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MUSIC NEWS

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reaches all-time chart high

Columbia RecordsHere’s a nice Christmas gift for Mariah Carey: “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has just hit #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, the highest it’s been ranked since it was first released in 1994.

If you’re wondering how that could possibly be, keep this in mind: The song only hit the top 10 for the first time last year.  If it sounds unbelievable, well, blame Billboard‘s chart rules.

In 1994, when “All I Want for Christmas Is You” first came out, it wasn’t commercially available as a single, and Billboard‘s rules back then prohibited it from charting on the Hot 100.  When those rules changed in 1998, the song first charted in 2000, but only at #83.

Billboard now allows old songs to return to the Hot 100 if their stats — like sales, streaming and airplay — are significant. Every year since 2012, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has subsequently returned to the chart. In 2016, the song climbed to #11, and last year, it finally broke into the top 10, reaching #9, mostly due to streaming.

As Vulture notes, the festive track has earned Mariah roughly $60 million over the years.

Elsewhere on the chart, Maroon 5‘s “Girls Like You” has just notched its 27th week in the top 10.  It’s only the 10th single in history to stay in the top 10 that long.  Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape of You” currently holds the record: It spent 33 weeks in the top 10 in 2017.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Liam Payne to broadcast secret London show as a virtual reality live stream

ABC/Paula LoboNot lucky enough to attend Liam Payne’s secret headlining London show on December 19? There’s another option.

Liam is teaming up with MelodyVR to broadcast the show live in virtual reality. That means if you have the right technology, you’ll be able to experience the concert in real-time without ever leaving home.

“I can’t wait for this show,” Liam says in a statement. “For those who are going to be there on the night, it’s going to be amazing … but the fact there will be people from right across the globe watching the live stream via MelodyVR makes it extra special.”

In order to watch the show in VR, you’ll need an Oculus Go or Samsung GearVR headset with the MelodyVR app installed and an internet connection. Log into the app on December 19 at 8 p.m. GMT/3 p.m. ET and select Liam Payne from the home screen.

A select number of tickets to see the show in person will be available for free on the MelodyVR website.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Katy Perry will become a video game character in “Final Fantasy” mobile game

ABC/Image Group LAKaty Perry is getting her own video game character.

The singer will be featured as multiple playable avatars in the Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius mobile game, starting December 12 for a limited time.

In a new teaser clip, we see Katy starting her day and getting ready for a big performance. As she uses her phone to snap selfies and pics of her dog, Nugget, the two start turning into pixelated game characters. The clip ends with Katy, wearing a blue gown, fully becoming part of the game.

The teaser also features Katy’s new anthem for the game, “Immortal Flame.”

Katy isn’t the first pop star to join the game. Ariana Grande had a Final Fantasy avatar last year, which was dressed as her Dangerous Woman persona with a long blonde ponytail and black bunny ear mask.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

ENTERTAINMENT NEWS

‘The Favourite’ leads all comers in Critics’ Choice Awards nominations

Olivia Colman in “The Favorite”; Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation(NEW YORK) — The Favourite is clearly that with critics.  The comedy-drama set in the 18th century world of the British monarchy scored a leading 14 nominations for the 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards.

The Favourite earned nominations in all the major categories including best picture, best director and best original screenplay, as well as acting nominations for stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. 

Not far behind is the superhero blockbuster Black Panther, which earned 12 nominations including best picture, best adapted screenplay, and best supporting actor for Michael B. Jordan.  First Man has ten nominations, while Mary Poppins Returns, A Star Is Born and Vice each have nine and Green Book and Roma have seven.

On the TV side, the FX drama The Americans, which ended its six-season run in May, shares a leading five nominations with another FX drama, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora.  Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and HBO’s Sharp Objects are the next-most nominated series, with four nods apiece.

Overall, HBO and Netflix have the most nominations among TV outlets, each with 20.  FX is next with 16, while Amazon has 12 and NBC, 11.

