Monday, March 14, 2005

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for March 14

Guest: Park Dietz, Charles Rambo, Savannah Guthrie, Mickey Sherman, Michael Ausiello


ALISON STEWART, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Held hostage in Georgia by a man who killed in a courtroom, on a street, and at a home. Ashley Smith gained Brian Nichols's trust and then her own release.

ASHLEY SMITH, SURVIVED KIDNAPPING: He asked me what I thought he should do. And I said I think you should turn yourself in.

STEWART: Tonight we'll hear extensively from the brave woman who ended the manhunt in Atlanta.

Plus, how did Nichols get away? A big clue that could have cracked the case went unnoticed for a day. The details of his escape and missed opportunities.

Michael Jackson back in court, this time, supporting a Captain Kangaroo kind of look. The testimony, much more serious at the outset as the defense works to poke holes in the accuser's story.

Not so vital "Idol." A scandal surrounding an "American Idol" finalist and his choice to leave the store. Did Mario Vazquez quit for personal reasons? Or was he trying to get out of a contract to sell a record?

And breathe easy, Americans. The FCC ruling on the towel foul is out.

All that and more now on Countdown.


STEWART: And good evening to you. Keith Olbermann is on vacation this week. I'm Alison Stewart.

It was the largest manhunt in Georgia history. Brought to a peaceful end by one woman. Our fifth story on the Countdown, Brian Nichols in custody.

The man suspected of killing a judge and a court reporter in the Fulton County Courthouse, then killing a sheriff's deputy while he escaped, and finally while on the lam, allegedly killing a federal immigration agent. Brian Nichols was finally captured over the weekend, but not before he took a 26-year-old widowed single mother hostage in her own home for over seven hours. Her story in just a moment.

First, the latest on the case. Brian Nichols will have a status hearing tomorrow at the Fulton County jail. In terms of legal maneuvering, authorities dropped the firearm charge and declared his rape retrial a mistrial in order to swiftly charge him with the four murders.

Now, with capture Saturday morning marked the end of an extraordinary ordeal for 26-year-old Ashley Smith. Nichols forced her into her apartment at gunpoint around 2 a.m. Saturday morning as she returned from buying cigs at a local convenience store.

Once inside and bound at points, she managed to establish a rapport with her captor, telling him about her young daughter, the death of her husband, and her belief in God.

At about 6 a.m. in the morning, she helped him dump his getaway car and gave him a lift back to her apartment, where she made him pancakes for breakfast. And finally at 9:30 a.m., he let her walk out of her apartment.

She called the police. They surrounded the building, and at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning, Brian Nichols surrendered - surrendered peacefully. Police credit Ashley Smith for that. She says she just didn't want anyone else to get hurt, not even the man holding her hostage. And that compassion helped to persuade Brian Nichols to let her go and turn himself in.


SMITH: After we began to talk and he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God. And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people and the families of the people, to let him know how they felt, because I had gone through it myself.

He told me that he didn't want to hurt the agent that he hurt. He begged and pleaded with him to do things his way, and he didn't. So he had to kill him. He said that he didn't shoot the deputy, that he hit her and that he hoped she lived.

He showed me a picture of the agent that he did kill. And I tried to explain to him that he killed a 40-year-old man that was probably a father, a husband, a friend, and he really began to trust me, to feel my feelings.

He looked at pictures of my family. He asked me the - if could look

at them and hold them. He said, "Can I stay here for a few days? I just -

· I want to eat some real food and watch some TV and sleep and just do normal things that normal people do."

So of course, I said, "Sure. You can stay here." I didn't - I wanted to gain his trust. He gave me some money before I was about to leave. It was kind of like he knew. I said, "You might need this money."

And he said, "No, I don't need it. I'm going to be here for the next few days." I basically said you keep the money. And he said, "No. I don't need it." He asked me if there was anything I could do - or he could do for me before I left, or while I was gone. He said, "Is there anything I can do while you're gone?"

I know he was probably hoping deep down that I was going to come back. But I think he knew that I was going to, what I had to do, that I had to turn him in. I gave him - I asked him several times, come on. Just go with me. And he said, "I'll go with you in a few days."

But when he asked me, "Is there anything I can do while you're gone, like hang your curtains or something."

And I said, "If you want to." He just wanted some normalness to his life right then.

