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‘Ramp of Mystery’ in middle of nowhere was drone test site

If you search on Google Maps for “Ramp of Mystery,” a curious Southeast Austin landmark appears. It’s a concrete structure that leads to nowhere, sitting in an overgrown field.

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It’s a steep ramp with too much of an incline to walk up easily. To the side, an aging and precarious set of wooden steps goes up to the top, where the path that led to the ramp leads to nothing -- just a steep dropoff over a short boundary and lots of graffiti all around the structure.

The ramp has been the subject of lots of online speculation, especially since it became the subject of a Reddit thread in late 2016. Was it part of an old military project, this  thing off an office park at 6900 Metropolis Drive? A structure that once connected to a shipping dock? A base for gravel dumping? A piece of a road that once connected to East Ben White Boulevard? What was this thing?

Adam van Alderwerelt, an Austin lighting designer and video engineer, became a bit obsessed with the ramp after volunteering at a nearby building that housed evacuees from Hurricane Harvey.

“Nobody at the shelter even knew what it was,” he said. “I only saw it because it was on Google Maps when I was looking for directions to and from the shelter.”

Van Alderwerelt shot a YouTube video, “What is South Austin’s Ramp of Mystery??” 

“I thought, let’s bring some awareness to this thing,” van Alderwerelt said. “It’s a hidden oddity of Austin.”

The buzz around this curious structure prompted a reader to ask our Austin Answered project: “Please tell us about the Ramp of Mystery in South Austin; Google it!”

We did. But the ramp didn’t divulge its origin so easily. Visits to the Austin History Center to study old aerial photographs of the area proved inconclusive, except to show that it probably didn’t originate before the early 1980s. A wide call on social media for any local insight on the landmark yielded a few leads, but nothing concrete, so to speak. The current owners of the lot, Zydeco Development Corporation, said by phone they didn’t know what the ramp was for or why it was built.

A request to Lockheed Martin, which owned a facility in the area that opened to much fanfare in the 1980s, was unsuccessful. The company checked but was unable to find records related to the ramp or its purpose.

But leave it to a historian to crack the case.

Austin history buff Lanny Ottosen tracked down names on an old document related to the property he found at the Austin History Center. One of those names was Frank Niendorff, who for many years ran Commercial Industrial Properties Co. (also known as NAI Austin).

Niendorff, who spent two years brokering the property deal to bring Lockheed Missiles and Space to Austin (for one year, the identity of the buyer was a secret even to him), remembered the ramp well.

“There’s nothing mysterious about the ramp,” he said this week by phone, “When Lockheed first came here, they were working on developing a government contract for a drone. This was when drones were first imagined. This was a drone that would be launched from a ramp.”

The program, called “Aquila,” involved hydraulic catapults to launch the drone and a net that would catch the unmanned aerial vehicles. The drones would be used to provide laser guidance for weapons systems.

The San Diego Air and Space Museum has archive footage on YouTube of what appears to be such a system.

Despite the work Lockheed did with the drone project on that ramp, Niendorff said, the government bid was unsuccessful.

“They spent millions of dollars trying to get this contract, building prototypes,” he said. “Ultimately, Lockheed ended up building other things at that facility, including concrete bunker bombs.” 

Kenneth Ross, a spokesman for Lockheed, said that as far as the ramp goes, Niendorff appears to have the right information.

“The info you’ve discovered gives us confidence that you have the right story,” Ross wrote in an email.

When informed of the drone-based answer to the question he’d been asking, van Alderwerelt said by phone Friday, “That’s amazing! I never would have thought of that.”

How an Ohio woman lost 125 pounds

New Year’s resolutions can begin in any month of the year. August 2015 is when a success story started for Springboro resident Christina Littleton.

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Although athletic and thin during her younger years, her father’s passing from pancreatic cancer in 1999 left her reeling emotionally. She gained a lot of weight, met her husband, Jason, got married, got pregnant, and gained more weight.

“The summer of 2015 I was having too much fun, and eating too much. In August I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘Who is this person?’” said Littleton, who weighed 284 pounds at that point. “I was determined that I was going to do this, so I took a picture of myself.”

The wedding photographer had been going to Weight Watchers on and off before, but this time she stuck with her weekly meetings at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Springboro. One and a half years later, she was down 115 pounds. It took her almost eight months to lose that last 10 pounds. The 5-foot-6-inch woman is now a fit and toned 159.

“Your main goal is to go in and lose weight. But there are things that you gain,” said Littleton, whose daughter, Ava, will be 11 next month. “Going through the journey I’ve learned to change my mindset. Before, I would secretly pick myself apart in the mirror. I didn’t want Ava to see that.”

She’d been very active when she was younger, with tennis, softball and running.

