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Alleged violent offenders were poised for release from jail due to COVID-19: Sources

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DougSchneiderPhoto/iStock(NEW YORK) — Two men involved in the death of a New York City police detective were among the violent offenders on the list of inmates slated to be released from the infamous Rikers Island jail complex due to the coronavirus pendemic, until prosecutors intervened, multiple sources told ABC News.

Christopher Ransom, 28, and Jagger Freeman, 26, were charged with armed robbery in connection with the February 2019 shooting death of New York Police Department Detective Brian Simonsen. They appeared on a list of names obtained by ABC News that also included Viktoriya Nasyrova, 45, who was accused of trying to kill a woman in 2016 with a poisoned cheesecake.

The only thing that kept alleged violent offenders from being released was the intervention of the city’s five district attorneys, who said in a joint letter issued Monday that “we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety.”

As the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, began its stranglehold on New York State, it crept into Rikers Island, a sweeping complex near LaGuardia Airport that is one of the largest jail compounds in the world. The virus infected the first correction staff member on March 15 and an inmate three days later.

The arrival of the virus prompted city officials, defense attorneys and advocates to call for the release of inmates, since jails are notorious breeding grounds for germs.

New York City’s Board of Correction (NYCBOC), which oversees the Department of Correction (DOC), instructed the city and criminal justice agencies to work together to “immediately remove” inmates at higher risk from COVID-19 and to rapidly decrease the jail population.

“The City’s jails have particular challenges to preventing disease transmission on a normal day and even more so during a public health crisis,” according to a March 17 statement issued by the NYCBOC.

Rikers Island at the time of the first diagnosis housed more than 5,000 inmates in separate facilities on an island along the East River between the Bronx and Queens.

‘High risk to public safety’

In a joint letter sent to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, the city’s five district attorneys and its special narcotics prosecutor said that they supported reducing the number of those incarcerated — but not without a plan.

“We fully appreciate the unique risks that the COVID-19 virus poses in our jails, and we agree that the number of those incarcerated must decrease to limit the spread of the virus on Rikers Island and in other facilities,” the district attorneys wrote. “At the same time, we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety. In such instances, we have communicated our concerns, but these concerns have not always been heeded.”

Defense attorneys and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) collected hundreds of names to propose to the district attorney offices in the jurisdiction of their clients’ pending or closed cases.

MOCJ created a list of 84 inmates with underlying health conditions that would put them at higher risk if they came into contact with the coronavirus, according to two separate sources.

Representatives from each prosecutors’ office had the option of agreeing or objecting to the inmates’ release.

But prosecutors claimed in the letter sent on Monday that their “concerns have not always been heeded.”

“As an example, when we learned last week that the Commissioner of Corrections was about to use her authority to order an across-the-board release of hundreds of inmates serving city sentences, we were assured that the release would not include those serving time for domestic violence or sex offenses, given the risks to victims. Unfortunately, we later learned that such individuals were indeed included in the ranks of those to be released,” the letter read.

In other situations when an objection was made, MOCJ or defense attorneys would file a writ of habeas corpus — an order to physically bring the client to court to argue if their imprisonment is lawful — and argue for the client’s release before a judge, another source said.

A Manhattan supreme court judge released accused murderer Pedro Vinent-Barcia from Rikers Island after Legal Aid Society lawyers successfully argued on Thursday that because of the 63-year-old’s cardiovascular disease, he is at high risk if exposed to COVID-19, The New York Post first reported. The public defender organization was also able to argue for the release of 15 others, over prosecutors’ objections, according to the Post.

The Legal Aid Society declined a request to comment for this story.

More lists of prisoners

After the first list was reviewed by the district attorneys’ offices, MOCJ then submitted two other lists, according to another source.

A portion of one of the lists obtained by ABC News revealed that MOCJ requested that high-profile defendants Ransom, Freeman and Nasyrova be released.

Freeman, 26, and Ransom, 28, are alleged armed robbers charged in connection with the February 2019 death of NYPD Officer Brian Simonsen, who was killed by friendly fire. Nasyrova, 45, is accused of attempting to kill a woman in 2016 with poisoned cheesecake in order to steal her identity and remain on the run for a murder she allegedly committed in Russia.

Also included in the same list obtained by ABC News were almost two dozen others awaiting trial for violent felony offenses.

Another source said MOCJ also suggested that rapists and a man awaiting trial for a double homicide case be released.

The DOC referred requests for comment about the release of inmates to MOCJ, which did not respond as of Monday evening.

No plan in place

The prosecutors’ two-page letter also raised concerns about the lack of a plan for how the inmates will be handled following their release, including their housing, supervision and support-service needs.