I feel sorry for him, because I really don't think he meant - he didn't - I don't think he realized what he was doing when he was doing it.

But ultimately, my goal was for no one else to get hurt. Not even him. I didn't want him to get hurt either. Because he is a human being and yes, did he kill, and he deserves to pay for that.

I feel for the families out there that - who lost their loved ones, because I've been there and my heart goes out to you. I will pray for you. And I am so sorry. I'll apologize for him, but know that I got him to feel what you have to go through.


STEWART: And joining me now to talk about the striking relationship Ashley Smith managed to build with Brian Nichols is Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution in the cases of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley Jr., among others.

Dr. Dietz, thank you so much for your time tonight.


STEWART: This negotiation technique of talking, getting extremely personal, it worked for Miss Smith. Is this a good negotiating technique in general? Or was this just particular to this case?

DIETZ: Well, this is actually what's taught to people who are at high risk of being taken hostage, to personalize the situation, let the captor know about their family and they're human beings.

But she went beyond what's typically taught, to do things that are really exceptionally good for staying alive. She showed genuine compassion to this man. And her ability to empathize with him and see life from his point of view both saved her and calmed him. That was really wonderful.

STEWART: I noticed you used the word "empathize" rather than the word "sympathize." Why?

DIETZ: Well, because it's not necessary to accept his point of view and to share it, only to see the world through his eyes. That's what matters. And that technique, or for some people, natural way of relating, is a life saver in many situations, not just this.

We teach this to people for workplace violence prevention, as a way of trying to calm down people who are angry and to make sure matters don't escalate. Trying to understand the other person's point of view and what their problems are is the most important thing one can do.

STEWART: Now, remember, during the time when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, there was a lot of discussion about people who are kidnapped really empathizing, really, really identifying with their captors. Why does that happen?

DIETZ: Well, that's a very natural psychological response, to identify with the aggressor who's really posing a threat to the person. It's a way of pretending that one has the power. If you can pretend you have the power and you're like the person who's got the power, then maybe they won't hurt you.

Some people get stuck in that role for long periods. Others will get out of it shortly after they realize that they're actually safe. But it's an adaptive mechanism that's inherent in most of us.

STEWART: Ashley Smith says that she told Brian Nichols that she'll likely visit him in jail. Do you expect she will?

DIETZ: I think that depends on who influences her. But it's very possible. I think she's sincere in her compassion and that she'll follow through on that.

STEWART: Forensic psychologist Dr. Park Dietz, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us this evening.

DIETZ: My pleasure.

STEWART: Stopping a repeat of Friday's tragedy. Now that Brian Nichols is behind bars again, what will Atlanta authorities do to make sure he doesn't escape during his next court transfer?

And a church community in Wisconsin is still reeling from Saturday's shooting rampage. Newly released 911 calls detail that horrible moment.

This is Countdown on MSNBC.


STEWART: Our fourth story on the Countdown, security at the courthouse. In a moment, the steps need to make sure neither Brian Nichols nor anyone else escapes in the Fulton County Courthouse again. But first, the series of missteps that allowed Nichols to make his getaway.

After the initial report of the courtroom shootings, police were hot on his trail but lost him downtown when Nichols carjacked a reporter with "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution" in a parking lot. Police assumed he had driven away and put out an all points bulletin looking for the stolen green Honda. We all heard about that.

It turns out Nichols, he'd never driven anywhere. Another reporter found the car 13 hours after the shooting, parked in the same garage just one floor down.

The suspect had escaped on foot and taken a train out of the area, and because the police thought he was in the Honda, and had already escaped, they didn't close the train station or seal off the parking lot entrances.

All of Nichols' movements in the parking garage were caught on surveillance tapes, but authorities did not review the tapes until much later in the day.

As for how Nichols got free in the first place, he assaulted a sheriff's deputy in a holding cell area when she took off his handcuffs so he could change clothes.

There were several compounding reasons for such a security breach. The judge requested extra security for Nichols. Yet there was only deputy with him in that holding cell. The cell door was solid. The deputy couldn't lock him up while she took off his cuffs. And the assault was caught on a security camera, which is meant to be watched by two officers. Yet no one was watching at the time.

