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UA grad to probe collision for Navy

A Little Rock native and graduate of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, will lead the U.S. Navy’s investigation into the June 17 collision of a Philippine-flagged container ship with the USS Fitzgerald, which resulted in the deaths of seven sailors. The Navy named Rear Adm. Brian Fort as the lead investigator Friday. Fort is commander of Navy Region Hawaii and commander of Naval Surface Group Middle Atlantic. Fort graduated from Little Rock Catholic High School in 1985 and the UA in 1989, receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

He earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, according to a biography of him at navy.mil. Fort is also a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College. The collision occurred on a clear night about 64 miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, when the ACX Crystal crashed nose-first into the Fitzgerald’s right side, according to the Navy. The 29,060-ton ACX Crystal is about four times the size of the Fitzgerald, which is a guided-missile destroyer. The Fitzgerald suffered severe damage, including a large puncture below the ship’s waterline, opening the hull to the sea, according to a news release. The collision caused rapid flooding of three compartments that included two berthing areas for 116 of the 300 crew members on the ship.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan, held a news conference Sunday saying there may be several investigations of the collision. Fort is leading what is known as the Manual of the Judge Advocate General investigation.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is to take the lead on the marine casualty investigation,” Aucoin said. “We recognize that there are other organizations who have equities in this incident, and we expect they will conduct their own separate investigations. … I will not speculate on how long these investigations will last.”

According to a news article from the U.S. Naval Institute, Fort’s job will be to guide investigators who are collecting data from the ship, interview the crew and evaluate other details. Fort’s past assignments include command of the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Gonzalez, command of Destroyer Squadron 26 — serving as the sea combat commander for the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group — and command of the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit at Ballston Spa, N.Y. He also served as executive officer of the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston, S.C., as the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs.

Fort graduated in 1981 from Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic School in Little Rock, which has pupils from preschool through eighth grade. According to a post on the school’s Facebook page, Fort is married to the former Kelli Laine Simpson, who is a 1986 graduate of Mount Saint Mary Academy in Little Rock and a 1990 graduate of the UA, Fayetteville, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. They have two daughters. Madison is a graduate of Texas A&M University, and Olivia is a student at Virginia Tech University, according to the post.

Metro on 06/24/2017

Shooting at Colorado Springs fundraiser possibly gang-related …

Lugene Devlyn Burnett. Photo courtesy Colorado Springs Police Department.

A shooting at the crowded Shades of Colorado Springs event earlier this month may have been gang-related, according to court documents. Witnesses said they saw three men throwing “gang signs” at each other before one pulled a gun and started shooting, prompting a chase in which the gunman followed an already injured man through a crowded parking lot and into a nearby restaurant’s kitchen. The accused shooter, Lugene Devlyn Burnett, 33, is a self-proclaimed Gangster Disciple, a member of the Certified Yung Assassins rap label and a member of the 900 gang, records said. Burnett was arrested on suspicion of attempted first-degree murder earlier this week while he was in court on the same accusation in a different case.

Court records did not say whether shooting victim Kavion Powell, 31, was affiliated with a gang, but said he’d been assaulted the night before at a club by members of the 900 gang. Powell and Burnett are both known rap artists in the community, records said. The shooting started just before 5 p.m. on June 3 while families were gathered on Jet Wing Drive for a college scholarship fundraiser. Video showed numerous people, including children, standing behind Powell when Burnett allegedly started firing, records said.

It appears in the video that Powell was shot in the side almost immediately, but Burnett continued to chase him into the kitchen of Pho Saigon Grill, where more shots were fired. At one point, Burnett reportedly pointed his gun at a security guard, who fired at him but missed. Bullet holes were reported in the side of the restaurant, where customers were eating, and in the back door, records said. Burnett later fled in a vehicle registered to another rapper affiliated with the same gang, records said.

Powell was taken to the hospital where he is recovering from his injuries, but was not cooperating with police, records said. The shooting is not the first time Burnett has been accused of attempted murder. In 2013 he was acquitted of murder charges, but found guilty of violating bail conditions, and in another case that year, had charges dismissed when witnesses failed to appear in court.

He currently faces attempted murder, as well as a slew of other charges, in the alleged strangulation of his girlfriend in January. In that case, the woman said Burnett yelled at her for spending too much time with her family before punching her in the face and strangling her to the point she blacked out. He reportedly told her “these voices keep telling me to kill you and shoot you in the face,” and asked her “Are you sleepy? You might get shot in the face tonight or tomorrow. I really love you but the voices really hate you, they want you dead,” records said.

The woman was granted a permanent restraining order after Burnett failed to appear at the hearing. Burnett also has been accused of possession of cocaine and failing to register as a sex offender. The later charge carries three sentence enhancements for being a habitual criminal. He is being held in the El Paso County jail on $1 million bond.

Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

Jury hears guard tell of lead-up to beating

A federal jury on Tuesday heard a starkly different version of events that led to an off-duty Little Rock police officer punching a man in the face seven times outside a Hillcrest eatery in 2011. The blows were captured on camera by an out-of-town visitor who had been sitting outside the restaurant after taking pictures with a friend, and the confrontation was soon widely disseminated on social media, prompting cries for the officer, the now-retired Lt. David Hudson, to be fired. Hudson, now a Pulaski County Circuit Court bailiff, was never fired, and a 30-day suspension for violating departmental rules during the arrest of Chris Erwin was later reversed by the city’s Civil Service Commission.

