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The Year 2014 in Space: Out of This World Moments

NASA/Twitter(NEW YORK) — 2014 has been a year of picture-perfect, out-of-this-world moments and incredible firsts in space exploration.

The European Space Agency landed a probe on a speeding comet and NASA celebrated a successful maiden voyage of "America's spacecraft," Orion.

Among the triumphs, there was also tragedy.

Here are seven moments from 2014 that defined the year in space travel, exploration and appreciation.

1. Philae Lands on Comet 67P

It's an image billions of years in the making.

After a decade-long journey spanning nearly 400 million miles, the Philae lander separated from the Rosetta spacecraft and landed on a speeding comet -- not once or twice but three times.

After bouncing twice, the lander came to rest against a walled area, obstructing its solar panels from sunlight, said Philae Lander Manager Stephan Ulamec.

"The not-so-good news is that the anchoring harpoons did not fire, so the lander is not anchored to the surface," Ulamec said.

However, the mission was still a resounding success, transmitting the first-ever photos from the surface of a comet and conducting new experiments that could yield insight about the origins of the solar system.

2. Rosetta Spacecraft's Philae Probe Pulls Off Comet Landing

NASA awarded contracts in September to Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, signaling the agency's return to manned spaceflight after the end of the space shuttle program.

The winning designs will end U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation back and forth to the International Space Station.

"This is the fulfillment of the commitment President Obama made to return human space flight launches to U.S. soil and end our reliance on the Russians," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said.

3. Virgin Galactic's Fatal Crash

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke up over the Mojave Desert in California after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude.

It could be as long as a year before federal investigators have any answers about what caused the Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash, which killed one co-pilot and left another injured.

Among the causes being explored are pilot error, mechanical failure and the design of the spacecraft.

National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in a November briefing that investigators found the feathering system that slows the spacecraft's descent was deployed before it reached the appropriate speed, however it was unclear how that factored into the crash.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said "safety has guided every decision" Virgin Galactic has made over the past decade and vowed that the company's dream of commercial space travel would continue.

4. Antares Rocket Explosion

Within seconds of launching, the Antares rocket, which was destined for a supply mission to the International Space Station, exploded into a fireball over Wallops Island, Virginia.

Orbital Sciences, which owned the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, cited a "vehicle anomaly" for the failed launch.

5. Orion Blasts Off on Test Mission

We're one step closer to sending a manned mission to Mars.

Orion's maiden voyage on Dec. 4 was picture perfect from the moment it launched from Florida until it splashed down four and a half hours later in the Pacific Ocean.

During its journey, the space capsule passed a series of milestones, flying through the Van Allen radiation belts and even managing to send live video of the entire globe back to Earth -- the first time this has happened since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The spacecraft, which has seats for four astronauts, orbited Earth twice at an altitude of 3,600 miles before splashing down 600 miles off the coast of California, where it was recovered by the U.S. Navy.

6. Astronauts Tweet Stunning Photos from International Space Station

Social media savvy astronauts at the International Space Station shared details of life in microgravity and some incredible snaps taken from their home in low Earth orbit.

During his stay at the International Space Station, astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted a photo showing what the conflict between Israel and Gaza looked like in July.

"My saddest photo yet. From #ISS we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over #Gaza & #Israel," he wrote.

While Gerst's photo was somber, there were other lighter moments showing life at the ISS. For starters, we learned all about the chores schedule from Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

7. Incredible Year for Eclipses

The year brought a calendar packed with gorgeous eclipses -- including two gorgeous blood red moons.

The special lunar eclipse happens when Earth positions itself between the sun and the moon, casting a majestic red hue.

Here's something to look forward to in 2015: You'll have two more chances to catch a blood moon. The next total lunar eclipse will be on April 4, 2015, according to NASA.

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US Says North Korea Responsible for Sony Hack

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Those who hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment - releasing a trove of emails and stealing personal data from company executives - were directed to do so by North Korean officials, a senior administration official told ABC News Wednesday.

The hackers have also threatened to attack theaters screening The Interview - a fictional comedy about two Americans who are asked to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - leading several major chains to pull the film from their lineups and Sony to cancel its Christmas Day release date.