The Critics’ Choice Awards nominees are selected annually by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association.  Winners will be announced Sunday, January 13 during a live broadcast on The CW beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET.

For a complete list of nominees, check out CriticsChoice.com.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

‘Stranger Things’ season three teaser reveals mysterious episode titles

Netflix(NEW YORK) — Start speculating, Stranger Things fans.

Netflix has released a new teaser for the show’s third season, which reveals the cryptic titles of all eight episodes, including:

Suzie, Do You Copy?
The Mall Rats
The Case of the Missing Lifeguard
The Sauna Test
The Source
The Birthday
The Bite
The Battle of Starcourt

The teaser concludes with this message: “In the summer of 1985, the adventure continues.”

Season three of Stranger Things – starring Millie Bobbie Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and Gaten Matarazzo – will debut in 2019.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved. 

‘The Ranch’ reveals Danny Masterson’s post-exit fate

L-R: Danny Masterson and Sam Elliot; Greg Gayne/Netflix(SPOILERS AHEAD)  In the wake of his departure from The Ranch, actor Danny Masterson is urging fans of the Netflix comedy to keep supporting the show. 

In an Instagram post, Masterson asked fans to keep watching the show, to honor his “family,” the crew. “They work 10-14 hour shoot days to make you smile in 30 minute increments,” he noted, adding, “Support comedy. Support Art. Support the Iron River ranch and the Bennett Family.”

Masterson, who also co-executive-produced The Ranch, was fired from the show a year ago this month after sexual misconduct allegations against him from the early 2000s resurfaced.   Masterson has denied any wrongdoing.

In the part-six finale of The Ranch’s just-released second half of season three, it was revealed that Masterson’s character, Rooster, was apparently killed in a motorcycle accident.

Netflix has already announced that The Ranch — also starring Debra Winger, Sam Elliot, Elisha Cuthbert and Ashton Kutcher — will return for a fourth season.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

SPORTS NEWS

‘Sports Illustrated’ names Golden State Warriors 2018 Sportsperson of the Year

Stacy Revere/Getty Images(OAKLAND, Calif.) — Sports Illustrated announced its selection for 2018 Sportsperson of the Year, and it’s not a person at all — it’s an entire team. The sports publication named the Golden State Warriors as this year’s top “Sportsperson.”

“Three titles in four years, and now another: 2018 [Sports Illustrated] #Sportsperson of the Year recipients. Congratulations, [Warriors]!” read a tweet sent from the Sports Illustrated Twitter account Monday morning.

Though multiple individuals, including Lebron James, made the list of prospective selections, the magazine’s editor-in-chief said the Warriors’ collective influence on their sport and culture in the last five years could not be overlooked, according to ABC News television affiliate KGO-TV.

“This year’s award focused on the power of sports to amaze, surprise and inspire,” the magazine stated. “This year, the Warriors exhibited those attributes on and off the court.”

In 64 years, the Warriors is the fourth team ever to win the Sportsperson of the Year title and the first team to do so since the 2004 Boston Red Sox, according to Sports Illustrated.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Report: Lakers seeking to acquire Trevor Ariza from Suns

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly trying to add Phoenix Suns small forward Trevor Ariza to their roster.

Citing league sources, ESPN reports both teams are in talks and are looking to involve a third team that would take Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as part of a larger deal.

In return for trading Ariza, the Suns want a guard and a draft asset, league sources told ESPN.

While the sources say Los Angeles and Phoenix have made progress in third-team scenarios, they are not close to any agreement and are continuing to have trade discussions throughout the league.

Should an agreement be finalized, no moves can be officially made until Saturday, when Ariza, 33, becomes eligible for trading.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

How Aly Raisman defines ‘being strong’ since becoming advocate for sexual abuse survivors

ABC/Image Group LA(NEW YORK) — Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman said she has a new definition of strength after becoming an advocate over the last year for survivors of sexual abuse.

“When I was training, strength to me was about being mentally strong … and you obviously have to be very physically strong as well,” Raisman said. “I also think being strong is also having the courage to let yourself be tired and admit to yourself that you might need to take a break or that it’s OK to not be OK.”