I'm joined now by Sergeant Charles Rambo, a deputy sheriff in Fulton County, Georgia and the president of the deputies' union. He also ran for sheriff last summer.

Sergeant Rambo, thanks for your time tonight. And I have to ask, I know somebody sitting at home, that is your real name, sir, right?


STEWART: All right then. Now that we got that out of the way.

At some point, Brian Nichols will be back at the courthouse. What kind of security do you expect will be in place this time? Or will the same rules apply as they did last week?

RAMBO: No. I don't think the same rules are going to apply. The games are over. I understand that our SWAT and our executive protection measures are on him. So I don't think that he's going back any time soon other than to his court trial and hopefully, down to prison.

STEWART: So what would you suggest be done to tighten up the transfers in the courthouse and make it safer for everyone?

RAMBO: Well, we've got to increase our manpower. We've got to increase from where we've been short staffed for so many years. I especially applaud Deputy Cynthia Hall for what she did at the time to, you know, try to facilitate for that day.

It's unfortunate that we work under shortage of manpower, but this is something that between the sheriff's office and the county commissioners, we're going to have to get the funding to get our deputies paid and as well as get them up to par.

STEWART: Let's talk about the facility itself. In that holding cell where Nichols overcame the deputy, what would you suggest to make holding cells more user friendly for the good guys, rather than the alleged bad guys?

RAMBO: Well, we would hope that we could go back and look at our contracts with the various persons who came in vendor-wise that did the doors and try to get those door replaced and have trap doors on them. So that inmates could be handcuffed and secured before they come outside of the cell.

I would also like to see that we start using taser belts. The taser belt is a mechanism that is placed around an inmate's waist. And any time that they get out of order, they can be brought back into order.

STEWART: Well, what is the benefit of a taser belt over a gun? Couldn't an inmate or couldn't someone who's coming to trial grab a taser just as easily?

RAMBO: No. I'm making reference to a taser belt. The belt is actually placed around the inmate's waist.


RAMBO: So it places a disadvantage upon them.

STEWART: Now that we've all had time to digest what happened, was this a series, the perfect storm of bad events or when you look back, do you think, "Wow, you know, there was this one thing that we really could have done that might have prevented this"?

RAMBO: Well, there are a lot of things that we think we do have done, but those things were not in place. And this is one of the problems that the new sheriff has, is that he inherited problems from a previous administration.

The support goes to him from our union to come across those mechanisms, policies and best practices to ensure that it does not happen again. But we've got to get started on it today and not next week.

STEWART: Sergeant Charles Rambo, your God given name, with the Fulton County Sheriff's Department. Many thanks for your time and your insight tonight.

RAMBO: Thank you very much. And I appreciate your help in helping bringing Mr. Nichols to justice.

STEWART: On the same morning that Brian Nichols was surrendering to police, another man went on a murderous rampage in Wisconsin, gunning down seven members of his church in one minute before turning the gun on himself.

Forty-four-year-old Terry Ratzmann, a member of the Church of the Living God, had actually walked out of a service about two weeks ago, apparently angry with the sermon's topic.

This Saturday he showed up 20 minutes late to the church gathering at a local Sheraton Hotel. He sprayed the crowd of 50 to 60 people with nine millimeter bullets. Seven people were killed, including the minister, his 16-year-old son, and another 15-year-old boy. Four others were wounded and survivors frantically called the police.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. There's someone shooting at the Sheraton. On - what room are we in?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're in Brookfield. We're in the Sheraton Hotel.

_UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many people are hurt? _


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. The radio is dead.

Oh, no. Oh, no. There's at least - how many are on the floor? Five? Five to 10 at least. OK. It's the Wisconsin room in the back. Is anybody on their way?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're sending people right now. I'm going to keep you on the line though.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I'm right in the back.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm at the back door. One of my friends is laying on the floor. I think she's dead. Oh, this is awful. This is a massacre.

_UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 911. What's the address of your emergency? _

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Sheraton Hotel, Brookfield. We've had a shooting. We need ambulances and police. Please hurry.

_UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many people are injured? _

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. A number are dead. I can't see.

I don't know. There are people screaming. They're hurt. I don't know.

Send the police...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did anybody see the shooter?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know where he went?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know where he went.


STEWART: The showdown over steroids and pro baseball is heading to D.C. Today lawmakers on Capitol Hill getting a very important RSVP and leveled some serious threats toward potential no-shows.

