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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Mother describes day Tori Stafford disappeared

Victoria (Tori) Stafford's mother told a London, Ont., court Wednesday about the day her daughter disappeared and said she had met the woman who later pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the eight-year-old's death.
Tara McDonald said she had seen Terri-Lynne McClintic on two separate occasions — when she accompanied her partner James Goris to buy drugs from McClintic's mother and to discuss dog breeding.
McDonald was testifying on the third day of the trial of Michael Rafferty, who is accused of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and abduction. He has pleaded not guilty.
McDonald said she had been dealing with a drug addiction and admitted to taking OxyContin on the afternoon of April 8, 2009, the day Tori Stafford disappeared after leaving her school in Woodstock, Ont.
Her remains were found more than three months later in a rural area near Mount Forest, north of Woodstock.
McClintic pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in April 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison.
Much of McDonald's testimony focused on events the day her daughter disappeared.
The Grade 3 pupil had been planning to have some friends over to watch a movie musical after school, but she did not come home, McDonald said. She was usually let out of school at 3:25 p.m.
Under cross-examination, McDonald said she did not start looking for Tori until 4:30 p.m. She set out on foot and her son, Daryn, searched on his bicycle.
They searched the neighbourhood before contacting police later that evening
Tori and Daryn were then both students at Oliver Stephens Public School. McDonald said the siblings were "extremely close" and often walked to school together.
Tara McDonald testified she immediately started to look for her daughter, Victoria (Tori) Stafford, when it was apparent the girl was missing. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)
McDonald said she told Daryn to walk home with his sister that day, but he took another child home. When Daryn went back to the school, Tori was gone.
McDonald described her daughter as both a "girly" girl and a "tomboy," who would jump in puddles and touch worms while wearing a dress.
She told defence lawyer Dirk Derstine that she had spoken to Tori about not talking to strangers and that her daughter had done an art project on the subject.
After the defence finished questioning McDonald, the Crown called Staff Sgt. Paul Hess to testify.
Hess told the court that police became aware of Tori’s disappearance at 6:04 p.m. Police searched her school but found no trace of her. They had made no progress in the case by midnight, Hess said.
The following day, local police asked other police forces in southwestern Ontario for assistance and within a week, they'd called in the Ontario Provincial Police.
“It just exponentially ramped up,” Hess said of the investigation.
Testimony on Wednesday began with OPP Const. Gary Scoyne, who said police catalogued 1,100 physical items collected during their investigation and took 4,500 photos.
Victoria (Tori) Stafford was a Grade 3 student at Oliver Stephens Public School in Woodstock, Ont., when she disappeared in April 2009.
He said the scale of the case was “enormous” and involved more than 900 officers.
"I have worked on major cases before, but this is, the volume of this, was enormous and the amount of personnel was too," Scoyne said.
Scoyne was responsible for exhibit management during the Stafford investigation and also attended the autopsy after the girl's remains were found.
Jurors were shown 52 ground-view photos of the Woodstock area where Tori was last seen. They also saw photographs of the area around College Avenue Secondary School, the local high school where security cameras captured video of Tori and a woman walking on the day she disappeared. McClintic has admitted to being the woman in the video.
Scoyne said Tori’s mother lived in a house just a block and a half from the high school.
Under cross-examination, Scoyne was asked if he had personally walked around Woodstock. The OPP officer responded that he had not, though he had driven through as part of the investigation.
The Crown told the court that Scoyne will be called to testify on several occasions during the trial, which is likely to last several months.
The Crown alleges McClintic lured Tori towards Rafferty's car before they drove to Guelph and then to a rural area 100 kilometres north of the city.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Athletic therapist claimed she was fired by Argos because she’s a woman

A former athletic therapist with the Toronto Argonauts who sued the team for wrongful dismissal accuses the club’s general manager Jim Barker of calling all women “bitches” and saying he would not be comfortable working with female head therapists because they would “mother” players.

Erin Brooks, 36, made the startling allegations in a lawsuit filed March, 2011, in Ontario Superior Court.

In the lawsuit, Brooks sued the Argonauts, Barker and team president Bob Nicholson for $975,000. The litigation has since been settled, Brooks’s lawyer said. He declined to elaborate on the terms of the settlement.

“The decision to terminate Brooks’ employment was made by Barker and Nicholson solely on the basis Brooks is a woman,” the lawsuit said.

Brooks’s allegations were not proven and her lawsuit was settled before Barker, Nicholson or the Argonauts filed a statement of defence.

The Argonauts, Barker and Nicholson each declined to comment, said Beth Waldman, a team spokesperson.

Brooks, a York University graduate, started volunteering with the Argos in June 2000 and was hired as their head athletic therapist two years later. Managing a team of three assistants, she was responsible for the health and conditioning of Argos players.

Before she was fired on Dec. 14, 2010, Brooks was the only female head athletic therapist in North American professional sports, her lawsuit said. During her tenure with the team, Brooks designed food menus for players and introduced to the team some non-traditional healing techniques, such as cranialsacral therapy (CST), which focuses on the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

She is now an athletic therapist at George Brown College.

In 2004, former Argos coach Michael Clemons said he called Brooks the Canadian Football League team’s “First Lady” and praised her organizational skills. “You really don’t realize that she’s a female and that’s the best compliment you can make,” Clemons said at the time.

Barker, now 55 and from California, joined the Argos as head coach in February 2010 after leaving the Calgary Stampeders. He allegedly made his feelings known about female trainers during his first training camp. During the 2010 training camp, Barker told at least two other Argos employees that he wasn’t comfortable with a woman as head athletic trainer.