Prosecutors offered a list of recommendations for the city to follow in order to give the public and courts the reassurance that releasing the inmates will “keep our communities both healthy and safe.”

For instance, they suggested that additional resources be allocated to protect victims and survivors who may be vulnerable due to the unexpected return of these individuals. They also said additional resources should be allocated to provide adequate supervision and address critical needs, including testing for COVID-19 prior to release. They also said that those who remain detained should receive the resources necessary to live in sanitary conditions with quality medical care.

As of Friday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance had consented to the release of 259 inmates. Vance’s office also completely vacated the convictions of nine inmates who had less than 90 days remaining on their sentence for low-level misdemeanors — seven for petty larceny, one for fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, another for second-degree menacing — and were over the age of 35.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has consented to the release of about 120 inmates, and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has agreed to the release 30.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said in a separate statement that her office has agreed to the release of “number of inmates” and are evaluating others.

“However, we cannot ignore in our assessment the seriousness of the crime for which an inmate is incarcerated, as well the impact that their release might have on public safety,” Clark said. “Those who currently remain incarcerated are accused of the most serious violent offenses including murder, and their release will affect public safety. My duty is to protect the public, and the victims and survivors who remain vulnerable knowing that many of the individuals who were incarcerated are returning to the community.”

The prosecutors also believe that the city’s jails are capable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates given the recent reduction in the city jail population and the increased housing options in city jail facilities. The Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island has been reopened for those in custody who have tested positive for COVID-19 and new intakes who are showing symptoms.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced the release of 375 inmates as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the release of 1,100 inmates statewide who are in jail for low-level parole violations.

On Friday, Legal Aid Society announced that they were also able to secure the release of 106 inmates.

The resulting jail population — Rikers Island’s lowest since the 1940s — means that DOC is now ensuring social distancing by making sure there is an empty bed in between people in custody to increase space while sleeping.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

One of the largest single-site jails in the US grapples with 134 coronavirus cases

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Cook County Sheriff’s Office/Facebook(CHICAGO) — The number of detainees testing positive for coronavirus at the Cook County Jail in Chicago skyrocketed over the weekend, leaving Sheriff Tom Dart grappling with a dilemma that runs against the very grain of a veteran lawman and former prosecutor: whether to free alleged criminals instead of keeping them locked up.

As of Monday afternoon, one of America’s largest single-site jails had 134 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, up from just 38 on Friday, Dart told ABC News. Of all the inmates tested so far, only nine were negative, he said.

“This is beyond complicated,” Dart said. “There was zero playbook for this stuff.”

With roughly 75% of his jail’s inmates there on suspicion of violent crimes, Dart said he’s been working around the clock with Cook County officials, judges, probation officers and the State’s Attorney’s office to devise a plan from scratch on how to keep dangerous people locked up and still create space in the jail without jeopardizing the community.

Since crime hasn’t been put on quarantine with the bulk of the population, Dart has also had to juggle the daily intake of more inmates while thinking of ways to secure the health of those already under his watch.

“It’s like I’m running this cruise ship, but we can’t disembark people. It’s quite the contrary because we know we have the coronavirus, but we keep embarking more people. And I’ve told people you don’t have the option of just shutting the door and saying, ‘We’re not taking any people in.’ That’s where the juggling part of this is so incredible. I can’t tell you how many configurations and different iterations I’ve come up with in just the last week, let alone the last month,” he said.

In the past week, Dart has been forced to be more creative than he’s even been. He’s opened a former boot camp building on the grounds of the jail and turned it into a 500-bed hospital, where infected inmates began receiving treatment on Monday night.

“That’s going to give me breathing room on the other side of the compound where the cells are at, so I can fully single-cell everybody,” Dart said. “Right now it’s about a little less than half of the population that are in single-man cells, which is not our norm. Our norm is double cells for the majority of people and then we have dormitories for other people.”

He’s also instituted a plan to keep new inmates who come in — to 70 a day — in groups.

“I keep them together for seven days. For instance, Tuesday’s group will stay in a separate location for seven days and so on,” Dart explained. “I keep cycling through that and by doing that I’m trying to make sure I’m not importing a sick person in. These cohorts are waiting for seven days before they go into the general population. I did that by opening up some of the empty buildings I have here.”

On top of everything, 20 members of Dart’s staff have also tested positive for the virus, up from six on Friday.

“The difficulty, and I knew it coming in, my employees don’t live in the place. They go home at the end of their shift,” Dart said. “We strongly believe that a good percentage of the positives we’re getting come in from the outside, from staff. And we knew that, so it wasn’t a shock to us. So I felt good that I was isolating the detainees that were coming in, but there was nothing I could do about the staff part of it. That is still a tricky component that I don’t have a good answer on.”

