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State of Newt Gingrich's Campaign?; Mississippi's Pardon Controversy

Aired January 30, 2012 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It is 10:00 here on the East Coast.

And we begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest" with yet another shocking development in a story that's already spread shock and outrage across the country. We're talking about Mississippi and former Governor Haley Barbour's decision to pardon more than 200 criminals.

And that includes four convicted killers, these men you see right here, all of whom worked at the governor's mansion as part of a longstanding program that is now suspended along with the pardons.

But before a court put the pardons on hold, those four killers walked away. Now, three have since checked in as required by the judge and are expected to show up at a hearing this Friday.

Last night, Mississippi authorities tracked down this man, Joseph Ozment, and served him with papers ordering him to be in court as well. They found him in Laramie, Wyoming, staying in a hotel under an assumed name. They say he tried to flee in his girlfriend's car when he saw them and that it took the help of local police to serve him the subpoena.

Now, the pair is planning to get married. Apparently, the invitations had already gone out. There were hints that Ozment was thinking of living on the lam, not settling down. He and his fiancee recently e-mailed the guests, saying they would be changing to a small private ceremony -- quote -- "to take place at an undisclosed time, date and location."

In a moment, Mississippi Attorney general Jim Hood joins us. There's no love lost between him and former Governor Haley Barbour, who has refused our repeated requests, by the way, to be on the program. He calls Hood's allegations politically motivated. And he blames the state department of corrections for some of the procedural shortcomings that led a judge to block the pardons.

Friday the former governor did speak to John King and during that interview made several claims that "Keeping Them Honest" simply do not stand up to the facts.

First, about the murderers that he set free. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HALEY BARBOUR (R), FORMER MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR: They lived in the mansion. That's been the -- or on the mansion grounds. For decades, our governor's mansion has been served primarily by inmates from the state penal system, almost all murderers, because the experts say people who committed one crime of passion in their life, after they have served 20 years -- and these have served on average 20 years -- are the least likely to ever commit another crime.


COOPER: There are two false statements there, first, that these killers all committed so-called crimes of passion. Not true. It's certainly not true, by the way, in the case of Joseph Ozment, who with a friend stuck up a convenience. Ozment immediately shot the clerk, a guy named Ricky Montgomery, three times and then twice again.


MARY MCABEE, VICTIM'S SISTER: They he said he was begging for help. You can't imagine how that feels.


MCABEE: And then for him to shoot him in the head, to know that he was all alone, that's the worst thing to know that you can't help somebody that you love.


COOPER: Not a crime of passion. That's murder while committing another serious felony, which is a capital offense.

Joseph Ozment pleaded guilty and testified against his partner and so he got life, and then he got a trip to the governor's mansion and then he got a pardon. But let's say he had committed one of those so-called crimes of passion, whatever that means. Say he shot his wife, like this man, Anthony McCray. Of course, McCray shot her in the back after first leaving to go get a gun.

Even there, it's hard to argue crime of passion, heat of the moment. But just say for argument's sake that it actually truly did fit the governor's description of a crime of passion. Would that make Anthony McCray highly unlikely, as Governor Barbour claims, likely to ever commit another crime?

I recently asked forensic psychiatrist Helen Morrison.


COOPER: Dr. Morrison, this notion that people convicted of crime of passion are unlikely to commit another crime, he says that is what the experts say. Is that true?

DR. HELEN MORRISON, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: No, absolutely not. Because passion basically is equivalent to rage. If someone is rageful, they will commit a homicide. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Point one, the killers who made it first to the governor's mansion and then out the door did not all commit crimes of passion. Some were as cold-blooded as they come.

Point two, experts say the notion that a hot-blooded killer will not kill again is simply absurd. But that's not all Governor Barbour said in his own defense that doesn't stand up to a simple fact check. He said he consulted with families of the victims before pardoning the men who took their loved ones' lives, people like Tiffany Brewer, who lost a sister, and Tiffany's mom, Betty Ellis.


TIFFANY ELLIS BREWER, VICTIM'S SISTER: He's in jail for 18 years. She was 20 years old when she died and had her child laying in her arms when he shot her in her head. And he's pardoned?

BETTY ELLIS, VICTIM'S MOTHER: Is Governor Barbour going to pardon us for our aches and pains and heartache that we have to suffer? Is he going to pardon a child that had to grow up without a mother?



JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: KING: What do you say to those people who have come forward? They disagree with your decision.

BARBOUR: Well, that particular family actually came and met with my lawyers two years ago, because they understood that if any of these men, including that one, successfully served at the mansion, they had been serving almost 20 years -- on average, they have served 20 years -- and that if they successfully completed, they would be pardoned.


