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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Prison Camps in North Korea; Oregon Rampage

Aired December 12, 2012 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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

And we begin, as we do every night, "Keeping Them Honest," search for facts, holding people and governments accountable. Tonight, we're going to show you a place that is so horrific, it's tough to believe it even exists. It's a modern-day concentration camp, part of a network of prisons that house an estimated 150,000 men, women and children right now.

This concentration camp that we're talking about in North Korea, a country that is right now publicly celebrating the launch of a missile, a missile that has much of the world's media talking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After four successful failures, a defiant North Korea shocked the world with this successful launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With rockets powerful enough to reach our shores.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Testing a long-range ballistic missile that could some day be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon across the Pacific Ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Send nuclear warheads to the West Coast of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: North Korean TV showed images like these of people celebrating in North Korea. Tonight, a U.S. official tells CNN, there are early signs the Koreans are not in total control of the device.

But on North Korean-government run TV, the news anchor was giddy with excitement. "Keeping Them Honest," Pyongyang reportedly spent more than $1 billion on their missile program this year alone, money that could feed a lot of hungry, starving people in North Korea.

But while much of the world is talking about missiles tonight, there is a crime against humanity occurring in that country, a crime that receives very little attention. As I said, some 150,000 people are believed to be doing hard labor on the brink of starvation in a network of hidden gulags. It doesn't house just those who have been accused of political crimes, however. These prisons house their entire families, grandparents, parents, children. It's a system called three generations of punishment. Imagine if you were accused of a crime and sent to a concentration camp. But to truly punish you, they would also send your parents and your children. Three generations of your family simply disappeared.

The most notorious is called Camp 14. We know about it because of a man named Shin Dong-hyuk. I originally spoke with him recently for CBS News' "60 Minutes." He says he not only escaped from Camp 14, but he was actually born there. He's believed to be the only person born and raised in the camps who has ever escaped and lived to tell about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Did anybody ever explain to you why you were in a camp?

SHIN DONG-HYUK, ESCAPED CAMP (through translator): No, never. Because I was born there I just thought that those people who carry guns were born to carry guns. And prisoners like me were born as prisoners.

COOPER: Did you know America existed?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Not at all.

COOPER: Did you know that the world was round?

SHIN DONG-HYUK there I had no idea if it was round or square.

COOPER (voice-over): Camp 14 was all that Shin Dong-Hyuk says he knew for the first 23 years of his life. These satellite images are the only glimpse outsiders have ever gotten of the place. Fifteen thousand people are believed to be imprisoned here -- forced to live and work in this bleak collection of houses, factories, fields, and mines, surrounded by an electrified fence.

COOPER (on camera): Growing up, did you ever think about escaping?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): That never crossed my mind.

COOPER: It never crossed your mind?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): No, never. What I thought was that the society outside the camp would be similar to that inside the camp.

COOPER: You thought everybody lived in a prison camp like this?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes.

Shin told us that this is the house where he was born. His mother and father were prisoners whose marriage, if you could call it that, was arranged by the guards as a reward for hard work.

COOPER: Did they live together? Did they see each other every day?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): No. You can't live together. My mother and my father were separated and only when they worked hard could they be together.

COOPER: Did they love each other?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I don't know. In my eyes we were not a family. We were just prisoners.

COOPER: How do you mean?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): You wear what you're given, you eat what you're given, and you only do what you're told to do. So there is nothing that the parents can do for you and there's nothing that the children can do for their parents.

COOPER: (on camera): This may be a very dumb question, but did you even know what love was for the first 23 years of your life?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I still don't know what that means.

COOPER (voice-over): Love may have been absent, but fear was not. In this building, a school of sorts, Shin says he watched his teacher beat a little girl to death for hoarding a few kernels of corn -- a violation of prison rules, which he and the other students were required to learn by heart.

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): If you escape, you would be shot. If you try to escape or plan to escape, you would be shot. Even if you did not report someone who is trying to escape, you would be shot.

COOPER: The shootings took place in this field, he says. The other prisoners were required to watch. As frightening as the executions were, Shin considered them a break from the monotony of hard labor and constant hunger. The prisoners were fed the same thin gruel of cornmeal and cabbage day-in and day-out. They were so hungry, Shin says, they ate rats and insects to survive.