“It was his opinion that (a woman) would be too ‘soft’ with the players and would be inclined to ‘mother’ them,” Brooks’s lawsuit says.

During a game in October 2010, Argos’ star player Chad Owens was slow to get up from the field after a play. Brooks saw that he might be injured and ran onto the field to help him, according to her statement of claim.

As she ran onto the field, Owens stood up and Brooks and her assistant returned to the sideline.

Under CFL rules, players must sit out of the game for three plays if an athletic trainer attends to them on the field.

Barker began discussing with a CFL official whether Owens would be required to leave the game. During that conversation, he told the CFL official that Brooks had run onto the field too quickly because she was a woman, the court filing alleges.

The agent for former Argos running back Michael Jenkins at one point said Jenkins would miss the entire 2004 season with an ankle injury because of bad advice from Brooks.

“I have a problem with female trainers,” Danny Benjamin said in an interview with the National Post, “because they’re female and they don’t understand the male body. Their bodies are different.”

Brooks told the paper she was surprised by the comments.

“I honestly have a little giggle about that because it was just so old school,” she said at the time.

On Dec. 14, 2010, Brooks was fired without any prior warning.

“Brooks’s employment record with the Argonauts was unblemished,” her statement of claim says. “She had never received any discipline, coaching or negative feedback on her job performance. Accordingly, her sudden dismissal came as a complete shock to her.”

After her firing, Brooks contacted Nicholson to seek an explanation. She was told it had been a “football operations decision.”

The day after he fired Brooks, Barker, the CFL coach of the year in 2010, was appointed to the position of head coach and general manager of the Argos. He has since given up the head coach position and the Argos have hired a new male head athletic therapist.

Brooks’ compensation with the Argos was $61,800, plus a playoff bonus, health benefits, four tickets to each Argos game and “a championship ring when applicable.”

Her lawsuit included demands for wrongful dismissal, unpaid overtime, and bad faith, punitive and aggravated damages.

The lawsuit highlights the struggles faced by women to break into the professional sports industry.

On the field and ice, there are more opportunities nowadays for women. There are professional leagues for women’s ice hockey, soccer and basketball. Female tennis stars such as Venus Williams often command more money for appearances than their male rivals.

But the path to success for women in administrative and management roles in pro sports is far more turbulent.

While teams and leagues covet female fans — the Argos have hosted so-called “Football 101” courses to teach women the game — there are few women in high-ranking administrative positions in professional sports.

On National Football League teams, the number of female employees at or above the vice president level increased to 15 in 2011, up from 10 a year earlier, according to a statistics compiled by Richard Lapchick, a professor at the University of Central Florida who has been tracking hiring practices in professional and college sports for years.

The proportion of professional positions in the National Basketball Association that are held by women was 42 per cent during the 2010-2011 season, down 2 per cent from a year earlier. In Major League Baseball’s headquarters, women held 32 per cent of front-office positions in 2010; 18.2 per cent of team vice presidents were women, down 0.4 per cent from a year earlier.

A CFL spokesperson said he didn’t know how many women held senior roles with the league’s eight teams. The CFL’s vice president of marketing, Sara Moore, is one of the few women in Canada’s pro sports landscape to climb near the top.

Don Drummond reigns over Ontario’s introduction to austerity

It’s as if Premier Dalton McGuinty gave economist Don Drummond the province of Ontario tied up in a nice big bow.

In a career brimming with plum positions, Drummond calls this one his “dream job.” McGuinty put him in charge of a commission on the public service with the power to affect all our lives in Ontario with a series of recommendations to find ways to raise money, as well as pinpointing the inevitable cuts.

It recommends that Ontarians play slots at “alternative sites” to racetracks so they won’t have to hike out of town to play. Wine, beer and liquor prices would go up and stores would have “anti-zapper” software installed in cash registers to stop the practice of hiding sales from tax collectors by deleting selected sales.

More than 400 recommendations include consolidation of some ministries, overhaul of others and a major reorganization of medical services and how patients interact with health care providers, right down to the protocol for patients with congestive heart failure and the restoration of hospital privileges for physicians who have let them lapse.

Some procedures simply won’t be available, such as the arthroscopic knee surgery he wants removed from OHIP lists. (“No value,” he says; it just delays knee replacement for a year.) Fees paid to doctors for cataract surgery and radiology would come down because the time required has been slashed, but not compensation to physicians.

There’d be fewer Caesarean sections and hysterectomies. “The numbers are off the charts in Ontario,” says Drummond. “You’re not going to say to a doctor, please take less money, but that needs to be reflected in the fee schedule.”

The reporter asks whether these would be just guidelines for physicians. After all, the Ontario Medical Association is negotiating a four-year contract with the government.

“Oh,” he replies, “some of these would be orders.”

So who is this man, 58, plucked from semi-retirement to reign over the introduction of austerity in Ontario? He has the media wattage — Toronto Life called him “The Celebrity Economist” — and credibility where it matters. His nickname is Premier Drummond, but Darth Drummond might soon fit the bill.

Perhaps you’re thinking his will merely be recommendations. McGuinty recently stressed that it’s Drummond’s role to “advise” and his to “decide.” That’s true. McGuinty’s office has been floating trial balloons on this much anticipated report for weeks.

And it could well be that some controversial ideas — those slot machines, maybe — will go down in flames. But don’t bet on it.

Because this has been, above all, a textbook exercise in symbiosis between commissioner and premier. Drummond has kept McGuinty and his line ministers in the loop every step of the way, filing draft chapters as he went along and working closely with industry associations. It’s unlikely anybody — other than the public, perhaps — will be shocked. Certainly, there won’t be surprises for the senior levels of government.

