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Former cop used to solve crimes; now he cleans up after them

The man shot his wife first. Then himself.

When cops arrived they found the murdered woman in a chair. Her husband’s body was on the sofa nearby. The living room was a tragic tableau.

Atlanta Police Det. Pat Apoian was among the responders. As he and his colleagues processed the scene, he thought about what would happen once they were done. The murder-suicide wasn’t much of a mystery, and after the bodies were removed, the couple’s adult children would be left to deal not only with the awful deaths but the horrific mess left behind.

“These poor kids. They’re going to have to clean this up,” he remembers thinking.

That was in 2009, two years before the night Apoian was dragged by a car with a fleeing suspect at the wheel. The car nearly tore off his foot and left him with a broken leg and a damaged hand. It ripped his sternum from his rib cage, fractured his pelvis and spine and tore the muscle from one shoulder. He endured multiple surgeries, recovery (both mental and physical) was painful and slow, and he ended up retiring from law enforcement.

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FROM THE AJC ARCHIVES: Officer down, but not out

In contemplating his next chapter, Apoian, who has a young son and daughter, wanted to put his background to work in a new career that would allow him to keep helping people. He and his wife, Sandra, have become Spaulding Decon franchisees. The firm specializes in environmental cleanups, responding to crime scenes, hoarding situations, mold or other biohazard contaminations – even meth lab mitigation.

“I feel like I’m still helping people,” he said. “I want to show up and make an impact.”

Just before Thanksgiving, he and his employees helped a distraught Roswell woman reclaim the holiday. Meredith Wilbanks had what she thought was a dripping sink. In fact, her dishwasher had been steadily leaking for who knows how long, and dangerous black mold was creeping along the inside of her kitchen island and cabinets and underneath her tile and carpet.

“I was really, really stressed,” she said. Not only was her house a wreck, but the thought of having to celebrate the holidays elsewhere this year left her in tears. Her father died in a car wreck in January, and spending the holiday season at home with family felt more vital than ever this year.

“To not be able to have Thanksgiving and Christmas here, I was panicked,” she said, her eyes welling up as she remembered how much her dad loved family gatherings this time of year. “He was all into Christmas.”

Wilbanks’ mom learned of Apoian’s company through a friend in a grief support group.

“I talked to him about his story and I told him about my dad,” Wilbanks said. “I feel like it was meant to be.”

A Long Island native with family and friends in blue, Apoian seemed born for the badge. Residents of Atlanta’s Zone 6 grew to know him as a guy interested in keeping the peace but also in getting to know them.

“He’s concerned about people. He talks to people,” Darrell White once told us when we were walking the beat with Apoian in 2013, before he retired. “It’s hard to find officers like that.”

Apoian used to fold his 6-foot frame into a library chair for story time at the elementary school in his zone, and once patiently “investigated” when an elderly woman dialed 911 to report terrorists had placed deadly powder in her mailbox. No ma’am, he reassured her, a bird took a bathroom break there.

“People still call me,” he said. He recently helped a crime victim navigate the system to report an assault. That suspect is now in jail. A different victim called Apoian for guidance in handling things after his home was burglarized. “I still feel connected.”

A case his company worked a few months ago reminded him of crime scenes he used to process. The client owned rental property she hadn’t visited in a while. Her tenant turned out to be an extreme hoarder.

“We found six decomposed cats,” he said. “Everywhere you can imagine there was cat mess. The showers, the tubs, the sinks, the countertops. The garbage was piled up on the porch, on the back deck.”

In responding to the nightmarish scene, Apoian drew upon the empathy he developed on the force.

“I always look at it as trying to see what was invisible to everybody else. Was there something there no one could see?” he said. “If I would see a prostitute I would think, ‘What got her there?'”

He took a non-judgmental approach to the hoarding case, and it has a happy ending. The home’s back to normal.

Apoian hasn’t responded to a death scene yet but grimly notes that it’s just a matter of time. He is, unfortunately, well-prepared, having responded to countless homicide, suicide and unattended death scenes. It’s hard to say which is worse.

