The News That Made Headlines In The Rim Country's Year Of Y2k

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It was hard to know what to expect from a year that began with a fizzle.

Exactly one year ago Monday, the threat of Y2K had folks both local and worldwide bracing for everything from crashing computers to the end of the world.

What arrived, however, was ... well, just another year, albeit one with a distinctly scattershot personality.

If it's variety you like, 2000 will be a news year to remember but not necessarily with a sense of fondness or nostalgia.

Boiling the most notable events of the past 12 months down to a paltry list of ten was no easy task. There were dozens of other news stories which, in another year, would no doubt have made the final cut but they were aced by pretty notable competition.

Within the last 12 months, for example, an astounding number of corrupt Gila County employees were exposed, along with an entrepreneur who was many things ... except an entrepreneur.

It brought, at last, the long-awaited arrival of six count 'em, six first-run movie screens, and a tribute to Vietnam veterans no Rim country local is likely to forget.

At the turn of the millennium, many area cattle ranchers began to hear their industry's desperate gasps for life. A homeless couple was embraced by the community and the nation. A few new chapters were added to the Rim country's most talked about murder case in memory.

Much happier news was the announcement of the relocation, and exciting design, of what will be the new Payson Public Library, and the actual relocation of Eastern Arizona College. But there was genuine tragedy for many senior residents with the complete and total loss of HMO Medicare providers in Gila County.

Those are the stories which affected not only the greatest number of our citizens, but also, in some cases, the way they view the Rim country.

1. Lying, cheating and stealing

Locally, the year 2000 was most notable, perhaps, for the harsh message delivered to the county's supervisors: Keep a close eye on the purse strings.

During the past 12 months, six Gila County employees including four law and detention officers with the sheriff's department were arrested, fired, disciplined and/or forced to resign their positions for lying, stealing or both.

Former Gila County Assistant Finance Director Linda Noriega was fired in December 1999 and convicted earlier this year for embezzling nearly $12,000 from the county. Former deputy John Holmes pleaded guilty to helping his wife Linda Holmes steal $17,450 from the U.S. Forest Service. Detention officer William "Tom" Brunson, son-in-law of Gila County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Byron Mills, resigned while he was being investigated for stealing nearly $2,000 in bond money and prisoners' cash. Mills himself was caught making false statements to The Arizona Republic regarding a high-profile murder case that had ties to the Rim country. Former deputy Larry Marrs resigned this past summer when his superiors discovered he had lied about his college, military and law enforcement background on his job application, arrest reports and on the witness stand. Chief Probation Officer Rocky Casteneda resigned under charges that he had stolen nearly $15,000 to support an alleged gambling problem.

In addition, there has been an ongoing investigation into the possible theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county's public fiduciary office.

Improprieties were not restricted to Gila County government, however.

Phyllis Woods, a former bookkeeper for the Payson Unified School District, pleaded guilty in July to four counts of fraudulent schemes and artifices, when it was discovered that about $161,000 had been pilfered from the school coffers over a four-year period. The 62-year-old was sentenced in August to 9.25 years in prison.

On the business front, Payson police detectives have been investigating for the better part of the year the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Central Arizona Board of Realtors.

2. Mikiyo Yonemura

Honor and integrity, Mikiyo Yonemura said, are two of the principles which make up the foundation of his corporate philosophy. But those attributes require something else to make them a valuable part of a corporation and a man's character honesty.

In early May, Yonemura stunned school officials by announcing that he planned to buy Mario's restaurant and bring 130 families with 250 children to Payson within the year. To accommodate that radical influx of new students, Yonemura said he would simply plunk down $6.7 million over the next few years to build more classrooms and hire more teachers.

The trouble was, none of his numbers from the number of employees he said he planned to hire, to the huge profits he claimed he could make at Mario's, to the amount of cash he promised to throw around added up. And very little money ever materialized.