(on camera): So for 23 years you were always hungry?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes. Of course. We were always hungry. And the guards always told us, "Through hunger you will repent."

COOPER (voice-over): What Shin and his family were repenting for probably dates back to the Korean War, when two of his uncles reportedly defected to the South. Shin believes that's why his father and grandfather were sent to Camp 14 and why he was supposed to live there until he died. North Korea's first dictator Kim Il Sung instituted this practice of "three generations of punishment" back in the 1950s.

DAVID HAWK, HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATOR: The idea is to eliminate this lineage -- to eliminate the family -- on the theory that if the grandfather was a counterrevolutionary, the father and the grandsons would be opposed to the regime, as well.

COOPER (voice-over): David Hawk is a human rights investigator who's interviewed dozens of former prisoners and guards from the six political prison camps operating in North Korea today.

HAWK: The largest number of people in the prison camps are those who are the children or grandchildren of people considered to be wrongdoers or wrong thinkers.

COOPER (on camera): I have never heard of anything like that.

HAWK: It's unique in the 20th or 21st century. Mao didn't do it, Stalin didn't do it -- Hitler, of course, tried to exterminate entire families. But in the post-World War II world, it's only Korea that had this practice.

COOPER (voice-over): North Korea denies it has any political prisons, but refuses to allow outside observers to inspect Camp 14 and other sites.

(on camera): There's no way to verify all the details of Shin's story. Do you believe his story?

HAWK: Oh, sure. His story is consistent with the testimony of other prisoners in every respect.

COOPER (voice-over): There's also physical evidence he carries around with him to this day. The tip of his finger is missing. He says it was chopped off as punishment when he accidentally broke a machine in a prison factory. He also has serious scars on his back, stomach, and ankles, which he was willing to show us, but embarrassed to show on camera. He says he received those wounds here, in an underground torture center. He was tortured because his mother and older brother were accused of trying to escape. He was just 13 years old at the time.

(on camera): Did they think that you were involved in the escape?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I'm sure they did.

COOPER: How did they torture you?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): They hung me by the ankles. And they tortured me with fire. And from the scars that I have, the wounds on my body, I think they couldn't have done any more to me.

COOPER (voice-over): Shin says he tried to convince his interrogators he wasn't part of the escape plot. He didn't know if they believed him until one day when they took him to that field used for executions. Thousands of prisoners were already there waiting. SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): When I went to the public execution site I thought that I might be killed. I was brought to the very front. But that's where I saw my mother and my brother being dragged out and that's when I knew that it wasn't me.

COOPER (on camera): How did they kill your mother?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): They hung her and they shot my brother.

COOPER (voice-over): He speaks of it still without visible emotion, and admits he felt no sadness watching his mother and brother die. He thought they got what they deserved. They had, after all, broken the prison rules.

BLAINE HARDEN, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: He believed the rules of the camp like gospel.

COOPER: Blaine Harden is a veteran foreign correspondent who first reported Shin's story in The Washington Post and later wrote a book about his life.

(on camera): He had no compass by which to judge his behavior.

HARDEN: He had a compass. But the compass were the rules of the camp, the only compass he had. And it was only when he was 23, when he met somebody from the outside, that that started to change.

COOPER: When he met Park.

HARDEN: When he met Park.

COOPER (voice-over): Park was a new prisoner Shin says he met while working in Camp 14's textile factory. Unlike Shin, Park had seen the outside world. He'd lived in Pyongyang and traveled in China, and he began to tell Shin what life was like on the other side of the fence.

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I paid most attention to what kind of food he ate outside the camp.

COOPER (on camera): What kind of food he had eaten?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): A lot of different things. Broiled chicken. Barbecued pig. The most important thing was the thought that even a prisoner like me could eat chicken and pork if I were able to escape the barbed wires.

COOPER: I have heard people define freedom in many ways. I have never heard someone define it as broiled chicken.

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I still think of freedom in that way.

COOPER: That's what freedom means to you?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): People can eat what they want. It could be the greatest gift from God.

COOPER: You were ready to die -- just to get a good meal?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes.

COOPER (voice-over): He got his chance in January 2005, when he says he and Park were gathering firewood in this remote area near the electrified fence. As the sun began to set, they decided to make a run for it.