“If it’s an unattended death your body basically melts. You literally melt into the floor boards,” he said. “God forbid it’s a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

He didn’t want to give a lot of details about what that’s like, but recalls the gentle approach he would take to dissuade family members who wanted to see for themselves.

“You want to keep the family out. You’re keeping them from that being the last memory,” he said. “It adds a whole new level of heartbreak.”

He misses police work but still lives up to the ideals he upheld after joining the Atlanta Police Department in 2002. As a New Yorker who lived not far from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, he’d actually thought of joining the military. His wife put an end to that plan, so Apoian instead decided to follow the example of his childhood mentor Bill Murphy, a Nassau County, N.Y., police officer who’d led fundraising efforts for the Police Athletic League.

Apoian pinned on his badge with Officer Murphy’s mantra in his mind, and he stays true to it today: “Always be remembered for the good that you do.”

Police: Man clubs mom with rifle over stolen deer meat 

A Vermont man was charged over the weekend with assaulting his own mother for taking deer meat that belonged to him, police said. 

Zachary C. Merriam, 21, of Pittsford, is charged with first-degree aggravated domestic assault, according to the Vermont State Police

Police officials told the Rutland Herald that troopers spoke Saturday afternoon to Merriam’s mother, who said her son had assaulted her that morning over the deer meat. The 40-year-old woman told investigators that Merriam chased her through the house with a 30-30 rifle.

The woman told police Merriam did not try to shoot her, but that he used the gun’s stock as a club with which to beat her, the Herald reported. She said she did not know if the weapon was loaded, but was afraid it would fire by accident. 

Bruises on the woman’s back were consistent with being hit with a rifle stock, police officials said. 

>> Read more trending news

A witness in the house told investigators that Merriam and his mother had argued, and that Merriam threw a television remote control at her, the Herald reported. The witness said she did not see the assault, but heard the mother and son arguing upstairs. 

The woman said Merriam’s mother came downstairs and said her son had hit her with his gun. 

Merriam denied hitting his mother, but told troopers they were arguing because she had stolen from him. He said she also cut meat off a deer he shot.

Merriam was arrested on the assault charge and jailed. He was released from jail on $1,000 bail and ordered to stay away from his mother. 

Restaurant to open doors to ‘Thanksgiving orphans’

A restaurant in Maryland is forgoing dinner with family in the comfort of home to serve a feast to “Thanksgiving orphans”

“Thanksgiving orphans” are those who have nowhere to go; no friends or family to visit for the holiday, WRC reported.

>> Read more trending news

But Galazio Restaurant, in La Plata, Maryland, will open its doors with the help of volunteers to serve dinner to those who can’t travel home for Thanksgiving. 

According to the restaurant’s Facebook page, they’ll even find transportation on Thursday for those who can’t get there on their own.

This is the third year for the dinner at the business, which usually serves Greek food.

Last year, members of the military, executives and families made the trip to the Maryland town for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The restaurant’s owner said they even had naturalists who live in the woods join the tables of strangers who celebrated and gave thanks as friends. They also hosted homeless guests last year as part of a mix of their community, WRC reported.

Ohio woman overdoses during sex, police say

A woman who was found snoring by police overdosed during sex with her boyfriend early Wednesday, police said.

>> Read more trending news

Around 4 a.m. Wednesday, Dayton police and medics responded to the 400 block of Sheridan Avenue.

A concerned man, the woman’s 28-year-old boyfriend, called 911 after his girlfriend overdosed during sex, the police report reads.

She was found by police partially clothed on the couch, snoring and unresponsive from a suspected heroin drug overdose, police said.

The 33-year-old woman woke up after a couple doses of Narcan and was taken to Miami Valley Hospital.

The man said he didn’t see his girlfriend take anything, but that she often mixes alcohol and Xanax.

In other news: Parents told 3-year-old cancer-free two days before Thanksgiving

WOW Air selling flights to Europe for $99 for Black Friday

WOW Air could fly you to Europe for as low as $99.