“So now I’m back to that side of me; being competitive. Developing more confidence in myself and taking more risks in my personal and professional life,” said Littleton, 40. “I completed a half-marathon in Nashville last year.”

She is teaching one weekly spin class, which will soon become two at the Coffman YMCA. In honor of her father, she participates in the 5K PanCan Run (fighting to end pancreatic cancer) in Kettering every year. She also runs on the treadmill.

The weight loss has an added bonus of giving her more energy to last through those long days with her camera equipment.

“I would be on my feet for hours; 12 hours from start to finish to photograph a wedding. I remember taking 800 milligrams of Motrin, and then again in the middle of the day just to get through it,” Littleton said. “And now I work out before a wedding.”

One of the reasons she has succeeded this time is her husband, who has always been supportive.

“There are so many programs out there, and just find one that works for you. Just create new habits,” Littleton said. “Instead of reaching for a bag of chips, you reach for an apple instead. You need to re-train your brain in the way you eat.”

In addition to her running and spin classes, she varies her workout sessions. She lifts weights, powers through a TRX core-based workout and does PiYo, a fast-paced yoga.

Lauren MacDonald, the instructor of the Weight Watcher’s group that Littleton has been attending, has a story of her own. She lost 110 pounds on the program, reaching her goal in 2012. She had some good words to say about her star pupil.

“She has done a amazing job. She’s stuck with it. A lot of people come and go, but she’s very motivational and inspirational to others,” said MacDonald, a Miamisburg resident who also works as a teacher.

MacDonald’s classes run twice a week at the Covenant Presbyterian Church at 415 N. Main St., Springboro. There’s an 8 a.m. meeting on Saturdays and a 6 p.m. meeting on Mondays.

Deputies: Florida man tries to order burrito from bank, gets charged with DUI

Police in Florida arrested a 28-year-old man on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol after authorities said he attempted to order a burrito from a Bank of America after confusing it for a Taco Bell, according to multiple reports.

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Records from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office show authorities arrested Douglas Jon Francisco, 28, on Wednesday.

The manager of the Bank of America branch on Mariner Boulevard in Spring Hill, Martin Claussen, called authorities Wednesday afternoon after he said he found a blue Hyundai in the bank’s drive-up bank lane with a man who appeared to be passed out inside, WTSP reported.

Claussen said he had to bang on the car window several times before Francisco awoke, according to the Tampa Bay Times. When Francisco saw the bank manager, deputies said he tried to order a burrito.

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Claussen told Francisco that he was not at a Taco Bell and Francisco drove the Hyundai to the bank’s front parking lot, according to the Times. Deputies said he was in the front parking lot, the car still idling, when authorities arrived.

In an arrest report, a deputy wrote that Francisco “made several statements that were differing from reality” and denied asking Claussen for a burrito. Deputies said his responses during a field sobriety test “were slow in a way that was consistent with someone on prescription narcotics,” WTSP reported. He was given a drug test, the results of which were pending.

During a search of the Hyundai, deputies said they found prescription medication that had been made out in Francisco’s name, according to the Times.

Jail records show Francisco was booked into the Hernando County Detention Center around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and released Thursday afternoon on a $500 bond.

L’Oreal features first hijab-wearing model in major hair campaign, sparking controversy online

L’Oreal Paris made history when it featured model Amena Khan in its new hair product campaign.

Khan, a British beauty blogger, model and co-founder of Ardere Cosmetics, is the first hijab-wearing model to star in a hair campaign for a major international brand.

>> Read more trending news 

She revealed the video campaign to her more than 570,000 Instagram followers last week, calling it a “game changing” project. 

On Twitter, L’Oreal and Khan received their share of praise and backlash. 

In an interview with Vogue UK published Sunday, Khan lauded the European brand for its commitment to inclusion. “They're literally putting a girl in a headscarf — whose hair you can't see — in a hair campaign ... because what they're really valuing through the campaign is the voices that we have,” Khan said.

Related: Muslim women support Nike as backlash over sports hijab sparks #BoycottNike

"You have to wonder – why is it presumed that women that don't show their hair don't look after it?" she said. "The opposite of that would be that everyone that does show their hair only looks after it for the sake of showing it to others. And that mindset strips us of our autonomy and our sense of independence. Hair is a big part of self-care.”

On Twitter, L’Oreal and Khan received their share of praise and backlash

The campaign reignited a controversial discussion about the hijab, with many arguing that the garment promotes oppression of women.

Last March, when Nike announced its new sports hijab, many Muslim women defended their choice to wear the hijab.

Muslim feminist Hanna Yusuf has also addressed critics of the hijab in the past and said that wearing hers is a feminist statement. 

“In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion?” she said in a video for The Guardian.

