A local man waited five hours for rescue Friday night after driving his ATV into the flooded East Verde River north of Payson.
Gila County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Cole LaBonte knew he had to act fast when the hypothermic man threatened to jump in and swim for shore, unable to wait for additional help to arrive.
LaBonte, who was swift water rescue certified just last April, swam out to the man and grabbed him just in time.
The man reportedly was driving his side-by-side off-road vehicle on Cracker Jack Road, below East Verde Estates. He later told LaBonte he had made the drive before, crossing the river successfully. This time, however, he didn’t realize how high the water had come up.
While going through the third crossing, the current pulled his ATV into the river, pushing it up some trees. The man crawled out and got on top of the ATV, but had no way to call for help as there is limited cell service in the area.
At some point, a motorist spotted the man and asked if he needed help, LaBonte said. The man reportedly said he needed a tow truck and the driver left to call a tow truck.
The tow truck driver then called the sheriff’s office, unsure if they were going to just pull a ATV out of the river of if a man was stranded as well.
When they arrived, they found the man going into hypothermic shock. LaBonte suited up in a dry suit and waited downstream in case the man fell off. LaBonte initially was waiting for additional rescuers from Tonto Rim Search and Rescue to arrive, but when the ATV started to shift and the man took off his jacket, signaling he might try to swim for the shore, LaBonte jumped into action.
He swam out to the man with a rope tied to him. Several other deputies on the shore and a member of TRSAR then pulled LaBonte and the man back to safety. The man was taken to an ambulance and then transported to the hospital.
LaBonte said the river was running 45-feet bank to bank with debris some 10-feet in the trees.
They estimate the man had been in the water some five hours.
Mike Buckley stared at the gun on his desk.
“It was the night I started to crack,” he said in front of more than 200 members of the Arizona Trail Association at its annual meeting recently.
The 30-year Army veteran commanded a bomb squad in Afghanistan, but after months of sending his boys home in pieces, he’d reached his breaking point.
Sitting with the gun and his despair, he had no way to know the Arizona Trail would save him.
Little did he know a bartender on a golf cart, an Australian woman with body odor and a Pine winemaker with a bathrobe encountered along the trail would restore his faith in humanity — and heal the wound in his soul.
He ultimately found himself again in a charred burn scar, near the end of the 800-mile-long trail.
“At Telephone Hill, passage 41 runs through a burn scar,” said Buckley. “It incinerated ponderosa pines. Even to go out through the devastation is profound because you see life. I became overwhelmed. It was like a chrysalis of new life and I realized it was who I was.”
The 800-mile-long AZT runs from Mexico to Utah up the center of Arizona and the heart of Rim Country.
The route climbs every peak in its path, sky islands in the south that go from saguaros to forest, the spine of Four Peaks, the Mogollon Rim and into the depths of the Grand Canyon. Rim Country boasts about 20 percent of the trail, with seven of the 43 “passages” running through the area.
For Buckley, the road trail mirrored the twists and turns of his brave, agonizing effort to reclaim his life. His story echoes the stories many through-hikers tell — each hiking their own hike.
Buckley served with distinction in Iraq, then received a command in Afghanistan.
“I took command of the EOD. It is the Army bomb squad,” he said. “Our area of responsibility was for an area near the border with Pakistan.”
He soon found his job sent him to the hospital far too often. “‘MASH’ is not funny,” he said referencing the long-running TV show.
Nearly every week, Buckley would go to the hospital for a trooper who had lost his legs or arms to a bomb, had been shot in the head by a sniper or had committed suicide.
“I watched the remains from a suicide bombing. We sent five more home, then sent four more home ... (by) ... December, I’m not doing very well,” he said.
Buckley ended up going to the hospital so often, doctors would look at him and say, “Not you again.”
Then he got called to a particularly grisly case.
“When you took his pants off his legs came with,” said Buckley.
All the doctors could do was put the young soldier on life support and fly him to Germany so his parents could say goodbye.
The mayhem and loss finally overcame Buckley.
“What you are really looking for is to not feel that way, just for a little,” said Buckley.
So, he pulled out the gun, thought about it — then, “I picked up the phone. The other person at the end of the line picked up,” he said.
That phone call led to Buckley’s return to civilian life. But the demons followed him, plunging him into drugs and therapy.
“I came home, turned down a brigade command. For the next three or four years, I did academia. Then the dreams started to come and the panic attacks,” he said.
He despaired of ever feeling good again.
“It was the war in the soul,” said Buckley. “If you damage the soul, it can be more damaging than the actual wound.”
Buckley discovered the AZT through an organization called Warrior Expeditions.
“I spent a year researching the benefits of nature on mental health,” said Buckley.
He discovered the long treks through the wilderness give suffering veterans time to decompress and calm down. It also connects them to other veterans confronting the same issues.
“It allows you to realize you can reintegrate — and people are wonderful,” said Buckley.
