Death by Divorce? Fire, Custody Dispute Yield Death Sentence

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November 2nd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Daniel Dougherty of Philadelphia has suffered many bad events in his life. He’s a former auto mechanic with alcohol addiction problems. He has had two broken marriages. But two of the tragedies stand out from the rest. In 1985, his girlfriend’s house burned down, killing his two sons who were asleep upstairs. In 1999, his second ex-wife was involved in a nasty child custody dispute with him. She reported to police that Dougherty set the 1985 fire which killed his children. She reportedly later retracted her claims, but it wasn’t enough to save Dougherty from a miserable fate.

The wheels of law enforcement whirred, people “changed” (falsified) their testimony to match the new story, and 14 years after that tragic fire, Dougherty was arrested. In his trial in 2000, he was sentenced to death for what appears could be a false allegation made by a nasty woman who couldn’t accept sharing child custody and was perhaps willing to see her ex-husband dead rather than accept joint custody.

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Son Wishes For Father’s Release

Although the mother did succeed at getting 100% custody of their son by having the father imprisoned, she died in 2006. When the son, Stephen Dougherty, was interviewed in 2007, the boy was at the time 15 years old without both of his parents and living with a relative in California. He hoped his father would get out of prison:

(from Arson Science – To The Rescue)

Dougherty has reestablished contact with a son by his second wife, who died last year. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Dougherty lives with a relative in California. He talks by phone often with his father, he said last week, adding that he hoped to visit his father in the summer.

Stephen said his father spent his time in his cell listening to radio music from the ’60s and ’70s — the Eagles’ “Hotel California” is a favorite — and watching old westerns on TV.

“I’m hoping that he gets out,” he said. “He’s a good guy.”

Dougherty is still sitting on death row in Pennsylvania, as he has been for more than eight years. Scheduled execution dates having come and gone repeatedly. Appeals continue.

Fires Bring Arson and Murder Charges if Relatives Survive

If your family is struck by the tragedy of a fire and any of you manage to survive, the survivors are at great risk for being accused of arson and murder.

(from Arson or Accident? The inability of arson investigators to recognize the difference could put YOU in prison – or worse.)

How many could be wrongfully convicted of arson? There are 500,000 structure fires overall a year; 75,000 of them are labeled suspicious. John Lentini, who has campaigned widely to improve investigators’ knowledge, says most experts he talks with believe the accuracy of fire investigators is at best 80% — meaning as many as 15,000 mistaken investigations each year, and who knows how many convictions.

“When there’s a fatal fire and someone survives, the survivor will be charged with arson and murder.”
~ Gerald Hurst, Ph.D.

When it comes to fires with fatalities, nobody is safe from government lies and manipulations to charge somebody with arson and murder. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, friends, brothers, sisters, and children have all been wrongly prosecuted and convicted of arson and murder on the basis of flimsy unscientific evidence about what were likely accidental fires.

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Wrongful Execution of Fire Victim Cameron Todd Willingham

If executed, Dougherty won’t be the first person to be wrongfully executed for an accidental fire. While it’s not clear how many have suffers such a fate, the evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 by the state of Texas for a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters, makes it appear highly doubtful he started the fire and therefore Texas wrongfully murdered him:

(from Pennsylvania is at serious risk of executing an innocent person)

It’s happened. Investigative reporting and hard scientific evidence indicate a government in the United States has executed an innocent person, an inevitable event that anti-death-penalty advocates have suspected and feared for years.

In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters died in a fire in Texas. Willingham managed to escape. Witnesses stated that Willingham was hysterical and tried mightily to get back into the house to save the girls, even to the point that police had to handcuff him to keep him in place.

But then fire investigators took over. They suspected arson, claiming remnants of the fire, including the burn patterns and cracked glass on the windows, were signs the fire had been set.

Once suspicion fell upon Willingham, the witnesses’ statements changed. They claimed instead that Willingham acted strangely. One witness, a pastor, said Willingham seemed to be overacting. As often happens, a prison informant appeared and stated that Willingham confessed to the crime, even though Willingham had told everyone else that he was innocent.

Despite lacking a serious motive, Willingham was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. In 2004, the state of Texas executed him for supposedly setting the fire that killed his daughters.

New evidence emerged in the weeks leading up to Willingham’s execution, and the chorus grew only louder after his execution. Gerald Hurst, a widely recognized scientist and arson expert, studied the evidence and reported that not only did Willingham not set the fire, but it wasn’t even arson. It was a terrible accident. But Hurst’s study was not enough to stop Willingham’s execution.

