Wall Street Week Ahead: A lump of coal for "Fiscal Cliff-mas"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street traders are going to have to pack their tablets and work computers in their holiday luggage after all.


A traditionally quiet week could become hellish for traders as politicians in Washington are likely to fall short of an agreement to deal with $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts due to kick in early next year. Many economists forecast that this "fiscal cliff" will push the economy into recession.


Thursday's debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner failed to secure passage of his own bill that was meant to pressure President Obama and Senate Democrats, only added to worry that the protracted budget talks will stretch into 2013.


Still, the market remains resilient. Friday's decline on Wall Street, triggered by Boehner's fiasco, was not enough to prevent the S&P 500 from posting its best week in four.


"The markets have been sort of taking this in stride," said Sandy Lincoln, chief market strategist at BMO Asset Management U.S. in Chicago, which has about $38 billion in assets under management.


"The markets still basically believe that something will be done," he said.


If something happens next week, it will come in a short time frame. Markets will be open for a half-day on Christmas Eve, when Congress will not be in session, and will close on Tuesday for Christmas. Wall Street will resume regular stock trading on Wednesday, but volume is expected to be light throughout the rest of the week with scores of market participants away on a holiday break.


For the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes posted gains, with the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> up 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 <.spx> up 1.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> up 1.7 percent.


Stocks also have booked solid gains for the year so far, with just five trading sessions left in 2012: The Dow has advanced 8 percent, while the S&P 500 has climbed 13.7 percent and the Nasdaq has jumped 16 percent.


IT COULD GET A LITTLE CRAZY


Equity volumes are expected to fall sharply next week. Last year, daily volume on each of the last five trading days dropped on average by about 49 percent, compared with the rest of 2011 - to just over 4 billion shares a day exchanging hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT in the final five sessions of the year from a 2011 daily average of 7.9 billion.


If the trend repeats, low volumes could generate a spike in volatility as traders keep track of any advance in the cliff talks in Washington.


"I'm guessing it's going to be a low volume week. There's not a whole lot other than the fiscal cliff that is going to continue to take the headlines," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, in Cincinnati.


"A lot of people already have a foot out the door, and with the possibility of some market-moving news, you get the possibility of increased volatility."


Economic data would have to be way off the mark to move markets next week. But if the recent trend of better-than-expected economic data holds, stocks will have strong fundamental support that could prevent selling from getting overextended even as the fiscal cliff negotiations grind along.


Small and mid-cap stocks have outperformed their larger peers in the last couple of months, indicating a shift in investor sentiment toward the U.S. economy. The S&P MidCap 400 Index <.mid> overcame a technical level by confirming its close above 1,000 for a second week.


"We view the outperformance of the mid-caps and the break of that level as a strong sign for the overall market," Schaeffer's Bell said.


"Whenever you have flight to risk, it shows investors are beginning to have more of a risk appetite."


Evidence of that shift could be a spike in shares in the defense sector, expected to take a hit as defense spending is a key component of the budget talks.


The PHLX defense sector index <.dfx> hit a historic high on Thursday, and far outperformed the market on Friday with a dip of just 0.26 percent, while the three major U.S. stock indexes finished the day down about 1 percent.


Following a half-day on Wall Street on Monday ahead of the Christmas holiday, Wednesday will bring the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. It is expected to show a ninth-straight month of gains.


U.S. jobless claims on Thursday are seen roughly in line with the previous week's level, with the forecast at 360,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared with the previous week's 361,000.


(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: rodrigo.campos(at)thomsonreuters.com)


(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)



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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors


When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.


"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."


Just a bit.


The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.


"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."


In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).


Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.


"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.


Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.


She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.


By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.


She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."


But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.


Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.


"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."


Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.


She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.


"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."


The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.


"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."


Besides, she's having far too much fun.


Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.


"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."


Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.


No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.


Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.


"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.


Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.


"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


___


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.


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After Mayan Apocalypse Failure, Believers May Suffer






You might expect the world not ending to be a cause for celebration. But for believers in doomsdays like yesterday’s supposed Mayan apocalypse, the continued existence of the planet can be quite traumatic.


Yesterday (Dec. 21) was widely rumored online to be the end of the world, a misunderstanding of a calendar used by the ancient Maya people. Although the Maya made no doomsday predictions, some modern individuals and groups claimed they had foretold the end on Dec. 21, 2012.






Because the doomsday predictions were largely grassroots and spread online, the fallout from their failure is likely to be more varied than in doomsdays past, said Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist. Most of the time, doomsday predictions are made by charismatic leaders, often in cultlike settings. [Tales of the 10 Craziest Cults]


“It appears that believers in the Mayan calendar apocalypse range from troubled individuals to groups following charismatic leaders,” Kent told LiveScience. “Consequently, the fallout could be very complicated.”


When the world won’t end


After a failed doomsday, believers respond with a range of reactions, from disavowing their former apocalyptic beliefs to, surprisingly, believing more than ever. One classic reaction is the one made by Harold Camping, a radio preacher who first predicted Judgment Day in 1994. When that date didn’t pan out, Camping made a common claim among doomsday prophets — the math had been wrong, but the ultimate prophecy would still prove true. He then predicted a widely publicized Judgment Day in May 2011, which also failed to occur. After that failure, Camping claimed the Judgment Day had been “spiritual” in nature and that the world would still end in a few short months.


When that claim also failed, Camping finally admitted his error. Rationalizing and attempting to explain away failure is common among failed doomsday groups, said Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. In some cases, groups even claim that their prayers saved the world. 


The Mayan apocalypse is likely to be different, if only because the Internet is bursting with dozens of contradictory prophecies about the day, DiTommaso told LiveScience.


“There are so many different predictions ridered onto the 2012 phenomenon, everyone’s going to have a different response,” DiTommaso said. “And because it’s not a leader or a church or a doctrine or Karl Marx forecasting what the future is going to be like, there’s not going to be a leader against whom you can forecast your dissatisfaction.”


Facing mortality


Doomsday believers tend to pick up and get on with their lives more successfully if they have strong networks of family and friends, Kent said. The grassroots nature of the Mayan apocalypse predictions is therefore troubling, he said.


“The isolated individuals who encounter these predictions on the Internet may be terribly alone,” he said. Some may be “really quite lost” in the wake of the uneventful day.


“It’s not just the usual suspects,” said DiTommaso of the 2012 apocalypse believers. “Lots of people can buy into 2012 for different reasons.”


Part of the reason that failed doomsdays can be so traumatic, Kent said, is that they appear to be a way that people grapple with their mortality. Believers usually think they’ll survive the end, whether by being one of God’s chosen people, by building an underground bunker, or by hitching a ride on a friendly UFO. If you survive the end of the world, Kent said, you never have to face your own death.


“The believers always predict that their special knowledge will allow them to survive, that they will escape the mortality that all of us face,” Kent said. “And so far, everyone’s been proven wrong on that fact.”


However, hope springs eternal. Matching the dates of the Mayan calendar to our modern calendar is not an exact science, offering doomsday believers a “we got the math wrong” rationalization for the failed prediction.


Already, “there’s a bit of chatter for 2015,” DiTommaso said.


Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+.


Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Will media stay on gun story?






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Howard Kurtz: Conventional wisdom is that media will lose interest in guns

  • He says that's been the pattern of media behavior after Columbine, other shootings

  • This time seems like it might be different, he says

  • Kurtz: Reporters profoundly shaken by story, should stay on it




Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.


(CNN) -- The conventional wisdom is that Newtown has just a few more days to run as a major media story.


The reporters are pulling out of the grief-stricken Connecticut town, which means no more live shots every hour. The White House press corps responded to President Obama's announcement Wednesday of a task force on gun control with the first three reporters asking about the impending fiscal cliff. And after every previous mass shooting, from Columbine to Aurora, the media's attention has soon drifted away.


But I believe this time will be different.



Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz




I believe the horror of 20 young children being gunned down has pricked the conscience of those in the news business, along with the rest of America.


I could be wrong, of course. The press is notorious for suffering from ADD.


But every conversation I've had with journalists has quickly drifted to this subject and just as quickly turned intense. Most have talked about how their thoughts have centered on their children, and grandchildren, and the unspeakable fear of anything happening to them. All have spoken about how hard it is to watch the coverage, and many have recalled crying as they watch interviews with the victims' families, or even when Obama teared up while addressing the nation.


Watch: Blaming Jon Stewart for the Newtown Shootings?


I've watched Fox's Megyn Kelly choke back tears on the air after watching an interview from Newtown. I've heard CNN's Don Lemon admit that he is on the verge of crying all the time. I've seen MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, say that day in Connecticut "changed everything" and prompted him to rethink his longstanding opposition to gun control, which earned him top ratings from the NRA.


Maybe Newtown will be the 9/11 of school safety.


Watch: Media Fantasy: Touting Ben Affleck (Uh Huh) for the Senate








The media paid scant attention to gun control in the past, in part because of a conviction that the NRA would block any reform on Capitol Hill. At the same time, they took their cue from the fact that officeholders in both parties were avoiding the issue at all costs—Republicans because they mainly support the status quo, Democrats because they mostly deem it political poison.


But since when is it our job solely to take dictation from pols? When it comes to subjects like climate change and same-sex marriage, the press has been out ahead of the political establishment. Given the carnage in Newtown as the latest example, journalists should demand whether we can do better. The fact that Obama now promises to submit gun legislation to Congress will help the narrative, but it shouldn't be a mandatory requirement for coverage.


Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown


This is not a plea for a press-driven crusade for gun control. In fact, it's imperative that journalists be seen as honest brokers who are fair to all sides. MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, in an interview with Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who opposes gun restrictions, said: "So we need to just be complacent in the fact that we can send our children to school to be assassinated." That is demonization, just as some conservative pundits are unfairly accusing liberal commentators who push for gun control of "politicizing" a tragedy or of pushing God out of the public schools.


The question of school safety extends beyond guns to mental illness and societal influences. With even some NRA supporters asking why law-abiding hunters need automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, it's time for a nuanced debate that goes beyond the usual finger-pointing. Bob Costas got hammered for using an NFL murder-suicide to raise the gun issue during a halftime commentary, but he was right to broach the subject.


Here is where the media have not just an opportunity but a responsibility. The news business has no problem giving saturation coverage to such salacious stories as David Petraeus' dalliance with Paula Broadwell. Isn't keeping our children safe from lunatics far more important by an order of magnitude?


I think the press is up to the challenge. Based on what I've heard in the voices of people in the profession, they will not soon forget what happened in Newtown. And they shouldn't let the rest of us forget either.


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.






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2 children dead in Englewood fire, 2 others rescued

A 3-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl died this morning after they and two other children were left home alone in the Englewood neighborhood, officials say. (Posted Dec. 22nd, 2012)









A young boy and girl died this morning after they and two other children were left home alone in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side, officials say.


The girl, 2, and the boy, 3, were found in a back bedroom after firefighters cut through burglar bars on the brick and stone two-flat in the 6400 block of South Paulina Street.


"Please, sergeant, please," a relative pleaded with an officer outside the home. "They're 2 and 3 years old."








A hot plate being used for heat sparked the fire while the four children, alone in the apartment, slept in two bedrooms, according to fire officials. Police said the children's mother and aunt were being questioned.


The surviving children, a 7-year-old boy and his 4-year-old brother, were rescued by an aunt and interviewed by investigators at a neighbor's home.


Darnell, 7, said he and Marquis, 4, had fallen asleep watching Batman cartoons. The two other children -- his 2-year-old sister and 3-year-old cousin -- were asleep in another bedroom. When he woke up, the fire was already burning.


"When the fire started, everything shut off," Darnell said.


The boy said he and Marquis were in a bedroom by the kitchen and "the fire was in the front room where the couch is at. When we saw the fire, it was like in the front room, then it was by the bathroom door."


Darnell said his aunt came rushing through the front door. "When (she) saw the fire, she called all our names. When I opened the door, she told me, 'Come on, the fire's getting closer.' I coughed, my auntie was choking. My sister was banging on the door.


"When we got outside, police passed us, then drove backward and came up because there was a fire," he said.


Darnell and Marquis were brought to a neighbor's house, where investigators from the Bomb and Arson unit and the Office of Fire Investigations (OFI) talked to them.


The investigator from OFI squatted down while talking to the boys. Only Darnell spoke. Marquis was quiet the entire time. Darnell spoke to a Tribune reporter afterward as he sat with four neighbors in their home.


The children were later taken into protective custody by the Department of Children and Family Services.


When firefighters arrived around 3:30 a.m., they weren't able to get into the home because of intense heat and fire, a Chicago Fire Department official said. Fire was heavy throughout the basement and first floor, he said.


Firefighters cut through burglar bars on the windows, he said.


The basement windows were all shattered. A white Christmas tree, smudged with smoke, stood near front room window.


A neighbor told an investigator that the second-floor tenants recently moved out of the brick and stone two-flat.


pnickeas@tribune.com


Twitter: @PeterNickeas





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Egypt extends voting on Islamist-drafted charter


CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt extended voting by four hours on Saturday in the second and decisive round of a referendum that was expected to approve the country's new Islamist-drafted constitution after weeks of protests and violence.


Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi, who was elected in June, say the charter is vital to move Egypt towards democracy, nearly two years after an Arab Spring revolution overthrew authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.


It will help restore the stability needed to fix an economy that is on the ropes, they say.


But the opposition says the document is divisive and has accused Mursi of pushing through a text that favors his Islamist allies while ignoring the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.


"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stockbroker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in this round of voting which covers parts of greater Cairo.


At another polling station, some voters said they were more interested in ending Egypt's long period of political instability than in the Islamist aspects of the charter.


"We have to extend our hands to Mursi to help fix the country," said Hisham Kamal, an accountant.


Queues formed at some polling stations around the country and voting was extended by four hours to 11 p.m. (2100 GMT).


Unofficial tallies are likely to emerge within hours of the close, but the referendum committee may not declare an official result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.


CHEATING ALLEGED


As polling opened on Saturday, a coalition of Egyptian rights groups reported a number of alleged irregularities.


They said some polling stations had opened late, that Islamists urging a "yes" vote had illegally campaigned at some stations, and complained of irregularities in voter registration irregularities, including the listing of one dead person.


The first round of voting last week resulted in a 57 percent vote in favor of the constitution, according to unofficial figures.


Analysts expect another "yes" on Saturday because the vote covers rural and other areas seen as having more Islamist sympathizers. Islamists may also be able to count on many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by two years of upheaval.


Among the provisions of the new basic law are a limit of two four-year presidential terms. It says the principles of sharia law remain the main source of legislation but adds an article to explain this further. It also says Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia - a source of concern to Christians and other non-Muslims.


If the constitution is passed, a parliamentary election will be held in about two months. If not, an assembly will have to be set up to draft a new one.


After the first round of voting, the opposition said a litany of alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.


But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said its investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million voters.


There was no indication on Saturday that the alleged abuses were any worse than those claimed during the first round.


MORE UNREST


Even if the charter is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since it has not received broad consensus backing from the population. They say the result may go in Mursi's favor but it will not be the result of a fair vote.


"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.


Protesters accused the president of acting like a pharaoh, and he was forced to issue a second decree two weeks ago that amended a provision putting all his decisions above legal challenge.


Said cited "serious violations" on the first day of voting, and said anger against Mursi and his Islamist allies was growing. "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."


At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals clashed on Friday in the second biggest city of Alexandria, hurling stones at each other. Two buses were torched.


The head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that represents Mursi's power base, said the vote was an opportunity for Egypt to move on.


