As children around the world wait for the arrival of Santa Claus on Sunday night, 55 orphans at the Foyer Renmen orphanage in Port au Prince, Haiti, will be snuggling into their beds with happy memories of a visit two weeks ago by Pere Noel, the French version of Santa Claus.
Pere Noel visited the orphanage at the end of the most recent medical trip to Haiti by members of the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps. A member of that team, Jessica Hanson, an operating room nurse at Flagstaff Medical Center, reached out to fellow operating room and emergency room nurses to gather toys for the orphans. With the help of other members of the Flagstaff community, Hanson collected 55 toys, each costing less than $15 and each weighing less than 7 pounds, that she could pack and take to Haiti.
To personalize each gift and increase the connection between the donors and the children, Hanson printed out photos of each of the children taken on a trip to the orphanage the previous December. Each gift donor was given two photos, one to keep of the their orphan and one to use as a gift tag to ensure that the right child got the right toy.
It took four suitcases each weighing 50 pounds to get the brightly wrapped gifts from Flagstaff to Haiti. After a full week of surgery by the medical team at the Bernard Mevs hospital in Port au Prince, everyone loaded up into vans for the hour drive to the orphanage. After arriving and being greeted by the children, it was time for dinner and to prepare for the arrival of Pere Noel.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bull Durham, who leads the medical trips to Haiti, performs the role of Pere Noel each year. After strapping a couch cushion to his stomach and donning a musty Santa costume it was showtime. Fifty-five orphans ranging in age from one to 21 were patiently waiting on the roof of the orphanage.
The tropical sun had already set and in a country where electricity is sporadic, the children sat in the dark lit by a spotlight powered by a softly humming generator in the yard below. While waiting, the orphans broke out into a capella Christmas carols, and the sounds of their voices carried across the rooftop to the nearby room where Pere Noel was putting the finishing touches to his outfit.
Whispers and giggles turned to squeals and shouts as the children watched Pere Noel walk across a covered walkway from the building next door to the rooftop where they were sitting. For some of the children this was a yearly tradition filled with excitement and anticipation. For others this was their first Christmas and their first time ever seeing Pere Noel.
Among the smiling and laughing faces were nervous glances as children held their brothers and sisters hands waiting to see what all of the excitement was about. Each and every child, from screaming babies to embarrassed young adults, got to sit on Pere Noel’s lap and talk with the jolly figure before receiving their gift.
Once every child was sitting back down with their gift, it was time to see what Pere Noel had brought them. There were soccer balls, remote controlled cars, dolls that blinked and talked, glittery purses with art supplies and makeup, stuffed toys and fashion clothes. The children were as excited to see what their brothers and sisters got as they were to open their own gifts.
Growing up as children in the orphanage they understood that everything was shared. While the nurses of Flagstaff Medical Center and fellow community members may have been picking a toy for one child, on this balmy night deep in the Caribbean 55 children realized that they were receiving an avalanche of toys and love that they would share and play with for the coming year until Pere Noel once again returned with suitcases full of brightly wrapped gifts from a foreign land.
Amidst a year filled with tumultuous politics, a rash of mass shootings and one-after-the-other natural disasters, millions of Americans took a rare moment of repose on Aug. 21.
That day, for just a couple of minutes, the moon traveled between Earth and the sun, creating the first total solar eclipse to cross the country in nearly a century. In Flagstaff, more than 700 people made their way to Lowell Observatory’s Mars Hill campus, dawned cardboard eclipse glasses and turned their eyes skyward to see the moon cover about 70 percent of the sun.
"It was brilliant," said Sue Glaw, who was among the visitors to Lowell. "It was more than what I could ever have expected."
The experience was even more dramatic 1,000 miles away in Madras, Oregon, where Lowell hosted another eclipse event directly in the path of totality. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people attended and the entire event was broadcast live by the Science Channel, putting Lowell in the national spotlight.
In other science news:
“Gore is one of those fine companies that every community would like to have,” said John Stigmon, with the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona.
A non-election year in Flagstaff can be a mixed blessing when it comes to sorting out the top news stories of the past 12 months. On the one hand, there are no ballot tallies to lend some quantitative authority to the choices. But on the other, once the candidates have settled in and the airwaves are clear of electoral hyperbole, the focus shifts back from personalities to core issues that dominate the public conversation.
And in Flagstaff, those issues continue to be the affordability gap between income and the cost of living, exacerbated by post-recession growth that threatens to overwhelm existing road capacity and crowd out the blue skies and green landscape. For many small cities, those would be good problems to have; for Flagstaff in 2017, they offered opportunities for collaborative problem-solving even if the solutions are likely years away.
Despite the upheavals on the national political scene brought about by the election of Donald Trump, Flagstaff continued to lead a fairly sheltered life – so far. The coming year may see some of the changes in Obamacare, federal taxation, environmental regulation and immigration come home to roost locally, but 2017 was more about getting up to speed on the new politics inside the Beltway and, in some cases, resisting and organizing for the elections in 2018.