Last month, a report by another expert, Craig Beyler, confirmed Hurst’s findings. In a report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Beyler found there was no scientific basis for suspecting arson and the investigators failed to examine outlets and appliances in the home that could have started the fire. Like Hurst, Beyler concluded the fire was an accident.

This was not a case where science improved after the fact. Hurst and Beyler stated the original investigators failed to use the latest science available at the time of the investigation.

An article this month in The New Yorker by David Grann further uncovered the flawed case that led to Willingham’s execution. The prison informant suffered from mental illness and had his sentence reduced after testifying. When that informant tried to recant his testimony years later, Willingham’s lawyer was not informed, and the informant later withdrew his attempt to recant his testimony.

Musical Tastes Indicate Sociopathic Thought?

Some of the “evidence” that the state used to convict Willingham of being a sociopath who murdered his family is that he had a picture of a fallen angel from the cover of an album by Led Zepplin, the famous 1970’s rock band, and that this somehow was enough for “experts” who had never met the man to conclude he was obsessed with death and involved in cultlike activity.

(from Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?)

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

(from Pennsylvania is at serious risk of executing an innocent person)

Two medical ”experts”, including marriage and family therapist Tim Gregory, claimed Willingham was a sociopath. Yet they never examined or even met him. Tim Gregory stated that a picture that Willingham owned of Led Zeppelin’s iconic falling angel indicated cultlike activity and an obsession with death.

James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist known as “Doctor Death” for his repeated involvement in testifying for the state to get death sentences, claimed that Willingham was an incurable sociopath. But this wasn’t the first time Grigson testified against an innocent man. He had testified against Randall Dale Adams for the 1977 murder of a police officer for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Yet later Adams was released from prison in 1989 because new evidence emerged that proved he could not have committed the murder.

In 1995, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Associations for advocating the death penalty and stating that people were incurable without ever having met or talked with them:

(from Wikipedia: James Grigson)

After conviction for murder was secured, Grigson would typically participate in the penalty phase and often assert that there was a “100 percent and absolute” chance that the defendant would kill again. Because he had asserted such against some defendants even though he had never examined the defendant, the APA censured Grigson and filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court against him. In July 1995, he was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, which deems this as constituting ethics violations and his activity as an expert witness decreased.

Putting this together with Stephen Dougherty’s comments about his father’s musical preferences, you can help but wonder if the government has a habit of trumpeting misinformation as evidence just as wrongfully damaging as claiming that liking 1960’s and 1970’s rock music is “proof” that an accused person is a sociopath who should be killed.

Governor Rick Perry Denied Stay of Execution

Texas Governor Rick Perry denied a stay of execution for Willingham, even though he was given a credible report that seriously questioned the accuracy of the conviction. Now Perry is on the hot seat to defend his involvement in his state’s murder of a likely innocent man. Unsurprisingly, Perry is trying to wiggle his way out of responsibility. He’s tampered with the state science commission responsible for an arson science review report concerning the Willingham case.

(from Texas execution: Gov Rick Perry calls Cameron Todd Willingham ‘monster,’ defends state’s handling of execution)

Perry, facing a vigorous re-election challenge in the 2010 Texas governor’s race, has drawn national media scrutiny after shaking up the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Perry dismissed three members two days before the panel was to review an expert report challenging the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s execution.

Ousted Chairman Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney who has questioned his dismissal, said two members of Perry’s criminal justice staff met with him and seemingly used pressure to direct the commission’s review. Perry’s dismissal of Bassett and two other members — Alan Levy, a top prosecutor in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist at a private laboratory in Euless — led to the cancellation of a commission meeting to hear fire expert Craig Beyler.

In a report requested by the commission, Beyler said his review of the Willingham investigation did not support a finding of arson.

Governor Perry continues to call Willingham a “monster” and insist he should have been executed. Perhaps if Perry wants to see a monster, he should look in the mirror. Perry is unhappy that he’s being associated with a wrongful execution that he didn’t prevent even though he was presented with a report ripping apart the “scientific” evidence against Willingham. Now Perry appears to be intent on spinning reality to hide his involvement in wrongful state murder.

(from Cameron Todd Willingham: executed but innocent?)

He died in Texas’ death chamber in 2004, even though the governor was aware of exculpatory evidence and is now apparently working to keep the truth from coming out.

Even in Texas, where the death penalty is embraced with fervor, the revelation that the governor permitted an execution to proceed in 2004 despite abundant evidence that the prosecution was based on seriously flawed scientific methods — well, that might not be helpful to his reelection chances. Not during a tough campaign.