>> Read more trending news 

If Black Friday sales on electronics don’t excite you, maybe a cheap flight abroad will. 

Wow Air is offering discounted one-way flights from airports in Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh to destinations like Amsterdam, London, Dublin and Reykjavik, Iceland.

The catch? The select discounted flights are for dates between December and May, so you’ll have to act fast.

WOW Air, founded in 2011, is an Iceland-based company that connects Iceland to North America, Europe and Asia. The airline aims to provide “the cheapest flights to and from Iceland and across the Atlantic while providing a memorable service all the way,” according to their website.

“WOW air is happy to provide some early holiday cheer to travelers in many of our U.S. destinations,” WOW Air founder and CEO Skúli Mogensen said in a statement. “We hope to make international travel more accessible for travel enthusiasts during the holiday season and beyond.”

But before you get too excited, don’t expect to make it all the way to Europe and back for $99. You’ll still have to book a flight back to one of the U.S. airports and account for fees for checked luggage and carry-ons.

Plus, there were only about 1,200 tickets when the deal began, so act fast to score this amazing deal and get your European adventure started.

Brianna Chambers contributed to this report.

Lesbian couple beaten, held captive for days over borrowed car, police say

Three Indiana men and a woman have been booked on more than 30 separate criminal charges in connection with the alleged beating and kidnapping of a married lesbian couple.

One of the men, Kenneth Allen Braswell, 32, is charged with raping one of the women, according to Indianapolis jail records. Braswell is also charged with criminal confinement, kidnapping, battery with a deadly weapon, battery resulting in bodily injury and unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon.

Police have charged Jose Antonio Nieves, 35, and Thomas James Bell, 26, with crimes that include kidnapping, criminal confinement, battery, intimidation, possession of meth and carrying a handgun without a license. Melissa Richards, 29, is charged with multiple counts of criminal confinement and battery.

>> Read more trending news

The Indianapolis Star reported that an affidavit filed in the case states the couple traveled from Terre Haute to a home on the east side of Indianapolis the morning of Nov. 10 to do heroin. Fox 59 in Indianapolis reported that the house was Richards’ home. 

One of the women borrowed Richards’ Mustang to visit her son about 20 miles away in Danville, the news station reported. The women said that Richards became angry when the car wasn’t returned quickly enough. 

“I’m keeping your wife until I get my car back,” Richards said, according to the affidavit

The woman still at Richards’ house told police she was bound with duct tape, pistol-whipped and left in a large closet, the Star reported. She said that, at some point, she felt someone pulling her pants down.

The woman told detectives that Braswell raped her, the Star said. 

“If you scream, I’ll hurt you,” he told her, according to the affidavit

The woman said that her captors then took her to the basement, where she was beaten some more, Fox 59 reported. On Nov. 11, some of the accused retrieved the Mustang, along with the wife, who they forced to go with them at gunpoint, the affidavit said. 

When they got back to Richards’ house, the woman was placed in the basement with her wife, where she was also beaten, the document said. 

The women said they were held in the basement until Nov. 14. They were given food and water once, but could not eat due to their injuries, police said. 

The Star reported that the affidavit described bruises and cuts on both women’s faces. One of the women also had a broken collarbone. 

One of the victims described watching as the group beat her wife, who fell to the ground.

“I didn’t know if she was alive anymore,” the woman said, according to the affidavit

On Nov. 14, Nieves and Bell are accused of putting both women in Richards’ Mustang for a drive to Bargersville, where, one woman told police, Nieves talked about killing them, the Star said. She said Nieves claimed he knew someone there who would help bury their bodies.

On the way to Bargersville, the Mustang blew a tire, the Star reported. They pulled into a convenience store parking lot, where the women said Nieves tried injecting himself with heroin.

The women asked to use the bathroom, the affidavit said. When Nieves allowed them to go inside the store, the women begged the clerk to call police.

