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Eric Christian Smith  

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Houston Astros shortstop Myles Straw attempts to throw out Seattle Mariners’ Mallex Smith during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, June 30, 2019, in Houston. Smith was safe at first. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

At DMZ, step into history for Trump as he offers hand to Kim

PANMUNJOM, Korea — With wide grins and a historic handshake, President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone on Sunday and agreed to revive talks on the pariah nation’s nuclear program. Trump, pressing his bid for a legacy-defining deal, became the first sitting American leader to step into North Korea.

What was intended to be an impromptu exchange of pleasantries turned into a 50-minute meeting, another historic first in the yearlong rapprochement between the two technically warring nations. It marked a return to face-to-face contact between the leaders after talks broke down during a summit in Vietnam in February. Significant doubts remain, though, about the future of the negotiations and the North’s willingness to give up its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The border encounter was a made-for television moment. The men strode toward one another from opposite sides of the Joint Security Area and shook hands over the raised patch of concrete at the Military Demarcation Line as cameras clicked and photographers jostled to capture the scene.

After asking if Kim wanted him to cross, Trump took 10 steps into the North with Kim at his side, then escorted Kim back to the South for talks at Freedom House, where they agreed to revive the stalled negotiations.

The spectacle marked the latest milestone in two years of roller-coaster diplomacy between the two nations. Personal taunts of “Little Rocket Man” (by Trump) and “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” (by Kim) and threats to destroy one other have given way to on-again, off-again talks, professions of love and flowery letters.

“I was proud to step over the line,” Trump told Kim as they met in on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom. “It is a great day for the world.”

Kim hailed the moment, saying of Trump, “I believe this is an expression of his willingness to eliminate all the unfortunate past and open a new future.” Kim added that he was “surprised” when Trump issued an unorthodox meeting invitation by tweet on Saturday.

As he left South Korea on his flight to Washington, Trump tweeted that he had “a wonderful meeting” with Kim. “Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!”

Trump had predicted the two would greet one another for about “two minutes,” but they ended up spending more than an hour together. The president was joined in the Freedom House conversation with Kim by his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers.

Substantive talks between the countries had largely broken down after the last Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, which ended early when the leaders hit an impasse.

The North has balked at Trump’s insistence that it give up its weapons before it sees relief from crushing international sanctions. The U.S. has said the North must submit to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” before sanctions are lifted.

As he announced the resumptions of talks, Trump told reporters “we’re not looking for speed. We’re looking to get it right.”

He added that economic sanctions on the North would remain. But he seemed to move off the administration’s previous rejection of scaling back sanctions in return for piecemeal North Korean concessions, saying, “At some point during the negotiation things can happen.”

Peering into North Korea from atop Observation Post Ouellette, Trump told reporters before he greeted Kim that there had been “tremendous” improvement since his first meeting with the North’s leader in Singapore last year.

Trump claimed the situation used to be marked by “tremendous danger” but “after our first summit, all of the danger went away.”

But the North has yet to provide an accounting of its nuclear stockpile, let alone begin the process of dismantling its arsenal.

The latest meeting, with the U.S. president coming to Kim, represented a striking acknowledgement by Trump of the authoritarian Kim’s legitimacy over a nation with an abysmal human rights record. Kim is suspected of having ordered the killing of his half brother through a plot using a nerve agent at a Malaysian airport in 2017. Meantime, the United Nations said in May that about 10 million people in North Korea are suffering from “severe food shortages” after the North had one of the worst harvests in a decade.

Trump told reporters he invited the North Korean leader to the United States, and potentially even to the White House.

“I would invite him right now,” Trump said, standing next to Kim. Speaking through a translator, Kim responded that it would be an “honor” to invite Trump to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang “at the right time.”

Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the leader of the isolated nation last year when they signed an agreement in Singapore to bring the North toward denuclearization.

In the midst of the DMZ gathering, Trump repeatedly complained that he was not receiving more praise for de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula through his personal diplomacy with Kim. Critics say Trump had actually inflamed tensions with his threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, before embracing a diplomatic approach.

North Korea’s nuclear threat has not been contained, according to Richard Haas, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. He tweeted Sunday that the threat of conflict has subsided only because the Trump administration has decided it can live with North Korea’s “nuclear program while it pursues the chimera of denuclearization.”

Every president since Ronald Reagan has visited the 1953 armistice line, except for George H.W. Bush, who visited when he was vice president. The show of bravado and support for South Korea, one of America’s closest military allies, has evolved over the years to include binoculars and bomber jackets.

While North Korea has not recently tested a long-range missile that could reach the U.S., last month it fired off a series of short-range missiles. Trump has brushed off the significance of those tests, even as his own national security adviser, John Bolton, has said they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

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Staff recruiting starts for Harwell jail ahead of county takeover
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

The county has started recruitment for 111 staffers officials expect will be needed to run the Jack Harwell Detention Center when its for-profit operator hands over the reins in October.

For the first time since the county built the jail in 2010, it will be operated by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, which already runs the McLennan County Jail next door.

