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North Carolina's Fort Bragg drops Confederate namesake, renamed Fort Liberty

Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- North Carolina's Fort Bragg, named after Confederate Army Gen. Braxton Bragg, was officially redesignated to Fort Liberty on Friday.

The renaming ceremony Friday was part of a national campaign to change the names of nine U.S. Army installations, as recommended by the Department of Defense's Naming Commission to erase symbols that commemorate the Confederate States of America.

Last month, the U.S. Army base formerly known as Fort Hood in central Texas was changed to Fort Cavazos and Georgia's Fort Benning was renamed to Fort Moore. Fort Lee was renamed Fort Gregg-Adams in April, with more changes to come.

While the previously renamed bases were chosen to honor past soldiers or Army families, Fort Liberty was named after no one person.

"Every name was considered, debated. … Ultimately, any of them could have been chosen," said Lt. Gen. Chris Donahue, the XVIII Airborne Corps' commanding general. "A consensus could not be reached on just one. How could you choose any and leave any of those others behind? … There was no right name. There were no names that could define what this post is all about."

Among the names considered by the community team tasked with renaming the base were Medal of Honor recipients past and present, including Sergeant Alvin York and Sergeant Robert J. Miller.

Donahue detailed that names were considered from soldiers from "all legendary tenant units," including the 82nd Airborne Division, United States Army Special Operations Command, Joint Special Operations Command and 18th Airborne Corps.

The final decision on the new name was inspired when one of the American Gold Star Mothers, Patti Elliot, brought up the theme of liberty.

"The name Liberty honors the heroism, sacrifices, and values of the Soldiers, Service Members, Civilians, and Families who live and serve with this installation," the press release stated. "We view this as the next chapter in our history and look forward to honoring the stories of our military heroes from every generation and walk of life."

The three-day event began on May 30 with a sneak peek of the Sunset Liberty March, a new daily march the base will do to honor the "service, sacrifices and legacy of Liberty," according to the press release. The grand opening of the marching site was held on Thursday.

The Friday event included the casing of the Fort Bragg garrison colors, and uncasing of the Fort Liberty colors, signifying the redesignation of Fort Liberty.

"Liberty has always been here," Donahue said. "Liberty has always been ingrained in this area."

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Judge approves settlement in "Rust" shooting lawsuit by Halyna Hutchins' family

RapidEye/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A settlement has been approved in the wrongful death suit filed by Matthew Hutchins and his son following the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the film set of Rust.

The cinematographer died in October 2021 after allegedly being shot by a prop gun that Alec Baldwin, also a producer for the film, was holding during rehearsals on the set, according to police. The actor was practicing a cross-draw when the gun fired, striking Hutchins. The film's director, Joel Souza, was also injured in the shooting.

A judge issued an order approving the settlement for a minor, Hutchins' son, on Thursday. All the parties have agreed to settle all claims against the defendants, according to court documents.

Hutchins' 10-year-old son, Andros Hutchins, will receive his portion of the settlement in annuities that will be paid out over time when he reaches the ages of 18 and 22, according to court documents.

Other documents and materials related to the settlement have been sealed by the court.

Matthew Hutchins filed a suit against the Rust film production company and a number of individuals involved in the production, including Baldwin and the production's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in February 2022. The two sides came to an agreement in October 2022, but the judge finally signed off Thursday.

The terms of the settlement have not been released publicly and were sealed by a judge in April.

Attorneys for Hutchins' family filed the wrongful death suit after conducting an investigation into the incident leading them to believe there were numerous violations of industry standards by Baldwin and others charged with safety on the set of Rust, lawyers for the family said last year.

Shooting of the film was suspended after the deadly incident, but resumed in April with Matthew Hutchins as executive producer.

Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed were charged with involuntary manslaughter in February. First assistant director David Halls also agreed to plead no contest for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.

The charges against Baldwin were dropped in April, at least in part because an investigation revealed the gun used in the incident was mechanically improper.

Investigators effectively conducted an autopsy of the Colt .45 revolver and found that there were worn joints and that the trigger control was not functioning properly, sources told ABC News.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Three killed, three hurt in California crime spree; suspect in custody


(NEW YORK) -- Three people have been killed and three others injured in a Northern California crime spree, the motive for which authorities say remains under investigation.

The suspect, whose name was not released, was taken into custody following the Thursday afternoon attacks.

The spree began at about 3:11 p.m. when the attacker stabbed and carjacked a victim in San Jose, according to police. The victim was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, San Jose police said.

