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A modern-day Wild West, accidental assassinations and more 

Tombstone, Ariz., which was the site of the legendary 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (made into a 1957 movie), is about 70 miles from the Tucson shopping center where a U.S. congresswoman, a federal judge and others were shot in January. A Los Angeles Times dispatch later that month noted that the "Wild West" of 1881 Tombstone had far stricter gun control than present-day Arizona. The historic gunfight occurred when the marshal (Virgil Earp, brother of Wyatt) tried to enforce the town's no-carry law against local thugs. Today, however, with few restrictions and no licenses required, virtually any Arizonan 18 or older can carry a handgun openly, and those 21 or older can carry one concealed.

Leading Economic Indicator: The government of Romania, attempting both to make amends for historical persecution of fortune-telling "witches" and to collect more tax revenue, amended its labor law recently to legalize the profession. However, "queen witch" Bratara Buzea, apparently speaking for many in the soothsaying business, told the Associated Press in February that official recognition might make witches legally responsible for future events that are beyond their control. Already, witches are said to be fighting back against the government with curses — hurling poisonous mandrake plants into the Danube River and casting a special spell involving cat dung and a dead dog.

Compelling Explanations: British loyalist Michael Stone still claims it was all a misunderstanding — that he did not intend to assassinate Irish Republican Army political leaders in 2006, despite being arrested at the Northern Ireland legislature carrying knives, an ax, a garotte, and a bag of explosives that included flammable liquids, gas canisters and fuses. He was later convicted, based on his having detonated one explosive in the foyer and then carrying the other devices into the hall to confront the leaders, but he continued to insist that he was merely engaged in "performance art." (In January 2011, the Northern Ireland court of appeal rejected his claim.)

Phyllis Stevens, 59, said she had no idea she had embezzled nearly $6 million until her employer, Aviva USA, of Des Moines, Iowa, showed her the evidence. She said it must have been done by the "hundreds" of personalities created by her dissociative identity disorder (including "Robin," who was caught trying to spend Stevens' remaining money in Las Vegas just hours after the showdown with Aviva). Stevens and her spouse had been spending lavishly, buying properties, and contributing generously to political causes. As the "core person," Stevens said she will accept responsibility but asked a federal judge for leniency. (The prosecutor said Stevens is simply a thief.)

Thomas Walkley, a lawyer from Norton, Ohio, was charged in January with indecent exposure for pulling his pants down in front of two 19-year-old males, but Walkley said he was merely "mentoring" at-risk boys. He said it is a technique he had used with other troubled youths, especially the most difficult cases, by getting them "to think differently." Said Walkley, "Radical times call for radical measures."

Ironies: U.S. News & World Report magazine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality, announced plans recently to issue grades (A, B, C, D and F) on how well each of the U.S.'s 1,000-plus teachers' colleges develop future educators, but the teachers of teachers appear to be sharply opposed to the very idea of being issued "grades." The project's supporters cited school principals' complaints about the quality of teachers applying for jobs, but the teachers' college representatives criticized the project's measurement criteria as overly simplistic.

Police were out in force in September as schools opened in Toronto, writing 25 school-zone speeding tickets in the first two hours. One of the 25 was issued to the driver of a school bus, caught speeding through a school zone trying to avoid being late at a pickup point farther down the road.

The Litigious Society: Paul Mason, 50, an ex-letter-carrier in Ipswich, England, told reporters in January he would file a lawsuit against Britain's National Health Service for negligence — because it allowed him to "grow" in recent years to a weight of nearly 900 pounds. Mason said he "begged" for NHS's help in 1996 when he weighed 420, but was merely told to "ride your bike more." Last year, he was finally allowed gastric surgery, which reduced him to his current 518. At his heaviest, Mason estimates he was consuming 20,000 calories a day.

Update: Life is improving for some Burmese Kayan women who, fleeing regular assaults by soldiers of the military government of Myanmar, become valuable exhibits at tourist attractions in neighboring Thailand — because of their tribal custom of wearing heavy metal rings around their necks from an early age. The metal stacks weigh 11 pounds or more and depress girls' clavicles, giving them the appearance of elongated necks, which the tribe (and many tourists) regard as exotic. While human rights activists heap scorn on these Thai "human zoos" of ring-necked women, a Nacogdoches, Texas, poultry plant recently began offering some of the women a more attractive choice — lose the rings and come work in Texas, de-boning chickens.

People With Issues: Although police in Mount Vernon, Ohio, aren't sure of the motive, they know (according to records made public in February) that the murderer-kidnapper Matthew Hoffman was arrested in November in a living room piled 3 feet high with leaves and a bathroom containing 110 bags of leaves attached to the walls. Hoffman, an unemployed tree-trimmer, later confessed to the kidnap and rape of a 13-year-old girl (whom he kept in a basement on a pallet of leaves) and had stuffed the bodies of his three murder victims in a hollow tree. An expert on serial killers told ABC News that trees might have given Hoffman comfort, but police haven't discounted that the leaves were there merely to help him later torch the house.

Least Competent Criminals: Not Ready for Prime Time: 1) Jose Demartinez, 35, was hospitalized in Manchester, N.H., in January. With police in pursuit, he had climbed out a hotel window using tied-together bed sheets, but they came undone, and he fell four stories. 2) Detected burglarizing a house in Summerfield, Fla., in January, Laird Butler fled through a window but not from police. The homeowner's dog had frightened Butler, who crashed through the glass, cut himself badly, and bled to death in a neighbor's yard. 3) Kevin Funderburk, 25, was charged with sexual assault of a 71-year-old woman in her Hutchinson, Kan., home in December. By the time his mug shot was taken, he was in a neck brace — from the victim's frying-pan-swinging defense.

Recurring Themes: 1) During an early-January freeze, an 8-year-old boy, standing across the street from Woodward (Okla.) Middle School, apparently fell for the traditional dare from his brother and licked a metal pole. He had to wait on his tiptoes for emergency responders to come unstick him. 2) In January, John Finch, 44, of Wilmington, Del., became the latest alleged burglar to break in (through a window) and be unable either to climb back out or figure out the automatic locks on the doors (and thus be forced to call 911 on himself to be rescued).

A News of the Weird Classic (July 1996): The Wall Street Journal reported in March (1996) that New York City photographer (and former Electrolux vacuum cleaner salesman) Eugene Calamari Jr. is a part-time artist who lies on the floor and lets people vacuum him with an upright cleaner, after which he asks the vacuumers to please write down their feelings. According to Calamari, "A lot of people use each other and step on each other's rights." The theme he intends to convey, he said, is "I won't let anyone do this to me."

© 2011 CHUCK SHEPHERD

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