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Beating the odds, 13-years old dog survives in the forest for three months

It had been almost three months since Sushi, a 13-year-old terrier mix, slipped through the gate and wandered away from Kurt Huber’s cabin in Strawberry in April.

Huber looked everywhere, but she was gone.

Mike “Shocker” Hernandez, Sushi’s owner, came up from Phoenix the following weekend and put up missing dog fliers around Pine. He also posted on several Facebook pages dedicated to lost pets. Nothing.

Hernandez had left Sushi and another dog at Huber’s home, his brother, because he was moving into an apartment and thought they would be more comfortable on Huber’s acre of land. His other dog, Jackson, a yellow Labrador, is also 13.

“They were born five days apart,” said Hernandez. “Jackson had separation anxiety after (Sushi) disappeared because they had never been separated.

“I never gave up hope,” said Hernandez, “three months is a long time in the forest. I kept checking billboards, Facebook groups, everywhere.”

Photo submitted by Ryan Kress  

Sushi at the bottom of Pine Creek Canyon the day she was found.

On July 4, Ryan Kress and his friend Jeff Riddle were hiking Pine Creek Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon they saw an animal stand up as they approached and were surprised to see it was a dog.

The dog was very thin and weak. The two men took turns carrying the dog out of the canyon. Riddle just recently had rotator cuff surgery and has a bad hip, but he still helped carry Sushi, Kress said.

“If she hadn’t got up we never would have seen her,” said Kress. “She was pretty sick, down to pure skeleton. She was reluctant to have anyone near her. She didn’t snap or anything, she was just scared.”

Kress said he could hear the creek from where they found her, but she was not immediately by the water. He estimated they found her between eight to 10 miles from the cabin.

The two men carried her out of the canyon and took her to Kress’ house to find her owner. They gave her a little water. Kress said he didn’t even think she’d live long enough to make it out of the canyon.

“My kids went to PetSmart, bought the food they recommended and a collar in case we had her a few days,” said Kress.

He posted photos of the dog on Pine/Strawberry Friends Buy/Sell Facebook Group. They were soon also posted on PaysonAZ Lost/Found Pets Facebook group.

A neighbor of Huber’s saw the posts and thought she recognized Sushi. She called Huber and gave him Kress’ phone number and they confirmed she was right. Sushi had been found.

Hernandez had tears in his eyes as he recounted what happened next.

Photo submitted by Ryan Kress 

Sushi recovers after being lost in the forest for three months

“My brother called me and told me they had found my dog. That she could barely walk or lift her head. He said she lay in the grass and wouldn’t get up. It was pretty close, he didn’t think she’d make it. I dropped everything and drove up there. I forgot my phone charger, my medication, everything. I had to see her.”

When Hernandez arrived at his brother’s house he was shocked at her appearance, she was skin and bones.

“Her tail was barely wagging she was so weak,” said Hernandez, “but she knew it was me.”

Luckily for Sushi, Friday is the day Dr. Kim Berglund (Happy Tails Mobile Vet) works in Pine at Pine Market, so they took Sushi in for an evaluation.

“Dr. Berglund gave her fluids and said it was a miracle she survived,” said Hernandez. “She said it is very unusual for a dog that age to survive like that.”

Sushi had gone from 45 pounds down to 27 pounds in the three months she was missing. She had been out in the forest when it was hailing, snowing and raining. Hernandez said he was amazed she didn’t die of exposure or fall prey to coyotes or a mountain lion.

“She was a little butterball before,” said Hernandez, “she lived off her fat and muscles. I think she was getting water from the creek.”

They started giving her small portions of wet foods, rice and water every hour after her visit with Berglund and plan to take her back in for an evaluation in a week.

Photo submitted by Mike Hernandez  

Mike Hernandez hugs his dog Sushi who was lost in the forest near Strawberry.

Hernandez stayed up in Strawberry until he had to return to Phoenix for work. Sushi began recovering right away. Less than three days after she was found, Hernandez posted a video of her walking around the backyard, already looking fuller.

“If Ryan hadn’t gone out hiking he would have never found my dog,” said Hernandez, “and she was literally on the verge of not making it. I told him, ‘You’re a hero, you saved my dog’s life.’”

Next year on July 4, Hernandez plans to hike down to where she was found and see where she was and what she went through.

“She’s my baby,” Hernandez said, tears in his eyes, “I love her to death. I’ve had her 13 years, she’s not a pet, she’s my family.”