The women locked themselves in the bathroom until police arrived, the Star reported

Nieves and Bell were arrested outside the convenience store, while Braswell and Richards were taken into custody at Richards’ home. 

The Star said that detectives searching Richards’ home confiscated a bloody towel, along with bloody sweatpants found in the closet where one victim said she was raped. There was also a large pool of blood on the basement floor. 

In the Mustang, they found two handguns, duct tape, a machete and two cellphones.

Braswell, Nieves and Richards remained in the Marion County Jail on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear when Bell was released. 

Court records show that Braswell, Nieves and Bell are scheduled for a Jan. 22 trial on the charges. 

Puppies take stress out of holiday airport travel

An airport in Pennsylvania is helping travelers forget the stress of travel this Thanksgiving. 

>> Read more trending news

More than a dozen puppies were at Harrisburg International Airport this morning for flyers to relax before walking down the jet bridge to their awaiting planes.

The 17 puppies are actually service dog puppies that help relieve stress, and melt a few hearts heading into the holiday weekend, WGAL reported.

The dogs are young, only 8 weeks old and will start training to become a service dog next week through Susquehanna Service Dogs. If they pass their temperament test, they’ll then be matched to people to raise them to become full-fledged service animals for people with mobility issues, WGAL reported

They’ll live with the families who are raising them for about a year and a half before being evaluated and matched with a person in need of a service dog.

Cancer survivor and the doctor that saved him climb Mount Kilimanjaro together

Four years ago, Ken Brown, of Chicago, received news that would change his life forever.

He was told he had a five percent chance of survival after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, WGN reported.

>> Read more trending news

But Brown wasn’t alone. He had the help of Dr. Malcom Bilimoria, who was able to help cure Brown of his life-threatening disease.

“I could see when I first met Ken, he was a lot like the patients I see in the clinic, a real fighter,” Dr. Bilimoria said.

Last month, in a celebration of his cancer-free status, Brown and Dr. Bilimoria set off to beat another record -- scaling the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“I think it was just meant to be,” Brown said, noting that he didn’t really care about whether or not he reached the top. “I have already hiked the tallest mountain that anyone could possibly hike, pancreatic cancer, with Dr. Bilimoria’s help.”

Brown and Bilimoria’s adventure came to fruition after the two had a conversation about their past and planned travels. Bilimoria told Brown about a planned trip Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with a group of eight others, including fellow doctors and their friends.

“I said, ‘You can’t go without me. That’s my dream,’” Brown told his doctor.

Brown had been wanting to climb Kilimanjaro -- the highest mountain in Africa -- since he went on a safari in 2011. From afar, he snapped a photo to the mountain and kept it in his office for years as a reminder of his goal.

In the days after that conversation with his doctor, Brown started to give a trip to Kilimanjaro more serious thought, getting some encouragement from his daughter-in-law.

Brown and Bilimoria ultimately went on the trip and finished up their journey on Oct. 12. Though Brown didn’t make it to the top due to a health issue unrelated to his previous cancer, he was delighted to have had the opportunity to camp under the stars.

“I shouldn’t have been here. I just spent six days getting to know the man who saved my life, and I just also had the opportunity to see sights no one else can see at night,” Brown said, according to WGN. “I feel like I can reach out and touch the stars.”

Bilimoria hopes the trip will serve as inspiration for other people affected by serious illnesses.

“Not only was it great to be able to spend time with (Brown), but it would be great to show other patients that this is what you can do,” Bilimoria told WGN.

See more at WGN.

Brianna Chambers contributed to this report.

Texas trooper who took photo with Snoop Dogg sues officials a second time

A Texas state trooper is suing 18 different Department of Public Safety officials a second time, alleging that they retaliated against him after he sued them the first time and that documents about him were tampered with.

>> Read more trending news

Trooper Billy Spears was reprimanded in the spring of 2015 for taking a photo with rapper Snoop Dogg. Spears was reprimanded because the rapper has several drug-possession convictions and DPS policies prohibit troopers from associating with known criminals.