The suspect then allegedly stole that victim's car, drove to a shopping center and tried to carjack another vehicle, police said. The suspect allegedly stabbed that second driver, who was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, according to police.

The suspect then tried to drive away, allegedly striking a pedestrian in the parking lot who suffered non-life-threatening injuries, police said.

Later on, the suspect was spotted at an intersection, appearing to intentionally ram two pedestrians, killing both of them, according to police.

The final incident was reported at about 4:30 p.m., when police in nearby Milpitas responded to a stabbing homicide in a shopping center parking lot, authorities said.

The suspect allegedly fled the Milpitas scene and was found by police hiding in a nearby neighborhood, authorities said.

No motive is known and it's not clear if the suspect knew any of the victims, police said.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Scripps National Spelling Bee crowns champion after he confidently spells 'psammophile'

Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

(OXON HILL, Md.) -- Dev Shah hoisted the coveted Scripps Cup after correctly spelling the word psammophile -- an organism that prefers or thrives in sandy areas -- to win the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday.

"It felt good knowing that I accomplished something I worked hard for," Shah told Good Morning America Friday morning in the wake of his monumental accomplishment.

The eighth grader from Largo, Florida, previously competed in 2019 and tied for 51st place and again in 2021 when he tied for 76th place.

When asked, "were you ever in doubt when you first heard the word?" Shah replied confidently and succinctly, "no."

"When I heard the word, I was pretty sure I got it," he continued.

The 14-year-old, who was full of quiet confidence during the bee, said that stems from "practice and a lot of it."

Here's how Shah broke down his training habits for the big event: "By myself, I would just go through individual lists and I would just analyze the patterns behind them. And then my dad would just make lists for me of words that I struggle with. And my coach, Scott Reamer would quiz me [on] stems and roots."

When Shah isn't practicing spelling, he said, "I play the cello, I play tennis [and] I like to read."

While holding up the coveted Scripps Cup after the win, he said "it's surreal" and added, "My legs are still shaking."

Overall, Shah took out 228 competitors from around the country and took home a cash prize of $50,000.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Texas cheerleader who was shot after friend got into the wrong car speaks out

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Payton Washington, one of two Texas cheerleaders shot in April after her friend accidentally opened the door of the wrong car, is speaking out for the first time since the attack that left her in critical condition.

“My spleen was shattered. My stomach had two holes in it. And my diaphragm had two holes in it. And then they had to remove a lobe from my pancreas. I had 32 staples,” said Washington.

Washington, 18, described the terrifying incident in an exclusive interview with Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan.

"I was actually texting and [eating] Twizzlers," Washington said of the moments before someone opened the door of her teammate's car.

Just after midnight on April 18, Washington and three of her fellow teammates with the Woodlands Elite Cheer Company finished practice and were in the HEB parking lot in Elgin, Texas.

One teammate, Heather Roth, 21, opened the door of a vehicle that she thought was hers, but a stranger, later identified by police as Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, was in the passenger seat.

Roth, who later spoke out on Instagram Live after the incident, said she got out of the car and went back to her friend's vehicle where the three other cheerleaders, including Washington, were sitting. According to authorities, Rodriguez allegedly approached the vehicle with the cheerleaders, and when Roth rolled down the window to apologize, Rodriguez opened fire on the four cheerleaders, injuring Roth and shooting Washington three times.

Washington told Strahan she acted on instinct at the moment.

"I turned immediately with my blanket," she said. "I didn't know where it was coming from or anything, but it being so loud that my ears were ringing, I knew to turn and do something."

The cheerleaders drove off while the shots continued to fire. Washington said she began to notice she was having trouble breathing and realized she had been shot.

“We were tryin' to get away. I really was just telling myself to breathe. It was hard to breathe because of my diaphragm,” she said. “I was trying to stay as calm as possible for the other people in the car. I could tell how sad and scared they were.”

Very quickly, she knew “something was wrong.” “I saw blood on [my passenger] seat. So I knew somewhere I was bleeding. But I had so much adrenaline, I didn't really know where,” said Washington. “And then whenever we pulled over and opened the door, I was like, ‘Oh, gotta throw up.’ And that's when I was throwing up blood."

Rodriguez allegedly fled the scene, but was later arrested at his home, according to court documents. He's since been charged with deadly conduct, a third-degree felony, said police. Rodriguez's bail was initially set at $500,000 but was reduced to $100,000, according to his attorney. Rodriguez is currently released on bail and has yet to enter a plea.

Roth, who was grazed by a bullet, was treated for her injuries and released at the scene, while Washington was helicoptered to a hospital near Austin in critical condition.

