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Rawlings case delayed for unusual appeal

GILA COUNTY — A White Mountain couple faces felony charges in connection with the death of three children that drowned in Tonto Creek last year when Daniel Rawlings, 36, the father and uncle to the children, allegedly attempted to drive across the rain-swollen creek on Nov. 29, 2019.

File photo  

On November 29, 2019, Colby, Austin & Willa Rawlings were swept away by floodwaters at the Bar X Road crossing in Tonto Basin. Colby, age 5 and Willa, age 6, were siblings. Austin Rawlings, age 5, was their cousin.

Daniel Rawlings, a local contractor, is charged with three counts of manslaughter, Class 2 felonies and seven counts of child abuse, Class 3 felonies. His wife Lacey Rawlings is charged with seven counts of child abuse, all Class 3 felonies. The three counts of manslaughter against Daniel arise from the death of three of the children. The other seven counts of child abuse are based on the prosecutors’ belief that the couple “recklessly permitted (the children) to be placed in a situation where the person or health of a child is endangered,” according to the complaint.

On Nov. 29, Daniel reportedly drove a large, military-style vehicle around ‘road-closed’ barricades and into the flooded creek at the Bar X Crossing with his wife and seven children as passengers, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. The vehicle got stuck in the rising waters and three of the children were swept downstream. Rawlings’ son and daughter Colby, 5, and Willa, 6, and their cousin, Austin Rawlings, 5, drowned. Austin was Daniel’s bother’s child.

On Nov. 30, searchers found the bodies of Colby and Austin. Willa’s body was found Dec. 13 in Roosevelt Lake.

The case came on for a hearing last Monday in the Gila County Superior Court, sitting in Globe. Judge Timothy M. Wright is assigned to this case. The Rawlings were not physically present, but the attorney for Lacey Rawlings, Kathryn G. Mahady of the Flagstaff firm of Aspey, Watkins & Diesel, PLLC appeared by phone. Daniel is represented by Flagstaff lawyer Bruce S. Griffin of the Griffen & Stevens Law Firm, PLLC. The State of Arizona is represented by Chief Deputy Gila County Attorney Bradley M. Soos.

The court setting was originally a preliminary hearing, which has been set and re-set a number of times. A preliminary hearing happens after a prosecutor charges a defendant with a felony. The law says that because felonies are serious crimes, another set of eyes must examine the prosecutor’s evidence to confirm that there is probable cause to bring the charges. Sometimes a grand jury makes that determination by handing up an indictment, or as in this case, a judge reviews the evidence at such a hearing; the choice is the prosecutor’s. In the Rawlings case, the county attorney did not impanel a grand jury, possibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the prosecutor brought the charges and the case was set to the preliminary hearing, all a very normal process.

File photo  

On November 29, 2019, Colby, Austin & Willa Rawlings were swept away by floodwaters at the Bar X Road crossing in Tonto Basin. Colby, age 5 and Willa, age 6, were siblings. Austin Rawlings, age 5, was their cousin.

That’s when the legal fight started. If the state was going to produce witnesses at the hearing, the defense wanted the complete police reports, supplements and anything else the state has “within 7 days of the preliminary hearing,” said Griffin in an April 20 motion. The materials are needed so the defense could properly examine or cross examine the witnesses, Griffin urged. Sometimes, complete reports and supplements haven’t even been finished yet by law enforcement, in this case, by the GCSO. Griffen wrote that the prosecutors have the material but are “unprofessionally withholding” it.

So the Rawlings asked the court to “compel” the state to hand over those materials before the hearing, originally set for April 17. The state objected to that, arguing that court rules do not explicitly require that, that under court rules, their obligation for disclosure doesn’t kick in until the arraignment, a proceeding which occurs after the preliminary hearing. Besides, the state argued, the materials in this case are “voluminous.”

Judge Wright agreed with the defense and ordered the disclosure of the materials. The state cried foul and promptly appealed Wright’s order to the Arizona Court of Appeals, through a process called a “special action,” an unusual type of appeal that happens before a final decision on a case is made. The Arizona Court of Appeals doesn’t have to hear a special action, and in this case, the appeals court refused to hear it. Not to be flummoxed, the state then appealed the Court of Appeals’ refusal to the Arizona Supreme Court. That action is still pending.