The Roundup checked Yonemura's background to find out if he was capable of delivering on his grandiose promises. The information found in court documents from around the country while trying to verify his resume which, it turned out, was largely false was alarming. The Roundup discovered a history of criminal activity, bankruptcy and information that painted a picture of a man who has met with little success throughout his adult life.

3. Movie theater/second scrapped

It seemed to take forever. But it finally happened.

One day before Thanksgiving, Payson moviegoers finally got to line up at their own real, honest-to-God six-screen cineplex, complete with stadium seating, digital sound, first-run movies and hot, buttered popcorn.

As recently as late August, the town had been looking forward to the opening of 10 movie screens ... but by early September, that number was slashed to six when developer George Harrison scrapped his plan to build a four-screen cinema inside the old Wal-Mart building.

"Not with the other one going in," he said. "When I actually saw what was being built (at Sawmill Crossing), I thought, 'You know what? I don't mind a good fight, but I'm not stupid,'" Harrison said. "There's just no way Payson can support 10 screens."

If Harrison had moved forward with his plan, said Brian Deveny, Sawmill Theaters director of theater operations, it would have created what is known in the film exhibition industry as "over-screening" when an area has more movie screens than the population can support.

It is a standard industry estimate that each screen, no matter where it goes up, requires a population of at least 5,000 to profitably support it. Despite Payson's current population of approximately 13,500 which, on paper, would support only two and a half screens Sawmill Crossing developer Kaibab Industries, Inc. chose to take Rim country's rapid growth rate into consideration, Deveny said.

4. The Vietnam Memorial Wall exhibit

Memorial Day weekend, Payson had the distinct honor of hosting the Vietnam Memorial Wall exhibit an 80-percent scale replica of the Washington, D.C. original at Green Valley Park.

Both walls act as stone heralds, giving visitors a chance to see and touch the names of those who died in Vietnam.

Each name that is recorded in stone could be located through a computer search function which directed visitors to a portion of the wall. This search tool gave everyone the opportunity to discover names of relatives or find individuals who shared a family name.

Organizers of the monument event estimated that 25,000 visitors came to see the Wall Memorial while it was on display in Payson.

In the spirit of honoring our veterans and our country, the Payson flag committee asked all Payson residents who own an American flag to fly it in front of their homes or businesses during the three days the monument stood in Payson.

5. Ranching/Cow Belles call it quits

For a half century, it's been said that the icon of Arizona's heritage, the cowboy, is a dying breed. But for 83-year-old Edward Charles "E.C." Conway a sixth-generation cowboy whose family has ranched the publicly-owned lands of Greenback Valley near Tonto Basin for 128 years neither the breed nor the heritage did well during the year 2000.

At one point, Conway and his son Bill saw the U.S. Forest Service and state environmentalists reduce their grazing permit from 285 head of cattle to zero because a biologist's report deemed the land a "potential habitat" for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a wren-like bird from Mexico.

There are other ranchers in the area who say they're on the verge of going under due to what they perceive as their inability to satisfy the Forest Service and environmentalist groups such as the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Dale Cline, whose family has kept cattle on the same expanse of land since 1886, said that only a miracle will save his business. Cline's cousin, George Ewing, whose family has ranched the same land since 1896, said, "If I can find someone to buy this place, I'm getting out."

Meanwhile, the Tonto Cowbelles took their final curtsy as supporters of the cattle and beef industry in July, when the group disbanded after 23 years.

"There just doesn't seem to be enough interest," president Dixie Jones said. "Everyone has so much going on and not very many members even own cattle anymore."

An affiliation of the Cattle Goers, the first Cowbelles organization was established in Arizona in 1947 to promote the beef industry and help cattlemen who were in trouble. Made up of ranching wives, these women gathered and raised money in support of the ranching industry assisting cattlemen on a statewide level with beef cook-offs, by supporting cattle industry legislation, and donating money and voices to the 4-H Club and the FFA, a national organization of agriculture students.

6. Tess and Freddie

No local story generated more national interest than the tale of Tess Johnson and her son, Freddie Jones.