Hernandez said he wants to make sure that everyone knows that Riddle and Kress are heroes. He also wants to thank everyone involved in the community especially PaysonAZ Lost/Found Pets, Pine/Strawberry Friends Buy/Sell Facebook group, Pawbooster Alert, and everyone who read the fliers and recognized Sushi.

“She’s my Fourth of July miracle,” said Hernandez.

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Don Engler, 36 years of police service to Payson

Ask Chief Don Engler about his last 36 years of service to the Payson Police Department and he’ll go on and on about the community he served and the people he served with.

Then there’s that one case.

“I had one gentleman, he’d just got out of prison that day and he made his way to Payson,” said Engler. “The next day he looked me up, shook my hand and thanked me for sending him to prison. Said he was going to the northern part of the West to start a new life.”

Engler has since checked up on him.

“He’s still on that path. You wouldn’t believe the confrontations we had — and now to know he has a successful life ... if you can get each one of them to have that success story ...,” his voice trailed off.

Engler’s wife Sherry said more than once former criminals stopped Engler.

“Countless times when Don and I are out and about someone Don has arrested or had dealings with will stop us, converse with us, shake Don’s hand, thank him, give him an update on their progress and tell him to ‘Be careful out there,’” she said.

Engler spent more than an hour with the Roundup talking about what it’s meant to him to serve this little mountain community as he prepares for the next phase of his life — retirement.

Ask family and friends and one word describes Engler: service.

“My whole goal here was service to the community,” said Engler. “It is so much more than being the arresting officer. There are so many other times you have to be a counselor and all these different things to solve problems.”

Craig Swartwood, former mayor and longtime resident, said he was always impressed with Engler’s work ethic.

“Anyone can say anything they want about Don, but the biggest thing about him is that he cared for the people who worked for him and the people of this community,” he said.

Current mayor Tom Morrissey, a retired chief deputy U.S. marshal, gave Engler high praise.

“In law enforcement when someone says, ‘they would go through a door with someone,’ that is the highest compliment one officer can pay another,” said Morrissey. “I would go through any door, any time with Chief Don Engler.”


It might surprise some that Engler is only the fourth police chief since Payson incorporated in 1973.

The former chiefs were Forrest Hinderliter; Dave Wilson, the dome at high school is named after him; Gordy Gartner and Engler, who started on the force in 1984 and took over the top spot in 2007.

Instead of working in a large metropolitan area, Engler preferred Payson as he grew up in the small town of Bowie, Ariz. near the Mexico border by the Chiricahua National Monument.

Engler’s father made a living working on the railroad. Engler met his wife of 40 years in Bowie.

“We actually went to high school together,” he said. “Her dad moved her family there when she was starting her junior year in high school.”

But they didn’t connect until they’d both gone off to college.

“We saw each other at a basketball game and we started to date,” he said.

By 19, they were married, but that didn’t stop them from finishing college. Sherry went to the University of Arizona. Engler attended Grand Canyon University where he got an undergraduate degree in public administration and a master’s in business.

His two children followed him into law enforcement, although he swears he never pushed them in that direction.

Brandyce, 36, and Donald, 31, each went to Arizona State University.

His daughter told him when she started ASU, “I’m going to take some college courses in criminal justice, but I’m not going to be a cop.”

Now she’s a sheriff’s deputy in Beckham, Okla., married and has a son.

His son Don Jr. “always had an interest in it,” said Engler.

Don Jr. graduated with a degree in criminal justice from ASU and works for the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. He is also married and has two daughters.

Having their children in law enforcement gave Sherry concern.

“Being a mother to law enforcement officers is truly a different perspective than that as a wife. One day all three of my LEOs (law enforcement officers) were on dangerous calls, all in different areas. Needless to say, prayers kept me strong until I heard from them individually that they were Code 4, all was OK,” she said.

With the mix of ASU and UofA graduates, Engler said he serves as the “referee” during the annual ASU vs. UofA football game.


Engler credits his family for selflessly supporting him in a job that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“When we go to Walmart, half of it ends up being work,” he said.

Sherry, a published author, remembered one shopping trip in particular.

“One of the humorous stories I tell in “Living with LEO: Law Enforcement Officer” in regards to living with a police chief as a husband is when I tell about him going to a home improvement store in his old, worn out work clothes and I hear a lady whisper to her husband, “I think that is the chief of police!” and her husband corrects her sternly saying, “That is not the chief of police. Sometimes, I don’t know how you get soooo confused.”