And the M.J. trial. During cross-examination, Michael Jackson's accusers finds out firsthand why Jackson's defense lawyer is considered one of the best. We'll take you inside the courtroom.

ANNOUNCER: You're getting the news Olbermann style, Countdown WITH KEITH OLBERMANN, part of the best prime time in cable news, MSNBC.


STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart, the archer in command while Keith Olbermann is on vacation, and I like it. As we do every night at this time, we pause the Countdown for a brief segment of strange news, cool videos, and those crazy animals.

Let's play "Oddball."

We begin in Viewer (ph), Illinois, where the little kiddies at Whittier Elementary School got a very special show and tell today today. Farmer Ron Barisho (ph) dropped by and shaved a sheep naked in front of the whole school.

A little embarrassing for the sheep and what kind of sweater does he get to wear when he gets cold? Hey, it gave the kids a rare opportunity to see a farm animal close up and see how wool is made.

Later on, the older kids got to see how lamb chops are made. I'm just kidding.

They weren't kidding at the ostrich festival in Chandler, Arizona. The highlight of the annual event was the ostrich races. But patrons were invited to watch the birds, pet the birds and eat the birds. Ostrich burgers were served up at the concession stands. That is just not right. Right next to the hotdog guy and the fry dough cart.

Mmm. Tastes like chicken. That might explain why some of the birds are a little skittish and maybe why they run so fast in that race.

And finally to Moscow, where this festival is all about pancakes. Bleenies (ph), they call them, the round pancakes said to represent the coming of the spring sun. We have groundhogs; they have pancakes.

A Russian weight lifter marked the event by breaking the world record for pancake power lifting, hoisting a bar over his head, holding 6,990 hot flap jacks.

Pancakes! They go so good with ostrich.

Last week, it was Michael Jackson's P.J.'s getting headlines. Today it's his lawyer with a heated cross-examination of Jackson's accuser. We'll find out what impact the questioning seemed to have on the jury.

And the jury is in on the infamous towel drop seen around the world.

What punishment will ABC face for its pre-game shenanigans?

Those stories are ahead. Now here are Countdown's top three newsmakers of this day.

No. 3, Bingu Wa Mutharika, the president of the African nation of Malawi. He has moved out of his official government residence, reportedly because he believes the 300-room mansion is haunted. So he's spending the night in a house 60 miles away and commuting until priests can exorcise the demons.

No. 2, former New York police commissioner, Bernard Kerik. It's been about three months since he dropped out of the running for the homeland security chief. But that has not stopped details of his life from come out again.

The latest bombshell was reported by "The New York Daily News." It reports, Kerik wrote an 11-sentence forward to a book about September 11, published to raise money for 9/11 family charities. Unlike others who contributed to the book, the paper says Kerik accepted royalties, $76,000 worth.

The publisher was Kerik's alleged girlfriend at the time, Judith Reagan.

And at No. 1, the manager of the Worcester Tornadoes minor league baseball team in Massachusetts. They have received criticism from some residents over their decision to name the team after a 1953 twister in Worcester that killed 94 people and injured more than 1,000.

One historian saying naming a baseball team after a disaster like that is insensitive and inappropriate. But it's still not as bad as the professional soccer team, Chicago Fire.



STEWART: And welcome back to the Countdown. I'm Alison Stewart in while Mr. Olbermann is taking some time off.

It is a delicate, even unenviable task to cross-examine any witness. So consider the complexity of grilling a 15-year-old cancer survivor about accusations of child molestation. I mean, really. Think about it. Conventional wisdom suggests that is one large sympathy hurdle. So how does it affect the attorney to deal with that? Apparently by using his skills and getting that same witness to admit under oath that he previously told a teacher the defendant never touched him. See? Easy.

Our third story tonight, it's your entertainment and tax dollars in action. Day 483 of the Michael Jackson investigations. Some legal analysis in just a moment. First, two words for you. Reasonable doubt. Our correspondent in Santa Maria is Mike Taibbi.


MIKE TAIBBI, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A day of stunning contrast to the confident assertions Michael Jackson's accuser made late last week. The teenage cancer survivor admitting he was a constantly disruptive, disrespectful student, disciplined by almost all of his teachers, a direct contradiction of his sister's testimony.

