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Mason City man charged with first-degree murder in Illinois

OTTAWA, Illinois | A Mason City man will stand trial for murder after he was initially charged for involuntary manslaughter.

Mason Shannon, 43, was charged with murder Dec. 22, according to court records. He previously had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in mid-September.

Shannon was released from Cerro Gordo County's custody Sept. 22 and later extradited to Illinois, Sheriff Kevin Pals told the Globe Gazette in October. 

The LaSalle News Tribune reported this week that Shannon, who allegedly fatally choked Michael Castelli, 32, of Ottawa, Illinois, appeared in court.

His lawyer, Douglas DeBoer, said Shannon and Castelli were co-workers at Bonnie Plants when the incident occurred on July 20, the News Tribune reported.

Castelli was possibly on psychedelic mushrooms and was "filled with rage," DeBoer said. Others present at the scene had to restrain Castelli for 21 minutes, he added.

"Nobody wanted him to die," he said in court. "This was an accident."

Persecutors, however, allege Shannon knew what he was doing when he put Castelli into a chokehold, an action likely to cause death.

Shannon faces 20 to 60 years in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

His trial has been scheduled for Feb. 26, 2018.

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Clear Lake bar hosts sexual assault prevention class

CLEAR LAKE | North Iowa bar employees learned how to prevent sexual assault and harassment during a class in Clear Lake this month. 

In a back room of the Surf District Rock 'n Roll Grill Dec. 19, Erin Meyers spoke to about 20 people about how to prevent sexual assault in bars, nightclubs and similar venues.

The class, titled "Raise the Bar," aims to show bartenders and other employees how to identify issues that may arise, and different examples of predatory behavior.

Meyers, who serves as Crisis Intervention Service's sexual assault advocate and prevention specialist in Floyd, Mitchell and Worth counties, told the Globe Gazette she hopes to teach the class to several other bars and similar venues across North Iowa.

She added one of the most important topics of her class is bystander intervention. It doesn't matter who is acting like a predator, Meyers said.

"That’s one of my biggest things … even if it's uncomfortable and it’s your friend … and it’s a hard conversation, maybe you need to have it," she said.

Some of the other concepts included angel shots and drink tokens, techniques bartenders can use to help individuals if they need to use code words to leave a potentially dangerous situation.

Brady Tilkes, who has been a bartender at the Surf for about three months, said this, among other ideas, is what he gained from the class.

Most importantly, he believes a lot of cases of sexual assault and harassment can be prevented if just one person speaks up.

"A lot of the scenarios can be prevented if you say something," Tilkes said about one of the videos presented during the class. "People don’t want to do illegal stuff if they know people are watching."

Meyer also discussed how important it is to realize how trauma impacts the brain, especially for victims of sexual assault and harassment.

"A lot of times after someone is assaulted, they will seem crazy ... that's because of the trauma, your brain is acting very differently," Meyers said during the class. 

"People who are in trauma, they kind of get what they're trying to say, but they don't put the pieces the right way," she later added.

Grant Maulsby, owner/operator of the Surf District Rock 'n Roll Grill, said one reason he decided to host the class was because of the increasing amount of news stories about sexual harassment involving celebrities, politicians and other public figures.

Maulsby said he learned it's important for everyone in the bar to be aware of their surroundings, and urged people to use caution — especially on first dates.

"You just have to be really careful these days," he said. "Just be smart about the situation, and perhaps if you’re seeing someone for the first time, don’t drink."

Meyers emphasized that having a strong friend group can decrease the risks of assault and harassment. Predators will often "butterfly" around a room, and it's up to everyone to recognize this behavior, she added.

She thanked those in attendance for their feedback, and challenged people to act if they see suspicious behavior — even if it feels uncomfortable.

"A lot of times that person might be creepy … but we never really act upon it unless we see it’s actively wrong," Meyers said.

