Guest: Stephanie Quackenbush, John Aretakis, Rhonda Quackenbush, Bill Fallon, Arthur Saint Andre, Edward McDonough, Ben Beckley, Tracy Connor, Brett Rivkind, Elizabeth Burrell, Clint Van Zandt
DAN ABRAMS, HOST: Coming up, a 15-year-old girl shows up in court for the sentencing of a man who tried to abduct her. She said he and his friends intimidated her so much she couldn‘t even make her statement.
A teen fights off an attack by this rapist. Today he‘s being sentenced for two other rapes as well. The brave teenager said he and his supporters stared her down. She joins us.
And the parents of a man who disappeared on his honeymoon cruise speak out for the first time. They‘re convinced he was murdered and they are preparing to sue the cruise line for wrongful death.
Plus, the battle over whether to keep an 11 year-old girl on life-support. Doctors want to let her die but her stepfather wants her alive. But is it because he‘s accused of beating her nearly to death? If she dies, she gets charged with murder. The program about justice starts now!
Hi, every one. First up on the docket, imagine, you are a 15-year-old girl in court to testify against a rapist, who threw a towel over your head, threatened you with a knife, tried to abduct you on your way to school. But before you can tell the court how his attack effected you the kidnapper and his female supporters try to stare you down.
Well, that‘s what‘s Stephanie Quackenbush says happened this morning in an Albany, New York courtroom. But the stare down didn‘t interfere with sentencing for Darius Ashley. Neither did his attempt to try and rescind part of his guilty plea for trying to kidnap Stephanie, and raping a 15-year-old girl and a 20-year-old woman.
Today, a judge gave Ashley 25 years to practice his stare down technique.
Joining us now is Stephanie Quackenbush, along with her mother, Rhonda, and Stephanie‘s attorney, John Aretakis. Thank you all for coming on the program, appreciate it.
Stephanie, how are you doing?
STEPHANIE QUACKENBUSH: Pretty good.
ABRAMS: Tell me what happened? Tell me what happened in court today?
QUACKENBUSH: Well, it was all planned out for me to read my victim impact statement. And then, when I got to the court, it was just, his friends were—they just kept looking at me and stuff, giving me dirty looks. And pretty much just a total flashback of that day just ran through my head. It was very depressing.
ABRAMS: And so, you didn‘t even feel comfortable reading your statement, right?
QUACKENBUSH: No, I didn‘t feel comfortable at all.
ABRAMS: What did you want to say? Now, no one is staring you down.
What did you want to say?
QUACKENBUSH: Well, the statement pretty much just said that, last week when he was—not last week, but two weeks ago when he was in court, he was laughing and smiling. I told them he‘s a very cold and heartless man. He showed no remorse for all of the pain that he‘s caused. And that now I can laugh and smile knowing that he‘s behind bars.
ABRAMS: Stephanie, I‘m going to come back and ask you to tell us exactly what happened back then. But I want to ask your mom and your lawyer a quick question.
Mr. Aretakis, you then had to read the statement yourself, right, in court? Meaning, you basically took the statement she was going to read and you read it to the court?
JOHN ARETAKIS, ATTORNEY: Well, we actually had a backup plan. I had a statement that I was prepared to read in case Stephanie didn‘t want to read hers. And I also had a copy of Stephanie‘s statement. And what I did was, with the judge‘s permission, I read them both, my statement praising her heroics and her statement, that was only three or four sentences, but it was beautifully and eloquently written.
ABRAMS: All right. Stephanie, tell me what happened back then when you were 14.
QUACKENBUSH: Well, I was walking down Myrtle Avenue and I was going to school. I heard footsteps walking behind me. And I just casually looked over my shoulder and I see the man walking, but I didn‘t think nothing of it, so I kept walking. And then, about 30 seconds later, he came behind me and put me in a headlock. And he put a towel over my head.
I was just screaming “help.” Just screaming for my life. And he said, “Shut up, shut up, I have a knife. I‘ll stab you.” And I just kept screaming. Then I pulled the towel over my eyes but I could only see down. And I grabbed the knife with both of my hands, so he couldn‘t stab me, and he jerked it out of my hands. And he, like, cut my hand open. And he ran into an alley because he must have seen someone coming.
ABRAMS: Wow. So you actually tried to wrestle the knife away from this guy?
QUACKENBUSH: Yes. Because he had huge butcher knife right next to my stomach. I was terrified. So I just sort of pushed it away.
ABRAMS: Did it all, at the time, sort of just happen based on reflex?
QUACKENBUSH: Well, yes, it was pretty much just an instant reflex.
And my mother taught me always to fight back and scream.
ABRAMS: Well, that‘s what I want to talk to mom about.