So without further ado, here are those top local and regional stories of 2017:
1. Higher Flagstaff minimum wage takes effect, but amended. Flagstaff voters approved an immediate hike to $10 an hour on July 1, 2017, or $2 more than state minimum. So when state voters raised the minimum to $10 beginning on Jan. 1, Flagstaff faced the prospect of a $12 minimum – a 50 percent jump from the old minimum of $8.05. Disability care providers said their state subsidies would never cover the higher payroll and force them to relocate to Prescott or Phoenix. So the council, rather than waiting to return the measure to the voters, removed the $2 escalator clause for five years and reset the July 1 minimum at $10.50, with another raise to $11 on Jan. 1. Several groups are looking to go back to the voters with new wage proposals in November 2018.
2. Judge denies appeal of Hub city approval. The Flagstaff Board of Adjustments voted 3-2 to uphold the staff approval of the controversial 591-bed student housing project in Southside, and a visiting judge said the ordinance, although containing conflicting language, allowed the massive project to proceed. The decision lent urgency to two city initiatives to amend the zoning laws pertaining to high-occupancy housing and the transect zoning that allowed massive commercial block buildings next to low-rise residential neighborhoods.
3. Steven Jones jury can’t reach verdict in NAU homicide trial. The 2015 shooting left one student dead and three wounded, but attorneys for the defendant argued their client was acting in self-defense. Prosecutors emphasized that Jones went to his car after he was first attacked, then returned to the fray rather than drive away, but there was enough doubt among some jurors to prevent a unanimous verdict. A new trial is scheduled for March.
4. Snowplay gridlock continues; Highway 180 parking ban set. As with the Hub verdict, last winter’s traffic jams in Fort Valley and Flagstaff set in motion an ad hoc committee led by county Supervisor Art Babbott that settled on parking enforcement in the corridor as a way to control overuse. But with no snow in the region so far this winter and the Wing Mountain tubing area closed, there’s been no opportunity to test the plan. Meanwhile, a different group has proposed a multi-year plan for hundreds of millions of dollars in road and transit improvements primarily along Milton and Lone Tree roads, and the Mountain Line system has a grant to study the role of expanded mass transit and dedicated busways in improving Flagstaff’s mobility.
5. NAU continues record growth as Southside neighbors complain of overdevelopment. The Mountain Campus is on its way to 23,000 students, with enough beds on campus for less than half of them. That has put pressure on adjacent neighborhoods, where developers are converting single-family houses into duplexes and triplexes with six or nine students and nearly as many cars. A new town-gown liaison position was filled in December after a year’s vacancy, and NAU is set to open a new Honors College dorm next September. A new downtown pay parking district will help decongest some parts of Southside.
6. Affordable housing taking two steps forward, one back. The City Council is moving forward on a plan to redevelop three parcels into up to 60 units of affordable housing. But 54 low-income households in the Arrowhead Village trailer park are facing eviction early next year, and holders of Section 8 housing vouchers report they are having trouble finding apartments priced low enough to qualify for the vouchers. Meanwhile, single-family homes are selling at prices that finally have returned to the pre-recession highs of a decade ago.
7. No Grand Canyon watershed monument from Obama as Trump signals plans to remove the moratorium on new uranium mining. Conservationists were hopeful the outgoing Obama administration would expand the development buffer zone around Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River by a million acres. But no monument designation was forthcoming, and the Trump White House is reportedly ready to rescind a 20-year moratorium on mining that was put in place pending more studies of uranium’s impact on area seeps and springs.
8. Development and overall Flagstaff economy pick up speed. Despite the closings of Granny’s Closet and the venerable Museum Club, the city saw the opening of a new downtown Marriott Hotel and two new student housing complexes in the Woodlands Village area. A new, 1,100-unit residential subdivision was approved for West Route 66 at Woody Mountain Road, and airport officials announced that American Airlines will offer two new destinations next year to Los Angeles and Dallas one day a week. SCA Tissue and its 60 high-paying jobs closed, but W.L. Gore and Associates, with some 2,000 employees in Flagstaff, celebrated 50 growing years. Biotech firm Senestech went public as it announced new pest control contracts, and NAU drew in more research contracts than ever before.
9. Violent youth crime on the rise. Two of Flagstaff’s four homicides in 2017 were committed by teens – one just 15 years old. Fernando Enriquez, 15, pleaded guilty to killing Jacob M. Allen, 20, during a drug deal in a rec center restroom and received 17 years in prison. Over at the L Motel, four teens were charged with beating to death Jaron James, 23, during a late-night party. Flagstaff’s overall serious crime rate was down 2 percent, even though car thefts and robberies were up – the latter primarily by the city’s transients victimizing each other.
10. Rural development has setbacks. In Page, the owners of the Navajo Generating Station announced they would close it in 2019, costing 500 jobs and major tax subsidies to the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Closer to Flagstaff, the 4FRI forest restoration project was reorganized by the Forest Service, but there was little progress in 2017 in the number of acres thinned. On the Navajo Reservation, the tribal council voted down a plan to develop a tourist resort at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, including a mechanized tramway down to the river’s edge.
