Jennifer Hudson tribute to Whitney Houston: The must-see video

Jennifer Hudson's tribute to Whitney Houston at the Grammys on Sunday night was a heartbreaking showstopper. And it's easy to see why.

The producers of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards had to scramble to find a way to revamp the awards show to honor Whitney Houston just hours after the singer was declared dead under mysterious circumstances in her Beverly Hilton room in Beverly Hills. The 48-year-old pop legend had long struggled with drug addiction.

Houston's memory loomed large over the awards, with host L.L. Cool J. starting the show by addressing the challenge of celebrating music on a night tinged with such heartache. "There is no way around this. We had a death in our family," he said before leading the audience at Staples Center in a prayer for "our sister Whitney."

PHOTOS: Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

But all agreed — including Houston's mentor, Clive Davis — that Houston would have wanted the show to go on. So it did.

Hudson's emotional rendition of "I Will Always Love You" did not try to compete with Houston's version of the song. Instead, it paid homage and deference to a voice for the ages, a voice that influenced so many other performers, Hudson among them.

Wearing a somber yet elegant black dress and backlighted, Hudson's hair and makeup (particularly those glossy, nude lips) recalled Houston in her heyday. Still, Hudson nonetheless put her own twist on the song, finishing it this way: "Whitney, we love, we love you."


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Whitney Houston dies at 48: Full coverage

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— Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Whitney Houston memorials spring up at N.J. school, church

Whitney houston church
Outside the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, the flag flew at half-staff in the icy wind as Principal Henry W. Hamilton remembered the gangly 15-year-old who lived up the road, and who excitedly showed off her modeling portfolio one afternoon in 1978.

Back then, before the red brick school had been renamed for the future pop queen, Hamilton didn’t expect Whitney Houston to become a star.

 Houston died Saturday in Beverly Hills of undetermined causes. 

“She was in the choir and the chorus. She used to sing at church. But I didn’t expect she’d become a great singer –- the greatest singer in the world,” said Hamilton, who acknowledges he missed the explosive talent that developed in the young girl as she made her way through the halls of this school in suburban New Jersey, where her first classroom, No. 6, is just to the right of the main entrance.

Hamilton isn’t usually at school on Sunday. But after his phone began ringing on Saturday evening with news of Houston’s death, he knew this would not be a normal day for anyone who knew Houston as a child, or who had seen her sing at the New Hope Baptist Church in neighboring Newark.

“Her start was a beautiful, innocent thing,” said Hassan Munford, who attended the school now named for Houston and who grew up in the same neighborhood.

“I remember when she first made it, she brought a red drop-top and drove it down Dodd Street,” Munford said with a smile as he left flowers outside the school.

“You always have your controversies,” he said of Houston’s well-publicized struggle with drugs and her turbulent relationship with ex-husband Bobby Brown. “But at the end of the day, the influence she had on the community –- on the kids and aspiring musicians and singers –- far outweighs the controversy.”

Throughout the day, fans came bearing flowers, candles and heart-shaped balloons to the school and the church, which shares a nondescript street with an auto shop and a tavern and which, on this frigid February morning, was the only building with any hint of life or color.

Parishioners and fans, bundled up in fur coats, down jackets or flimsy sweaters too thin to block the cold, began arriving at the church before dawn for a morning memorial and kept coming throughout the day for additional services.

“Our hearts are very heavy today,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson as he headed into the church to address the third and last service of the day. “The suddenness of it all … we’re just traumatized.”

Every seat was filled inside the 112-year-old church, where Houston sang as a teenager and where her mother, Cissy Houston, and cousin Dionne Warwick also were regulars in the choir.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Houston “a true New Jersey treasure.” 

Hamilton has been principal of the Whitney E. Houston school for 40 years, since the days when it was called the Franklin School. It was renamed for Houston in 1997.

His office is decorated with pictures that include photographs of him and Houston over the decades.

When his phone rang Saturday night and a nephew told him Houston had died, Hamilton initially did not believe it. But it’s never easy to accept when one of your pupils dies, he said.

“It’s hurtful. Sometimes we say, ‘Is there something we could have done to save that youngster?’ ” said Hamilton, admitting that there is only so much the school can do once pupils move on.

"Once she left here, we felt she was on the right path,” he said. “The things that happened later ... that’s show biz. Unfortunately, some survive and some don’t.”


Love and empathy for Whitney Houston in Newark


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Photo:  At New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., where Whitney Houston began her career as a child, a memorial to the singer grew. She died Saturday in Beverly Hills. Credit:  John W. Ferguson / Getty Images 



Love and empathy for Whitney Houston in Newark

New Hope Baptist Church

As an icy wind sliced the air outside the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., Donna Thorn stuffed another bouquet of flowers between the iron bars of the church gate.