All right, Rhonda, this ended up that Stephanie is safe and she‘s doing well. What had you talked to her about? Had you had discussions, if something happens, here‘s how you should react or shouldn‘t react, et cetera?
RHONDA QUACKENBUSH: Well, I told her to scream. I told her never talk to strangers. But if anybody ever tried to do anything like this, you know, to abduct her or take her along with them, to scream as loud as you can, somebody is bound to hear you. Your chances of going quietly away from him, you are not going to come out of it very good, so you might as well, you know. I told all my girls, scream as loud as you can.
ABRAMS: How did you feel in court today? Did you see what Stephanie was talking about, about the friends and this guy almost staring Stephanie down?
R. QUACKENBUSH: They were staring her down. They were staring us all down. They were—it was obvious they were trying to intimidate and scare her. And it worked. It worked. They were scary looking girls.
ABRAMS: And Stephanie, they were girls? I mean, this is three girls, you say, were his supporters?
QUACKENBUSH: Yes, they were with him. They looked like they about probably in their 20‘s.
ABRAMS: And what were they doing? They were just what, looking at you and...
QUACKENBUSH: They would just keep looking at me and, like, giving me dirty looks and stuff. They didn‘t stop looking at us.
ABRAMS: Are you still scared a little bit?
QUACKENBUSH: Well, I think I was mostly just scared there because they were right there. I‘m not as scared now because I know they are not going to, like, do anything to me. And I feel safe at home.
ABRAMS: Rhonda, how did you make the decision to allow Stephanie to speak about this publicly?
R. QUACKENBUSH: Well, it was her decision. She‘s a smart girl, she‘s bright. We talked about it and—I was more scared than she was. I told her, we don‘t have to go to court; we don‘t have to see him, he‘ll go to prison. And she said, “No, I can‘t. I won‘t feel good afterwards if I don‘t go face him and let him know that he‘s not going to scare me anymore.”
ABRAMS: Yes, Stephanie, tell me about that. I mean, it‘s not just in court, but you‘ve also, you know, you‘ve came on the show, you‘ve gone public to a certain degree by doing that. Why did you want to do that?
QUACKENBUSH: Well, I wanted to go public just to show him that justice is being served. And he deserves every second of jail time that he has. And also, to explain to other young girls my age, that if, anyone ever does try to attack them, they should scream for their life as loud as they can and just fight back.
ABRAMS: Because there had been, Stephanie, right, another girl had been abducted, was it from your school? The same school, on her way to school?
QUACKENBUSH: Yes, it was, like, right around the same area. We went to the same school. But she was killed.
ABRAMS: And, Mr. Aretakis, is this guy a suspect in that abduction and murder as well?
ARETAKIS: Oh, yes, most certainly. What this fellow did is he raped a 14-year-old girl in April. This young girl, Gretchen Purnum, (ph) was murdered in May. And then, one month later, in June, this awful thing happened to Stephanie. And then, another month later, in July, he raped another young girl. So we think that this does fit his pattern. He used a knife in all the incidents.
ABRAMS: Stephanie, how did you feel when you heard that he first got arrested? I mean, this had happened to you, you reported it to the police. How did you feel when you first heard them say, we think we got the guy?
QUACKENBUSH: I was very relieved and happy. It made me feel a lot more safer. It was hard for me, at first, before he wasn‘t, like, before they caught him. I was always paranoid and I wouldn‘t, like, walk anywhere by myself. I didn‘t like being home alone. Just, pretty much always scared.
ABRAMS: Stephanie, you are such an impressive girl. What do you want to do? What‘s the next—What do you want to be when you grow up, so to speak?
QUACKENBUSH: I want to be a lawyer.
ABRAMS: Really? All right.
ABRAMS: Well, let me know if you need a recommendation for law school. All right?
ABRAMS: Thanks a lot for taking time. I really appreciate it. You are a brave girl. And you really deserve a lot of credit for everything. And I‘m sorry you had to go through all of this. Stephanie Quackenbush, thank you very much.
QUACKENBUSH: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Rhonda Quackenbush and John Aretakis, thanks a lot.
R. QUACKENBUSH: You‘re welcome.
ARETAKIS: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up, new details about the honeymooner lost at sea. His family is speaking out for the first time, saying they believe he was murdered. We‘ll hear then and their attorney up next.
And a stepfather battles to keep a 11-year-old girl on life-support, but, but—and it‘s a big one—he‘s also accused of helping to beat her nearly to death. So if she dies, he could be charged with murder.
Plus, the journalist police say dressed up like a firefighter and sexually assaulted a woman for hours is still on the run. His half brother now speaking out, calling on him to turn himself in. Get this, he‘s not just his half brother, he‘s also his cousin. I‘ll let you think about that one for a minute. More twists and turns in the search for Peter Braunstein.