Officials: Deadly NYC fire lit by child playing with stove (copy)

NEW YORK — A preschooler toying with the burners on his mother's stove accidentally sparked New York City's deadliest fire in decades, an inferno that quickly overtook an apartment building and blocked the main escape route, the fire commissioner said Friday.

A dozen people died, and four others were fighting for their lives a day after the flames broke out in the century-old building near the Bronx Zoo.

The 3½-year-old-boy, his mother and another child were able to flee their first-floor apartment. But they left the apartment door open behind them, and it acted like a chimney that drew smoke and flames into a stairwell. From there, the fire spread throughout the five-story building, authorities said.

The city housing department said investigators would look into why the door did not close automatically, although Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was "nothing problematic about the building that contributed to this tragedy."

At least 20 people scrambled out via fire escapes on a bitterly cold night, but others could not.

"People had very little time to react," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Firefighters arrived in just over three minutes and saved some people, but "this loss is unprecedented."

Fernando Batiz said his 56-year-old sister, Maria Batiz, and her 8-month-old granddaughter also died, although the baby's mother survived.

"The smoke, I guess, overcame her. Everything happened so quick," Batiz said. He described his sister, a home care attendant, as a selfless person who helped him when he was homeless.

"I don't know what to think. I'm still in shock," he said.

One family lost four members: Karen Stewart-Francis, her daughters, 2-year-old Kiley Francis and 7-year-old Kelly Francis, and their cousin, 19-year-old Shawntay Young, relatives said. Stewart-Francis' husband, Holt Francis, was hospitalized, the family said.

"I don't know what to do, and I don't know how to feel," Stewart-Francis' mother, Ambrozia Stewart, told The New York Times. "Four at one time — what do I do?"

Young lived in the basement but had gone upstairs to visit Stewart-Francis in her fifth-floor apartment, said Young's boyfriend, Kenyon George.

"The first story I heard is that she was up top and she couldn't get down," said George, 19, fighting back tears. The two had dated for seven months, and Young had become a mother figure to his 1-year-old son, he said. She called him Thursday morning, but he was asleep and missed the call.

"If I had picked up the phone, she would have been over here all day," he told The Associated Press. "It feels so surreal."

The 26-unit apartment building was required to have self-closing doors, which swing shut on their own to keep fires from spreading, city Housing Preservation and Development Department spokesman Matthew Creegan said. Investigators will look at whether the door to the apartment was defective or if an obstruction prevented it from closing, he said.

No self-closing door violations were issued during an inspection in August, although the city would not have examined every apartment, Creegan said. Such violations are common: The city cited 7,752 of them last year.

While the doors are required in any apartment building with more than three units, they sometimes do not work properly because they get clogged or dirty, New York fire-safety consultant Jim Bullock said.

The management company for the building's owner, D&E Equities, said it was talking to city officials and was "shocked and saddened" by the deaths and injuries.

Excluding 9/11, Thursday's fire was the city's deadliest since 87 people were killed at a social club in the same Bronx neighborhood in 1990. A fire in a home in another part of the Bronx killed 10 people, including nine children, in 2007.

About 170 firefighters worked in 15-degree weather to rescue dozens of people. Fire Department video released Friday showed the building's charred halls and stairs, where icicles had formed from water poured on the blaze.

Residents described opening their front doors to see smoke too thick to walk through and descending icy fire escapes with children in hand. Some escaped barefoot or in their nightclothes.

Huddled in a deli on the block with her family, 10-year-old Crisbel Martinez cried Friday as she recalled escaping from her fifth-floor apartment with her three older brothers.

One brother's girlfriend was coming into the building when she saw smoke, called him and called police. With their mother at work, the siblings checked and saw the smoke.

"Then we got changed and went through the fire escape," Crisbel said. She spent the night at an aunt's house.

Twum Bredu still did not know Friday what had become of his brother, Emmanuel Mensah, 28. He was staying with a family that escaped the fire safely, but no one could find Mensah, despite checking four hospitals. Still, his family pounded the pavement, asking about him and hoping for good news.

