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Woman at trial says celebrity chef Mario Batali groped her at Boston bar

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Celebrity chef Mario Batali, 58, is arraigned on a charge of indecent assault and battery at Boston Municpal Court in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. May 24, 2019. David L Ryan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

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By Nate Raymond and Tim McLaughlin

BOSTON (Reuters) -A teary Boston-area software worker on Monday testified that celebrity chef Mario Batali groped and squeezed her “sensitive feminine areas” five years ago at a Boston bar while posing with her for “selfie” photographs.

Natali Tene, 32, recounted from the witness stand being “shocked” and “alarmed” by the encounter with the famed chef as Batali, 61, went on trial in Boston Municipal Court on a 2019 charge of indecent assault and battery.

“It all happened so fast,” Tene testified in the non-jury trial. “Essentially the whole time there was touching of my sensitive feminine areas.”

Her claims form the basis of the only criminal case to result from multiple #MeToo-era claims of sexual harassment and assault that helped fuel Batali’s downfall. Tene said she only came forward after realizing she was not alone.

“I want to be able to take control of what happened and come forward, say my piece, get the truth out there – and everybody be accountable for their actions,” Tene said.

But Batali’s lawyer, Anthony Fuller, argued Tene’s own photos showed that no assault occurred and argued that her “self-serving, biased testimony” was simply to support a civil lawsuit she filed seeking money.

“The defense in this case is very simple: This didn’t happen,” Fuller said in his opening statement earlier in the day.

Originally slated to face a jury trial, Batali on Monday waived his right to one, leaving his fate to Judge James Stanton. If convicted, Batali faces up to 2-1/2 years in jail and having to register as a sex offender.

The case is one of a handful of criminal prosecutions of celebrities following the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, which exposed widespread patterns of sexual harassment or abuse of women in multiple spheres of American life.

Prosecutors said Tene came forward with her account after the website Eater.com in December 2017 detailed allegations by four women who said Batali, a onetime Food Network fixture, touched them inappropriately over at least two decades.

He was soon after fired from the ABC cooking and talk show “The Chew,” and Batali later cut ties with restaurants like New York’s Babbo and Del Posto he partly owned. He denied allegations of sexual assault but apologized for “deeply inappropriate” behavior.

Batali and his business partner in July agreed to pay $600,000 to at least 20 former employees to resolve claims by New York’s attorney general that their Manhattan restaurants were rife with sexual harassment.

Prosecutors have said that Batali drunkenly assaulted Tene shortly after midnight on April 1, 2017, while posing with her for selfies at a bar near Boston’s Eataly, the Italian market and restaurant he at the time part owned.

Fuller, though, argued Tene’s credibility was undercut by text messages in which she discussed selling the photos to the media for $10,000 and joked about the incident with a friend who told her to “play up the story” talking to a reporter.

When filling out a questionnaire for jury duty in an unrelated assault case, rather than choose the option of identifying as a crime victim to get out of jury service, she falsely claimed to be “clairvoyant,” Fuller said in his opening statement.

After text messages Batali’s lawyers obtained showed she discussed the case with a friend and conducted outside research, in violation of court orders, prosecutors in nearby Middlesex County charged her with contempt. She resolved that case last week.

Tene said she took a “flippant” tone in her texts but said she was not playing up the story: “At first, I wasn’t even sure how to put it, so I put it lightly.”

Trial resumes on Tuesday.

Sports & General

With rakes and bulldozers, New Mexico battles ‘beast’ wildfire

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By Andrew Hay

PLACITA, N.M. (Reuters) – Raking up dead grass and bulldozing a 20-mile-long fuel break, locals and fire crews in New Mexico on Wednesday fought to stop the devastating march northward of the largest active U.S. wildfire.

Under the plume of a blaze that has torched up to 1,500 properties, Christine Gonzalez piled weeds in her wheelbarrow to stop “spot fires” should embers land around her mountain home in Placita, about 40 miles northeast of Santa Fe.

“Climate change is very real here,” said Gonzalez, 61, a retired budget manager from Los Alamos National Laboratory (NYSE:LH), as smoke rose thousands of feet above nearby Jicarita Peak.

In forests eight miles north, crews worked to clear a 300-foot-wide fire break along a ridge system by Saturday to protect Taos and Angel Fire should other firefighting actions fail. The blaze was around 15 miles from the two resort towns.

“We need to anticipate a bad outcome, we need to anticipate fire growth will mimic some of what we’ve seen over the last several weeks,” operations chief Jayson Coil told a briefing.

Driven by relentless winds, the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire has burned over 301,971 acres (122,203 hectares), an area approaching the size of Los Angeles.

Lower snowpacks and higher temperatures have trapped northern New Mexico in a 25-year drought, creating conditions for the largest fire in its recorded history, which shows no sign of stopping.

Possibly hardest hit is Mora County where Undersheriff Americk Padilla refers to the blaze as “the beast” after it destroyed trailer homes of low-income families as well as ancestral forests and watersheds.

In immediate threat Wednesday was the Sipapu ski area 15 miles south of Taos where employees wrapped silver foil around structures to protect them from fire and used snowmaking equipment to wet down forest.

Seven miles west in Rodarte, the Cordova family used diggers to create a fire break around their family home.

“We’re going to say as long as we can fight it,” said Diane Cordova, apologizing that did she did not have time to talk.

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New York state opens probe of social media platforms used by Buffalo shooting suspect

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Members of the Buffalo Police department work at the scene of a shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, U.S. May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York state authorities have launched an investigation into several social media platforms they believe the accused Buffalo grocery store gunman used to plan, promote and broadcast the attack that left 10 dead, state Attorney General Letitia James said on Wednesday.