You‘re e-mail. ABRAMSREPORT@MSNBC.COM. Please include your name, where you‘re writing from. Our response at the end of the show.
ABRAMS: We‘re back. A stepfather is accused of helping to beat a little girl. And now, he wants custody of that girl.
Eleven-year-old Haleigh Poutre is lying in a hospital on life-support.
Her adoptive mother and stepfather accused of repeatedly beating her. Doctors recommending that Haleigh be removed from her ventilator because she‘s in a vegetative state.
But her stepfather, 32-year-old, Jason Strickland, charged with abusing Haleigh, is now fighting to keep her alive, and to become the parent who makes decisions for her. His problem? He legally adopted her. And there are the obvious questions about his motives. Right now, he faces 5 counts of assault and battery for abusing Haleigh. If she dies, he‘s likely to be charged with murder.
The county court ruled that Strickland has no rights over Haleigh and ordered that she be taken off life-support. This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Court heard his appeal. Strickland argued that Haleigh should be kept alive.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have the extraordinary circumstance here of there being no one in this case that ever argued for life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Haleigh‘s adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, was found shot dead just a few weeks after the alleged beating, in what police believe was a murder-suicide.
Joining us know is Edward McDonough, the attorney for Haleigh‘s stepfather, Jason Strickland, and former Massachusetts prosecutor, Bill Fallon, joins us. And Dr. Arthur Saint Andre, director of surgical critical care at Washington Hospital Center.
Gentlemen, thanks for coming on the program. Appreciate it.
All right, Mr. McDonough, I mean, the obvious question is why should a court, at this time, possibly grant a man, who is accused of this crime against this girl and could face murder charges if she dies, the right to make decisions over her?
EDWARD MCDONOUGH, ATTORNEY: Well, Dan, actually, the appeal that we brought before the Supreme Judicial Court does not ask for the right to have him make the decisions. First of all, Dan, the question of the motive is a natural one to be asking. But really, it‘s kind of a convenient way of avoiding the real issue in this case.
Our firm is not handling the criminal case. We took this case pro-bono, and we took it because of the interest of the child. It‘s our view, and we argued to the court, that the hearing, which was held, which decided that Haleigh would die of starvation, was a one-sided hearing. It was not a fair hearing. And basically, we advanced three reasons.
The first one is, unlike the Terri Schiavo case, this is an 11-year-old child who never really had the opportunity to express her wishes as to what she would want to have done.
Secondly, this is not a decision made by the family. This is a decision made by the government. And, Dan, they made it after only after nine days. They relied on two doctors. One of the doctors said that it was not appropriate to remove the feeding tube.
And the third reason is that no one argued in favor of keeping the child alive. Justice Spina, at one point Tuesday, leaned over and he asked the attorney for the state, who at the hearing argued in favor of life? And it was clear that the answer was no. And, Dan, as any good trial lawyer will tell you, if you have no opposition, it‘s not a difficult case to win.
So what we‘re doing is advancing the interest of the child. And we would like a fair hearing where both sides are presented. And we‘ve asked the Supreme Judicial Court to grant that new hearing.
ABRAMS: All right. Before I go to the Dr. Saint Andre about the medical issues, Bill Fallon, what of that? The fact that Mr. McDonough is saying, “Well look, we‘re just fighting for life here.”
BILL FALLON, FORMER PROSECUTOR, MASSACHUSETTS: Well, I‘m certainly glad that Mr. McDonough says he‘s not saying the stepfather should have any rights here. I originally thought that he was, somehow, putting forward that the stepfather thought he should have some rights here.
I do think there is an issue here, what the guardian ad litem, if there was one, what conclusion they came to. I think that this is, unlike the Schiavo case, as we know, because the Schiavo case, in fact, involved someone, who supposedly had some expressed wishes about if they became vegetative at any time.
I‘m presuming that the Supreme Judicial Court will send it back, if they feel that a full hearing has not been had. But certainly, they will, in no way, as far as I‘m concerned, give the father, who is at least now, has probable cause to believe he participated in some kind of abuse of the girl. And even if they haven‘t, he is an interested party and, therefore, interested party, meaning not a disinterested party in what happens to this girl and the result of it.
Therefore, he should not, in any way, have any say in over what happens to this little girl. The prosecution...
ABRAMS: Dr. Saint Andre, let me ask you the medical question. I mean, look, from my reading of the record, I thought that it was clear that the doctors in this case were in agreement that this girl would not recover and could not recover?
ARTHUR SAINT ANDRE, PHYSICIAN: That‘s my understanding as well, Dan.
That she has had a devastating blunt head trauma about three months ago. And that she‘s had little or no neurological recovery in that period of time.
ABRAMS: So as a practical matter, keeping her on life-support would mean what?
