The Odd Truth, Sept. 27, 2004

The Odd Truth is a collection of strange but factual news stories from around the world compiled by CBSNews.com's Brian Bernbaum.

It's Never Too Late

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - A 108-year-old man has taken up smoking again, encouraged by gifts of cigars from as far away as London.

Retired railroad worker Walter Breuning spoke at his birthday party Tuesday of how he reluctantly quit smoking cigars at the age of 99 because he couldn't afford them.

After his story was widely distributed, the Great Falls man heard from people like the English cigar fan who sent two Havanas.

"They were $12 cigars and they were good," Breuning said. "You can't get good Havana cigars like that out here."

He also got a birthday note and a few more cigars from a former Great Falls resident now living in Oregon.

"They were pretty good cigars, too," Breuning said.

Fred Aimi, of Lolo, was reading newspaper stories to a group of blind neighbors when he came across an account of Breuning's birthday. "That hurt," Aimi said. "I like a good cigar myself."

Aimi said he sent a box of two-dozen cigars on Friday to Breuning. "At 108, they can't do him much harm," he said.

One-Man Crime Wave

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - The crime spree in one southern California community has a name - Jason Wines. Officials in Thousand Oaks say the 25-year-old college dropout is responsible for about half of the city's 13 percent increase in major crimes this year. He's pleaded guilty to eight felony counts and has been sentenced to a year in the Ventura County Jail. Sheriff's officials say Wines confirmed he was responsible for 65 thefts or burglaries. Many of his victims were students at California Lutheran University. That's where Wines went to school before turning to a brief life of crime.

Humungous Fungus

BIRMENSDORF, Switzerland - Scientists say they've discovered a fungus spanning 86 acres in the Swiss Alps, making it the continent's largest living organism.

The Swiss scientists say the Honey Mushroom is about a thousand years old and lies beneath an Alpine forest. They say it's only visible in the fall when its mushrooms pop up around the roots of trees.

The mushrooms aren't dangerous to humans, but they can kill swaths of pine forest.

And while it may be the largest in Europe, it pales in comparison to one in eastern Oregon that covers 2,200 acres.

China's Back Alley Big Brother

HONG KONG - Anybody answering the call of nature in Hong Kong's back alleys should be on alert: Big Brother may be watching.

Authorities have installed closed-circuit TV cameras in five locations, and Home Affairs Department spokeswoman Cindy Yu said Monday the surveillance has led to the prosecution of 29 people over the past two months for hygiene offenses.

They included six men caught relieving themselves and other people apprehended washing dishes and dumping trash in areas that are off limits, the South China Morning Post reported Monday. The Post said fines of up to $260 had been levied.

Yu told The Associated Press the filming was a "pilot program" that has "proven quite useful" and it now will be expanded.

Yu confirmed 29 prosecutions over the past two months, up from just three in the two months before that, but she did not have breakdowns for each offense.

Officials originally envisioned installing 100 cameras in 18 districts of Hong Kong as part of a cleanup campaign in reaction to last year's SARS crisis, but it's unclear how many more cameras they now will add.

Asked about privacy concerns, Yu said that had been taken into consideration but had no further comment.

Wine Vandals Prune Vineyards

PARIS - Winegrowers in northeast France are puzzled over the mysterious destruction of large swaths of two vineyards in Alsace, a region along the German border known for full-bodied white wines.

Saboteurs using long-handled pruning shears destroyed about 2,800 grape vines in the past two weeks by slashing their stems close to the soil, the director of the Alsace Wine Growers Association said Friday.

"We don't really know who could have done this, whether it's the work of a lunatic - or if it's a settling of scores," Jean-Paul Goulby said. "It's very strange."

The value of the damage is difficult to estimate, Goulby said, because future crops must be taken into account.

"On the one hand, the damage is the destruction of the vineyard," he said. "On the other hand, it's the loss of the harvest for this year and for three years to come."

The ravaged vines would have yielded about 1,320 gallons of wine, depriving winegrowers of about $61,575 in revenue each year, Goulby said.

The farmers themselves weren't even the first to notice: In both cases, the damage was spotted by hunters or people who happened to pass by the vines on foot.

The Beer Belly Bandit Strikes Again!

TAMPA, Fla. - The "Beer Belly Bandit" is back.

The robber known for his big gut pulled another stickup this week in Tampa, Florida. Police believe the same man is responsible for dozens of bank robberies in Florida over the past few years.

He hadn't been seen, however, in the past ten months - and authorities aren't sure where he's been. They say if he'd been in jail, he probably would have been recognized - because police have his description.

The Beer Belly Bandit is also known as the "Band-Aid Bandit" - because he had a bandage on his face during some holdups.

Sleeping With The Fishes

OCEAN CITY, New Jersey - As if shooting a loved one's ashes into space or pressing them into artificial diamonds were not sufficiently offbeat, relatives of the deceased now can have their ashes mixed into concrete to help form ocean habitats.

A Georgia company has placed about 200 of the concrete cones, called "reef balls," in the ocean, mostly along the Gulf Coast. Last week, it interred cones filled with the ashes of several people about seven miles off the shore as part of the Great Egg Reef.

Don Brawley, an accomplished diver, came up with the idea of turning artificial reefs into memorials, and founded Eternal Reefs with George Frankel in 2001.

"Most states with reef programs buy artificial reefs," Frankel said. "We like to think that we're buying public reef balls with private money."

Burying a loved one's ashes in a reef ball can cost $1,000 to $5,000. Decatur, Georgia-based Eternal Reefs also has two models for pets, for $400 and $500.

The balls have grapefruit-sized holes in them to dissipate current, and their surface is dimpled to encourage coral growth.

The company got approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to put ashes in the reef installations. The Great Egg Reef also contains decommissioned Army tanks and old tires cabled together.

Relatives and friends of those interred last week said they wanted to do something more tangible with their loved ones' ashes than scattering them or leaving them on a shelf.

"I thought we would get my three kids together and we would sprinkle them on the ocean," Kit Aronson, who buried the ashes of her husband, Robert, told The New York Times for Saturday's editions. "But this is doing it in a more identifiable fashion, where the kids can see where he is. Not in a mausoleum or Arlington Cemetery, but outdoors."