updated 3/18/2005 1:07:40 PM ET 2005-03-18T18:07:40

Guests: Linda Sanchez, Marc Klaas, Harvey Levin, Don Novello

ALISON STEWART, MSNBC ANCHOR, COUNTDOWN:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Playing hardball on the Hill?  The congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball convenes, as do the denials. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have never used steroids, period.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  And what do pros really think about that Canseco book?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It should be enough that you consider the source of the statements in the book.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Full coverage ahead.

Finding Jessica.  Yesterday‘s person of interest is today a person in custody. 

Stupid and dangerous human tricks.  A Montana man arrested as a plot to kidnap David Letterman‘s son is uncovered. 

Rachel‘s race:  The story of a young woman and her bid to finish the punishing Iditarod race without the benefit of sight.

And the Vatican calls it the not so good book.  Two years and 25 million copies later, a cardinal calls for Catholics to stop reading “The Da Vinci Code.” Father Guido Sarducci explains the Vatican‘s motivations. 

All that, and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Sports fans were facing quite a dilemma today having to choose between watching the first round games of the NCAA basketball tournament or the congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball.  It is a TiVo-tastic situation. 

Well, if you chose basketball, consider the COUNTDOWN crew your own personal recording service.  Our fifth story on the countdown, game day on Capitol Hill.  Some of the biggest names and bodies in baseball trading their double-knit polyester for double-breasted suits.  The players caught in a Major League drama. 

Tension in the room, Jose Canseco getting more than one cold shoulder from the other players seated at the table, as he told lawmakers he could not answer all of their questions, because fears his testimony could be used against him.

Mark McGwire, choking back the tears, never plead the Fifth, but said he would not answer any question that could jeopardize him.  Never actually saying in his opening statement whether he has or has not ever used steroids himself.  Other players not as shy; they denied, denied, denied.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOSE CANSECO, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER:  Due to the fact that I am on probation in Florida, for events unrelated to baseball and steroid use, and due to clear evidence of the overzealous efforts of state prosecutors to make and example of me I request immunity from this committee.  I request immunity from this committee, with immunity I would be free to answer all questions posed to my by the committee without fear my testimony would effect my probation.  Without immunity, I cannot.

MARK McGWIRE, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER:  Asking me, or any other player, to answer questions about who took steroids, in front of television cameras will not solve the problem.  If a player answers, no, he simply will not believed.  If he answers, yes, he risks public scorn and endless government investigations.  My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself.  I intend to follow their advice.

JIM SHARP, SAMMY SOSA‘S LAWYER:  To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance enhancing drugs.  I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything.  I‘ve not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.  I have been tested as recently as 2004 and I am clean.

RAFAEL PALMEIRO, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER:  I have never used steroids, period.  I do not know how to say it anymore clearly than that. Never.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And those were the players, at the end of the day it was the league‘s turn.  Commissioner Bud Selig sworn in earlier tonight, defending what Major League Baseball is doing to clean up its own house.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUD SELIG, MLB COMMISSIONER:  I will suspend any player who tests positive for an illegal steroid.  There will be no exceptions.  Baseball will not rest and will continue to be vigilant on the issue of performance enhancing substances as we move towards my publicly stated goal of zero tolerance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Among those asking the questions today, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, who at one point seemed frustrated by the answers that she was getting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. LINDA SANCHEZ (D), HOUSE GOV‘T REFORM CMTE:  I mean, you guys are in the clubhouses, we‘re not.  We don‘t have access there, we don‘t know.  But we‘re getting this, hear no evil, see no evil, don‘t know anything that is going on.   I mean, the first step is admitting, hey, there is a problem.  Next step, how widespread is it?  And the next step what do we do to try to combat it.  And I‘m not hearing that from you all today.  And I‘m very disappointed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Congressman Sanchez joins us now. 

Congressman, based on that it sounds like you had a really long day.  So, we thank you for making time for us now.

SANCHEZ:  Absolutely.  My pleasure.

STEWART:  In the newsroom today, from civilians I talked to on the phone, everybody had an opinion of what happened at that hearing today.  What‘s your opinion of what happened at that hearing today?

SANCHEZ:  I think the hearing today could be dubbed the hearing that really wasn‘t, because we weren‘t getting straight answers.  We were getting, you know, attempts to stonewall and keep information from us.

STEWART:  Did you learn anything from today‘s testimony that you didn‘t already know?

SANCHEZ:  We were given extensive briefing materials for the hearing. There really wasn‘t anything new that the players had to add.  I mean, they really clammed up and didn‘t seem to talk much and you know, just showing up doesn‘t get you there, guys.  We want to know what is going on.

STEWART:  When you went into that hearing you obviously had some answers, some questions that you wanted answers.  For folks who didn‘t get to hear what you asked, tell us. 