The U.S. used painstaking cyber-sleuthing to piece together what happened, the official said, noting that the individual or group behind the hack were not in North Korea. The official said U.S. intelligence and the FBI pulled all the stops out given the unprecedented nature of the attack that destroyed files, shut down work stations and exploited company secrets and strategy.

"Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business," Sony said in a statement provided to ABC News. "Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like."

Last week, the FBI held a private meeting in New York with reps from across the entertainment industry to brief them on cyber-related threats against them. The Sony hack was not the only topic discussed, but it was a major one, sources said.

On Tuesday, Guardians of Peace, the group that has claimed responsibility for hacking Sony, posted a warning to theaters showing the movie and for the first time discussed The Interview by name rather than relatively vague references.

"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview [will] be shown, including the premier, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to," the note released by the group of hackers reads. "The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001."

The post adds that people should stay away from places where the movie is shown and "whatever comes… all the world will denounce the SONY."

An official in the Department of Homeland Security said the department is "aware" of the threat.

"We are still analyzing the credibility of these statements, but at this time there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States," the official said.

National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan released a statement Wednesday night acknowledging the U.S. government's offer of support and assistance to Sony Pictures Entertainment. "The FBI has the lead for the investigation," Meehan said, adding that "the U.S. government is working tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice, and we are considering a range of options in weighing a potential response."

Meehan also acknowledged Sony's announcement that it would not release the film on Christmas Day as previously planned. "The United States respects artists' and entertainers' right to produce and distribute content of their choosing," she said. "The U.S. government has no involvement in such decisions. We take very seriously any attempt to threaten to limit artists' freedom of speech or of expression."

Two former high-level government officials also downplayed the threat to ABC News.

"Somebody is playing mind games with [SONY]," said Richard Clarke, cyber security expert, former White House counter-terrorism advisor and ABC News consultant. "I think North Korea has little or no capability to do any physical attacks, commando activity, or terrorism in the U.S. By saying it's coming, however, they hope to keep people from the theaters and, thereby, hurt Sony's revenue."

Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and like Clarke an ABC News consultant, said the threat sounded more like "hooliganism" than anything really serious.

"You have to take these types of threats seriously up to a point, but this sounds more like a hoax," Olsen said.

Another cyber security expert told ABC News that Sony can't rule out cyber-attacks on the locations where the movie will be played, but short of the group having a team on the ground bent on violence, said the wording of the note "sounds like hyperbole."

The threatening note was reportedly included in a new batch of emails pilfered from Sony computers, this time allegedly from the account of Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Previous email batches have embarrassed major Sony figures when their personal thoughts, criticisms and jokes about A-list celebrities were publicly leaked.

Earlier this month, a North Korean official called allegations that the government was involved in the hacking "wild speculation" but called it a "righteous deed," according to a North Korean state news agency.

"[W]hat we clearly know is that the SONY Pictures is the very one which was going to produce a film abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] by taking advantage of the hostile policy of the U.S. administration towards the DPRK," the article said.

Monday the stars of The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco, told Good Morning America they never could've predicted the real-world drama surrounding the fictional story.

"I can't definitively say I know the ramifications of the storm. I mean, I don't know if the hacking honestly is because of our movie, definitively or not," Rogen said. "I know that it has been the center of a lot of media attention lately. It is weird because we just wanted to make a really funny, entertaining movie and the movie itself is very silly and wasn't meant to be controversial in any way."

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The Moment Alan Gross Entered US Airspace After 5 Years in Cuban Prison

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)(NEW YORK) -- ABC News has exclusively obtained video of Alan Gross' reunion with his wife Judy after he was released from five years of imprisonment in Cuba.

The video, shot by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., shows the Gross couple embracing after Gross was released as part of a historic deal between the United States and Cuba. After greeting his wife, Alan Gross hugs his attorney, Scott Gilbert.

Additional video shot by Flake shows Gross just moments after learning the plane carrying him back to the United States had left Cuban airspace.

Flake traveled to Cuba early this morning with Judy Gross, Gilbert, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to bring Alan Gross back to the United States.

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EU Removes Hamas from List of Terrorist Organizations on Procedural Grounds

David Silverman/Getty Images(LUXEMBOURG) -- The General Court of the European Union decided on Wednesday to remove Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations.