So Gov. Rick Perry’s sudden decision to reconfigure the Texas Forensic Science Commission looks highly suspicious. Two days before the commission was scheduled to hear testimony from an arson expert whose scathing report gave every reason to believe Texas had wrongly convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of setting the fire that killed his three children, Perry replaced the chairman and two other members. Apparently he remembered that their terms had expired in August. The pesky hearing was canceled. It has not been rescheduled.

The report by arson expert Craig Beyler — whose findings corroborated those of at least one other expert — is damning. Beyler concluded that the arson investigators in the Willingham case proceeded on mistaken assumptions, employed outdated methods and mixed courtroom testimony with mystical balderdash. No one should be executed because an investigator tells a jury that “the fire tells the story; I am just the interpreter.”

If Perry didn’t know about the problems with the prosecution, he should have. A report challenging the arson investigators’ methodology landed on his desk before Willingham’s execution. Now it’s unclear how the commission will proceed. Its course, however, was set by the Texas Legislature, which established the board to “investigate any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that affects the integrity of results and make all completed investigation reports, and subsequent civil or criminal proceedings, available to the public.” We’ll be waiting for a completed investigation and a public report.

Perry, who in recent days has called Willingham a “monster” who deserved to die and Beyler’s report “propaganda,” has had the nerve to paint himself as the victim of a politically motivated attempt to derail his reelection campaign. But he’s wrong. His motives are being challenged because an innocent man may have been executed. Until Perry supports the commission’s efforts and allows science to determine the truth, the likelihood remains that the real victim was Willingham.

Science: The “S” Word for Incompetent Fire Investigators

For many decades, fire investigation had been a “word of mouth” tradition with little scientific research. In the 1980’s and later, investigators finally got around to doing some experiments to determine if their theories were accurate. In other cases, they had opportunities to inspect fires of known causes. In both scenarios, they were astonished to find that the types of damage they often used to claim a fire was an arson were entirely inaccurate and could occur by accidental fires. For instance, many arson investigators stated (and some even continue to state today) that concrete spalling and crazed class are caused by accelerants used in a fire. But in reality, both of these conditions occur in fires in which no accelerants were used. Concrete spalling can be caused by high heat that can be reached in normal fires. Crazed glass can be caused by fire fighters spraying water on hot glass.

(from Arson myths fuel errors: Debunked theories plague fire probes, lead to wrongful arrests, prosecutions)

“It’s one of the myths that doesn’t want to die,” Malooley said. “But that’s the problem with fire investigations. The old-timers don’t keep up with the developments in the field.”

The International Association of Arson Investigators, a group of about 9,000 fire investigators, asserted as recently as 1997 that fire investigation is not a science and therefore not subject to the rigorous requirements imposed on scientific disciplines in court, such as a need for verifiable results.

The association filed a legal brief in a Florida court case arguing a scientific standard did not apply because arson findings were based on the personal experience of investigators.

The following year, a federal appeals court rejected that argument. Since then, the association has come to embrace the idea that fire investigation properly done is based on science, said Alan Clark, association executive director.

“And that is a good thing–it has helped to eliminate a lot of stuff that was inaccurate,” Clark said.

“When I started doing fire investigations, it was a lot easier. The longer I do it, the less I know. It used to be really simple–if you had a certain condition, it was automatic.”

Setting new standards

Nearly 20 years ago, in an attempt to improve the quality of arson investigation, the National Fire Protection Association, an international group dedicated to fire safety, gathered a committee of experts from the private and public sectors to develop a guide for fire and explosion investigations.

The guide, first published in 1991 and titled “NFPA 921,” went to considerable lengths to refute most of the field’s unproven theories. It has been revised several times as scientific advances continue to emerge.

DeHaan, who was on the committee, said there was negative reaction to “NFPA 921.”

“It basically is fear,” he said. “This was something that could not be easily dismissed. There were many complaints from both the private and public sector. They didn’t like hearing the s-word–science.”

Fair Investigators Admit Mistakes, Lying Investigators Perpetuate Them

To be fair, arson investigators face a tough challenge figuring out what happened to start a fire. Even the honest ones still often believe misinformation about how fires spread and the damage they create being tied to the use of accelerants and multiple sources of ignition and then jump to conclusions that arson was involved. Their false conclusions can result in the victims of an accidental fire being further victimized by wrongful prosecutions, convictions, and punishments.

Arson myths fuel errors: Debunked theories plague fire probes, lead to wrongful arrests, prosecutions

“Investigators were instructed to look at the way wood was charred and that would determine whether it was a fast fire or a slow fire,” Kennedy’s son, Patrick, said. “A fast one was caused by accelerants–an arson.

“There was no research that supported that. But we all believed that 30 years ago. I was teaching it.”

