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Local wedding officiates share special memories

WHITE MOUNTAINS – If you are consulting the stars for the best day to get married in 2020, astrologers say it is not Valentine’s Day but Feb. 20 — not just because it will be an easy day for you and your spouse to remember, but the planets that matter are all aligned in the right position.

Though many people do tie the knot or get engaged on Valentine’s Day, three local wedding officiates say they have never been asked to perform a Valentine’s Day wedding. They do, however, have plenty of wedding stories they deem as memorable.

Anna Ash

Anna Ash, who will be married 47 years in May, started doing weddings in 2008. Though she is now retired, she was, at that time, employed with the Pinetop Justice Court. Her judge asked that she find out what she needed to do to officiate weddings. She did and was ordained through the World Christianship Ministries. From the time she began keeping count, she has done 183 official ceremonies and has 5 on the books so far for this year.

Ash recalled an unusual wedding she did that had a bit of a shock factor that quickly turned to laughter.

A couple came to her and said they wanted to be handcuffed in the middle of the ceremony – their way of demonstrating being joined forever.

“As I did the ‘Do you take … and Do you take,’ explained Ash, the person they had appointed approached the couple, all dressed in Johnny Cash-black, grabbed them both and handcuffed them.

“People were saying, ‘What is going on?” said Ash. Obviously they figured it out and laughter erupted, but the laughter didn’t linger for the couple because they forgot their marriage license and had to go and get it the next day, plus find two witnesses.

After the incident with the marriage license, Ash had a private wedding to perform in Greer. She told the couple to bring their license. After the ceremony, she asked for the license. They produced their driver’s licenses which is what they thought she meant. They, too, had to go to court the next day to make things official. Ash said they found two witnesses and did the quick legal thing in the hallway so she could finally say, “OK, you are married.”

Ash now gently clarifies that a marriage license is what is needed and must be brought to the wedding. When she meets with a couple she goes over the details of what they want, and if the couple has children, she suggests including them in a circle ceremony as a family — an idea many had not thought of but lovingly embrace.

Ash charges $100 if the wedding is in the Pinetop-Lakeside area, but elsewhere it depends on the location. Ash can be reached by email at pinetopanna@msn.com.

Barbara Bruce / Courtesy photo  

Butch Gunnels

Butch Gunnels

Apache County Justice Court Judge Butch Gunnels of St. Johns is another frequently called upon to officiate. It is no surprise that as a judge he would marry people, but he is not your ordinary judge. He also has a band, Wyld Ryde, and is in demand to play for events as well – maybe even for your wedding.

Gunnels said he has done all kinds of weddings in all types of venues – he did a Hawaiian wedding in Greer, has married people on horseback, on Harleys, on the roof of the courthouse, a roping arena and the middle of nowhere, but the funniest took place in a bathroom.

“That couple is still together,” said Gunnels. “They said if it started in the crapper and ends in the crapper, it will always be in the crapper.”

Gunnels, who is known for his sense of humor both in and out of the courtroom, says when he talks with a couple, he “gets a feel of what they want, and looks at their personalities.”

“I have married people in t-shirts and jeans,” said Gunnels. He also married two beautiful ladies who looked like they came out of Lord of the Rings.

“It all depends on the bride and groom,” said Gunnels. He says he tries to keep it light hearted – some want a religious ceremony and traditional vows and some not. “I make a joke at the wedding – and say, “Do you still want me to do the obey thing?’ Most people today want to leave that out.”

These days Gunnels says he will only do weddings for family and friends, but almost everybody winds up being a friend.

If someone wants to engage the judge for a ceremony, he said they can just call the ladies in his office. That number is 928 337-7558.

The judge, incidentally, is getting married on May 2 in St. Johns City Park. He is not looking for an officiant himself because he has five judges who all want to do the honors.

Barbara Bruce / Courtesy photo  

Tina Brown

Tina Brown

For years, Tina Brown, who owned The Center for Divine Awareness in Show Low, has performed weddings. Though she too, is now retired, she is still in demand as an officiant. Her most memorable story is definitely unusual.

On Sundays when she was in business, Brown held a spiritual gathering at her business each week. One Sunday, as was customary, she was still there after everyone left. A lady from the Valley came in and said to her, “This is going to sound weird.”

