there will be three major Democratic candidates left in a 15-candidate field: Kelly, Halvorson and 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale of Chicago.

Hutchinson got an early boost in the contest when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle endorsed her instead of Kelly, who served as a top aide to Preckwinkle.

As of Feb. 6, Kelly trailed Hutchinson in cash available to spend. Kelly reported $88,820 available while Hutchinson had more than double at $199,901. Hutchinson’s campaign has engaged in a significant direct-mail campaign since that time. For the entire campaign, through Feb. 6, Hutchinson reported raising $281,106. Hutchinson has been endorsed by Preckwinkle, who gave her $1,000.

Overall, campaign disclosure reports showed Kelly has raised more than $303,725 since the start of the short campaign through Feb. 6. Campaign aides to Kelly said she has raised $417,727 for the campaign cycle through Wednesday.

Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart contributed to this report.

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1 dead, 3 wounded in 90 minutes Friday night

Chicago police were flagged down by a man on the street as they responded to a shots fired call Friday night and found a woman lying on the ground, bleeding from a gunshot wound to her upper body.

She and three others were wounded between about 5:55 p.m. and 7:20 p.m. on the South and West sides, according to Chicago police.

The woman, whose age wasn't available, was shot in the 1100 block of North Pulaski Road, just a bit south of Division Street in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood about 7:05 p.m. She was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition and was pronounced dead there.

About 7:20 p.m., two people were shot in the 7800 block of South Merrill Avenue in the South Shore neighborhood. One was shot in the knee and the other suffered a graze wound. Police didn't have any other details about that incident.

About 5:55 p.m., a man sitting in his car near his home was shot in the leg by one of three guys who approached him on foot, police said. The 29-year-old was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center, where his condition had stabilized.

Earlier Friday, a 17-year-old was shot in the hand in the 7800 block of South Morgan Street in the Gresham neighborhood.

Check back for more information.
Twitter: @peternickeas
Twitter: @ltaford

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Man charged in Bishop Ford death

A man involved in the death of a 27-year-old woman who plummeted from an SUV that kept traveling down the Bishop Ford Freeway this week has been charged, Illinois State Police said Thursday.

Michael Johnson, 28, of Edwardsville, Ill., was charged with aggravated driving under the influence involving death, aggravated fleeing and eluding and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

"Throughout the investigation, law enforcement agents were able to connect the victim and the offender at various locations, prior to the incident," the Illinois State Police said in a statement.

Police are still piecing together whether Jennifer Mitchell, a Chicago resident, jumped or was pushed out of her SUV, which Johnson had been driving at the time. She was struck by a car and a semi after she fell near 154th Street in Dolton about 1 a.m. Tuesday, authorities said.

The SUV eluded police for miles before it crashed at an exit ramp near 127th Street.

"We're in mourning right now," the Rev. Michael Mitchell, Jennifer Mitchell's father, said when reached by phone. Mitchell, who is the pastor at Greater Deliverance Church of God in Christ, declined to comment further.

Johnson has a criminal history including seven arrests and two convictions, according to court records. The arrests include four charges of assault, and one each of larceny, criminal damage to property and obstructing justice. The two convictions are for domestic battery.

Johnson will appear in bond court Friday at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham.

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Anxiety grows as Chicago Public Schools narrows closing list

After trimming the number of schools that could be closed to 129, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school administration on Wednesday entered the latest and what is likely to be the most intense phase so far in trying to determine which schools should be shut.

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett is expected to pare the preliminary list before unveiling a final one at the end of March. She said administrators will determine which schools are saved in the coming weeks amid a final round of community meetings to hear arguments from parents, teachers and community groups about why their schools should stay open.

If a hearing Wednesday night in North Lawndale was any indication, CPS still has a long way to go to gain the public's trust.

"Our schools don't need to close," Dwayne Truss, vice chairman of CPS' Austin Community Action Council, said in front of hundreds of people packed inside a church auditorium in the West Side neighborhood. "CPS is perpetrating a myth that there's a budget crisis."

CPS initially said 330 of its schools are underenrolled, the chief criterion for closing. Members of a commission assembled to gather public input on the issue told CPS officials earlier this year that closing a large number of schools would create too much upheaval. The Tribune, citing sources, said the commission indicated a far smaller number should be closed than initially feared, possibly as few as 15.

CPS then started holding its own hearings and on Wednesday, while following many of the formal recommendations made by the Commission on School Utilization, said 129 schools still fit the criteria for closing.

The new number and the latest round of hearings sets the stage for the administration to counter questions about the district's abilities to close a large number of schools and the need to do so.