“All these myths came about the same way,” he continued. “There was no science training then. Guys like my dad–they were smart guys, but they went to a bunch of fires to see how badly charred things were and they would find gasoline and get a confession. And then, these anecdotal cases became a body of fact.”

For example, the elder Kennedy said, there was little doubt 40 years ago that a fire fueled by an accelerant burned hotter than fires where no accelerant was involved.

“We have since found out that normal fires get just as hot without accelerants,” the elder Kennedy said.

That belief became bedrock and launched other unproven theories.

For example, finding melted metal, such as an aluminum threshold or bedsprings, signaled a heat so intense that an accelerant must have been used. Finding “crazed glass”–glass riddled with an intricate spider web of cracks–was proof of rapid heating caused by an accelerant.

In 1977, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, part of the U.S. Justice Department, sought to collect arson expertise but relied primarily on a survey of fire investigators instead of trying to scientifically establish the accuracy of theories. The resulting book even noted that knowledge in the field had been subjected to “little or no scientific testing.”

This publication, “Arson and Arson Investigation: Survey and Assessment,” further solidified many mistaken beliefs as truth, arson experts said.

After his father retired, Patrick Kennedy took over his company and moved it to Sarasota, Fla. Now, when he looks at the early texts written by his father, he readily concedes there were many mistakes–honest ones, he said.

His father agrees.

“Many of the things I propounded in the red book were absolutely wrong,” the elder Kennedy said. “I admit it. But it was all we knew at the time.”

It is terrifying that even today, decades-old antiquated understanding of fires could end up leading to wrongful convictions and even death sentences for people who were victims of accidents.

But what is even more terrifying is that some of these arson investigators are nothing but government criminals who are willing to tamper with evidence and knowingly state false conclusions, even though they could end up causing wrongful prosecutions, lengthy prison sentences, and even executions of innocent people.

Don’t believe it? Here’s the story of Jeffrey Wallace, Michigan State Police Fire Investigator:

Arson expert stung in set-up
Evidence-tampering charges piling up against investigator

Thursday, May 31, 2007


After a house burned down on Friday on Bay-Arenac County Line Road, Pinconning-Fraser Fire officials called Michigan State Police fire investigator Jeffrey Wallace to the scene.

They suspected arson, they told him.

And when Wallace showed up with his arson dog named Cops and produced evidence that accelerants fueled the blaze, they had all the evidence needed to bring charges – against Wallace.

That’s because local firefighters intentionally ignited the abandoned structure – without using any accelerant – in a ”sting” on Wallace executed in conjunction with Michigan State Police and other agencies.

”This case really does smack at the very heart of the criminal justice system,” said Bay County Prosecutor Kurt C. Asbury. ”This is a person trusted to investigate a criminal matter, and instead, he intentionally tampers with the evidence.”

Bay County District Judge Scott J. Newcombe arraigned Wallace, 53, of Macomb County, on Wednesday on charges of tampering with evidence involving a crime punishable by more than 10 years, tampering with evidence involving a crime punishable by less than 10 years, obstruction of justice and carrying a firearm while in commission of another felony. The first charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of $20,000; the lesser tampering charge carried up to four years in prison and the obstruction charge is a five-year felony. A conviction of a felony firearms charge adds two years to the original felony.

Newcombe set bond at $25,000, and a man who identified himself as Wallace’s son said he was prepared to bail his dad out of jail. Defense attorney Marc R. Lakin of Birmingham requested a personal recognizance bond, but Asbury objected.

After investigating the northern Bay County case on Friday, Wallace traveled to Gladwin County, where he was arrested on charges of tampering with evidence at fire scenes there. Wallace is charged with tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice and filing a false police report in Gladwin County and was granted a personal recognizance bond on those charges.

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Prosecution Often Motivated By Reasons Other Than Justice

Government is frequently motivated by politics and personal agendas, not by justice. It is all too easy for a sheriff and/or district attorney who are up for election to “make an example” out of some unlucky soul to prove they are “tough on crime.” Really all they are proving is that they are suitable candidates themselves for a stint in prison for unlawfully persecuting a citizen who hasn’t committed a crime.

Perhaps the most widely publicized recent perpetrator of this type of prosecutorial misconduct is Mike Nifong, the criminally dishonest assistant district attorney behind the persecution of Duke University college students in the Duke University Lacrosse Rape Case in 2006. Writers KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor in their book Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case profile an amazing miscarriage of justice that occurred because of government abuse executed by prosecutor Nifong who apparently thought it would be politically advantageous for his election campaign to very publicly ruin the lives of some “easy” targets.

