Judge Slams Gavel On Legal Career

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Ronnie McDaniel doubted he could carry out all his duties as Payson's new justice of the peace when he was first asked to perform a "bikini wedding."

"The man and woman wanted to get married on a boat at Roosevelt Lake and all anyone was wearing were tiny bikinis," he said. "I thought, ‘goodness they are going to slip something else on,' but they never did."

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Judge Ronnie McDaniel (right) pictured with Ezra Peace. McDaniel's retirement will mark the end of an era in which he watched the town, and his case load, grow by leaps and bounds.

Since that wedding in the late 1980s, those rituals have became commonplace.

"Actually, now they are kind of fun," McDaniel said. "I hear they do a lot more of them at Lake Powell."

That unusual ceremony was just one of almost 2,000 marriages McDaniel performed during his 18 years as Payson's regional justice of the peace and city magistrate.

For McDaniel, performing marriages was a calming escape from tedious court duties.

"I enjoyed doing them because I got to meet new meet people and on a different level," he said.

McDaniel's tenure as justice of the peace and magistrate officially ends Friday, when the former high school star athlete, rodeo bull rider, school board president and deputy sheriff retires to a simpler life.

"I want to do a little traveling with my wife, Diane, and spend more time with my family, especially my five grandkids," he said.

Although, his retirement ceremony at noon Friday will include a simple potluck lunch and an open house, the judge said he'll host an old-fashioned barbecue sometime in January.

"People in Payson have been very good to me and I want to do something that everyone can come to, especially the kids," he said.

McDaniel's retirement will mark the end of an era in which he watched the town, and his case load, grow by leaps and bounds.

"With growth, there's now so many cases to hear; it's now about 12,000 to 15,000 a year," he said.

Along with his duties as justice of the peace, McDaniel also served as a mentor judge for newly elected justices and was appointed several years ago by the Arizona Supreme Court to be a training coordinator for justice court employees. He's also a presiding judge in limited jurisdictions courts throughout Gila County.

"That means I oversee other courts," he said.

During his years on the bench, McDaniel said his lifelong friendships with childhood buddies were never tested.

"Fortunately, I never had to hear a case of a close friend," he said. "If something like that was going to happen, I would give it to another judge."

As Payson's justice of the peace, McDaniel has earned the respect and affection of those around him.

"He's fun, he's wonderful and we are going to miss him," court clerk Yvette Hoffman said.

Co-worker Cheri Heppler concurred.

"The man has no temper," she said. "He's the most tempered man I've ever met. He's very easy to work for."

Roots in law enforcement

McDaniel graduated from Payson High School in 1958 as one of the Longhorn's most accomplished athletes. He continues to hold the school's basketball record for most points (42) scored in a single game.

Following his graduation from PHS -- which was then housed in the Julia Randall rock building --e worked in construction and took up the rugged life of a rodeo cowboy.

"I'm just now paying for that (bull riding)," he said.

Just last year, McDaniel received an artificial knee transplant to correct a joint injury he suffered years ago.

After a few seasons on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, McDaniel began to have second thoughts about his chosen profession.

"I thought, ‘It's about time I get a steady job'," he said.

Because of an interest in law enforcement, McDaniel took a job as a Gila County sheriff's deputy and rose to the rank of major before retiring in 1986.

He recalled his duties in the early years included covering a huge geographical area that extended from Strawberry to the Gila/Maricopa county line.

"And there was just two deputies, myself and T.J. Meredith," he said. "There was no town police, so we did everything -- car and airplane wrecks, drug enforcement and traffic."

A huge problem in those days, he said, was controlling the flow of marijuana into the county.

Drugs, however, weren't the only challenge McDaniel faced as a young deputy.

His most intriguing case, a murder, piqued his interest since the moment it occurred.

He recalled the day vividly. He was in the sheriff's office when something caught his attention in the Frontier Market located across Main Street where CarQuest of Payson now stands.

"I saw something, heard three shots and saw this guy fall," McDaniel said.

The deputy rushed to the market with gun drawn and found one man dead and another severely wounded.

"They were a couple of old drifters who had been camping out," McDaniel said. "They must have had some bad blood between them."

As the deputy assigned to investigate the case, McDaniel was curious to find out why the two men engaged in a gun battle across from a sheriff's office.

"The one that lived would only say ‘he had it coming,' before he died about 30 days later," McDaniel said. "We never found out why (the shooting) happened."

McDaniel also was elected to three terms on the Payson school board, coached local youth sports teams and fathered two children.

His son, Tony, followed in his father's footsteps and is now a Department of Public Safety officer. His daughter, Tippy, is a housewife and mother living in Queen Creek. Her husband is PRCA National Finals qualifier and team roper, Mark Simon.

McDaniel reflects on his 22 years with the sheriff's department with a special fondness, saying the challenges he faced better prepared him for his duties as a judge and justice of the peace.

But now, he's ready to step aside, turn the office over to someone else and engage in some lifelong outdoor passions.

"After 40 years with the county, it's time to go, and it's time for a little more hunting and fishing," he said.

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