For many who have already turned up to school closing meetings, this final round of hearings will be even more critical. School supporters must show how they plan to turn around academic performance and build enrollment, and also make the case for any security problems that would be created by closing their school.

"We are prepared now to move to the next level of conversation with our community and discuss a list of approximately 129 schools that still require further vetting and further conversation," Bryd-Bennett said. "We are going to take these 129 and continue to sift through these schools."

In the past, political clout has played a role in the district's final decisions. Already this year, several aldermen have spoken out on behalf of schools in their wards.

On the Near Northwest Side, for instance, the initial list of 330 underused schools included about six in the 1st Ward. Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno helped organize local school council members, school administrators and parents to fight any closing. He also took that fight to leaders in City Hall and within CPS' bureaucracy. Nearly all of the schools in the ward were excluded from the list of 129.

"It is effort and it's organizing and not just showing up at meetings and yelling. Anybody can do that," Moreno said. "Those schools that proactively work before those meetings and explain what they are doing, what they need and that they are willing to accept new students, that's when politics works.

"My responsibility in this juncture was to focus on these schools," he said. "I had to work on the inside, with CPS and with City Hall, and with my schools on the outside."

Most of the schools on the list of 129 are on the West, South and Southwest sides, many in impoverished neighborhoods that saw significant population loss over the last decade. Largely spared were the North and Northwest sides.

In all, more than 43,000 students attend those 129 schools on the preliminary list, according to CPS records.

The area with the most schools on the list is a CPS network (the district groups its schools in 14 networks) that runs roughly from Madison Street south to 71st Street and from the lake to State Street. The preliminary list includes 24 schools in that area.

The Englewood-Gresham network has the second-largest number, 19, while the Austin-North Lawndale network where Wednesday night's meeting was held still has 16 schools on the list.

CPS critics said the preliminary list is still too large to be meaningful and that the district's promise to trim it before March 31 is only a tactic to make the final number seem reasonable.

"They started out with such a far-fetched, exaggerated list of schools, many of which are nowhere near underutilized," said Wendy Katten, co-founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand. "They might appear to be looking like they're listening, but they're not. They have not done a thorough and substantive assessment of these schools."

Following the commission's recommendations, CPS last month removed high schools and schools performing at a high level academically from consideration. On Wednesday, the district said schools with more than 600 students or utilization rates of at least 70 percent have also been taken out of consideration for closing.

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Obama: Work on restoring middle class 'unfinished'

WASHINGTON — In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama tried to breathe new life into his economic agenda, offering measures to spur growth and urging Congress to revive stalled talks over deficit reduction.

Entering his fifth year presiding over a flagging economy, the president declared the restoration of a strong middle class "our unfinished task" and called on a deeply divided Congress to find "reasonable compromise" to solve the nation's lingering fiscal ills.

Obama renewed a series of proposals to boost U.S. manufacturing, aid struggling homeowners and invest in infrastructure. He proposed raising the minimum wage, issued a call for tax reform and vowed to seek a deficit reduction deal that balances tax increases with changes to entitlement programs.

"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class," Obama told lawmakers gathered in the House chamber.

The hourlong speech largely abandoned the high, hopeful tone and delivery of the president's inaugural address last month, taking instead a wonkier and aggressive turn toward the next fight facing Washington — a standoff over the budget.

Obama and Republicans in Congress are hurtling toward another clash over deep spending cuts scheduled to take effect on March 1. The cuts, which economists think could stall economic growth, were passed as a way to force lawmakers to compromise on a less arbitrary approach to reducing the nation's $16-trillion debt. Obama suggested he would go further than he has in the past toward making changes to Medicare to curb spending, although he was not specific.

"I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement," Obama said. "Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep — but we must keep the promises we've already made."

He touted progress on many fronts since he took office near the height of the recession and amid two wars. "We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," Obama said, pointing to job growth and improvements in the housing market.

He also announced plans to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan in half over the next year, a significant acceleration of his original timetable. "This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over," Obama said.

In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida complained of what he called Obama's "obsession" with raising taxes and urged him to work with Republicans to encourage economic expansion.

"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," Rubio said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working, middle-class Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They want a plan to grow the middle class."

Obama's annual addresses to Congress chronicle the way he has scaled back his legislative ambitions. In 2009, the newly elected president outlined a raft of government responses to the economic "reckoning" facing the country. By 2012, after a year of lurching from one fight to another with a GOP-led House of Representatives and with a reelection on the horizon, he offered only piecemeal executive orders and tougher talk, vowing to "fight obstruction with action."

His speech Tuesday continued in that realpolitik mode. Obama pledged to take executive action on climate change if Congress did not act "soon," and he announced plans to create a commission to review irregularities at polling places, an issue Congress was unlikely to address.