“That’s exactly right,” says Drummond, when asked if the main players are completely in the loop.

“I’ve done reports on most of the (sections) . . . so it wouldn’t come as a shock . . . The reason the Ontario government picked me is they suspected I have ideas,” he says. “Let’s face it. After you’ve done a couple of decades of research you don’t often flip your views in a matter of six months.”

The premier telephoned him a week before the Mar. 29, 2011, budget to offer the job, and he accepted, knowing there’d be no secretariat for a few months and three commissioners would come later. It didn’t matter.

Throughout an election campaign with upbeat announcements — i.e, news flash, deficit wrestled down to $15 billion from $16 bullion — it seems clear that clanging warning bells on the economy were going to come.

Events suggest Drummond’s been a McGuinty favourite since at least the evening in early 2008, when the premier invited him to dinner at Grano, the midtown Italian restaurant that’s a favourite of Liberal political operatives. A handful of other economists were there to discuss the night’s centrepiece — the Drummond-led TD bank report, “Time for a Vision of Ontario’s Economy.” The title sums it up, as well as the focus for this project.

While working over the past year for the commission, he finished a previously assigned report for the C.D. Howe Institute, basically covering a lot of the same ground for the Toronto-based public policy think-tank. It telegraphed his thinking on health care and spending cuts. As well, this year, he’s been an adviser to the Ontario Medical Association and continued to teach at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.

His report — already in the premier’s office waiting for Drummond’s final signoff in a few days — goes far beyond expected cuts and covers sweeping recommendations that would consolidate ministries, overhaul others and change the health care system as we know it. His out-of-the-box thinking will be evident throughout.

He didn’t even ask McGuinty about his salary last March, and found out in a media interview that it’s $1,500 a day. His blood boils at suggestions he’s getting fat from the public trough, noting he hasn’t even charged for half of his work. His salary cap is $150,000.

Currently, he earns a pension from his 23 years in the federal finance ministry and 10 years with TD. (The bank also committed to paying three annual bonus payments after retirement, and he’s received two with one to go.)

“There are two good defined benefit plans in the country — banking and the civil service,” he says, “and I have one of each.”

But Drummond says it’s never been about money. He throws himself into work he loves — indeed obsesses over it, according to colleagues — and the remuneration has followed.

Drummond comes across as a natural leader. Height counts among masters of the universe and he’s 6’1” and 180 pounds. To say he’s in shape is an understatement. He’s a workout fanatic.

His energy comes from three times a week in the gym, frequent squash games and other exercise. For example, former chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who worked with Drummond in finance, says Drummond used to run up all 26 floors at Place Bell Canada in Ottawa. Sometimes two or three times a day. Sheikh still shakes his head.

Friends rib him about his fitness obsession. TD banker Derek Burleton played a lot of squash with Drummond and both worked out in the gym. He recounts how Drummond came back after a physical to report a good body mass index (body fat count). Joking, Burleton jumped in to brag his was five percentage points lower.

Drummond left the room. About six months later, after months of extra classes and grinding workouts with his trainer, he told Burleton he just couldn’t match him by getting rid of that extra five per cent.

“Are you kidding?” Burleton retorted. “Just look at me. I’m fat compared to you.”

With great glee recently, Drummond sent around a blurb from Inside Queen’s Park in which he’s described as “this determined economist with a remarkably strong jaw-line.”

Drummond sent the email to Burleton and other colleagues with the subject: “Let your jealousy rage!”

He’s had to be in shape for the work on this report. Drummond says his wife, Susane Latrémouille, chides him for working so hard, stuck in his study for hours on end. “But she doesn’t realize it’s fun for me. I tell her that all the time,” he says.

He feels great too, he says, since eschewing meat after his film student daughter, Julie, 24, showed him videos of the treatment of food animals; he’ll still eat fish.

“I don’t want to sound conceited but I don’t think there’s anybody who could have done what we’ve done as a commission in the time period we’ve done it in with as few resources, if somebody hadn’t done a lot of work beforehand,” says Drummond, referring to his many reports for the TD bank. He praises fellow commissioners, Laurentian University president Dominic Giroux, Susan Pigott, vice-president of communications and community development at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of business at Western. All contributed to various aspects of the work.

He’s going to have to stay in shape. It’s a good bet he’ll be out on the interview circuit over the next year explaining why austerity is the new black.

Everybody seems to like Don Drummond. Former colleagues at the federal finance department and the TD Bank rave about him. Says Burleton: “When Don came, the TD was a very sleepy place but he kick-started it. We see time as ‘Before Don’ and ‘After Don.’”

Drummond made TD reports relevant and highy anticipated. Instead of focusing on narrow parameters — forecasts on interest rates or the Canadian dollar — his perspective included an examination of social issues in Canada. At the University of Victoria, where he took his undergraduate degree in economics before taking an M.A. at Queen’s, he was influenced by his late professor Leonard Laudadio.

Head of the economics department, Laudadio would come to class with newspaper clippings and teach his students based on issues of the day, things that mattered to people.

Michael Wilson, finance minister in Conservative Brian Mulroney’s government, says “he’s a pretty broadly based guy. I noticed that right away. Very capable, good judgment and I always paid attention when he spoke.”

Adds Wilson: “He’s one of the most principled and imaginative public servants with whom I have every worked.”

Sheikh says Drummond “takes seconds to figure out an issue that takes other normal mortals weeks and months.”