When a party brings a special action, the case stops until the higher courts can sort it out. That is what happened in this case. In fact, the case is “stayed” until Dec. 31, “or if the Supreme Court Denies Special Action Relief,” wrote Judge Wright on August 14.

But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing going on in the case in Gila County. In fact, on August 18, the state asked the court to revoke Daniel’s release and to hold him in jail until the trial. At their very first court hearing, the Rawlings were released pending trial under certain conditions. In its August 18 motion, the state alleges that Daniel has been in contact with the niece and or nephew who survived the tragedy, whom the state say are victims of the child abuse; therefore, he should be taken into custody. The state urges that “No contact with the victims is a standard release condition,” and Rawlings broke that condition.

Not so fast, said defense counsel Griffen. The Rawlings haven’t been given written release conditions to sign and acknowledge because that usually happens at the end of a preliminary hearing and as everybody knows, because the state has appealed the order to compel, there hasn’t yet been a preliminary hearing.

The court has set a hearing on the state’s motion to revoke release conditions — that hearing is set for September 21.

Coincidentally, on Sept. 10, Governor Doug Ducey announced that the many years of effort by state and local authorities to build a bridge over Tonto Creek had produced results. According to a press release from Ducey’s office, the federal government has approved a grant in the amount of $21 million for the bridge. He stated: “Last year, Arizona lost three young lives when the creek was experiencing flooding and high waters. With this partnership, we can help ensure no family in Tonto Basin must endure this terrible grief ever again.”


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Timber Mesa looks to voters for $18M bond authorization

SHOW LOW — Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District (TMFMD) has never asked residents of the White Mountains to vote for a bond before. This November will be different because the fire district is placing an $18 million bond question before the voters.

The board of directors for Timber Mesa Fire & Medical District has called a special bond election that will appear on the November 3 ballot. If you would district representatives to present to your organization, residential area, business or group, contact the main office at 928-537-5100.

This bond initiative is known as Proposition 428. If approved by voters, it will support “extensive strategic planning from our administration and recommendations from the citizens of the fire district,” states the district in their bond information sheet.

The average additional tax rate needed to fund the requested bond amount of $18,935,000 breaks down to about $0.33 cents per $100 of secondary assessed property valuation. For the average taxpayer this equals $33.00 per year on a home with an assessed value of $100,000.

Based on the value of the average home in the Timber Mesa fire district, the estimated monthly cost to the taxpayer is $3.47 per month, per household.

What is the money for?

Bond funds will be used to develop training facilities, improve firefighter safety and security and renovate fire stations to bring them up to current standards. Bond funding would also go a long way in retiring long-term lease purchase obligations and replacing fire apparatus (trucks and equipment) as needed.

“Feasibility studies on call volume, response times, industry standards and training needs have been a driving force behind many of the projects the bond encompasses,” said the district. “The other priority for the bond is the health and safety of our citizens and our firefighters.”

“There are five key points that we want to share with the voters,” said TMFMD Chief Bryan Savage. “We are the only entity in the state that has a rate cap so a bond of this type provides greater capacity in the district’s budget.”

The first key point revolves around retiring long-term lease obligations from the operating budget to the bond. This would allow the district to better maintain greater capacity to absorb unforeseen costs when they come.

Examples of unforeseen costs could be increases in state retirement or healthcare costs.

“We hope it won’t happen again but a housing crash would also impact our budget,” said Savage. “Those are just some of the major changes that can affect the district as a whole.”

By retiring the long term lease obligations from the operating budget, the tax rate could be reduced by as much as $0.14 cents.

The second key point or objective is to relocate downtown Station 15, located at 60 North 6th Street in Show Low.

“Station 15 has been there a long time and it’s become outdated,” said Savage. “The community room can’t be used because it’s not ADA accessible. The exhaust removal in the station is not what it should be — it’s just not up to code for many reasons. At the minimum, the station needs to be remodeled but relocation would be better. It’s also not in the best location in relation to the where the majority of the call volume comes from.”

There are other logistical and safety reasons why Station 15 should be relocated. The trucks leaving that station have to drive through a school zone, through a residential neighborhood and often must access an uncontrolled intersection onto U.S.60/Deuce of Clubs.

“We need a downtown station located near the nexus of where we receive most of our calls, and ideally, it would be an area on two acres of property,” said Savage.