The job affected family vacations.

“Law enforcement has an invisible radar; law enforcement always detects when we are on vacation. This is expected and we just roll with the unexpected. The most consistent element of living with law enforcement is the inconsistencies,” said Sherry.

Holidays were squeezed in-between schedules.

“Some of our birthdays were hilarious,” said Sherry. “One of my birthdays we did in four and a half minutes. We’re opening packages and eating cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then he had to run out the door.”

Despite the demands, Engler says he has fond memories serving Payson.

“I admire the next generation growing up and coming to law enforcement,” said Engler. “The challenges they will face — the laws are becoming more complex, and our social environment makes it more challenging to enforce the laws. (The officers) are here to serve the community. I’ve been proud of these officers ... they have that servant’s heart to go out and service the community, the people they lived with every day.”

For Sherry, it’s more personal.

“Life for the wife of a police chief doesn’t get better than this; to know the appreciation the citizens of Payson have for him and the law enforcement community,” she said.

Number of softball tournaments in Payson doubles this year

Summer’s here and the time is right, for dancin’ in the, no wait, sorry, for playing softball.

The first of six major softball tournaments in Payson this year is this weekend’s USA B State Championships. The tournament features 38 teams and uses all five fields at Rumsey Park, as well as the varsity field at Payson High School.

That’s double the three tournaments the town hosted a year ago and clear indication that Payson is establishing itself as a tournament destination for many organizations. That’s in spite of the fact that officials scrapped a plan to overhaul Rumsey Park’s layout to make it more attractive to softball tournaments.

With players, coaches and families converging on Rim Country for this and other tournaments, it offers a major source of revenue for area hotels, motels, restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers. Residents with houses to rent also reap the benefits of the estimated 500 players in town for the weekend. Most players bring at least one or two family members.

“These softball tournaments serve as an economic benefit driver for the town,” said Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Courtney Spawn. “Not only are the players coming to town, but they bring siblings, parents, spouses, coaches, grandparents, etc. They all stay, eat and shop in Payson for a three-four day experience within the tournament, and some staying longer. By providing quality experiences for the teams and quality experiences for these organizations who hold these tournaments we have been able to obtain national tournaments that not only extend our reach to state or regional teams, but teams from across the nation to come to Payson to compete at a high level.”

Spawn estimates each team spends about $3,565 a day while in Payson on food, gas, hotels and shopping and with 38 teams here for 2.5 days, that is nearly a $340,000 economic impact on the town.

And these big tournaments often wind up attracting other tournaments.

“We have had the added benefit from teams that come to these tournaments within the state come back to Payson to rent the fields for their own club invitational due to the experiences they have had coming to Payson and participating in our tournaments,” Spawn said.

In addition to the return of this weekend’s event, the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 NSA End of Summer Madness Invitational and the Sept. 9-11 Payson Senior Softball Classic, new on the schedule this year are a pair of national tournaments. First up is next weekend’s (July 19-21) 40 & Over and 50 & Over Men’s National Championship Fastpitch tournaments. And, following the USA Softball 12A Western National held here July 25-28, the 60 & Over Men’s National Championship Fastpitch Tournament closes the busy schedule on Oct. 4-6.

This weekend’s event features girls fastpitch divisions from 12-and-under all the way up to 18-and-under.

Play begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 12. Action starts at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, with the final games scheduled to begin at 8:50 p.m. Games on all six fields begin at 8 a.m. on Sunday.

Actually, adding in this spring’s high school Gracie Lee Haught Classic and three tournaments benefiting veterans, there are 10 softball tournaments on the schedule for this calendar year.

View this weekend’s tournament schedule at

Bus driver shortage plagues Payson

The school bus driver crisis dominated newly hired Payson Unified School District Superintendent Stan Rentz’s first meeting this week.

The Payson School Board agreed to eliminate two key bus routes, forcing parents who live within a 1.5 mile of the campus their children attend to find another way to get the kids to school.

The board also approved a plan to hire three new aides to handle discipline aboard the bus on routes where student behavior has contributed to a rapid turnover among the district’s bus drivers.

The district will also see if it can hire five high school students to ride the elementary school buses in the afternoon to help drivers keep order.