She went on: “As an athlete where you’re kind of trained to be very serious and you don’t want to show the judges that you’re nervous or that you didn’t have a good warm up, you just want to have that good poker face on all the time. That was sort of new for me, learning, just to say, ‘I’m so exhausted and I have to take care of myself today.'”

Raisman, 24, spoke about her experience Wednesday before thousands of women at the annual Massachusetts Conference for Women, the largest women’s conference in the United States.

The Massachusetts native won multiple gold medals competing in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but most of her remarks at the conference focused on the role she’s stepped into over the past year as an advocate for sexual abuse survivors like herself.

Raisman was one of the dozens of gymnasts who spoke out about the rampant sexual abuse by disgraced doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced in January to up to 175 years in prison.

Just before the sentencing, Raisman faced Nassar in a Michigan courtroom and told him, in a speech that went viral, “The tables have turned, Larry. We are here, we have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”

Since that day, Raisman has been on a mission to remove the silence that has surrounded sexual abuse victims.

She has delivered countless speeches, met with other survivors, accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYs with 140 other survivors and launched a campaign, Flip the Switch, for which she personally signs the certificates of people who complete the campaign’s online courses on how to spot signs of sexual abuse.

The advocacy work has not come easy for Raisman, who started in gymnastics at age 2.

“In the last year, just from speaking up, there were plenty of times when I was just so exhausted I didn’t have the energy to work out, and I would feel like I’d just run miles and miles and even just walking up the stairs was exhausting for me,” she said. “I would say that even just speaking up, I felt like I had just done this crazy hard workout because it took so much from me.”

Raisman, who also described getting headaches after giving speeches, said she’s learned to meditate daily, still sees a therapist and recently took up gardening to help her relax.

“I understand that talking about sexual abuse is uncomfortable. I wish I could talk about gardening up here all the time,” she said. “It’s very hard for me.”

“It’s very, very confusing and very scary, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better,” Raisman said of speaking out about sexual abuse.

Taking on USA Gymnastics

Raisman has continued to speak out about abuse in gymnastics since Nassar’s sentencing. She called for an independent investigation of the United States Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics by federal authorities, and then, in March, filed a lawsuit against USOC and USA Gymnastics.

Raisman also used her voice to call for the ouster of Mary Bono as interim president of USA Gymnastics because of Bono’s association with a law firm that advised USA Gymnastics during the Nassar scandal. Bono resigned as interim president and CEO of USA Gymnastics in October after four days, according to ESPN.

Earlier this week, USA gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in the wake of lawsuits over the serial sexual abuse perpetrated by Nassar.

“It was very frustrating and it still is so frustrating that they, that USA Gymnastics, still treats me and my teammates like we are adversaries when we’re saying that we were abused while we were training,” Raisman said Wednesday. “It’s crazy to me that we live in a world where so often survivors are treated like adversaries when they’re brave enough to tell their stories.”

Raisman also described what prompted her to speak out publicly.

“I was very nervous and very scared,” she said, “but I knew that I couldn’t sit back and watch organizations continue to sweep it under the rug and act like nothing was happening.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

NATIONAL NEWS

Man accused of killing 13-year-old Hania Aguilar could face death penalty if convicted

Zolnierek/iStock(LUMBERTON, N.C.) — The man suspected of sexually assaulting and killing 13-year-old Hania Aguilar in North Carolina could face the death penalty if convicted, a judge said Monday, according to ABC Raleigh station WTVD.

Michael McLellan, 34, is accused of abducting and killing the teen in November. Her disappearance sparked a massive manhunt and her body was found in Robeson County, North Carolina, weeks later.

During McLellan’s brief court appearance Monday, the judge revoked bond, WTVD reported.

McLellan is charged with 10 felonies in Hania’s case including first-degree murder, first-degree forcible rape, statutory rape, abduction of a child and first-degree kidnapping, the FBI said.