Dart said he’s been working with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Fox’s office to identify non-violent inmates to release from the jail, including those awaiting trail, pregnant inmates in the women’s wing, and poor non-violent inmates unable to raise $1,000 bail or less. That’s helped drive down the jail population from 5,550 last week to 4,800, he said.

“It’s been tricky, but we’re getting through it,” said Dart. “The big question is how much longer is this going to go on because between the equipment and the testing, we really need some help in those areas and I don’t know how much longer all this stuff is going to take to get to us.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

FBI arrests man for allegedly coughing on agents, hoarding and selling medical equipment

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iStock/MattGush(NEW YORK) — A Brooklyn man who allegedly coughed on FBI agents and told them he had novel coronavirus, after the agents said they had confronted him about hoarding and selling medical equipment, has been arrested, according to the Justice Department.

Prosecutors said 43-year-old Baruch Feldheim sought to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis and equipment shortages at New York’s hospitals to make medical workers pay inflated prices for surgical masks, medical gowns and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

On Sunday, FBI agents said they approached Feldheim at his home after observing several individuals walking away from his door with boxes that they believed contained medical equipment.

“After identifying themselves as FBI agents, they told Feldheim that they wanted to stay a distance away from him given concerns over the spread of Coronavirus,” the DOJ said in a statement. “When the agents were within four to five feet of him, Feldheim allegedly coughed in their direction without covering his mouth.”

Feldheim then told the agents he was infected with COVID-19, according to DOJ.

As a result, Feldheim was arrested and charged with assaulting a federal officer, as well as making false statements after prosecutors said he repeatedly lied about his possession and sale of the equipment. He has not yet made his initial appearance before a judge or entered a plea to the charges, and as of Monday evening did not have a lawyer listed on the district court’s docket.

The arrest follows a nationwide campaign encouraged by the DOJ and FBI to crack down on those who may seek to use the current national emergency to hoard much-needed medical supplies and sell them at prices far above market value.

Agents accused Feldheim of doing so on multiple occasions.

According to the criminal complaint against him, Feldheim agreed to sell a New Jersey doctor “approximately 1,000 N95 masks” and other materials for $12,000, “an approximately 700 percent markup from the normal price,” prosecutors said. When Feldheim told the doctor the location of the materials, the man went to a repair shop that held enough medical supplies “to outfit an entire hospital,” the Justice Department said.

Agents also alleged in a separate instance that Feldheim offered to sell a nurse “a quantity of surgical gowns,” and days later received a shipment from Canada containing “eight pallets of medical facemasks.”

The Justice Department urges Americans who suspect coronavirus fraud, hoarding or price-gouging to contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud’s National Hotline at (866) 720-5721 or e-mail disaster@leo.gov.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Dog delivers groceries to neighbor in need during coronavirus quarantine

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KRDO(MANITOU SPRINGS, Colorado) — At a time of national crisis, heroes come in all shapes and sizes—furry friends included.

Sundance, Karen Evelth’s dog, is helping neighbor Renee Hellman stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic by dropping off groceries at the door of her home in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Hellmen is over 65 and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which puts her at particularly high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So Evelth thought of a clever way to help her friend stay safe at home.

“I told her, ‘I don’t want you going anywhere,’” said Evelth. “When I get groceries, I’ll get yours too.”

Each day, Evelth sends her 7-year-old golden retriever, nicknamed Sunny, to pick up Hellmen’s grocery list. Sunny returns a few hours later with bags full of flour, chickens and eggs — all secured by Sunny’s mouth as he trots across the yard.

“She is so happy and grateful to see him every day at her porch,” said Evelth. “Smiling ear to ear every time.”

Evelth explained it took just one day to train Sunny to execute the routine, although he’s been learning to pick things up around her home for years.

“I have some back and feet issues so he’s learned to pick up my purse and shoes and bring them to me,” said Evelth. “He’s a humble hero, I’m so proud of him.”

Evelth added her dog has been doing the grocery runs for weeks and will continue to do so until Hellmen feels it’s safe again to venture out herself.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Coronavirus live updates: FDA gives anti-malaria drugs emergency approval to treat COVID-19

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narvikk/iStock(NEW YORK) — A pandemic of the novel coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 36,000 people across the globe.

The new respiratory virus, which causes an illness known officially as COVID-19, has rapidly spread to every continent except Antarctica since first emerging in China in December. There are now more than 766,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. At least 160,000 of those patients have recovered from the disease.

With more than 153,000 diagnosed COVID-19 cases, the United States has by far the highest national tally in the world. At least 2,828 people have died in the U.S.

Today’s biggest developments:
-FDA gives anti-malaria drugs emergency approval to treat COVID-19
-Tokyo Olympics will open in July 2021
-Navy hospital ship arrives in New York
-Nearly 200 aboard Florida-bound cruise report flu-like symptoms

Here’s how the news is developing today. All times Eastern.