SAINT ANDRE: Well, it very much depends on the degree of her neurologic devastation to the regulatory centers of the brain. Typically, in this situation, it is a breathing tube and a ventilator with feeding and tremendous attention to nursing care to basic bodily functions, which she cannot regulate.
ABRAMS: And Mr. McDonough, look, I read some of the comments that you‘ve made in the past, and you say, Mr. Strickland wants the child to live for the reasons of the child‘s right to live alone. You‘re making it sound like you are fighting for life; you are fighting for what Mr. Strickland claims he wants?
MCDONOUGH: Well, of course, Dan, and again, we understand the conflict of the interest argument. But of course, Dan, if Mr. Strickland is innocent, and by the way, the evidence against Mr. Strickland—the babysitter testified in this case, and it was his wife, who‘s now deceased as a result of a murder-suicide, she is the one who is accused of striking these blows, not Mr. Strickland.
And, Dan, of course...
ABRAMS: Well, that‘s not entirely accurate. He was accused of beating her at another time, and the prosecutor‘s theory of the case is that, if both of the parents who were the caretakers were jointly responsible for this, they can jointly be held criminally responsible as well.
MCDONOUGH: Well, I appreciate that clarification, Dan. You‘re correct. But of course, Dan, if Mr. Strickland is found innocent, by the time that comes down, if this order is not reversed, Haleigh will have died of starvation. And of course, it will be too late.
And I want to point out, the conflict of interest issue is not unique to Mr. Strickland. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, if they are—again, Dan, this was a decision that they made within nine days. They cannot bring a murder charge unless the child dies. They are also the ones responsible for the medical care.
ABRAMS: Wait. Wait. So wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. So you are saying that you think the state has an interest in this because they want to try him for murder so they want her to die? Come on.
MCDONOUGH: What I‘m saying, Dan, is this. That the motives are really—you can come up with motives on both sides, is what I‘m trying to say.
ABRAMS: No, no, there‘s not moral equivalence here to suggest...
MCDONOUGH: Well, I‘m not suggesting...
ABRAMS: You can make the argument in any case that the state has an interest.
ABRAMS: This is not a case where you compare this guy‘s interest, if she dies, he gets charged with murder, with the state‘s interest—I don‘t know, I heard you make arguments in the Supreme Court about money, about keeping her alive, other things. There‘s just no comparison.
MCDONOUGH: Dan, I‘m not going to say there is a comparison. All I‘m trying to say is that we‘ve got to get beyond the motive and we have to focus on what is best for the child. And this child needs a fair hearing. Justice Spina also pointed out, getting back to the medical—and by the way, Dan, all the records have been impounded. No one has been allowed to look at the medical records.
And Justice Spina made the point that it‘s pretty easy to see that there‘s unanimity in in the medical when nobody‘s there to cross examine these doctors. You need to have both sides with a vigorous—a discussion and a vigorous battle and then a judge could make a decision when he has all of the facts.
ABRAMS: Bill, it‘s hard to get away from the motive, though, isn‘t it?
FALLON: Dan, its ridiculous to say to get away from the motive. And that‘s why Strickland is in this. I just want to say, don‘t think and don‘t be waylaid by an argument. The prosecutor doesn‘t necessarily want this girl dead. It‘s going to make a murder case hard to prove. But in this core hearing, the prosecution has no standing whatsoever. The interests of this child and the determination of what is in her best interest, which the court may decide is, in fact, death or ending her life in the vegetative state, has nothing to do with what the prosecution wants to do here.
The prosecution is not a party. They will not be heard. And as I said, actually when you take someone off a life-support system, there‘s an argument that it‘s harder to even prove a death resulting.
So do not think, for a moment, this is about the prosecution in there saying I want this girl dead. There‘s a moral question here. This girl deserves some kind of representation. And I‘m presuming that, if the court does overturn it, they‘ll just send it back to say she needed more representation.
ABRAMS: Here‘s another—another clip from Friday‘s argument in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems to me, without going into any detail, that your client has, at the very minimum, a profound conflict of interest in this case. If he is the person who is asserting the child‘s interests?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Respectfully, your honor, no more profound that the Commonwealth‘s conflict of interest here. If they‘re pushing a prosecution or they don‘t want to pay these bills, there‘s a profound conflict of interest there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: That‘s just nonsense. All right. Dr. Saint Andre, as a medical matter, all right? It sounds like a lot of people on the other side of this, and some of these other cases, are accusing doctors, effectively of being bloodthirsty. Saying, they are not really investigating. They‘re just saying that the patient should die.
SAINT ANDRE: My understanding, Dan, is that both of the clinicians that have reported, have stated that she‘s in the vegetative state, and basically there might be some controversy on what to do next. We have to understand that individuals who move into the vegetative state are not aware.
