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Drug and prison links lead manhunt to Tonto Basin

Investigators suspect a network connected by meth and white supremacy drew two of the most wanted fugitives in the nation to Tonto Basin, where police last Thursday arrested two suspected murderers in a quiet neighborhood.

A task force led by the U.S. Marshals Service that included Gila County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Blane and Susan Barksdale late on Sept. 11 in the Punkin Center Village area of Tonto Basin. The pair are suspects in the murder of Tucson resident Frank Bligh, but had escaped custody several weeks earlier — prompting a national manhunt.

The federal investigators didn’t call in local authorities until hours before the arrest, which involved helicopters and dozens of agents and deputies, roiling the quiet rural area near the shores of Roosevelt Lake.

“This thing in Tonto Basin came out of the blue,” said Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd, “This thing has so many tentacles — we had no clue they were in Tonto Basin.”

A tip with just the right information made the difference.

In a press conference in Phoenix on Sept. 12, David Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal for Arizona, said an informant suggested, “You might want to be looking in the area of Punkin Center, the Barksdales have an acquaintance there. The person has a drug background and is on probation for meth.”

Out of all the thousands of tips the authorities received, this “was intriguing because it fit the profile of staying in a remote area with the same background,” said Gonzales.

Blane made the most wanted list because in late August in Utah he and Susan escaped from private security guards transporting them from New York back to Tucson. They had fled to upstate New York after an explosion set fire to Bligh’s Tucson home. Police believe Bligh was inside, but have not yet found his body.

After overpowering their guards and tossing them in the police van, the couple apparently drove from Utah to Vernon, Ariz. where they own property and have connections.

There, they used a red pickup truck to escape.

For weeks, freeway signs in Arizona warned people to look out for the red pickup truck. However, authorities say the couple ditched the truck then made their way to Tonto Basin.

Prior to the tip from Tonto Basin, investigators had focused on Navajo County “because that was the obvious connection,” since Vernon sits in that county, said Shepherd.

Police acted quickly and made the arrest within hours of the call.

Prison and drugs seem to be the common thread.

“I just learned today about the associations that the Marshals ran across. The guy who owned a house down there (in Tonto Basin) and the Barksdales were in prison together,” he said.

So officers staked out the house and waited.

Only when the watching officers saw Susan emerge were their suspicions confirmed, said Shepherd.

When she came out, “she confirmed Blane was inside of the house,” said Shepherd.

But it took Blane longer to surrender.

“I guess he came out a little defiant. He had to be Tased and they used a bean bag — the only munitions used,” said Shepherd. “They didn’t know if he was armed. He was a dangerous felon.”

Tonto Basin has 1,500 full-time residents. The knowledge that one of their own could harbor murder fugitives has Tonto Basin residents “shocked and stunned,” said one resident.

The owner of the house, Nancy Gassaway, publicly stated her son Mark, “is not and never was a major drug dealer and has never been involved in white suprematism,” in a Facebook post on a Tonto Basin group page.

In fact, Shepherd confirmed Mark was not arrested.

“He was interviewed by the Marshals Service last night. He was just not arrested,” said Shepherd. “The marshals have to decide if they will charge any of those folks federally.”

The next step for the Marshal’s Service is to unravel the support network that allowed the Barksdales to flee across country.

“There are individuals that assisted the Barksdales,” said Gonzales. “We will work with the FBI to find those individuals.

Valley utility determined to save forest thinning efforts

Poor little Nell is tied to the railroad tracks and the wildfire freight train is barreling down on her, spewing sparks out the stack.

Looks hopeless.

But is that Dudley Do Right, riding to the rescue?

Oh, wait — that’s the Salt River Project — determined to save faltering forest thinning efforts in Arizona, even if it means paying a little more for electricity.

At least, SRP’s director of water rights and contracts says the public utility recognizes the deep link between the watershed and wildfires and so will do whatever it takes to keep forest thinning efforts alive.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Essentially, we’re willing to pay for biomass if that’s what it takes,” said Bruce Halin. “When it comes to investing money from SRP’s perspective, we want to make sure we invest in whatever is the best technology that will get the most acres thinned. If that’s biomass power, yeah, we’ll probably do that.”