HARDEN: And as they ran towards the fence, Shin slipped in the snow. It was a snowy ridge, fell on his face. Park got to the fence first and thrust his body between the first and second strands and pulled down that bottom wire and was immediately electrocuted.

COOPER (on camera): How did you get past him?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I just crawled over his back.

COOPER: So you climbed -- you literally climbed over him?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yeah. Yes.

COOPER (voice-over): He was a fugitive now in rural North Korea -- on the run in one of the poorest, most repressive countries in the world. But that's not how it seemed to him.

(on camera): What did the outside world look like?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): It was like heaven. People were laughing and talking as they wanted. They were wearing what they wanted. It was very shocking.

COOPER: How did you manage to get out of North Korea?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): I was just trying to get away from camp and I ended up going north. And on the northern side people talked a lot about China.

COOPER: Did you know where China was?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): No. Not at all. It just happened that the way I was going was towards the border.

COOPER (voice-over): With amazing luck and cunning, Shin managed to steal and bribe his way across the border, and quietly work his way through China, where he would have been sent back if he was caught. In Shanghai, he snuck into the South Korean consulate and was granted asylum.

In 2006 he arrived in South Korea with not a friend in the world. He was so overwhelmed by culture shock and post-traumatic stress he had to be hospitalized.

More than seven years later, it's remarkable how far Shin's come. He's 30 now, has made friends and built a new life for himself in Seoul, South Korea. But old demons from Camp 14 are never far behind and Shin now admits there was something he was hiding. Two years ago, he finally confessed to author Blaine Harden.

HARDEN: When he first told me about the execution of his mother and brother, he didn't say that he had turned them in.

COOPER (on camera): You reported your mother and your brother?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes.

COOPER: What did you hope to get out of reporting your mother and your brother?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Being full for the first time.

COOPER: More food?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes. But the biggest reason was I was supposed to report it.

COOPER: Why was Shin tortured after ratting out his mother and brother?

HARDEN: The guard who he ratted out to did not tell his superiors that he got the information from Shin.

COOPER: So the guard basically was trying to claim credit?

HARDEN: Yes.

COOPER (voice-over): 2It was only after seeing what family life was like outside Camp 14 that Shin says he started to feel guilt about what he had done to his own mother and brother.

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): My mother and brother, if I could meet them through a time machine I would like to go back and apologize. By telling this story I think that I can compensate, kind of repent for what I did.

COOPER: Repentance has taken Shin all over the world. He speaks at human rights rallies, meets with U.S. congressmen and is telling his story to us in part because he's frustrated by how much attention the press pays to North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, and his wife and how little attention gets paid to the people in the camps. In South Korea, he and some friends started an Internet talk show designed to tell the world what's really going on in the North.

As for that taste of freedom he risked his life for he can eat all the broiled chicken he wants now. But admits it hasn't given him the satisfaction he'd hoped for.

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): When I eat something good, when I laugh with my friends or, you know, when I make some money, I'm excited. But that's only momentary. And right afterwards I start worrying again.

COOPER (on camera): You worry about what now?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): What I worry about now is all of those people in the prison camps. Children are still being born there and somebody is probably being executed.

COOPER: Do you think about that a lot?

SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): Yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: So, while the world focuses on the North Korean missile launch, tonight, we think of all those still in Camp 14 and the other prison camps in North Korea.

Let us know what you think. Follow me at Twitter @AndersonCooper. I will be tweeting tonight.

Up next: the lives lost in the Oregon mall shooting, the young life saved, and the search for what turned a 22-year-old into a masked killer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back.

We're learning more about the shooting rampage at a shopping mall outside Portland, Oregon.

Before we bring you the latest though on the killer and the crime, I want to take a moment and recognize the two people who lost their lives, Cindy Ann Yuille and Mathew Forsyth. He was 54 years old, had two children, coached youth sports and friends say he had a zest for life. Cindy was 45, a hospice nurse who everyone says always put others first.

A third victim, 15-year-old Kristina Shevchenko, is recovering from serious injuries, may need more surgery to fully heal. She and Cindy and Mathew were shot last evening at the Clackamas Town Center by this 22-year-old man. Police today said he was acting alone and took his own life as police arrived on the scene.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG ROBERTS, CLACKAMAS COUNTY, OREGON, SHERIFF: During this attack, he was armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The rifle was stolen yesterday from a person known to the suspect. At the time of the attack, he was wearing a load-bearing vest, not a bulletproof vest that was earlier reported by some outlets.