Hamas was included on the very first iteration of that list, created on Dec. 27, 2001. Hamas had contested their inclusion on the list and on Wednesday, the General Court found that "the contested measures are based not on acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities but on factual imputations derived from the press and the internet." The General Court's decision is based on the EU requirement that any EU decision to freeze funds be made on concrete examination and confirmation of national authorities and not the press or the Internet.

In the meantime, the General Court says, the funds in question will remain frozen for three months "in order to ensure the effectiveness of any possible future freezing of funds." If an appeal is brought before the Court of Justice, funds will remain frozen until the appeal is closed.

While the decision removes Hamas from the EU's list of terrorist organizations, both the General Court and the EU's spokesperson note that the decision is based on "procedural grounds" and does not represent an assessment of the classification of Hamas as a terrorist group.

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Alan Gross Freed in Exchange for Three Cuban Agents Accused of Espionage

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The United States is releasing three Cuban agents who have been held in the United States for 16 years on controversial grounds as part of the agreement in the release of Alan Gross, a 65-year-old government contractor who left Cuba Wednesday morning after five years in prison.

A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday that the prisoner transfer came up during a phone conversation Tuesday between President Obama and Cuba’s current president, Fidel Castro’s brother Raul Castro.

And technically, the White House says they didn’t trade the three men for Gross, who was released on humanitarian grounds, but actually for a separate U.S. intelligence asset, detained in Cuba for the last 20 years, whom Havana also released Wednesday.

They’re part of what was originally called the “Cuban Five,” a group of agents convicted of espionage in a controversial 2001 trial which found them guilty of spying on anti-Fidel Castro groups but not on the U.S. government itself.

They were sentenced altogether to four life terms plus 77 years, and imprisoned in five separate maximum security prisons throughout the United States. The Cuban government and the Five’s supporters contended they were in Miami conducting anti-terrorism operations.

Two of the five were released in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

On Wednesday, the remaining three -- Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino Salazar, and Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez, who have most recently been imprisoned together in North Carolina -- will also be released.

The agreement was reached following more than a year of secret back-channel talks at the highest levels of both governments.

But not everyone is pleased with the release of the three agents and the moves toward normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba that the White House also announced Wednesday.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have long opposed normalizing relations with Cuba.

Rubio told ABC News Wednesday morning that ultimately he wants the U.S. to enjoy full diplomatic relations with the island nation, Rubio’s parents’ home country, but not right now when there is a Communist regime in power with a litany of human rights abuses.

“None of these things are going to lead to democracy in Cuba. The Cuban government will use all of those to their advantage without creating political opening. And you mark my words, five years from now there will be a dictatorship but a much more profitable one,” Rubio said.

Rubio also said later he would do everything he could to block Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

Menendez was equally critical of the prisoner transfer.

“There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation,” he said.

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US Confirms 67 Airstrikes in Iraq, Syria

Michael Fitzsimmons/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- U.S. forces conducted 67 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq between Monday and Wednesday.

According to U.S. Central Command, six strikes in Syria and 61 in Iraq were conducted in the three-day span. Forty-five of the strikes in Iraq were conducted in support of the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces operating in the region, targeting approximately 50 targets.

The strikes, led by the U.S., also involved 11 other nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Belgium and Canada.

A defense official confirmed to ABC News that 45 airstrikes were in support of a Peshmerga offensive near Sinjar in northwest Iraq. That area is controlled by ISIS, and a highway in the area is believed to be used by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to supply its forces in Mosul and other areas of Iraq.

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USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah to Step Down

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, announced on Wednesday that he would step down from his post after five years, effective mid-February 2015.

The announcement comes on the same day that the White House announced it would re-open an embassy in Havana, Cuba, which had been closed when the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961.

In a statement, Shah praised President Obama's leadership, calling America "the unquestioned leader in eliminating the scourges of extreme poverty, hunger, and child death worldwide."

Shah and USAID had been involved in projects like "Cuban Twitter" and the more recently-discovered rap music program that got some Cuban artists arrested that appeared to be attempts to subvert the Cuban government. Still, a spokesperson for USAID denied any connection between those projects and Shah's stepping down.