In early August, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and Gila County Task Force agents found Tess, 51, and the mentally disabled Freddie, 31, living in the national forest just south of Payson.

It was also found that, during the three-and-a-half years they lived undetected in that spot, Tess and Freddie had carved a small paradise out of dust and junipers creating lush vegetable and flower gardens, rock walls and walkways, and a covered garden-patio for their trailer.

Still, it was federally-owned land. So they were cited for "illicitly occupying national forest for residential purposes" a charge that was later dropped and ordered to move out as soon as they could restore the forest to its previous condition.

The Roundup's first story about their plight, published Aug. 22, was posted by sympathetic readers on a number of Internet news sites resulting in 180,000 hits on the Roundup's Web site (the average per month is about 45,000) dozens of e-mail responses, and invitations for the pair to live rent-free on land all over the U.S. and Canada.

Similar offers were made by Rim country landowners, but because Gila County zoning restrictions do not accommodate travel trailers under any conditions, anywhere, nothing could be worked out.

Until the Tonto-Apaches came along and offered to let Tess and Freddie stay on the reservation for as long as they wish.

They are still living there, happily, and with running water.

7. Haught sentence reversed, appealed

The Arizona Supreme Court has spent the better part of a year sorting through the stacks of case notes from the trial of Roy George Haught, and a final ruling is still not in view.

Haught was arrested in 1997 after following mechanic James Cooper to his home in Strawberry, punching and allegedly kicking the smaller, older man in the head, which resulted in his death six days later.

In February 1999, a Gila County jury found Haught guilty of negligent homicide and aggravated assault, crimes found to be "dangerous" a legal provision that requires mandatory prison time.

During sentencing, however, Superior Court Judge Edd Dawson disregarded the dangerous crimes element of the verdict, clearing the way for a lighter sentence.

Gila County Attorney Jerry DeRose immediately filed an appeal to the appellate court, which eventually ruled "that the trial court here abused it's discretion." Following the appellate court's ruling, Haught's attorney requested a Supreme Court ruling on the case.

8. Library relocation

In 1986, Library Friends was formed to raise funds for a new literary center, which over the next 15 years came close to becoming a reality three times.

The brand-new, truly state-of-the-art library a 15,765-square-foot facility to be built at Rumsey Park is expected to be up and open for visits by next September.

The current library, which occupies about 8,000 square feet, has been located in the Womans Club building on Main Street since 1951.

With a decidedly unrural design by Valley architect Larry Enyart, this literary palace was budgeted at $2,136,254 , but almost one month ago, Amon Builders of Payson was named the project's general contractor with a base bid of $1,720,822.

Thanks to a number of anonymous and extremely generous donors, the Payson Public Library's support organization, Library Friends, this month reached its donation goal of $100,000.

Earlier this year, an unnamed local resident had offered to match all funds raised by Library Friends up to the amount of $100,000, with a deadline of December 31. That puts the current grand total at $200,000guaranteeing quality furnishings, computers, desks, shelves and, if the donations keep coming, future building additions.

To make a donation to Library Friends, contact Library Friends of Payson, Box 13, Payson AZ 85547, or call Judy Buettner at 472-9015.

9. EAC opens

One year ago this week, a golden thread was woven into the fabric and future of Payson . After a decade of fund raising and a nearly $2.5 million construction job that lasted a year, the new 56-acre Eastern Arizona College campus was finally completed. Classes officially began Jan. 5, 2000.

Nestled among 56 acres of Rim country pine trees, the new campus has already begun to live up to its promise of bringing more wealth to our community. The community college is more than a building, it is a destination of opportunity. It is a place where hope is harvested and given to students of all ages. Our young people could suddenly choose to stay near family and friends while beginning their college educations. Working parents could suddenly take classes to expand their careers, complete their degrees and improve their lives. Senior citizens could now step back into the classroom to learn new things or just feel young again.

Because of modern-day technology, a student at EAC's Payson campus can participate in classes conducted in Flagstaff from Northern Arizona University. This brought a world of possibilities right into our own backyard.