Drummond was born in Victoria and remains close to his family. His father John Murray is deceased, but he flew out Friday to Kelowna to celebrate his mother Georgina’s 90th birthday. He tries to visit four times a year. He has one sister, Carol.

He grew up fishing with his father who (Drummond insists) never caught a fish, but loved to practise fly fishing. He played golf with him, too, and Drummond swears he “never lost a golf ball in his life.”

Chartered accountant Larry Ware became Drummond’s friend when they were 12, was best man at his wedding to Latrémouille and has stayed in touch. He describes a “serious-minded” man who studied hard, worked hard and lived every aspect of his life in moderation.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing to know about Drummond as we are about to be plunged into his vision of Ontario.

“I don’t want to get silly about saying that government should run like the private sector . . .” he begins, and one’s ears perk up to hear how he might mean exactly that. This could be a warning.

“I was always very clear at TD about what I was trying to do and what they expected of me,” he continues. “Here was the cost of my group and I knew that if you wanted to survive, I had to make more money for the bank than was the cost of my group. . . .There wasn’t a bit of ambiguity about my value to the bank.”

And he wants to bring that discipline to how the province does its business. After full evaluation of each program “if it’s not going well, it’s gone.”

Judge orders psychiatric treatment for man who kept elderly relatives in ‘horrific conditions’

A judge has ordered a man to get psychiatric treatment after he admitted to keeping his elderly sister and mother malnourished and sleeping in a filthy, maggot-strewn bedroom.

Although Andrew Jones left his relatives in “horrific conditions” he suffers from schizophrenia and had delusional ideas about how to manage their care, Ontario Superior Court Justice Jane Kelly said Friday.

The judge imposed a conditional sentence, to be served in the community, of two years less a day and three years probation.

Forensic psychiatrist said Dr. Julian Gojer is willing to treat him, so the judge directed it to be done.

“Mr. Jones’ schizophrenia impacted on his judgment and his capacity to care for his mother and sister,” Kelly said.

Crown prosecutor Kene Canton had called for a jail sentence of two years less a day, but the judge said Jones and the community are better served with him in psychiatric care for five years.

On Oct. 31, Jones, 58, pleaded guilty in Ontario Superior Court to failing to provide the necessities of life to his mother, Rosena Jones, thought to be between 89 and 93 when rescued, and his sister Rosemary Jones, then 67.

On April 17, 2009, police forced open the door of his house on Amaranth Ct., north of Lawrence Ave. W. and Allen Rd.

His mother was found in the upstairs bedroom, which smelled of urine and was infested with cockroaches.

She was found lying in her own feces, which was crawling with maggots.

Officers estimated her emaciated body weighed 30 pounds.

She was dehydrated, malnourished and unable to walk. She suffered from dementia. She later died of cancer.

Police returned to the house on July 14, 2009.

In his mother’s bedroom, they again smelled a foul odour, cockroaches crawling and on a small filthy blanket atop a mattress, a very small, skeletal frame — Jones’s sister, Rosemary.

She was found to be dehydrated and with low blood pressure. She was diagnosed with a psychotic mental illness.

Gojer testified that Jones has schizophrenia but the doctor could not determine whether he was “not criminally responsible” for the neglect of his family members.

Library cuts averted for now, but battle may continue

Six months after a consultant’s suggestion of closing libraries sparked a public outcry and the famous feud between Atwood and Councillor Doug Ford, council voted this week to spend $3.9 million to avoid any cuts to branch hours or programs in 2012.

Both Mayor Rob Ford and the chair of the library board, right-leaning Ford ally Councillor Paul Ainslie, opposed the proposal to provide the extra funding. It passed by one vote, 22-21 — with Councillor Ron Moeser, who usually votes with Ford, absent recovering from surgery.

Ford’s executive committee had added another $3.1 million back to the library budget last week. The library ended up with a $10.1 million cut rather than the $17 million Ford originally wanted; the $10.1 million will come from internal efficiencies, new revenues and 100 job cuts, not major service reductions.

“I’m very pleased that council responded to the thousands of residents of the city of Toronto who said ‘don’t touch our libraries.’ I have never seen that level of community engagement and commitment, to any city service, ever,” said Councillor Janet Davis, a left-leaning library board member who led the opposition to the cuts.

The $3.9 million council added Tuesday was taken from the city’s estimated $154 million 2011 surplus. Because the surplus is one-time money, Ford allies say council will again face a hole next year.

“I won’t support closing library branches,” Ainslie said, “but I think we’re certainly going to go through the whole discussion, if not ‘battle,’ again, this year or sometime in the near future, over library hours, and why some branches are open at times when everybody has pointed to the fact that they’re not very well-utilized. It’s a business model that I don’t think is sustainable in the long run.”

Davis acknowledged that the $3.9 million is not a permanent solution, but she said Ford may seek less severe cuts from the library in future budgets than he did in this one.

“There is no doubt we’ll have to revisit the library budget again next year, and the adequacy of its funding,” Davis said. “But I hope that next year both the mayor’s office and the city manager will recognize that getting the level of savings they asked for this year out of the library budget is not a good strategy. I think there’ll be a new level of respect for the value Torontonians place on their library.”

Man shot to death in Scarborough

Police are investigating a fatal shooting overnight in Scarborough.

Police say the victim was dropped off at Scarborough General Hospital around 5 a.m. Saturday morning, where the male in his early 20s was pronounced dead.

It is not known who was responsible for transporting the victim to the hospital.

Police are investigating the homicide.