"That's my prayer," Bredu said.

The building was too old to be required to have modern fireproofing, such as sprinkler systems and interior steel construction.

Enduring cold snap creates headaches at home, on highways (copy)

TOLEDO, Ohio — Already winter-weary parts of the Midwest and East Coast are dealing with a mounting number of weather-related headaches, from highway pileups to frozen pipes and a rash of car thefts. And there's more to come.

Bitter temperatures and snow squalls have been blamed for a handful of deaths and canceled a long list of New Year's celebrations.

Icy roads in central Michigan caused more than 30 crashes Friday on highways near Flint while a chain-reaction crash involving about 40 vehicles in the southwestern part of the state left three hurt.

Coastal South Carolina saw a rare bout of freezing rain and drizzle Friday that forced bridges from Charleston to Myrtle Beach to shut down for de-icing.

Police in the Cincinnati area said a half-dozen cars have been stolen in recent days after being left running unattended by owners trying to warm them up. Cincinnati police warned in a tweet that leaving your car running means "the only person who will be warm is the thief who stole your car."

More snow is on the way in Erie, Pennsylvania, where 65 inches have fallen since Christmas Eve. Now parts of the surrounding county could get up to 16 inches of more snow by Sunday.

A call center set up to help people dig out has been overwhelmed. "The phones have been ringing off the hook," said Josh Jaeger, a coordinator for the center told the Erie Times-News.

Cleanup continued inside Michigan State University's basketball arena after a frozen water pipe burst and flooded a hallway, but the mess wasn't expected to interrupt a game Friday.

Diann Wears, of Toledo, said she was already fed up with winter as she stood along a slush-covered sidewalk while waiting for a bus.

"And it's just the beginning," she said Friday. "I'm sure it will get worse."

Frigid conditions in Boston took their toll on the nation's fifth-largest transit system.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has spent heavily to winterize what's known as the "T'' since it was crippled by record-breaking snowfall in 2015. But the agency reported "severe delays" on one of its lines Friday, citing a broken piece of track and a disabled train, among other problems.

Several deaths have been linked to the wintry weather during the past week.

In South Dakota, an 83-year-old woman died from exposure to the cold after she crashed her car and then got out to look for help. Search crews found her body in a ditch Sunday. Three people were found dead in a canal along Lake Erie earlier this week after their car slid off an icy road.

The National Weather Service predicts another blast of arctic air will chill much of the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. through the weekend and into 2018.

Temperatures could fall into the single digits as far south as Oklahoma and sink to zero or below Friday night in Nebraska and Iowa and remain there for at least three days.

"It's pretty unusual to get that long of a streak where it's completely below zero," said Iowa's State Climatologist Harry Hillaker. "Historically, that doesn't happen very often in Des Moines."

The Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies braced for storms forecasters warned could bring several feet of mountain snow and freezing rain.

With the bitter cold expected to stick around, many New Year's Eve plans are being scuttled.

Shore towns in New Jersey canceled plans for polar bear plunges in the Atlantic Ocean and organizers pulled the plug on the annual light bulb drop in Sunbury, Pennsylvania.

In Boston, organizers of the L Street Brownies plunge scoffed when asked if they were scared off by the weather.

"It's a go. It's always a go. We never give up," Dan Monahan told the Boston Herald about the event that attracts more than 600 swimmers each year and has gone on for more than a century. "We're stubborn people in Boston. We're about tradition."

Fireworks shows have been called off in Omaha and at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. And New York City's Coney Island said it will be too cold for free rides on the Wonder Wheel and Thunderbolt roller coaster.

Animal advocates urged people to protect their pets from the cold. Wild animals weren't immune from the dangers of winter, either.

In Ohio, wildlife officers mulled how to rescue a deer stuck on an ice-covered river. They managed to lasso the deer with a rope and pull it to shore Friday, but they had to euthanize the injured animal.