COOPER: "Keeping Them Honest," Brewer and Ellis, who join us in a moment, say that meeting never happened. They said that despite repeated requests, neither Governor Barbour nor anyone else ever met or consulted them in any way about pardoning.

This man, David Gatlin, who shot and killed his estranged wife, Tammy Ellis Gatlin, and badly wounded her friend, Randy Walker, back in 1993.

Joining me now, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

Attorney general, the papers served on Joseph Ozment, who had been missing now for days, compel him to show up for a court hearing and also check in with the Mississippi Department of Corrections. How exactly will you be able to enforce that given that he's in another state and no longer in your custody? JIM HOOD, MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL: That's what's such a difficult part of this process.

This is kind of like I have equated to being on a manhunt with one arm tied behind my back. I can't use the criminal justice process of APBs and warrants. All we have is a civil document that we served him with. That is the most we can do because we can't treat him as an escapee. He has a document that says that he's a free man as of now.

If he doesn't show up in court, we will move to hold him in contempt. We have now served all five of those that were originally released and the court's order, the injunctive relief, is requiring that five stay, remain in prison until the court is able to make a decision on this case.

COOPER: Ozment killed Ricky Montgomery over $60 while robbing a convenience store and shot him apparently three time in the eyes. He was begging for help, shot him again.

When Governor Barbour insists that the people he pardoned have committed what he calls crimes of passion and so were least likely to re-offend, what do you say to that?

HOOD: Yes, I have been a prosecutor my entire career, for 20 years. Crimes of passion -- or manslaughter is what that's considered, not cold-blooded murder. Many of these murderers planned their murders. That's not a crime of passion as far as what the definition is under Mississippi law.

COOPER: Is the pardon system stacked in favor of convicts from well-to-do families and those who have powerful political connections, as "The New York Times" reported this weekend, or in the case of these killers, from people who, however they were able to do it, got a job in the governor's mansion and had contact with the governor?

HOOD: As far as trustees in the mansion, I'm not sure about that.

But if you look at the rest of the list of those who were pardoned, it does come from influential families, those that contributed to the Republican Party and then to Haley Barbour in particular.

He ran the office of governor as if it were Mississippi in the 1950s and used the office and the trustees -- and it's just a throwback to the 1950s, the way he handled his administration and the way that he has released all these prisoners.

COOPER: The prison population in Mississippi is about two-thirds African-American. According to Reuters, about two-thirds of the people pardoned by Governor Barbour were actually white. Do you believe -- is race a factor here?

HOOD: Well, they didn't have as much influence, the African- American community. And they didn't support Haley Barbour when he ran for governor both times. It just like some old political hack would call and ask and write a letter on behalf of somebody. Some of them probably deserved a pardon if they lived an exemplary life after they were released.

But some of them have horrendous records while they have been in prison. And so there that were many undeserving. There's not any logical explanation other than it was just a whim. And that's -- by doing it on a whim, at the last moment, that's how he violated our constitution, which requires 30 days' publication in the paper in the county in which the crime occurred.

COOPER: I know you're not a fan of the governor. You're a Democrat. He's a Republican. But this ideas that he keeps saying all our experts say that people who committed crimes of passion aren't likely to do it again, do you know what experts he's talking about? Because we haven't been able to find any.

HOOD: I think he's making this stuff out of whole cloth.

Apparently -- it's the first time I have seen him just get into desperate, dire straits. He tried to blame the lawyer that worked at the department of corrections. He's assistant attorney general. Today, I released e-mails and texts where our lawyer, November 28, advised the governor's people that they had to look at our Section 124 of our constitution and comply with the publication requirements.

Then our lawyer sends an e-mail to the commission of Department of Corrections. We have got a copy of that. We released all this to the media today. So it's documented that we as far as back to November 28 told them what the law was.

And then somehow he's trying to spin it so hard he's gotten off in the area of falsehoods to try to blame other people. The fact is, it doesn't matter. Our constitution says the convict has publish for 30 days and that wasn't done in about 170 of his 203 pardons.

COOPER: Attorney General Hood, appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

HOOD: Sure.

COOPER: In a moment, Tiffany Ellis Brewer and Betty Ellis, the sister and mother one of the murder victims, Tammy Gatlin.

First, I want to bring in senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

You and I have talked about this, but this whole crimes of passion notion, again, what do you make of this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It's rooted in the idea that a wife is a husband's property.

In the old days, you would never prosecute a husband for raping a wife, you would never prosecute a husband for assaulting a wife, because those crimes were considered private family matters. One of the ways the legal system has improved in recent years is that we take those crimes seriously again.