With an eye on his legacy, Obama appeared careful not to trip up negotiations on matters that appear to be moving through Congress. Last month, he laid out his markers on two of his top priorities — gun control measures and immigration reform — and lawmakers are working on legislation behind the scenes. On Tuesday, he avoided heated rhetoric, making emotional, but brief, references to both.

Still, as he stepped into the House chamber, Obama was surrounded by reminders of the human element — and the political difficulties — behind his legislative agenda.

Democratic lawmakers brought victims of gun violence, including some of those affected by the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the impetus for the president's gun control push. Citing his call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as expanded background checks, Obama said Congress owed the victims and their families action on the measures.

"They deserve a vote," Obama said, as Democrats in the chamber chanted, "Vote!"

Republicans, too, issued invitations that underscored their positions. Natalie Hammond, a Sandy Hook teacher who was injured in the shooting, found herself in the same audience as Ted Nugent, the aging rocker and gun enthusiast who declared he'd be "dead or in jail" if Obama won a second term.

In line with recent tradition, First Lady Michelle Obama was accompanied by guests meant to underscore her husband's message. She sat with a Louisville, Ky., man retrained as a machinist, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and a Wisconsin brewing entrepreneur. She was also joined by the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed just days after she traveled to Washington to perform in the president's inauguration parade and has become a symbol of the need for tougher gun laws.

Although the speech was largely focused on domestic issues, Obama defended the secretive CIA drone program, which targets suspected militants overseas, including Americans, in foreign countries. He aimed to answer critics, largely from within his own party, who have complained about its secrecy and questioned its legality.

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Cardinal George likely to play key role in picking next pope

As he nears his own retirement, Cardinal Francis George will head to Rome likely to play a powerful role in choosing Pope Benedict XVI's successor and charting a course for the next chapter of the Roman Catholic Church.

Most recently focused on reaching a new generation and preserving Catholic identity in an increasingly secularized world, George, the College of Cardinals' elder statesman, is expected to encourage his colleagues to choose a pontiff who will do the same.

"Cardinal George is a highly respected member of the College of Cardinals and his views on the church's situation and the next pope will be carefully considered by his brother cardinals," said conservative Catholic scholar George Weigel, who recently wrote a book titled "Evangelical Catholicism."

Cardinal George's colleagues turn to him not just because he's the leader in Chicago, where parishioners are as diverse as the global church. He's also traveled widely in Africa and Latin America as the vicar general of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and lived and worked in Rome. Meanwhile, in the U.S., he has served as president of the national bishops conference and led the charge for a zero-tolerance policy on clergy sexual abuse.

"Everyone at the Vatican trusts him," said John Thavis, a longtime Rome correspondent for the Catholic News Service and author of "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church." "He has an excellent reputation as a person who understands both Rome and the pastoral side of issues. He's a very thoughtful person, yet he's not afraid to say what he believes. ... The cardinals appreciate that."

George said Monday that he will head into his second conclave of cardinals with a clear set of priorities and a strategy for selecting Benedict's successor. Because of Pope John Paul II's 27-year papacy, most cardinals faced a steep learning curve in the days leading up to and during the 2005 conclave, the top-secret closed-door process to select the next pope.

The next conclave likely will begin 15 to 20 days after Benedict's resignation becomes effective Feb. 28. At that time, the College of Cardinals will govern the church collectively and informal discussions will begin. George said he will use that time more wisely, asking better questions and figuring out "how to move beyond impressions to find out really what people are going to say about another cardinal."

"I'd like to make better use of the time before the voting begins," he said.

Once the doors of the Sistine Chapel close, the activities inside are carefully choreographed, George said. Cardinals are seated in order of their elevation. Prayers are recited in Latin, instructions are printed in Italian and the participants speak a variety of languages. In April 2005, George sat between the Viennese cardinal with whom he spoke German and the cardinal from Mexico City, with whom he spoke Spanish.

"Until you take the first ballot, you really don't know who has strength and who does not," George said. "It's a very serious moment. You stand there with a ballot in your hand facing Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment and you say … a pretty serious oath. You put your life and salvation on the line. That first ballot tells you what people really think."

George said the challenge facing cardinals next month will be finding a leader who can maintain a degree of continuity while moving the church in a bold new direction.

"I have some sense of where we must both keep our attention focused and also where we have to put some attention where perhaps we haven't been able to do that yet," he said. "But I'd like to clarify that more in my own mind before I say."

Nearly eight years ago, the sexual abuse scandal dominated headlines. Within minutes of Benedict's election, George sought assurances from the pope-elect that he would renew church rules that facilitated the permanent removal from ministry of sexually abusive priests in the U.S. That experience in dealing with a scandal that's now rippling across Europe gives George additional credibility with his colleagues, experts say.