Washington went through a series of lifesaving procedures to treat the two bullets that struck her backside and a shot through her left abdomen.

However, she said “the hardest part was after the surgeries.”

Before the shooting, Washington had been accepted to Baylor University and was set to join its acrobatics and tumbling team in the fall. Now, she said simple things, like getting up from bed or standing by yourself are challenging.

“It was hard … hurting to walk or stand is really weird when, a week before, you were doing a bunch of flips, running the track, and doing long jump, and all this stuff,” said Washington.

But she said she won’t dwell on the past.

“He did what he did, and I'm just gonna try and get through it. There's no point in me really thinking about what he did,” she said.

Only five weeks after the shooting, Washington joined her friends at graduation. She said she’s committed to getting her life back.

“You can literally do anything if you push and you persevere,” she said. “Don't doubt yourself ever because you can do anything as long as you're putting your 120% into it.”

ABC News' Marilyn Heck contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

With only dozens left, South Dakota zoo welcomes litter of 'critically endangered' red wolf pups

The Great Plains Zoo

(SIOUX FALLS, S.D.) -- A zoo in South Dakota has welcomed a litter of critically endangered red wolf pups -- a litter vital to the existence of the species with only an estimated two dozen left existing in the wild.

The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said that they were “thrilled to announce the births of six critically endangered red wolves” on Thursday in a statement on the zoo’s website.

The six pups -- two females and four males -- were born to first-time parents Camelia and Uyosi, who only arrived at the Great Plains Zoo in October of last year from facilities in Washington and Texas, respectively.

These six pups are vital to the existence of the species with an estimated 23 to 25 red wolves remaining in the wild and only an estimated 278 alive in captivity, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program.

“Camelia and Uyosi are amazing parents, I wouldn’t expect anything less from them,” said Joel Locke, the Animal Care Director of the Great Plains Zoo. “We are fortunate to have vet staff and animal care staff that have worked with red wolves for more than 15 years. We had our last litter from our previous pair of red wolves in 2016, so the team is well-versed in red wolf care.”

Red wolves are currently the most endangered canid species in the world, according to the zoo, and the red wolves at the facility are part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, which aims to “breed pairs with the greatest possible genetic diversity, with the goal of bolstering the wild population.”

“We will soon see the pups wandering around the exhibit, as they get bigger and braver,” the Great Plains Zoo said in the birth announcement. “However, zookeepers request that everyone in the area continue to use low voices, as new wolf parents can be especially susceptible to environmental stressors.”

The pups are now under close observation by the zoo’s veterinary and animal care teams and are also being monitored very closely by camera as well as regular check-ups on their health and wellbeing.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Cadaver dogs arrive at Iowa building collapse in race against time to find survivors

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(DAVENPORT, Iowa) -- An elite task force with dogs trained to smell death is combing through a partially collapsed building in eastern Iowa as three people remain missing.

Iowa Task Force 1, a Cedar Rapids-based urban search and rescue team trained and equipped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arrived in the city of Davenport on Thursday, four days after a section of a six-story residential building collapsed. The team brought "live and cadaver canines," or dogs trained to pick up the scent of humans both alive and dead, according to a press release from the city government.

The task force met with city officials and the Davenport Fire Department before entering the structure with the dogs. The team is now working to "re-verify and mark all rooms with standard FEMA markings," the city said.

It's become a race against time to find and rescue any survivors since part of The Davenport collapsed for unknown reasons on Sunday afternoon. The building, located in the heart of downtown Davenport, houses commercial space at the street level and residential units in the floors above. More than a dozen people evacuated at the time of the collapse, while eight others and several pets were rescued in the 24 hours that followed.

On Monday, officials said there was no credible information that anyone was missing and the city would move forward with plans to begin demolishing the remaining structure the next day. But that night, rescuers found a ninth person alive inside and pulled her out of a fourth-story window. It was unclear how the woman was not found earlier by crews using thermal imaging, drones and dogs. The development prompted protests from members of the community calling for the demolition to be delayed.

On Tuesday, the city's demolition plans were put on hold as officials announced that five residents were still unaccounted for, including two -- 42-year-old Branden Colvin and 51-year-old Ryan Hitchcock -- who may be inside. Crews rescued several more animals from inside the structure that afternoon but no human activity was detected, according to officials.

Then, on Thursday, officials announced that only three residents remain missing -- Colvin, Hitchcock and 60-year-old Daniel Prien. All three lived in apartments located in the collapse zone and were believed to be home at the time. However, officials have struggled to locate family for Prien to confirm his whereabouts. Officials called it a "recovery situation" for Colvin and Hitchcock, noting that they're likely inside the structure in an area that's "not sustainable for life."