Warrior Expeditions provides all the gear and a monthly stipend for supplies to help a veteran complete a long-distance trek — either hiking, biking or paddling.
Buckley filled out the application and waited to hear what sort of adventure he would go on.
Three weeks later he received the news he would join the hiker group on the Arizona Trail.
“Those 57 days were truly astounding. Hiking through the desert and six mountain ranges,” said Buckley. “When you walk the six mountain ranges the Grand Canyon is easy. The coyotes, how they howl! I’ve had 20 elk run by me. Did you know the ground rumbles?”
Some of his most memorable memories came during the Rim Country portion of the trail.
“I was coming into Roosevelt Lake,” said Buckley, “it is about 3 p.m., I missed the closing of the bar at the marina. I really wanted a beer. Suddenly a woman on a golf cart drove up. ‘You want a beer? I’ve got the keys.’ It was the best beer ever. Sylvia, I know you’re not in here, but you are great.”
But the bartender on the golf cart wasn’t the only person he met on the trail. It astonished him how many he came across.
“Angels live among us,” he said.
The people of Pine impressed Buckley. The legend of the food and beer at THAT Brewery and the accommodations at Trident Winery pass quickly from hiker to hiker.
“I got out of the Mazatzals and I was hungry,” said Buckley.
So he made sure his first stop in Pine included a glass of beer and a plate of food at THAT Brewery. While there, an Australian woman he had repeatedly crossed paths with on the trail gravitated to his table. Over beers, the two discussed their experience.
“We said we heard that ‘women don’t smell as bad as men,’ but we both agreed we both smelled just as bad,” said Buckley to laughter.
He next went to the Trident Winery, where owner Ray Stephens offered a room and a shower to through-hikers. His hosts had more surprises.
“I walk out of the shower and there’s a robe and a glass and wine,” he said. Siobhan Sheridan snapped his photo.
He gets lots of questions about that photo.
“I tell them, no I don’t carry a five-pound robe on the AZT,” said Buckley.
But he didn’t fully absorb the lesson of the trail until he neared the end of his two-month adventure.
Hiking through a seemingly lifeless landscape of blackened tree trunks in a burn scar, a vast depression threatened to swallow him.
He stood in the desolation, feeling everything he’d lost.
And then it happened.
He looked down at his feet and saw the frail green shoots of new plants, pushing through the devastation.
Hope pierced in his heart: Life always finds a way.
At that moment, he understood. He told himself, “Mike, the trail is going to give you what you need, but maybe not what you want. All that baggage we carry? It’s really not worth that much.”
So, sometimes you must set it down — and go on.
And now Buckley tells the story whenever he can.
“The Arizona Trail is an incredible testament to life.”
The Rim Country lost a great leader last week with the death of Star Valley Mayor Ronnie McDaniel.
McDaniel, 80, had deep roots in the community, which he had served his entire adult life, once working for the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, volunteering on the Payson School Board, acting as Payson’s Justice of the Peace and finally, serving as mayor.
McDaniel died the morning of Thursday, Feb. 14.
McDaniel was hospitalized in a Phoenix-area Banner intensive care unit after going into cardiac arrest during a heart procedure in early February.
Within hours of the news of McDaniel’s death, there was an outpouring of support on social media.
Town Manager Tim Grier said he considered McDaniel a father figure. Upon his death, Grier said, “Words cannot express our sadness.”
Pine columnist and longtime Roundup sports editor Max Foster wrote, “McDaniel was a huge part of Rim Country history having been a Payson High School standout athlete, school hall of fame member, basketball record holder, rodeo cowboy, former deputy sheriff, accomplished wild game hunter, expert tracker, judge, Star Valley mayor and one of the 11 founders of the annual Rim Country Pioneers celebration.
“When it comes to life and times in Gila County, Ronnie was a walking history book ... he’s seen it all; done it all.”
Tommie Martin, Gila County supervisor, knew McDaniel all her life — in fact her mother took care of him when he was a baby.
She said McDaniel was mostly raised by his grandmother and uncles on Oxbow Hill. He was quite the athlete — and might still hold school records, she added.
She went on to watch him become a respected deputy sheriff and justice of the peace. She said rather than tossing teens in jail, he’d put them to work. A lot of them grew up to be upstanding, contributing citizens of the Rim Country.
“All of his adult life he gave back to the community. He was trying to represent the interests of everybody — and that made him a really good (justice of the peace),” Martin said.
While he was still with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, serving as a major at the Payson substation, he was part of the selection committee that hired Adam Shepherd as a deputy. Shepherd is now Gila County’s sheriff.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Shepherd said he first met McDaniel while he was attending Payson High School.
“He’d come out to our football practices. He was a big supporter of the sports programs and the schools in general,” Shepherd said.
“His leadership style, how he treated people and his care of the community were tremendous examples for me and I continue to apply those lessons. He did what he did for love of the community,” Shepherd said.