The declaration from a top SRP official offers a glimmer of hope for forest thinning efforts and the survival of the existing 28 megawatt biomass electrical plant in Snowflake operated by NovoPower.

The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) dashed once-high hopes for future thinning efforts when it decided on a 3-2 vote to not require Arizona Public Service and other utilities it regulates to buy at least 60 megawatts of power produced by burning wood scraps from thinning projects.

That vote seemed to have crippled forest thinning efforts, by eliminating the best current market for the saplings, wood scraps and brush that make up about half of the material removed to thin the overgrown forests of northern Arizona. The forest now has 800 or 1,000 trees per acres, while the fire-adapted, pre-settlement forest had more like 50 trees per acres, according to numerous studies.

NovoPower is the only biomass burning electrical power plant in Arizona. It is sustained by contracts with SRP and APS to buy the power it generates. The two giant utilities entered into the contract with NovoPower because of an ACC mandate to buy electricity generated from renewable sources. At that time, burning biomass was much cheaper than generating electricity from wind and solar. But advances in solar technology have reversed that advantage, which means APS and SRP both have a financial incentive not to renew their current contracts with NovoPower.

If that happens, NovoPower would likely shut down by 2024, eliminating the only existing market for biomass from wood scraps in Arizona. That would likely cause the collapse of already lethargic forest thinning efforts in the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto forests — the core area of the sputtering Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

The ACC vote rejected imposing a biomass mandate, although an APS study showed that the converted coal-burning Cholla power plant would generate some 60 megawatts of electricity annually from burning wood scraps. When combined with the output of NovoPower, the mandate would have created a market for biomass that would have supported the thinning of 50,000 acres annually – the target pace for 4FRI.

Even at 50,000 acres annually, it would take about 20 years to thin the more than 2 million acres of overgrown forest in the 4FRI project area. Fire experts say the region faces a huge risk of a wildfire, like the one that wiped out Paradise, Calif. last year, killing 85 people and destroying 20,000 homes.

APS issued a non-committal statement saying “We continue to participate in forest restoration efforts through our own vegetation management program and through our existing contract with the Novo Power Plant, which has enabled the thinning of thousands of acres of forest in northern Arizona. Forest restoration is a statewide problem that deserves a statewide solution. We look forward to work with stakeholders on a solution.”

Backers of 4FRI were in disarray after the Corporation Commission rejected a year-long lobbying effort to impose a biomass mandate. After the Commission vote, APS expressed support for thinning efforts – but pointedly refused to promise to go forward with biomass plans regardless. Without an order from the Commission, APS could not put the costs of converting Cholla in its rate base or recover the higher cost of biomass power, compared to natural gas or solar.

However, the publicly owned SRP provides both electricity and water to customers in the Valley. So the company’s business depends not only on selling electricity, but on providing water to customers in the Valley.

Studies have shown that a high-intensity wildfire would sear the soil and dramatically increase runoff, filling reservoirs like C.C. Cragin and Roosevelt with mud.

Advocates for the biomass rule argued that APS also benefits from a healthy watershed – not to mention the danger to billions of dollars of infrastructure should a crown fire take out transmission lines. In California, Pacific Gas and Electric declared bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in liability after downed power lines sparked a series of devastating wildfires.

However, SRP so far is the only power company to step up to do what it takes to foster forest thinning efforts.

“APS benefits significantly from the water in the watershed – a lot of the towns that buy its power get water from the watershed and a lot of water users are getting power from APS,” said Halin. “We are concerned with the silting of those reservoirs prematurely should those forests burn. But it’s not just the water. The ecosystems, the local communities – all enjoy an economic benefit. So we’re willing to step up and do our share.”

SRP has already partnered with both Payson and the US Forest Service to foster thinning projects on the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, which supplies 3,000 acre-feet annually to Payson and perhaps 11,000 acre-feet annually to Phoenix.