The idea that a perpetrator of a domestic violence homicide is somehow better or less dangerous than someone who kills someone in a convenience store is just simply false.

COOPER: This guy Ozment who had been missing now for a long time has been found Wyoming under an assumed name in a hotel and clearly not happy to have been served because he tried to allegedly escape in his girlfriend's car, he's been served with papers instructing him to appear in court. But this is a civil case, right?

TOOBIN: Right. He probably could safely ignore that piece of paper. But the attorney general is going to court in Mississippi and he's trying to get an order that says these pardons are invalid because of the unusual provision in the Mississippi constitution that says you have to publish notice for 30 days. It seems like as he said 170 of these people of the 200, those pardons will probably be invalidated.

Once they're invalidated, his pardon is no longer valid. Then the attorney general can get an arrest warrant and if he can find him at that point, bring him back. But until the pardons are formally invalidated and the pardons are no longer in effect, I think Ozment and these others are probably safe in just ignoring the court.

I want to bring in Tiffany Ellis Brewer and Betty Ellis, the sister and mother of Tammy Gatlin.

Thank you for both being with us and I'm so sorry for your loss and for all of this, for this new horror you're facing.

Governor Barbour claims his lawyers met with your family two years before David Glenn Gatlin's release. Is that true?

BREWER: No. That's absolutely false. We have had no contact with the governor or his lawyers, any of his people. No one has made an attempt to contact us.

COOPER: Betty, when you hear the governor refer to this as a crime of passion, what goes through your mind?

ELLIS: Rage.

I mean, this is not a crime of passion. When somebody rents a car in Georgia, buys a gun, drives to Mississippi, stalks my daughter, and then shoots her, I don't believe that is a crime of passion. To me, that sounds like he thought about it a long time before he decided to do it, and that he had it well-planned.

COOPER: Did you know that he was working in the governor's mansion?

ELLIS: We learned about it just by going on the Internet and looking at his status from time to time is how we found out he was a trustee at the governor's mansion. And at that time, the Walkers and I attempted to have that trustee status revoked, but they didn't want to talk to us then either.

COOPER: And do you clearly believe that the governor broke the law when he pardoned these men?

ELLIS: Yes, I do.

COOPER: Tiffany, you do as well?

BREWER: Oh, yes, most definitely. He completely ignored the amendment, the law in there, 124.

It says it. It's plain as day. Any idiot could read it. He just -- he ignored it. He chose to ignore it. So, yes, he broke the law.

COOPER: And you're obviously hoping that David gets sent back, back to prison.



ELLIS: Yes, we're definitely...


COOPER: Go ahead.

BREWER: This man, he got life, plus 30 years. And he served 18 of them? My sister lived 20 years.

It's ridiculous. Haley Barbour obviously did not even open the case to look at the detective work and the things that were said. I mean, he actually told somebody before he came to do this that he was coming to kill her.

COOPER: Betty, why do you think the governor did this?

ELLIS: My real gut feeling is that it was a power thing with him. He did it because he could do it, and he wanted to.

I don't know if it made him feel good that he was helping inmates get out of jail or what, but I think it was a power issue with him, just to show that he had that power and he was going to use it.


ELLIS: He didn't think about the...

COOPER: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

ELLIS: ... the victims and everything that was going to be affected by this or anything. COOPER: He didn't think about your daughter?

ELLIS: No. He didn't think about my daughter that had been gone. And none of us will ever be able to see her or hear her or talk to her ever again. He didn't think of any of that. You would have thought that, being a father, that might have crossed his mind.

COOPER: Well, Ms. Ellis, we're going to continue to follow this, continue on this.

And, Ms. Ellis Brewer, thank you so much. I know it's not an easy thing for you to talk about. We appreciate it. And thank you for talking about your daughter and your sister tonight.

BREWER: Thank you.

COOPER: Jeff Toobin, thank you as well.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook, Google+. Add us to your circles. Follow me on Twitter @AndersonCooper. I will be tweeting tonight.

Up next, with the Florida primary now just hours away, there is breaking news, a possible major shift in Newt Gingrich's campaign strategy. We will tell you about that. Ari Fleischer and Cornell Belcher join us.

Also, late word on just how brutally Syria's dictatorship is now cracking down. We will bring you the latest. The death toll in just one day is staggering.



COOPER: Breaking news tonight about Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, looking beyond Florida to the states that have contests in February.

Joining me now on the phone, CNN political reporter Peter Hamby, who has just gotten some new details.

Peter, what have you learned tonight?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Anderson. I was just with Newt Gingrich's campaign in Fort Myers.