“This has been in the works for about three years, considering the money and the county’s budget to determine what is feasible for the taxpayers,” sheriff’s office jail Lt. Mike Garrett said. “We have not hired anyone yet, because we are still waiting the go-ahead from commissioners court as they work their way through the budget process to evaluate what we need as we move forward.”

LaSalle Corrections notified the county in May that it would agree to end its contract to run the Harwell jail. The county has not announced how much it expects to spend on the transition to county control or finalized the count of new staffers, but officials plan to have 60 hired in August to start the process.

“We will need to look at how many inmates we will be housing at Harwell and in the interim, our first goal is to get things cleaned up,” Garrett said. “We will be painting, waxing floors and keeping the facility clean, educating inmates on what our policies are and making sure we have well-trained and educated staff over there to keep everyone safe.”

The starting salary for jailers is estimated at $40,310 a year. The position requires a high school diploma or GED, and the minimum age is 18. New hires will go through an eight-week training academy before they start a six-month probationary period. After 18 months on staff, employees will be eligible to apply to attend the McLennan Community College Police Academy at the county’s expense.

As many as 40 LaSalle employees working at Harwell, who already have a jailer license, have expressed interest in joining county jail staff, said jail Lt. Karen Anderson, who is overseeing the county’s communication with LaSalle.

“We got immediate feedback about interest in coming over here,” Anderson said. “We’ve met with different shifts over there, and the response has been really good. But everyone is still trying to figure out what is best for them as we move forward.”

County commissioners announced in May of last year that they were considering taking over operation of Harwell, when the contract with LaSalle increased from about $6.1 million per year to $8 million.

Since the county announced last year it was considering the move to take over Harwell, the facility has failed three state inspections. It passed its latest inspection in May after the state issued a remedial order, which could have resulted in a limit on Harwell’s inmate count if it had also failed the May inspection.

Harwell was built as an overflow facility for McLennan County Jail, but Harwell’s profitability for the companies that have run it has depended largely on the number of federal inmates housed there on a contract basis.

As of late last week, Harwell housed 646 inmates, including 168 federal inmates, 335 McLennan County inmates and 143 from other agencies. McLennan County Jail housed a total of 729 inmates.

Initial plans indicated McLennan County would house federal inmates and local inmates in both jails after the transition. Contracts for Harwell to house inmates from neighboring counties expire in September and likely will not be renewed after the transition. The county has plans to expand mental health and reintegration services using space at Harwell.

“We are planning to expand mental health services for people at Jack Harwell, because there are classrooms set up next door that will be used for that,” Lt. Karen Anderson said. “There will be a transition period, but we will be ready for the move.”

Applications for McLennan County Sheriff’s Office can be found at

Navy SEAL trial exposes divide in normally secretive force

SAN DIEGO — It was called the “The Sewing Circle,” an unlikely name for a secret subsect of Navy SEALs. Its purpose was even more improbable: A chat forum to discuss alleged war crimes they said their chief, a decorated sniper and medic, committed on a recent tour of duty in Iraq.

The WhatsApp group would eventually lead to formal allegations that Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher fatally stabbed a wounded Islamic State captive in his care and shot civilians in Iraq in 2017.

Gallagher, 40, has pleaded not guilty.

A jury of mostly combat Marines will ultimately decide the fate of the 19-year-veteran and Bronze Star recipient charged with murder, attempted murder and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline for posing with the corpse for photographs.

No matter the outcome, the court-martial at Naval Base San Diego has provided a rare view into the insular Navy SEAL community and likely will have a long-term impact on one of the military’s most secretive and revered forces. It has pitted veterans against each other both inside the courtroom and out in a fierce debate over brotherhood, morality and loyalty.

“SEALs, it seems to me, have been seeing themselves as God-like on the battlefield, and there is a real danger in taking that view of one’s unit or one’s self,” said Gary Solis, a former military judge and Marine Corps prosecutor who teaches law at Georgetown. “I think this will alert the SEAL community that the rules apply to them.”

The case has laid bare challenges among U.S. special forces as the United States increasingly relies on such troops, which make up only 2% of the military yet carry out most of its battles around the globe.

A number of special forces members are on trial this year. A U.S. Navy SEAL last month pleaded guilty to hazing and assault charges for his role in the 2017 strangulation of a U.S. Army Green Beret in Africa.

The scandals have prompted a review by the Navy’s top commanders into the behavior of the special warfare teams. During Gallagher’s trial, it was revealed that nearly all his platoon members readily posed for photos with the dead militant and watched as Gallagher read his re-enlistment oath near the body in an impromptu ceremony.

Lt. Jacob Portier, the officer in charge, has been charged separately for overseeing the ceremony and not reporting the alleged stabbing.

The trial also has shown the struggles of military courts in prosecuting alleged war crimes. The lead prosecutor was removed after allegedly tracking the defense team’s emails to find a news leak, and the lead investigator acknowledged on the stand making mistakes.