SANCHEZ:  Sure, I asked them, you know, you guys are in the clubhouses.  Did you ever --- you know, nobody saw anything, nobody did anything, nobody heard anything.  My question to them was:  You know, you‘re asking us to allow the game to regulate itself but nobody is willing to step up and report the use. 

And if you are a non-user, and it is an unequal playing field because other users are on the juice, wouldn‘t you be the first to step up and be responsible and tell somebody from within the organization, hey, there is a problem here on this team.  And none of the players had ever done that.  They all admitted that they hadn‘t done that. 

Like I said, except for Jose Canseco, nobody saw anything.  Nobody is, you know, familiar with anything.  And it was pretty disappointing testimony.

STEWART:  Well, it certainly wasn‘t a cut and dried hearing.  It was quite and emotional part of the day.

SANCHEZ:  There were emotional parts to the hearing and you have to ask why the players were so emotional and then not willing to step up and be forthright with their answers.

STEWART:  One of the things people also are talking about is some of the way that some of the congress people questioned the players.  That there may have been some grandstanding, some heavy handedness.  Did you feel that at all?

SANCHEZ:  Well, I‘ll tell you, you know, this committee has been criticized for grandstanding.  And I‘m not going to say that there probably wasn‘t a little bit of that that went on. 

You know, this is a public health policy issue.  It affects lots of young athletes who are looking up to these players, who are getting involved in illegal substances.  They don‘t necessarily have all the information on the side effects.  It is a very deep-rooted and serious problem.  And I think the committee was right in calling the hearings.  I think the committee was right in calling the hearings. 

And as I said, I think the focus—and we tried to keep the focus really on, you know, is the new policy going to be an effective enough deterrent?  And is there a way that we can involve Congress if the sport isn‘t willing to do it themselves, to try to make it an equal playing field for everybody and across different sports. I‘m talking about all professional sports here.  You know, we‘ve been criticized for grandstanding but I think it is absolutely a question that needs to get asked.

STEWART:  You know the chairman of the committee said today that the congressional investigation is just beginning.  What‘s next to your knowledge?

SANCHEZ:  Well, you know, based on some of the testimony that we received today, not necessarily from the players but from the other panels, doctors and families who have lost children to steroid use, I think we will very seriously be looking at or exploring ways in which Congress perhaps can get involved, if we feel the sport itself is not doing an adequate job in policing this.

STEWART:  Congressman Linda Sanchez, thank you so much for your time tonight.  We very much appreciate it.

SANCHEZ:  My pleasure.

STEWART:  Now, if you don‘t want to know what COUNTDOWN‘s fearless leader thinks of today‘s Keith has turned today into a working va-ca, blogging the day away a bloggerman, at countdown.msnbc.com.  Always good reading.

While most of today‘s testimony involved big time, big money athletes some of it had to do with children, who believe that drugs can make them better athletes too.  But as Kevin Corke reports, they do not realize that steroid use could cost them their lives.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN CORKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  These are pictures of pain. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not sure a parent ever recovers from this.

CORKE:  The kind of pain only parents like Don and Gwen Kootin (ph) can comprehend.  Their son, Taylor, used anabolic steroids, feeling pressure to be a better baseball player.  When Taylor quite using the drugs his father says his 17-year old slipped into a deep depression and took his own life. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It still hurts.  The only way I know to deal with it is to ring the warning bell in the hopes that no other family has to go through what we have been through.

CORKE:  And while its use among professional athletes is generating headlines, steroid use is a growing problem among the nation‘s youth.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports more than a half million eighth and tenth graders are now using steroids.  The CDC reports admitted steroid use among high school student is up 67 percent since 1991.  And there are even younger kids involved, with reported use among seventh, sixth, even fifth graders. 

(on camera):  But what worries researchers most is, kids don‘t recognize the danger.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports 45 percent of high school seniors just don‘t see steroids as a great risk.

(on camera):  Physical risks, like severe heart and liver damage.  But experts say teens think they‘re invincible. 

BARBARA SCHNEIDER, Ph.D., U. OF CHICAGO, SOCIOLOGIST:  There is this aspect of growing up, when you are this particular age, you really have a sense of bravado about, well, this isn‘t really going to affect my life.  And I can get over this. 

CORKE:  At Denver‘s Mount Bellow (ph) High School Don Gatewood wins.  A Hall of Fame coach with seven state titles to his credit, his is a no tolerance, no excuses steroid policy. 

DON GATEWOOD, COACH:  They don‘t realize you don‘t have to have those quick fixes.  The best fix is a little slower, not so quick, right out here with the hard work.

CORKE:  Hard work that could do a lot more than just win championships, it could save lives—Kevin Corke, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) 

STEWART:  The man police want to question in the disappearance of Jessica Lunsford, he‘s in custody.  And Marc Klaas explains the hell the Lunsford family is living through right now.