"After the constitution is settled by the people, the wheels in all areas will turn, even if there are differences here and there," the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, said as he went to vote in Beni Suef, south of Cairo.


"After choosing a constitution, all Egyptians will be moving in the same direction," he said.


The vote was staggered after many judges refused to supervise the ballot, meaning there were not enough to hold the referendum on a single day nationwide.


The first round was won by a slim enough margin to buttress opposition arguments that the text was divisive. Opponents who include liberals, leftists, Christians and more moderate-minded Muslims accuse Islamists of using religion to sway voters.


Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow, albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges that they are exploiting religion and say the document reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.


(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)



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Wall Street drops 1 percent, fiscal deal unlikely before 2013

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks sank more than 1 percent on Friday after a Republican proposal for averting the "fiscal cliff" failed to pass, diminishing hopes a deal would be reached soon in Washington.


Trading is expected to be volatile as investors view a fiscal agreement between the White House and Republicans before the year-end as increasingly unlikely. With volume thin ahead of the holidays, market swings could be amplified. The CBOE Volatility index <.vix> jumped 11.5 percent.


Late on Thursday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner conceded there were insufficient votes from his party to pass a tax bill, dubbed "Plan B," to help avert the cliff, $600 billion of tax hikes and spending cuts due to start in January that could tip the economy into recession.


Plan B had called for tax increases on those who earn $1 million a more a year, and the bill's failure suggested it would be difficult to get Republican support for the more expansive tax increases Obama has urged, making it less likely an agreement will be reached between the White House and Republicans before the end of the year.


"We had been moving in the right direction, but now we need a different deal, and if this radical group of Republicans is so intransigent that they won't do any deal, it will be very difficult," said Wayne Kaufman, chief market analyst at John Thomas Financial in New York.


Banking shares, which outperform in times of economic expansion and have led the market on signs of progress with the fiscal impasse, were among the hardest hit on Friday. Citigroup Inc sank 2.5 percent to $39.15 while Bank of America was off 2.5 percent to $11.23. The KBW Banks index <.bkx> lost 1.4 percent.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 134.93 points, or 1.01 percent, at 13,176.79. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 16.08 points, or 1.11 percent, at 1,427.61. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 45.57 points, or 1.49 percent, at 3,004.82.


The S&P 500 is up about 1 percent on the week and 14 percent on the year, though uncertainty over the cliff may prompt many traders to lock in gains as the year draws to a close.


The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final December reading on consumer sentiment fell to 72.9, weaker than expected, as Americans were rattled by the stalemate in the fiscal negotiations.


Orders for durable goods rose 0.7 percent in November, more than expected, while personal income and spending were also higher than forecast.


Nike Inc and Red Hat Inc were the top two percentage gainers on the S&P 500. Nike rose 4.8 percent to $103.76 after reporting second-quarter earnings that handily beat expectations, while Red Hat gained 4.8 percent to $55.12 on the back of strong revenue.


U.S.-listed shares of Research in Motion slumped 17 percent to $11.70 after reporting its first-ever decline in its subscriber numbers late Thursday.


(Editing by Bernadette Baum)



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AP IMPACT: Big Pharma cashes in on HGH abuse


A federal crackdown on illicit foreign supplies of human growth hormone has failed to stop rampant misuse, and instead has driven record sales of the drug by some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, an Associated Press investigation shows.


The crackdown, which began in 2006, reduced the illegal flow of unregulated supplies from China, India and Mexico.


But since then, Big Pharma has been satisfying the steady desires of U.S. users and abusers, including many who take the drug in the false hope of delaying the effects of aging.


From 2005 to 2011, inflation-adjusted sales of HGH were up 69 percent, according to an AP analysis of pharmaceutical company data collected by the research firm IMS Health. Sales of the average prescription drug rose just 12 percent in that same period.


___


EDITOR'S NOTE — Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the second of a two-part series.


___


Unlike other prescription drugs, HGH may be prescribed only for specific uses. U.S. sales are limited by law to treat a rare growth defect in children and a handful of uncommon conditions like short bowel syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome, a congenital disease that causes reduced muscle tone and a lack of hormones in sex glands.


The AP analysis, supplemented by interviews with experts, shows too many sales and too many prescriptions for the number of people known to be suffering from those ailments. At least half of last year's sales likely went to patients not legally allowed to get the drug. And U.S. pharmacies processed nearly double the expected number of prescriptions.


Peddled as an elixir of life capable of turning middle-aged bodies into lean machines, HGH — a synthesized form of the growth hormone made naturally by the human pituitary gland — winds up in the eager hands of affluent, aging users who hope to slow or even reverse the aging process.


Experts say these folks don't need the drug, and may be harmed by it. The supposed fountain-of-youth medicine can cause enlargement of breast tissue, carpal tunnel syndrome and swelling of hands and feet. Ironically, it also can contribute to aging ailments like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.


Others in the medical establishment also are taking a fat piece of the profits — doctors who fudge prescriptions, as well as pharmacists and distributors who are content to look the other way. HGH also is sold directly without prescriptions, as new-age snake oil, to patients at anti-aging clinics that operate more like automated drug mills.


Years of raids, sports scandals and media attention haven't stopped major drugmakers from selling a whopping $1.4 billion worth of HGH in the U.S. last year. That's more than industry-wide annual gross sales for penicillin or prescription allergy medicine. Anti-aging HGH regimens vary greatly, with a yearly cost typically ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 for three to six self-injections per week.


Across the U.S., the medication is often dispensed through prescriptions based on improper diagnoses, carefully crafted to exploit wiggle room in the law restricting use of HGH, the AP found.


HGH is often promoted on the Internet with the same kind of before-and-after photos found in miracle diet ads, along with wildly hyped claims of rapid muscle growth, loss of fat, greater vigor, and other exaggerated benefits to adults far beyond their physical prime. Sales also are driven by the personal endorsement of celebrities such as actress Suzanne Somers.


Pharmacies that once risked prosecution for using unauthorized, foreign HGH — improperly labeled as raw pharmaceutical ingredients and smuggled across the border — now simply dispense name brands, often for the same banned uses. And usually with impunity.


Eight companies have been granted permission to market HGH by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which reviews the benefits and risks of new drug products. By contrast, three companies are approved for the diabetes drug insulin.


The No. 1 maker, Roche subsidiary Genentech, had nearly $400 million in HGH sales in the U.S. last year, up an inflation-adjusted two-thirds from 2005. Pfizer and Eli Lilly were second and third with $300 million and $220 million in sales, respectively, according to IMS Health. Pfizer now gets more revenue from its HGH brand, Genotropin, than from Zoloft, its well-known depression medicine that lost patent protection.


On their face, the numbers make no sense to the recognized hormone doctors known as endocrinologists who provide legitimate HGH treatment to a small number of patients.


Endocrinologists estimate there are fewer than 45,000 U.S. patients who might legitimately take HGH. They would be expected to use roughly 180,000 prescriptions or refills each year, given that typical patients get three months' worth of HGH at a time, according to doctors and distributors.


Yet U.S. pharmacies last year supplied almost twice that much HGH — 340,000 orders — according to AP's analysis of IMS Health data.


While doctors say more than 90 percent of legitimate patients are children with stunted growth, 40 percent of 442 U.S. side-effect cases tied to HGH over the last year involved people age 18 or older, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. The average adult's age in those cases was 53, far beyond the prime age for sports. The oldest patients were in their 80s.


Some of these medical records even give explicit hints of use to combat aging, justifying treatment with reasons like fatigue, bone thinning and "off-label," which means treatment of an unapproved condition. In other cases, the drug was used "for an unknown indication," meaning that the reason for treatment wasn't clear.


Even Medicare, the government health program for older Americans, allowed 22,169 HGH prescriptions in 2010, a five-year increase of 78 percent, according to data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in response to an AP public records request. And nearly half the increase came in one year: 2007.


