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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sits on stage during the Super Bowl hand-off ceremony on Super Bowl Boulevard in Times Square, as part of the Super Bowl lead up in New York, Feb, 1, 2014.

By Becky Bratu and Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News

An email from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office Saturday launched a double-barreled attack against the former ally who ordered the September bridge closures and The New York Times for publishing his allegations that Christie knew of them at the time.

“Bottom line – David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the email, obtained by NBC News Saturday afternoon, concluded.

Wildstein, the Port Authority official who actually ordered the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year, set off a political storm Friday over precisely when Christie learned about the controversial incident.

In a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a lawyer for Wildstein said “evidence exists tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference.”

In a Jan. 9 news conference at which he apologized for the scandal, Christie said, “I first found out about it after it was over.”

Later on Friday, Christie’s office released a statement saying Wildstein’s letter, in fact, “confirms what the Governor has said all along — he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”

The email revealed Saturday, a markedly more aggressive response, not only strongly states that Christie was not involved in the controversy dubbed Bridgegate, but also attacks Wildstein’s character.

“As he has said repeatedly, Governor Christie had no involvement, knowledge or understanding of the real motives behind David Wildstein’s scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge,” the email reads.

Read email from Christie’s office slamming Wildstein

It then goes on to describe Wildstein as a “tumultuous” figure.

“In David Wildstein’s past, people and newspaper accounts have described him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not productive,'” the email reads. “David Wildstein has been publicly asking for immunity since the beginning, been held in contempt by the New Jersey legislature for refusing to testify, failed to provide this so-called ‘evidence’ when he was first subpoenaed by the NJ Legislature and is looking for the Port Authority to pay his legal bills.”

Also coming under fire from the Christie camp was The New York Times, which the email accuses of “sloppy reporting” of Wildstein’s claims Friday.

“A media firestorm was set off by sloppy reporting from the New York Times and their suggestion that there was actually ‘evidence’ when it was a letter alleging that ‘evidence exists,'” the email reads.

Wildstein’s letter was first reported Friday by the Times.

Christie’s office on Saturday declined to comment on the memo, while Wildstein’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark on Friday met privately with the chief lawyer for New Jersey lawmakers investigating the bridge traffic jams and requested that the panel not take any steps that might interfere with its criminal probe, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Christie — who’s considered a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — has repeatedly denied having ordered the closing of two of three local access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., to the bridge, which is one of the busiest in the world. The closing froze traffic for four days — allegedly in retaliation over the mayor’s refusal to endorse him in the 2013 governor’s race.


Francesco Arena / EPA file

Crime scene investigators working at a burnt car where three burnt bodies were found in Cassano allo Ionio, Calabria, Italy on Jan. 19. According to reports, a three-year-old boy was killed in the mafia hit.

By Claudio Lavanga, Correspondent, NBC News

ROME – “Don’t kill women and children” used to be part of the mafia code of honor.

That’s why the recent shooting death of a 3-year-old, whose body was burned virtually beyond recognition, has shocked this nation long used to gruesome mob killings.

“Women and children used to be off limits,” said Patrizia Venturino, a local journalist who reports on mob hits. “But it’s all changed now. Women often become bosses if their husbands go to jail or are killed. And children, well, if they are a witness to a crime, they become a liability.”

On Jan. 19, the charred remains of toddler Nicola “Coco” Campolongo were found in a torched car near a farmhouse in the southern region of Calabria, which is a base for the ‘Ndrangheta, the most powerful and feared of the four Italian mafias. His body was found alongside the remains of his grandfather Giuseppe Iannicelli, and 27-year old Ibtissam Touss, who the police identified as Iannicelli’s partner.

The killing of Campolongo sparked nation-wide outrage. Last Sunday Pope Francis called the murder “unprecedented,” asking worshipers to pray for Coco and for the boy’s killer to repent.

Italian authorities believe that Iannicelli, who was serving a drug-related sentence on house arrest and was related to a government witness called Pasquale Perciaccante, drove to an appointment with members of the mafia, possibly taking his young partner and grandson as a protective measure.

But not even the sight of a 3-year-old stopped the hitman, who shot all three point-blank in the head, placed a 50-cent coin on the roof of the vehicle as if to show that their lives were cheap, and set fire to it.

Tony Gentile / Reuters file

Anti-Mafia police wearing masks to hide their identity, escort top Mafia fugitive Giovani Brusca on May 21, 1996 as he leaves Palermo’s police headquarters to be taken to a maximum security prison.

“I am upset that a child was brutally murdered,” Venturino said. “But I am even more outraged at a grandfather who brings his grandson as a sort of shield against the mob, in the hope they will have pity on him.”

In the last decade the ‘Ndrangheta has won a reputation as Italy’s most violent mafia. Tales of how it feeds enemies to starving pigs have recently made the headlines.  But the toddler’s killing was a previously unimaginable new low.

