Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sopranos' "Johnny Cakes" John Costelloe Found Dead

Police say the actor who portrayed the gay lover of a closeted mobster on The Sopranos has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in New York.

Police spokesman Lt John Grimpel says John Costelloe was found dead in an apparent suicide at his Brooklyn home on December 18.

Police were called to his residence after family members were unable to reach him.

The 47-year-old former New York City firefighter gained fame in 2006 when he was cast as short-order cook Jim "Johnny Cakes" Witowski opposite Joseph Gannascoli, who played gay mobster Vito Spatafore on the hit HBO show.

Costelloe was performing as a hustler in a theatre production of Gang of Seven at the time of his death.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Photo Captures Image of an 'Angel' in Hospital Hallway

In dark time, mom of Mint Hill teen sees light of hope

By Jane Duckwall
Special Correspondent
Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2008

When Chelsea Banton was born five weeks prematurely, doctors predicted she had 36 hours to live.

Proving them wrong was the first miracle for Chelsea, now an Independence High School freshman.

“She spent the first four months in a neonatal intensive care unit,” recalls her mother, Colleen Banton of Mint Hill.

Before Chelsea was 2, she was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, the first of several dangerous run-ins with the illness that have made her a familiar face in Presbyterian's pediatric intensive care unit.

Among other health problems in her medical history: hydrocephalus, requiring a shunt in her skull and, later, several shunt revisions; life-threatening viruses; and, this past July, fluid retention that required more than a week's hospitalization and three liters of liquid to be drawn from her body.

Prayer has helped sustain the whole family.

“We had been praying every day, my oldest daughter and I and Chelsea,” Colleen Banton said. “Praying for a miracle.”

That miracle, Colleen believes, came Nov. 5 – seven weeks after Chelsea was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.

What originally seemed like a bad cold nearly killed her.

“She was on life-support from the moment she got there,” her mother said.

That was Sept. 21. Over the next six weeks in the hospital, Chelsea faced one threat after another: pneumonia in her left lung, then her right lung, then sepsis, blood clots, staph infections, E. coli, a collapsed lung and feeding problems.

In late October, doctors met with the family to discuss “a plan of action,” Colleen said. One of the decisions she had to make was whether she would take Chelsea off the ventilator. Earlier, doctors had removed Chelsea from the ventilator several times, but had replaced it when the struggle to breathe became too difficult for the teen.

But a family meeting Oct. 31 was a turning point.

“At that point, the family… agreed that when she did come off the ventilator again, (they) weren't putting it back in,” Colleen said. “Whatever happened, would happen.”

On Saturday, Nov. 1, “they took her off the ventilator and she did good,” her mother said. “She was breathing on her own.”

The next day, “her stats went down,” and doctors put her in an oxygen mask.

But over the next few days, Colleen noticed her daughter “wasn't getting better. Things were kind of lingering.”

And Chelsea, who had been having anxiety attacks and crying throughout her hospital stay, was having more of them.

“I said, ‘She's been through enough,'” Colleen remembers. “I said, ‘Can we just take her mask off? She's been through enough.'

“I wanted to do what the Lord wanted me to do. And I really felt like I've had her for 14 years, and if it's time for her to go to heaven, then I know she'll be healed.”

The mask didn't come off immediately, though. They waited until family members had a chance to come to see Chelsea – perhaps for the last time.

On the afternoon of Nov. 5, as family and friends prayed about the decision, a nurse practitioner called Colleen's attention to a monitor showing the door to the pediatric intensive care unit.

“On the monitor, there was this bright light,” Colleen recalls. “And I looked at it and I said, ‘Oh my goodness! It looks like an angel!”

Colleen pointed her digital camera at the monitor to take a photo of the image, but the “first picture wouldn't take.”

She tried again and succeeded. The image gave her a peace that stayed with her when hospital staff removed Chelsea's oxygen mask.

And then, “when they took the mask off of her, her stats went as high as they've ever been.

“Her color was good, and the doctors and nurses were amazed,” Colleen said. “The nurse practitioner who saw the image in the monitor said, ‘I've worked here 15 years, and I've never seen anything like it.'”

Chelsea was removed from intensive care on Nov. 14 and went home three days later.

Her mother believes it was a miracle – attended by a very real angel bathed in light at the door to the pediatric intensive care unit.

“What was so ironic… is it was a rainy day,” Colleen said. “It had been overcast all day. And the sun only came out at that point.”

To those who doubt her story and photograph, Colleen Banton says: “If they doubt it, that's fine. … But I know what I saw, and the picture's untouched. I didn't make it up. That's just something that I believe.

“I believe that more people have changed since this happened. I know I have. I look at things differently than I used to – because I know God is in control.”

On Christmas Day, Chelsea will turn 15 – another miracle considering all of the medical trials she's faced, according to her mother.

“I'm learning,” Colleen Banton said, “that every day she's alive is a miracle.”

Ausaf Umar Siddiqui - Guilty of $65 Million Dollar Fraud?