2:30 p.m.: Arrest warrant issued for pastor who held services despite ‘safer at home’ order

An arrest warrant has been issued for a Florida pastor who allegedly held two large services on Sunday despite a “safer at home order” issued in the state.

Tampa-area pastor Rodney Howard-Browne “intentionally and repeatedly chose to disregard the order set in place by our president, our governor, the CDC, and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference Monday.

The warrant is for unlawful assembly in violation of a public health emergency order.

Chronister said the pastor’s “reckless disregard for human life put hundreds” of congregants and thousands of residents at risk.

Since Friday, the sheriff’s office was in contact with The River at Tampa Bay Church and received an anonymous tip that Howard-Browne refused the request to stop large gatherings, the sheriff said.

Officers went to the church to speak with Howard-Browne, but according to the sheriff, the pastor would not speak with them. Attorneys for the church told the sheriff’s office that they refused to cancel services, according to Chronister.

The church could have opted for livestream services, but instead disobeyed the “stay-at-home” order and even provided bus transportation for parishioners, the sheriff said.

Howard-Browne told congregants Sunday, “I know they’re trying to beat me up about having the church operational, but we are not a nonessential service.”

Howard-Browne was expected to turn himself in on Monday, the sheriff said.

2 p.m.: Maryland governor worried pandemic will soon escalate in DC area

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is warning that medical experts say the coronavirus pandemic could escalate within two weeks in the Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland region, where it could resemble the current level of cases in New York City.

Hogan issued a “stay-at-home” executive order on Monday that directs state residents to stay at home unless they have an essential job, need to leave buy food or medicine, or get medical attention.

The governor warned that violators would be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine up to $5,000.

He also said that residents should not travel out of state unless absolutely necessary.

Maryland has now surpassed 1,400 cases of COVID-19.

A stay-at-home order was also issued Monday in Virginia where at least 25 people have died.

1:30 p.m.: Over 1,000 dead in New York State

At least 1,218 have died from coronavirus in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

“We’ve lost over 1,000 New Yorkers. To me we’re beyond staggering already,” Cuomo said. “The only point now is do everything you can to save every life possible.”

Only one county in New York State has no diagnosed COVID-19 cases, Cuomo said.

Over 66,000 people have tested positive in the state, including 9,500 patients in hospitals, Cuomo said. Of those in hospitals, 2,300 people are in intensive care units.

Over 4,200 people have been hospitalized and discharged, he said.

New York City still has too much density, Cuomo said, threatening to close down playgrounds if people do not stay inside or maintain effective social distancing while going outside for fresh air.

12:40 p.m.: Cruise lines extend suspensions

After the coronavirus outbreak quarantined thousands of passengers on massive cruise liners, Carnival Cruise Line said Monday it will continue to suspend operations in North America through May 11.

Holland America, a subsidiary of Carnival, said it will extend its suspension of global ship operations through May 14.

Royal Caribbean has currently suspended global operations through May 11 and Princess Cruise Line has suspended trips until at least May 10.

Norwegian Cruise Line currently plans to lift its suspension on April 12.

12:26 p.m.: Italy now has over 100,000 reported cases

Italy — by far the hardest-hit when it comes to fatalities — has now reached 101,739 total coronavirus cases, according to the country’s Civil Protection Agency.

As of Monday, 11,591 people in Italy have died, officials said

But Italy — which went on a country-wide lockdown on March 9 — is seeing some positive news as the total number of active infected patients rose by only 2.2% over the last 24 hours. There were 1,648 new cases in the last day, as opposed to 3,815 from the day before.

Also, the number of patients reported as having recovered from the illness as of Monday is the highest daily total reported so far with 1,590 no longer infected.

11:50 a.m.: USNS Comfort arrives in New York

The USNS Comfort hospital ship arrived in the harbor of hard-hit New York City Monday morning.

The ship will treat non-coronavirus patients on board to try to lighten the burden on the city’s hospitals where doctors are focusing on combating the pandemic.

At least 776 people have died in New York City.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the ship’s arrival a “major moment in this long battle.”

“Our nation has heard our plea for help,” he said. “There could not be a better example of all of America pulling for New York City than the arrival of the USNS Comfort.

The mayor called the ship a “big boost” in the city’s need to triple hospital bed capacity by May.

To all New Yorkers, the mayor said, “We are not alone. Our nation is helping us in our hour of need.”

As the death toll climbs in New York, the mayor warned, “the toughest weeks are still ahead.”

Another hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, has opened for business in the port of Los Angeles, where it’ll be treating non-coronavirus patients on board.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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