More to come.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mitt Romney’s lead ‘collapsing’ as Newt Gingrich surges

Crunch time arrived in South Carolina with more grim news for Mitt Romney, whose nationwide lead is “collapsing” against a surging Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, according to new Gallup polling data.

The former Massachusetts governor played down expectations as South Carolinians readied to vote in Saturday’s crucial primary, acknowledging that what was seen as an easy win barely a week ago now may slip through his fingers.

The broader U.S. picture, meanwhile, suggests the traction former House speaker Gingrich gained in two feisty debate performances this week is beginning to translate coast to coast.

Romney’s lead over Gingrich shrank nationally from 23 percentage points to 10 points in the past five days, prompting Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport to predict the gap would narrow further still.

“Clearly, things are collapsing,” Newport told MSNBC.

However, “voter volatility” remain the watchwords in a wildly unpredictable primary season that has anointed and discarded a succession of Republican hopefuls.

Campaigning in the rain Friday, Romney described the South Carolina race as “neck and neck” and shrugged off the significance of losing here. But his remarks hinted that the tightening race may extend far into the spring before it is settled.

“From the very beginning, South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Romney told reporters.

“We have a long process ahead of us — 1,150 delegates to get. I sure would like to win South Carolina, but I know that if those polls were right, regardless of who gets the final number, we’re both going to get a lot of delegates.”

Gingrich was uncharacteristically low-key on the campaign trail Friday, attending a tour of a Charleston children’s hospital with his wife Callista at his side.

The appearance provided a counterpunch of sorts to the fireworks of the night before, when Gingrich went ballistic at the top of a nationally televised debate when questioned on ex-wife Marianne’s unflattering details of his infidelity.

One overnight tracking poll released Friday showed barely 30 per cent of predominantly conservative, evangelical South Carolinians considered the marital accusations believable — good news for Gingrich if such attitudes translate into votes on Saturday.

Gingrich’s unlikely comeback appears to have galvanized the Republican Party’s conservative base as it looks to South Carolina as a firewall to halt — or at least delay — Romney’s path to the nomination.

Both men continue to pick up high-profile endorsements with each passing day. For Romney, Friday’s catch was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who called Romney a “results-oriented conservative” best positioned to appeal to Democrats and independents in a general election against President Barack Obama.

Gingrich, for his part, welcomed the endorsement of action-movie hero Chuck Norris, who called Gingrich “the best man left on the battlefield who is able to outwit, outplay and outlast” Obama. Gingrich responded on Twitter, writing that Norris “will make an excellent Secretary of Attack.”

The sheer unpredictability of the race also suggests Romney could rebound by the time results are disclosed Saturday night, said Gallup’s Newport.

“We have seen more movement, more roller-coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” he said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is gaining ground in the polls ahead of Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina.

New Ontario poll puts Tories ahead of Liberals

The Progressive Conservatives have regained the public-opinion poll lead that they squandered to the governing Liberals last fall, according to a new Forum Research survey.

In the first major poll since the Oct. 6 election, the Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, have moved ahead of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.

The Tories, who held a 15-point lead last summer, are at 41 per cent to the Liberals’ 33 per cent. The New Democrats, led by Andrea Horwath, are third with 20 per cent and Mike Schreiner’s Greens are at 4 per cent.

But in terms of approval rating, Horwath leads with 40 per cent, McGuinty is at 33 per cent, and Hudak trails with 26 per cent.

Forum’s interactive voice-response telephone poll of 1,041 people, conducted on Wednesday, is considered accurate to within 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

“Just remember last year. The Tories were ahead right around now. That’s the only caveat,” Forum president Lorne Bozinoff told the Star on Friday.

Indeed, Forum’s June survey, which jolted the Liberal campaign, had the Tories at 41 per cent, the Grits at 26 per cent, the NDP at 24 per cent, and the Greens at 8 per cent.

In the Oct. 6 election, the Liberals had 37.6 per cent of the popular vote, the Tories 35.4 per cent, the NDP 22.7 per cent, and the Greens 2.9 per cent.

This latest poll comes as the minority Liberal government faces service cuts to eliminate a $16-billion deficit without the luxury of political stability.

“Last year, the (majority) Liberals knew when the election was going to be, so they had a lot of time to get ready. This is going to be harder for them,” said Bozinoff, noting the minority government could be defeated, forcing an election before 2015.

“I don’t think the talk of restraint has gone that well. And they haven’t actually announced anything, but they’re scaring everybody. People are getting very uneasy about this restraint program.”

That’s a reference to former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond’s looming report on government reform, which will help shape Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s March budget.

Bozinoff said the austerity chatter is hurting the Liberals, coming as it does against the backdrop of revelations in the Star about the ORNGE air ambulance service.

“It’s just the wrong image right now,” he said.

As a result of an ongoing Star investigative series, the board of ORNGE has been replaced and forensic auditors have swooped in.

ORNGE’s founder and president, Dr. Chris Mazza, who earned $1.4 million and used to have a cold smoothie delivered to him at 3 p.m., has since gone on indefinite medical leave.

“All that stuff just brings it right home to people,” said Bozinoff. “It’s one thing to talk about cutbacks, it’s all very vague to people. Then you hear about these real-life examples and I think it’s turning some people.”

Smitherman brokered meeting between Korean officials and ORNGE

Former health minister George Smitherman, the political architect of ORNGE, acted as an unpaid consultant last fall, brokering a meeting between South Korean business officials and ORNGE’s for-profit firm.

The South Korean officials wanted to purchase ORNGE expertise to set up an air ambulance service.

Smitherman told the Star neither he nor his consulting company, G and G Global Solutions, received payment for the meeting. He said he was acting as “ambassador” for Ontario.

