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Venezuela grounds Air France plane over suspected terror threat

air france passangers
© Associated Press/Fernando Llano
Passengers by the Air France desk at the airport in Caracas after their flight to Paris was cancelled.
Minister says French authorities passed on intelligence that terrorist group was planning to put bomb on flight

Venezuela has grounded an Air France flight after being tipped off by French authorities that a terrorist group might be planning to detonate an explosive device in midair.

The Venezuelan interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, told state TV late on Saturday that more than 60 technicians, bomb experts and a canine team would perform an exhaustive search of the aircraft before the flight could be reprogrammed. Five hours after the flight's 7.25pm scheduled departure it was still unclear what the results of that search were or when they would be announced.

Robot

Meet the robot telemarketer who denies she's a robot

robocall
© Getty Images
Our encounter with an all-too-convincing robot.

The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. She wanted to offer a deal on health insurance, but something was fishy.

When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked "What vegetable is found in tomato soup?" she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection.

Stormtrooper

U.S.: Georgia police caught on video body slamming 70-year-old woman to ground

A YouTube video posted on Tuesday appears to show yet another case of excessive force used by American police officers.

The video shows a Glynn County, Georgia police officer body slamming a 70-year-old woman to the ground during a DUI arrest. A witness filming the arrest was then allegedly intimidated by a Glynn County officer and pressured to stop recording.

The elderly woman has been identified as Kathleen Mary Allegrone. At the start of the video, Allegrone is pulled out of her car by officers and falls to the ground. It's not clear whether she fell out of intoxication or due to the force used by police. Moments later, she is seen being escorted with her arms behind her back over to Officer Jones' car. She can be heard yelling to officers that she is in pain.

Next, officers move to handcuff Allegrone. Out of nowhere, Allegrone is picked up and body slammed to the ground. Her arms were immobilized and she could not break her fall. The man filming the video said he heard a distinct smack when Allegrone's head hit the pavement. Judging by Allegrone's post-arrest picture, she seems to have fallen directly on her face.

In light of the public attention the incident is receiving, the officer involved has been placed on paid administrative leave. He claims Allegrone dug her nails into his skin while he was putting handcuffs on the woman, and he body slammed her in order to "stop the assault." Glynn County PD is conducting an internal investigation of the event.

Here is the video of the incident. Allegrone is dropped to the ground around the 1:10 mark:


Evil Rays

'Interpreter' at Mandela memorial event says he does not remember being up on stage with world leaders

interpreter at mandela
© Associated Press/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
Thamsanqa Jantjie gesticulates at his home during an interview with the Associated Press in Johannesburg, South Africa,Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. Jantjie, the man accused of faking sign interpretation next to world leaders at Nelson Mandela's memorial, told a local newspaper that he was hallucinating and hearing voices.
The man accused of faking sign interpretation while standing alongside world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela's memorial service said Thursday he hallucinated that angels were entering the stadium, suffers from schizophrenia and has been violent in the past.

Thamsanqa Jantjie said in a 45-minute interview with The Associated Press that his hallucinations began while he was interpreting and that he tried not to panic because there were "armed policemen around me." He added that he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than one year.

Comment: Mind control?

The firm he was supposedly hired from is a cut-out:

Firm that employed fake interpreter for deaf at Mandela memorial service has 'vanished'

And then, there's this:

Family concerned about priest after bizarre call regarding an assassination plot involving himself and interpreter


Pistol

The debt collecting machine: mystery company threatens homes from Washington, D.C to Ohio

forclosure 1
© Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post
An Aeon-owned property in Cleveland.
Aeon Financial foreclosed on more than 400 properties in Ohio's biggest county. It threatened more than 1,900 in D.C. and Maryland. To distressed homeowners, it's a debt-collecting machine.

The firm that threatened to foreclose on hundreds of struggling D.C. homeowners is a mystery: It lists no owners, no local office, no Web site.

Aeon Financial is incorporated in Delaware, operates from mail-drop boxes in Chicago and is represented by a law firm with an address at a 7,200-square-foot estate on a mountainside near Vail, Colo.

Yet no other tax lien purchaser in the District has been more aggressive in recent years, buying the liens placed on properties when owners fell behind on their taxes, then charging families thousands in fees to save their homes from foreclosure.

Aeon has been accused by the city's attorney general of predatory and unlawful practices and has been harshly criticized by local judges for overbilling. All along, the firm has remained shrouded in corporate secrecy as it pushed to foreclose on more than 700 houses in every ward of the District.

"Who the heck is Aeon?" said David Chung, a local lawyer who said he wasn't notified that he owed $575 in back taxes on his Northwest Washington condominium until he received a notice from Aeon. "They said, 'We bought the right to take over your property. If you want it back - pay us.' "

Aeon's story underscores how an obscure tax lien company - backed by large banks and savvy lawyers - can move from city to city with little government scrutiny, taking in millions from distressed homeowners.

The firm came into the District eight years ago with hardball tactics, sending families threatening letters and demanding $5,000 or more in legal fees and other costs, often more than three times the tax debt.

Handcuffs

Charles Dickens redux: In jail for being in debt


You committed no crime, but an officer is knocking on your door. More Minnesotans are surprised to find themselves being locked up over debts.