On the surface, Thorn, a short woman in sweatpants and a wool cap, didn't appear to have much in common with Whitney Houston, who as a child sang gospel in the red brick church. On Saturday, Houston was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel room. Thorn's eyes filled with tears and her voice shook as she described her own struggle with drugs and the empathy she had for the dead pop star, who went through the same thing.

The cause of Houston's death has not been determined and an autopsy is planned.

PHOTOS: Stars react

"If you was never an addict you don't know what it's like to struggle and stay clean ... to hit rock-bottom," said Thorn, recalling her own battle to get off drugs as she grew up on the gritty streets of Newark, where Houston was born 48 years ago.

It was "that fast-track life in L.A." that surely did not help Houston, said Thorn, who echoed other parishioners and fans Sunday as they lamented the premature loss of a Newark native who achieved stardom but whose roots remained deeply planted in the area.

"It's a big loss for us here," said Thorn, noting that the city has been "cleaned up" but still battles high crime and depressed neighborhoods. "She came from my hometown, she made it out of Newark, and she was on top of the world."

PHOTOS: Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those who attended the Sunday service at the church. "Our hearts are heavy today," he said before going in. "The suddenness of it all. ... We're just traumatized."

Continue reading »

Police raid 5-story New York pot farm, an indoor marijuana jungle

New York pot farm is raided.

Urban gardening has become a trend in New York City, but police sniffing around a five-story building in the Bronx found an urban garden of a different type: an indoor jungle of marijuana plants growing on every floor, some far taller than the cops who raided the unusual jungle.

On Tuesday evening, police carted 593 towering plants from the otherwise unremarkable brick building, as well as 75 pounds of marijuana cut, dried and packaged in plastic, ready for distribution. Authorities said that by a "conservative estimate," the operation did at least $3 million in business last year. Three men were arrested in connection with the case.

It certainly wasn't the biggest marijuana bust in New York City, not by a long shot. In 2009, 50,000 pounds of marijuana was found stuffed in a home in Queens, and there have been plenty of other bigger busts in the region.

What made Tuesday's discovery unusual was the location of the farm: a busy urban area on a block lined with similar five-story walk-up buildings occupying people, not leafy trees thriving under a sophisticated air filtration, irrigation and lighting system with fans and sprinklers to ensure healthy crops.

Police said they began investigating the building two months ago after at least one complaint from an area resident about shady activities there. But it was not clear if most neighbors knew what was going on inside the structure. Most of those who spoke with local media as they watched police carting out sacks of pot plants said they were stunned.

"It's terrible. Too close to  home," one woman told the local ABC TV affiliate, WABC. "I've walked through here for maybe three or four years and I never, ever would have thought that they would have a pot factory in this building," a man said.

Others, however, told reporters that the odor wafting from the urban farm was noticeable and sometimes got innocent people into trouble. "Cops come on the block and smell weed and pull us over and harass us, and no one is smoking," Andre Cardona told the Daily News

-- Tina Susman in New York


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Photo: A police officer stands amid a pot farm found in the Bronx. Credit: New York Police Department

Colorado medical marijuana shops in federal crosshairs

Colorado marijuana
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors sent letters to 23 medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado, ordering them to shut down or face criminal charges. Now the owners must decide: stay and fight, or go?

"I feel like fighting," Diane Irwin, owner of Highland Health dispensary, told The Denver Post. "But I don't want to go to jail, either."

Irwin’s Denver business, which recently added a yoga room and more space for a hypnotherapist, is within 1,000 feet of a school. So were the others targeted by Colorado U.S. attorney John Walsh, who gave them until Feb. 27 to close.

Walsh told the Post that the dispensaries were a potential “threat to kids” because schools had seen a spike in drug-related violations as more medical cannabis outlets opened. Marijuana advocates said prosecutors were overreaching, particularly since the state has some of the nation’s toughest medical cannabis regulations.

Medical pot has strong backing in Colorado. The state was the nation's first to issue state-level business licenses for marijuana-related operations. Meanwhile, advocates are trying to get an initiative on the November ballot that would allow people 21 and older to legally posses up to an ounce of pot.


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Photo: A man smokes marijuana during a 2010 pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver. Credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

35 pounds of cocaine found in U.N. mailroom


There was something odd about two sacks that showed up this month in the United Nations mailroom, even if they did have what appeared to be the distinctive U.N. seal, with its globe framed by olive branches. It was blue, but a shade lighter than usual, and the sacks did not include the words "United Nations."