The FBI announced the arrest on Saturday and said McLellan was being held on unrelated charges.

Hania was abducted outside her home at the Rosewood Mobile Home in Lumberton on the morning of Nov. 5.

She had taken the keys to her aunt’s SUV to start the car when a man dressed in all black with a yellow bandanna over his face forced her in the car and drove away, police said. The stolen SUV was found three days later in Lumberton.

The same day McLellan’s arrest was announced, more than 1,000 mourners gathered in a school gymnasium in Lumberton for Hania’s emotional funeral service.

Friends and family took turns coming up to the podium to read letters and poems they had wrote for Hania.

She was described as a bright, happy 8th grader who was a good student and a loving daughter, big sister and friend.

Born in Fort Payne, Ala., on March 21, 2005, Hania loved to draw and listen to music, had dreams of becoming an architect, played soccer and the viola.

One of Hania’s best friends, Jeidy Diaz Perez, read a letter at the funeral that she had written to Hania.

“When I found out what happened to you that morning, I didn’t want to believe it,” she said. “I prayed for you to come back that same day but you didn’t. That night they found a body, I hoped that it wasn’t you. But when that it was confirmed that it was you, I felt my heart breaking into pieces.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Mom, 17-year-old daughter strangled to death in Calif.; suspect at-large: Sheriff

Prathaan/iStock(LOS ANGELES) — A mother and her 17-year-old daughter were strangled to death in Southern California, officials said, as authorities search for their suspected killer.

Cecilia Meza, 41, and her daughter Kelsey Meza, 17, were found dead in a Monrovia home on Dec. 5 by officers conducting a welfare check, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.

Cecilia Meza died from strangulation while Kelsey Meza died from blunt head trauma and strangulation, according to the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s office.

Their suspected killer, Nimrod Perez Guerrero, remains at-large, the sheriff’s office said.

Kelsey attended Monrovia High School, across the street from her home, reported KABC.

The 17-year-old was “excited about going to college,” and was a “sweet, kind girl who always went out of her way to help others,” Monrovia Unified School District Superintendent Katherine Thorossian said in a Dec. 6 statement.

“It is not natural for us to comprehend unnatural death – especially one in our own back yard,” Thorossian said. “We’ve deployed our emergency response team, including trained counselors and psychologists, to Monrovia High School, where they will remain as long as they are needed to support students and staff coming to terms with their shock and grief.”

Guerrero was believed to have known the victims, ABC Los Angeles station KABC reported.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Outrage grows over ‘troubling’ video showing NYC police ripping baby from mother’s arms

tzahiV/iStock(NEW YORK) — New York City police officers are coming under fire after a “troubling” video surfaced showing them ripping a baby from the arms of a mother who went to a social services office to apply for day-care vouchers so she could work, police and the woman’s relatives said.

Jazmine Headley, 23, was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, committing an act in a manner injurious to a child, criminal trespass and obstruction of governmental administration, according to the NYPD.

She was booked into the Rikers Island jail and faces a first court hearing on Thursday.

But Headley’s mother, who witnessed the arrest, claims city Human Resources Administration security guards and police officers were in the wrong and responsible for letting the incident escalate into pandemonium.

“I was devastated to see something like that happen to my daughter and grandson,” Headley’s mother, Jacqueline Jenkins, told ABC New York station WABC-TV.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, said Monday morning that he plans to go to the social services office to investigate the incident and demand that all charges be immediately dropped against Headley.

“Something’s terribly wrong when the most well-trained police department can’t resolve a dispute with a mother and child without looking like the President’s southern border strategy. We must do better,” Adams said in a statement posted on Facebook, referring to the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents caught illegally crossing the border.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a tweet that the video was “hard to watch.”

“This is unacceptable, appalling and heart breaking [sic],” he wrote. “I’d like to understand what transpired and how these officers or the NYPD justifies this.”

NYPD officials said in a statement that they were called to the city Human Resources Administration office in Brooklyn just before 1 p.m. on Friday.