On Tuesday, more than five years after Erwin sued him on excessive force allegations, Hudson got the chance to publicly tell his side of the story. It and the testimony that followed, including from seven people who were at the Kavanaugh Boulevard restaurant that night and witnessed different parts of the incident, created a vastly different picture of the scene that Erwin and his friend, Blake Mitchell, had described a day earlier. Mitchell, originally a plaintiff as well, was dropped after U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. dismissed most of his claims before the trial began. Jurors are scheduled to hear closing arguments at 9 a.m. today. If they find that Hudson violated Erwin’s rights, they will be asked to award monetary damages to Erwin from the city or the company that owned the restaurant, depending on which entity they believe Hudson was representing that night. Erwin, now 45, testified Monday that he, his girlfriend, Mitchell and Mitchell’s wife were unaware that when they sat at a table in a party room at the Ferneau restaurant on the night of Oct. 27, 2011, they were intruding on a private Halloween costume party. They weren’t in costumes and had just come from another Hillcrest bar.

Erwin said he didn’t know why Hudson, the restaurant’s regular security guard, told him and his friends to leave. But he said that after he complied by paying the tab and walking out, he asked Hudson, now back outside, who had wanted them to leave and why. He said Hudson appeared suddenly enraged and slammed him face-first against a brick wall. Then, as spectators turned to watch and the woman with the camera started filming, he said Hudson punched him in the face repeatedly, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. He and Mitchell, who admittedly tried to intervene, were arrested on misdemeanor charges that were eventually dropped. Erwin testified that he was too “dazed” as a result of his face hitting the wall to understand or comply with Hudson’s commands to place his hands on the wall and submit to arrest. But restaurant patrons said Tuesday that from their perspective, Erwin and his companions were drunk, unruly and potentially threatening to the officer. Hudson’s attorneys, Bill James and John Landis, suggested that Erwin’s swollen, bloodied face was a result of his struggle with Hudson on the ground.

Hudson testified that the restaurant was packed that Friday night. He said he had been sitting outside on a bar stool near the entrance, drinking coffee, when Tracy Rivers, a local business owner who was hosting an invitation-only party, asked him to remove the four intruders, who were spilling drinks on people and dancing inappropriately. He said the disc jockey hired for the party, Seth Baldy, also told him that a woman in Erwin’s group threatened to “kick his a**” if he didn’t play better music. Hudson said the group took its time leaving, but he went back to his post outside, where he was soon confronted by Erwin, who demanded to know who had asked them to leave and why. Hudson said he refused to answer, as he routinely does to protect complainants, and told Erwin, “It’s not important. … Just let it go.”

He said Erwin insisted that it was “his right” to know, and, “I decided that there was no way out but to arrest Mr. Erwin. … I told him he was under arrest, grabbed him by his coat and turned him toward the wall in the alcove area.”

Hudson said he never slammed Erwin into the wall, but Erwin refused to face the wall and kept turning back toward him, finally grabbing the officer’s coat. Hudson said the men struggled against the wall and “then I lost my grip on him; we got separated.”

He said he radioed to dispatchers to send backup officers, later realizing it was about this time that Maria Torres of Colorado, the visitor sitting outside with her camera, began filming. He said Erwin then “came at me again, which was a red flag. That’s not normal behavior.”

Without any backup officers, he said, he had to either throw Erwin to the ground to control him, which was risky because it would leave him vulnerable as well, or punch him, “so at that point I struck him. … The goal of the face punches was to try to get him to submit to arrest. I believe all of them were necessary.”

Hudson, an officer since 1978, testified that he could soon feel Erwin’s body slacken a little, indicating “he was ready to submit to arrest,” so he stopped punching him. But then Erwin tensed up again, Hudson said, forcing him to throw Erwin to the ground, where Erwin refused to lie facedown with his arms behind his back, instead twisting around until Hudson sat on him. Hudson said Erwin’s friend, Mitchell, then intervened, trying to separate him from Erwin and escalating the situation. Erwin’s girlfriend knelt down and told Hudson he was being filmed while Torres screamed in the background, “The cop is doing something really wrong. … Oh my gosh! … Stop!”

Stuart Thomas, who retired three years ago as Little Rock’s police chief, testified that the department’s policy allowed officers to use increasing amounts of force, including closed-fist punches to the face if necessary, to control suspects when they “reasonably believe” it is necessary.

Baldy testified that Erwin’s group of party-crashers were “obviously intoxicated,” and that he lowered the music volume for two minutes to make sure the four could hear Hudson telling them to leave.

Bartender Geoff Oraha, who worked at the restaurant, testified that he had asked Erwin to leave before calling Hudson in from outside, but Erwin replied, “Well, why don’t you kick my a** out?”

Jason Ables, an invited guest at the party, testified that when he saw Hudson and Erwin wrestling outside, it appeared that Erwin wasn’t complying with an arrest and he was concerned about Hudson’s safety, so he walked over to help.

Matt Lieblong, a guest at a private Halloween party at a neighboring restaurant, testified that he stepped outside, heard a car alarm going off and looked toward Ferneau, about 30 yards away, to see “a cop pushing a guy against a wall.”

The former bouncer said he thought, “There goes another drunk getting arrested,” and turned away. But then the noise escalated, apparently while Hudson punched Erwin in the face, and Lieblong turned to look again, noticing that “the officer was having trouble getting the man to submit. The man kept turning around. Then one or two other people started to aggress the cop.”

Lieblong, who was dressed that night in a vintage, bell-bottomed leisure suit to look like actor John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever, said he worried that the officer could be harmed or killed and rushed over “to create a barrier.”

He testified that Erwin seemed drunk and “was resisting without a question,” and he saw Mitchell reach out as if to grab Hudson. Lieblong said that’s when he “headed that way” to try to stop “what I thought would be an assault of a police officer by a group.”

Metro on 06/14/2017

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