The school has and will continue to develop a strong identity and act as a beacon to attract more students, better teachers and those who love to learn. And it most certainly will play a key role in an exciting new chapter of our history.

10. HMOs bail out

The number of Medicare providers in Gila County was slashed from three to zero during the first six days of July, dealing the area's senior HMO members a triple blow within a single week.

PacifiCare of Arizona, the state's largest provider of Medicare HMO coverage, announced its intention to terminate Medicare coverage in Gila and South Pinal counties six days after another health maintenance organization announced that it was doing the same thing.

The reasons proffered for the PacifiCare action were skyrocketing drug costs and cutbacks in federal Medicare payments, which HMOs across the country say are resulting in huge financial losses.

That was the scenario cited when Intergroup of Arizona announced the end of its local Medicare+Choice plan, which provides prescription drug coverage and other health benefits to seniors from Gila, Cochise and South Pinal counties.

Both HMOs said their coverage would cease at the beginning of 2001.

Intergroup's cutback affects 2,600 seniors in Gila County and 7,800 seniors throughout the three counties. PacifiCare's HMO had 195 senior members in Gila County and about 4,800 in South Pinal County.

Individual and employer-group members of PacifiCare's HMO, as well as its seniors in Maricopa and Pima Counties, have not been affected. Nor will Intergroup's 52,000 senior members in Maricopa, Pima and Santa Cruz counties, or in the Pinal County city of Apache Junction.

Jeff Jaroch, director of public affairs for PacifiCare, advised Medicare HMO patients to investigate the purchase of a MediGap insurance supplement, which costs more from $100 to $150 per month but provides some of the prescription drug coverage and other benefits they've found under the HMO.

HONORABLE MENTION

1. Forest closures

The fire danger in the Tonto National Forest was at an all-time high the week of June 4, forest officials said while announcing that additional sections of the forest would be closed, along with additional sections of the Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves forests.

Tonto area closures included about 170,000 acres within the Payson and Pleasant Valley Ranger Districts; about 80,000 acres of the Coon Creek Fire and Sierra Ancha Wilderness; and approximately 65,000 acres of the Pinal Mountains just south of Globe.

The area closed was comprised of about 315,000 acres, or 11 percent, of the Tonto's total land area.

2. Wal-Mart opens

Saturday, Jan. 29, the parking lot at the Wal-Mart Supercenter was jam-packed by residents who couldn't wait to get into Payson's newest, largest store.

By the end of the day, more than 6,000 customers hauled their purchases past Wal-Mart registers, far exceeding the company's most hopeful expectations. While it is a Wal-Mart policy not to reveal sales figures, the store's manager at that time, Becky Martinez, said the day's take at the registers was her "second-best ... almost as good as the day after Thanksgiving (of 1998)."

3. AIMS testing

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan gave juniors at Payson High and around the state a Nov. 11 Christmas gift when she announced that the AIMS graduation test has been put on hold.

Under the old rules, this year's juniors would have had to pass the writing and reading portions of the test to graduate next year. The math test had already been deemed too difficult and had been postponed as a graduation requirement until 2004.

4. Rodeo relocation

Rim country residents did a lot of waiting in the year 2000. But the longest stretch of idle wondering was reserved for the relocation of the rodeo arena to its new 36-acre site south of town, due west of the Mazatzal Casino.

When the Payson Event Center finally opened to the public in April, for an Easter Sunday church service, it was no major, ballyhooed event. That was not to happen until the period of Aug. 17 through the 20, when the 116th World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo the August Doin's to the locals finally took off in its brand new showcase.

OTHER STORIES OF NOTE

Ashley Allen
Five-year-old Ashley Allen's family moved from Lacombe, Alberta, Canada to Payson in October 1998, when Ashley was just four years old. Not long after their arrival, Ashley was diagnosed with a lemon-sized "primitive ecto plasmic tumor"a very dangerous grade four brain tumor.
Many operations, radiation treatments and bone-marrow transplants later, Ashley is still going, and her parents still have hope against unencouraging odds.