And David Letterman, allegedly targeted by someone else crazy.  Crazy like a fox.  More on the plot to hold Letterman‘s son for ransom.  This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  He is a registered sex offender, who took a bus from Florida to Georgia after he knew police were looking for him.  He planned to keep on moving with an eye on Tennessee.  However, he did not put up a fight when he was arrested this morning.  Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, John Evander Couey, the person of interest in the disappearance of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford.  He is now in police custody. 

Couey was arrested around 9 a.m. outside a Salvation Army in Augusta, Georgia.  The charge failure to notify police when he left Florida to go to Georgia.  That is a requirement for sex offenders.  Though he used a different name on that bus trip to Georgia, he was registered at the Salvation Army under his own name.  Police have now spent much of the day questioning him. 

Couey lived about two miles from Jessica Lunsford‘s home.  But he sometimes stayed with a half-sister who lived across the street from the missing girl‘s house in Florida.  He also has a decades, plural, long criminal record.  But police say they want to stay focused on him without developing tunnel vision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JEFF DAWSEY, CITRUS CO., FL.:  We‘re not stopping now.  We are still following leads.  We are aggressively, like I said, we are probably following about 40 really quality leads today.  And one of those leads may be the answer and then Couey doesn‘t—not even in the game.  Right now?   Couey is one of the hottest leads.  And we need, like I said, we need to take him out of the mix.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Sheriff Dawsey also confirmed that police removed some items from Mr. Couey‘s Florida home.  For the record, Jessica‘s father, Mark Lunsford, says his family did not know Mr. Couey.

Joining me now is Marc Klaas, president of Klaas Kids Foundation, and a well-known advocate for missing children and their families. 

Mr. Klaas, good evening, thanks so much for being with us. 

MARC KLAAS, PRESIDENT, KLAAS KIDS FOUNDATION:  Thank you.

STEWART:  Can you share with me what you and your organization are doing to help this family?

KLAAS:  Absolutely.  While the sheriff is investigating these many leads and doing a wonderful job of it, the Klaas Kids Foundation is sending a search director to Homosassa beginning on Saturday to help Mr. Lunsford with the volunteer searches for his child.  So I would ask anybody in your listening audience, who has an opportunity, anytime during the next week to go to Homosassa, to go to Mr. Lunsford‘s house, to please do that, because we have to find this girl.  She is still out there someplace.

STEWART:  Now from all of your experience, how do you think this investigation is going thus far? 

KLAAS:  I believe this investigation started off on all burners.  It should be the template for how missing child investigations are launched from this point forward.  It did seem to fall through a little bit, after about three or four days, but obviously the sheriff is keeping his eyes sharp.  He knows exactly what he‘s doing.  He hasn‘t lost his focus and it seems to be moving forward as quickly and as hopefully one could expect.

STEWART:  What did they do so right in the beginning?

KLAAS:  Well, the pulled out all the stops.  They made sure that the media knew about it.  They made sure that the public knew about it. They got the father out there, right out front, they got multi-jurisdictional task forces involved.  They secured the crime scenes.  They searched for all of the evidence.  They started sorting through the registered sex offenders.  They started polygraphing the family.  They kept the various psychics and other kind of ambulance chasing second wave of predators at bay.  And I just think that they‘ve done just a tremendous job.

You have to remember, Alison, when my daughter was kidnapped in 1993, there was a stipulation on the all-points bulletin that the information was not for press release.  So things have done an incredible 180 since that time.

STEWART:  Things have come so far.

KLAAS:  Yes, they have.

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about the investigation at this point.  The police have arrested this person of interest.  Why aren‘t they calling him a suspect, given his record, and his attempts to evade law enforcement?

KLAAS:  I don‘t think that they are calling anybody suspects anymore until they can make a case against them.  And I believe that is probably a reflection of what happened with Richard Jewel some years ago.  You know, he was a suspect and all of a sudden people were paying out millions of dollars for pointing fingers at him. 

So, I think that, you know, it is a semantic issue.  Obviously, this guy is of great interest to law enforcement.  But, you know, I wouldn‘t be surprised if it turned out that he was just freaked out by all of the events that were going on around him and felt that it was in his best interest to leave town.  Because you have to remember, although he did leave under an assumed name, he wasn‘t really hiding.  He was kind of hiding out in the open, using his own name, walking the streets—so I don‘t know.  We‘ll see how this pans out.  But certainly they are doing what they have to do with him, either to bring him in or to eliminate him as a suspect. 

STEWART:  And certainly to give him the benefit of the doubt, he could have been on the run because of this marijuana possession issue that he had.  What‘s next in this case?

KLAAS:  Well, believe what‘s next is law enforcement keeps doing what they‘re doing, but I think people have to rally behind this father.  He is doing everything he humanly can to bring this child home and the volunteer force is absolutely dwindling.