"There's no question: a lot gets out," said hormone specialist Dr. Mark Molitch of Northwestern University, who helped write medical standards meant to limit HGH treatment to legitimate patients.


And those figures don't include HGH sold directly by doctors without prescriptions at scores of anti-aging medical practices and clinics around the country. Those numbers could only be tallied by drug makers, who have declined to say how many patients they supply and for what conditions.


The AP approached every U.S.-authorized manufacturer to ask what efforts they make to market responsibly and prevent abuse. Only one HGH supplier, Novo Nordisk, agreed to an interview.


"We're doing our level best to make sure that the right patients are getting the right medicine at the right time," said company spokesman Ken Inchausti.


He said the company is aware of the abuse issue. He said if patients apply for assistance from the company's patient-support hub, prescriptions will be flagged for review if they are missing the most rigorous test or an endocrinologist's signature. He said the company won't sell HGH directly to doctors accused of bad practices and does not deal with anti-aging clinics.


Representatives of other FDA-approved HGH makers insist they do not encourage use by bodybuilders or athletes or wealthy baby boomers trying to recapture their youth. But some said they are largely powerless to control who uses their medications or why.


"Lilly cannot restrict the actions of distributors, pharmacies or doctors," Eli Lilly spokeswoman Kelley Murphy said in a written statement.


That argument doesn't fly for critics like Dr. Peter Rost, a retired Pfizer executive who filed a whistleblower lawsuit over the HGH marketing practices of Pharmacia, which later merged with Pfizer. He said drug companies are simply looking the other way and betting that their profits will eclipse the cost of any fines.


They view it as "good business," he said.


___


PEDDLED ON INTERNET


Type "human growth hormone" into any Internet search engine, and it will spit back countless websites with overblown promises of smoother skin, better sex, weight loss and even renewed body organs.


Any doctor who actually prescribes the drug for those purposes is taking a legal risk.


FDA regulations ban the sale of HGH as an anti-aging drug. In fact, since 1990, prescribing it for things like weight loss and strength conditioning has been punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison.


Such marketing claims are routinely made at hormone clinics like Palm Beach Life Extension, whose owners are among 13 people now awaiting trial on federal charges in Florida in a steroids and HGH distribution case brought last year.


"Grow YOUNG with Us!" screamed a banner on the company's now-defunct website, which advertised that HGH can reduce body fat, improve vision, strengthen the immune system, aid kidney function, lower blood pressure and enhance memory and mood.


The clinic arranged to have its clients' prescriptions filled at Treasure Coast Pharmacy, in Jensen Beach, Fla.


In 2009, the FBI recorded a phone call between the pharmacy's owner, Peter Del Toro, and a doctor in Elkton, Md., who was cooperating with agents after being implicated in a related steroid-distribution case.


Their talk, documented in a court filing, illustrates how things often work in the networks of pharmacies and clinics that drive HGH sales.


Patients submitted a medical history form by mail and took a blood test. But in most instances, the indictment said, the evaluation was a sham: One doctor was charged with giving a clinic a pad of blank, signed prescriptions to save him the chore of signing off on each diagnosis. He got $50 for every drug order bearing his name, the indictment said.


Dr. Rodney Baltazar, the Maryland physician cooperating with the FBI, sometimes consulted briefly with patients via webcam. But he made it clear in the call that those evaluations were perfunctory at best.


Baltazar was a gynecologist, not an endocrinologist. He said he knew "a little bit" about HGH and testosterone, which are often prescribed in tandem, but he relied largely on clinic salespeople to set doses.


The pharmacist coached the doctor: Keep detailed medical charts documenting that patients are taking the drug for at least some kind of health problem, just in case the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ever came calling.


"Because somebody questions you, you want to be able to say, 'Here, look at his chart. You know, he's got fatigue. He's got, you know, a decreased sex drive. He's got increased body fat. He has some -- some slight depression, probably.' Whatever his signs and symptoms are."


None of these conditions is a legal reason to prescribe HGH. But the pharmacist said that most investigators will be satisfied and move on "because there's guys that are just selling stuff basically like a boiler room."


Del Toro was arrested along with 12 other people in September 2011 on charges that they distributed steroids and human growth hormone to people who had no legitimate medical need. He is awaiting trial. His lawyer declined to comment. Baltazar was sentenced to six months in prison for involvement in steroid distribution schemes.


At the height of the crackdown in 2007, the federal government went after Pfizer in a case involving anti-aging clinics. The company paid $34.7 million in fines to settle the case — 11 percent of the company's annual revenue from the drug.


___


TROUBLED HISTORY


Blockbuster U.S. sales of HGH represent the latest frustration in 25 years of government efforts to control abuse of the growth drug made infamous by sports scandals.


First marketed in 1985 for children with stunted growth, HGH was soon misappropriated by adults intent on exploiting its modest muscle- and bone-building qualities. Congress limited HGH distribution to the handful of rare conditions in an extraordinary 1990 law, overriding the generally unrestricted right of doctors to prescribe medicines as they see fit.


Despite the law, illicit HGH spread around the sports world in the 1990s, making deep inroads into bodybuilding, college athletics, and professional leagues from baseball to cycling. The even larger banned market among older adults has flourished more recently.


For years, cheaper supplies from unauthorized foreign factories, particularly in China, fed the market via direct and Internet sales that sidestepped the medical establishment.


Though such shipments were banned under other law, the imports initially attracted little attention because they were usually labeled as raw pharmaceutical ingredients, which compounding pharmacies are allowed to bring into the country.


That flow began to be curtailed in 2006, when U.S. drug authorities stepped up efforts to block shipments at the border.


A handful of pharmacies across the country were hit with criminal charges over their handling of HGH. Federal prosecutors charged China's biggest HGH maker, GeneScience Pharmaceutical, with illegally distributing its Jintropin brand in the U.S. The company's CEO pleaded guilty in 2010.


With illicit supplies crimped, many pharmacies stopped selling unauthorized HGH. But tens of thousands of adult abusers began buying pricey U.S.-approved HGH that remained available in abundant supply, the AP found in its analysis of sales data.


Thus, pushed by a powerful demand, sales of U.S.-approved brands have swelled far beyond expected levels for a drug approved in just a handful of rare conditions.


Dr. Robert Marcus, a retired hormone specialist who left HGH manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. in 2008, said that company was bent on stopping foreign counterfeits, not on cutting off abusers. "That's where their major level of frustration was — pharmaceutical fraud — rather than focusing on people who were using growth hormone illegitimately," he said.


Dr. Jim Meehan, of Tulsa, Okla., who has used HGH to treat aging problems and sports injuries, said the federal clampdown "never seemed to affect my patients and their ability to get Omnitrope, Tev-Tropin" and other government-approved brands.


The big drug companies have applauded the foreign crackdown and urged the government to do even more to combat sales of fake or fraudulently labeled HGH. In 2004, Bruce Kuhlik, speaking for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told a federal task force that unauthorized drug importation "is inherently unsafe" and industry representatives used Chinese HGH imports as their poster child.


In 2007, as the HGH embargo gained momentum, authorized makers picked up 41 percent more HGH orders, raising their annual total from 245,000 to 345,000, according to the analysis of the IMS Health data. Similarly, most of the drug's sales boom happened in the first two years of the crackdown, with 46 percent inflation-adjusted growth in yearly sales to $1.1 billion.


Steve Kleppe, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a restaurant entrepreneur who has taken HGH for almost 15 years to keep feeling young, said he noticed a price jump of about 25 percent after the block on imports. He now buys HGH directly from a doctor at an annual cost of about $8,000 for himself and the same amount for his wife.


Despite higher prices, the business has expanded in recent years largely on the strength of sales to healthy adults who can afford to indulge their hope of retaining youthful vigor.


___


GROWING OLD


Many older patients go for HGH treatment to scores of anti-aging practices and clinics heavily concentrated in retirement states like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.


These sites are affiliated with hundreds of doctors who are rarely endocrinologists. Instead, many tout certification by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, though the medical establishment does not recognize the group's bona fides.