After McDaniel retired from the GCSO he became the Payson justice of the peace. At that time, Shepherd and other Payson deputies and staff all operated out of the same building and so he continued to have regular contact with McDaniel. They became friends and even went hunting together.
“In fact, I inherited his desk and I couldn’t be more proud,” Shepherd said. “It is hard to say how much he meant to me.”
McDaniel, along with Tommie Martin and Tom Melcher of the GCSO, all worked together to persuade Shepherd to run for sheriff. He was undersheriff at the time and the job was opening.
He said he never would have thought about running without the support of McDaniel, Martin and Melcher.
Shepherd also credits McDaniel and his late wife, Diane, for being largely responsible for creating the Town of Star Valley — where the sheriff makes his home.
“It was a fitting tribute that they named the park after Diane — they should probably rename Star Valley after Ronnie,” he said.
Shepherd said he was always impressed that McDaniel never came to a decision from emotion; he always had a calm, well thought-out response.
“He means so much to so many people. It is such a loss,” Shepherd said.
Former Payson Mayor Craig Swartwood became acquainted with McDaniel in the late 1970s when McDaniel was a GCSO deputy.
“I respected him even then. He commanded respect and earned it from all he came in contact with, regardless of age.”
Swartwood said if the Rim Country ever had a Mount Rushmore, Ronnie McDaniel would be front and center on it.
“He was the true spirit of Rim Country and they don’t make them like him anymore,” Swartwood said.
In respect of the family’s privacy, the Roundup did not contact them for details about funeral arrangements.
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Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey and homeless advocate Doug Stewart have dropped plans for a homeless warming station after meeting with neighbors — for now.
The tent would have provided a place for the homeless to sleep, eat and connect with services this winter.
The news comes in the shadow of a homeless woman who died of exposure in November. She had been living in a tent in the woods near Payson, suffering from medical problems.
Despite the report, Morrissey and Stewart bowed to neighborhood opposition and decided not to proceed with plans to open the warming station.
“I don’t want to traumatize people who are already traumatized,” said Stewart.
Threatened protests would only further upset homeless people already in need of help, he said.
A resident in the area where Morrissey and Stewart proposed operating the warming station, opposed the program because, “my house is right next to it.”
The man said he has compassion for the homeless and offered to help, but he also feared a repeat of an experience where a neighbor sold drugs from their home.
“It took 15 years to get the drug house shut down,” he said. “They would come in and make arrests. He would give names, they would release him and then he would be right back out selling drugs.”
The house attracted unsavory characters, which the man felt put his children at risk. He worried the warming tent would attract homeless people to the neighborhood, which could cause problems.
“After the program is over, they could say, ‘Why go back to the woods across town when the woods here are so great?’” he said.
Morrissey and Stewart have delayed the program, not shelved it. Stewart said programs like this can take numerous attempts before finding success.
Morrissey says the homeless problem won’t go away.
“The problem is they are here. They are already here,” he said.
The mayor, who formerly worked for the Department of Economic Security, feels a responsibility to help, especially when he heard of the homeless woman who died from exposure and health complications in November.
Her story represents a problem many homeless face — illness.
The woman suffered from cancer to the pelvic area, according to a police report. She and her boyfriend had lived in a tent for several weeks before her death. Before living in a tent, the two had lived in an apartment in Payson. An autopsy confirmed a combination of poor health and exposure to the elements as the cause of death, reports say.
The woman did have family in the area. Once contacted, the family said they tried to help her, but she did not take care of herself.
“They were not shocked of (her) passing due to her physical condition and how she cared for herself,” stated the police report.
Stewart and Morrissey said illness or accidents could render people homeless if they’re living on the financial edge.
“We are not just talking about homeless, but those in danger of becoming homeless,” said Stewart.
“The thing that troubles me about it, is that everybody wants to help, but they don’t want it in their backyard,” said Morrissey. “There’s resources out there that we should be getting. This is an effort ... to get data and bring the numbers to them.”
He and Stewart hope to set up a warming station next winter.
Both admit they’re struggling to find a location with access to transportation, electricity and facilities.
“We have to look at facilities and analyze liability,” said Stewart.
In the meantime, Stewart plans to spend more time on outreach.
“I think one of the mistakes I made on this ... I might not have done enough to publicly speak on it,” said Stewart.
The mayor sat next to a couple that lives across the street from the proposed warming site during one of Stewart’s presentations. Once Stewart spoke, they changed their minds.
“It’s education and getting it out that it’s doing the right thing and doing it the right way. That is the whole issue,” said Morrissey.
So they’re not about to give up.
“This is more than a 10-year deal,” said Stewart. “You are always going to have families face things.”
Once Payson and Gila County set up care for the homeless, Stewart believes help will come in many forms.
“You build a good continuum of care, you are going to attract big nonprofits because there is no competition for grants,” he said. “Since there are no programs here, it will make a big difference. Once they have an established grant going, they are up to get renewed so long as their outcomes are good.”