What's more, the sacks had no return address, or even an addressee. Package handlers at a U.N. mail room ran the bags through an X-ray screener.

Inside were 14 hollowed-out textbooks, each containing a little more than 2 pounds of cocaine, New York police told The Times on Friday. 

U.N. security officials notified the New York Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which seized about 35 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $440,000, said NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne.

Officials do not believe the cocaine, which was delivered to the U.N. complex last week by DHL, was intended for a diplomat.

"There’s some theory that was this was an attempt to disguise this as a diplomatic pouch," Browne said. "If so, it was a very amateurish one."

Diplomatic pouches bear the words "diplomatic mail" and "United Nations," Browne said. These two bags had no text on them at all and looked obviously different from official pouches.

"Any experienced personnel at the U.N. would know instantly that this was a fake," he said.

The investigation is ongoing, but at this point, no arrests have been made. Browne, who has 20 years in law enforcement, said he could not recall a case like this at the U.N.


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Photo: Gregory B. Starr, undersecretary general of the United Nations for Safety and Security, displays a photo of two bags that contained 35 pounds of cocaine seized last week at the U.N.'s mail intake center. Credit:  Paulo Filgueiras / United Nations via Associated Press 


Nitrous oxide: Demi Moore collapse focuses attention on whip-its

Nitrous oxide may or may not have been involved in the collapse and hospitalization this week of celebrity Demi Moore -- media reports have varied -- but those reports nonetheless seem to have caused many people to pause and ask one question: "What is nitrous oxide?"

"Nitrious oxide" and "Demi Moore" were two of the hottest Google search terms Thursday morning, a one-two punch that's drawing back the curtain on a drug that hasn't quite made its way into the nation's drug spotlight as have marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Nitrous oxide belongs to a category of drugs known as inhalants and is more commonly known by its street names: whip-its, poppers or snappers. The chemical vapor is "huffed," or intentionally inhaled, by users, triggering mind-altering sensations resembling extreme alcohol intoxication, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The problem? Nitrous oxide -- and other inhalants -- can fry your brain.

"By displacing air in the lungs, inhalants deprive the body of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can damage cells throughout the body, but the cells of the brain are especially sensitive to it," the institute says.

It adds: "If sufficient amounts are inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce a loss of sensation, and even unconsciousness. Irreversible effects can be hearing loss, limb spasms, central nervous system or brain damage, or bone marrow damage. Sniffing high concentrations of inhalants may result in death from heart failure or suffocation (inhalants displace oxygen in the lungs)."

The high from nitrious oxide and other inhalants is fleeting, lasting just a few minutes at most. That can lead to extended huffing sessions, creating even more risk.

The tabloids will no doubt make much of this factoid: Nitrous oxide is considered a young person's drug, mainly because many inhalants -- not just nitrous oxide -- are cheap and plentiful. (Cleaning fluids, hair spray and the like are also huffed.)

In 2009, 2.1 million Americans age 12 and older had abused inhalants such as nitrous oxide, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A 2010 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 8.1% of eighth-graders had abused inhalants at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.

Moore, 49, was hospitalized after paramedics rushed to her home near Benedict Canyon on Monday night. She has been in the news of late amid the spectacular crash-and-burn of her marriage to Ashton Kutcher, 33,  following allegations of infidelity on his part.

As for the conflicting media accounts linking nitrous oxide to Moore, TMZ offered an unconfirmed report that directly contradicts the statement that Moore's representatives told The Times this week. They said the actress was suffering from simple exhaustion. 


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Photo: A silver canister containing nitrous oxide. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

-- Rene Lynch

Highly organized drug ring relied on 8-year-old as a lookout

Drug bust

A major New York drug ring, which police announced this week had been destroyed, apparently relied upon an 8-year-old boy as a lookout, part of a calculating and highly regimented operating system that even officials said was impressive.

A Wednesday raid on the ring in East Harlem also turned up some surprises, such as 2 1/2 gallons of liquid PCP in Hawaiian Punch bottles and $39,000 in cash, New York police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news conference. Thirty-five people were arrested and charged with a total of 275 counts alleging conspiracy, drug possession and drug-selling.

"We had housewives, people going back with large amounts to their neighborhoods in other states. We had all ... types of people," police Inspector Lori Pollack said in an NY1 account describing the range of customers who frequented the business, which did more than $1 million a year in drug sales. 