But his experience traveling as a missionary helps too. George confirmed Monday that there are several Latin American cardinals who would make serious contenders.

"If you look at where the church is strong in terms of population, in terms of the faithful, it would be in Latin America or Africa," he said. Popes historically hail from Europe.

"That would be an appropriate question: Should we look elsewhere?" George said.

Thavis said he has never ruled out an American pope, but that's contrary to conventional wisdom.

"The standard thinking is 'An American? Never. They already run the world. They want to run the church too?'" Thavis said. "But I've never heard a cardinal say that."

George, however, explained that cardinals place more weight on personalities than geography.

"Who can govern the church? Who can teach? Who can sanctify?" he said. "Who can function as a papacy?"

"It matters less where someone is from," George continued. "It's not a representative office. … It's an office that represents Christ."

The Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, said he thinks this conclave could be the moment when cardinals give serious consideration to a candidate from the Southern Hemisphere.

George is "going to represent a perspective that's looking away from Europe and more an appreciation for the Southern Hemisphere, the Third World and mission territories. That's been his life," Senior said.

"Some of the other cardinals will be coming from much more ethnocentric types of experiences, not the kind of diversity that Chicago will offer and that his background as vicar of a missionary order will have. I suspect his sympathies align in that direction. I think they will be deliberating whether to turn at this point to a pope not from a European context. The cardinal would have a lot to say," he added.

Twitter @tribseeker

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Obama coming to Chicago to 'talk about the gun violence'

President Barack Obama will visit Chicago on Friday, when he will discuss gun violence as he focuses on his economic message from Tuesday's State of the Union address, according to the White House.

Obama will "talk about the gun violence that has tragically affected too many families in communities across Chicago and across the country," a White House official said in a statement.

The president's visit answers calls from Chicago anti-violence activists that Obama talk about the recent spate of gun violence in the city, several of the activists said.

"This is an important issue," said Cathy Cohen, founder of the Black Youth Project, which attracted about 45,000 signatures by Sunday night in an online petition that urges Obama to speak up. "We think of this as a victory for all of us."

The group posted the petition on shortly after Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was shot to death last month at a South Side park. The King College Prep student was slain about a week after performing with her school band at Obama's inaugural festivities.

Since Hadiya was shot about a mile from the president's Kenwood neighborhood home Jan. 29, during the deadliest January for Chicago since 2002, pastors, parents and activists have demanded that more be done about the city's violence.

First lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya's funeral Saturday. Hadiya's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, will also attend the president's State of the Union speech on Tuesday, family spokeswoman Shatira Wilks said late Sunday.

Hadiya's godmother, LaKeisha Stewart, said she hasn't heard whether the president will spend time with the Pendletons during his trip to Chicago.

Stewart said she's happy about Obama's plans. "Any awareness that can be brought to this issue that can prevent any family from ever feeling the pain that we as a family have felt … is awesome," she said. "This city is in pain right now."

Nathaniel Pendleton, Hadiya's father, said his family didn't know much about the president's Chicago trip, but "if he decided to speak with us, we'll be more than happy."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the president's remarks in Chicago will play a different role than Michelle Obama's attendance at Hadiya's funeral. The first lady didn't speak publicly about the events surrounding the teenager's death.

"Her being there is very important since it was her neighborhood," Jackson said. "I think the president's coming is important because she did not deal with the politics. … She dealt with the calming concern for a broken-hearted family," he said.

Jackson made a public appeal this month for the president to speak to the bloodshed in Chicago.

Because of the upcoming visit, parents of children who have been shot to death in the city will finally feel heard by Obama, said Annette Nance-Holt, who lost her son Blair Holt in 2007 after he was shot on a crowded CTA bus.

"This sends a message to the parents here that their kids are important too," Holt said. "It may not have been a big shooting with an assault rifle. But to see (Obama) come and hopefully rally some support here means a lot."

The White House said the president's visits to Asheville, N.C., Atlanta and Chicago this week will also press issues that he will raise in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

"The president will travel to Chicago for an event amplifying some of the policy proposals included in the State of the Union that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and the Americans striving to get there," a White House official said in a statement.

Clergy on Sunday praised Obama's decision to speak in Chicago, arguing his speech could bring greater attention to the killings plaguing communities here.

"Hopefully and prayerfully, his coming will make a real impact," said the Rev. Kenneth Giles of Second Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in the South Austin neighborhood. "Now that the nation is focused on (gun violence), maybe they will hear his voice and hear what he has to say."

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the South Side's St. Sabina Catholic Church, said he's grateful the president is "zooming in" on the issue.

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