Volunteers can help in enormous ways.  This takes responsibility off the shoulders of law enforcement.  If it is well-run, and certainly our guy is one of the best at what he does, and it is a professionally run search, they can aide law enforcement by getting—eliminating geography, ultimately, maybe even finding the little girl.  And certainly they can give Mr. Lunsford something to go before the press and talk about, everyday, something that is viable, something that is relevant, something that is real.

STEWART:  Marc Klaas, I know this is always very important to you.  We thank you so much for your perspective. 

KLAAS:  Thank you.

STEWART:  OK, time for a break from the headlines of the day.

For a look at the broken news of the day:  “Oddball” is next.  You take that, and that, Mister. 

And it is one of the most grueling races in the world.  Now add the challenge of being young, and blind.  An amazing story of perseverance.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  We begin by witnessing democracy in action with yet more parliamentary brawling.  This one is in Indonesia.  Irate legislators storm the podium, jostling each other and just throwing pieces of paper.  Some even tried to hit the speaker with his own gavel.  But eventually, the combatants ran out of steam and resorted to just chanting slogans at each other.

Not so with Somalian politicians, who may not know much about legislating, but sure know how to throw a fight.  No namby-pamby punches.  You‘re going down.  No girlie-man shoving, just a free for all, with sticks and chairs a flyin‘.  Now that is what you call action-packed democracy. 

To Bocamaranga (ph), Columbia, where a local magician, Oscar Seizeman (ph), is currently suspended in a cage high above the ground.  He has no food, just vitamins and water.  Seizeman says he‘s hoping to make it to the “Guinness Book of World Records” by staying up there for 80 whole hours.  Apparently nobody told him that David Blaine already did that, staying aloft for 44 days.

And finally to Dorchester, Massachusetts and the latest attempt to cash in on our “Saviourless Dishes”.  First it was Fishstick Jesus, then Grilled Cheese Virgin Mary, now Susan McGuinness says this is the Virgin Mary, miraculously burnt into her roasting pan.

OK?  No prizes for guessing what she‘s doing with the heavenly dish.  It begins with an e and it ends with a Bay. 

Someone who worked for David Letterman is fingered in a plot to kidnap his son and hold the little guy for ransom.  We‘ll bring you the details.

And the City of Brotherly Love is not living up to its name.  Not by a long-shot; 23 people killed in the last 10 days.  Local lawmakers are scrambling to do anything to turn the tide against this crime wave.  Those stories ahead. 

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.  Number 3, Lucky the Leprechaun.  Or rather Arthur Anderson, the original voice behind that quintessential Irish phrase, “They‘re always after me Lucky Charms.”  

He dropped a bombshell admission on St. Patty‘s Day.  Turns out he‘s not even Irish. 

Number 2, Steven Jakaitis of Quincy, Mass.  Police found him sitting in his car wearing a nylon stocking over his head an carrying a note that read, quote, “I have a gun. Do not press any alarms or let customers know. Empty all the registers.”

Officers arrested him without a struggle, thanks to the fact that he was fast asleep.

And number 1, James Neville of Long Island, New York.  He ran unopposed for his third term as mayor of Baxter (ph) Estates.  Unopposed and he still lost the election.  That guy, maybe a time for a career change.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Keith Olbermann is on vacation.  I‘m Alison Stewart.

Her name, no doubt, is familiar, Margaret Ray.  What she did is not.  For many years, Ms. Ray stalked comedian David Letterman.  She repeatedly broke into his home, even told people she was Mrs. David Letterman.  That is until she took her own life. 

And now another disturbing incident at Letterman‘s home, our No. 3 story on the “COUNTDOWN” tonight.  “The Late Show‘s” host‘s 1-year-old plus son, Harry, allegedly the target of a kidnapping plot.  Authorities today announcing the arrest of 43-year-old Kelly A. Frank, a painter at Letterman‘s north central Montana ranch.  Frank allegedly approached an acquaintance about a plan to kidnap Harry Letterman and his nanny from the 2,700-acre property, and then hold them both for a $5 million ransom.

The creator and executive producer of TV‘s “Celebrity Justice” is Harvey Levin.  He is following this story.

Harvey, it‘s great to see you again. 

HARVEY LEVIN, “CELEBRITY JUSTICE”:  Hi, Alison.

STEWART:  All right.  So, this was not some random guy just saying to a buddy off the cuff, hey, maybe we should kidnap Letterman‘s kid.  This is really a well thought-out plot.

LEVIN:  This is simply scary.  This guy says he had a key to Letterman‘s place, knew where the crib was and which house it was on in the property where the baby slept.  And, you know, he confessed to police, according to the charging documents, and says, yes, I did it. 