Payson North Unit IV greenbelt
Last December, Payson Assistant Fire Chief Don Rose called the overgrown greenbelt that loops around the homes of Payson North Unit IV a nine on the danger scale of one to 10. The bone-dry vegetation was so thick , Rose said, that if a fire broke out, fire crews couldn't fight it.
But after a lengthy battle between residents Margaret and Lester Burton versus their homeowner's association, the greenbelt was cleared to the satisfaction of almost everyone. By mid-June, Rose was saying, "It looks great. I think they've eliminated as much potential for hazard as they can ..."

Wright murder
In February, Garrett Wright of Mesa buried his 41-year-old wife, Calista the victim of a shooting that took place inside the couple's home in Star Valley.
Feb. 11, the Wright's roommate, Paul Roosen returned to the home allegedly intoxicated, barged into the Wrights' bedroom and started shooting. Mrs. Wright was shot once in the head.
"He was quite intoxicated," said Det. George Ratliff of the 38-year-old Roosen, who was arrested on charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. The case is still in the hands of the Gila County Superior Court.

New PD opens
Sunday, April 16, folks who wanted to sneak a peak of the inside of a holding cell got their chance at the Payson Police Department's new 8,500-square-foot building at the Payson Town Hall complex during an open house.
At more than twice the size of the department's previous station 3,000 square feet eked out of town hall the new station features a crime lab, evidence room, reception area, a separate 911 dispatch center, fitness room, locker rooms, seven offices, a temporary holding facility, interview rooms, an armory and a public conference room.

Airport noise
After many months of haggling with those who live near the Payson Airport, the facility's board created new suggested flight patterns for approaching and departing aircraft.
Designed to help clear the skies over populated, "noise-sensitive areas," they had been sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration, Arizona Department of Transportation's aviation division and the Payson Town Council ... and the townsfolk who lived directly under the old flight paths and formed a grassroots movement to have them changed.
Although the new flight patterns are not enforceable by the town or the law, board member Gordon Holm said he didn't expect much difficulty, if any, in getting pilots to adopt them.

New Walgreen's
Somewhere in the area of late summer, 2002, if all goes as planned, Rim country residents will be able to pick up their prescriptions at the drive-through window of a brand new Walgreen's Drug Store.
The free-standing store, to be built on the southwest corner of the intersection of Highway 87 and Longhorn Road, will be more than 15,000 square feet and will be stocked with convenience-oriented features, including an expanded convenience food center.
The current Walgreen's store in Payson Village Shopping Center has 13,000 square feet of selling space, store manager Cliff Wilembrecht said.

Kizzar sentencing
Lenny Kizzar of Clay Springs the man accused of shooting Payson Police Officer Allen Dyer Oct. 30, 1999, at the old Wal-Mart spent all of the year 2000 wondering how long he'll be incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Kizzar's sentencing for the attempted murder was originally set for Thursday, Sept. 28, but due to another trial, it was postponed for the third time and the outcome has yet to see the light of day.

Tribe hosts first pow wow
Rim country residents and visitors experienced the color and excitement of a Native American tradition at the first annual Tonto Apache Tribal Pow Wow, which was held Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 at the Payson Event Center.
The Tonto Apache event featured multiple tribes with dancers from around the country competing for over $18,000 in prize money.

Recycling
Nov. 13, all Rim country residents were eligible to participate in a Town of Payson-endorsed curbside recycling program. After only two weeks, roughly four tons of recycling was hauled out of Payson, and the program's popularity had increased so rapidly that ??????? ARCS ????? was already making plans to increase the Wednesday and Thursday pickup schedule to five days per week "as soon as we get another 300 or 400 accounts on board," said Dick Taber, a consultant for and the originator of the Valley-based ARCS.
Right now, ARCS' Payson area accounts are climbing toward 500 homes.

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