I talked to Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, and I asked him to kind of game out February, which, as we know, is a tough month for them. There's a lot of Romney friendly states in February and he has got the money and the organization in many of those states.

Hammond basically told me they're going to down play significantly expectations in Nevada and in Michigan, two Romney strongholds. And Michigan, that's Romney's native state. His father was governor there and obviously he won that state in 2008 over John McCain by a substantial margin. In Nevada, Romney has also been organizing there for a long time as has Ron Paul.

Again, tough states for Gingrich there. He tried to shift the emphasis to Arizona, which is a winner-take-all state, along with Michigan, and it's the only winner take all state in February. Again Gingrich's spokesperson told me they think this is a state that has a strong Tea Party grassroots conservative presence that can really play well for them.

But February is a tough month for them. They're ultimately looking at -- to March, so Michigan and Nevada are not ranking very high on the Gingrich priority list right now -- Anderson.

COOPER: But he's still standing by the notion that he will stay in it until the convention?

HAMBY: Yes, absolutely. Their rationale here is looking toward March. March is when you start to have the states where delegates are awarded proportionally.

If you win 30 percent in some of these states, you will get 30 percent of the delegates. The Gingrich campaign put out a memo late last night looking ahead and basically pointing to March and saying that even if Romney wins Florida he will have barely gotten 5 percent of the total delegate that you need to win the nomination.

You need 1,441 delegates. They're saying this is kind of a long haul. And this reminds me a lot of Hillary Clinton's campaigning against Barack Obama in 2008, where she suffered a lot of losses in February in places like Wisconsin, Virginia, Maryland, and really had to wait until March where she was competitive in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and they were more friendly to her.

And Gingrich is looking at a lot of Southern states for him in March where the delegates will be awarded proportionally, so he can try to collect a bunch of votes -- delegates -- excuse me -- at that point, Anderson.


COOPER: Peter, I appreciate it.

HAMBY: And try to make a run at it through June.

COOPER: Peter, thanks very much.

Now, the fight for Florida, let's talk about that on the eve of the primary there with 50 winner take all delegates at stake. Romney and Gingrich are both campaigning obviously. Romney is way ahead in the polling there. A new Quinnipiac survey shows Romney at 43 percent among likely Republican primary voters, Gingrich trailing behind, 29 percent.

The latest national Gallup poll, it's a different story, showing Gingrich and Romney virtually tied for the lead among registered Republicans' choice for the nominee.

Let's talk about it now with CNN political contributor Ari Fleischer and Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher.

What do you make of this, the battle in Florida? First of all, how do you think it looks for Romney and for Gingrich?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Anderson, I think it's looking great for Mitt Romney. He's really because of the debates -- and that's really been the driver for all the primary elections so far -- has opened up a lead after his big South Carolina loss.

I think Mitt Romney will win Florida by 9 percentage points, and it's going to be a good-sized win. I don't think it's going to be as big as some of those other polls indicate because there's still nagging conservative questions about Mitt Romney but it will be a very good night for Mitt Romney in Florida tomorrow.

COOPER: Cornell, a smart move for Gingrich to basically cede Nevada and Michigan to Romney or not put a lot in there?

CORNELL BELCHER, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN POLLSTER: Well, no, I think it is a smart move when you look at the long picture and when you at that money and organization really matter early on.

One of the beauties about the Obama campaign early on how we were able to stand in against the establishment candidate early on was that we took that grassroots movement, that grassroots energy and turned it into fund-raising. If Newt Gingrich can turn his grassroots sort of conservative Tea Party network into fund-raising and he can match Mitt Romney where he's being outspent four or five to one and match him on those later states, I think he has a chance, particularly when it moves South.

Look, if Mitt Romney didn't like South Carolina, wait until he gets a load of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, et cetera. I think it's a smart move for Newt Gingrich and he's playing the long game here and I think makes some sense especially when you look at the national polls, where he's basically tied.

COOPER: Ari, do you agree with that?

FLEISCHER: Yes. There's another deeper reason why too, especially in Nevada.

Four years ago, Nevada Republican primary turnout heavily, heavily Mormon -- 28 percent, the largest group, was Protestant -- 26 percent of the voters were Mormon, voted 95 percent for Mitt Romney. So what you will see is opposite in the South, where questions have been raised about can he do well in the South.

Arizona also has a significant Mormon population -- 11 percent of the voters in Arizona's primary four years ago were Mormon, a clear Romney advantage there. It is smart for Newt to narrow the playing field. But no matter what, Newt will have a very difficult February and Mitt Romney is about to have a very good February because of states that vote in February.

