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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Coconino forward Brennan Motes (44) attempts to shoot the ball over a Payson defender Thursday evening at Sinagua Middle School during the Pepsi Holiday tournament.

Behind the lights: Dharmesh Vora, Chamber of Commerce gear up for annual holiday parade

There are a handful of happenings that usher in the holidays in Flagstaff: The moment the lights on the large spruce next to NAU’s Blome building become visible from Milton Avenue; Little America coated in twinkling colors; a frozen Lake Mary (depending on the year); Allen's Trees displaying their first pines for sale; and the Vora Financial Holiday Parade of Lights.

The parade -- which has been organized and carried out by the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years -- was given the name when local financial advising and wealth management company Vora Financial became its sponsor in 2008.

This Saturday marks exactly a decade under the Vora moniker, begging a glimpse of the man whose name is behind the lights. 

Dharmesh Vora has called Flagstaff home for nearly 30 years. Before that it was Kingman, where he spent his teenage years learning the ins and outs of his parents' business, the Star Motel. Before that it was northern California, and before that Bombay, India. 

"We migrated to California in 1983, when I was 13," Vora said.

Vora's parents both worked as manufacturing pharmacists before moving to the U.S. and becoming hotel managers in northern California. 

Vora studied at NAU, worked for a Fortune 500 life insurance company, became a financial adviser and then opened Vora Financial in 2003. Though the company has existed since 1991, Vora said it didn't officially become its own LLC until 2003; five years later it would move into the Birch Avenue office where it remains today. His tenure in finance just hit 28 years, he said. 

“Shortly after the market correction was when we moved the business to Birch Avenue,” Vora said.

Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

A decorated U.S. Park Ranger truck drives through downtown Flagstaff Saturday evening during the 2017 Holiday Light Parade.

As most businesses faced severe upheaval in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Vora was in the process of growing. 

"Everybody was closing their doors and downsizing and we actually expanded during that time," he said. "We felt that the community needed the support, people needed help, you know? Our practice works to preserve and protect their wealth and there were strategies that we used to help people during that time."

Two of the larger market crashes in the last 30 years proved to be defining both in Vora's life and his career. It was the effects of the 1987 "Black Monday" crash that led his mother to close her businesses in the early '90s: a motel in Ash Fork, one in Tucson and the Star Motel in Kingman.  

"In fact, what made me get into this industry was this [market] correction in in 1987. Because of that crash, a lot of people lost a lot of their assets in real estate," Vora said. "I felt what better way to help people protect what they have and help them make financial decisions."

Nowadays, estate planning, fiduciary wealth management, financial advice, parade sponsorship -- all are boxes that Vora Financial checks off. 

Though the company won't have a float in this year's parade, its employees can be found atop of a Flagstaff Fire Department fire truck, waving along with Santa.

According to Julie Pastrick, President & CEO of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, crowds can expect to see a total of 57 floats this year. 

"Plus last year we had about 15,000 spectators, and this year we're expecting a similar amount," Pastrick said. The Chamber opens its application for parade entries in September and starts receiving inquiries as early as summer. 

In addition to all its behind-the-scenes work, as Pastrick calls it, the Chamber is responsible for organizing parade volunteers, of which there will be over 50 this year. 

Despite his name being attached to the parade, Vora is quick to point out that he is one of many pieces of the puzzle.

“My hats off to the Chamber because they and their staff work really hard in putting it together and efficiently, too. It's a massive undertaking," he said. "I really appreciate that the businesses put the time and effort in. I can sponsor whatever, but if you don’t have participation from the community, it would be a one-man show and that's just no good."

The temperatures at the 2018 iteration of the parade will be colder compared to last year's. But Pastrick hopes that won't deter the crowds.

“It’s so great every year to see all the kids come out and the community come together,” Vora said. "Just thinking about it I’m getting all happy." 

The Vora Holiday Parade of Lights takes place from 6-8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8 in historic downtown Flagstaff. The parade route begins on Sullivan Avenue, makes its way down Beaver Street, wraps across Aspen Avenue and then goes north on San Francisco Street. Streets downtown will close at 2 p.m. on Saturday. 

Man accused of strangling girlfriend on public bus set to plead guilty

Zerrick Joyce, 33, who prosecutors allege dragged his pregnant girlfriend off a public bus by her hair and strangled her into unconsciousness, set plans on Monday to plead guilty before Coconino County Superior Court Judge Dan Slayton in January.