“The NYPD was called after office staff and HRA peace officers made unsuccessful attempts to remove this individual from the facility due to her disorderly conduct towards others, and for obstructing a hallway,” police said in a statement.

Jenkins said her daughter went to the office to apply for day-care vouchers for her 1-year-old son Damone so that she could start work as a security guard. But when they arrived at the Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, facility, the waiting room was so crowded that there were no seats left for her daughter to use.

She said her daughter and grandson sat on the floor and waited for about two hours.

Jenkins said the HRA guards told her daughter she could not sit on the floor because she was blocking a hallway. When she refused to stand, a supervisor called the police, Jenkins said.

A cell-phone video taken by Nyasia Ferguson, one of several taken by people who were also waiting at the office, shows at least three NYPD officers on top of Headley, who refused to let her child go.

“They’re hurting my son! They’re hurting my son!” Headley is heard screaming in the video.

One officer appeared to grab Damone and yank hard several times in an attempt to remove him from Headley’s arms. A crowd of people gathered around the officers yelling for them to stop and attempting to explain that Headley had not been bothering anyone.

At one point, an officer is seen in the video pulling out a stun gun and appearing to point it at the crowd, ordering people to step back. The officer also appeared to point the stun gun at Headley, but it was never deployed, the video shows.

“I was just disgusted and scared,” Ferguson told WABC. “I thought the cops [are] supposed to help you — they just straight up came and attacked the lady.”

Police were eventually able to wrest the baby away and place Headley under arrest. The child was turned over to Jenkins.

The NYPD called the incident “troubling” and said the encounter was “under review.” The statement said the review will include all available video that captured the incident.

Police officials said the HRA guards were the ones who initially took Headly to the floor when she refused to leave.

“NYPD officers then attempted to place her under arrest. She refused to comply with officers’ orders, and was then taken into custody,” according to the NYPD statement.

Police said no one was hurt in the confrontation.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

WORLD NEWS

Maria Butina, accused Russian agent, appears poised to plead guilty

TR/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian gun rights activist, appears poised to to plead guilty in a case that has focused on her alleged attempt to develop a covert influence operation in the United States.

In a joint filing to the court on Monday, Butina’s attorney and government prosecutors indicated that “the parties have resolved this matter” and asked the judge for a change of plea hearing that could be set as early as Tuesday.

Butina was arrested in July and accused of ensnaring longtime GOP operative Paul Erickson Paul Erickson in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for cover and connections as she developed an influence operation designed to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” She initially pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent.

The government has alleged that an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” which sources have identified as Erickson, “worked with Butina to arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including high-ranking members of the National Rifle Association and organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast, that would ultimately give her a surprising level of access to conservative politicians, including — in one memorable interaction captured on video — to then-candidate Donald Trump.

Most notably, Butina’s Russian gun rights group “Right to Bear Arms” hosted a delagation of former NRA presidents, board members and major donors in Moscow in 2015, where she appears to have succeeded in arranging the meeting between NRA insides and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, raising the prospect of a discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, declined to comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. An attorney for Paul Erickson declined to comment.

It would appear that, even as Erickson was helping Butina forge those connections, he may have been aware of the political implications.

“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote in an October 2016 email to an acquaintance that was later obtained by the FBI, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”

And during an FBI raid of Erickson’s South Dakota home, investigators discovered a handwritten note suggesting Erickson may have been aware of a possible job offer from Russian intelligence services: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” Erickson scratched, an apparent reference to the Russian equivalent of the CIA.

Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll has described her as a promising graduate student whose career has been derailed by this case, but prosecutors claimed that was just a “cover while she continued to work on behalf the Russian Official,” which based on the description appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Putin.

Butina allegedly maintained that cover with assistance from Erickson. He supported her financially, telling McClatchy DC he established a South Dakota-based company Bridges LLC with Butina in order to help defray her educational expenses, and according to court filings, assisted with her coursework “by editing papers and answering exam questions.”