This poor girl no longer has memory, feeling, sensation. So, it‘s very difficult for one to say that she really experiences any life at all. That primarily, these are machines keeping some organs going. And that she no longer has any sense of life.
ABRAMS: I‘ve got to give Mr. McDonough the final fifteen seconds of this segment. Go head.
MCDONOUGH: What we want to do, Dan, is to life the impoundment order and let this doctor and other doctors come in and fully examine the medical issues. We want somebody to be able to come into court and make the arguments for life.
ABRAMS: Edward McDonough, Bill Fallon, Doctor Saint Andre, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.
MCDONOUGH: You‘re welcome.
FALLON: Thank you.
SAINT ANDRE: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up, the parents of the man, who disappeared on his honeymoon cruise, speak out for the first time, now saying he was murder. And they‘re preparing to sue the cruise line for wrongful death. The lawyer‘s on the program.
And our continuing series, Manhunt of sex offenders on the loose. How they find missing sex offenders before they strike again.
Our search concludes in Illinois today. Authorities would like your help finding Daniel Rappe. He‘s 45, six foot, 190, convicted of aggravated criminal sex abuse of a child under thirteen, and sexual assault of a child under nine. He hasn‘t registered his address with the state. If you‘ve got any information, where he is, 888-414-7678.
We‘ll be right back.
ABRAMS: Just when you thought it couldn‘t get anymore bizarre, Peter Braunstein has a half brother who‘s calling him a coward. Remember, Braunstein, the only suspect in a 13-hour Halloween sex assault in New York. Where a man dressed as a firefighter abused and humiliated a fashion magazine executive.
Braunstein‘s been on the run for almost six weeks now. Last seen in November in Ohio.
Allan Starkie, a New York businessman, West Point graduate and former confidant of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, shares the same father as Braunstein. And get this, and their mothers are sisters. Braunstein spent most of his childhood thinking Starkie was his cousin.
It wasn‘t until he was 16 that his father told him that they were actually siblings. Starkie posted an open letter to Braunstein in a blog attacking his half brother. Quote, “You pathetic cowardly pseudo intellectual how dare you disgrace the family with your absurd cries for attention. One can not help but notice that you only terrorize the weak as most bullies and wimps tend to do. You were a miserable little child growing up in the shadow of smarter, more decent cousins. But get over it!”
Joining me now, the reporter who broke the story, Tracy Connor of “The New York Daily News.” She and they have been breaking a lot of stories on this case. And actor Ben Beckley, who is with a theatre company Temporary Distortion, and he was in the cast of Peter Braunstein‘s play, “Andy and Edie” last year. Thanks a lot to both of you. Appreciate it.
Tracy, first of all let me just ask you, before we get to the business about the half brother, any news on sightings of him?
TRACY CONNOR, “NEW YORK DAILY NEWS”: No. The last sighting was Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. And there‘s been some unconfirmed sightings in Indiana but that has not been nailed down.
ABRAMS: And what about in New York? Anything else in the New York area?
CONNOR: No, looks like he left New York. Police, I know, have just released a new wanted poster that they are going to be putting up all over the city in the event that he does return to the city. But the guess right now is that he‘s still out of the city somewhere maybe in the Midwest.
ABRAMS: Do you find this half brother of his who is actually saying, right, that some of what he believes are Braunstein‘s mental problems are as a result of their relationship?
CONNOR: Right. He says that Braunstein‘s true family ties were kept from him until he was 16-years-old when his father finally broke the news that he had a half brother who he thought was really his cousin. And he thinks that caused kind of a mental meltdown for him.
ABRAMS: And here‘s - from a letter that this half brother wrote to Braunstein, more of it, “If you want to finally prove you‘re a man, I‘m willing to meet you anytime you please. You know where I live. If you meant to compete with my success, you should have tried doing it the decent way, you cowardly fool. Now is your chance to see if you are a better man than I.” He doesn‘t really think this is going to get Braunstein to show up? Does he?
CONNOR: He thought it might. Part of it, he‘s just venting a little. There‘s some sibling rivalry going on here. But he knows that Braunstein is very Web-savvy, might log onto a computer somewhere, he‘s kind of a narcissistic person and may Google his own name and come across this letter. And he‘s a pretty combative fella and might feel like he needs to respond in some way.
ABRAMS: All right. Ben Beckley, look, you had to - I say you had to
you did work with Braunstein and what was he like when you worked with him on this play with him?
BEN BECKLEY, ACTOR IN PETER BRAUNSTEIN‘S PLAY: He‘s disturbed and disturbing. It was hard to say what Peter would say next, what he would do. I don‘t think any of us expected that he would do something violent. But he did make threatening phone calls to many of the women in the play at all hours of the morning.
ABRAMS: And you say it was clear he was mentally ill back then or whatever, I forget the term that you used, that he was disturbed. What was it about what he was doing? It was the calls to the women?
