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Taking a hot air balloon pre-test flight for the upcoming second annual White Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival (June 28 — 30) Pinetop-Lakeside Mayor Stephanie Irwin and Summit Healthcare CEO Ron McArthur and his wife, Jenice, enjoyed the experience. With blue skies and light winds, the trio took off very early in the morning Friday, May 31. Community Services Manager Tony Alba said the event this year has been expanded to three days and all activities will be free to the public, including tethered balloon rides. Learn more about this fun event for the whole family at

Shaffstall pulling pieces together for event center

PINETOP-LAKESIDE — A number of community leaders, companies and even city governments have engaged in conversations regarding a possible conference center for the White Mountain Region. Thus far, even though many agree that it is needed, when the price tag is revealed and the data gathered, there is no commitment.

But on May 17 a plan was unveiled on social media that has people doing more than just talking. The Discover WMAZ Event Center Facebook page was launched providing invitees and others with a video of a facility mock-up which is projected to be a reality in 2022.

Cyndie Shaffstall, local author, entrepreneur, marketer, marketing-data analyst, business manager and Chairman of the Board for the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce has been incubating a plan that will be the catalyst for regional economic development – a 15,000 square foot event hall to be used for sports tournaments, banquets, conferences, trade shows and seminars — and it is a private venture.

Shaffstall has been assured “by people who understand what I am doing” that there are grants available for the project, but money from private sources is also being invested and those parties will share ownership. The video presented on the Facebook page and elsewhere is also serving to invite investors to be part of the project. Shaffstall is also a partner in Hidden Star, an organization dedicated to providing start-up help and business assistance to disadvantaged and minority entrepreneurs across the country.

The organization which is already formed is the Discover WMAZ Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (CVB). The video on the Facebook page enables viewers to take a tour of the proposed facility, inside and out.

“I am currently working on a number of projects,” said Shaffstall. Her main focus is the business plan, the feasibility study, getting the investors in place and then deciding on one of six pieces of property to put the event center on. She is also meeting with architects and general contractors to acquire bids for Phase One.

Phase One of the project begins with entering the front doors of a structure filled with floor-to-ceiling windows. In the middle there will be a large reception desk with six administrative offices behind it. One of the offices will be an exclusive lease for the CVB and two others will be for the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce. Both entities will not be charged for their spaces. The other three offices will be used by event center management staff.

The building will be WiFi-enabled and have charging stations for devices placed every ten feet in the common areas.

The outside walls of the building, along with the hall areas, will provide information on local events, hotels and shopping.

To the left of the reception desk and offices there will be standing kiosks which local merchants can rent by the day, week, month or year. There will also be two permanent kiosks in the lunch area.

Twenty break-out rooms which can accommodate 25 to 50 people will be along the front and back walls. There will be a third smaller, multi-use locker room and lockers for men/women and families at the end of the breakout rooms. The rooms will have collapsible stadium seating supporting events seven days a week.

A five year commitment has already been secured for the catering kitchen and its services which is located on the left side wall; a five year commitment has also been secured for the indoor/outdoor bar which is located along the back wall with a sandwich counter next to it.

The designated open seating area will be used by the catering kitchen, bar and the coffee/ breakfast/ sandwich bar, but there will be additional seating as you exit through the back doors. The sandwich bar will accommodate people who are at conferences and in classes, and there will also be in-house catering.

Beyond the extra seating area, there are steps which lead to the covered and lighted amphitheater which will be wired for sound and will seat 2,000 people. Each level will be wide enough to do a dinner theater with a two-top and room for wait staff.

Coming up next on the left side is the wooded wedding area which is just past the outdoor portion of the bar. There will be separate banquet seating with a stage and a dance floor. There will also be an alternate indoor room for weddings, should there be inclement weather. A beautiful water feature will be beyond the amphitheater to abate sound between the two areas and their events.

Shaffstall said that Phase II will include bike paths and free bikes to make sure the facility is connected to the community – connecting businesses.

She is working on the business plan and included in the plan will be a hospitality training certification program. It will be open to White Mountain neighbors to improve the level of customer service in the entire area.