But then it comes down to March. Where Mitt Romney remains vulnerable is if and when this becomes a one-on-one contest, because of what I mentioned before, those nagging doubts that conservatives have about his core convictions.

With Rick Santorum staying in and if Newt Gingrich stays in, it helps Romney. If one of those two were to drop out, then you get a different type of race. I also think you could flip it. If Newt Gingrich dropped out, I would predict to you that Rick Santorum would actually become a very formidable one-on-one candidate against Mitt Romney.

COOPER: And no doubt Santorum is hoping that might happen.

Cornell, it looks like Mitt Romney may be making big gains if you look at some of these poll numbers with evangelicals, even with Tea Partiers in Florida. Leaving aside the actual vote count, what numbers do you think the Obama campaign will be watching tomorrow night?

BELCHER: I mean, Florida is an awfully important state. I think we're more concerned about sort of what's happening with independent voters in some of these battleground states and we see some of the national polls showing that this battle is actually hurting Romney with some of these independent voters.

The evangelical number is fascinating to me, because when you look at that, partisanship aside, just as a pollster, when you look at how Newt Gingrich was able to run up a 20-point advantage among evangelicals in South Carolina, the fact that he's now sort of splitting evangelicals evenly with Mitt Romney in Florida is a real interesting number.

Sometimes I think there's outliers in some of the internal numbers. That is a really interesting number. If that number is true, if he can compete with evangelicals with Newt Gingrich, this race is over. I look for him not to sort of win by 14 to 15 points, although Fred Thompson came on and said if he doesn't win it by double digits, sort of setting that expectation game.

But look to see if that evangelical number holds up, because if that number holds up for Mitt Romney, it's a very good storyline for Mitt Romney.

COOPER: We have got to leave it there.

Ari Fleischer, Cornell Belcher, guys, thank you very much. Fascinating stuff.

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

COOPER: A quick reminder. Obviously, we're going to bring you the complete coverage tomorrow night, a special edition of "JOHN KING, USA" at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, then the vote count and analysis at 7:00 as the polls begin to close.

Coming up, a horrific scene in Florida, a massive traffic accident killing at least 10 people. We're going to show you some of the images, really just stunning stuff, pileup of at least 12 cars, seven semis. We will take a look at how this happened.

Also later, the medical mystery that has left a group of teenagers at the same Upstate New York high school with uncontrollable tics. You see it right there? Could there be an environmental connection or is this all in their heads, as some people are saying?

Erin Brockovich thinks it's possible there is an environmental reason. I spoke with her and Dr. Drew Pinsky coming up.


COOPER: Some new details tonight on that horrific multi-car pileup in Florida that left 10 people dead, at least 21 injured. At least 12 cars, seven semis were involved. Today Florida's highway patrol said they had closed the section of Interstate 75 for about three hours because of heavy fog and smoke from a brush fire, but they reopened the stretch of highway barely half an hour before the crashes began. Nine-one-one calls released today captured the horror of it all.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God! What is going on?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. We are getting help out there. OK?

Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was the 10th one now. We just had five in a row.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, is anyone pinned?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was that another one?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. How many vehicles now?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get away from the car!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you see any fire? Do you see anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No fire. We can't see. We can hardly even see your hazards.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here comes another one. He's going too fast. Here comes another one. There he goes. Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED). That one was a bad one. I'm hearing people crying on the other side. That is northbound.


COOPER: They were witnessing a chain reaction of crashes in both sets of lane, southbound and northbound. Chad Myers joins me now.

Chad, this accident claimed ten lives. Do we know exactly what happened here?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: We know what happened. There was a fire in the swamp and in the forest, only 60 acres, not that big. But in a regular fire goes up and keeps going up. But in Florida last night, it didn't keep going up. The reason why is because there was a layer of warm air up here. So as soon as the smoke tried to go up, it hit the layer of warm air and came back down. It's called inversion.

The most famous inversion ever was is in north Pennsylvania many years ago, where people died because they suffocated from the smoke that just wouldn't leave the valley. That's the Allegheny, Monongahela Valley there near Pittsburgh I'm talking about.

But that's what happened yesterday. The smoke was trapped at the surface. It couldn't go away. People drove into the smoke, and they were hitting cars that were already stopped in the roadway.

COOPER: And a lot of survivors, I mean, they were saying the smoke and fog was so thick, that they couldn't see -- you know, one said they couldn't see the hazards. This isn't that common, though, is it?