Officials have warned that the structure is unstable and continues to degrade. Crews are working with structural engineers on how to best search the building while avoiding the pile of debris, which is currently contributing to the stability and its "removal could jeopardize or accelerate the inevitable collapse of the building," according to the city.

ABC News' Jianna Cousin, Laryssa Demkiw, Alexandra Faul, Andy Fies, Jessica Gorman, Ahmad Hemingway, Alex Perez, Darren Reynolds and Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Judge rules Andrew Lester case to be partially sealed in the shooting of teenager Ralph Yarl

Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) -- A judge on Thursday set preliminary hearing dates for Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2023 in Lester's case, according to ABC affiliate in Kansas City, KMBC.

The hearing came one day after a Clay County judge agreed to partially seal the case in response to a protective order filed by Lester’s attorney, Steven Salmon.

The judge ruled the discovery in the case will be available to prosecutors and the defense, but will not be shared with the public, writing in the ruling obtained by ABC News, that the “wide-ranging publicity” of the case in the national media has cast Lester “in a negative light” and has continued to “erode [his] ability [to] empanel a fair and impartial venire in his future jury trial.”

A spokesperson for Clay County prosecuting attorney Zachary Thompson told ABC News that the office is “dedicated to following the law and accepts the ruling of the Court.”

“We can assure the public that our office will continue to be as transparent as legally permitted throughout this process. Our focus remains squarely on achieving justice in this case,” the spokesperson said.

Yarl's family criticized the decision to partially seal the case in a virtual press conference on Thursday, and his father, Paul Yarl, also attended Lester's hearing.

"It's been tough," Paul Yarl said while speaking to reporters outside the courtroom about his son's recovery after suffering a traumatic brain injury from the shooting.

Yarl's family said that he has been experiencing migraines after suffering a traumatic brain injury that has restricted his ability to participate in activities he loves like playing music.

"Yes, [Ralph is] recovering, but it's still a long way to recovery," he added. "He still gets headaches and some pain and emotional scars. But he's coming along and he's not there yet. But we are thankful for the progress."
Ralph Yarl shooting suspect posts bond, released from custody: Sheriff's office

Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man, was charged with one count of felony assault in the first-degree and one count of armed criminal action, also a felony, in the April 13 shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager who mistakenly went to the wrong address to pick up his siblings.

Lester pleaded not guilty and was released on April 18 on a $200,000 bond.

In arguing for the protective order, Salmon said in court that Lester’s home has been defaced and he has relocated three times since the incident, according to ABC affiliate in Kansas City, KMBC. He added that Lester is in poor health and has lost 40 pounds.

Yarl's aunt Faith Spoonmore criticized the judge’s decision to partially seal the case.

“Who are we protecting by granting this ruling, who are we trying to victimize in this case? People are too focused on Andrew Lester's age when they should be focused on Ralph Yarl and his age,” Spoonmore told ABC News in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He was only 16 years old when this happened. What type of message does this send to the people who think this behavior is ok? It's just sad that the justice system is protecting them and not the victim."

Salmon also argued that Lester has been harassed and has received death threats because of the attention the case has gotten across the country and the speculation the shooting was due to a racial motive.

“Such conjecture of a racial motive in the reporting of this case negatively affects Defendant's fundamental right to a fair trial on the merits,” the judge stated in the ruling.

ABC News has reached out to Salmon for further comment.

Yarl was 16 at the time of the shooting, but celebrated his 17th birthday last month. He has not spoken publicly about the incident, but his family continues to call for justice.

He attended a walk/run event in Kansas City, Missouri, on Monday to help raise money for traumatic brain injuries.

Ahead of the event, Spoonmore told ABC News in an interview last Friday that Yarl, who was shot in the neighborhood where he lived, is not ready to go back home and has been living with her and her family.

“He is not comfortable going back to that area,” she said. “He is not comfortable going back to his house, his home … which is so unfortunate because he had a lot of great memories in that home.”

“He's not doing the things that he loves to do and it's like he's a shell,” she added. And that's the problem, is that there is something that is missing within him.”

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

South Carolina teen killed after shoplifting allegations remembered as 'intelligent, humorous'

Courtesy Rutherford Law

(COLUMBIA, S.C.) -- A South Carolina teenager who police say was fatally shot by a gas station owner who they say had falsely accused him of shoplifting was remembered by his middle school as a well-liked student who was "intelligent" and "humorous."