"There is no connection...after six years as part of the president's administration, five of those leading positive transformation at USAID as one of the agency's longest-serving administrators, he is stepping down in mid-February to begin a new chapter in his life and looking forward to spending more time with his young family."

A statement from the president noted the difficult tasks Shah handled with USAID -- "responding to natural disasters, epidemics, and family, to name just a few examples," praising the USAID administrator for "[embodying] America's finest values by proactively advancing our development priorities, including ending global poverty, championing food security, promoting health and nutrition, expanding access to energy sources, and supporting political and economic reform in closed societies."

Secretary of State John Kerry called Shah "an outstanding administrator, a creative innovator, and a dynamic leader."

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US Plans to Re-Establish Embassy in Havana

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In a true mark of the extent of the policy reversal that President Obama announced on Wednesday, the U.S. will open an embassy in Cuba.

Obama announced that the secretary of state and his department will be tasked with re-establishing an official embassy in Havana.

Secretary of State John Kerry did not specifically address the embassy re-opening when he released a statement about the new policies, but did reiterate plans for American officials, himself included, to travel to the country in the coming months.

"I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry said.

The first American embassy opened in Havana in 1923, but it was closed when America formally cut diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

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Images Show Devastation Inside Pakistan School Taliban Attacked

Muhammad Asad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(PESHAWAR, Pakistan) -- Images from inside the Pakistan school stormed by Taliban gunmen reveal scenes of heart-wrenching devastation following an attack that killed 148 people, mostly children.

Seven Taliban gunmen stormed the military-run school on Tuesday, some reportedly wearing suicide vests, officials said.

Bullets flew across classrooms, with the Taliban going room to room, hunting students.

“They started shooting them indiscriminately,” Pakistan military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa said. “And after that they started spreading into other wings of the school where they were contained."

"This is not a human act," he added. "This is a national tragedy."

The Taliban attackers died, but it was unclear how. As news of the attack spread, terrified parents rushed to the school, waiting to hear if their sons or daughters survived.

International authorities, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, denounced the massacre.

“This act of terror angers and shakes all people of conscience, and we condemn it in the strongest terms possible,” Kerry said.

Pakistan’s government declared a three-day mourning period starting Wednesday, with funerals beginning for some of the children killed in the massacre.

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Pope Francis Celebrates 78th Birthday with Tango, Cake and Chicken

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ROME) -- Pope Francis has been known to take a more modern approach to the papacy and his supporters kept in step with his 78th birthday celebration.

In homage to his Argentinian roots, a flash mob of tango dancers showed their moves during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican Wednesday.

Pope Francis was pictured smiling at the revelry and later blew out the candles on a cake presented to him from the audience.

In keeping with his emphasis on doing good and helping the less fortunate, he also received a gift of 800 kilograms of chicken meat for the poor.

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NASA Contest: How You Can Name a Crater on Mercury

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington(NEW YORK) -- NASA is asking for the public's help to name five craters on the surface of Mercury, however there's a catch to securing cosmic naming rights.

Launched to honor NASA's MESSENGER mission to the solar system's inner-most planet, the contest will consider only names of artists who were famous for at least five decades and have been dead for at least three years, the space agency announced.

People interested in naming a crater can submit their choices on the contest website until Jan. 15. After that, the top choices will be sent to the International Astronomical Union, the group that manages naming of otherworldly features.

MESSENGER has been in orbit for a decade and has traveled more than 8 billion miles during that time.

In March 2011, it became first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, sending back new insights about the planet closest to the sun.

Among the discoveries were deposits of water ice within the craters that are shielded from the burning rays of the sun and a better understanding of how Mercury's surface has been changed by volcanoes and massive eruptions of lava.

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Australia Looks for Lessons Following Sydney Siege

Jonathan Wood/Getty Images(SYDNEY) — Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a joint review to identify lessons following a deadly siege inside a Sydney cafe.

The review, announced in a news conference, will involve the Australia Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. A full report is expected by the end of January.