By Lisa Fernandez
Mercury News
Posted: 12/22/2008 11:37:14 PM PST

A one-time computer salesman who rose through the ranks to help build Fry's Electronics into a robust national retailer is facing allegations that he defrauded the San Jose-based company out of $65 million, much of which he used to pay off enormous gambling debts in Las Vegas.

Ausaf Umar Siddiqui, 42,who goes by "Omar" and has been Fry's vice president of merchandising and operations, appeared in federal court Monday, where prosecutors filed a complaint that alleges he was involved in a "secret kickback scheme to defraud Fry's Electronics of millions of dollars."

Fry's executives didn't know about the illegal kickbacks, the federal complaint states. The alleged scheme occurred from 2005 until mid-October when a Fry's high-level employee walked into Siddiqui's office at 600 E. Brokaw Road and saw confidential spreadsheets, letters and extraordinarily high commission amounts on Siddiqui's desk.

Siddiqui is expected to be formally charged in U.S. District Court on Jan. 15, on counts of money-laundering and wire fraud.

According to the complaint, which was unsealed Monday, Siddiqui convinced Fry's that the company should eliminate sales representatives on his accounts, and instead, he'd act as a middleman between vendors and Fry's. He promised that he'd save Fry's a lot of money that way. But instead, the complaint alleges, he ended up charging exorbitant commissions — up to 31 percent, or 10 times the normal amount — to the vendors, which he funneled to his own "straw" company PC International. Vendors were guaranteed steady business, so Siddiqui would have a steady cash flow to pay off casinos. Siddiqui spent $162 million in three years at just two of his favorites, the MGM Grand Casino and Las Vegas Sands Casino, according to his bank statements detailed in the complaint written by IRS Agent Andres Gonzalez.

The complaint says Siddiqui made "secret, backroom sales contracts to vendors, and in return, vendors gave him a kickback."

"It was his responsibility to find Fry's the best price," said IRS spokeswoman Arlette Lee. "He was allegedly causing Fry's to overpay millions on merchandise." None of the vendors are household names.

After seeing the documents on Siddiqui's desk, the Fry's employee called the Internal Revenue Service. Federal agents swarmed Fry's corporate headquarters Friday and arrested Siddiqui, taking him away in handcuffs. Stunned co-workers watched as he was taken away.

Siddiqui was a "longtime friend" of John Fry, said Fry's spokesman Manuel Valerio. The reaction of employees and management to Siddiqui's arrest, he said, "is one of surprise and shock — and that's an understatement."

He made it clear, however, that "anything that may have taken place that may have been wrongful, Fry's as a company has not been financially harmed nor have any of our customers been harmed through the purchase of products," he said.

For his part, a clean-shaven Siddiqui appeared worried and serious in court today. He stood mostly silent, wearing the standard bright orange shirt of the Santa Clara County jail, where he was held over the weekend. Through his criminal attorney, Sam Polverino, he declined comment.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg altered Siddiqui's no-bail conditions today, allowing him to post $300,000 bond and be monitored with an electronic bracelet. The judge also ordered Siddiqui to stay away from Las Vegas, and was assured through Siddiqui's lawyers that he wouldn't be flying there anymore to on the Fry's corporate jet, or casino-paid jets, which he apparently has done before.

"I know you do a great deal of travel to Las Vegas," Seeborg said. "That's not allowed anymore. Nevada is off limits."

Before setting his lowered bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Moore and defense attorneys discussed how much Siddiqui is worth; revealing that he owns a $1 million Palo Alto condominium and a Ferrari.

A woman who appeared in court on Siddiqui's behalf declined comment. During the court hearing, conversations in court also revealed that Siddiqui has no close family; he is "estranged" from his siblings and his parents are deceased. He has no wife or children, and according to his civil attorney, who appeared as a "friend of the court," Siddiqui has several casinos after him to pay off gambling debts.

How much does he owe the casinos?

"I don't know the answer to that question," said Eric Sidebotham, an attorney who represents clients facing collections. "It's very complex."

In general, Sidebotham said he has seen too many "very successful men, single, middle-age fall into a gambling addiction trap. They just get in and they can't get out."

According to the criminal complaint, Siddiqui began working at Fry's Electronics in 1988, three years after the company was founded. He landed in one of the top positions of Fry's management, after working his way up from salesman, to department manager, to director of advertising to vice president of merchandising in 2003, where he was responsible for all of Fry's purchasing, and supervised 120 employees. He earned an annual salary of $225,000 at Fry's, which has 34 retail stores nationwide, and was listed in Forbes Magazine in 2007 as having 14,000 employees and generating a revenue of $2.35 billion.

The vendors that Siddiqui worked with include: Phoebe Micro Inc., Lead Data International, U.S. Media Technologies, and Elite Group Computer Systems. The companies sell a variety of computer equipment, wireless cards, Internet cameras. Some of the correspondence between the companies and Siddiqui were discovered on Siddiqui's desk when the Fry's informant saw them one day, and other documentation was discovered in Siddiqui's trash on Nov. 24.