While Campolongo is the youngest known victim of the Italian mafias, he is not the first child to have been violently executed by the mob. In 1993 Giuseppe di Matteo, the 11-year-old son of a government witness, was kidnapped by Giovanni Brusca, a member of the Sicilian Mafia known as either “The Swine” or the “People-Slayer” for his violence.

The boy was held and tortured for 26 long months, and finally strangled and later dissolved in a barrel of acid to prevent his family from giving him a proper burial.


Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters, file

Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman

By Becky Bratu, Staff Writer, NBC News

Retired basketball star Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center to seek treatment for his long-time struggle with alcoholism, his agent said.

Dennis Prince declined to disclose which facility will treat the star.

“What was potentially a historic and monumental event turned into a nightmare for everyone concerned,” Prince said, according to The Associated Press. “Dennis Rodman came back from North Korea in pretty rough shape emotionally. The pressure that was put on him to be a combination ‘super human’ political figure and ‘fixer’ got the better of him.

“He is embarrassed, saddened and remorseful for the anger and hurt his words have caused.”

Rodman, 52, recently returned to the United States from yet another trip to North Korea, where he led an auditorium crowd in serenading the reclusive nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, with “Happy Birthday” at an exhibition game between former NBA players and a North Korean team.

A day earlier, in a bizarre, expletive-littered and sometimes incoherent interview with CNN, Rodman came close to suggesting that an American held captive in North Korea for more than a year, Kenneth Bae, was responsible for his captivity.

Bae’s family was outraged, and Rodman was also slammed for not using his influence with Kim to help free the American.

Rodman ultimately apologized for his comments regarding Bae, saying he had been drinking and was upset because some of his teammates were leaving under pressure.

Rodman, known as much for his antics, tattoos and adventurous fashion choices as he was for basketball, won five NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.

The star was the highest-profile American to meet the North Korean leader since he inherited power from father Kim Jong Il in 2011. Rodman traveled to Pyongyang for the first time last February.

In November, the hoops star debuted “Dennis Rodman — The original Bad Ass Premium Vodka,” a “six times distilled all-American premium vodka.”

The endorsement was an unconventional choice for a star who has had issues with alcohol in the past, including getting arrested for driving drunk and assaulting his ex-fiancee. Rodman also entered an outpatient rehab facility in 2008. A year later, he agreed to appear on the third season of the show “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” but he didn’t stay out of trouble.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times detailed Rodman’s transgressions and legal issues and said the NBA Hall of Famer was broke and unable to get work.

“In all honesty, Dennis, although a very sweet person, is an alcoholic,” Peggy Williams, his then financial adviser, was quoted as saying. “His sickness impacts his ability to get work.”


By Alessandra Prentice, Reuters

MOSCOW — Five members of a banned militant group were arrested in southern Russia on Saturday and a homemade bomb packed with shrapnel was defused, in another security scare weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Video: State Dept. Issues Russia Travel Alert

NBC News’ Richard Engel reports live from Moscow about the U.S. State Department warning to American travelers.

Islamist militants have threatened to attack the games and suicide bombers killed at least 34 people last month in Volgograd, also in southern Russia.

President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his political and personal prestige on the success of the Olympics, has ordered safety measures beefed up nationwide after the attacks.

Russia’s National Anti-terrorism Committee (NAC) said the latest arrests were in Nalchik, a town about 190 miles from Sochi in the Caucasus region, where insurgents want to carve out an Islamic state.

“Security forces have detained five members of a banned international terrorist organization,” the NAC said in a statement received by Russian news agencies. An NAC spokesman confirmed the statement to Reuters.

“The anti-terrorism operation discovered and seized ammunition, grenades and a homemade explosive device packed with shrapnel ready for use,” the statement said.

The weapons were discovered in the course of searching the addresses where the arrests took place, it added.

Nalchik is 62 miles from the town of Beslan, the site of a 2004 guerrilla attack on a school which killed 331, half of them children.

Russian Pavel Pechyonkin, a 26-year-old former paramedic who allegedly converted to radical Islam in 2011, has been named by police as a suspect in the first bombing that hit Volgograd’s train station. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.

An Islamist group in the region, the Caucasus Emirate, led by a former Chechen independence guerrilla commander, Doku Umarov, has urged militants to use “maximum force” to prevent the games, which open on February 7, from going ahead.

Video: Police Name Suspect in Russia Train Station Bombing

Putin crushed separatists in the Muslim province of Chechnya when he rose to power 14 years ago. But the Islamist insurgency spread to neighboring Dagestan, recruiting fighters from as far afield as Canada.

On Thursday police went on combat alert in the Stavropol region, also in the south, after the discovery of at least five corpses with gunshot wounds and an explosive device.

The head of Russia’s Olympic Committee has said Moscow has taken every possible measure to ensure the safety of the games.