Finally, the board approved the hiring of a new transportation director Mark Henning, who had served as transportation director for five years before leaving to start a ministry.

However, the board tabled a proposal to pay a $700 bonus to both new drivers who stay for a year as well as any other staff member who convinced the driver to apply. The program would have cost an estimated $9,000, but the board decided to hold off on offering the incentives until the district can see if adding the aides to help with discipline will halt the rapid turnover among the ranks of the bus drivers.

“Hopefully this will help the drivers, take the stress off them,” said board president Barbara Underwood. “But does this put an aide on every route?”

Financial director Kathie Manning, whose husband recently resigned as transportation director, said, “We feel like this is a good place to start and then maybe we’ll evaluate it — come back in October when we’re evaluating other issues.”

The average bus driver stays on the job for less than three years and many don’t finish their first year. That might reflect the strain of working a minimum wage job that demands a split shift. But many drivers also said the behavior of the students on some bus routes has made the job stressful.

Emily Wilson, who volunteers at Payson Elementary School, said she happened to ride on the bus of one of the drivers who quit recently. “It was just crazy on that bus — even with me on there.”

The district lost one driver after she allegedly got drunk and crashed a bus into a tree. Several children were injured and she was arrested for driving under the influence.

Drivers have to get a commercial drivers license and undergo extra training. The district pays about $12 an hour, compared to pay of about $18 an hour for other commercial truck drivers in Payson — including drivers for garbage trucks.

The average age of a Payson bus driver is about 55 — so most are retired from other careers. They undergo training that totals 15 hours of classroom time and 20 hours behind the wheel, which is required by state law.

Manning said they’ll put one of the aides on the route that goes all the way to Gisela, with others on two routes that have reported discipline problems in the past.

The board earlier in the meeting also agreed to hire a consulting firm to do a $15,000 salary study districtwide. Underwood asked Rentz to make sure the study compares bus drivers’ salaries not only to other districts, but to other jobs requiring a commercial license.

“I imagine the salary study will cover that,” Manning said. “Bus driver pay is a reason there’s a shortage of bus drivers. You can’t compete with Amazon deliveries or long-haul truckers. But we can include other bus drivers in our study.”

Board member Sheila DeSchaaf said a signing bonus won’t solve the problem caused by low wages. She’s also the community development director for Payson and said recruitment bonuses for police officers had little effect until Payson raised salaries to match competing towns.

“That was the only thing that got us fully staffed,” she said.

Manning added, “Most of our drivers are at the end of their career and it’s more that they don’t want to deal with student discipline.”

She noted that even when the district made bus drivers eligible for benefits four years ago, it didn’t have much impact on recruitment and turnover.

“Well, a $700 bonus is a huge amount for just referring someone, I’ll be frank with you,” said Underwood.

The board ultimately agreed to first put the aides and student workers on the buses to see if that reduces bus driver turnover.

The board also hopes it can recruit more bus drivers after school starts and perhaps restore the two dropped routes, easing the morning and afternoon transportation crisis for people living within 1.5 mile of a campus.

Underwood said, “I am thankful we’re trying something different and I’m really hoping aides will help our bus drivers with why they’ve left.”

Transportation issues caused one other dustup before the meeting ended.

The board readily approved the recommendation to return Mark Henning to the $52,000 a year job running the transportation department he left several years ago. He was one of six applicants screened by a committee. However, Underwood pushed for a contract that offered 25 vacation days rather than the 33 days that has been standard for administrators.

She raised the issue at a previous meeting, saying many administrators couldn’t even use all their vacation days. The district doesn’t pay administrators for unused vacation days when they leave.

Other board members said they would have preferred to wait for the outcome of the salary study before reducing the vacation days one contract at a time.

“Since we’ve already adjusted the vacation days for a couple of contracts, a precedent has been set. But I would have liked to have waited,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock.

Board member Joanne Conlin said the district could always increase the vacation days when Henning’s contract renews next year if the salary study provides a justification.

However, DeSchaaf said the district shouldn’t change policies on things like vacations piecemeal.

In the end, the board approved the contract with 25 days of vacation on a 3-1 vote, with DeSchaaf in opposition.

Payson Roundup archives  

The Payson Roundup, which also published the Rim Country News, covered the Payson Police Academy’s first certified class in May 1984. Graduates included now Police Chief Don Engler (second from left, front row) and Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd (third from left, back row). Engler retires from the department in July 2019.