Closing arguments are expected Monday. A jury of five Marines and two sailors, one a SEAL, will weigh whether Gallagher, on his eighth deployment, went off the rails and fatally stabbed the war prisoner as a kind of trophy kill, or if the boy died from wounds sustained in an airstrike and Gallagher is being falsely accused by junior SEALs trying to permanently oust a platoon chief they hate.

Nearly a dozen SEALs have testified over the past two weeks. Most were granted immunity from being prosecuted for acts they described on the stand.

Seven SEALs said Gallagher unexpectedly stabbed the prisoner on May 3, 2017, moments after he and the other medics treated the 17-year-old boy.

Two SEALs testified they saw Gallagher plunge his knife into his neck, including Special Operator Corey Scott, who stunned the court when he said he was the one who ultimately killed the teen by plugging his breathing tube with his thumb as an act of mercy. The Navy has said it’s considering perjury charges against Scott.

An Iraqi general who handed the wounded prisoner to the SEALs testified that Gallagher did not stab the boy. And Marine Staff Sgt. Giorgio Kirylo said after the militant died that he moved the body to take a photo with it and saw no stab wounds on his neck.

Gallagher also took photos of himself with the corpse. In one picture, he’s holding up his knife in one hand and holding the militant by his hair with his other hand. He boasted in a text, “got him with my hunting knife.” Lawyers say it was a warrior’s attempt at humor.

“The Sewing Circle,” the WhatsApp group chat, formed with a select few members of Alpha platoon after they returned to San Diego from their deployment in 2017.

In the thread, Gallagher was referred to as “El Diablo,” Spanish for “the devil.”

“Not sure how to handle him,” Scott texted. “But he is ready to fight and kill.”

Gallagher’s lawyers say the group chat was used to orchestrate a smear campaign to bring down their demanding platoon chief. A SEAL troop commander told the court that the allegations, which he took no action on for months, were suspect because they came about as Gallagher was being considered for a Silver Star and promotion. Platoon members testified the team was fractured, and the running joke was that if something was missing from a care package, Eddie took it.

But his accusers said it went beyond the theft of sunglasses and snacks. “The Sewing Circle” members tried to distinguish themselves as the “True Brotherhood” vs. the “Real Brotherhood,” which supporters of Gallagher have coined for themselves.

“The Real Brotherhood is people who are OK with war crimes,” said Dylan Dille, a former SEAL sniper from the platoon who testified that Gallagher took shots at civilians from the sniper tower, hitting an old man and young girl. He did not see him pull the trigger.

Defense attorney Timothy Parlatore shot back that maybe the Real Brotherhood “are older guys who don’t like you and other SEALs who tell lies.”

Special Operations Chief Craig Miller, who was also part of “The Sewing Circle,” testified that he saw Gallagher stab the captive multiple times with a custom-made knife Gallagher would carry in the belt loops of his pants. Miller said he told the platoon’s officer in charge about the stabbing during their tour but that nothing happened.

SEAL sniper Dalton Tolbert told the court he did not recall who started the chat group but the intent was to talk with others who were disturbed by what they saw and decide what to do.

“I shot more warning shots to save civilians from Eddie than I ever did at ISIS. I see an issue with that,” Tolbert texted others.

After plans were discussed about going to the commodore, an investigation was opened and Gallagher was arrested.

Weeks before the trial, Tolbert, who was accepted to the famed SEAL Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden, sent a text urging his teammates to speak up no matter what was at stake.

He told the court his dream of doing covert operations with Team 6 is likely over now that he’s been publicly identified in the case.

Official: 10 dead in Dallas-area small plane crash

DALLAS — Ten people were killed when a small airplane crashed into a hangar as it was taking off from a Dallas-area airport Sunday morning, a spokeswoman for the town of Addison, said.

Mary Rosenbleeth said no one aboard the twin-engine plane survived at the Addison Municipal Airport, about 20 miles north of Dallas.

The Beechcraft BE-350 King Air hit an unoccupied hangar soon after 9 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency said that the blaze destroyed the plane but could not confirm how many people were aboard Sunday evening. Video showed black smoke billowing from the building and a gaping hole in the hangar.

Officials have not released the identities of the people who died. Rosenbleeth said the Dallas County medical examiner’s office confirmed the fatalities to the town and that authorities are still working to notify the families of the victims.

An official with the medical examiner’s office told the Associated Press they could not release any information on the crash Sunday evening.

The plane crashed during takeoff and the resulting fire was quickly extinguished, said Edward Martelle, a spokesman for the town immediately north of Dallas.

Dallas County was helping the city of Addison set up a family assistance center for people affected by the crash, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

“It’s a very sad day for Dallas County,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “My prayers are with the families we’re notifying about this tragedy.”

Addison fire spokesman Edward Martelle said the plane was taking off at the south end of the airport and had just lifted off the runway when it veered left, dropped its left wing and went into the hangar.

The fire department had extinguished the fire and all hot spots at the hangar by early afternoon.

FAA and National Transportation Safety Board officials were at the crash site Sunday evening. Martelle said NTSB will be leading the investigation and that they intend to work into the night.

The plane’s tail number and details from the flight manifest have not yet been released.