Admitting damaging words he maintains came from Jackson, that if a man doesn't satisfy himself sexually, he "might go ahead and rape a woman." Or almost the exact words he also told police were spoken by his grandmother. And admitting in a voice the jury strained to hear, that he and his family escaped Neverland three times. And that even at the end, after Jackson allegedly molested him, he didn't want to leave.

JIM MORET, LEGAL ANALYST: He was forgetful. And i just think it is a very different witness than the prosecution has portrayed as an innocent victim.

TAIBBI (on camera): But unlike almost every other sensational trial in this era of the 24 hour news cycle, this isn't a who done it with what is clearly a crime and one or more victims. This is a did it really happen?

(voice-over): In a key exchange, Jackson attorney Tom Mesereau quoted the boy's school dean Jeffrey Alpert (ph) from a conversation after the boy left Neverland for good. "Look at me," Alpert was quoted, "I can't help you if you don't tell me the truth. Did anything bad happen to you?" From the stand, the accuser's answer, "I told Dean Alpert Michael never did anything to me that was sexually inappropriate." Prosecutor only learned about that exchange this past weekend.

MICHAEL CARDOZA, LEGAL ANALYST: This appears to be a case where they just didn't get to what appears to be a very pivotal witness.

TAIBBI: NBC analyst and former Sheriff Jim Thomas said the exchange isn't that important.

JIM THOMAS, FORMER SHERIFF: It is just not an easy thing to talk about. The fact that this boy said nothing is not surprising at all.

TAIBBI: But Jackson's team at day's end was encouraged that reasonable doubt was being established. Doubt, they say, that a case for molestation even exists. Mike Taibbi, NBC News, Santa Maria.


STEWART: Not exactly the star witness they had in mind to discuss if this is in fact the beginning of the end, I'm joined now by criminal defense attorney Mickey Sherman.

Mickey, good to see you.

And CourtTV correspondent Savannah Guthrie. She was inside the courtroom today and has been throughout the trial. She's also an attorney. Savannah, very nice to see you - as well.


STEWART: We'll start with you, Savanna. Let's talk about what Tom Mesereau came up with today. Got out of the accuser that the dean of the school said to him, quote, "I can't help you unless you tell me the truth." How important and why is this important to the defense?

GUTHRIE: Obviously, this is a big point for the defense. They're very happy any time they can get a prosecution witness to basically say the central allegations didn't happen. On the other hand, it is not as big a bombshell as many people think. Because the fact of the matter is this boy didn't tell anybody until May or June of 2003. And the one thing we didn't learn from the testimony today was when this conversation with Dean Alpert supposedly took place. The fact is early on this boy says he didn't tell anybody. Not his mother, not his psychologist, not anybody until May or June of 2003.

STEWART: Mickey, how damaging do you think that testimony was today from Dean Alpert?

MICKEY SHERMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think it's very damaging. I mean, either way, he's lied. He either then or he's lying now. And there's no other way for the jury to interpret that. It's not a situation where he didn't realize he had been molested. He either was molested and didn't tell the truth then or he was never molested and in fact did tell the truth then and is lying now.

What I find is more disturbing is that if I'm hearing it right, that the state didn't know about or didn't discover or didn't reveal this conversation until a few days ago. I mean, they've had 100 search warrants out there. What did you say? Four-hundred eighty three days of this investigation and now they're just finding exculpatory information. That's disturbing.

_STEWART: How does that happen?_

SHERMAN: It happens through either sheer negligence on the side of the state or basically, they don't want to look for good stuff. They conducted an investigation looking for confirmation that Michael Jackson is the bad guy, as opposed to information that maybe he is not.

STEWART: Mickey, let's go back to a couple other questions that were raised today. The accuser admitted to lying in the rebuttal video. Four or five times. He admitted to being a disciplinary problem. That contradicted his sister's testimony. How substantial a hit is that for the prosecution?

SHERMAN: The disciplinary problem I don't think is a big deal. Every kid screws up in school. I'm a poster boy for bad behavior in grammar school. But lying to people in authority, lying to people whom you would normally confide in. Lying under oath. Juries don't like that. And you can excuse it once or twice because he is youth. You can give him credit and ratchet it up because he's a cancer victim and maybe has a dysfunctional family. When you have lies piled onto lies, piled onto lies, that's called, very simply reasonable doubt.