Cyrus Carmack-Belton, 14, died after being shot in the back on Monday, authorities said. The teen was chased from the gas station by the owner and the owner's son after they wrongly believed he had shoplifted several bottles of water and was shot during the pursuit, according to the Richland County Sheriff's Office.

The store's owner, 58-year-old Rick Chow, has since been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the teen's death.

Cyrus was a student at Summit Parkway Middle School in Columbia, where he was in its STEM magnet program, the school said.

"He was intelligent, humorous with quick wit and well-liked by his classmates," the school said in a statement on Facebook Thursday. "We remember his infectious smile and tenacity."

The teen often spoke of his dreams and aspirations, which included owning a tattoo shop and "being famous one day," the statement said.

The school said it was "blessed" to have Cyrus as a student and that he "will be remembered forever in our hearts."

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told reporters during a press conference Monday that the teenager did not shoplift from the Shell gas station, despite Chow's belief that he did.

Law enforcement said there was a verbal confrontation inside the store before Cyrus left and took off running.

Lott said that "at some point" during the chase, Chow's son reportedly said the teen had a gun.

Lott said the convenience store owner, who police said was armed with a pistol, and his son chased after the teenager toward an apartment complex.

Cyrus fell during the chase, got up and was allegedly shot in the back by Chow, police said.

According to law enforcement, a gun was found close to the teen's body. Lott said Monday that police currently "don't have anything that says that he did not have that gun on him" when asked if Cyrus was in possession of a gun during the incident.

Richland County coroner Naida Rutherford told reporters at Monday's press conference that Cyrus died from "a single gunshot wound to his right lower back" that caused "significant damage to his heart and hemorrhaging."

The Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office said Thursday it will determine whether any additional charges will be made in the incident once it has conducted a full review.

Chow has had two prior confrontations with alleged shoplifters that resulted in him firing a weapon -- in 2015 and 2018 -- but his conduct in those incidents "did not meet the requirements under South Carolina law to support criminal charges," Richland County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Veronica Hill confirmed in a statement to ABC News.

Chow's attorney declined to comment to ABC News in the wake of the murder charge.

According to a sheriff's office incident report obtained by ABC News, the shooting was "not a bias motivated incident"; though an attorney for Cyrus' family contends the teen, who was Black, was racially profiled.

"What happened to [Cyrus] wasn't an accident. It's something that the Black community has experienced for generations: being racially profiled, then shot down in the street like a dog," the attorney, Todd Rutherford, told ABC News in a statement on Wednesday.

"One beacon of hope is seeing the resilience of the Black community as they wrap their arms around this family that has joined the club that no Black family ever wants to be a part of," the statement added.

ABC News' Teddy Grant, Deena Zaru and Brittany Gaddy contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Former Houghton University employee claims he was fired for using pronouns in email signature

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As debate grows over how gender identity is handled in schools, many employees at educational institutions have said that they feel caught in the middle, and some also say that they've been disciplined because of it.

That includes Shua Wilmot, a former residence hall director, who says his former employer, Houghton University, fired him and another residence hall director after they added their gender pronouns to their work email signatures. Houghton University is a private Christian college in upstate New York that is affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, a Methodist denomination.

"While the details of individual personnel matters are confidential, Houghton University has never terminated an employment relationship based solely on the use of pronouns in staff email signatures," a university spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News. "Over the past years, we've required anything extraneous be removed from email signatures, including Scripture quotes. Houghton remains steadfastly committed to offering the Christian education that our students are promised."

ABC News' Linsey Davis spoke to Wilmot about what he says led up to his termination. Wilmot shared details about a letter he says he previously sent to the board of Wesleyan Church suggesting changes to their written statement on gender identity and expression.

LINSEY DAVIS: So you say that you were fired from the church, at least, in part, because you put your preferred pronoun in your email signature. Did the school tell you that that was their rationale for ending your career there?

SHUA WILMOT: Yeah. So, actually I was fired from the university, not from the church, but the university is an institution of the Wesleyan Church, and that's correct. They cited that as one of the two main reasons that I was fired.

DAVIS: A university spokesperson released a statement saying that personnel matters are confidential, but that Houghton has never terminated employment based on use of pronouns and signatures and over the years have required anything additional in signatures, including scriptures, removed. Were you aware of any such policies about signatures?

WILMOT: Yeah, that's a new policy, though. I mean, the phrase "over the years" kind of surprises me, because that policy was announced in September and sort of passed in October. This is after I had signed my contract for the year, and it was also never added to the employee handbook up until, you know, maybe to this day, but at least until the time that I was told my contract wouldn't be renewed. It was still not in the employee handbook, but it was communicated as a policy, this academic year, yeah.