“I went to the towns three years ago and had three meetings,” said Shaffstall. “One was a joint meeting with Show Low and Pinetop and I told them the first step was to have a Convention and Visitor’s Bureau – that is who is promoting the area.”

“We will need an event planner and the second step,” she continued, “is the website, and it is 60 percent done.”

Shaffstall said the website has a menu for visitors and for event planners. She describes it as “visitor-centric” with information which includes everything to do in the White Mountains — because people visit all over the Mountain.

Putting the video out on Facebook, Shaffstall said her hope is that people will get excited when they see it. “I want people to say I will raise my hand; I want to be involved.”

Those that have stepped up as advisory board members thus far are Rica Giradi, HomeSmart Professionals; Cheryl Giradi, El Rancho Restaurant; Sylviana Giradi-Stebbins, My Sister Can’t Cook Catering; Austin Vallery, Home Inspections, Barbara Bruce, White Mountain Independent; Robert Kastelic, Torreon Living Magazine; Pamela Harp-Arlaud, Washington Federal; Evan Lehr, The Lodge Sports Bar & Grill; Mechelle Martinez, Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce and Mark Kahlich, WestCo Development.

Shaffstall’s final words on the Facebook invite say, “Let’s get this party started.”

The video for this project can be viewed on Facebook at Discover WMAZ Event Center.

DISCLOSURE: Reporter Barbara Bruce was involved in the 2015 project for America’s Best Communities Grant and became a member of the advisory board for Discover WMAZ Event Center after the interview for this article.

All-out manhunt ends with capture

SHOW LOW — Attempted murder suspect John Russell Thomas evaded capture for about 6 hours Tuesday morning after he allegedly shot his father, Raymond Thomas and his brother, Tyler Thomas.

John Thomas, 20, is now in Navajo County Jail with a $1 million cash-only bond, facing multiple felony charges.

According to Show Low Police, the two men tried to intervene while John Thomas was allegedly trying to strangle his girlfriend, Maria Rosalez, during a domestic dispute during the early morning hours on Tuesday. Police responded to the 1000 block of Deer Park Drive in the Fawnbrook subdivision at about 3:46 a.m.

The two gunshot victims were flown to the Phoenix area and are in critical, but stable condition. Police did not offer an update on Rosalez’s condition.

RT Lynch The Independent 

Crime scene tape was placed around a trailer next to residence Tuesday morning in the Fawnbrook subdivision.

John Thomas fled on foot before police arrived at the scene.

By about 8 a.m., a large number of law enforcement officers from several agencies were in Show Low, searching for Thomas. The Navajo County Sheriff’s Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety (air and ground units), Arizona Department of Corrections (K9 tracking unit), Pinetop-Lakeside Police Department, White Mountain Apache Game and Fish, Puerco Valley Fire District from Sanders and the Navajo County Attorney’s Office all participated in the search according to Show Low Mayor Daryl Seymore.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

A DPS helicopter was used in the search for Thomas. The pilot circled Sierra Pines for some time as that neighborhood was searched.

A Ready Navajo County alert was issued at 8:53 a.m. describing the situation, and Show Low Police began posting a description and photos of Thomas at 4:23 a.m.

An early morning checkpoint was set up at the entrance to the Fawnbrook subdivision. Officers stopped and searched every car coming out, and did not let anyone into the subdivision for some time.

RT Lynch//The Independent  

DPS troopers checked cars exiting the Fawnbrook subdivision, searching for the suspect.

A few miles north of Fawnbrook, officers saturated the quiet Sierra Pines subdivision, as a search helicopter circled the wooded neighborhood. Residents unaware of the drama of the wanted man were seen out walking their dogs even as officers with bulletproof vests and rifles patrolled on foot.

In wooded washes southwest of Fawnbrook, the K-9 unit was searching as well, according to police radio broadcasts. A few minutes prior to his capture, radio broadcasts indicates possible sightings of Thomas near La Casita Restaurant and Barkin’ Basement Thrift Store.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

A DPS helicopter was used in the search for Thomas. The pilot circled Sierra Pines for some time as that neighborhood was searched.