The third key point supporting the bond is to develop a training facility on fire district property. A third or more of the bond is relative to the training needs said Savage. There are approximately 26,000 hours of required training per year for fire district employees. This is an average of 270 training hours per employee, per year, depending upon their level of certification. The district conducts much of its firefighter training in parking lots or abandoned buildings which is less than ideal.

“The necessity of training is because we are a high risk occupation in a low frequency event model. You have to train a lot and continuously to be prepared,” said Savage.

The fourth key point is remodeling Station 19 in White Mountain Lake. It was originally an auto mechanic’s garage and was never intended to be a fire station. It is an outdated facility that does not have exhaust removal equipment, among other requirements.

It’s not built to house full time staff and doesn’t have any of the safety features required today, he said.

The fifth key point is apparatus replacement for large equipment like fire engines and ladder trucks. “For the next 10 years, our large equipment purchases would be made from the bond funding and not the operational budget,” said Savage.

Repayment

The amount of money required to repay the bond is described at the worst case scenario. So, the growth estimates for the district are almost zero which are not realistic. They are intentionally that way so that the district doesn’t underestimate the repayment cost.

They will use a conservative estimate for repayment. Therefore they’ve indicated a cost of $3.47 cents per household, per month for the average house in the fire district. In all reality, the repayment cost will likely be less than that, according to the districts writings in the the bond information sheet.

Savage said the district will further demonstrate their efforts to be conservative with spending, while maintaining their obligations to the community and firefighter safety.

“Timber Mesa has outperformed all financial projections since its creation,” states the bond information sheet.

“We are committed to responsible stewardship of bond funds. Our citizens assisted the district in determining what and how much should be asked for. If approved, a bond oversight committee of community members will be appointed by the fire board to ensure the funds are spent as intended,” Savage said on behalf of the district.

TMFMD representatives will be presenting information and answering questions from the public about the bond Saturday, Sept. 19, at 10 a.m. in the White Mountain Lake Airpark Hangar, located at 1900 Bourdon Ranch Road in Show Low.

Savage said that he and fire district employees cannot advocate for, or against, the bond while in their official capacity. They can only inform about the facts of the bond and encourage people to vote.

If you would like such a presentation for your community, organization, business or residential area, please contact TMFMD at 928-537-5100 or email Chief Savage directly at bsavage@timbermesafire.org.

The main office is located at 3561 E. Deuce of Clubs in Show Low.


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Be nice to your local Census taker

LINDEN — Census Bureau workers are going door to door trying to contact people who have not yet responded to the 2020 Census.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

A Census taker drives along rural dirt road in Navajo County looking for a hard to find address. They are in the process of contacting residents at addresses that, according to state records, haven’t completed a Census survey. This Census taker asked that a message of patience be passed along to residents as they approach residents who haven’t submitted a Census survey.

Rural areas like the White Mountains can be difficult for Census takers navigating dirt roads with signs that may be hard to find and addresses that are off the beaten path.

A staff member of the Independent ran into a Census taker on Saturday, Sept. 12, who needed help finding an address. The road was rocky, rutted and contained three different offshoots to the main road. She identified herself with multiple credentials and asked for help finding an address.

This scenario is more likely to be occurring between now and the Census Bureau deadline of Sept. 30.

This particular census taker conceded to the Independent that the White Mountains can be tricky when it comes to determining a population count because of those that live here part of the year.

“Please be patient with us,” said the Census taker. “We are not ‘the government’ and are doing a very important job for the U.S. Census Bureau.”

September is often the time of year when summer residents pack it up and retreat to their winter homes in the Valley, Tucson or other warm cities. Dual residency home owners may have already filled out a Census form for their winter home but their summer address may show ‘no response.’ Census takers must check and double check to make sure they have counted every household.

This particular Census taker was appreciative of the local help she received in finding the address of a person with two homes, two addresses. Then, there is the possibly of different numbers of residents living in each home, depending on the season.

The information gathered on the Census form or online remains confidential. In fact, the information cannot be released for publication for 72 years, said Kim Robinson, a U.S. Census Partnership Specialist for Northern Arizona. That means the information won’t be available publically until 2092.

Census information is used in many ways and only undertaken by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years. Federal funds are budgeted according to the most recent Census.