And on top of that, I mean, this is almost—it‘s such a horrible story, but the one kind of side of humor to the whole thing is that he also bragged to this friend that he basically ripped David Letterman off and overcharging him intentionally over $1,000.  So, they‘ve also charged him with felony theft in addition to this kidnapping plot.

STEWART:  OK, so he can plan, but he‘s not a genius, it sounds like.  The suspect...

LEVIN:  He‘s not a genius.

STEWART:  No.  Kelly Frank, he was arrested on Sunday, arraigned today.  Why didn‘t we hear about this until now?

LEVIN:  Because, well, the charging documents really, they talk about David Letterman, but they weren‘t filed until today.  And it‘s just this random guy.  You look at the State of Montana v. Kelly Frank, and nobody is going to say, wow, what‘s this about?  The Letterman people don‘t want to talk about this at all.  It‘s got to be so upsetting, because, again, this was not random.  This is a guy who apparently had access to the property and knowledge of that property.

So, understandably, Letterman‘s people are laying low on this one until he went to court today and got arraigned, and that was it.

STEWART:  Does anybody know where Letterman‘s family is right now, where he is?

LEVIN:  No.  You know, we‘ve put calls in, and they just do not want to talk right now.  The guy is in jail right now on $600,000 bail, has not made bail.  He has what he calls a common law wife and two kids.  So, I‘m guessing it probably will be a shock to them as well.  He lives in Montana, along with this acquaintance, and the acquaintance became an informant for the police.

STEWART:  This is just something I kind of want to get your vibe on.  I mentioned Margaret Ray, who obviously was a mentally-ill person.  What is it about Letterman?  I mean, he tried to help her in light of everything that she did to him in breaking into his house and everything.  And then you‘ve got this man who worked at his home, someone he was helping give a job.  What is it?

LEVIN:  You know, I don‘t think, Alison, it‘s about David Letterman as much as it is about what‘s going on in this culture.  I gave a speech today to law enforcement officers about the media and stalking cases, because there seem to be such a rash of them.  That celebrities are a big, fat target for a lot of people who kind of live on the fringes right now. 

And it‘s not just David Letterman, but, you know, we‘ve seen Sheryl Crowe.  We‘ve seen Alanis Morissette.  We‘ve seen Nicole Kidman, Courtney Love.  I can just list on and on and on.  Mel Gibson and a lot of people have had, you know, people on their tail, who are up to no good, or at least that‘s what the cops say.

This is probably the most serious plot of all that we‘ve seen.  But it‘s not just that David Letterman is a target; celebrities are targets.

STEWART:  “Celebrity Justice‘s” Harvey Levin.  Thanks so much.  As always, a pleasure.

LEVIN:  My pleasure, Alison.

STEWART:  The threat of violence is frightening enough, but for one Pennsylvania community, it‘s largest is living with the actuality of the nightmare every day.  The issue of gun control tragically is thrust to the forefront of the legislative agenda in Philadelphia after a rash of murders in that city has made it all but impossible to ignore.

“COUNTDOWN‘s” Monica Novotny is in Philadelphia with more.

Hi—Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, good evening.

Here at City Hall, Mayor John Street says the situation is a matter of life and death, while the people of Philadelphia say they‘re tired of living in fear.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The streets are not safe anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It gets scary walking around here at night.  I mean, you never know when something could happen.

NOVOTNY (voice over):  The City of Brotherly Love is in crisis:  78 people killed here since January 1, 23 murders in the last 10 days. 

Mayor John Street is now seeking help from Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, hoping to make changes in state law that would allow city leaders to regulate the sale of guns in Philadelphia.

MAYOR JOHN STREET, PHILADELPHIA:  We will leave no stone unturned in making sure we‘re taking all reasonable action.

GOV. ED RENDELL, PENNSYLVANIA:  Philadelphia has had an inordinate amount of homicides, and the mayor has every reason to be concerned.

NOVOTNY:  As do the people living here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If we have to play at night, there‘s always that in the back of your mind.

NOVOTNY:  The city‘s recent spurts of violence are unusual, raising the number of murders so far this year by 16 percent over last year.  But overall, it may be too soon to tell.  According to the FBI, the number of murders here in the first-half of 2003:  158.  The first-half of 2004:  154.  Seventy-eight in the first 12 weeks of 2005 could indicate a similar pattern.  Either way...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘re ready for some kind of change.

NOVOTNY:  Governor Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor himself, says the problem with gun violence spreads beyond these city limits, and the laws must do the same.

RENDELL:  As long as the problem in the Pennsylvania legislature is viewed as a Philadelphia-only problem, change or help is very difficult to obtain.

NOVOTNY (on camera):  The governor‘s solution?  Statewide legislation that would limit individual purchasers of guns to one a month, an attempt to curb local gun trafficking.  But Republicans here say new legislation won‘t fix the problem; law enforcement will.