The clinics offer personalized programs of "age management" to business executives, affluent retirees, and other patients of means, sometimes coupled with the amenities of a vacation resort.


The clinics insist there are few, if any, side effects from HGH. Mainstream medical authorities say otherwise.


A 2007 review of 31 medical studies showed swelling in half of HGH patients, with joint pain or diabetes in more than a fifth. A French study of about 7,000 people who took HGH as children found a 30 percent higher risk of death from causes like bone tumors and stroke, stirring a health advisory from U.S. authorities.


For proof that the drug works, marketers turn to images like the memorable one of pot-bellied septuagenarian Dr. Jeffry Life, supposedly transformed into a ripped hulk of himself by his own program available at the upscale Las Vegas-based Cenegenics Elite Health. (He declined to be interviewed.)


These promoters of HGH say there is a connection between the drop-off in growth hormone levels through adulthood and the physical decline that begins in late middle age. Replace the hormone, they say, and the aging process slows.


"It's an easy ruse. People equate hormones with youth," said Dr. Tom Perls, a leading industry critic who does aging research at Boston University. "It's a marketing dream come true."


Some scientific studies of HGH have found modest benefits: some muscle and bone building, as well as limited fat loss, but nothing like the claims of the anti-aging industry. And some of the value credited to HGH may instead come from testosterone, which is routinely provided with HGH by anti-aging doctors and sports suppliers.


Endocrinologists say it's natural for the body to produce less growth hormone as people age beyond their early 20s, because they aren't growing anymore. Only a tiny number of adults with extraordinarily low HGH levels — perhaps several thousand of them — are believed to suffer real deficiencies that can properly be treated with the hormone.


Still, anti-aging doctors routinely diagnose otherwise healthy middle-aged people with an HGH deficiency, simply because their levels are lower than in young adults. "Basically anyone going through midlife," can benefit from the drug, declared one prescriber, Dr. Howard Elkin, of Whittier, Calif., who has himself competed as a bodybuilder.


Dr. Kenneth Knott, of Marietta, Ga., said HGH helps his older patients feel "more vibrant" and look "more alive."


Like many anti-aging doctors, he diagnoses patients by testing for a blood component called insulin growth factor, which is indirectly tied to HGH. Endocrinologists use a more authoritative test that stimulates the pituitary gland to make HGH itself. Nearly all insurers insist on this stimulation testing, and that's why clinic patients almost always pay for HGH out of their own pockets.


Bob Vitols, a 50-year-old lab assistant at a veterinary medicine company in Lincoln, Neb., is a rare exception. His unusually generous health plan isn't allowed to challenge a doctor's prescription.


Four years ago, Vitols began feeling run down. So he Googled his symptoms on the Internet, decided he had a hormone deficiency, and sought out a clinic.


One doctor put him on testosterone replacement therapy. A second clinic added HGH after diagnosing him with osteopenia, a mild bone thinning common in aging adults. It is not, however, a condition that can properly be treated with HGH.


Despite the diagnosis, the treatments — which can cost $10,000 per year — have been covered by his health insurance, he said. He takes Genotropin, the HGH made by Pfizer. His prescriptions are filled via mail order by CVS Caremark Corp., one of the largest dispensers of prescription drugs in the U.S.


Vitols said the drug changed his life: his mood is better, and he isn't burning out every day at 2 p.m. "I feel like I could walk outside and just walk through a fence — and come out fine on the other side," he said.


His experiences with the drug haven't all been positive, though. Vitols said he initially developed elevated liver enzymes and went to a specialist, who told him to stop taking hormones immediately.


Instead, Vitols said, he adjusted his dosage, and the problem disappeared.


He also dumped the specialist:


"I could tell he was against hormones right at the start," Vitols said.


___


Associated Press Writer David Caruso reported from New York and AP National Writer Jeff Donn reported from Plymouth, Mass. AP Writer Troy Thibodeaux provided data analysis assistance from New Orleans.


___


AP's interactive on the HGH investigation: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/hgh


___


The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org


EDITOR'S NOTE _ Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the second of a two-part series.


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Goodbye, U.S. Postal Service?




This Christmas could be the Post Office's last, says John Avlon.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • The U.S. Postal Service is bleeding money and heading toward insolvency

  • John Avlon: Congress can save the postal service in deal on the fiscal cliff

  • He says the urgency is clear, let's hope for a Christmas miracle

  • Avlon: But be prepared that Washington dysfunction can doom the postal service




Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.


(CNN) -- It's the time of year for dashing through the snow to the crowded post office, with arms full of holiday gifts for family and friends.


Not to break the atmosphere of holiday cheer, but this Christmas could be the last for the U.S. Postal Service. It is losing $25 million dollars a day and staring down insolvency -- unless Congress steps in to pass a reform package that reduces its costs.


With just a few days left in the congressional calendar, there is still some small hope for a Christmas miracle -- maybe the Postal Service can be saved as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff. But with even Hurricane Sandy relief stalled, skepticism is growing.



John Avlon

John Avlon



The real question is, what's taken them so long? After all, back in April the Senate passed an imperfect but bipartisan bill by 62-37. It would have saved some $20 billion, cut some 100 distribution centers, and reduced head count by an additional 100,000 through incentives for early retirement, while reducing red tape to encourage entrepreneurialism and keeping Saturday delivery in place for at least another two years. At the time, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said, "The situation is not hopeless; the situation is dire. My hope is that our friends over in the U.S. House, given the bipartisan steps we took this week, will feel a sense of urgency."



To which the House might as well have replied, "Not so much."


In August, the Postal Service defaulted for the first time, unable to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirees' health benefits. The headline in Government Executive magazine said it all: "Postal Service defaults, Congress does nothing."


The usual suspects were at fault -- hyperpartisan politics and the ideological arrogance that always makes the perfect the enemy of the good.


House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa greeted the news of the Senate bill by calling it a "taxpayer-funded bailout." His primary complaint was that the Senate bill did not go far enough. He was not alone -- Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also expressed disappointment at the scope of the Senate bill, saying that it fell "far short of the Postal Service's plan."






But Issa's alternative couldn't even get to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And so nothing happened. Even after the USPS defaulted on a second $5.5 billion payment, the response was crickets.


Washington insiders said that action would be taken after the election, when lawmakers would be free to make potentially unpopular decisions. But despite a series of closed-door meetings, nothing has been done.


It's possible that the nearly $20 billion in savings could be part of a fiscal cliff deal. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested that ending Saturday delivery, except for packages, could be part of a compromise that could save big bucks down the road. Another aspect of a savings plan could be suspending the USPS' onerous obligation to fully fund its pension costs upfront, a requirement that would push many businesses into bankruptcy. And last fiscal year, the post office posted a record $15.9 billion loss.


"As the nation creeps toward the 'fiscal cliff,' the U.S. Postal Service is clearly marching toward a financial collapse of its own," says Carper. "The Postal Service's financial crisis is growing worse, not better. It is imperative that Congress get to work on this issue and find a solution immediately. ... Recently key House and Senate leaders on postal reform have had productive discussions on a path forward, and while there may be some differences of opinion in some of the policy approaches needed to save the Postal Service, there is broad agreement that reform needs to happen -- the sooner the better."


The urgency couldn't be clearer -- but even at this yuletide 11th hour, signs of progress are slim to none. If Congress fails to pass a bill, we'll be back to square one in the new year, with the Senate needing to pass a new bill which will then have to be ratified by the House. There is just no rational reason to think that lift will be any easier in the next Congress than in the current lame duck Congress, where our elected officials are supposedly more free to do the right thing, freed from electoral consequences.


So as you crowd your local post office this holiday season, look around and realize that the clock is ticking. The Postal Service is fighting for its life. And Congress seems determined to ignore its cries for help.


"Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night" can stop the U.S. Postal Service from making its appointed rounds -- but congressional division and dysfunction apparently can.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.