Meanwhile, prosecutors claim, Butina “appear[ed] to treat [her relationship with Erickson] as simply a necessary aspect of her activities” and privately expressed “disdain” for continuing to live with him.

Driscoll, however, had insisted that Butina and Erickson, despite the government’s claims to the contrary, were engaged in a mutual and genuine cross-cultural romance.

“I think in some ways it’s a classic love story,” Driscoll said. “I think [reporters] are filling in a lot of the gaps with a lot of spy novels.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

‘Your daughter should have been safe’: New Zealand PM apologizes for tourist’s murder

Courtesy Lucie Blackman Trust(LONDON) — The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, issued a heartfelt apology Monday on behalf of her country for the death of a female British tourist who was killed while backpacking in the country.

Ardern opened a weekly news conference by directly addressing the death of Grace Millane, 22, by saying that she could not imagine the grief that the victim’s family was experiencing.

The British tourist had been missing since Dec. 1. But a homicide investigation was opened when a man was arrested in connection with the case on Saturday, police said in a statement.

The prime minister’s voice began to crack with emotion as she issued a direct apology to the family for the killing.

“From the Kiwis I have spoken to, there is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality,” she said. “On behalf of New Zealand I want to apologize to Grace’s family. Your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn’t, and I’m sorry for that. I’ve advised the family through the police if there’s anything we can do to assist we are here to help with that.”

A 26-year-old man has been charged with the murder of Millane, who was last seen at a hotel in Auckland on Dec 1. A woman’s body was discovered in an area of bush to the west of Auckland on Sunday and a formal identification process will now take place, police said in a statement.

Millane’s father, David Millane, is now in New Zealand but her mother, Gillian Millane, has been unable to make the journey from the U.K.

The man arrested in connection with the murder appeared in Auckland District Court on Monday to submit a request for public anonymity. Judge Evangelos Thomas rejected the request but the suspect’s lawyer quickly filed an appeal which means the man still cannot be identified by the media for legal reasons, according to Radio New Zealand.

In an unusual move, the judge opened up the proceedings by commenting on the “desperate” grief of Millane’s family in court.

“Before we call this matter I’d like to acknowledge the presence of Grace’s family. I don’t know what we say to you at this time. Your grief must be desperate,” Judge Thomas said, according to Radio New Zealand.

In the United Kingdom there has been a similar sense of shock at the death of the 22-year-old, who traveled to New Zealand after graduating from college. The University of Lincoln tweeted it was “deeply saddened to hear the terrible news” regarding its former student.

The Lucie Blackman Trust, a charity which specializes in assisting the families of missing Britons abroad and has been in contact with the Millane family, also said it was “incredibly saddened” to hear the case was now being treated as a homicide.

Matt Searle, the CEO of the Lucie Blackman Trust, told ABC News that there will be no further statement or interviews from the family.

“I would like to say though we have been utterly astounded by the level of support offered to Grace’s family from the people of New Zealand,” he said. “We have been inundated with amazing offers, from financial help to people offering to cook a meal for the family or lend them a spare room or car. We have also received a great many messages of condolence and sympathy for Grace’s family and we will of course compile all of these and pass to the family.”

The crime has stunned New Zealand citizens in part because of the country’s low murder rate. There were 48 homicides nationwide in 2017, a number lower than the 58 recorded in 2016, according to the latest police figures.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Russia’s crumbling Baikonur spaceport is Earth’s only launch pad for manned flights

Patrick Reevell/ABC News(NEW YORK) — The landscape approaching Russia’s spaceport in Baikonur is otherworldly. The yellow steppe of southern Kazakhstan where it is located is effectively desert, unbroken flatlands for hundreds of miles covered by a layer of scrub. In December, the freezing winds that blow across it encase the scrub plants in ice, making them look like silver coral sprouting out of the sand.

Established at the dawn of the Cold War space race in the 1950s, Baikonur is Russia’s chief spaceport and, for now, the only launchpad in the world sending manned flights into space. Since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz rockets — launched from Baikonur — are the only option for astronauts headed to the International Space Station.