“The review will examine and make recommendations about a wide range of issues including the circumstances surrounding hostage-taker Man Haron Monis’ arrival in Australia and subsequent granting of asylum and citizenship; what information agencies had about him and how it was shared; and whether relevant national security legislative powers could have been better used,” Abbott’s office said in a release. “We are determined to ensure that nothing stands in the way of ensuring the people who put their lives on the line to keep Australia safe can get their job done.”

Monis took control of the Lindt Chocolat Café in Sydney’s Martin Place business district, leading to a 16-hour standoff. Monis and two others -- hostages identified as Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson -- were killed during the siege.

While the location of the attack will remain closed, Lindt is preparing to re-open five other chocolate shops and cafes in Sydney Thursday, the company announced.

“All venues will have books of condolence for anyone who wishes to write a message,” the company wrote. “We thank you again for your ongoing support and hope to see you in store soon.”

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Misguided Bomb Attack Kills School Girls in Yemen

iStock/Thinkstock(BAYDA, Yemen) — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been blamed for a car bombing Tuesday that killed 15 school girls riding a bus in the central Yemeni province of Bayda.

It's believed that the militants were actually targeting a checkpoint run by Shia Houthi rebels when the explosion struck the bus.

Later, a bomb went off near the home of a Houthi leader, killing 10 people. It was unclear whether the attack killed rebels or passersby.

Blaming al Qaeda, the Yemeni defense ministry decried the "cowardly terrorist attack on the home of a citizen and a school bus."

Supported by Iran, the Shia Houthi rebels have long battled the Yemeni government, seizing the capital of Sanaa last September. Since then, they have agreed to be part of a unity government with some members as part of the Cabinet.

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Kerry Offers Condolences, Denounces Attacks in Pakistan, Australia

EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- On the heels of the school attack in Pakistan that left 141 people dead, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the "horrific violence" represented both by that attack and the previous day's hostage situation in Sydney, Australia.

"We know in a very personal way what our ally, Australia, is going through at this very moment," Kerry said on Tuesday from London. "And we grieve with Australia, with the families of all those terrorized, injured and killed."

In that attack, Man Haron Monis held 17 people hostage at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney. Twelve of the hostages escaped prior to police storming the cafe. When the scene was finally cleared, Monis and two hostages -- Katrina Dawson, 38, and Tori Johnson, 34 -- were dead.

On Tuesday, Taliban attackers opened fire at a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan, killing 132 children and nine staff members. Kerry called that attack "devastating," noting that "this act of terror angers and shakes all people of conscience, and we condemn it in the strongest terms possible."

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf tweeted Tuesday that Kerry spoke with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to express condolences about the attack and to reaffirm support for Pakistan.

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Sydney Siege Hostage Recounts His Escape

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images(SYDNEY) -- The first hostage who was able to escape from the gunman who took 17 people hostage at a Sydney, Australia, cafe said he "never felt so much relief" as when he saw the police.

John O'Brien, 83, of Sydney, told 9 News Australia he just wanted to get a cup of coffee before a doctor's appointment when he stopped into the Lindt Cafe around 10 a.m. Monday, but within minutes of entering, a gunman would burst in and take control.

O'Brien and another, younger hostage were able to get out the Lindt Chocolat Café's side door at 4 p.m., after about six hours of captivity, and they sprinted down Martin Place.

The pair ran around the corner and quickly raised their arms high in the air after coming face to face with the group of heavily-armed tactical police, who rushed the pair down the road and out of the danger area.

"I have never felt so much relief in my life as when I turned that corner and saw those armed police," O'Brien said. "On that Monday morning, I was just grabbing a quick coffee at the Lindt Café after a visit to the eye doctor."

O'Brien said he was just glad to be "safe at home" with his wife, Maureen.

The gunman, identified by police as Man Haron Monis, was finally killed when police stormed the cafe early Tuesday. Two of the hostages were also killed, Australian police said.

Tori Johnson, a manager of the store, was killed, according to Lindt Chocolate Cafe Australia. The other hostage who was killed was identified as attorney and mother of three Katrina Dawson, 38, according to the New South Wales Bar Association. Six people at the scene were treated for injuries.

New South Wales Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said the decision to storm the cafe came after shots were heard from inside, but she could not confirm whether the gunman fired shots at the hostages.

She said that Monis was on bail for another crime and police believe he was mentally unstable.

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