REP. DENNIS O‘BRIEN ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  You have people in Pennsylvania in the rural areas and all over, in Philadelphia and beyond, who are sportsmen, and they‘re responsible gun owners.  And that the legislation and law enforcement should go after those people who are offending.

NOVOTNY (voice over):  Republican State Representative Dennis O‘Brien says legislation limiting the sale of guns will not pass for the city or the state, where the gun lobby is strong.

O‘BRIEN:  And the offenders are not going to go to a licensed gun dealer anywhere in Pennsylvania and say, I got my one gun a month.  Their guns that they‘re using the crime are illegally obtained.

NOVOTNY:  But the governor believes gun laws are the first step toward fixing Philadelphia.

RENDELL:  We need to attack this problem on all different sides.  If we do that, maybe we‘ll get some relief.

NOVOTNY:  Exactly what people here are hoping for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m ready to feeling safe again and have my daughter or my son outside.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If I could just disappear with me and my children, I would, but I can‘t.  It‘s life.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  One of the specific areas of concern for the mayor:  carry permits.  These are gun permits that not only allow you to own a gun and keep it in your home, but to carry it on the street.  Here in Philadelphia, there are 28,000 active permits.  That‘s compared to 16,000 in New York City‘s five boroughs—Alison.

STEWART:  And, Monica, does the mayor have a plan to address those permits?

NOVOTNY:  He does.  I mean, he‘s pulling out all of these statistics.  He also said this week that in 2003, the city issued more gun permits here in Philadelphia than the entire state of New Jersey.  So, his plan at this point could be to set a moratorium on gun permits.  That could go into effect as early as next week.  But it‘s just one idea that he‘s throwing out there now.  He, of course, is hoping to meet with the governor next week, and at that point we should be hearing some more concrete results as to what they think they can do next.

STEWART:  Great report from Monica Novotny in Philadelphia.  Thanks a bunch.

Up next, inspiration from the freezing wilds of Alaska.  A young woman, a legally-blind young woman, takes on the roughest race in the world.

And take it on the legal system.  Martha Stewart returns to the same courthouse that convicted her.

Those stories ahead.  Now here are “COUNTDOWN‘s” top three sound bites of this day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How do you spell Michael Jackson?  I-N-N-O-C-E-N-T.  No evidence.  Not guilty.  No evidence.  Not guilty. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I do not take them.  It gives you nothing but false hope. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Sosa, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, sir.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Huntington, West Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  West Virginia!  Holy cow!  Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  New York.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There you go.  Aren‘t you supposed to be in school right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No.  We‘re playing hooky.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Taking on all of the elements against all of the odds.  A teenager who can‘t even see races a team of dogs across the Alaskan wilderness. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The race has its origins in legend, the tiny Alaskan town of Nome facing a life-threatening epidemic in the dead of winter 80 years ago.  Twenty teams of sled dogs dispatched, transversing hundreds of miles.  One team eventually arriving with medicine that would save the entire town.

Our No. 2 story on the “COUNTDOWN” tonight is the Iditarod, 1,100 miles of treacherous Alaskan terrain, sub-zero temps and snow.  Lots and lots of snow.  The fastest musher already crossed the finish line, but the real victory may belong to first-time racer, 19-year-old Rachael Scdoris.  Ms. Scdoris is blind. 

Our correspondent from the trail in Alaska is Bob Dotson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB DOTSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  History is not just for winners.  Sometimes there is more to remember than who crossed the finish line first. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Here‘s the pride of Norway.  

DOTSON:  Robert Sorlie slid into Nome, Alaska yesterday, winning the Super Bowl of sled dog races, the legendary Iditarod. 

But back along the trial, Rachael Scdoris was facing a heartbreak.  Her dogs were getting sick, and rather than risk their health, overnight she dropped out. 

RACHAEL SCDORIS, IDITAROD MUSHER:  OK, easy.  The important thing is that I‘m here. 

DOTSON:  She had been mushing over mountains and ice for 10 days, along a trail she can barely see. 

R. SCDORIS:  I don‘t worry about falling anymore, because I‘ve fallen before.  So, I just try not to think about that and just go out and deal with whatever is out there.

DOTSON:  To Rachael, the beauty of the Alaskan outback is only a black-and-white smudge. 

R. SCDORIS:  A lot of people tell me I‘m crazy. 

DOTSON:  The race snakes across a wilderness without roads, 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, a trip that would stretch from Miami to New York.

(on camera):  This year‘s race is through some of the deepest snow in decades.  It‘s like trying to run in a crystal swamp, a bone-chilling snow that pulls at your legs and makes each day‘s run seem like two.  

(voice over):  Simply getting to the starting line was a big victory. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a life-long dream. 

DOTSON:  At first, she was turned away.  Some of the other mushers worried about the safety of Rachael‘s dogs.