STEWART: So we're going to revoke his youth pass sometime soon. Savannah, reports are the accuser was very different as a witness today than he had been on the stand last week. What was so different about him?

GUTHRIE: Well, last week on the stand, I think a lot of people felt he seemed very genuine. Very credible. Very compelling witness. Today we see a totally different person. He was combative and sometimes he was sullen. A lot of times I thought he was very sassy with the defense attorney and even the judge had to admonish him.

Listen to the question. You're not answering the question. Listen to the question. At one point, the defense attorney asked him, now didn't you say that Michael Jackson claimed you as your own, claimed you as part of his family? He said what do you mean claim? Like claim on your tax returns? Not so good to be acting so sassy in a court of law.

_STEWART: Did the prosecutors look concerned?_

GUTHRIE: Well, they're not showing their concern if they are. But the best thing they can do right now is try to get this accuser off the stand in one piece. Keep him to his core allegations, not back him off that story, and then try to corroborate the central parts of his story to the extent they can. They have got to support this witness.

STEWART: Mickey, what do you think the D.A. needs to do to salvage this witness?

SHERMAN: Find a new witness.

STEWART: Really. That big.

SHERMAN: He is at the top of Mount Everest of his right now. This should be the best of the best of his case. A young cancer victim who is a victim. And he should be scoring home runs. If he is at best holding his own, it is not going to get better for the state. It's only going to get worse.

STEWART: And Savannah, I understand that the most problematic witness is actually on the way.

GUTHRIE: That's right. The accuser's mother, which I think even the prosecutors would admit will be a problem for them. The issue for the prosecutors is a strategy call, when did they call her? They don't want to wait until the he said of the case because they don't want her to be the last impression the jury has. They can't ignore her and not call her because then the defense will and say, hey, jurors, this is who the prosecution is hiding from you. So they've got to make a call. When is the best time to call this woman to the stand?

STEWART: Savannah Guthrie, you've been inside the courtroom for CourtTV. Thanks for sharing your reporting with us. And criminal defense attorney Mickey Sherman, always great to talk to you. Thanks a bunch.

For more on the Jackson trial, because you know you love it, you can listen to NPR in the morning. Our MSNBC coverage continues with a special edition of the ABRAMS REPORT with Dan Abrams at 9 p.m. Eastern, that is 6 Pacific.

A baby with an all-too common birth defect. But it is the extremely rare treatment the parents have selected for their child that is garnering headlines.

And a big old surprise for "American Idol" producers. One of the show's young stars made the final cut, and then cut himself from the lineup.


STEWART: Taking chances. Ahead on Countdown, one family's decision to help their baby daughter, one network's risk in the name of promotion, and one singer's shot at the big time turned upside down.


STEWART: We began the program tonight with a story of heroism. The kind that is instantly recognizable and nationally heralded. Our number two story on the Countdown tonight, spots a quieter kind of hero. In fact, she's only 19 months old. Countdown's Monica Novotny now with her story.

Hi, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Alison, good evening. One out of every 28 children born has a birth defect. The little girl you're about to meet is one of thousands born each year with a hand defect. Her parents have chosen an unusual and for some controversial treatment and so far, they say they couldn't be happier with the results.


NOVOTNY (voice-over): Clearly, it is tough to keep one this toddler.


NOVOTNY: Britney Apgar plays just like any other baby though she was born without her right hand.

TOM APGAR: It was just a lump like a little fist.

NOVOTNY: A birth defect called hypoplasia, the underdevelopment of an organ due to a decrease in the number of cells. The usual treatment, a prosthetic hand or the removal of toes to create fingers. But instead, parents Tom and Tommy Apgar found Dr. Norman Cowen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was missing all of the palm, all of the fingers, and the thumb was down to this point.

TOMMIE APGAR, BRITTANY'S MOTHER: Dr. Cowen told us the doctor said he could re-grow her fingers and out of all the other possibilities, we thought, you know, this was great.

NOVOTNY: Dr. Cowen, a surgeon who for 30 years has pioneered a series of surgeries to grow a new hand. In this case, transplanting cartilage and bone from Brittany's toes and legs and then stretching the bones one millimeter a day creating a modified right hand with fingers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They'll have movement at the bottom. And the thumb will come and grasp like this.