“She said, ‘I just got out of another bad relationship. I am 32 years old. Luckily, he left me;lhe found somebody else and I realized I had fallen into a pattern – I did everything for the man. I could not have a voice in that relationship; my feelings were invalidated. I want to marry myself. I want to make a solid commitment to myself. I have to follow through and be committed,’ she continued.”

Brown said the lady had a list – it included self respect and not talking down to herself; she also had the vows she had written. She told Brown she would never allow anyone to put her down again, and she would not allow that kind of behavior in her life again.

Brown said the lady was there about two hours. She told her it was not legal but she could do it for her, and could print out a certificate for her.

“What a way to commemorate a commitment to yourself than to marry yourself,” said Brown. “It was awesome; more women should do this.”

Brown is available for weddings, and like Ash and Gunnels, she, too, meets with the individuals and goes over the details of what the couple wants for their wedding day. Last year she did a steampunk wedding at Unity that graced the Independent’s front page. She is ordained through the Universal Life Church. She can be reached at 928-369-8862.

Regardless of the date you choose, Valentine’s Day or another, remember that your wedding will be a memory not only for you, but for all who attend. And, if you should choose Valentine’s Day, dinner reservations, flowers and candy will always be your competition. And, if you choose another date, you have the opportunity to celebrate your love twice.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Navajo County health director briefs board on risk from coronavirus

NAVAJO COUNTY — Be concerned, but don’t panic.

We got this … mostly.

That’s the mixed message about the explosive spread of the coronavirus that Navajo County Public Health Director Jeffrey Lee this week delivered to the board of supervisors.

“The coronavirus is a serious virus,” said Lee.

Early this week, international health officials had confirmed 43,000 cases and 1,000 deaths. That included 13 cases in the United States, including one case in Maricopa County. All of those US cases had links to people who had traveled recently to China.

“But to put it in perspective,” Lee continued, “as of last week, we had 17,000 cases of flu in Arizona – and the scary part — 22 flu-related deaths since Oct. 1. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot, there’s still time,” he added.

“But we are keeping an eye on the coronavirus and putting information out to the public,” he added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) this week declared a global health emergency due to the rapid spread of the virus in China. WHO also officially named the new strain of coronavirus COVID-19. The virus likely originated in animals, but spreads readily from human to human, since it’s a respiratory virus like the flu.

The rapidly evolving information on the virus now suggests most people will have only moderate symptoms, like a fever, cough and shortness of breath between 2 and 14 days after exposure.

Lee said he suspects twice as many people are infected as the official figures suggest, since many may think they just have a cold. The deaths from the virus are much better tallied, but the death rate from the infection remains unclear.

Initially in Wuhan province the death rate appeared close to 4-5 percent. That compares to a death rate from most strains of the flu virus of about one tenth of one percent. But that might reflect China’s problems in providing supportive treatment for the symptoms of the virus – which can lead to pneumonia. Many estimates now put the death rate at about 2 percent, but that’s based on the 43,000 documented infections. Lee said he suspects the death rate will ultimately turn out to be closer to half a percent.

By contrast, the slow to spread Ebola virus infected an estimated 28,000 and killed 11,000. The notorious 1918 strain of flu killed 20 to 50 million people – but it had a death rate of just 2.5 percent. This year, the federal Centers for Disease control estimates the flu has infected 19 million people in the US – up 4 million from the same time last year. The CDC has recorded 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths so far nationally. The death toll from the flu comes in spite of the widespread availability of a relatively effective vaccine, recommended for at-risk populations, including the elderly. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from year to year as the virus continually evolves changing in its outer protein coat to evade the immune system.

So far, the COVID-19 virus (coronavirus) is behaving much more like the flu than like Ebola – since COVID-19 appears easily spread with a relatively low death rate. Officials don’t know whether that will hold – and also don’t know whether infection rates will ebb in the spring and summer, which is what happens with the flu.

Lee said county and state officials have weekly conference calls to get updates on the COVID-19 virus. He noted that the lone Arizona case involved a person recently returned from China, who initially tested negative for the virus. After he developed symptoms, a second test revealed the infection. Health officials have traced his contacts and have so far not found any other Arizona cases. However, some 50 million people in China remain under quarantine or other restrictions and the virus has been reported in at least 24 other countries. Lee said humans may have to deal with the virus for a long time to come. He predicted it would be at least a year before public health officials have a chance of developing an effective vaccine, as they have with the flu virus.