Thomas was unarmed when he was arrested at about 10 a.m. near Cub Lake Road, in town. Police did not say exactly how Thomas was found, but said “(w)e appreciate the support from the community which led to the suspect’s apprehension.” Tips from the public contributed to his capture.

Courtesy photo  

John Russell Thomas

John Russell Thomas is now facing two counts of attempted second degree homicide, three counts of aggravated assault and one count of hindering prosecution.

On Facebook, his brother Tyler Thomas pleaded for understanding. He posted on the Show Low Police Department page: “Yes it was my brother yes he shot both me and my dad. I just woke from my coma I’m breathing on my own again. I’d please ask that everyone keep John Thomas in their prayers me and my father will survive it’s John who needs our love and compassion. He had a mental health break this is not like him.”

At the Show Low City Council meeting on Tuesday evening Mayor Daryl Seymore thanked those who participated in the search.

“We would like to thank all the people who worked together to bring this incident to a safe conclusion,” said Seymore. “This includes the many first responders, support personnel, the local media, and most of all, our community members whose vigilance helped locate an armed and dangerous man.”

“This unfortunate event truly demonstrates our White Mountain community spirit, the ability of many organizations and agencies to come together and work with members of the community to keep our city safe is what makes this such a great place to live,” added Seymore.

According to the Show Low Police Thomas had his initial appearance in court, so the next step is the arraignment, or preliminary hearing if a grand jury indicts him.

Community Dashboard provides access to county health info

NAVAJO COUNTY — Finding specific information about the key health issues in Navajo County is easier, faster and more accessible than ever before with the new Navajo County Public Health Services online Community Dashboard.

The dashboard, launched in mid-May, provides up-to-date, data-rich and comprehensive information about health topics studied, surveyed and compiled in the 2018 Community Health Assessment (CHA).

The CHA report, in its entirety, was made available to the public last year. It is a 162-page document that includes information from a variety of sources including a resident survey, epidemiological data, local service agencies, healthcare providers and many other sources.

And while the report is valuable in printed form, the Public Health Services District and CHA partners expanded the assessment into a plan to take action and solve problems. This endeavor is called the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP).

“Health is vital to the success of our residents and our community,” states a press release announcing the dashboard rollout. “Improving health is a community-wide effort, and we must come together to solve these complex issues.”

“We want to foster new partnerships and strengthen existing ones that improve health for everyone: tribal and non-tribal residents, across religious beliefs, and across neighborhoods,” adds the press release.

To help engage the community and foster new partnerships while strengthening the existing ones, the health district has populated the Community Health Assessment data, priorities and strategy focus groups into the Community Dashboard.

The focus groups are working on the key health issues identified in the Community Health Assessment such as challenges with poverty, chronic disease, addiction, emotional health and reproductive health.

Accessing the Dashboard

Anyone who has internet access can visit the website at

On the Home page of the website you will see “Our Story” which encapsulates the five health priorities identified in the CHA which include challenges with poverty, mental and emotional health, substance abuse, chronic diseases and community resources.

Each section has multiple menus, charts, graphs, statistics and/or pictures that illustrate the information. “The dashboard displays the data that supports the improvement plan priorities on a public-facing platform and in a way that is meaningful to all residents of Navajo County,” says Navajo County Public Health and Emergency Management Director Jeff Lee.

It also provides raw data that can be exported into a CSV spreadsheet. There are automated features that also allow the viewer to move the computer mouse over a specific census area (region in the county) and see data specific to that area.

“The Community Dashboard takes the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) to a new level; it is now an interactive, educational and informational tool available for everyone to use,” Lee adds. “And together we, the people of Navajo County, can all work toward a shared goal of improved health for ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors.”

A living document

Information will be updated quarterly in the Community Dashboard, according to Lee, so it’s a living document and current source of information.

“The CHIP priority work groups that began in January each set goals and objectives,” says Lee. “Each workgroup will report activities quarterly and the dashboard will be updated, keeping us accountable and creating transparency to the work that is being done to help improve the health of our community.”