The accused’s girlfriend of two years, with whom he has two children, will not be named to protect the identity of the victim.

Joyce was originally hit with a slew of charges including kidnapping, resisting arrest, three aggravated assault charges, five aggravated domestic violence charges and six attempted first-degree murder charges.

Many are listed as domestic violence charges and could result in more than 245 years if convicted on all charges.

The six attempted first-degree murder charges stem from Joyce’s accused assaults that endangered the life of his girlfriend and the life of his then-unborn child.

According to the Arizona Revised Statutes, any first-degree murder charge can apply to “an unborn child in the womb at any stage of its development.” The only exceptions for prosecution include if the child died or the mother was being medically treated, if the person responsible was the child’s mother or in the case of a consenting abortion.

The multiple strangulations happened in July 2017, according to court filings. His girlfriend alleged to investigators that Joyce forced her to walk with him to Calvary Cemetery near Northern Arizona University campus to talk.

While there, the girlfriend alleged that she and Joyce got into an argument, which escalated when he began to strangle his girlfriend on a park bench in the cemetery. The girlfriend alleged to police that the accused only stopped once she put her hands into his mouth to try to stop him.

The victim had bite marks on her fingers that prosecutors say are consistent with her allegations.

Prosecutors then allege that Joyce walked his girlfriend to a bus, where she was “relieved to get on the bus and [be] around other people.”

The bus driver was alerted to the couple’s presence when another altercation between the two erupted. According to a memorandum filed by prosecutors, the driver called the police after Joyce dragged his girlfriend off the bus by her hair, threw her to the ground and strangled her outside the bus.

The girlfriend screamed “help me, help me,” according to prosecutors.

The victim was able to get back on the bus after being pulled off, but Joyce followed her and began strangling her on the floor next to the bus driver for the third time that day. Joyce strangled her “until she lost consciousness and continued to strangle [the victim] even when she was no longer conscious.”

Video from the bus was entered as evidence, which prosecutors allege shows a man pull Joyce off of his girlfriend and remove him from the bus. The bus driver then closes the door between Joyce and his girlfriend, locking the accused out of the bus.

Joyce then fled the area.

The victim eventually woke where she began crying and saying she thought she had died, according to prosecutors. Officers who responded noted the bruises on the victim’s neck and other symptoms consistent with being strangled.

A Northern Arizona University Police Department officer eventually spotted Joyce near an on-campus dormitory, McKay Village. Joyce did not stop fleeing until an officer pointed his Taser at him and commanded him to stop.

The change of plea hearing for Joyce is set for Jan. 14, 2019. The Coconino County Attorney’s Office and Joyce's public defender Charles Doughty did not respond for comment.

Thousands salute Bush funeral train 4141 on final Texas ride

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Thousands waved and cheered along the route as funeral train No. 4141 — for the 41st president — carried George H.W. Bush's remains to their final resting place on Thursday, his last journey as a week of national remembrance took on a decidedly personal feel in an emotional home state farewell.

The former president was buried Thursday during the private, graveside service for Bush's family members at the family plot on the grounds of Bush's presidential library at Texas A&M University, according to the university. Thursday evening's ceremony concludes days of funeral activities honoring Bush.

During the train journey, some people laid coins along the tracks that wound through small town Texas so a 420,000-pound locomotive pulling the nation's first funeral train in nearly half a century could crunch them into souvenirs. Others snapped pictures or crowded for views so close that police helicopters overhead had to warn them back. Elementary students hoisted a banner simply reading "THANK YOU."

The scenes reminiscent of a bygone era followed a serious and more somber tone at an earlier funeral service at a Houston church, where Bush's former secretary of state and confidant for decades, James Baker, addressed him as "jefe," Spanish for "boss." At times choking back tears, Baker praised Bush as "a beautiful human being" who had "the courage of a warrior. But when the time came for prudence, he maintained the greater courage of a peacemaker."

Baker also provided a contrast with today's divisive political rhetoric, saying that Bush's "wish for a kinder, gentler nation was not a cynical political slogan. It came honest and unguarded from his soul."

"The world became a better place because George Bush occupied the White House for four years," said Baker.

As the post-funeral motorcade carrying Bush's remains later sped down a closed highway from the church to the train station, construction workers on all levels of an unfinished building paused to watch. A man sitting on a ferris wheel near the aquarium waved.