NOVOTNY: The process which takes several years is controversial. Expensive, arduous, at times, painful. The hand, like an open wound, requires constant cleaning to prevent infection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think in today's environment, I could have started this. I think we would have been swallowed up with lawsuits.

NOVOTNY: And though some in the medical community disagree, the Apgars say it was an easy decision.

TOM APGAR, BRITTANY'S FATHER: We didn't have to deform a foot to fix a hand. And that was the overall thing.

NOVOTNY: But there was one more hurdle. The cost. More than $100,000 in medical expenses for which insurance is covering less than 20 percent. Here in Farmville, Brittany's hometown, almost everyone seems to know her story. And so far this small community of a few thousand people has managed to raise $30,000 to help pay for her surgeries.

TOMMIE APGAR: You just can't put that into words.

JOHN STONE, PASTOR: There have been bake sales, there have been auctions, there have been golf tournaments.

TOM APGAR: You look at a 1-year-old girl in the eyes with curls, you tell her she can't have a right hand. There's not a heart strong enough that can do that.

NOVOTNY: So with the help of hundred and a final round of surgeries, Brittany will have her right hand.

TOM APGAR: We still have a long way to go. The way she has adapted to everything, you know, she is just remarkable.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you going to have fingers? You're going to have fingers!


NOVOTNY: Tom Apgar is a police officer in Farmville, North Carolina. That's Brittany's dad. He told us the town's commissioners there passed an amendment to allow other town employees to donate their sick days to him. That has allowed Mr. Apgar to accompany his family to Dr. Cowen's (ph) office in Maryland for weeks at a time for these surgeries.

And in spite of any controversy, the Apgars say based on Brittany's response, they are confident they made the right choice for their daughter. Brittany's next surgery is scheduled for tomorrow. If all goes well, they'll actually separate what you saw there, that portion of the hand and she will have the four fingers.

STEWART: She is an extraordinarily cute little girl. What a great sensibility she has. But I have to ask, is she in pain at all? Does she have any pain medication?

NOVOTNY: That's one of the concern that people who don't agree with this procedure are concerned about. But the family says, no, they have say that she's been on children's Tylenol at most. She is of course on antibiotics because they have to prevent infection. But other than that, they say it hasn't really been painful for her.

STEWART: Monica Novotny, thanks so much for bringing that story. And we know you'll stay with Brittany and give us all the details.

NOVOTNY: That's right. We'll follow it through.

STEWART: Checking now into our nightly round up of celebrity and entertainment news, "keeping tabs." But tonight, we check in with the continuing battle against the I word. "Indecency." This time the commission has found public complaints lacking. The five-member panel unanimously found that last November's risque "Desperate Housewives" promo during "Monday Night Football" did not underscore, not violate federal indecency standards. The commission said the segment simply is not graphic or explicit enough to be indecent.

Though one commissioner said ABC should exercise more self-discipline. So there. Or put another way, showing Nicolette Sheridan's back does not compare with Janet Jackson's front. Janet's exposed mammary led to the charge to stiffer fines from the FCC, including $550,000 fine against CBS. But Sheridan's lower back and bum (ph) cleavage, nothing.

And from big football players to really big baseball players. Congress says Bud Selig, you have some 'splaing to do. NBC News has learned that on Thursday, baseball commissioner Bud will appear before the congressional committee investigating steroids. The commish will head to D.C. instead of accepting a lower level rep. And Major League Baseball met a new deadline today to send 400 pages of documents on drug testing to the committee.

Meanwhile, the "New York Daily News" reported that a convicted drug dealer injected Mark McGwire with steroids at a gym in Southern California on several occasions. This according to an informant in an FBI investigation in the early '90s which led to 70 trafficking convictions for anabolic steroids but did not target McGwire for other alleged users.

OK. It's back to Chappaqua with Bill Clinton. The former president left the hospital today four days after undergoing surgery to remove scar tissue and fluid around his left lung. Clinton had developed a complication following heart bypass surgery, just about six months ago. But the recent operation was low risk, and Clinton said in a statement that he looked forward to, quote, "getting back to work within the next month or so."