He was also wearing a hockey-style face mask, and we have not yet been able to establish how many shots were fired during the attack, though we believe he was carrying several fully loaded magazines.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: A friend of the killer tells CNN he can't believe he did this. A friend of his mother, meantime, gave the following letter to a local TV station.

It reads -- quote -- "Tami Roberts wishes to express her shock and grief at the events at Clackamas Town Center on Tuesday. She has no explanation for her son's behavior and requests that her privacy be respected."

More now on the search for a motive and the search for answers from Kyung Lah.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And if anybody standing behind us, they're going to have problems.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Housemates of Jacob Tyler Roberts avoided our questions, not willing to talk about what might have led Roberts to open fire on holiday shoppers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I have seen him there.

LAH: Neighbors say the 22-year-old moved in about six months ago, renting the basement of this Portland house. Bobbi bates last saw him yesterday when he left at 1:30 in the afternoon.

BOBBI BATES, NEIGHBOR: He just came out. And he didn't wave or anything. He just got out -- came out and a guitar case in the car.

LAH: Two hours later, the 911 calls were coming in from the Clackamas Town Center. Roberts, wearing a hockey mask and firing a stolen AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, was making his way through the mall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I heard is, "I am the shooter." And then shots rang out, five, six shots. And by the time I hit the floor, I just ran out and started telling anyone and everyone I saw, there's a shooting going on. Don't go in there.

LAH: Police say the only reason he didn't kill more people, his rifle jammed. He had several fully loaded magazines. Officers back at Roberts' house are still trying to piece together what caused this man to fire into crowds of people before killing himself.

ROBERTS: At this time, we do not understand the motive of this attack except to say that there's no apparent relationship between the suspect and his victims.

SUZIE HAYES, FAMILY SPOKESWOMAN: My son did grow up with Jake. And I can tell you that he was a very good boy and it is very shocking.

LAH: Family friends say Roberts showed no warning signs. There was this, though, perhaps a sign of a gun fascination on his Facebook page. It shows a man firing a handgun. Friends say Roberts had been a popular boy at his high school and loved by his mother, who shared this statement, read by a friend.

HAYES: She is very sad and wants everyone to know that she's so sorry for what Jake did. It's so out of his character.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Kyung Lah joins me now.

Kyung, when you consider the weapon that he was carrying, it's kind of amazing he didn't kill more people. I understand the gun jammed, but if the gun jammed, how was he able to kill himself?

LAH: It's a little bit of a miracle. And the police will quickly point out that they don't know how this happened, because the gun did jam. And it jammed early on in the food court. The suspect, then, started to run.

It is during that process that police say for some reason the gun unjammed. And so, that's when the is suspect took his own life after he had run away from the crowd in the food court. But that gun jamming, Anderson, police say they just call that a miracle.

COOPER: And we have been hearing a lot of stories of people who helped other people in the midst of all this incredibly frightening situation.

LAH: Absolutely.

The police say what really shows up here for them isn't the damage that this suspect did. They say they want to focus on all the people who chipped in to help each other. First of all, all the 10,000 people that we're talking about inside the mall, they all stayed calm. They helped each other. There was a doctor in that crowd. There were nurses.

What they did is they immediately started treating people on the ground. And so that, police say, is something they hope people learn from all of this.

COOPER: Yes, I talked to a man yesterday, one of the eyewitnesses who actually went towards a woman who was wounded and ultimately killed. And a nurse showed up. So I guess that was a nurse who just happened to be in the mall as well.

Kim, we appreciate the reporting on that.

Just ahead tonight, have scientists actually discovered how being gay or lesbian is passed from parents to their children? A new study claims to have found a possible explanation. We will talk to Dr. Drew Pinsky about that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: For a long time, scientists have asked if being gay is genetic. Well, so far, no one has identified a gay gene, so to speak. But now a group of researchers believe they have discovered how being gay may be passed from parent to child, not through genes themselves, but through something is called epigenetics and epi-marks. We're going to get to what they are in a moment.

The new study claims to have found evidence that sometimes epi- marks may be passed down between generations. It's complicated and we should point out a scientifically controversial theory, hasn't been tested on actual people. The researchers used a mathematical model.