But, Yusuf said, her concern with the hijab being unfairly portrayed as oppression is not a denial of the fact that some women are forced to wear it in some parts of the world.

Related: Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad’s new Barbie doll is the first to wear a hijab

Still, some users felt that including a hijab-wearing model to promote hair products was “#pointless” or was just the company's attempt to make a statement.

Khan was also criticized for some of her previous tweets, in which she referred to Israel as a “sinister state.” Those tweets have since been deleted.

For reference, President Donald Trump recently recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, an action that the United Nations voted to condemn.

For decades, the U.S. has remained silent on the issue, amid warnings from world leaders concerned that such a declaration “could inflame tensions in the volatile Mideast,” The New York Times reported. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967, for their capital.

Doctors urge residents not to ignore flu symptoms following Florida man's death

Friends and loved ones are mourning the loss of an Orlando man who his family said died after he caught the flu.

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There have been least two other flu-related deaths, both of which were children, in the state this flu season.

Doctors said the symptoms of the flu can get very serious very quickly, which is why it's critical for people to pay attention to the signs and immediately contact a doctor.

Over the last week, hundreds of people have been packing medical offices to get treatment for the flu.

Loved ones are now grieving the loss of 58-year-old Joe Morrison, a man who they say was a doting father and a former Orlando area news photographer.

Morrison's family said he got the flu last week and died within 48 hours.

Dr. Richard Elloway, a family medicine physician with Centra Care, did not personally treat Morrison but has treated many flu patients.

He said in severe cases, the flu can quickly become deadly.

"Whenever I diagnose the flu, it's generally like a punch in the face. Just hits you really strong," Elloway said. 

The Florida Department of Health said that of the two children in Florida who have died from the flu this winter, one had not been vaccinated and had underlying factors.

Elloway said the people most at risk of dying from the flu or its complications are people who can't fight it off as easily as healthier people.

"Generally, the people that die from the flu are either very, very young or very, very old. It's the people who don't have the immune systems necessarily to take care of the virus," he said.

Elloway said Centra Care has been packed in recent weeks with patients showing up with the flu.

Centra Care says last week it hit a record high of 874 cases in Orlando.

Elloway urges people not to ignore any warning signs if they already have the flu.

"Showing up at a doctor's office 24 to 48 hours into your symptoms, we can diagnose it and treat it," he said.

Health officials said even though the flu shot is not 100 percent effective, it’s still the best way to protect yourself.

Did Chris Christie attempt to skip Newark’s security checkpoint despite not being governor?

Despite no longer being in office Chris Christie tried to enter Newark Liberty International Airport via a special entrance, the Port Authority said.

Port Authority officials said Christie, who was traveling with his New Jersey State Police-provided security detail, tried to go through what WCBS described as a special access area Thursday morning.

It is located near an exit of a restricted area, USA Today reported

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A Port Authority officer told Christie that he did not have access to the special area, then escorted him to the regular area with the rest of the passengers waiting to travel.

Christie is said to have cooperated with instructions.

However, Christie said that is not what happened at all, saying that his trying to enter a non-approved area was false reporting, WCBS reported.

He said via Twitter that he and his security detail were escorted to one entrance by a port authority officer, and that a Transportation Security Administration officer told both the Port Authority and the state police officers that he was to use a different entrance.

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman delivers statement victim against Larry Nassar

One after one, gymnasts and other victims of disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar stepped forward in a Michigan courtroom over the past week to recount the sexual abuse and emotional trauma he inflicted on them as children.

Nassar has pleaded guilty to molesting girls with his hands at his Michigan State University office, his home and a Lansing-area gymnastics club, often while their parents were in the room. He also worked for Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

>> Read more trending news 

Victims, often referred to as survivors in the court room, described experiencing “searing pain” during the assaults and having feelings of shame and embarrassment. They said it had changed their life trajectories — affecting relationships, causing them to be distrustful and leading to depression, suicidal thoughts, anger and anxiety about whether they should have spoken up sooner.

Prosecutors are seeking at least 40 years in prison for Nassar, who has already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes. Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman have said they, too, were victims.

Related: Gabby Douglas accuses team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse

Raisman said Monday she would not attend the sentencing, but later changed her mind.

“I will not be attending the sentencing because it is too traumatic for me,” Raisman tweeted. “My impact letter will be read in court in front of Nassar. I support the brave survivors. We are all in this together.”

CNN reported that Raisman read her victim impact letter in court Friday in front of Nassar.

“I didn't think I would be here today. I was scared and nervous. It wasn't until I started watching the impact statements from the other brave survivors that I realized I, too, needed to be here,” Raisman said, according to BuzzFeed News. “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over so long a period of time, are now a force and you are nothing?” 