The latest Soyuz flight to the ISS took off from Baikonur this week with an American, Canadian and Russian on board. It was the first manned Soyuz mission since a mid-air accident during a launch in October temporarily grounded them.

That accident had been the first failed flight with a crew aboard a Soyuz since 1983, and it briefly turned global attention to Russia’s space program and the flights from Baikonur, which normally pass as routine.

Beyond this week’s launch though, the aging Soviet-era spaceport tells the broader story of Russia’s space program and its troubled existence decades after its Cold War heyday.

Empty desert

When Soviet military engineers first arrived in 1957, they started building in empty desert. The construction teams, transferred to Kazakhstan after helping rebuild infrastructure in war-shattered Eastern Europe, slept in tents as they labored secretly to erect a rocket pad for the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7.

In the 1960s, a planned city was built up to service the launch pads, eventually completed in typical Soviet style around a central square with a Vladimir Lenin statue. High rises, cinemas and cultural centers with names like “Saturn” and “Venus” were also laid out.

The Soviet Union’s greatest space feats would be launched from Baikonur, including Sputnik, the world’s first satellite that kicked off the space race, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to leave Earth.

But the spaceport’s fate was closely tied to the USSR and as the Soviet Union’s economy rotted in its later years, Baikonur struggled and it was already falling into disrepair when communism collapsed in 1991. Baikonur suddenly found itself marooned in the newly independent Kazakhstan.

Frozen in the ’80s

Russia and Kazakhstan’s new governments agreed that Moscow would rent Baikonur and in 2005, the lease was extended until 2050. The city is a closed territory and outsiders, including Kazakhs, need permission to enter. Russian law applies and the checkpoints at the roads into the city are guarded by Russian police.

Inside, the city of around 40,000 people seems partially frozen in the 1980s. Constructions sites for new apartment buildings on the Kazakhstan side in some places run right up to city limits, while on the spaceport side, most buildings have been barely renovated in decades. The chimneys of a heating station in the city center trail dirty, black smoke and the tower blocks painted with murals of rockets are cracked and some patched with wood.

“What feels most strange is that this town is still like the Soviet times,” said Eduard Velikanov, a guide at the city’s state history museum.

Almost everyone in Baikonur works for the spaceport or provides services for those who do. Locals sometimes watch the rockets taking off from the launch pads about a dozen miles away, some climbing onto roofs for a better view.

Some residents believe the rockets alter the weather, saying winds blow from all directions for days after a launch. Kids at a local school recalled a 2013 crash of an unmanned rocket, saying the heat from the fire could be felt in the city and remembering a kerosene-like smell in the air.

The launch areas themselves are also strewn with relics and detritus of the Soviet space age. The launch pads have been modernized, but many of the buildings around them are crumbling.

At an observation point after a launch this week, punctured and rusted satellite dishes were set up as an outdoor museum with placards. It was difficult to discern which satellite dishes were exhibits and which ones were functioning until one of the hulking, rust-stained radar arrays suddenly began turning. It was tracking a Soyuz rocket, a guide explained.

Endemic corruption

Baikonur’s crumbling condition mirrors deeper problems in Russia’s space industry, which has become plagued with allegations of colossal corruption and theft.

In June, Alexei Kudrin, the head of Russia’s Audit Chamber, told Parliament that the chamber had found 760 billion roubles (about $11.4 billion) in violations in the accounting of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, for 2017.

“Several billion have been spent, basically stolen,” Kudrin said on the state channel Russia 24.

“Roscosmos is the champion in terms of the scale of such violations,” he added.

In November, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office said it had opened 16 criminal investigations into Roscosmos, whose quality control director was stabbed to death in a Moscow jail in 2017 as he awaited trial in another graft case.

The endemic corruption, low wages and loss of prestige has led to a brain drain at Russia’s space program, which in turn is struggling to maintain quality and develop new rockets.