But it certainly raises a lot of questions.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of HLN's Dr. Drew, joins me now.

So, epigenetics, epi-marks, I have never heard of them. What are they?

DR. DREW PINSKY, HLN HOST: Well, epigenetics is really where the rubber hits the road in genetics these days.

I think everyone is aware that DNA is where the genetic code is laid down. But how the code is transcribed is really what epigenetics is all about. There's a way of thinking about it, I think. Perhaps it's oversimplified, but consider a sentence.

If you have a sentence and you just pick up in the middle of that sentence randomly and try to understand that sentence or manage the meaning of that sentence, can be severely altered. The same is true of the genetic code.

Where and how the code is transcribed is very much involved in how those codes are expressed in the cells. In this particular case, what they are seeing is that there appears to be something that affects the -- it creates a resistance to the effects of testosterone in some males, can pass from the mother to the boy, and similarly from dads to daughters.

COOPER: So, they are saying it's not father to son, but father to daughter, mother to son?

PINSKY: Exactly.

What they are saying is that, in females, there's a lot of in utero, in the uterus when we're developing, changes in testosteral levels that we're exposed to, and what they're theorizing is that there has to be some epigenetic mechanism that dampens or limits the effects of testosterone on the female, and that's an epigenetic phenom that can be, in some cases, passed from the female, from mom to son.

And similarly, in the dads, there has to be some epigenetic mechanisms that allow the testosterone to have full effect that perhaps then go to girls, as where -- as well.

Where this gets a little bit of a stretch is what they're saying is that perhaps mom's factors doesn't allow a son to masculinize, and Dad's factors perhaps over-masculinize the female. And then that somehow has to do with someone's sexual orientation. For me, that's the greatest sort of assumption and stretch in this entire theory.

COOPER; And at this point, it is a theory. I mean, this is based on mathematics more than science, right?

PINSKY: That's exactly right. And it's something that, you know, science is very fearful of going forward in studying because of the politicization of the issue of is homosexuality genetic or not? The fact really is that, when you study almost any human behavior, there's a component of genetic and a component from environment. There clearly are some biological components here, and it's really incumbent upon science to really nail down exactly what those mechanisms are.

COOPER: One of the questions about the genetic thing is that, if it was purely genetics, then scientists -- some scientists say, well, it would die out over time, because it's -- because gay people, I guess, in large numbers have not been procreating and therefore passing, if there is a gay gene, passing it down.

But these -- if it's these EPI marks, that would explain how it is passed from generation to generation.

PINSKY: That's exactly right. That's why -- right. That's one of the theories as to why these genetic elements or these biological elements have not died out in the human population over millions of years. In fact, they've stayed quite steady. If they were purely genetics, the genes don't get passed along, but the epigenetic mechanisms can get passed along.

COOPER: Interesting. Dr. Drew, a lot more study clearly needed. Thanks very much.

PINSKY: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: Well, it started out as a relaxing trip to ride the waves in Costa Rica but ended with a 27-year-old former U.S. Marine in a Mexican prison. He's been there since August. There are a lot of questions about why he was even arrested. His parents are pleading for his release. My interview with them ahead.

First, Isha joins us with a "360 Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, HLN ANCHOR: Anderson, Speaker John Boehner is telling House Republicans not to make Christmas break plans, because they might have to work through the holiday on a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. The warning comes after President Obama talked with Boehner last night on the phone. Sources say it was a tense conversation. Experts warn of a new recession if a deal can't be reached in 20 days.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says it's ridiculous to say he couldn't be president because of his weight. He pushed back at his critics in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters. The Republican governor is rumored to be considering a bid for the White House in 2016. And Anderson, Pope Benedict XVI blessed his Internet followers in his first tweet today. The pontiff now has nearly one million followers on this English Twitter page alone and has many more accounts in seven other languages. Some saying that he's the coolest pope in history.

COOPER: Isha, thanks very much.

A former U.S. Marine served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now his parents fear that he may die in a Mexican prison. They're pleading for his safe return after what began as a surfing trip. It's turned into a nightmare. Jonny Hammar's story just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: A new twist in the frankly bizarre story of millionaire Internet pioneer John McAfee. Police in Belize want to question him about his neighbor's death, but he fled to Guatemala, was detained there and he's on the move again. We'll tell you where to ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight, new information about a former U.S. Marine who's been in prison in Mexico since August. His name is Jonny Hammar. He's 27 years old, and until recently, his story hadn't been known outside of his immediate family.