DAVIS: I'm curious, did they give you a chance to get rid of that in your signature line – the pronouns in your signature line – before terminating you, or how did that process play out?

WILMOT: Yes. So my supervisor was asked to address it with me and with Reagan [Zelaya]. And so we were asked to comply with this policy, and we declined. And then I personally had to meet with the dean of my department to have a similar conversation. Reagan was never asked to have a conversation like that, because she had already resigned, effective at the end of the academic year.

But I had intended to continue working at Houghton, and so I had this conversation with the dean, and the long and short of it is, eventually I said, "I don't want to resign, and I don't want to comply with this policy." I gave him my reasons why, and he said, "I will take this news to the president and HR." And then after that, next thing I know, I'm told that my contract won't be renewed. It was never explicitly said to me that that could be an end result, until it was.

DAVIS: If you knew that you could just remove the pronoun from your signature line and could keep your job, would you have done that?

WILMOT: I think probably not. After a hard conversation with my dean, there were a few days that I did take my pronouns out of my email signature, thinking, "OK, maybe I can concede this one small thing." But I just didn't have peace with it throughout that weekend that I had my pronouns removed. I didn't have peace with it, because I don't want to actively play a role in making the community any less inclusive.

DAVIS: You've said that you believe that another reason for your firing includes a letter that you wrote to church officials about problems that you had with Wesleyan Church's views on gender identity and expression. You say the entire viewpoint makes unsupported claims to justify trans exclusion. What points do you take exception to?

WILMOT: Yeah, sure. Well, I would say most of my letter to the board of the Wesleyan Church was really making helpful suggestions to improve their view of gender and identity, to improve their statement on the Wesleyan view of gender expression and identity. And some of those suggestions include that — the Wesleyan view claims that transgender and transsexual are synonyms, which they're not and they long have not been. They also use the phrase "birth designated gender," which I recommend that they change to "sex assigned at birth," because doctors assign sex, which is anatomical, physiological, genetic and physical attributes. Doctors don't assign gender. But there are other things to it as well. I think that their theology on it should be reexamined, but I explicitly state in the letter that I am not asking them to change their convictions. I just want them to have accurate information and to consider making improvements to the statement.

DAVIS: Do you believe that your termination infringes on your First Amendment rights?

WILMOT: Yeah, I would say in a way it does, but Houghton University is a private institution, so free speech is not protected in the same ways that it is at public institutions. I know this, because I studied higher ed law in 2017. So yeah, I mean, that's not my complaint here.

DAVIS: I just want to follow up on that, because other faith-based organizations have argued for their own First Amendment rights, saying religious freedom protections allow them to create policies to treat LGBTQ and transgender people differently. What's your response to that argument?

WILMOT: Yeah, I think that they have that right. I don't think that it's a good practice. I think that there are plenty of ways in which Christian institutions will and do marginalize people in ways that are antithetical to the way that Jesus would have wanted them to be treated and still wants them to be treated. And that's a shame, but I think that they should have that right to make different sorts of policies.

DAVIS: Shua Wilmot, we thank you so much for talking with us tonight. Thank you.

WILMOT: Yeah, my pleasure.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Daniel Penny chokehold death case before grand jury: Sources

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(NEW YORK) -- The case against the Marine veteran charged in the chokehold death of a homeless man aboard a New York City subway train is now before a grand jury, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

Prosecutors are currently trying to secure an indictment after Daniel Penny, 24, was charged with second-degree manslaughter last month in the death of Jordan Neely, 30.

Penny's lawyers have said the veteran is prepared to testify before the grand jury but no decision had been made.

It is unusual for criminal defendants to testify at the grand jury but, in this case, his lawyers have been considering whether Penny could head off an indictment by explaining his actions.

"Any speculation regarding a client's intent to testify at this stage would be premature," Steven Raiser, part of Penny's legal team, said on May 26.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office declined to comment.

Video showed Penny putting Neely in a chokehold on May 1 for several minutes following reported outbursts from Neely on an F train.

Some witnesses reportedly told police that Neely, who had a documented mental health history, was yelling and harassing passengers on the train, authorities said. Police sources told ABC News that Penny was not specifically being threatened by Neely when he intervened and that Neely had not become violent and had not been threatening anyone in particular.

Neely's death was ruled a homicide.