As a sheriff's deputy dumped the contents of Joy Uhlmeyer's purse into a sealed bag, she begged to know why she had just been arrested while driving home to Richfield after an Easter visit with her elderly mother.

No one had an answer. Uhlmeyer spent a sleepless night in a frigid Anoka County holding cell, her hands tucked under her armpits for warmth. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to downtown Minneapolis for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense -- missing a court hearing over an unpaid debt. "They have no right to do this to me," said the 57-year-old patient care advocate, her voice as soft as a whisper. "Not for a stupid credit card."

It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors' prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts. In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.

Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.

Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county.

In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.

House

Manhattan apartment rents drop for a third straight month

nyc apartments
© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
The median monthly rent in Manhattan dropped 3 percent from a year earlier to $3,100.
Manhattan apartment rents fell for a third month in November and the vacancy rate reached the highest in at least seven years, signs the market is weakening amid a spike in homebuying and the lure of leasing in Brooklyn.

The median monthly rent in Manhattan dropped 3 percent from a year earlier to $3,100, according to a report today by appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. The vacancy rate climbed to 2.8 percent, the highest since the firms began tracking the data in August 2006.

Rents had been climbing for almost two years and approaching the 2006 peak of $3,265 a month before they began to slide in September. Manhattan home purchases jumped to a six-year high in the third quarter as buyers rushed to make deals before rising mortgage rates pushed costs higher, Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman said. Sales of one-bedroom units reached a 15-year high, suggesting an influx of first-time buyers.

Arrow Up

Meet Lucia Topolansky, Uruguay's first lady like no other

Image
Lucia Topolansky is a first lady like no other. An outspoken senator, former Tupamaro guerrilla and key member of her country's ruling coalition, she is more than qualified to follow her husband Jose Mujica into the presidency.

But would she?

"No way," she told The Associated Press in an interview in her Senate office. "Now that I've seen the presidency up close, I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Look, I remember well how in your country Barack Obama didn't have a single gray hair in his first term, and now he's totally gray!"

Topolansky is, however, being talked about as a potential vice president for Tabare Vazquez, who preceded Mujica in office and is a likely front-runner to retake the presidency in 2014.

Now 69 and gray herself, Topolansky still speaks with the intensity of the young, blond militant who tried to change her country through armed revolution starting in 1966, organizing jailbreaks and even crawling through sewers to escape from prison.

Recaptured just before Uruguay's 1973 military coup, she suffered torture during her nearly 14 years in prison. With democracy's return in 1985, she and Mujica were among the former guerrillas granted amnesties. They eventually got married and kept working for change, achieving through the ballot box what bullets couldn't.

Mujica won the presidency through his charisma and common touch, but credits his wife for his political backbone - missing her birthday while visiting the United Nations last week, he called her his "hard drive."

Comment: See also: Man of the people: President of Uruguay José Mujica gives away 90% of his salary


Roses

People Power: Italy hit by wave of Pitchfork protests as austerity unites disparate groups

Protesters
© NurPhoto/Rex Features
Protesters with loosely formed movement I Forconi (The Pitchforks) demonstrate in Turin, Italy.
Demonstrations point to frustration with traditional politics, with minister warning parliament of a country in 'spiral of rebellion'


They blocked roads and stopped trains,occupied piazzas, clashed with police and closed shops. From Turin and Milan in the north to Puglia and Sicily in the south, Italy was hit this week by a wave of protests that brought together disparate groups and traditional foes in an angry show of opposition to austerity policies and the government.

"They [politicians] have brought us to hunger; have destroyed the identity of a country; have annihilated the future of entire generations," read one poster from the "December 9 Committee", an umbrella organisation urging Italians to rise up against the euro, Brussels, globalisation and, primarily, Enrico Letta's government. "To rebel is a duty."

In a loosely formed movement which has gone largely by the name of I Forconi (the Pitchforks), lorry drivers, farmers, small business owners, students and unemployed people staged protests venting their fury at a political class which they blame for Italy's longest post-war recession and want to "send home".

But they were not alone. Alongside them were anti-globalisation groups, members of the Veneto Independence movement, elements of the far right and - for good measure - football "ultras". Among the sights "rarely seen before", reported the Turin-based daily La Stampa, were supporters of arch-rivals Juventus and Torino standing "side by side".

Although the protests had been publicised, especially on the internet, their scale and occasionally violent nature - particularly in Turin, a historic city of protest - appeared to take many by surprise.

In a country struggling to exit a two-year long recession, in which unemployment is at a record high of 12.5% and one in 10 children is thought to be living in absolute poverty, the causes of the unrest are hardly unfathomable.

Dollar Gold

Class divide: Wealthy travelers now have private terminal at Newark Airport

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Ever wonder where celebrities and sports teams go when they fly into Newark Liberty Airport and want to avoid prying eyes? One of the places is an unassuming building off an access road at the northern edge of the airport, yards from truck traffic lumbering down an interstate.

Now, well-heeled travelers arriving for February's Super Bowl will find even cushier surroundings.

Signature Flight Support cut the ribbon Friday on a revamped, $11 million private terminal that offers amenities including a lounge with large flat-screen TVs, an executive conference room, free Wi-Fi and courtesy shuttle service.

Plans for the new building were already in place when MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford was selected to host the Super Bowl in 2010, according to general manager Eric Richardson. The awarding of the game and the possibility of a significant bump in customers provided more momentum to the project.