MYERS: It is not. What happened here, this smoke and fog got into a bowl. This bowl is just south of Gainesville. I've driven through this bowl many times on I-75. It's the prairie right through here. And literally, it looks like you're driving through the Serengeti. You look to the left and you look to the right, it's completely flat. But all around you are hills. You look for giraffes, because you think you're in Africa, crazy. High elevations here, high elevations there and right through there is kind of a swampy area.

And that air, that smoke settled right into that low area, into that bottom of that bowl, and that's what caused the visibility down to literally zero.

COOPER: And I guess one thing investigators have been looking into, is could this have been avoided? Should there have been warnings or road closures?

MYERS: Anderson, there were road closures. Roads were closed for three hours. And then the smoke cleared, because the wind blew just a little bit. But then half an hour after they reopened the road, the crashes happened, and ten people died.

So I guess you have to think the road probably should have stayed closed. There's not much you can do. Once you're in this smoke, you are in it.

COOPER: All right. So unbelievable. Chad, appreciate it.

Isha is back with some of the stories she's following, the "360 Bulletin" -- Isha.

SESAY: Anderson, opposition activists say 100 people were killed across Syria today. More than three-quarters of the deaths were in homes. The U.N. Security Council said it will take up a resolution this week calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and transfer power.

In Northern California, Oakland City Hall has reopened after workers cleaned up damage allegedly caused by Occupy protestors over the weekend. Police arrested about 400 protesters.

Meantime, in Washington, U.S. park police began enforcing a ban on camping in two Washington parks that protesters have occupied for month. At one site, protestors ignored the order and set up a large blue tarp they're calling the Tent of Dreams.

And Anderson, the puppy thieves caught on tape in California making off with a 3-month-old Chow are off the hook. One distracted an employee while his accomplice grabbed the puppy. After the video aired on television, the dog snatchers sent the pet store more than $600 and a note of apology. The store owner took the cash and asked the sheriff's department to drop all charges.

COOPER: Really? That doesn't seem right.

SESAY: The dropping of the charges? Or...

COOPER: You steal a dog, and then you just money -- I don't know.

SESAY: I don't understand. If you actually have $600 to send, why are you stealing a dog? That wasn't worth $600, according to the pet shop owner, anyway.

COOPER: Well, I don't know. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

SESAY: Strange, strange folk out there.

COOPER: All right, Isha. We'll check back with you a little bit later on this hour.

A "360" follow-up next. A medical mystery that deepens. What is causing the strange ticks more than a dozen teenage girls at the same school seem to have developed. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich is now on the case. So is Dr. Drew Pinsky. We're going to talk to both of them ahead.

Plus, a verdict in the murder of three sisters prosecutors say were the victims of what's known as honor killing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Tonight on "360," a medical mystery we first told you about earlier this month. More than a dozen teenage girls at the same high school in upstate New York have developed strange ticks, including twitching, stuttering, flailing, verbal out-bursts.

One of the girls, Thera Sanchez, has epilepsy and says her seizures were well controlled before the ticks started, but now they're much worse. In fact, she had what appeared to be a seizure during an interview on Dr. Drew Pinsky's television interview.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feedback is good.

DR. DREW PINSKY, HLN ANCHOR: Oops. Thera is having a little bit of reaction there. Thera, are you OK? Let's get back to her. I'd like to go back to her so I can see what's going on here, please. Help me. Thera, are you all right? Mom, what's going on there?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, she's not. She's having a seizure.

PINSKY: Is she? And these are seizures she's had since she was a kid? Is that what we're looking at? OK. And...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. No. These are from the ticks.

PINSKY: These are a different kind of seizure that she develops?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are a different kind of seizure.

PINSKY: OK. Is her airway OK? Need to call paramedics?


PINSKY: Call the paramedics?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. They -- it's OK. It's OK.


COOPER: That was Dr. Drew on HLN. Thera was apparently OK after she came to out of the seizure, but her mom isn't satisfied with the answers she's been getting.

State health department officials said they found no environmental or infectious cause for the girls' symptoms. Some doctors who have examined the girls say the ticks could be stress related, something called conversion disorder. We're going to have more on that in a moment.

Activist Erin Brockovich is now getting involved. Over the weekend, some of her associates collected soil samples near the girls' school. Brockovich is looking into a chemical that spilled in a 1970 train derailment about four miles from the school.

I talked to her and Dr. Drew about the case. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Dr. Drew, you interviewed some of these young women, some of these girls exhibiting very astonishing symptoms. I know you haven't given them an actual examination, but as a doctor, from what you know, what's your assessment?

PINSKY: Well, you know, my concern was that it was being dismissed as a conversion reaction with possible mass hysteria. In other words, that the group was really having a psychiatric event together...