But now his parents are speaking out. You're going to hear from them in a moment when I interview them. Their son's story is finally getting the kind of traction that his parents hope will help bring him home.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson brought Hammar's plight to the Senate floor yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Bring this Marine home, Mexican government. And now that you have a new president just installed in Mexico, the relations with the United States are especially important to treat the United States' citizens, who are peaceful in their intent, innocent in their observation of the Mexican laws, where no harm has been done, send that U.S. Marine back to America and back to his family in Miami.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, Senator Nelson spoke for nearly six minutes, vowing to keep pressing for Hammar's release. So how did he end up in prison to begin with? Frankly, the deeper we dig into this story, it gets stranger and stranger.

Like many other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Jonny Hammar has struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder. A lifelong surfer, he finds peace on the water, riding waves. So after completing a PTSD treatment program last summer, he set off to go on a surfing trip to Costa Rica, and that's when his life took a terrifying turn. Here's Gary Tuchman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jonny Hammar is an American war veteran. He was a Marine serving in the infantry in Afghanistan and Iraq. He decided to drive with a fellow Marine from Florida in a Winnebago all the way through Mexico to Costa Rica for a surfing vacation.

Jon and Olivia Hammar are Jonny's parents.

JON HAMMAR SR., JONNY'S FATHER: I mean, he had been there before and surfed. And you know, he was really -- I mean, they took every single decent board that he had.

TUCHMAN (on camera): So he was looking forward to a cool trip, driving there and -- and he knew it was Mexico, but he wasn't planning on staying in Mexico?

J. HAMMAR: No, they were going to drive through. The only reason they were going to stop was to get more gas.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): His parents were concerned when Jonny said he wanted to bring an antique Sears & Roebuck shotgun his great- grandfather once owned, one that looks just like this. His parents said he wanted to be able to hunt with it. They said he got the proper forms from U.S. border agents to declare it. But once he did declare it, the nightmare began.

(on camera) How far was he from the United States of America when he was arrested?

J. HAMMAR: He was on the border. He was crossing the border.

TUCHMAN: So he was a few feet away from America?

OLIVIA HAMMAR, JONNY'S MOTHER: Or less.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Jonny Hammar's friend was released, but Jonny was brought to this jail in Matamoros, Mexico, charged with violating Mexico's strict gun laws. His parents say they were told the jail is largely controlled by Mexican drug cartel members.

A few nights after Jonny was imprisoned, his parents got a call from someone threatening to kill their son unless the parents paid money.

O. HAMMAR: So then he said, "I have your son," and he said, "I'm going to 'F' him up." And he said, "And I already have."

And for some stupid reason my response was, "Oh, no, I'm going to call the consulate." And he put Jonny on the phone, and I couldn't believe it. And then I realized. I was like, oh, my God. And I really thought he wasn't in the prison. I thought someone's taken him out of the prison. Because I just couldn't conceive of this going on in a government facility. TUCHMAN (on camera): What did Jonny tell you?

O. HAMMAR: He said, "Mom, you need to do whatever they say." And he said, "They're really serious."

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The Hammars never heard from the caller again. Although the U.S. consulate has known about this from the beginning, Jonny's parents kept the story out of the press, scared that attention could be bad for their son. But increasingly desperate, they're speaking out now.

J. HAMMAR: The longer we go on with him in there, the greater chance it is that he's not going to get out alive.

TUCHMAN: The Hammars' congresswoman is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who heads up the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The family has just informed her about this.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: This is outrageous, and I'm asking for the State Department to be more proactive. I have communicated with them. I've communicated with our U.S. ambassador in Mexico. This week I meet with the Mexican ambassador to the United States. And enough is enough.

TUCHMAN: Their son had looked forward to a surfing vacation. Now he's passed the four-month mark in a Mexican prison. He talked to his parents on the phone Friday.

O. HAMMAR: I said, "Jonny, we're going to get you out."

And he said, "Mom, you've been telling me that since August."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Gary, you went to the U.S. consulate in Mexico not far from the prison where Jonny Hammar is being held. What are officials there saying about the situation?