Following Penny's arrest, assistant district attorney Joshua Steinglass said prosecutors conducted a "thorough investigation" that included interviews with eyewitnesses, 911 callers and responding officers before moving forward with the criminal charge.

Attorneys for Penny have said they fully expect him to be exonerated of all charges.

The maximum penalty for second-degree manslaughter is 15 years in prison.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Appeal planned after Ed Sheeran win over copyright infringement lawsuit involving 'Thinking Out Loud'

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- The family of Marvin Gaye's co-writer on "Let's Get it On" intends to appeal a verdict in Manhattan federal court for Ed Sheeran, according to a court filing Thursday.

The family of Ed Townsend filed a notice of appeal after it lost a copyright infringement case involving Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" last month.

The document did not say on what grounds the Townsend family would appeal but it did signal the family would challenge the outcome and several rulings made by the judge.

A Manhattan jury decided in Sheeran's favor in May when they found that the singer did not engage in willful copyright infringement following a trial that saw Sheeran playing the guitar and singing in court.

"I'm obviously very happy with the outcome of the case. And it looks like I'm not having to retire from my day job after all," Sheeran told reporters outside the courthouse at the time. "But at the same time, I'm unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all."

Sheeran insisted he chord progression of his song was common and belonged to no particular artist.

Sheeran also testified that he wrote most of his songs in a day, suggesting under questioning by his attorney, Ilene Farkas, that he did not stop to think about copying elements from "Let's Get It On" when he composed "Thinking Out Loud," as alleged by Townsend's heirs.

Townsend's family said Sheeran copied the sheet music of "Let's Get it On" and positioned the case as justice for Townsend's legacy and Black musicians whose work has been misappropriated by white artists.

Ben Crump, who represented the plaintiffs, said during opening remarks that the suit was about "giving credit where credit is due."

Sheeran previously won a 2022 copyright infringement case involving "Shape of You," while Gaye's heirs, who are not involved in this current lawsuit, won a case in 2015 against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams involving "Got to Give it Up."

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Judge involved in Trump criminal case previously did work for a Trump entity

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(NEW YORK) -- The federal judge in New York who will decide whether to move former President Donald Trump's criminal case from state court to federal court previously did work for a Trump entity while he was in private practice, according to a court filing Thursday.

The Manhattan district attorney has charged Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection to a hush payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 election. Trump has argued that the case belongs in federal court because the alleged crimes occurred while he was president.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein, in a letter addressed to Trump's attorneys and the Manhattan district attorney's office, said that as a partner at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, he once performed legal work for Trump Equitable Fifth Avenue, an entity that once owned Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Hellerstein retired from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in 1998.

"In my opinion, my impartiality cannot reasonably be questioned and no appearance of impropriety exists," Hellerstein wrote in Thursday's filing.

The judge has scheduled a hearing June 27 to decide whether to grant Trump's request to move his case to federal court.

The Manhattan district attorney has argued the case belongs in state court because the alleged conduct had nothing to do with Trump's presidential duties.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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Lottery addictions are not being addressed seriously, experts say

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(NEW YORK) -- Tvonia Thomas said that scratch-off lotto games were consuming every aspect of her life in Virginia.

Even though she rarely won big jackpots, Thomas told ABC News Live that the rush of going out to the convenience store for those tickets was stronger than the urge to eat a meal.

"It feels like your heart's going to explode, but you love it," the recovering gambling addict said. "You don't know what's going to be behind that glitter that's underneath that ticket."

Thomas is not alone. Some addiction specialists say more people are fighting these extreme compulsions for scratch-off tickets and that state officials need to step up to curb the problem that they say disproportionately affects minorities and low-income players.

A 2022 nationwide investigation of state lotteries by the Howard Center For Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found stores that sell tickets are disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities in nearly every state where the game is played.

The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, said approximately 60% of state lottery earnings go directly to the winners.

Les Bernal, the national director for the nonprofit group Stop Predatory Gambling, told ABC News that while states use the revenue from lottery sales to fund services like education, they are doing so off the backs of low-income residents.

"This is definitely a form of systemic racism that has occurred," he said. "They have shifted the tax burden away from middle-class taxpayers [and] from property."

Billy Hoffman, a gambling counselor, told ABC News that even if they don't win, gambling addicts still have the compulsion to seek out more attempts at the jackpot.

"They're trying to find a way out, and it just gets them further and further in the hole," he said.

Thomas said her addiction got so tough that she had suicidal thoughts. Eventually, she secured a scholarship to an addiction recovery program at Williamsville Wellness in Virginia.