Smitherman was the minister who created ORNGE in 2005. In a news release in July of that year, he described it as a not-for-profit, government funded service that would “streamline our air ambulance system to better ensure that emergency coverage improves across the province, especially in northern and rural communities.”

An ongoing Star investigation has revealed that in the six years since ORNGE was created, the focus of top executives like Dr. Chris Mazza, founder and former president, had shifted from building Ontario’s service to attempting to “leverage” public assets in a series of consulting ventures overseas.

These ventures include high-end executive health insurance and consulting services in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Current health minister Deb Matthews recently shut down the for-profit ventures following revelations in the Star in December.

Mazza, who was making $1.4 million a year, was president of both the non-profit ORNGE Ontario and numerous for-profit companies. Ontario taxpayers pay $150 million a year to fund ORNGE, and Mazza’s pitch was a promise that he would give Ontario three per cent of anything his ventures made internationally.

One plan was to sell ORNGE expertise to South Korea. In an emailed statement to the Star, Smitherman said a South Korean official who knows Smitherman’s business partner wanted to talk to ORNGE.

Smitherman and his partner run G and G Global Solutions, which provides “strategic advisory services to domestic and global clients.”

Smitherman said he frequently travels to South Korea and om his travels has learned that the country has “no trauma system or medical air transport system and thousands of people die there because of it.”

A South Korean medical official was visiting Toronto last fall, Smitherman said, and the official asked him to set up an ORNGE meeting.

Smitherman said his “Korean Canadian business partner,” Bill Choi, is friends with the Korean official. (Choi is away and could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.)

A meeting was arranged Nov. 3 at ORNGE headquarters, the well-appointed offices near Pearson airport dubbed the “Crystal Palace” by insiders.

On one side of the table was ORNGE president Chris Mazza and Tom Lepine, ORNGE’s top operations officer.

On the other side were Smitherman, Choi and two South Korean officials.

Smitherman said he was not paid for the meeting, which was set up to discuss ORNGE selling its services to South Korea.

“Ambassador for Ontario” was how he described his role. An ORNGE spokesperson also said Smitherman was not paid by ORNGE for setting up the meeting.

Smitherman had kept in touch with Mazza after leaving government. In an email exchange, he said he had “minimal contact” with Mazza, talking to him “maybe two times” before that meeting.

Smitherman said ORNGE presented data on its model of service delivery and provided a tour. The South Korean official described the need for a modern air ambulance service.

A follow-up letter was sent by ORNGE to South Korea before the Star’s first story broke in December. After that, with ORNGE in crisis mode, the South Korean venture ended.

In a recent email to the Star, Smitherman distanced himself from Mazza and the ORNGE debacle.

“When I left (government) 3½ years ago they weren’t a for-profit operation and the guy (Mazza) wasn’t making a fortune,” Smitherman said.

Smitherman said that had negotiations continued “it is likely that Ornge could have sold its highly specialized expertise to (South Korea).”

He said Mazza told him he was also trying to sell services to Kuala Lumpur.

The Star has reported that Mazza was the controlling shareholder of the for-profit companies and stood to gain financially, along with other ORNGE executives, if the deals went forward.

Mazza recently went on indefinite medical leave.

Suspect photo faked, court told

Seven months after teenager Omar Wellington was savagely beaten, then fatally stabbed, Toronto police released a composite photo of a suspect and the knife purportedly wielded by the killer.

The evidence was fabricated and part of an eleborate police strategy to solve the shocking July 2006 murder in Flemingdon Park.

Several intercepted calls, made after the fictitious details were made public, were played for a Superior Court jury Friday before the Crown closed its case against J.G.

The Crown alleges he plunged a knife into Wellington 31 times after a group of youths kicked, punched and stomped on the 17-year-old for hours after he failed to deliver a promised handgun.

J.G., who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, was under 18 when Wellington was killed so cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Jurors heard a Feb. 18, 2007, police wiretap between J.G. and another male, recorded days after then homicide Det. Scott Spratt told a news conference police were closing in and had recovered the murder weapon at the scene.

Crown Attorney Anna Tenhouse asked Spratt about some of the language used by J.G. and his friend. “Eye and eye,” for example, referred to police, Spratt said.

At another point in the call, the male asks J.G. “about the real crucial boop.”

“That wasn’t even the one, two, guy,” J.G. responds.

“That wasn’t the one, two?”

“Nah, That’s what I’m trying to say. That wasn’t – that wasn’t even part of anything . . . That’s so . . . so when they said it’s a, it’s a, it’s a match made in heaven, what the f--- are they talking about?”

Defence lawyer Adam Schultz told court he would call no evidence.

J.G., arrested Oct. 27, 2008, is the last person to stand trial in the case. Four other males, also teens at the time, were convicted of assault and aggravated assault. A fifth male pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for aiding and encouraging the murder.

Justice Mary Lou Benotto told the jury to return to court Tuesday when closing arguments are expected.

VIDEO: Oakville girl describes her coyote attack

Some parents may have laughed last week when they received a letter from St. Joan of Arc Catholic Elementary School in Oakville describing the coyote lockdown on Jan. 11, when students were kept inside the classroom during the lunch hour after one was spotted prowling the schoolyard earlier in the day.

But after a brazen coyote leapt over a backyard fence to attack an 8-year-old girl on Thursday afternoon, the entire town is on heightened alert for the howling carnivores, which have been known to prey on small pets, but are usually considered harmless to humans.

“I think it’s becoming a little scarier for sure,” said Kevin Corcoran, who lives on Canonbridge Circle, a few doors down from where 8-year-old Julia Couto was bit on the thigh as she played with a friend.