Governor Kathy Hochul unveiled several additional measures aimed at combating domestic terrorism, including legislation to tighten New York gun laws and a directive for state police to exercise their authority to disarm individuals deemed a public threat.

James, responding to a referral letter from Hochul to investigate social media’s role in the massacre, said her inquiry will focus on Twitch, the live video service owned by Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), as well as the internet chat site Discord, online message boards 4chan and 8chan, and other platforms “the shooter used to amplify his attack.”

“This terror attack again revealed the depths and dangers of these platforms that spread and promote hate without consequence,” James said. “We are doing everything in our power to stop this dangerous behavior now and ensure it never happens again.”

The FBI said Payton Gendron, who is white, committed an act of “racially motivated violent extremism” on Saturday when he opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Buffalo, shooting 13 people. Most of the victims were Black. Ten died.

Authorities said Gendron, 18, had broadcast the attack in real time on Twitch before surrendering to police, and was believed to have posted a white supremacist manifesto and a lengthy check list and account of his preparations on social media before the rampage.

Gendron has been jailed without bond on a charge of first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty.

‘FEEDING FRENZY’ OF HATE

Twitch said in a statement the day of the shooting that it had removed the livestream less than two minutes after it started and was working to ensure no other accounts re-posted the content.

Hochul, blaming social media platforms for a “feeding frenzy” of violent extremist ideology propagating on the internet, said Twitch should have taken down the video of the shooting “within a second.”

Screenshots from the broadcast circulated on social media through the day, including some that appeared to show the gunman standing over a body in the grocery store. Reuters was able to find footage from the livestream still posted on a website as recently as Wednesday morning.

A 589-page planning document written by the suspect under a different user name was posted on Discord, according to media reports. Discord said in a statement, “We will cooperate with the New York attorney general’s investigation.”

The other companies referenced by James’ announcement did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Seeking to stave off further attacks from people believed by authorities to pose a public safety risk, Hochul on Wednesday directed state police obtain emergency court orders under New York’s ‘red-flag’ law to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals considered a danger to themselves or others.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate and extremist groups, told Reuters that the Buffalo gunman suspect “had a substantial online history in niche, toxic online communities.”

The suspect came to the attention of local law enforcement nearly a year before the Buffalo shooting when police detained him after he made a threat at his high school, according to Buffalo’s police commissioner, who said Gendron was given a mental health evaluation and released.

Hochul also announced a package of gun safety legislation, including measures to widen the definition of weapons subject to preexisting firearms regulations, bolster gun-recovery reporting requirements for law enforcement, and improve the tracking of guns fired in committing crimes.

In addition, the governor signed an executive order creating a new domestic terrorism unit within state law enforcement and establishing a state police unit devoted to tracking and responding to extremist violent threats on social media.

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Sports & General

Can dogs be pets, N.Y. judge asks lawyer trying to free Happy the elephant

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© Reuters. An elephant named Happy is pictured in the Bronx Zoo, in New York City, New York, U.S., in this undated social media photo. Gigi Glendinning/via REUTERS

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By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Would granting a female elephant some of the same rights as humans mean people could no longer keep dogs as pets?

That was among the questions that judges on New York state’s top court during arguments in Albany on Wednesday asked a lawyer for an animal rights group that is pushing to free Happy the elephant from the Bronx Zoo.

The 51-year-old Asian elephant has called the venerable New York City zoo home since 1977. Happy has been kept apart from other elephants in a one-acre (0.4-hectare) enclosure at the zoo since around 2006, court records show.

Four years ago, the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project began asking New York courts to release Happy to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States, saying the animal was being illegally imprisoned.

The group has said that Happy was entitled to habeas corpus, a legal process in which illegally detained people or someone acting on their behalf may inquire about the reason they are being held.

New York’s habeas corpus law does not define “person,” and the group said Happy should be recognized as one. The Court of Appeals session was meant to address that question, after two lower courts sided with the Bronx Zoo, which maintains that Happy is well cared for.

The judges appeared skeptical of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments, with some asking why habeas corpus would apply since the group was seeking to trade Happy’s confinement at a zoo for confinement at a sanctuary. Other judges appeared concerned that expanding certain legal rights to elephants could be a slippery slope.

“Does that mean I couldn’t keep a dog?” Associate Judge Jenny Rivera asked.

Monica Miller, a lawyer for the group, replied that there is not as much evidence about dogs’ cognitive abilities as there is for elephants.

According to a 2006 study, Happy passed a “mirror self-recognition” test, considered an indicator of self-awareness. The animal rights group argues that is among the many cognitive abilities Happy shares with humans.

“Happy is autonomous by scientific proof,” Miller told the seven judges. “Elephants high-five each other after they drive off an enemy. They do a halftime football kind of dance. They’re just a really special, unique species.”

The Bronx Zoo, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, has said the group is exploiting Happy without concern for the animal’s wellbeing. The judges quizzed Ken Manning, a lawyer for the zoo, on whether habeas corpus would apply to zoo animals if there was evidence they were being kept in unsuitable conditions.

Manning said that it might, but that zoo animals were “highly regulated” and Happy’s conditions complied with the law.

“There’s got to be an illegal detainment in order for the remedy to even apply at all,” Manning said, referring to habeas corpus. “Here there’s been no illegal detainment.”

Happy’s longtime companion, Grumpy, was attacked by two other elephants in the early 2000s. Grumpy never recovered from the injuries and was euthanized. Another of Happy’s companions, Sammie, later died.

The zoo’s other elephant, Patty, lives in an adjacent enclosure separated from Happy by a fence. The zoo has said the two interact with each other.

Prior efforts to grant legal personhood to animals, including chimpanzees, have been unsuccessful.

The Court of Appeals did not specify when it will rule.

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