COOPER: What is conversion reaction?

PINSKY: ... without an explanation.

Conversion reaction is, you know, in the old day, people would get paralysis or blindness. It's a way of expressing emotional turmoil through physical symptoms. And it can happen in a group. It can be contagious. I mean, some people speculate it's the basis of the Salem witch trial. That was a group that was having a mass hysteria. But it just didn't pass the sniff test for me, particularly some of the girls I met, like Thera. It seemed so clearly biological. It seemed -- it just seemed. It didn't feel like a psychiatric event to me.

So my concern was that they were being dismissed as conversion without things being fully and completely evaluated. And many questions in my mind were left unanswered. I wanted to see to it that resources were brought to bear to get to the bottom of it. Yes, there may be some with conversion out there. But I'm convinced that some have a biological problem.

COOPER: And it was fascinating to watch the interview you did. Because one of the young women who's sitting there, and her arm is moving a lot. And then the other young woman had what seemed to be a seizure. How common is that? Was that related to whatever she's going through now?

PINSKY: She and her mom reported that she had an increase in these seizure-like events. Now she actually had one of these while hooked up to an EEG monitor, a brainwave monitor, and the brainwave monitor did not confirm that this was a seizure. So that means it's something called a fictitious seizure, which suggests it is something of a psychiatric nature, but it doesn't confirm that. There could still be an underlying tick-type syndrome that merely is flaring in a seizure-like activity.

And again, I thought they were awfully dismissive towards this girl without a complete explanation.

COOPER: Well, Erin, as you know, so far health officials said they found no indication there are environmental factors at play. That doesn't satisfy you. Why not?

ERIN BROCKOVICH, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: No, it doesn't. Because upon listening to what community members are reporting, we've done our own investigation, in 1971, there was a train derailment with a very large TCE, trichloroethylene, spill they were not able to capture that nobody attended to for over 20 years.

Now, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 1999, states that this plume had already gone four miles of the original derailment site east and southeast. That places the school in close proximity to this contamination that has yet to be defined, that is in the bedrock, that EPA has entered into negotiations to get a soil vapor extraction system in, which still isn't in place. Coupled with confirmation that the school is built on a swamp and confirmation that there are six gas extraction wells underneath this ball field.

So there is concern that this TCE plume could be in close proximity to the school. No one's done testing to see if it is at the school. They've done no soil testing, no soil vapor testing. And yet there are reports from parents that at this athletic field where all the children have been, there is an orange-yellow substance oozing up from the ground. So we don't feel environmentally that anybody should have sounded an all clear.

COOPER: So Dr. Drew, what do you make of Erin's concerns? How real?

PINSKY: For me, it's a dream come true. I was hoping somebody with expertise in toxicology and environmental toxins that could potentially cause symptoms like this could be available. I have talked to several physicians that have concerns that this could be a post-infectious process. There are several other theories out there floating around, as well.

But the point is these theories are flying around and aren't being systemically ruled out, and you've got a growing population of girls in distress.

And by the way, my concern is they're calling it conversion reaction, and yet they aren't getting systematic treatment even for that. So there's all kind of missing pieces here that need to be nailed down for these poor girls.

COOPER: But Doctor, I mean, if there had been widespread contamination in the area of a train derailment in the early '70s, as Erin is questioning, why would problems just now be showing up in such a specific and unusual way and in kind of such limited focus?

PINSKY: Right. A couple -- couple of possibilities. One is that this was some of in-utero exposure. Now, the one thing I would be looking for that I don't think has been looked for is a period of time in which there were a series of infant deaths or premature pregnancies that were terminated prematurely from infant demise. We don't -- we don't have that information yet.

If you see that, then it's possible this is an in utero exposure. And I think what Erin is suggesting is that there may be something emerging now that has been in the soil for some time that has been exposing these girls and is causing a toxic reaction.

COOPER: And Erin, how do you take care to avoid fanning -- you know, fanning what's clearly a panicky and uncertain situation in that community?

BROCKOVICH: Well, we don't want any panic, and we're certainly not here saying that this is going to be the cause of that. I think the panic has already started, because some disorder without further investigation in the absence of a lot of data was tagged on these young girls. So we don't have answers. But the community does.

COOPER: I hope you guys find something and let us know. Dr. Drew Pinsky, thank you.

Erin Brockovich, thanks as always.

BROCKOVICH: Thank you.


COOPER: Fascinating stuff. We'll continue to follow that story. It's such a mystery at this point.

Still ahead, a verdict in an incredibly disturbing murder trial. The victims, three young sisters whom prosecutors say were killed by their parents and own brother because they were too westernized.