BECKLEY: That, and the fact that he said things that were sort of outrageous on a regular basis. He wanted to get some of the people in the cast together to rob a convenience store naked. He wanted to do anything at all possibly to drum up publicity for the production.
ABRAMS: Was it a good play?
BECKLEY: No, it was not great. Peter is a smart guy and a decent writer but he didn‘t know much about the stage. There were about 30 different characters and a lot of exposition and it really didn‘t lead anywhere. It was about three hours and it should have been probably 90 minutes.
ABRAMS: Was it actually performed? And did people come and watch it, etc?
BECKLEY: It was and there was a standing ovation on the opening night. Though, opening night many of Peter‘s friends were there. Some people felt the play was a bit awkward. Some people were interested in the source material because it was about Andy Warhol. Peter‘s an expert on the ‘60s and ‘70s and the Warhol movement. And Peter hoped, I think, the play would take off and struck an artistic movement the way Warhol did in New York.
ABRAMS: Is it odd for you to have been a performer in a play for a guy that‘s on the run now in connection with a case like this?
BECKLEY: Yeah, it is, it‘s a little surreal.
ABRAMS: I‘ll bet. Now, here‘s his dad—Peters dad, Alberto on this program last month.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALBERTO BRAUNSTEIN, PETER BRAUNSTEIN‘S FATHER: Peter, I beg of you, please, turn yourself in voluntarily. Don‘t wait for the police to capture you. Just call and walk in voluntarily. And we‘ll try to cure you as soon as you surrender. You are sick. So, please, don‘t prolong the agony. I beg of you, put an end to it and call the police.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: God, I feel so bad for that man, Alberto Braunstein. Very quickly, Tracy, you expect that they are going to catch this guy in the next month or two?
COONOR: Well, you know, now that he‘s sort of been in the national media and his face is really out there beyond New York, it seems likely that someone is going to spot him and turn him in. But who knows?
ABRAMS: Tracy, you are doing great work on this story. Keep it up. Thank you very much for coming on the program and we appreciate it. Ben Beckley, thank you for taking the time.
BECKLEY: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up, new details about that honeymooner lost at sea. His family speaking out for the first time saying they are convinced he was murdered. We‘ll hear from them and their attorney next.
And no surprise, after I criticized a handful of people trying to make a redwood debate out of whether to cal them Christmas or holiday trees, some of you have some tough words for me! Your emails. Abramsrport@msbnbc.com. Include your name, where you‘re writing from, I respond at the end of the show.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAUREEN SMITH, GEORGE SMITH‘S MOTHER: No parent should have to go through what we‘ve been through. We have lived a nightmare for the last five months. My son boarded a Royal Caribbean ship for his honeymoon and he never got off. And we want to know why.
We just want at that know where he is. What happened to him. We want closure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Today, George Smith‘s family came out and said they think he was murdered on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship and they are planning to file a wrongful death suit against the cruise line saying, that effectively the cruise ship helped cover up the crime. This is George Smith‘s sister.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BREE SMITH, SISTER OF GEORGE SMITH: My brother went missing on the Brilliance of the Seas of Royal Caribbean between Turkey and Greece July 5th of this past year. He was murdered at the age of 26 with a promising future and a lifetime of happiness ahead of him. George was a very special person to the family. And we really want to get that across. He should not just be a bloodstain, as (INAUDIBLE) said, he was a person that was very much loved by much family and friends and he is very much missed.
Despite—Of course, his obvious good looks are evident to everyone but he was also a very humble person, he had an amazing sense of humor. He was a very loyal friend and family member. And he was charming. He was a hard worker, but he enjoyed his life and he lived it to the fullest and we‘re so glad of that because his life was cut short far too soon.
The past five months have been extremely difficult on this family and especially with the holidays approaching, this is our first holiday season without my brother and we‘re a tight, close knit family and it‘s absolutely devastating to us.
We have no closure as we have no answers. George has not surfaced, so we have no body to bury and we have no grave to pray at.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Smith and his new bride Jennifer set off for what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon cruise more than five months ago and Jennifer says she woke one morning to find George missing. The two reportedly drinking and gambling the night before with other passengers that they met onboard and for some reason, the couple separated from one another and according to witness accounts, George and some other passengers returned to his room. Sometime later, passengers next door heard a commotion and a loud thump and the family said the ship‘s security didn‘t do anything about it when notified by the passengers.
According to the reports, Jennifer returned to the room, went to sleep and woke up to find her husband gone and reported him missing. Another passenger noticed what appeared to blood on an awning below the Smith‘s balcony and there was also blood in the room.
Joining me now is the attorney for the Smith family, Brett Rivkind. Mr. Rivkind, thanks a lot for coming on the program. Appreciate it. All right. What makes you so convinced that George Smith was murdered?