He said the health department has been meeting with the tightly-woven network of hospitals and health clinics in the county to make sure everyone knows what to do should someone with a possible infection show up for treatment. The health department plans to host weekly meetings and briefings for those healthcare providers.

Health officials have to walk a delicate line between ensuring people with a possible infection show up for testing and treatment and arousing so much alarm that doctors and hospitals are overwhelmed with people who merely fear they’re infected.

“The message we’re really pushing is prevention is the key – washing our hands, using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching our face our mouth or nose. Stay home if you’re sick. And if someone’s not feeling well, avoid close interactions.” Those precautions work as well for the ever-present flu as for the unlikely chance the COVID-19 virus will get loose in the region.

“Communicate with your primary care provider – those are the experts – those are the people you want to see if you’re not feeling well and want to know whether you should get tested,” said Lee.

Supervisor Jason Whiting thanked Lee for the presentation. “My relatives were going to Disneyland – and said, ‘We’re not going. We’ll get that disease.’ I’m happy to be able to tell them there are only 13 cases in the US.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Rogers pleads guilty

HOLBROOK — Margaret “Peggy” Rogers, 68, pleaded guilty on Feb. 4 to four Class 2 felonies in the Navajo County Superior Court for the theft of over $800,000 from Silver Creek Irrigation District.

She is headed to prison for at least five years plus four months, and will be on supervised probation for seven years after she completes the sentence, and will be ordered to pay $867,623 in restitution.

A grand jury indicted Peggy Rogers on Sept. 11, 2018, for various theft and fraud charges arising from her romantic relationship with the now-deceased bookkeeper of the Silver Creek Irrigation District, one Harvey Leon Palmer. Authorities claimed that between August, 2011 and December 2016, Rogers persuaded Palmer, who was married, to take money from the district in increments, place it in a storage shed where Rogers or her designee would pick it up when available. The amount she was charged with taking was alleged to be around $825,000.

During this time, the indictment alleged that she also applied for and received healthcare from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), securing the benefits by representing herself as a completely broke person with no income. AHCCCS says it was defrauded out of $38,223.

Courtesy photo  


In the plea agreement which Rogers signed on Jan. 28, she admitted her guilt for conspiracy to commit theft and fraudulent schemes; theft “with an aggregate value in excess of $100,000” from Silver Creek; fraudulent schemes and artifices and theft “with an aggregate value of $25,000” from AHCCCS.

Rogers’ husband Russell was also indicted for six charges; the plea agreement in Peggy’s case makes no mention of the case against Russell and court records show that his case is still pending.

Through this long case, plea agreements were offered and considered, a change of plea was set but fell apart and a trial had been scheduled and then vacated. Just before trial, Peggy Rogers raised the defense of “guilty but insane,” what Arizona calls the insanity defense. She also asked for and received an evaluation of competency under Rule 11 of the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure. That rule sets out the process when an accused’s attorney has serious doubts about whether the client is competent to understand the proceedings against her and whether the client can assist the attorney in her defense.

A mental health professional, typically a doctor of psychology or psychiatry, forms a professional opinion about the defendant’s competency. The Rule 11 report in Rogers’ case is not available to the public, but in November 2019, Rogers’ counsel told the court that the case is was ready to proceed — that suggests that Rogers was found to be neither incompetent nor insane.

This case is unusual not only because of the amount of money involved, the tawdry circumstances of the scheme, or the issue of insanity, but the attorneys for each side. The State of Arizona is represented by the elected county attorney, Brad Carlyon; not a subordinate. The defense attorney is Mariclare Hanna, who is the public defender for Navajo County.In a separate civil law suit, Carlyon succeeded at clawing back about $200,000 for Silver Creek from Palmer’s estate.

Court records do not disclose what Rogers did with the stolen money, but the plea agreement gives a clue. Throughout her seven year probation, she “shall stay out of all casinos and establishments that allow gambling,” according to the agreement.

Sentencing is set for March 11.