Halin said SRP will make a final decision after it looks at the industry response to the latest request for proposals to thin some 300,000 acres of Forest Service land in the 4FRI project area.

The RFP is expected out soon, laying out the guidelines for logging projects in a project area that includes all of Rim Country and a chunk of the White Mountains.

In earlier phases of 4FRI, the Forest Service settled on a single contractor to thin some 100,000 acres, but that contractor has thinning only about 15,000 acres in the past seven years – mostly for lack of a market for the biomass.

The 4FRI project “has been stuck in neutral,” said Halin. “We need to attract larger, better capitalized industry to get to that 50,000 acres a year goal. “We have to get the response back from industry. Allowing the market and allowing highly capitalized industry to come in and provide as more realistic, market-driven approach will get us to a more supportable place.”

Halin said he expects NovoPower will bid on the next round of contracts.

However, Novo Power’s caught in a chicken and egg problem – or perhaps a pine cone and sapling dilemma.

Brad Worsley, president of NovoPower, has said that unless there’s an assurance there’s a market for the biomass power he can generate in coming years, there’s no point in bidding on any of the contracts in the next phase of 4FRI. Only the kind of guarantee SRP and APS have provided for the past decade made it possible for NovoPower to bid on the biomass produced by thinning projects.

But Halin said SRP won’t let forest thinning efforts die.

“Let’s go through the (Forest Service) RFP process to understand what’s the best option for us to pursue. Until then, it’s just speculation,” said Halin. “It’s a little early to make a commitment. We need to make an educated, business-like decision. But we need to solve this problem.”

OK. So Nell’s still tied to the tracks.

The wildfire engine’s still speeding along.

But that does look like Dudley up on the hill, sizing up the situation.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

Critical decision – tight deadline

Payson faces a tight deadline to apply for state money to either continue funding for a police officer on campus or add to its pool of almost overwhelmed school counselors.

After months of delay, the Arizona State Board of Education established rules for districts to apply for more school counselors, school social workers and School Resource Officers (SROs) after the Legislature added $20 million to the $12 million School Safety Program grant, Susan Campbell, PUSD representative, indicated in a presentation to the board.

The extra money came in the wake of studies showing that Arizona schools on average have 1 counselor for every 930 students. The national average is 1 for each 450 students, and the recommended ratio is one for every 250 students.

Currently, Payson has one school resource officer funded by the grant. The district also has two counselors at the high school and one counselor at the middle school, paid for by the general fund. The district has about 2,300 students — close to the national average and better than the state average.

Studies show that having enough counselors boosts test scores as well as graduation and college attendance rates — all well below the national average in Arizona. Teachers and administrators say they also desperately need more counselors to deal with the complex emotional and social problems children bring to school these days, including a rising teen suicide rate.

The extra money from the state will increase funding for counselors enough to lower the student/counselor ratio to about 750 to one — still far above the national average.

Districts must submit their grant requests between Sept. 16 and Sept. 27 to win funding for even existing positions for the next three-year grant cycle starting as early as January 2020 and no later than August 2020. Rim Country Middle School and Julia Randall Elementary school share one school resource officer and are two of 114 schools statewide funded by the program. Another 87 schools are on a waiting list. Arizona has about 1,700 traditional public schools and 500 public charter schools, which are eligible to apply for the program.

“The applications are data driven and complex,” Grants Coordinator Susan Campbell told the school board this week. “There are a lot of pieces to putting this together.”

Currently, the district gets $99,000 annually from the state for each year of the three-year funding cycle. The grant this year pays for the salary and benefits for the SRO, some supplies and training travel costs.

Police officer compensation has become increasingly expensive because of the underfunding of the statewide retirement system for police officers and firefighters because of benefit changes and investment losses during the recession. Police departments pay the officer’s salary, benefits and retirement that can be as much as 100 percent of the salary amount. The School Safety Program grant is written to include these costs.

Years ago, the district had an SRO at the high school. SROs spend most of their time on campus and focuses on education more than law enforcement, although they can help deal with school threats or drug issues. They can answer other, off-campus calls in emergencies and takes on regular patrol duties when school’s not in session.