Clinton left the hospital with his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton who took the opportunity to have her own reservations about running for president surgically removed. All right. We made up the last part. Because we thought it was funny.

I'm not making this up. An "American Idol" favorite makes the final cut and then says see you. What's behind the latest second dropout by Mario Vasquez?


STEWART: OK, Randy would say "That's the bomb, dog." Paula would bubble "Oh, you really sparkle up there." While Simon says, "That was like a bad cabaret act at some Portuguese nightclub." Bad English accent, I know.

If those exclamations sound familiar, you have at least occasionally tuned into "American Idol." In our number one story on the Countdown tonight, a first for that show. A top 12 finalist has dropped out willingly and mysteriously. Finalist Mario Vasquez took himself out of the competition Sunday telling "TV Guide" he need to, quote, "take care of personal issues with my family in New York and with 'Idol' being a live show it wouldn't have worked out schedule-wise. My family is my top priority," end quote.

But Vazquez's mother, Ada (ph), said, quote, "I don't know his reasons." Meanwhile, an "Idol" near miss Nikko Smith was bumped back into the finals to replace Vazquez because he got more votes than another male singer eliminated last week, that's according to a Fox statement. Otherwise Fox and "Idol" execs ain't talking. And Vasquez says now it's not because of a family but it's still personal.


MARIO VASQUEZ, "AMERICAN IDOL" DROPOUT: My intuition, I have to say, was the culprit in this. And I just had a lot of thing to think about. Basically, it was personal areas in my life I need concentrate on. To me that meant I couldn't continue on.

Nothing to do with my family. Nothing with me being sick. Nothing like that.


STEWART: I'm joined now by Michael Ausiello, columnist for "TV Guide" and news director for "TV Guide" on-line. He was also the first to interview Vasquez after his decision to drop out. Michael, thank you for being with us.


STEWART: Leaving for "personal reasons" is right up there for someone leaving entertainment venture for "creative differences" is there something personal going on with his family or is it something more? What did you get?

AUSIELLO: Well, it's all very suspicious, of course. When I spoke to him last night, as you said, he was sort of claiming the personal reasons excuse. It changed slightly today after his mom went out and said that, you know, there's nothing wrong with the family. I'm as shocked as everyone else. So there are a bunch of theories going around. One of them is that maybe there was a contract squabble. Maybe he was reticent to sign on the dotted line and sign his life over to Fox for the next couple of years.

STEWART: What happens there in terms of this contract that "American Idol" finalists have to sign?

AUSIELLO: If you win the competition, it's my understanding you have to deliver the first album to the producers, to "American Idol." So they're in charge of that first album. But if you lose, you can't release your own CD until four months after the winner releases his or hers. The interesting thing is if it was a contract squabble, Mario would have had to back out earlier, because he signed that contract when he reached the top 32.

STEWART: All right, now, in a lot of the chat rooms going around, there was this talk that perhaps he was a bit more of a professional than he led on that he had done some backup singing. Would that take him out of "Idol" contention?

AUSIELLO: No. He made no secret that he was a backup singer for Michael Jackson at one point. It's my understanding that you just are disqualified if you've ever had a record deal. That's not the case with Mario. You can perform at various functions. You can perform on stage you just can't have an actual record deal that he did not have.

STEWART: This is a little bit of a learning curve for the "Idol" executives. This is a first, someone taking themselves out of contention. What changes, do you think, will be made to the "Idol" lineup, to the way they make this show?

AUSIELLO: It's hard to say what changes are going to be made because we don't really know exactly what happened. If it was a contract issue, maybe it's something that they'll go back in the future and they'll rethink the way that they're wording the contracts. But there's really not much you can do if an "Idol" contestant wants to drop out for personal reasons. I mean, this is America. He's free to do what he wants so it remains to be seen. I have a feeling that people will continue to speculate about the reason. And I can't imagine that the real reason isn't going to come out. Everybody is all over this story.

STEWART: In your gut, ten seconds, as a reporter, what do you think?

What do you think it is?

AUSIELLO: I think there was probably an incident that took place either present or in the past that "Idol" found out about and gave him the option to leave before it came out.

STEWART: Michael Ausiello of "TV Guide", thank you so much for joining us.


STEWART: That's it for Countdown. Thanks for being a part of it.

I'm Alison Stewart, good night and good luck. Take care.