TUCHMAN: Well, first, we should point out, Anderson, the parents, Jonny's parents, do not think the consulate is doing a particularly good job. The consulate did get him out of the general inmate population, which is considered safer, but they think the consulate has been surprisingly indifferent.

So we're on the Texas side of the border. The Rio Grande is right behind me. Two miles behind me is the consulate in Matamoros. Right now it's not particularly safe for us to do live reporting in Mexico, but a couple of hours ago, we were there during daylight. It's a heavily fortified building. There's an armed guard outside. There are large walls; there are gates.

And I talked to the boss -- the boss there, the consul general. And the consul general told me, when I asked him questions about what the parents were saying, that he was unable to get clearance from Washington to talk to us. And therefore, we needed to talk to the State Department from Washington to find out what the consulate was doing.

So this is what the State Department told us. They gave us this statement. They said, "The consulate is following Mr. Hammar's case closely as it proceeds through the Mexican judicial system. We are in constant contact with Mr. Hammar's lawyers and family and will continue to monitor his safety and well-being throughout his detention."

Members of the consulate have seen him, Anderson, in prison three times, but the fact is, after four months, Jonny Hammar is still there. And he wasn't all over the country with a gun. He presented the gun at the border checkpoint right behind me, and now he's in jail for four months.

COOPER: Gary Tuchman, appreciate the reporting. We'll continue to follow it.

And as you heard from Gary, Jonny Hammar's parents have been afraid to go public with their son's story. They are now speaking out with urgency. They want you to know about him. You can imagine how awful these last several months have been for them.

I spoke to Olivia Hammar and Jon Hammar earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Olivia, I can't imagine what this has been like for you and your family. How are you holding up?

O. HAMMAR: Just trying to take it one day at a time and praying that this exposure helps get him home.

COOPER: And Jon, you actually went down to visit your son. What were -- what are the conditions like that -- where he's held?

J. HAMMAR: They're horrible. They're, you know, third-world facilities. And it's not, you know, a secure facility either. And, you know, the road out there from town is -- you know, has problems daily. I was not authorized to go out there by the State Department. I had to go on my own.

COOPER: I read you or Olivia say that you believe he's actually being chained to a bed at times?

J. HAMMAR: Yes. You know, it's not a very secure situation that he's in because the State Department got him isolated from the main facilities that's run by the cartel, but the area that he's in isn't really a facility for housing a prisoner. It's a -- you know, a makeshift, you know, closet storage area next to guard offices.

And so, you know, I suspect to give them some relief every now and then the guards will chain him to the bed, because they feel like, you know, there's this guy over here, and you know, he could run away and we'll get in trouble.

And then the consulate will go out there and tell them, "No, you can't do that," you know, every month or so. But it's a back and forth contest.

HAMMER: You said the cartel is running the prison. You mean a drug cartel is running the prison that your son is in?

J. HAMMAR: The main part of the prison, the majority -- 90 percent of the prison where the actual prisoners are, the facilities, you know, is -- once you get in those doors, the cartel controls it. Or seems to because we get calls -- you know, from inside the prison saying, you know, "This is not about the police. This is about us and this is our house and if you don't do -- send money, we're going to kill your son. Here's your son on the phone."

COOPER: So you're saying people from the prison are actually calling you extorting money, trying to extort money from you?

J. HAMMAR: In August that's how this started. That was our first phone call on this.

COOPER: How much money did they want?

J. HAMMAR: They asked for $1,800. We said, "We'll send it. Tell us how." And they said, "We'll call you back with a Western Union account number." And so when they hung up, we called the State Department.

O. HAMMAR: And at some point the calls stopped. But it took us about three days for the consulate to be able to get back out there and confirm that he had been isolated.

COOPER: And Olivia, you say the Mexican military sent a letter about the particular type of weapon that Jon had to the judge and the prosecutor. What was the letter, and did it have any impact?

O. HAMMAR: The letter essentially -- because the crime that he's charged with is possession of a weapon that's restricted for military use. So the Marino de Mexico, which is an arm of the military in Mexico, sent a letter to the judge and the prosecutor saying that this particular weapon is not on their, you know, quote, "forbidden list." And they have just declined to, you know, give that any weight.

COOPER: Jon, what are you hoping Mexican officials will do? What do you want them to know?