BRETT RIVKIND, SMITH FAMILY ATTORNEY (on phone): We think the evidence points that way. We think that the blood that was found inside the cabin, on the balcony, in addition to o what you just said, which was that there were reported problems in that cabin before this happened. And the loud thump noise after this clearly suggests that there was criminal activity. George was 26 years old, he had everything going for him. The cruise line threw out early on, that this was just an accidental death. Or they tried to suggest that, that he just fell over that balcony. We‘ve seen the physical layout of that area. And it is impossible for him to have just fallen over that balcony on his own.
ABRAMS: Who do you think did it?
RIVKIND: Well, we don‘t know now. And the Smith family has been waiting and they have no information from day one from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. In fact, when they first spoke to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the were not even told that blood had been found.
ABRAMS: All right. Let me read this statement. We just got this statement from Royal Caribbean. This is literally just coming in to us.
And I quote, “We believe that despite this terrible tragedy, the cruise line handled George Smith‘s disappearance correctly and responsibly, specifically, we responded to the sole complaint made by a guest. We promptly called in the FBI and local authorities to conduct an investigation. We secured the Smith‘s cabin and the metal overhang and we conducted a thorough search of the ship.
“We subsequently interviewed guest and crew who had any knowledge of the Smith‘s whereabouts last night and we collected all possible evidence from security camera tapes, charge card receipts and provided them to the FBI.”
RIVKIND: I think that‘s a very misleading statement and lot of baloney. Because you know what the true facts are? That that ship arrived at port at 7:30 that morning, into Turkey. And at 4:00 or so in the morning time, their security was called to the Smith cabin for loud noises, fighting, and the passenger in the cabin next door told the security guys, you better get in there, they are trashing the room. The security ignored that. They left. There‘s rumor—evidence or statements that there were problems with some people onboard that ship before this occurrence. And then, when the ship gets to this port in Turkey at 7-something in the morning, the first, so-called authorities that boarded the ship are the Turkish authorities, not until 11:00 or 11:30 in the morning and by then, one passenger reported that they saw a crew washing down the blood that was on the overhang. And when the Turkish authorities came on, they were told that they needed to, they were rushed on and off that ship. The ship sailed as scheduled so they can keep their schedule.
ABRAMS: Let me ask you this. Why does it seem that the family is being so tight-lipped about the wife? Every time they are asked a question, they say, we don‘t want to talk about it. She‘s not joining the family at the press conference to announce this? What‘s going on?
RIVKIND: Well, it‘s not about Jennifer, the case. The Smith family have been mourning alone. Also, at some point, with Jennifer, too she‘s been with her family.
ABRAMS: But I‘m not asking you about Jennifer and her family. I‘m asking about Jennifer and the family you representing. Is there some sort of rift here?
RIVKIND: No, there is not.
ABRAMS: So, why don‘t they want to talk about it? Why don‘t they say, look, we‘re joining Jennifer in mourning here? Sounds like they are upset at her about something.
RIVKIND: No, because you know, the truth is, the press is trying to make something more out of the situation. And they have decided the focus is on their son, George, they want to focus on the upcoming congressional hearing.
ABRAMS: Well, you have to admit, it‘s a little weird. When you are talking about someone who has just died. And the way this usually works, the family joins together along with the wife and they work together to get answers.
RIVKIND: Well, we are going to be working together in a civil litigation. Both sides will be working to get answers, both will be together at the congressional hearings but the parents are choosing not to talk about what the media is trying to create.
ABRAMS: The media is not trying to create anything. When you don‘t answer—It‘s not the media creating. It‘s just human nature. When people see that the wife is not joining with the rest of the family and when the family is asked questions about the wife, they don‘t say, we love her very much. We—They are not saying anything. They won‘t talk about it. I mean, you know, it leads people to ask questions.
RIVKIND: Well, they will have to draw conclusions they want to. The Smiths are very quiet people.
ABRAMS: Fair enough.
RIVKIND: They don‘t want to talk about their daughter-in-law. She‘s their daughter-in-law. George loved her very much. And there‘s nothing more to it.
ABRAMS: Fair enough.
RIVKIND: There‘s nothing really to comment.
ABRAMS: Fair enough. Let me bring into the conversation, first vice-president of the Maritime Law Association, Elizabeth Burrell and Cliff van Zandt, former FBI profiler but he‘s also a frequent cruise ship goer.
Elizabeth, bottom line, how tough a lawsuit is this to sue the ship for wrongful death even though there‘s no indication that the cruise ship itself was responsible for the death itself. It sounds like Mr. Rivkind is talking about the aftermath, of how they dealt with the investigation?