At Baikonur’s International Space School, a high school that encourages children to find work in the space industry, a large poster in the corridor carried warnings about corruption, listing its different types and effects.

‘Falling behind as a leading space power’

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has sought to revive some of its Soviet-era space glory. An ambitious new spaceport in Russia’s far east, called Vostochny, is under construction and is intended to partly replace Baikonur.

Vostochny has launched some unmanned rockets but has experienced serious delays amid repeated corruption and labor scandals. It is now behind schedule to take over launches from Baikonur.

These stumbling efforts have been overseen by Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Roscosmos. Rogozin is a sanctioned former deputy prime minister and nationalist politician who is a long-time Putin ally. Known for his pugilistic style and occasional anti-American outbursts, Rogozin has argued that bold long-term proposals are needed to pull Roscosmos out of its malaise.

Chief among those proposals is for Russia to establish a permanent base on the moon, which Rogozin in November pledged will happen, adding that the Russian cosmonauts would “check” whether America really had landed there in 1969. Last month, Roscosmos officials suggested that Russian astronauts would land on the moon by 2030 and that parts of the base could be brought there in the late 2020s.

In reality though, Russia’s rocket industry is struggling to keep up with the vehicles being developed by private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing.

Corruption has eaten into its manufacturing and assembling processes, with a string of rocket failures linked to problems with parts. Following a 2016 crash of a Proton rocket, Roscosmos had to send back 70 engines for review over concern about faulty components. October’s accident was found to have been caused by a broken sensor damaged during assembly at Baikonur.

“Russia is certainly falling behind as a leading space power,” said John Logsdon, a veteran expert on space policy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “Russia has been promising new systems for human spaceflight for years and have yet to deliver on those promises.”

New era

NASA’s reliance on Russia in space has caused some disquiet in the U.S., where critics have expressed fears it leaves the agency vulnerable to deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations.

The relationship has also been vulnerable to outbursts from Rogozin, who was sanctioned over his role in Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. This fall, Rogozin suggested, without evidence, that a hole found in a Russian module of the ISS could have been deliberately drilled by one of the astronauts aboard, a claim that NASA quickly knocked down.

A preliminary Roscosmos investigation found it had likely in fact been drilled on Earth during assembly, but the comment from Rogozin — who has previously suggested Russia could unilaterally undock its modules from the ISS — bemused NASA.

Shannon Walker, a NASA astronaut attending this week’s launch, said she had been surprised by the comments, but suggested NASA saw them as separate from the two space agencies’ day-to-day cooperation.

“Obviously, we discounted it immediately because that makes no sense to us,” Walker told ABC News, noting Rogozin’s political background.

“He was deputy prime minister and so his view of Russian-American relations has perhaps come from that background,” she said.

NASA praises the relationship in space as one of the few examples of cooperation left between U.S. and Russia. The U.S. agency currently pays around $80 million a seat on the Soyuz flights, distributing them to Canada, Japan and European countries that financially support the station.

But Baikonur’s monopoly on flights to the ISS is ending. From next year, NASA hopes to begin restarting its own manned launches from the U.S., using commercial rockets produced by SpaceX and Boeing. Both companies are due to hold test flights with empty spacecraft to the ISS by mid-2019 and to make crewed test flights before the end of the year.

Logsdon believes that the Soyuz will cease to be America’s primary way to the space station within 12 to 18 months.

That shift will cut off a helpful revenue flow for Roscosmos. It means the number of manned flights from Baikonur will fall, likely from four per year to two. But NASA has said it will ensure American astronauts continue to fly from Baikonur for as long as the ISS is active, which means until at least 2024 and perhaps beyond.

Satellite launches, which make up the bulk of the flights from Baikonur, will continue. And with Russia’s alternate spaceport Vostochny struggling, residents in the town said they felt Baikonur’s position is fairly secure for now.

Velikanov, the museum guide, said he felt Baikonur symbolized Russia in some ways.

“It is the way Russia lives nowadays: something very old and some new technologies,” he said. “It is the clash of epochs.”

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