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The Odd Truth, Jan. 8, 2003

The Odd Truth is a collection of strange but factual news stories from around the world compiled by's Brian Bernbaum. A new collection of stories is published each weekday. On weekends, you can read a week's worth of The Odd Truth.

Computer Glitch Labels Thousands Dead

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Believe Cathy Uhl, not the computer, when she insists she's alive.

A computer error at Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center mistakenly identified her and thousands of other patients as deceased.

"We've had problems with insurance before. But when I got this letter, I said, 'Brad (her husband), you're not going to believe this. According to this, I'm dead,"' said Uhl, an administrative supervisor at The Grand Rapids Press.

Uhl is one of 8,500 people who got the Jan. 2 letter, which notified patients that bills issued between mid-October and Dec. 11 had been coded incorrectly to indicate that the person was dead.

The glitch happened during a routine update of Saint Mary's computer files in October, Jennifer Cammenga, a spokeswoman for Saint Mary's, told The Grand Rapids Press.

One digit was dropped from a computer code to indicate the patients were "deceased," rather than "discharged to home."

The mistake was discovered by a Saint Mary's employee who was helping a patient with a billing problem. She noticed that the bill said the patient died, but the patient was standing in front of her, said Saint Mary's chief financial officer, Steve Pirog.

"Once we identified the problem, getting it fixed took only a few days," Pirog said.

Just Follow Your Nose

SPOKANE, Wash. - Two women accused of growing marijuana in their homes made so much money they bought three neighboring houses so they could grow more plants, prosecutors allege.

But investigators learned of their activities last summer when a bank teller called police to say that the women's cash deposits smelled like marijuana.

In documents made public Monday, prosecutors contend Kathleen Jenny and Virginia Erickson were the brains behind the $1 million pot growing operation that began in 1994 in their basements.

The women, both 59, agreed last week to plead guilty to money laundering, authorities said. They face up to six years in prison, instead of the mandatory 10-year federal prison term.

The business was so successful that the women eventually involved their husbands and bought the three other neighborhood homes in which to grow more marijuana, court documents allege.

Drug agents who searched the homes found more than 500 marijuana plants, $110,000 in cash and psychedelic mushrooms. Investigators said as many as 4,000 plants were grown.

The women's husbands, Francis Jenny, 65, and Jack Erickson, 66, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture more than 1,000 marijuana plants, and face between two-and a half and three years in prison. A fifth defendant, Gregory Montgomery, 54, pleaded guilty Monday to the same charge.

All five will remain free until they are sentenced in the spring.

One Tough Granny

LEWISVILLE, Ark. - James Sharp may be a little embarrassed to tell his cellmates how he ended up behind bars. He tried to rip off an old lady, who beat him with her cane. The Lewisville, Arkansas, man has pleaded guilty to burglary charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Prosecutors say Sharp would have to serve at least seven before becoming eligible for parole. Sharp was captured last March after his would-be victim, a 90-year-old woman, escaped to a neighbor's house and called police. Sharp was arrested the following day.

To Sever And Protect?

DETROIT - Police asked prosecutors Tuesday to file charges against an officer who cut off a woman's fingertip with a 4-inch utility knife as he tried to arrest her in a bar parking lot.

Officer Anthony Johnson also deeply cut another finger of the suspect as he tried to cut off her coat sleeve so he could put her in handcuffs. The fingertip was recovered but could not be reattached.

Johnson was placed on desk duty after Sunday's incident.

"The department has no policies and procedures that would cause an officer to use a knife to make an arrest," Deputy Chief Gary Brown said. "We don't issue knives."

Johnson had asked Joni Gullas, 45, for identification as she sat in a van in parking lot. He said she refused and smelled of alcohol.

The plainclothes officer said he reached inside to open the door, but Gullas pinned his hand with her knee and began moving the van. The two struggled and fell onto the pavement. According to the police report, Johnson pulled on Gullas' coat sleeve and she pulled her hand inside.

Concerned that she might be reaching for a weapon, Johnson pulled out the knife and cut the sleeve off, he wrote.

Gullas, who has not been charged with a crime, said she thought she was being attacked.

Pushover Crook

HENDERSON, Neb. - Just say no. That's what a convenience store clerk did when a masked man tried to pull a stick-up. Authorities in Henderson, Nebraska, say the clerk at the local Fuel Mart near I-80 refused to cooperate with a would-be robber who demanded money. The guy even had a concealed weapon. The astonished bandit just turned around and walked back out the door. The weapon turned out to be a screwdriver. Investigators say the crook "wasn't too intelligent" and was high on speed. The man now faces charges of attempted robbery.

Cocateil Saves Couple From Fire

NORRFLAERKE, Sweden - A couple in Sweden doesn't need a smoke alarm — they've got Gilbert the cockatiel.

When fire broke out in a room where a candle had been left burning, the couple was awakened by the panicked shrieking of Gilbert. They managed to put the fire out before it got too big.

Niki La Roche says if it hadn't been for Gilbert, the house about 260 miles north of Stockholm would probably have burned down. She says, "I don't want to think of what might have happened."

The experience was a little much for Gilbert. His owners found him in a corner, squawking and screaming, his feathers covered with soot.

Suspected Bank Robber Burned Loot For Warmth

BANGKOK - The suspected mastermind of a bank van robbery set fire to part of the loot, saying he wanted to keep himself warm on a cold night, police said Wednesday. Police suspect the story is a ploy to hide the bulk of the stolen cash.

Sawai Khongrum gave himself up on Tuesday and led police to the bonfire site in Pakchong district of Nakorn Ratchasima province, about 130 miles northeast of the capital Bangkok.

Police found charred remains of bank notes worth $24,000, but more than $117,000 remains unaccounted for, Bangkok police commissioner Lt. Gen. Damrongsak Nilkooha told reporters.

"He claimed that the weather was too cold and he burned the entire loot to warm himself while he was on the run," Damrongsak said. The lowest night temperature in northeastern Thailand this week has been 61 Fahrenheit.

Damrongsak said the remaining money could be with Sawai's relatives or friends.

Sawai had been implicated in the robbery by the van driver who was arrested with his two brothers on Monday after driving away with more than $1.16 million during deliveries to fill up ATMs around Bangkok last week. The vehicle was found Saturday with $1 million inside. Some $24,000 was recovered from the driver and his brothers.

No formal charges have been filed against any of the four suspects. Theft is punishable by up to five years in prison and destroying money and evidence is punishable by five years.

Judge Hits Vandal Where It Hurts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - There'll be no more fun, fun, fun for one of Albuquerque's biggest graffiti vandals now that the mayor's taken his T-bird away.

Noah Aime, blamed by city officials for graffiti at 250 sites across New Mexico's largest city, handed over his keys and title to his 1987 Ford Thunderbird to Mayor Martin Chavez during a news conference Monday.

Aime also gave the mayor a check for $1,500 and will make monthly payments for a year as part of a restitution agreement with the city. Aime agreed to pay a total of $4,500 plus the car.

"I now understand that this form of expression is not acceptable," he said.

The mayor said the episode should send the message that the city will pursue graffiti vandals and sue them for money to clean up the damage.

"These are not harmless kids. This is a serious category of offense," Chavez said.

Albuquerque has collected about $31,000 from 57 people, including about 15 parents of young people blamed for graffiti, said Pete Dinelli, deputy city attorney. He called Aime the biggest graffiti vandal caught in the crackdown.

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