Lee, the IRS spokeswoman, wouldn't comment specifically on whether or not these vendors acted illegally, but she did say: "In a typical case, we'd make contact with anyone who is alleged to be involved. We're going to want to talk to them to see what they know."

The New Regime - Kat Dennings

The New Ingenue: Tired of guest stints on the small screen, actress Kat Dennings risks one of her nine lives while on the prowl for Hollywood notoriety.

By Tony Horkins
December 07, 2008

The New Regime: Kat Dennings According to her acting coach, Kat Dennings should just “forget about the whole acting thing.” According to her mother, going into the profession was “a terrible idea.” According to casting agents, “her teeth are too weird, she’s funny looking, not pretty enough and too fat.”

Luckily, Michael Cera’s love interest in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, who also stole scenes in The House Bunny and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is made of stern stuff. “Yeah, I’m not easily swayed,” says the 22-year-old with a lazy drawl. “I’m a pretty strong-willed person and the criticism doesn’t really bother me.” Instead, Dennings stayed focused, abandoned acting classes altogether and served her apprenticeship on small-screen staples like ER, CSI (both Crime Scene Investigation and NY) and Sex and the City before graduating to Hollywood.

But don’t expect to see her pictured, crotch on display, outside of an L.A. nightclub anytime soon. “Ugh, you can’t even talk in those places,” says Dennings, who stars in four films this year, including the Robert Rodriguez project Shorts, and The Dream of the Romans opposite Jeff Daniels. “Plus, I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I don’t like being around people who do. Oh no, I sound really boring!” We’ll beg to differ.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Russia’s Yakutia Republic Braces For Coldest Tempature Ever

Temperatures in some settlements of Russia’s Yakutia Republic may reach 60 degrees below zero Centigrade (-76F) during the next couple of days, an official spokesman for the Meteorological Department of Yakutia said.

“The temperature in the Tomponsky district of the republic fell below -50 degrees Centigrade on Sunday. This severe cold is rare for Yakutia in spite of the fact that the republic is considered Russia’s coldest inhabited territory. Winter temperatures normally reach 40-45 below zero,” the official said.

“This is not the lowest point. Thermometers may show 60 degrees below zero Centigrade during the upcoming several days in the settlement of Krestyakh,” the meteorologist said.

This year’s winter in Yakutia is a lot colder than usual: the republic sits on the way of cold Arctic air currents that reach the territory of the republic without any obstacles, and the air becomes even colder at nighttime under the clear sky.

All schools in Yakutia’s capital, the city of Yakutsk, were closed Monday due to severe cold - 51C below zero. Many classes were canceled last week too, when temperatures fell as low as 45C below zero.

Thirty-one apartment buildings in the towns of Tommot and Yakokit were cut from hot water and heat supplies because of a breakdown on the local heat supply system. Over 300 people have to live in the frozen apartments while over 120 workers try to take maximum efforts to repair the pipelines.

The Yakutia Republic is the largest subnational governing body by area in the world. Yakutia is washed by the Laptev and Eastern Siberian Seas of the Arctic Ocean – the coldest and the iciest waters in the northern hemisphere. About 40 percent of the republic lies above the Arctic circle and all of its is covered by permafrost.

Despite severe weather conditions, Yakutia is rich with raw materials. There are large reserves of oil, gas, gold, silver and many other materials in Yakutia. Almost 99 percent of all Russian diamonds are mined in Yakutia and make up 25 percent of the world’s diamond production.

Yakutia is known for its climate extremes, with the Verkhoyansk Range being the coldest area in the northern hemisphere. The Northern Hemisphere's Pole of Cold is at Verkhoyansk, where the temperatures reached as low as −67.8 ℃ (−90 ℉ ) in 1892, and at Oymyakon, where the temperatures reached as low as −67.7 ℃ (−89.9 ℉ ) in 1933.

Michael Jackson's Health - Is He Really Dying?

(Dec. 22) -- Michael Jackson's biographer claims the King of Pop is waging the fight of his life against a genetic disease that has left him nearly blind and desperately in need of a lung transplant.

According to author Ian Halperin (via The Sun), Jackson "needs a lung transplant, but may be too weak to go through with it." Jackson's biographer Halperin also claims that the pop legend "has emphysema and chronic gastrointestinal bleeding, which his doctors have had a lot of trouble stopping."

Jackson, who turned 50 just a few months ago, is said to be barely able to speak.

Halperin says Jackson is battling an inherited condition called A1AD -- alpha-1 anti-trypsin deficiency -- where those affected by it lack a protein that helps protect the lungs. Halperin says that due to the ailment, Jackson "can barely speak" and that the "vision in his left eye is 95 percent gone."

And while the breathing woes are surely something to worry about, Halperin claims that "it's the bleeding that's the most problematic part. It could kill him."

Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother, even commented on the situation, telling The Sun that his little brother is "not doing so well right now. This isn't a good time."

Halperin is a well respected and long-time investigative reporter. He made a name for himself by going undercover and posing as a model to report on the fashion industry in his book " Shut Up and Smile," and most recently skewered Hollywood in 'Hollywood Undercover: Revealing the Sordid Secrets of Tinseltown.'