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Criminal charges filed in deadly Indianapolis home explosion









INDIANAPOLIS — Prosecutors say criminal charges have been filed in the massive house explosion last month that killed an Indianapolis couple and decimated their neighborhood.


Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry is scheduled to discuss the charges during a Friday morning news conference.


Authorities have said they believe the Nov. 10 explosion was intentional and caused by natural gas, but have released few other details.


Prosecutor's spokeswoman Brienne Delaney says information on the criminal charges has been sealed by a judge.


The explosion killed Jennifer and John Longworth, who lived next door to the house believed to be the epicenter of the blast.


About 90 homes in the subdivision were damaged, costing an estimated $4.4 million.



Associated Press




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Syrian rebels fight for strategic town in Hama province


BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's minority sect, activists said.


The operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the 21-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule - during which the president's Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority - rumbles on.


Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.


They were also planning to take the town of Maan, arguing that the army was present there and in al-Tleisia and was hindering their advance on nearby Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground in the conflict.


"The rockets are being fired from there, they are being fired from Maan and al-Tleisia, we have taken two checkpoints in the southern town of Morek. If we want to control it then we need to take Maan," said a rebel captain in Hama rural area, who asked not to be named.


Activists said heavy army shelling had targeted the town of Halfaya, captured by rebels two days earlier. Seven people were killed, 30 were wounded, and dozens of homes were destroyed, said activist Safi al-Hamawi.


Hama is home to dozens of Alawite and Christian villages among Sunni towns, and activists said it may be necessary to lay siege to many minority areas to seize Morek. Rebels want to capture Morek to cut off army supply lines into northern Idlib, a province on the northern border with Turkey where rebels hold swathes of territory.


From an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Alawites have largely stood behind Assad, many out of fear of revenge attacks. Christians and some other minorities have claimed neutrality, with a few joining the rebels and a more sizeable portion of them supporting the government out of fear of hardline Islamism that has taken root in some rebel groups.


Activists in Hama said rebels were also surrounding the Christian town of al-Suqeilabiya and might enter the city to take out army positions as well as those of "shabbiha" - pro-Assad militias, the bulk of whom are usually Alawite but can also include Christians and even Sunnis.


"We have been in touch with Christian opposition activists in al-Suqeilabiya and we have told them to stay downstairs or on the lowest floor of their building as possible, and not to go outside. The rebels have promised not to hurt anyone who stays at home," said activist Mousab al-Hamdee, speaking by Skype.


He said he was optimistic that potential sectarian tensions with Christians could be resolved but that Sunni-Alawite strife may be harder to suppress.


SECTARIAN FEARS


U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday that Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters - mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.


"They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighboring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one of the U.N. investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.


Deeper sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for post-conflict reconciliation even if Assad is ousted, and the influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into neighboring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.


Some activists privately voiced concerns of sectarian violence, but the rebel commander in Hama said fighters had been told "violations" would not be tolerated and argued that the move to attack the towns was purely strategic.


"If we are fired at from a Sunni village that is loyal to the regime we go in and we liberate it and clean it," he said. "So should we not do the same when it comes to an Alawite village just because there is a fear of an all-out sectarian war? We respond to the source of fire."


President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.


The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding Assad after Moscow blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.


Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.


A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances, but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.


Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.


Rebels said on Thursday they had negotiated to put the camp - actually a densely packed urban district - back into the hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.


Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.


A resident in Damascus said dozens of families were returning to the camp but that the army had erected checkpoints. Many families were still hesitant to return.


LEBANON BORDER POST TAKEN


Elsewhere, Syrian insurgents took over an isolated border post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week, local residents told Reuters on Thursday.


The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria's northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.


They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the remote Lebanese village of Tufail.


Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated December 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around a small, single-storey army checkpoint.


Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.


Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.


The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors from the government as well as from the army, though only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.


The conflict has divided many Syrian families. Security forces on Thursday arrested an opposition activist who is also the relative of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian Observatory said. The man was arrested along with five other activists who are considered pacifists, it said.


Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has few powers in Assad's Alawite-dominated power structure, said earlier this week that neither side could win the war in Syria. He called for the formation of a national unity government.


(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Osborn)



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Wall Street ticks lower on "fiscal cliff" stalemate

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged slightly lower on Thursday as investors fretted that a deal on the U.S. budget wouldn't come as soon as they had hoped after President Barack Obama threatened to veto a controversial Republican plan.


The market barely reacted to a round of strong data, including on gross domestic product growth and housing, suggesting talks to avert the "fiscal cliff," steep tax hikes and spending cuts due to take effect in 2013, remain the primary focus for markets.


Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said Wednesday his chamber would pass a proposal that spares many wealthy Americans from tax hikes needed to balance the budget. Obama has threatened to veto the plan if it passes, while some Republicans oppose any deal featuring tax increases.


"The closer we get to the end of the year without a deal, the more optimism is going to evaporate," said Todd Schoenberger, managing partner at LandColt Capital in New York. "Volatility is going to be extreme until there's a deal, and the probability of being caught on the downside is much greater than being on the upside."


While investors have hoped for an agreement soon between policy makers over the fiscal cliff, this seems unlikely as wrangling continues over the details.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 18.74 points, or 0.14 percent, at 13,233.23. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.84 points, or 0.06 percent, at 1,434.97. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 4.18 points, or 0.14 percent, at 3,040.18.


NYSE Euronext was the S&P 500's top percentage gainer, surging 35 percent to $32.56 after IntercontinentalExchange Inc said it would buy the operator of the New York Stock Exchange for $8.2 billion. ICE shares rose 1.3 percent to $130.06.


Stocks rallied earlier in the week on signs of progress in the negotiations, led by banking and energy shares, which tend to outperform in times of economic expansion. On signs of complications, however, many have turned to hedging their bets through options and exchange-traded funds.


The U.S. economy grew 3.1 percent in the third quarter, faster than previously estimated, while the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose more than expected in the latest week.


"It is great to see this kind of growth, but investors know it could all disappear if there's no deal on the cliff," Schoenberger said. "Macro data may be on the back burner for a while."


Existing home sales jumped 5.9 percent in November, more than expected, and by the fastest monthly place in three years. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's December index of business conditions in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region rose to 8.1 from -10.7 in November. Analysts were looking for a read of -3.


Google Inc agreed to sell set-top TV box maker Motorola Home to Arris Group Inc for $2.35 billion in cash and stock. Arris rose 6.6 percent to $15.51 while Google was little changed.


(Editing by Bernadette Baum)



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AP IMPACT: Steroids loom in major-college football


WASHINGTON (AP) — With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football players are packing on significant weight — 30 pounds or more in a single year, sometimes — without drawing much attention from their schools or the NCAA in a sport that earns tens of billions of dollars for teams.


Rules vary so widely that, on any given game day, a team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive.


An investigation by The Associated Press — based on dozens of interviews with players, testers, dealers and experts and an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players — revealed that while those running the multibillion-dollar sport believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.


The sport's near-zero rate of positive steroids tests isn't an accurate gauge among college athletes. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Colleges also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they're doing everything they can to keep drugs out of football.


"It's nothing like what's going on in reality," said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting the NCAA's laboratory tests at UCLA. He became so frustrated with the college system that it drove him in part to leave the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.


Catlin said the collegiate system, in which players often are notified days before a test and many schools don't even test for steroids, is designed to not catch dopers. That artificially reduces the numbers of positive tests and keeps schools safe from embarrassing drug scandals.


While other major sports have been beset by revelations of steroid use, college football has operated with barely a whiff of scandal. Between 1996 and 2010 — the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong — the failure rate for NCAA steroid tests fell even closer to zero from an already low rate of less than 1 percent.


The AP's investigation, drawing upon more than a decade of official rosters from all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, found thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight, even more than their fellow players. The information compiled by the AP included players who appeared for multiple years on the same teams, making it the most comprehensive data available.