Russian forces went on combat alert last week in Sochi and about 37,000 personnel are now in place to provide security at the games.

Video: US Olympic CEO: Russian bombings have ‘our attention’

Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer that in the wake of recent bombings in Russia, he is “concerned,” but has confidence in security measures for the Games.


Str / AP

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq’s Shiite-led government during the funeral of a man killed when clashes erupted between al Qaeda gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers on Friday in Fallujah.

By F. Brinley Bruton, Staff Writer, NBC News

The United States will help Iraq fight an al Qaeda-linked group that seized the city of Fallujah in the west of the country, but will not send American troops, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.

“We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against their efforts to destabilize,” Kerry told journalists as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which took control of Fallujah and Ramadi over last week, is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds.

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after the radical forces raised their flag in the town of Fallujah — site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war — and gained control of the city.

Kerry admitted that the U.S. was “very, very concerned” by the fighting, and called ISIL “the most dangerous players in that region.”

The ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in in Lebanon on Saturday.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

Related:

Al Qaeda fighters take over parts of two Iraq cities


Courtesy of New York Police Department

A small plane landed on a Bronx expressway Saturday.

By NBC News staff

A small plane made an emergency landing on the busy Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx Saturday afternoon, resulting in minor injuries to three people on board, the New York City Fire Department said.

Courtesy Daniel Miller via Twitter

A small plane made an emergency landing on an expressway in the Bronx, N.Y. Saturday.

Two men and one woman were the only passengers of the small aircraft and all were hurt when the plane landed near East 233rd Street shortly before 3:22 p.m. They were transported to St. Barnabas Hospital, which is about four miles from the scene, according to the FDNY.

The pilot made the surprise landing because someone on the small flight “experienced an onboard emergency,” said Nancy Silvestri, deputy press secretary of the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

The FDNY wrote in a tweet that the injuries were “non-life threatening” and no cars on the highway were affected.

Two of the injured refused treatment and all three were expected to be released Saturday, according to St. Barnabas Hospital.

The plane is registered to Michael Schwartz of South Salem, N.Y., and NBCNewYork.com reported that the Danbury Municipal Airport confirmed that Schwartz was the pilot when it took off.

The trio departed from Danbury, Conn., for a “tour of the Statue of Liberty,” Silvestri said. They were on their way back to Connecticut before the emergency landing, she said.

The four-seat, one-engine 1966 Piper PA sustained minor damage, the Federal Aviation Administration reported to NBC New York. The plane is registered to an owner in South Salem, N.Y, according to aircraft registration records.

Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA are investigating the crash to determine the probable cause of the accident.


Eureka Police Department

Gary Lee Bullock is a suspect in the murder of Father Eric Freed.

By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News

Authorities have arrested a California man suspected in the murder of a beloved Catholic priest and educator found dead in the rectory of his church Wednesday morning.

Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway, Calif., was taken into custody Thursday afternoon by Humboldt County deputies in connection with the slaying of Rev. Eric Freed, police said.

Bullock had been named in an arrest warrant earlier Thursday. He had actually had a series of encounters with local law enforcement in the hours leading up to the slaying of Freed — including an arrest for public intoxication — police said in their statement naming him a suspect.

Freed’s body was discovered by parishioners at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Eureka, according to police.

“Father Eric was a friend of mine, a tremendous person in the community,” Eureka Mayor Frank Jager said in a video of a press conference posted on local news website LostCoastOutpost.com. “This is absolutely a tremendous loss not only for the St. Bernard’s parish but for our community in general.”

On Tuesday, New Year’s Eve, deputies with the Eureka Police Department responded to reports of a person “acting strangely” in southern Humboldt County. Bullock was then arrested for public intoxication and taken to jail but “was rejected due to his erratic behavior,” according to a police statement.

Courtesy of Bernard Fosnaugh

Father Eric Freed was found dead in the rectory of his church.

He was then taken to a hospital for evaluation and released in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Just two hours later, the suspect had another run-in with authorities: Police officers responded to a report of a suspicious person — Bullock again — but determined that he was not intoxicated and shouldn’t be detained, according to the statement. He was referred to a homeless shelter.

Later that morning, police said, a guard at Freed’s church noticed a person matching Bullock’s description on property and instructed him to leave.

Shortly after that incident, a group of parishioners discovered the murdered priest. Few details have been released about how Freed was killed, but police in the statement said  their investigation “revealed that forced entry was made into the parsonage and a violent struggle ensued.”

An exact cause of death has not yet been determined, according to police, adding that an autopsy is scheduled for Saturday.

Freed was beloved in Eureka, especially among its sizable Japanese community, Jager said. He was installed formally as pastor at St. Bernard’s parish in 2011. In addition to his priestly duties, Freed taught in the Religious Studies Department at nearby Humboldt State University.

A Catholic priest in California is found dead inside of a Eureka church rectory. KIEM’s Robyn Ridpath reports.

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