Corcoran helped police locate what was believed to be the culprit coyote, which was shot and killed. The natural resources ministry gave police permission to shoot the animal after the attack.

“My kids are scared,” Corcoran said. “They won’t go out in the front yard anymore.”

Oakville residents, particularly those living between Bronte and Sixteen Mile creeks, are accustomed to sharing their neighbourhood with coyotes and other wildlife. The area is dotted not only with popular golf courses, but also small creeks and ravines, trails and parks.

“Urban coyotes are a fact of life here,” said Cindy Toth, the town’s director of environmental policy.

But residents used to hearing the animal’s howl have been put on edge this month by an apparently aggressive coyote or coyotes.

In addition to the schoolyard scare, two small dogs were attacked by coyotes this week, one fatally. Neighbours have also been gossiping about a male jogger who was apparently attacked by a coyote on one of the region’s trails. Halton police could not confirm the report.

Town officials are confident the animal shot Thursday was the “problem coyote,” but they still encourage residents to remain alert, reminding them never to feed the animals and asking them to be aware of any unintentional food sources left outside.

Corcoran said he and his neighbours have taken to wearing cowbells while walking dogs, or shaking cans filled with screws to ward off any potential coyotes.

Julia’s mother, Jenny Couto, said she is thankful her daughter was wearing snow pants at the time of the attack or her wound — three small bite marks and bruising — could have been much worse. “It was a scary ordeal for her, but it’s not usual coyote behaviour.”

Derek Quinlan, whose daughter Sydney was playing with Julia when the attack occurred, said after he heard the children scream and he ran into the living room, the coyote stood steadfast on his backyard deck, staring straight at the children through the sliding glass door.

It’s unclear what may have caused the aggressive behaviour. Town officials are awaiting results of an autopsy of the killed animal to see if it was rabid, or if there is evidence it had been fed by humans.

Meanwhile, Julia appeared unfazed a day later as she fielded interview requests and spoke to TV cameras before she was to take a quick trip to hospital. “I’m going to get a rabies shot!” she said, smiling.

The town is holding a coyote information session at 9 p.m. Jan. 31 at the St. Volodymyr Cultural Centre, 1280 Dundas St. W.

Julia Couto, 8, photographed at her Oakville home, was attacked by a coyote while playing at the yard of neighbour. Police say they shot and killed the coyote that attacked the girl Thursday afternoon.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

9/11 anniversary reveals impact of stories, 10 years later

This year, I had the opportunity to cover the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Many moments left an impression on me, from witnessing the raw emotion of family members as they took turns recalling loved ones at the commemoration-ceremony podium to soaking up the view from atop the newly constructed One World Trade Center tower - a symbol of the city's resilience.

But perhaps most memorable was reconnecting with John Signorello.

I first met Signorello on the night of American Thanksgiving in 2001. He was a veteran city sanitation worker assigned to haul debris out of Ground Zero. I was a young reporter looking for a story.

Signorello let me ride with him in his dump truck as he transferred tons of mangled steel and pulverized concrete to waiting barges. During the ride he told me how the long hours and the sight of bodies being pulled from the rubble were taking their toll. The smell from the site was creeping into his dreams.

Ten years later I set out to track him down. I didn't think he would remember me.

But when I reached him on the phone, I learned that he not only remembered me, but just days earlier he had dug up my original story and read it to his grown daughter for the first time.

"I actually just fell apart," he recalled. "She went silent. I don't think she knew the way I felt until then."

Signorello said he then went to make extra copies of the story because the original had started to fade.

I was blown away.

Journalists often wonder, "Do our stories make a difference?"

It was nice to hear a bit of validation that they do.

Afghan MP among 19 killed in suicide attack

 A suicide bomber attacked a funeral in northeastern Afghanistan Sunday, killing at least 19 people including an MP and wounding dozens of others, officials said.

The attacker, who was wearing a suicide vest, blew himself up among a crowd of mourners gathered for the funeral of a government official in Taluqan city, the capital of Takhar province.

"We have 19 dead including an MP, Abdulmutalib Baig, and more than 40 wounded, mostly civilians," said Takhar provincial governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa.

"I was also invited to this ceremony but I didnÕt go. The target was either me or the MP."

Baig was a former Mujahedeen commander and the former police chief of Kunduz province. He was working with opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah in the newly established National Coalition of Afghanistan.

"This ruthless act of terror to target innocent people who had gathered for a religious ceremony yet again demonstrates the vile and vicious nature of the enemy who do not want to see the Muslim people of Afghanistan to perform even their Islamic rituals," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said.

Both the provincial police chief General Khair Mohammad Temor and the interior ministry confirmed the death toll. Temor said there were no women among the dead and more than 50 were wounded.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and the Taliban, who are leading an insurgency against Afghan government forces and US-led international troops, were not reachable for comment.

Peace talks with the Taliban in the hope of finding a political settlement after 10 years of war have stalled in the wake of the September assassination of government peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani and continued violence.

Takhar province is one of the areas being handed over by NATO in the second wave of transition to Afghan security forces ahead of the planned withdrawal of foreign combat forces by the end of 2014.

There have been a number of high-profile attacks in the province in the last year, including the assassination of anti-Taliban northern Afghanistan police commander General Mohammad Daud Daud.

"This reprehensible attack... illustrates that the Taliban and other insurgents are waging a murderous campaign against innocent Afghan civilians and exposes as false calls by (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar during the Eid al-Adha... on their followers not to kill civilians," the US embassy said in a statement.