J. HAMMAR: I'm appealing to the Mexican government to put pressure on, you know, through the trial court to come to some reasonable conclusion that we can get, you know, our son home and alive. After, you know, he's been returned from war alive, you know, this would be a tragedy that I don't know how we would stand losing him this way.

COOPER: Well, Jon and Olivia, I'm so sorry you're going through this. And we'll continue to follow it. Thank you so much.

O. HAMMAR: Thank you.

J. HAMMAR: Thank you. (END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: In Syria, a U.S. official says the government has made another bold move, firing SCUD missiles at the opposition. The latest developments ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Anderson's back in a moment. First, a "360 News Bulletin."

A U.S. official says Syrian government troops have fired at least four SCUD missiles, presumably at opposition fighters. The official says U.S. military satellites picked up the infrared signature of the missiles when they were launched from the Damascus area into northern Syria.

Computer software developer John McAfee is back in Miami tonight. A post on his blog says he's in a South Beach hotel after weeks on the run. McAfee fled Belize where authorities want to question him about his neighbor's death. He ended up in immigration detention in Guatemala. Today, his lawyer said police there let him return to the U.S. McAfee says he has nothing to do with the death.

And Anderson met a cool kid on his talk show today. Kim Maria of Birmingham, Alabama, turned 12 today at 12:12 p.m. on 12/12/12. He had a special way of honoring the moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: And today at 12:12 p.m., what are you going to do?

KIM MARIA, TURNED 12 ON 12/12/12: I'm going to yell out "holla" as loud as I can.

SHARON OSBOURNE, TV PERSONALITY: You're allowed. It's your birthday.

COOPER: Are you going to be in class when you yell out "holla"?

MARIA: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: And in tonight's "Connection," it used to be when it came to bike and motorcycle helmets, the only smart part was the head underneath it. Not anymore.

At www.indygogo.com, meet the ICEdot Crash Sensor. The sensor attaches to your helmet and pairs with your smartphone. Get in a serious wreck, and the phone notifies emergency contacts and displays vital medical information.

Anderson is back with "The RidicuList" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Time now for "The RidicuList." And tonight, don't you just love this time of year: the lights, the trees, the music, the parties? But I have to say, nothing really says "happy holidays" quite as much as a strip club in Arkansas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're having a campaign for the month of December called Toys for Tatas. You come in and you bring a toy to donate for a little toy drive we're having. Then we're going to give you two-for-one lap dances for as many toys as you bring.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Isn't that sweet? The fine folks at the Platinum Cabaret in Fayetteville are putting the pole back in the north pole this Christmas. Ho, ho, ho, everybody. It's a two-for-one lap dance.

Now I'll never think of Dancer or Prancer and Vixen quite the same way again. Thank you, Platinum Cabaret.

Now don't get me wrong, this is for a great cause, Toys for Tots, which collects gifts for underprivileged kids. Although the local coordinator of that very worthy organization says the strip club didn't exactly run the idea by him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've heard nothing about it. It's certainly not something that we have been made aware of or certainly not something we would have endorsed. As long as it's done in a legal manner and as long as people are bringing us new, unwrapped toys, we don't get into how they were gathered and what the process was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What the process was.

So we did a little checking. Believe it or not, the concept of Toys for Tatas not confined to the greater Fayetteville area. Oh, no. There's a Toys for Tatas event in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they're also apparently giving away breast augmentation, because there's really nothing like free surgery to really get you in the festive holiday mood.

And at Rick's Cabaret in Minneapolis, they just had their 13th annual Toys for Tatas event, complete with complementary buffet. Mmm. Yum. Who doesn't love a buffet?

If you want to get into the spirit, and strip clubs really aren't your thing, fear not. There's a way to celebrate the season right from the comfort of your home. It's the Christmas Boobsie. Oh, goodness. It's a beer coosy [SIC] with breasts. A concept that debuted at the holiday wonderland that is Hooters and is available at boobsie.com can, if you're looking for an appropriate gift for your boss, or I don't know, maybe your child's teacher this year. No need to thank me. I'm here to help. It's part of my mission.

So when you gather with your family and your friends this holiday season, remember to appreciate what you have and give to those less fortunate, because every time a bell rings, a stripper gets her wings. It is, indeed, a wonderful life on the "RidicuList."

That's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.