For decades, scientific studies have shown that anabolic steroid use leads to an increase in body weight. Weight gain alone doesn't prove steroid use, but very rapid weight gain is one factor that would be deemed suspicious, said Kathy Turpin, senior director of sport drug testing for the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which conducts tests for the NCAA and more than 300 schools.


Yet the NCAA has never studied weight gain or considered it in regard to its steroid testing policies, said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety. She would not speculate on the cause of such rapid weight gain.


The NCAA attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug testing program, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools.


"The effort has been increasing, and we believe it has driven down use," Wilfert said.


Big gains, data show


The AP's analysis found that, regardless of school, conference and won-loss record, many players gained weight at exceptional rates compared with their fellow athletes and while accounting for their heights. The documented weight gains could not be explained by the amount of money schools spent on weight rooms, trainers and other football expenses.


Adding more than 20 or 25 pounds of lean muscle in a year is nearly impossible through diet and exercise alone, said Dan Benardot, director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University.


The AP's analysis corrected for the fact that players in different positions have different body types, so speedy wide receivers weren't compared to bulkier offensive tackles. It could not assess each player's physical makeup, such as how much weight gain was muscle versus fat, one indicator of steroid use. In the most extreme case in the AP analysis, the probability that a player put on so much weight compared with other players was so rare that the odds statistically were roughly the same as an NFL quarterback throwing 12 passing touchdowns or an NFL running back rushing for 600 yards in one game.


In nearly all the rarest cases of weight gain in the AP study, players were offensive or defensive linemen, hulking giants who tower above 6-foot-3 and weigh 300 pounds or more. Four of those players interviewed by the AP said that they never used steroids and gained weight through dramatic increases in eating, up to six meals a day. Two said they were aware of other players using steroids.


"I just ate. I ate 5-6 times a day," said Clint Oldenburg, who played for Colorado State starting in 2002 and for five years in the NFL. Oldenburg's weight increased over four years from 212 to 290, including a one-year gain of 53 pounds, which he attributed to diet and two hours of weight lifting daily. "It wasn't as difficult as you think. I just ate anything."


Oldenburg told the AP he was surprised at the scope of steroid use in college football, even in Colorado State's locker room. "College performance enhancers were more prevalent than I thought," he said. "There were a lot of guys even on my team that were using." He declined to identify any of them.


The AP found more than 4,700 players — or about 7 percent of all players — who gained more than 20 pounds overall in a single year. It was common for the athletes to gain 10, 15 and up to 20 pounds in their first year under a rigorous regimen of weightlifting and diet. Others gained 25, 35 and 40 pounds in a season. In roughly 100 cases, players packed on as much 80 pounds in a single year.


In at least 11 instances, players that AP identified as packing on significant weight in college went on to fail NFL drug tests. But pro football's confidentiality rules make it impossible to know for certain which drugs were used and how many others failed tests that never became public.


What is bubbling under the surface in college football, which helps elite athletes gain unusual amounts of weight? Without access to detailed information about each player's body composition, drug testing and workout regimen, which schools do not release, it's impossible to say with certainty what's behind the trend. But Catlin has little doubt: It is steroids.


"It's not brain surgery to figure out what's going on," he said. "To me, it's very clear."


Football's most infamous steroid user was Lyle Alzado, who became a star NFL defensive end in the 1970s and '80s before he admitted to juicing his entire career. He started in college, where the 190-pound freshman gained 40 pounds in one year. It was a 21 percent jump in body mass, a tremendous gain that far exceeded what researchers have seen in controlled, short-term studies of steroid use by athletes. Alzado died of brain cancer in 1992.


The AP found more than 130 big-time college football players who showed comparable one-year gains in the past decade. Students posted such extraordinary weight gains across the country, in every conference, in nearly every school. Many of them eclipsed Alzado and gained 25, 35, even 40 percent of their body mass.


Even though testers consider rapid weight gain suspicious, in practice it doesn't result in testing. Ben Lamaak, who arrived at Iowa State in 2006, said he weighed 225 pounds in high school and 262 pounds in the summer of his freshman year on the Cyclones football team. A year later, official rosters showed the former basketball player from Cedar Rapids weighed 306, a gain of 81 pounds since high school. He graduated as a 320-pound offensive lineman and said he did it all naturally.


"I was just a young kid at that time, and I was still growing into my body," he said. "It really wasn't that hard for me to gain the weight. I had fun doing it. I love to eat. It wasn't a problem."


In addition to random drug testing, Iowa State is one of many schools that have "reasonable suspicion" testing. That means players can be tested when their behavior or physical symptoms suggest drug use.


Despite gaining 81 pounds in a year, Lamaak said he was never singled out for testing.


The associate athletics director for athletic training at Iowa State, Mark Coberley, said coaches and trainers use body composition, strength data and other factors to spot suspected cheaters. Lamaak, he said, was not suspicious because he gained a lot of "non-lean" weight.


"There are a lot of things that go into trying to identify whether guys are using performance-enhancing drugs," Coberley said. "If anybody had the answer, they'd be spotting people that do it. We keep our radar up and watch for things that are suspicious and try to protect the kids from making stupid decisions."


There's no evidence that Lamaak's weight gain was anything but natural. Gaining fat is much easier than gaining muscle. But colleges don't routinely release information on how much of the weight their players gain is muscle, as opposed to fat. Without knowing more, said Benardot, the expert at Georgia State, it's impossible to say whether large athletes were putting on suspicious amounts of muscle or simply obese, which is defined as a body mass index greater than 30.


Looking solely at the most significant weight gainers also ignores players like Bryan Maneafaiga.


In the summer of 2004, Maneafaiga was an undersized 180-pound running back trying to make the University of Hawaii football team. Twice — once in pre-season and once in the fall — he failed school drug tests, showing up positive for marijuana use. What surprised him was that the same tests turned up negative for steroids.


He'd started injecting stanozolol, a steroid, in the summer to help bulk up to a roster weight of 200 pounds. Once on the team, where he saw only limited playing time, he'd occasionally inject the milky liquid into his buttocks the day before games.


"Food and good training will only get you so far," he told the AP recently.


Maneafaiga's coach, June Jones, meanwhile, said none of his players had tested positive for doping since he took over the team in 1999. He also said publicly that steroids had been eliminated in college football: "I would say 100 percent," he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2006.


Jones said it was news to him that one of his players had used steroids. Jones, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, said many of his former players put on bulk working hard in the weight room. For instance, adding 70 pounds over a three- to four-year period isn't unusual, he said.


Jones said a big jump in muscle year-over-year — say 40 pounds — would be a "red light that something is not right."


Jones, a former NFL head coach, said he is unaware of any steroid use at SMU and believes the NCAA is doing a good job testing players. "I just think because the way the NCAA regulates it now that it's very hard to get around those tests," he said.


The cost of testing


While the use of drugs in professional sports is a question of fairness, use among college athletes is also important as a public policy issue. That's because most top-tier football teams are from public schools that benefit from millions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies. Their athletes are essentially wards of the state. Coaches and trainers — the ones who tell players how to behave, how to exercise and what to eat — are government employees.


Then there are the health risks, which include heart and liver problems and cancer.


On paper, college football has a strong drug policy. The NCAA conducts random, unannounced drug testing and the penalties for failure are severe. Players lose an entire year of eligibility after a first positive test. A second offense means permanent ineligibility from sports.


In practice, though, the NCAA's roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to just a fraction of all athletes in Division I and II schools. Exactly how many tests are conducted each year on football players is unclear because the NCAA hasn't published its data for two years. And when it did, it periodically changed the formats, making it impossible to compare one year of football to the next.


Even when players are tested by the NCAA, people involved in the process say it's easy enough to anticipate the test and develop a doping routine that results in a clean test by the time it occurs. NCAA rules say players can be notified up to two days in advance of a test, which Catlin says is plenty of time to beat a test if players have designed the right doping regimen. By comparison, Olympic athletes are given no notice.