"It was pretty structured, I will say that," she said of the manner in which the alleged ringleaders, brothers Lamont and Bernard Moultrie, ran the drug ring. "There were posts. You knew where you had to be, you knew what your hours were going to be." The ring included packagers, security guards and vetters who would assess each customer for signs they might be undercover agents.

One of the workers was an 8-year-old boy who served as a lookout and whose responsibilities included warning his bosses if trouble was on the way. He was considered a victim and was not among those facing criminal charges.

“The defendants used this child to facilitate the daily activity of this drug den, putting him in harm's way every day ... 8 years old,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said at the news conference.

In the end, the business' success may have been its downfall. Police began an investigation at the housing project that served as the drug ring's base after neighbors complained about the activity there, saying they had to push through lines of people in the lobby who would show up each day to make purchases. The investigation took 15 months to complete, in part because of the layers of security and lookouts.

One of the alleged ringleaders, Lamont Moultrie, was on parole for a 1989 murder when he was arrested Wednesday. Another suspect had been in jail for murder and had just been released last March after serving 25 years.


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Photo: Police in New York discuss a raid that took down a major drug ring -- a ring that used an 8-year-old as a lookout. Credit: Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Utah police mourn officer killed in drug raid


The Utah law enforcement community mourned the death of one of their own Thursday as authorities tried to piece together the details of a shooting during a drug raid that left five other officers and the suspect wounded. 

As state and national flags were ordered lowered to honor the dead and wounded officers, top officials from the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force met reporters. The strike force, composed of local police agencies as well as county and federal officers, conducted the raid Wednesday night that led to the death of Ogden Officer Jared Francom, a seven-year veteran, survived by his wife and two children.

The five other officers remained hospitalized in serious to critical condition, police said. “It's a very, very sad day for Ogden,” Ogden Police Chief Wayne Tarwater said at the televised news conference.

“This is a family. This is a law enforcement family,” Tarwater said. “The law enforcement community is mourning.”

“We have lost a brother,” Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson said. Francom gave his life for his fellow officers and the community, he added.

Although an investigation is underway, officials gave the following account:

The officers were serving a search warrant at a house on Jackson Avenue in Ogden, about 35 miles from Salt Lake City. When serving the warrant, known by law enforcement as a ‘knock-and-announce,” police knock on the door and announce their intentions. If no one answers, police can enter the building if they believe there is probable cause of drug activity.

When officers entered, they came under fire, police said. Officers are required to wear bulletproof vests on such a raid, Tarwater said. “As far as I know, the officers were wearing vests and protective gear,” he told reporters.

The suspect was identified as Matthew David Stewart, 37. Tarwater said Stewart had “a limited criminal history,” believed to be mostly misdemeanors. Stewart was injured and remains hospitalized under guard. The injuries are not considered life-threatening, Tarwater said.

Authorities did not disclose what type of weapons were involved or how many shots were fired.

Asked about reports that as many as a dozen officers were sent on the raid, strike force commander Lt. Darin Parke told reporters that that number is not unusual. There was “not really a great deal that set this investigation apart ... other than the outcome,” he said.

In addition to internal police investigations, the shooting will be examined by the Weber County prosecutors.

Tarwater thanked fellow police agencies for their support. He said that at one point Wednesday night, there were “40 officers from probably seven different agencies” at the hospital.


Shootout during Utah drug raid kills one police officer, wounds 5


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Photo: Odgen Police Chief Wayne Tarwater addresses the media during a news conference. On Wednesday night six area law enforcement officers were shot while serving a search warrant. One officer from Ogden died of his wounds. Credit: Jim Urquhart / Associated Press

Shootout during Utah drug raid kills one police officer, wounds 5


At least one police officer was killed and five others were wounded in a shootout Wednesday night as officers tried to serve a search warrant on a house in Ogden, Utah, officials said Thursday morning.

The raid was by six officers of the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force who were seeking to search 3268 Jackson Ave. in Ogden, about 35 miles from Salt Lake City. The anti-drug team is composed of officers from local police departments, the Weber County Sheriff's Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, officials said.

According to police dispatchers, the task force blocked off the area at around 9 p.m. and confronted a suspect; a gunfight then erupted.

More details are expected at a news conference later Thursday morning.

Killed was Ogden police officer Jared Francom, a seven-year veteran who is survived by his wife and two young children, according to dispatchers.

The five other officers remained hospitalized with injuries ranging from serious to critical.

The sole suspect was at a hospital, with non-life-threatening injuries, officials said in a prepared statement. No other suspects are being sought, officials said.

“The Ogden City Police Department would like to thank all of the law enforcement agencies in the area for their assistance and support during this event and subsequent investigation,” officials said in a prepared statement.


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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