For more information:

For information on how to fill out a census form go to: https://2020census.gov/en/ways-to-respond.html. To get information by phone, call 844-330-2020.

Census Bureau employees, both temporary decennial employees and permanent field representatives, can be identified by their Census photo Identification and one or more of the following items:

  • Laptop computer with a Census Bureau logo
  • iPad with a Census Bureau logo
  • iPhone with a Census Bureau logo
  • Black canvas bag with a Census logo
  • If you want to confirm that a person visiting an address is a legitimate Census Bureau employee, please call the Dallas Regional Census Center at 972-510-1800.

For any other questions regarding field operations, the phone number for the Flagstaff Area Census Office is 928-286-5519. The Flagstaff office covers Mohave, Coconino, Yavapai, Gila, Navajo, and Apache Counties. For other Census-related information, call Show Low Planning and Zoning Director Justen Tregaskes at 928- 532-4041.


Pinetop_lakeside
Three elementary students test positive, quarantining at home

PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Three elementary students tested positive for COVID-19 Monday, Sept. 14.

The students are siblings and contact tracing has already been conducted by Navajo County Public Health and the school district.

Visit brusd.org to view the Blue Ridge Unified School District reopening plan phases, precautions and protocol relating to COVID-19.

All three students were receiving on-site services at school. The district was notified of the test results by Navajo County Public Services then began notifying parents and staff.

The students are quarantining at home since they are members of the same family.

“We notified everyone that may have been in close contact with those students while they were on campus,” said Blue Ridge Unified School District #32 Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael L. Wright. “We also notified those that may have come into contact that was not defined as ‘close contact.’”

Close contact is described as having exposure to the symptomatic individual within six feet and for a prolonged period of time (typically longer than 15 minutes).

Prior to school opening in August, the district developed a detailed plan for resuming instruction. The plan has three phases which the district can move forward or backward through, as needed. The plan is designed to minimize spread of the virus and follows existing state and federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines such as social distancing, hand-washing, wearing cloth face coverings, daily health screenings, etc.

The Blue Ridge school district has been in an online only phase since opening in August.

There are exceptions for students with special needs or students that need access to on-site services that can’t be accessed from home. The three students that tested positive were on campus for some of those on-site services. The district began notifying staff and parents of the confirmed tests the same day Navajo County notified them.

Employees or students who have developed COVID-19 symptoms or had a positive COVID-19 test may not return to the site until at least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery or the individual has received negative results of an authorized COVID-19 test. (Refer to BRUSD Plans for Resuming Instruction at brusd.org for details.)

Phase II began Sept. 16

The school district meets criteria for Phase II of their reopening plan. Phase two is the hybrid model with two days per week of face-to-face learning and three days per week of online learning.

“We had been online only but now we are implementing the hybrid learning model,” said Dr. Wright. “We understand that some parents would like us to go completely in-person, face-to-face learning right now but the hybrid model is our next step.”

(Approximately 15 to 20% of students have chosen to remain in the online only model of learning for the entire year. The other 80 to 85% of students will be moving to the Phase II hybrid model described below.)

Reopening Phases

Phase I in the district’s plan is “online only” school. In this phase all school facilities remain closed to public use.

Phase II began Sept. 16. This is the hybrid model which means students attend in-person for face-to-face learning for two days a week. They stay home for online learning for the other three days a week. During phase two, only students and individuals participating in an approved extracurricular activity or school program are permitted on District facilities.

“During Phase II of our return to school, our hybrid schedule reduces class sizes as much as possible within the constraints of the number of students enrolled and the physical layout of the school or facility,” states page 4 of the plan.

The hybrid model allows for staggered school attendance. “Depending on the size of the facility or room, classes will have no more than 20-50 individuals assigned at any given time during the day, including teachers and instructional aides,” states the plan.

Phase III is face-to-face instruction which allows for a complete return to in-person instruction and all school activities. This phase will not be implemented until it is determined safe to do so, according to the district’s plan for reopening.

The letter published Tuesday, Sept. 15 by Superintendent Wright can be viewed as a link attached to the online story at www.wmicentral.com.

The letter explains the district’s steps following the confirmed cases and is can also be viewed on the district website at www.brusd.org. Click on “District News” and select COVID Update — Parent/Student Expectations, District Procedures/Protocols.