The year in crime in brought no closure to Flagstaff’s most high-profile shooting as a jury could not reach a verdict in the murder trial of NAU shooter Steven Jones.
Coconino County Superior Court Judge Dan Slayton declared a mistrial after the jury could not come to a unanimous decision after five days of deliberation.
The hung jury kept an ending to the most high profile incident of 2015 in limbo.
Jones is charged with first-degree murder and multiple counts of aggravated assault after killing Colin Brough and injuring Nick Prato, Nick Piring and Kyle Zientek with a handgun during a fight in the Mountain View Hall dormitory parking lot in September 2015.
Coconino County Deputy Attorney Ammon Barker attempted to portray Jones as an “assassin in the night,” while Jones’ defense attorney Joshua Davidson described his client as an “innocent bystander” protecting himself from attackers.
“The defendant’s pride was hurt in the early morning hours of October 9 because he was punched one time in the face, and instead of walking away or punching back he went to his car to get his fully loaded handgun and walked 90 feet to shoot four college students, killing Colin Brough,” Barker said to the jury during opening statements.
“Mr. Barker tells a good story but this is not a case of an assassin who murdered in the dark,” countered Davidson. “This is about Mr. Jones, who a couple of weeks into his college career found himself surrounded, threatened and attacked. Jones did what he had to do to protect himself and he only had seconds to make that decision,” Davidson said in rebuttal of the prosecution.
The new year could bring about a conclusion to this shooting, as a retrial is scheduled for March 27.
A number of murders were also recorded in 2017, with none capturing the public’s eye more than the killing of Glendale kindergarten teacher Cathryn Gorospe.
Her body was found in October in Mayer, a small town midway between Dewey and Cordes Junction on state Highway 69.
The teacher was last seen alive on Oct. 6 bailing out her friend and primary suspect in her murder, Charlie Malzahn, out of jail.
Malzahn was arrested by Phoenix Police three days later while driving Gorospe’s blood-stained Toyota Rav4.
Malzahn has not been charged with her murder but was the one who led police to the teacher’s body, according to the Flagstaff Police Department.
The discovery of her body ended a nearly two-week search that spanned the woods of Coconino County to the high-desert of Yavapai County.
“All you can do is look and hope we find her,” Cathryn’s sister-in-law Freya Gorospe said one day before the teacher’s body was found. “We keep looking because we want to bring her home.”
This year also saw a high number homicides in Flagstaff, according to the Flagstaff Police Department, creating a sharp contrast from 2016, when no murders were recorded.
Flagstaff Police investigated four homicides this year, two of them involving juveniles
The year’s first murder occurred in March when Fernando Enriquez, 15, shot and killed Jacob M. Allen, 20, in the bathroom of the Hal Jensen Recreation Center in Sunnyside. The shooting occurred after Enriquez attempted to rob Allen and his friend Nicholas Tyler Woods, 19, during a drug deal for marijuana.
Enriquez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and one count of armed robbery in November and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
The year’s second homicide brought another self-defense claim after James Womble, 21, stabbed his landlord Peter Gillespie, 63, multiple times with a pair of scissors in Southside in July.
Womble said that Gillespie became violent with him over unpaid rent and threw him to the ground, dislocating Womble’s shoulder.
“Get away from me. I am going to stab you,” Womble said he yelled moments before stabbing his landlord. “I have a bad shoulder and I can’t do anything else but stab, so please get away from me.”
Rick Morris, who has been friends with Gillespie for 43 years, said that he did not believe Womble’s defense.
“I can’t see him going after this kid on a level he is talking about,” Morris said. “I could see him being vocal about the situation but not hurting someone.”
Womble was charged with second-degree murder in October and is awaiting a trial date under the supervision of pretrial services.
The year’s third homicide is the second involving juveniles.
Flagstaff residents Lawrence Sampson-Kahn, 18, Kayson Russell, 19, Mirelle Gorman, 16, and Jadya Fortune, 17, were charged with second-degree murder on Sept. 7 after allegedly beating Jaron James, 23, to death in room 119 at the L Motel on South Milton Road.
The teens allegedly beat an intoxicated James after he repeatedly touched the two underage girls inappropriately.
James was too drunk to defend himself and could only “block his face lazily,” according to the police report.
Gorman told Flagstaff Police detectives in an interview that they only attacked James because he touched them.
“He touched me, he touched me, but it doesn’t matter that he touched me,” Gorman cried, after she learned James was dead.
The teens are currently awaiting trial out of custody under the supervision of pretrial services.
Flagstaff’s final murder is still awaiting a murder charge.
Ethan Watson, 25, was stabbed to death in his car at the Killip Elementary School parking lot on Nov. 2.
The primary suspect in that case is currently in custody for an outstanding warrant but has not been charged with murder.