Elsewhere, in eastern Afghanistan, an ISAF service member died after an insurgent attack on Christmas day. The nationality was not disclosed in line with policy.

The death came after an Afghan soldier was killed in a separate gunfight with US troops after he opened fire during an argument on Christmas eve, officials said.

US troops were also injured in the incident on Saturday after the Afghan soldier began shooting and coalition troops returned fire in southwestern Farah province, Afghan army and police officials said.

"Last night in Bala Boluk an Afghan army soldier opened fire on foreign forces," said Najibullah Najibi, spokesman for the Afghan army in western Afghanistan.

"Four foreign forces have been wounded in this incident and the Afghan soldier has been killed."

A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said there were no coalition fatalities but would not comment on ISAF casualties in line with policy.

Coalition troops often carry out joint operations with Afghan army and police. But violent incidents are not uncommon and Afghan security forces or those purporting to be have carried out several attacks on ISAF soldiers.

There are now 180,000 Afghan National Army soldiers. The Afghan security forces have grown quickly, raising fears over the quality of recruits and even Taliban infiltration.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry said in the space of 24 hours Afghan security forces killed 30 armed insurgents in various operations around the country in which a number of weapons were found.

Afghanistan sets ground rules for Taliban talks

 Afghanistan will accept a Taliban office in Qatar to help peace talks but no foreign power can get involved in the process without its consent, the government's peace council said, as efforts gather pace to find a solution to the 10-year war.

Afghanistan's High Peace Council, in a note to foreign missions, has set out ground rules for engaging the Taliban after Kabul grew concerned that the United States and Qatar, helped by Germany, had secretly agreed with the Taliban to open an office in the Qatari capital, Doha.

It said that negotiations with the Taliban could only begin after they stopped violence against civilians, cut ties to al-Qaida, and accepted the Afghan constitution which guarantees civil rights and liberties, including rights for women.

The council, according to a copy of the 11-point note made available to Reuters, also said any peace process with the Taliban would have to have the support of Pakistan since members of the insurgent group were based there.

"The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is in agreement regarding the opening of an office for the armed opposition, but only to move forward the peace process and conduct negotiations," the council said.

The government would prefer such an office in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which it is close to, but was not averse to Doha as long as the authority of the Afghan state was not eroded and the office was only established for talks, officials said.

"We are saying Saudi or Turkey are preferable, we are not saying it has to be there only. The only condition is it should be in an Islamic country," said a government official.

President Hamid Karzai's administration recalled its ambassador from Doha last week, apparently angry that it had been kept in the dark about the latest round of negotiations with the insurgent group.

Officials said Kabul was also deeply concerned about reports that the United States was considering the transfer of a small number of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay military prison to Doha as a prelude to the talks.

"We are a sovereign country, we have laws. How can you transfer our prisoners from one country to another. Already it's a violation to have them in Guantanamo Bay," the official said.

The Afghan government wanted the prisoners to be returned to its custody, the official said.

Reuters reported this month that the United States was considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay into Afghan government custody as part of accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy.

"We have no problem with this. In fact we have been demanding this for a while. These are Afghan prisoners," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The tension between the Karzai administration and the United States over engaging the Taliban underscores the challenges of seeking a political settlement as the West prepares to withdraw most combat troops from the country by 2014.

Efforts to engage the insurgent group have faced a string of setbacks, the most recent being the assassination of the head of the peace council and former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September at the hands of a suicide bomber who pretended to be a Taliban emissary.

It led to a hardening of positions with Karzai saying the government could not talk to suicide bombers and that there should be an address for the Taliban so that negotiators know they are talking to the right representatives.

"We are committed to the reconciliation process, the experience of the last 10 years shows no military solution is possible. Talking to the armed opposition is the key in this regard," said presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi.

The peace council, laying down the markers for engagement with the Taliban, said well known figures from both the Taliban and the government had to be involved in talks.

It said that "before any negotiations can take place, violence against Afghan people must stop and that the armed opposition must cut ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups".

It also said that the Taliban must accept the constitution and honour the gains made in the last 10 years since they were ousted from power, conditions that the Taliban have shown no sign of accepting.

The Taliban do not accept the constitution and have vowed to carry on fighting until all foreign troops have left the country.

The peace council said Pakistani support was necessary for talks to take place, another condition that makes the task harder because of fraught ties between the United States and Pakistan which fears it is being shut out of the process.

Opening a Taliban office in a third country itself is seen as a way to create distance from Pakistan which has longstanding ties to the insurgent group.

But the government official said he did not think the peace council had laid down such tough conditions that the talks would fail even before they started.

"We don't think it's a deal breaker. We are quite optimistic," he said.

Alta. prison staff find two inmates dead in separate cells

 Two inmates at Alberta’s Drumheller Institution died on Christmas Eve day, according to police.

Nicholas Whynott and Derek Upton were both found unresponsive in their separate, single-person cells when prison staff checked on them just after 3 a.m.

Drumheller is about 140 kilometres northeast of Calgary.

In the early 1990s, Upton was one of four people charged in connection with the murder of 43-year-old Darlene Korolak, from Medicine Hat, Alta. In 1992, the woman was strangled, stabbed and trampled by a group of young adults and teens.

Upton was 17 when he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He and another teen dumped the woman’s body near the small town of Irvine. His case was heard in adult court.

Whynott was charged with three counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking and breach of parole last year when the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team busted two alleged drug operations in Edmonton.

Police are still investigating the cause of the inmates’ deaths. An autopsy has been scheduled for next week.

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