"Everybody knows when testing is coming. They all know. And they know how to beat the test," Catlin said, adding, "Only the really dumb ones are getting caught."


Players are far more likely to be tested for drugs by their schools than by the NCAA. But while many schools have policies that give them the right to test for steroids, they often opt not to. Schools are much more focused on street drugs like cocaine and marijuana. Depending on how many tests a school orders, each steroid test can cost $100 to $200, while a simple test for street drugs might cost as little as $25.


When schools call and ask about drug testing, the first question is usually, "How much will it cost," Turpin said.


Most schools that use Drug Free Sport do not test for anabolic steroids, Turpin said. Some are worried about the cost. Others don't think they have a problem. And others believe that since the NCAA tests for steroids their money is best spent testing for street drugs, she said.


Wilfert, the NCAA official, said the possibility of steroid testing is still a deterrent, even at schools where it isn't conducted.


"Even though perhaps those institutional programs are not including steroids in all their tests, they could, and they do from time to time," she said. "So, it is a kind of deterrence."


For Catlin, one of the most frustrating things about running the UCLA testing lab was getting urine samples from schools around the country and only being asked to test for cocaine, marijuana and the like.


"Schools are very good at saying, 'Man, we're really strong on drug testing,'" he said. "And that's all they really want to be able to say and to do and to promote."


That helps explain how two school drug tests could miss Maneafaiga's steroid use. It's also possible that the random test came at an ideal time in Maneafaiga's steroid cycle.


Enforcement varies


The top steroid investigator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Rannazzisi, said he doesn't understand why schools don't invest in the same kind of testing, with the same penalties, as the NFL. The NFL has a thorough testing program for most drugs, though the league has yet to resolve a long-simmering feud with its players union about how to test for human growth hormone.


"Is it expensive? Of course, but college football makes a lot of money," he said. "Invest in the integrity of your program."


For a school to test all 85 scholarship football players for steroids twice a season would cost up to $34,000, Catlin said, plus the cost of collecting and handling the urine samples. That's about 0.2 percent of the average big-time school football budget of about $14 million. Testing all athletes in all sports would make the school's costs higher.


When schools ask Drug Free Sport for advice on their drug policies, Turpin said she recommends an immediate suspension after the first positive drug test. Otherwise, she said, "student athletes will roll the dice."


But drug use is a bigger deal at some schools than others.


At Notre Dame and Alabama, the teams that will soon compete for the national championship, players don't automatically miss games for testing positive for steroids. At Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame's student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.


"If you're a strength-and-conditioning coach, if you see your kids making gains that seem a little out of line, are you going to say, 'I'm going to investigate further? I want to catch someone?'" said Anthony Roberts, an author of a book on steroids who says he has helped college football players design steroid regimens to beat drug tests.


There are schools with tough policies. The University of North Carolina kicks players off the team after a single positive test for steroids. Auburn's student-athlete handbook calls for a half-season suspension for any athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs.


Wilfert said it's not up to the NCAA to determine whether that's fair.


"Obviously if it was our testing program, we believe that everybody should be under the same protocol and the same sanction," she said.


Fans typically have no idea that such discrepancies exist and players are left to suspect who might be cheating.


"You see a lot of guys and you know they're possibly on something because they just don't gain weight but get stronger real fast," said Orrin Thompson, a former defensive lineman at Duke. "You know they could be doing something but you really don't know for sure."


Thompson gained 85 pounds between 2001 and 2004, according to Duke rosters and Thompson himself. He said he did not use steroids and was subjected to several tests while at Duke, a school where a single positive steroid test results in a yearlong suspension.


Meanwhile at UCLA, home of the laboratory that for years set the standard for cutting-edge steroid testing, athletes can fail three drug tests before being suspended. At Bowling Green, testing is voluntary.


At the University of Maryland, students must get counseling after testing positive, but school officials are prohibited from disciplining first-time steroid users. Athletic department spokesman Matt Taylor denied that was the case and sent the AP a copy of the policy. But the policy Taylor sent included this provision: "The athletic department/coaching staff may not discipline a student-athlete for a first drug offense."


By comparison, in Kentucky and Maryland, racehorses face tougher testing and sanctions than football players at Louisville or the University of Maryland.


"If you're trying to keep a level playing field, that seems nonsensical," said Rannazzisi at the DEA. He said he was surprised to learn that what gets a free pass at one school gets players immediately suspended at another. "What message does that send? It's OK to cheat once or twice?"


Only about half the student athletes in a 2009 NCAA survey said they believed school testing deterred drug use.


As an association of colleges and universities, the NCAA could not unilaterally force schools to institute uniform testing policies and sanctions, Wilfert said.


"We can't tell them what to do, but if went through a membership process where they determined that this is what should be done, then it could happen," she said.


'Everybody around me was doing it'


Steroids are a controlled substance under federal law, but players who use them need not worry too much about prosecution. The DEA focuses on criminal operations, not individual users. When players are caught with steroids, it's often as part of a traffic stop or a local police investigation.


Jared Foster, 24, a quarterback recruited to play at the University of Mississippi, was kicked off the team in 2008 after local authorities arrested him for giving a man nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, according to court documents. Foster pleaded guilty and served jail time.


He told the AP that he doped in high school to impress college recruiters. He said he put on enough lean muscle to go from 185 pounds to 210 in about two months.


"Everybody around me was doing it," he said.


Steroids are not hard to find. A simple Internet search turns up countless online sources for performance-enhancing drugs, mostly from overseas companies.


College athletes freely post messages on steroid websites, seeking advice to beat tests and design the right schedule of administering steroids.


And steroids are still a mainstay in private, local gyms. Before the DEA shut down Alabama-based Applied Pharmacy Services as a major nationwide steroid supplier, sales records obtained by the AP show steroid shipments to bodybuilders, trainers and gym owners around the country.


Because users are rarely prosecuted, the demand is left in place after the distributor is gone.


When Joshua Hodnik was making and wholesaling illegal steroids, he had found a good retail salesman in a college quarterback named Vinnie Miroth. Miroth was playing at Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school in central Michigan, and was buying enough steroids for 25 people each month, Hodnik said.


"That's why I hired him," Hodnik said. "He bought large amounts and knew how to move it."


Miroth, who pleaded no contest in 2007 and admitted selling steroids, helped authorities build their case against Hodnik, according to court records. Now playing football in France, Miroth declined repeated AP requests for an interview.


Hodnik was released from prison this year and says he is out of the steroid business for good. He said there's no doubt that steroid use is widespread in college football.


"These guys don't start using performance-enhancing drugs when they hit the professional level," the Oklahoma City man said. "Obviously it starts well before that. And you can go back to some of the professional players who tested positive and compare their numbers to college and there is virtually no change."


Maneafaiga, the former Hawaii running back, said his steroids came from Mexico. A friend in California, who was a coach at a junior college, sent them through the mail. But Maneafaiga believes the consequences were nagging injuries. He found religion, quit the drugs and became the team's chaplain.


"God gave you everything you need," he said. "It gets in your mind. It will make you grow unnaturally. Eventually, you'll break down. It happened to me every time."


At the DEA, Rannazzisi said he has met with and conducted training for investigators and top officials in every professional sport. He's talked to Major League Baseball about the patterns his agents are seeing. He's discussed warning signs with the NFL.


He said he's offered similar training to the NCAA but never heard back. Wilfert said the NCAA staff has discussed it and hasn't decided what to do.


"We have very little communication with the NCAA or individual schools," Rannazzisi said. "They've got my card. What they've done with it? I don't know."


___


Associated Press writers Ryan Foley in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; David Brandt in Jackson, Miss.; David Skretta in Lawrence, Kan.; Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif.;and Alexa Olesen in Shanghai, China; and researchers Susan James in New York and Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.


___


Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org.


Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the first of a two-part series.


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