DEE DEE JONROWE, IDITAROD MUSHER:  Her biggest challenge, I think, will be to respond to the hazards, you know, quickly enough to keep the dogs from getting, you know, a little overwhelmed with it.

DOTSON:  But none has ever been injured in dozens of races.  Rachael‘s dad maxed out his credit cards and drove them 3,000 miles from their home in Bend, Oregon, to the top of the world in the dead of winter, so Rachael could chase this dream.

JERRY SCDORIS, RACHAEL‘S DAD:  Hopefully, she will make it easier for the next young person that comes along.

DOTSON:  With a dream stronger than life‘s problems, Rachael has faced each barrier with humor.

(on camera):  What‘s been your biggest obstacle in life?

R. SCDORIS:  Being blond.  OK, Cleat (ph), you‘re all right.

DOTSON (voice over):  Others are learning how smart she is.  Rachael proved to the race veterans that her dogs were healthy and capable.

R. SCDORIS:  Good boy Cleat (ph) is.

DOTSON:  She raised and trained them herself.

R. SCDORIS:  It‘s been a goal of mine since I was about 8 years old.

DOTSON:  But no one with a disability has ever run the Iditarod before.  Race rules require mushers do everything themselves:  Dish out three tons of food and water stashed along the trail, change 2,000 protective booties.  The only concession for her blindness:  an extra pair of eyes. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, we‘ve got a lot of moose here, Rachael.

DOTSON:  Paul Ellory (ph) rides ahead, alerting her to dangers. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Even in my dreams, it‘s hard.  It‘s a hard deal.

DOTSON:  But Ellory (ph) agreed to help, because...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  People are always told you can‘t do this, and the American dream is just pulling up your socks and putting your pants on and getting it done.

DOTSON:  Sometimes even Rachael wonders.

R. SCDORIS:  What am I doing here? 

DOTSON:  In the hardest race on earth, but then her toughest race has been the one she set for herself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Go, Rachael!

DOTSON:  Bob Dotson, NBC News with an American story along the Iditarod trail in Alaska.

(END VIDEOTAPE)      

STEWART:  From inspiration, we turn to desperation in the nightly roundup of celebrity trials and tribulations we call “Keeping Tabs.”  And we begin with your entertainment and tax dollars in action.  Day 486 in the Michael Jackson investigations. 

KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman began the day‘s testimony, saying he befriended the accuser and his family while the boy was sick, even going so far as to help raise money for his cancer treatment.  Coleman testifying the family never solicited money or gifts from him, adding he focused on the accuser and his siblings—quote—found his siblings—“polite and charismatic.”

A different picture painted by former Jackson housekeeper Kiki Fournier, who described Neverland as—quote—“Pinocchio‘s pleasure island.”  With the absence of authority figures there, children became wild.  She said, continuing to describe a rowdy atmosphere, where many of the kids she saw appeared to be intoxicated. 

Under cross-examination, Ms. Fournier testified that the accuser‘s brother had once pulled a knife on her.

A year after her original conviction, Martha Stewart went back to the same courthouse today, and the lady was looking for a new trial.  Her lawyers argued that the first one was compromised after one of the jurors allegedly lied numerous times on his questionnaire and a witness perjured himself on the stand. 

But apparently, it‘s a good thing to own your own business if you‘re facing jail time.  Stewart is now entitled to a $3.7 million reimbursement from Martha Living Omnimedia to help pay for her legal fees; this, despite the fact the single charge relating to her company finances was dropped before the case even got to the jury.

And finally, another female celebrity found guilty of lying today.  Lil‘ Kim now faces up to 10 years in jail after being convicted on conspiracy and perjury charges for lying to a federal grand jury.  The grand jury had been investigating a shootout between Kim‘s entourage and rival rap groups outside a New York City radio station back in 2001.  Lil‘ Kim had testified that two of her friends were not involved in the shooting.  But video evidence showed them both, right there, in the thick of it.

A Vatican cardinal says avoid “The Da Vinci Code” like rotten food.  What stinks about that?  Father Guido Sarducci breaks rank with the holy to tell us what‘s wrong with the Vatican‘s position.  You can‘t miss that. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Last night on this broadcast, we told you about the Vatican‘s sudden awakening to the book, “The Da Vinci Code,” which has sold more than 25 million copies.  It hit bookstores back in May of 2003.  Our No. 1 story on the “COUNTDOWN” tonight, top religious expert Father Guido Sarducci weighs in on the big Da Vinci diss.  And we‘ll throw a couple of bonus devout matters his way while we have him here.

First, an update and a refresher.  Cardinal Tardicio Bertone (ph) -- hope I said that right—spoke to a packed auditorium in Genoa with the apt backdrop of a paining of The Last Supper.  He rebutted “The Da Vinci Code‘s” premise, including the idea that Jesus married and had kids with Mary Magdalene. 