"On the first day, it was like a breath of fresh air. I was saved from myself. I didn't have the opportunity to gamble," she said.

Lottery critics have called out states for failing to distribute revenue to necessary public services and programs to fight gambling addiction.

The Virginia Lottery, which uses revenue from games to fund public schools, received a “D” grade in 2022 from the nonprofit group, The Education Law Center, for how it allocates money to high-poverty districts.

In a statement to ABC News, the Virginia Lottery said it, "has a proven track record of working to raise awareness of problem gambling and gambling addiction, going far beyond what is required by law to do."

"While Virginia law requires all lottery profits to go to K-12 education, the lottery has been repeatedly recognized as a leader in the industry when it comes to using its resources and high public profile to raise awareness and encourage responsible play," the Virginia Lottery said.

Hoffman said that more lottery profits need to go to help people who are battling addiction.

Thomas agreed, and urged others who are struggling with these compulsions to seek help.

"It wasn't about the money, it was about the continuing to play and to escape and to be in my dream world," she said.

If you need help with a gambling problem reach out to 1-800-Gambler. If you are having thoughts of suicide or other mental health crisis call or text 988.

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How Vegas is changing the odds for blackjack players

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(LAS VEGAS) -- Blackjack players say they've been noticing a difference at the tables in Las Vegas lately.

Even if they hit that lucky 21, they say they're not getting the same amount of winnings as they did in the past.

Blackjack and casino experts, like Mike Aponte, who was part of the infamous MIT card-counting team, say this is no fluke, as casino owners have found ways to get more money from gamblers.

Aponte spoke with "Start Here" Thursday about the latest trend.

START HERE: [Aponte] says across the board, every game at the casino is designed for the house to win. But some are more tilted than others. You might have a good night or a bad night, but if you play thousands of hands the casino should only take a bit of your money.

MIKE APONTE: If you follow basic strategy, then the house edge only is about half a percent.

START HERE: But last year, according to data from the Nevada Gaming Commission, blackjack players lost more money than they have in nearly two decades. That’s not just because there are more people playing. In part, it’s because the odds have changed.

APONTE: It kind of started about 15 [or] 20 years ago where the casinos started introducing rule changes to kind of increase their advantage.

START HERE: So remember the basic rules of blackjack: You get two cards, the dealer gets two cards. Whoever’s closest to 21 without going over, wins. Simple. You put down 10 bucks, you get 10 bucks in profit.

Except when you get dealt exactly 21. That’s a blackjack.

APONTE: The beauty of blackjack is that the player will get a 3-to-2 [odds] payout on their wager, which is equivalent to 150%.

START HERE: Oh, so you put down $10 [and] instead of getting $10 now you get 15 bucks back next to your chips?

APONTE: Exactly.

START HERE: That little bonus payment, Mike says, is key. It’s one of the biggest reasons you can make back your money quicker. It’s why the house's edge is so low. Well, casinos have slowly lowered that blackjack payout.

According to John Mahaffey, the founder of a group called Vegas Advantage which literally goes around counting table stakes, about two-thirds of blackjack tables now only give you 6-to-5 odds for a blackjack.

Which didn’t sound like a big deal to me at first. But Mike, our blackjack expert, says that means Vegas is taking more of its customers’ money.

APONTE: To simply lower that payout to 6-to-5 [odds], now the house edge goes up to 1.9%. I mean, it nearly quadruples.

START HERE: The reasoning for casinos seems pretty simple. If there’s more money to be taken, take it. But you might think: Wait a minute, won’t that stop gamblers from coming to Vegas? Mike says he thought it would, but it’s been just the opposite. Last year was a record year for casino gambling.

As Vegas becomes more of a tourist destination than a gambling destination, the gambling dollars actually get bigger. And that’s when Mike said something that blew my mind.

APONTE: They can really get away with it at the lower limit tables, because they don't institute that at a higher limit table. They're never going to do 6-to-5 [odds].

START HERE: There might be different odds in different areas of the casino. You're saying high rollers are, all of a sudden, [seeing] different odds, maybe?

APONTE: Yes. So that's a big change back from when I first started playing. When I started playing, the rules were the same throughout the entire casino for the most part.

START HERE: And this is the real takeaway here. High rollers were always treated differently in Vegas from the rest of us. But now, just like in so many aspects of life, the rich have a chance to get richer, quicker, while those with shorter stacks are seen as a bit more expendable.

That said, if you want to keep more of your money, Mike says the answer is not to find a table with higher stakes and better odds. The answer is to treat it like entertainment and set a limit, because the house is winning either way.

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