Also ahead, what the deadly cruise ship wreck off Italy's coast is going to cost Carnival, the parent company that's seen business plunge since the disaster.


SESAY: I'm Isha Sesay with a "360 News & Business Bulletin."

Three members of an Afghan immigrant family in Canada convicted of murdering other family members say they'll appeal. A jury found them guilty of killing three sisters and another relative because they believed the young women had dishonored the family with their westernized behavior.

A possible clue in the case of missing toddler Ayla Reynolds, the Maine girl who vanished from her father's house back in December. Police now say that Ayla's blood was found in the home. They also believe her father knows more than he's told investigators.

The Italian cruise ship disaster that took at least 17 lives is also going to cost big money. That's what cruise line owner Carnival is planning for. The company says it anticipates a loss this year of nearly $400 million, in large part due to the wreck. Carnival had expected to turn a significant profit.

And we have a glimpse of one of this year's Super Bowl commercials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEW BRODERICK, ACTOR: Well, I'm not sure what it is. I guess I'll be OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm calling the studio, Matthew. You're not shooting today.

BRODERICK: No. People are depending on me. Movies bring so much joy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop, it's done. Just get some rest. Diva.

BRODERICK: He bought it.


SESAY: Matthew Broderick stars in the Honda commercial that's a takeoff on his hit movie, "Ferris Buehler's Day Off." It was set to debut during the Super Bowl, but Honda released it early -- Anderson.

COOPER: Isha, thanks.

A programming note. Tomorrow, "STARTING POINT," an exclusive interview with Florida's junior senator, Marco Rubio and Michael Reagan, the son of the former president on the battle for Florida and the nomination. That's tomorrow, "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien, 7 to 9 a.m. Eastern.

Coming up, in the Kentucky state senate, a bill gets introduced that's attached to a penguin. Also, Miss Kentucky happened to be there. "The RidicuList" is there, as well.


COOPER: Time now for the "RidicuList." And tonight, we're adding a story we're calling "Adventures in State Government." And I'd like to announce that as of tonight, I have a new favorite TV show. Forget "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" and "The Real Housewives" franchise, because now on, when I want entertainment, I'm just going to kick back and watch the goings on of the Kentucky state legislature.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senate resolution number 92, a resolution honoring the Newport Aquarium for its outstanding contributions to the ecology of our world and the economy of Kentucky through tourism, and honoring the Newport Aquarium for its penguin exhibit known as the Penguin Paloosa.


COOPER: Yes. He did say Penguin Paloosa. That got my attention.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Some boring resolution honoring some penguin party. Big deal. But this isn't just any party. This is a Kentucky state senate party. And there ain't no party like a Kentucky state senate party. Because a Kentucky state senate party is BYOP.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to the penguin. So...


COOPER: Yes. They brought a penguin. Good people of Kentucky, your government at work.

And you just know this is not going to end well. To use a poker analogy, when you raise the stakes by bringing a live penguin to the table, nature calls.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This chamber supported the tourism development act and also amendments thereto over the years that have enabled the Newport on the Levy and in particular...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you talking about the penguin that just defecated on the floor over there? Is that the penguin you're talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Actually, senator, I believe that's your desk.


COOPER: Thankfully, the camera did not zoom in on whatever the penguin passed on the senate floor, and the real work of government was allowed to continue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, let's see if Miss Kentucky can top that.


COOPER: That's right. Next on the agenda, Miss Kentucky.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would move that we adopt the senate citation 03 and introduce to you this fine young lady from Bowling Green, Kentucky, my constituent, Miss Kentucky 2011, Miss Blair Thornton. Welcome her here today.


COOPER: Is the Kentucky state legislature directed by David Lynch? You've got a beauty queen, a penguin out of nowhere. Seriously, just throw in a dreamy keyboard soundtrack, and it's "Twin Peaks."


KYLE MCLAUGHLIN, ACTOR: I've got a joke for you. Two penguins are walking across an iceberg. One penguin turns to the second penguin and said, "You look like you're wearing a tuxedo." The first penguin said to the second penguin, "You look like you're wearing a tuxedo."

And the second penguin said, "Maybe I am."


COOPER: Anyway, since Miss Kentucky went to the trouble of showing up, let's hear what she had to say.


BLAIR THORNTON, MISS KENTUCKY 2011: I just got back from competing at the Miss American competition a couple weeks ago, and this is my first day on official duty.


COOPER: I'm happy to report that Miss Kentucky did not slip on the official doody that the penguin left on the senate floor, thus successfully bringing to a close another great moment in "RidicuList" history.

Hey, that's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.