One day earlier, the cardinal had called on Catholics to snub the book, saying—quote—“Don‘t buy it, don‘t read it, it‘s rotten food.”

And now with any further ado, I‘m joined by the gossip columnist of the Vatican‘s newspaper, “L‘Observatore Romano,” direct from Rome—San Francisco—Father Guido Sarducci.

Father, good evening.

DON NOVELLO, COMEDIAN, FR. GUIDO SARDUCCI:  Good evening to you.

STEWART:  Let‘s start with the obvious question.  Why is the Vatican suddenly lashing against this book?

NOVELLO:  Why?  It‘s because the Vatican has been collecting art since the year 354 A.D.  All right?  We‘ve been commissioning art, preserving art, promoting art.  Now this guy comes nowhere.  He takes a painting that we own, and he makes all of this money on a book and doesn‘t give us anything.  We don‘t get our feet wet, if you know what I mean.  And, why, you know? 

And he did it in a holy year.  You know, the year 2000?  Holy years come once every 50 years, all right?  He waits until the holy year.  It‘s like we put a lot of money and promotion into holy year.  It‘s our wave, and he‘s jumping on our wave.  He stole our holy year.  That‘s why we‘re upset.

STEWART:  So, you‘ve got a problem with Dan Brown is what I‘m hearing?

NOVELLO:  Yes, I have a problem.  We‘re working it out.  You know, we‘re working it out.

STEWART:  So, what do you think about all of these controversial theories in “The Da Vinci Code?”

NOVELLO:  It‘s bogus to begin with, you know?  How it started, it says one of the apostles, Saint Thomas I believe—no, John.  Saint John, they say he looks kind of feminine.  Then they jump to this, they say it‘s a woman.  Then they jump and they say it‘s Mary Magdalene.  Then they say if Mary Magdalene can be with the other apostles, she could be—women should be priests.  This is where, you know, you jumped the jump.  It doesn‘t look like a woman, Saint John.  To me, it looks like Merv Griffin. 

STEWART:  Like Merv.

NOVELLO:  It looks like Merv.  I met Merv once.  You know, I said to him, I said, you know, you look like to me, I said, ‘You look like George Washington.‘  And he said to me, “Thank you.”  He said, “Most people say I look like Sandra Day O‘Connor.”

STEWART:  You know...

NOVELLO:  He said, “They used to say I looked like Petula Clark, but I don‘t hear that no more, you know.”

STEWART:  You both have a point, I think, there. 

NOVELLO:  I know.  I know.  That‘s my point.

STEWART:  So, you think the Vatican will be suing Dan Brown over this painting, taking a hard line?

NOVELLO:  No.  We are working with him.  We feel in partnerships, and we could take “The Da Vinci Code” to a whole new place.  For instance, you know the best way to break “The Da Vinci Code?” 

STEWART:  No, sir.

NOVELLO:  Using one of these, “The Da Vinci Code” decoder rings. 

STEWART:  “The Da Vinci” decoder ring?

NOVELLO:  “The Da Vinci” decoder ring, and you get it with this 12-pack, a pack of cereal.  We have friends (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  And “The Da Vinci Code,” the last supper, last breakfast, apostle pack, where there‘s a different kind of cereal for every apostle.  This is Paul, I believe.  Saint Paul for Corn Pops.  This is a good one.  It‘s Saint Batonyo (ph), I believe.  It‘s hard being these minis.  Believe me, you know, all of the cardinals say, how come he gets a Frosted Mini Wheat?  You know what I mean?  You know, he should be Frosted Flakes.  Who is going to get Frosted Flakes, you know?  But we‘re working it out.

STEWART:  The cocoa apostles. 

NOVELLO:  Cocoa Pops.  I don‘t know who is going to be an apostle for Cocoa Pops.  That‘s a good one.

STEWART:  All right, now that we have you here, I want to ask you about, I‘ve been calling it the cashing of the Christ, “The Passion of the Christ.” 

NOVELLO:  Right.

STEWART:  A big uproar back in the news.  They‘ve re-released it in theaters with less violence. 

NOVELLO:  Right.

STEWART:  Is that a good idea?

NOVELLO:  Well, I don‘t think they should have changed the ending, you know, because I always thought if there was a secret vote, Jesus would have won and Barabas (ph) would have been crucified, you know?  Then Jesus would have gone on to a second term.  I wonder how many he would keep, you know, if he would fire a lot of apostles.  You know, like Bush did for his second term.

STEWART:  Don Novello, a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci, thank you for being here this week.  Next week we might have gotten in trouble. 

That is “COUNTDOWN.”  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Good night.  Good luck.  And happy St. Patrick‘s Day to you.  No drinking and driving you little leprechaun. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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