ELIZABETH BURRELL, MARITIME ATTORNEY: Well, first of all, as far as the wrongful death action is concerned, it‘s a question really of the standards that would be applied in other contexts as well, which is, did the cruise ship do what was reasonably required, reasonably careful in the circumstance. Apart from the complaints about what kind of investigation was conducted, there was some complaints I hear about not responding to a call for some investigation. If that‘s the case, if there was something that the cruise ship did or did not do that was reasonably necessary under the circumstances in order not to be careless, then, that might give rise to liability.
ABRAMS: Let me ask you about that. Let‘s assume for a moment that the facts are as Mr. Rivkind laid them out. Which is, let‘s assume for a moment that there was a phone call about a noise, et cetera, that it was basically ignored, they didn‘t do anything, does that make them civilly liable for a wrongful death?
BURRELL: Not by itself. This is—A cruise operator owes a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. So, whenever you are assessing what is reasonable to do, you have to look at those circumstances. If there was only one complaint and somebody walked down the hall, knocked on the door and there was no response and failed to do anything else, well, that might give rise to some liability. The problem here is that we‘re not hearing and we can‘t hear on this program from any of the people who were actually there, who heard, who saw, who actually reported the events. That is the kind of evidence that would be necessary in order to show that the cruise line failed to undertake a reasonable duty of care.
ABRAMS: And I‘m sure that they will end up bringing those people in.
BURRELL: That‘s right.
ABRAMS: Really quickly, Cliff, I‘m almost out of time here. But you are a regular cruise ship goer. Do they need more security people on the ships?
CLIFF VAN ZANDT, FORMER FBI PROFILER (on phone): Well, I think they need more security, they need more people to look at it. Dan, you have to understand the standard is going to be here, if you are in a hotel, and you hear furniture crashing and banging and you call the hotel detective and say, somebody is wrecking the place, the guy might be dead, you better get up there. Does the hotel detective just come up there, knock on the door, no sound, I‘m leaving, or does he use a pass key and check in on the safety of the guest. That appears to be what the Smith family is alleging and that sounds like common sense that should have been done.
BURRELL: If that in fact was what was going on.
ABRAMS: Mr. Rivkind, final 10 seconds.
BURRELL: There is other allegations of negligence, too. Lack of security at night, watching the area, monitoring the surveillance and other matters. But we agree, we will show negligence which resulted in the death.
ABRAMS: Fair enough. Thanks to all of you. Appreciate it. Brett Rivkind, Elizabeth Burrell, Cliff van Zandt. Your emails are up next.
ABRAMS: We‘re back. Time for your rebuttal. Last night in my closing arguments, the big fuss some are making over what to call the Christmas or holiday trees. I said who cares what we call the tree, they look nice and some are just complaining for the sake of complaining. I said let‘s agree to see it our own way and try to keep up the holiday spirit.
Jan in Maryland. “Sorry you can‘t see the difference between a Christmas tree and a holiday tree. Am I to assume you wouldn‘t have a problem with me referring to a menorah as just a candelabra or a candle holder?”
Now a number of you wrote in with similar sentiments. Jen, first of all, I don‘t see the difference between Christmas tree and a holiday tree. And I distinguished a tree from a nativity tree or a cross intentionally. They like the menorah have very specific religious significance. The tree and Santa have become part of Americana. Now, I know that some people don‘t like that but it is a reality. I just hope you‘re not one of those people who claim it is a Christmas tree and then argue it is not religious when the debate is brewing about whether the tree can be placed on state property.
Jase Marx in Detroit, Michigan. “Who in their right mind is going walk out of a Target or Wal-Mart that‘s selling a winter coat for $35 just because they have Happy Holidays signs and go to another shop selling the same coat for twice the price because they have Merry Christmas.”
From Chicago, Kate Larabee in the spirit. “I‘m thankful for any kind of positive greeting whether it‘s Merry Christmas or just Seasons Greetings. It‘s about being thoughtful and being grateful.”
I agree, Kate. Also last night, Crips gang founder and convicted murderer Tookie Williams, his case taken to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. They‘re still hoping he will grant clemency before the execution next week. His supporters argue he is a changed man.
Lewana Harris writes, “The basic responsibility of prison is to rehabilitate and reintegrate the defendant into society for the betterment of everyone involved. This man has changed for the better and yes, he does deserve a chance to prove it to America.”
Lewana, it seems you don‘t understand the purpose of death row. Death row is not to rehabilitate. And even if he gets clemency, he‘ll never be released. So I‘m not sure why as a legal matter, rehabilitation is relevant. That doesn‘t mean that one way or the other. It just means you‘re looking at it the wrong way. Your emails, abramsreport one word @msbnbc. We go through them at the end of the show. That does it for us tonight. Coming up next, HARDBALL. Have a great weekend. See you.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.