The tight deadlines and limited funding poses a tough choice for the district when it comes to deciding how to prioritize the application.

The state Department of Education has said districts that already have a school resource officer will get at least one position funded. Asking for an extension of funding for the single police officer would be pretty much a sure thing. However, the district would be taking a chance if it decided to make its first priority another counselor or social worker instead of continuing the SRO position.

Campbell said the district can definitely continue the current SRO position, but might have trouble finding a credentialed counselor between January and August, given the statewide shortage and the likely scramble by districts to hire and get signed contracts, which the grant requires.

She said she has no idea whether the district could qualify for a second position — perhaps a counselor or social worker or even another officer. The amount and quality of applications and funding available will determine the awarding of additional positions.

This year’s grant is fully funded for the 114 schools already in the program. The September application starts a new three-year cycle for both new and existing positions.

The school board had lots of questions — but faced mostly hard choices on a tight deadline.

“Which school’s the better place for an officer?” asked board member Joanne Conlin.

Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White replied, “The theory of the grant is that it’s not punitive — it’s educational, so they want to get to them earlier.”

That said, Payson High School Principal Jeff Simon said he’d love to have an officer on campus to build relationships with his students.

On the other hand, Payson Elementary School Principal Michelle May said she desperately needs a counselor — but doesn’t need a police officer at all. “We’ve had some situations where we’ve had to call the police, but the children are too young to even talk to an officer. We really don’t have any resources at all. We are struggling. We could really use the support of a counselor or a social worker for our youngest children.”

Campbell noted that if the district asks for a counselor, the grant requires a community partner — like Community Bridges or Southwest Behavioral. That presents another difficulty in slamming together an application before Sept. 27.

“Community Bridges deals with drug issues and Southwest Behavioral deals with behavior issues and mental health — we would definitely need both,” said Campbell.

Ultimately, Superintendent Stan Rentz suggested he convene the district’s leadership team to settle on the top priorities for the grant, then report to the board.


Student arrested for threats

A Payson High School student is being held in jail without bond after reportedly making threats to shoot up the school.

The high school and nearby Rim Country Middle School and Payson Center for Success were on lockdown briefly Thursday afternoon while police removed Jason Burris, 19, from class.

Burris had reportedly told other students earlier in the day that he wanted to shoot up the front office and then get on the intercom and start speaking Russian, said Superintendent Stan Rentz.

A student reported the rumor to a teacher later in the school day and the teacher immediately notified the administration, which then called police.

Officers located Burris in class and he was taken into custody without incident, according to the Payson Police Department.

Still, the whole ordeal has shaken up students, staff and parents.

With Burris’ arrest on the eve of homecoming festivities, police say they were glad a judge held Burris without bond so he was not free during the busy, chaotic celebration.

Sgt. Joni Varga said with the volume of people that come out for the parade and then the game, it made it a lot easier on police to know he was still in custody.

Burris has been arrested on charges of inciting or inducing terrorism, making terroristic threats, possession/use of a narcotic drug and interfering with an educational institute.

Police served a search warrant at Burris’ home and have questioned him along with several students.

So far, Burris has given no reason for making the alleged threat, she said. And Burris has not said he had a plan to shoot anyone specifically, or a date picked out.

“Enough was said to be a concern,” she said. “It was definitely taken seriously.”

Police officials would not say if they had located any suspicious items on Burris. They could confirm that they did not find a weapon on school grounds.

Varga said detectives have several leads to follow up on and encourage any students with information to call police, even if they think it is a minor detail.

“In the climate we live in today, we have to take that very seriously,” Rentz said.

In a letter to parents, Rentz praised how administrators, teachers and students responded.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our students,” he said.

Burris has no adult criminal record, according to online court records.

On his Facebook page, Burris’ profile picture is a man in camouflage holding a weapon and his cover photo is also that of a weapon. His intro reads, “wanting to join the US ARMY RANGERS ...”

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