Spears filed suit against his bosses soon after he was reprimanded.

Shortly after, Spears went on medical leave for a knee injury. While still on leave, high-ranking DPS personnel accused him of not being in compliance with DPS’s physical fitness policies, which Spears’s lawsuit alleges was a retaliatory attempt to get him fired.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the allegations in the lawsuit are incorrect.

>> Related: Texas Trooper to receive counseling for posing in picture with Snoop Dogg

“The department looks forward to refuting these spurious claims through the proper legal proceedings,” said Vinger, who declined to comment further.

Spears was on medical leave from May 26, 2016, to Dec. 17, 2016, his lawsuit says. On Sept. 1, 2016, he was warned he was on the verge of being terminated because he had failed to take and pass physical fitness tests during that time.

Spears’s lawsuit says he requested a medical waiver for the test and hadn’t been aware it had been denied. 

>> Related: Punishment to trooper who posed with Snoop Dogg is 'one-time coaching' opportunity agency says

Spears requested his waiver form, and the lawsuit alleges that the memo Spears wrote in May 2016 “had been altered and post-dated to June 2, 2016. The date alteration was significant because it created the false appearance that (Spears) had not submitted his memo before the May 31, 2016 deadline.”

Spears is seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial.

3-strikes felon sentenced to life in prison is released early, now charged with murder

A convicted felon sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison under Washington state's three-strikes law has been charged with shooting and killing a man earlier this month.

The life sentence of Stonney Marcus Rivers, 50, was commuted by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2013 during her final days in office.

Rivers was released from prison in early 2015.

On Nov. 2, police officers were called to the Golden Kent Motel on 84th Avenue South after gunfire rang out.

Nearby Mill Creek Middle School was locked down as a precaution.

Surveillance images show Rivers leaving the scene, according to Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas.

>> Read more trending news 

"We believe it was Mr. Rivers that pulled the trigger," Thomas told KIRO 7. "We certainly know, if Mr. Rivers' sentence wasn't commuted, he wouldn't be out of custody and he would not have committed that crime."

David A. Cabrera was found dead in motel room No. 18, according to a police report. He had been "shot in the face" in front of his girlfriend during what police call a suspected drug deal.

Theneious Fisteral Swafford, 47, has been charged as an accomplice in the case. Investigators believe Swafford, also a convicted felon, drove Rivers to and from the crime scene.

Rivers' lengthy police record includes multiple convictions for robbery, assault and "a propensity for violence that creates a substantial likelihood of danger to the community," according to charging documents filed this week in King County Superior Court.

Rivers' criminal history was used as an example by policymakers drawing up the state's three-strikes law in the 1990s, according to Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center.

"He became one of the first cases in our state that was eligible for 'three strikes, you're out,'" Guppy told KIRO 7 on Tuesday. "He was sentenced to life, so the system worked, and for every day he stayed in jail, the public was safe."

"In this case, he was released and he committed another violent crime," Guppy said. "It's a stunning failure of a system that was put into place by the voters of our state to protect the public from exactly this kind of person."

KIRO 7 reached out to then-Gov. Gregoire for comment. This is the statement her former chief of staff, Marty Loesch, released:

“King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, the Clemency and Pardons Board and the sentencing judge, Kathleen Learned, recommended the commutation of the sentence of Mr. Stonney Marcus Rivers to me in 2013. Their recommendations carried great weight with me. Mr. Rivers had been sentenced to life without possibility of parole soon after the passage of Washington’s Persistent Offender Accountability Act, the so-called “Three Strikes Law” for the crime of Robbery 2 and by the time of his release had served twenty years in prison. Robbery 2 typically results in a sentence of two to three years. Based on these recommendations and the facts available at the time, to include his performance while in prison, I conditionally commuted Mr. Rivers sentence to his time served subject to compliance with twenty-one different conditions. The allegations against him suggest that he violated these conditions and should be returned to prison for the rest of his life. My heart goes out to the victim, family and friends.”
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