“In addition to the dashboard, the platform has many other functions that will be helpful for use and our partners when applying for grants and when sharing information about other public health initiatives.”

If you have questions about the Community Dashboard or would like to get involved in a strategic focus group, contact the Navajo County Public Health Services District at 928-532-6050, or visit

Former Tate’s Auto workers: Unpaid, unemployed

SHOW LOW — Six weeks after a federal judge abruptly ordered the dealerships owned by Tate’s Auto closed, former employees still haven’t been paid.

That’s what a former sales manager for the Winslow location of Tate’s Auto told the Independent.

Robert Ortiz is married with a five year-old and a one year-old and a mobile home he purchased on contract. Like everyone else, he has bills to pay and he is falling behind. Like every other Tate’s employee, the last time he received a paycheck was in April.

“I didn’t pay him last month, and I can’t pay him this month. It’s just not good for building trust. I’ve been stalling, I hope he doesn’t kick our family out,” Ortiz said of his purchase contract on his mobile home.

Ortiz, like several other employees across the four dealerships — Show Low, Winslow, Holbrook and Gallup — came into work even after the dealership was shut down, because there was work to do for the customers. He also had to call some customers and ask them to return vehicles they had purchased, because he knew the paperwork would never be completed.

“I hope they get their down payment back,” he said.

But Ortiz’ loyalty to the company and to the customers has earned him nothing. The family has been surviving on his wife’s income, but it’s not enough to pay all the bills. And good paying jobs, like the one he had at Tate’s, are hard to find in small towns.

“I’ve been going out everyday, looking for a job,” he said.

Last weekend he got some good news. He was hired on part time at a restaurant, making minimum wage. He said that will help the family catch up on their house payments while he continues to look for a better job. He said he had an interview with a dealership in Flagstaff which sounded promising.

For about 100 former employees who have been hanging on, hoping that somehow they will be paid, have experienced frustration, anger and fear.

Now resignation is settling in.

At this point, Ortiz said he doesn’t think he will get paid at all.

Tate’s employees were awaiting the outcome of a hearing in federal court that was held on May 22, hoping that an agreement could be hammered out that day that would allow them to be paid.

That didn’t happen.

At a status hearing on May 22, in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, before judge Brenda M. Whinery, four attorneys appeared in person — three from Ford Motor Credit and one from Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation. They faced off with one attorney for Tate’s Auto Center of Gallup who appeared in person and one that appeared by video.

Also attending the hearing was a representative of the Arizona Department of Revenue, who appeared by video. Five other attorneys representing Fiat Chrysler and Nissan Motor Credit appeared by with video or telephone. A representative of the Navajo Human Rights Commission also attended.

Former owner and general manager Rick Berry did not attend, and the judge questioned his absecence.

Attorney for Tate’s, Nancy March, provided a status update. According to the court’s minute entry concerning the hearing, March told the court that $160,000 was needed to pay of employees for the period of April 16-25.

“The debtors would like to pay an employee to sort out the issues,” the court’s minute entry states.

Steve Jerome, attorney for Ford Motor Credit, objected to the payment, saying that his client objects “because the debtors (Tate’s) are seeking to benefit … without ever complying with the obligations.” He stated that the payment would potentially cause a shortfall, considering the amount of money in the debtor’s accounts. Additionally, Jerome said that “Ford does not have sufficient detail and objects to the payments,” according to the minute entry.

Oddly, March said she did not have any details concerning payroll, either.

Judge Whinery ordered the hearing be continued to June 5, and asked that payroll and state transaction tax info be filed the with court. She also instructed the parties to work together to solve the problems.

Ortiz said he is trying to keep the stress of the situation away from his family, but that hasn’t been easy. Somehow he manages to sound upbeat in conversation, but his voice falters when he talks about his son’s recent birthday party. He could only buy him one present and a modest birthday party with a few pizzas they got by scraping up the last few dollars available to them.

“You feel bad because you want to give him so much more … I feel like I let my family down,” he said.