While the Duke case was not an arson case at all, it shows how government officials are willing to break the law to persecute and deny due process and further impede a fair trial to their targets when they believe such reprehensible conduct will benefit them. Nifong was running for district attorney. He appears to have calculated a high profile criminal case against a bunch of rich white kids over a sex crime (among the most common types of “guilty until proven innocent” crimes) would win him a lot of votes for being “tough on crime” and far more publicity than he could ever buy with his limited campaign funds.

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It’s not unusual for corrupt prosecutors to break the law and persecute innocent people by filing unwarranted charges. Nor it is unusual for them to be involved in suppressing, hiding, and destroying exculpatory evidence and conspiring with others, including cops and forensics labs, to arrange for perjury, tamper with evidence, and even plant fake evidence. It is unusual for them to be caught, and even more unusual for them to be punished as Nifong was. Perhaps this happened largely because of how the case had become a national media circus. Nifong had to be nailed for his crimes if for no other reason than to reinforce the government propaganda that this kind of misconduct is not common.

(from Duke University Lacrosse Rape Case)

On April 11, 2007, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared the three players innocent. Cooper stated that the charged players – Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans – were victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.”[8] The initial prosecutor for the case, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, who had been denounced as a “rogue prosecutor” by Cooper, withdrew from the case in January 2007 after the North Carolina State Bar filed ethics charges against him. That June, Nifong was disbarred for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation”, making Nifong the first prosecutor in North Carolina history to lose his law license based on actions in a case. Nifong was found guilty of criminal contempt and served one day in jail.

One day in jail and disbarment hardly satisfies justice. Nifong deserves a much worse fate. Only when consequences for repeated judicial corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, and government railroading of innocents rise to the level of life imprisonment or the death penalty will there ever be any real hope of justice prevailing on a routine basis. Without severe punishments for government misconduct, we get abominations of justice like the false imprisonment of Clyde Ray Spencer due to corrupt police and prosecutorial misconduct that we covered in Father Imprisoned 20 Years on Fake Child Sex Abuse Charges. It’s not just adult men who are targets, either. Even children are victimized by corrupt government as in the cases of thousands of children whose lives were destroyed by judicial, police, and school corruption in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. These cases show that government officials don’t feel any need to obey the law when dealing with people they can railroad who don’t have the money and other resources to defend themselves. That’s exactly why there needs to be very severe penalties for government employees who engage in such misconduct.

False accusers must also be punished when they can be shown to have made severely factually inaccurate statements with malice. Otherwise, it is too easy to try to get an advantage for oneself or hurt an adversary and suffer no harm. As for troubled stripper Crystal Gail Mangum, it appears this wasn’t the first time she tried to use false accusations to hurt people. She also has a long history of criminal and mental health problems. But the government as is typical refused to file charges against her for her malicious, possibly racially motivated, and likely criminal conduct that resulted in false arrests and wrongful prosecution. False accusers, whether they are mentally ill women or psychopathic government officials, seldom get the punishment they deserve despite the large amount of damage they due to the falsely accused.

Sadly, this debacle showed that you can’t trust the media to be objective or fair, either. Some publications such as Slate went after obvious problems with the case. But others such as the The New York Times were instrumental in distorting coverage of the case and leading the public towards inaccurate conclusions. This was apparently because of NYT’s desire to push its own questionable agenda by spinning the truth. Fortunately for the falsely accused, this was a rape case in which DNA evidence was available and could easily clear their names. But if the Duke students had instead been accused of starting a fire and burning the stripper to death, possibly no evidence would have saved them from wrongful persecution at the hands of the government and the New York Times.

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Further Reading

Luzerne County Bribes 7 Year Old Boy for Arson “Confession”

Experts Question Dozens of Arson Convictions; Daniel Dougherty Was Convicted of Setting a Fire That Killed His Kids; Some Experts Say There’s No Evidence of Arson

It’s time to end death penalty in Pennsylvania

Daniel J. Dougherty # EK7623 – Death Row Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is at serious risk of executing an innocent person

Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Texas execution: Gov Rick Perry calls Cameron Todd Willingham ‘monster,’ defends state’s handling of execution

Arson or Accident? The inability of arson investigators to recognize the difference could put YOU in prison – or worse.

Arson Science – To The Rescue

Just Science: Forensic Reform to Improve the Accuracy of the Criminal Justice System

Arson expert stung in set-up: Evidence-tampering charges piling up against investigator

Ballard Spahr Pro Bono News – Winter/Spring 2007

March 2006 Executions

Trial by Newspaper: The New York Times and the Duke rape case.

Witness for the Prosecution? The New York Times is still victimizing innocent Dukies.

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