Raisman praised fellow survivors and called on USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry to take responsibility for the organization, which Raisman said was “rotting from the inside.”

“A word of advice: Continuing to issue statements of empty promises thinking that will pacify us will no longer work,” Raisman said. 

Nassar admitted in November that he digitally penetrated 10 girls, mostly under the guise of treatment, between 1998 and 2015. As part of plea deals in two adjacent Michigan counties, he said his conduct had no legitimate medical purpose and that he did not have the girls’ consent.

Related: Simone Biles latest gymnast to claim team doctor sexually abused her

The criminal cases followed reports last year in The Indianapolis Star about how USA Gymnastics mishandled complaints about sexual misconduct involving him and coaches. Women and girls said the stories inspired them to step forward with detailed allegations of abuse.

Photos offer glimpse into former Texas home of parents accused of abusing 13 children

David and Louise Turpin, the California couple who were charged with torture and child abuse after authorities accused them of holding their 13 children captive in dire conditions, previously lived in Texas, several news outlets have reported.

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ABC News reported Thursday that it had acquired pictures from inside the family’s former Texas home, near Fort Worth. The pictures were submitted by the home’s current owner, who took the pictures after he bought the foreclosed property about 18 years ago.

The pictures, which can be seen here, show stained carpets and walls. The current owner told ABC it required an “extensive cleanup” and that he and his wife “believed that the previous occupants destroyed the house because it was being foreclosed on.”

The anonymous owner also told ABC that feces were smeared all over the walls of every room at the time that he bought the home.

The Associated Press reported Friday that a prosecutor in the case said the Turpins limited their children to one shower a year and one meal a day. 

Delta passenger bitten by emotional support dog couldn't escape, attorney says

The man mauled by an emotional support dog on a Delta Air Lines flight in Atlanta was attacked twice and could not escape because he was in a window seat, his attorney said Thursday.

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The passenger, Marlin Jackson, of Daphne, Alabama, had facial wounds requiring 28 stitches, according to attorney J. Ross Massey, of Birmingham law firm Alexander Shunnarah & Associates.

“It is troubling that an airline would allow a dog of such substantial size to ride in a passenger’s lap without a muzzle,” Massey said in a written statement. “Especially considering the dog and its owner were assigned a middle seat despite Delta Air Lines’ policies that call for the re-accommodation of larger animals.”

Jackson boarded the San Diego-bound flight on Sunday and went to the window seat. Passenger Ronald Kevin Mundy Jr. was already in the middle seat with his dog in his lap, according to the law firm.

“According to witnesses the approximately 50-pound dog growled at Mr. Jackson soon after he took his seat,” according to the firm’s statement.

“We expect airlines to follow procedures as required and verify any dogs travelling unrestrained in open cabin are trained for handling the large crowds and enclosed environments encountered on board an airplane,” Massey said in the statement.

“The dog continued to act in a strange manner as Mr. Jackson attempted to buckle his seatbelt. The growling increased and the dog lunged for Mr. Jackson’s face. The dog began biting Mr. Jackson, who could not escape due to his position against the plane’s window,” according to the firm’s account.

“The dog was pulled away but broke free from Mr. Mundy’s grasp and attacked Mr. Jackson a second time … The attacks reportedly lasted 30 seconds and resulted in profuse bleeding from severe lacerations to Mr. Jackson’s face, including a puncture through the lip and gum.”

Jackson was taken by ambulance to an emergency room for treatment, then took a later flight to San Diego, according to Delta. He plans to consult a plastic surgeon, the law firm said.

The firm is seeking information on Delta’s “compliance with policies for unrestrained larger animals within a plane’s cabin and the verification process of their emotional support animal training requirements.”

Delta declined to comment on the law firm’s statement.

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to accommodate service or emotional support animals, within certain guidelines.

Delta’s website says, “A kennel is not required for emotional support animals if they are fully trained and meet the same requirements as a service animal.”

Efforts to reach Mundy, who was not charged, have been unsuccessful. A police report said Mundy was a military service member who “advised that the dog was issued to him for support.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it is seeking details about the incident. The DOT says airlines cannot require that service and support animals be carried in a kennel unless there is “a safety-related reason to do so.”Warning: Graphic images below:

Amazon raises monthly Prime membership rate

The monthly membership fee for Amazon Prime rose Friday from $10.99 to $12.99.

Company officials said the annual membership will remain at $99 dollars.

>> Read more trending news

Monthly customers do not get access to Amazon Video, which costs $8.99 a month.

The last Prime subscription hike came in 2014, when Amazon increased its yearly membership from $79 to $99.

>> Related: Amazon announces final 20 cities in the running for second headquarters

The e-commerce company did not give a reason for the price increase.

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