Bush's body was later loaded onto a special train fitted with clear sides so people could catch a glimpse of the casket as it rumbled by. The train traveled about 70 miles in two-plus hours — the first presidential funeral train journey since Dwight D. Eisenhower's remains went from Washington to his native Kansas 49 years ago — to the family plot on the grounds of Bush's presidential library at Texas A&M University. Bush's final resting place is alongside his wife, Barbara, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia at age 3.

In the town of Cypress, 55-year-old Doug Allen left eight coins on the tracks before the train passed — three quarters, three dimes and two pennies. The train left the coins flattened and slightly discolored.

"It's something we'll always keep," Allen said. 

Andy Gordon, 38, took his 6-year-old daughter, Addison, out of school so she and her 3-year-old sister, Ashtyn, could see the train pass in Pinehurst, Texas.

"Hopefully, my children will remember the significance and the meaning of today," Gordon said. Addison was carrying two small American flags in her hand.

The train arrived in College Station in the late afternoon with a military band playing "Hail to the Chief" and Texas A&M's "Aggie War Hymn."

About 2,100 cadets in their tan dress uniforms with jackets and ties and knee-high boots waited for hours on a cold, gray day to line the road — known as Barbara Bush Drive — to the Bush library's front doors. The U.S. Navy conducted a 21 strike fighter flyover, a salute to the World War II Navy pilot, followed by a 21-gun cannon salute on the ground. 

At the earlier service at Houston's St. Martin's Episcopal Church, where Bush and his family regularly worshipped, the choir sang "This is My Country," which was also sung at Bush's presidential inauguration in 1989. Those gathered heard a prayer stressing the importance of service and selflessness that the president himself offered for the country at the start of his term.

There were rousing renditions of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Onward Christian Soldiers," and also performances from some of Bush's country favorites. The Oak Ridge Boys recalled playing for him for decades — sometimes at the White House — and joked that Bush "fancied himself to be a good bass singer. He was not." They then sang "Amazing Grace," and Reba McEntire offered a musical version of "The Lord's Prayer."

The church's pastor, Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr., recalled the Bushes often attending services and offering to give up their seats to others on days when the church was particularly crowded.

"He was ready for heaven and heaven was ready for him," Levenson said of Bush who was in declining in health in recent years. The minister also suggested that when the former president died, he met his wife of 73 years in heaven and Barbara Bush playfully demanded, "What took you so long?"

Indeed, the funeral occurred at the same church where services were held in April for Barbara Bush. Those are remembered for an emotional scene when the former president gazed from his wheelchair up at her casket, then shook hands with well-wishers.

Fee increases to help extend landfill lifespan to 2050

As Flagstaff City Council moves forward with fee increases for trash pickup, it begs the question of what that money will produce.

The answer: over $30 million of mostly infrastructure projects to ensure operations can continue into the 2050s, which is currently when use of the site is projected to end, said Todd Hanson, director of the solid waste section for the city. 

At the top of that list is replacing the city’s aging fleet. When it comes to the life span of trash collection trucks, most are expected to operate for about 10 years. Hanson said the majority of their fleet has reached or exceeded that life span.

These older vehicles break down more often, which can make it hard to make sure they are completing all their routes.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Piles of metal sit in a separate area of the Cinder Lake landfill Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ve got some stuff that is older than it should be and it’s a little scary because when you lose a quarter of your fleet, now we're not providing the service that we should,” Hanson said. “Really, solid waste is a health and safety issue. You can’t have putrescible waste, your garbage sitting on the curb in the middle of the summer not getting picked up.”

On top of that, it is often more expensive to repair such vehicles. A few vehicles are old enough that the companies that built them either no longer make replacement parts for them or no longer exist, Hanson said. This means if a part breaks, they need to have a machinist create a new part for them, which can be extremely expensive.

It’s not just the fleet that needs replacement -- the road the trucks drive on also needs work. The road into the landfill was built the same time the landfill was, and Hanson said it is no longer able to support their operations.

Specifically, the road has two sharp, 90-degree turns that are difficult to navigate in the large trash collection vehicles they use now. While the road was probably fine for the trucks they used when it was built in the '60s, Hanson said, their drivers are rarely able to make the turn while staying in just their own lane, creating a substantial safety hazard.

Jake Bacon, Ariozna Daily Sun 

Appliances wait to have their coolant removed before being recycled Tuesday afternoon at the Cinder Lake landfill.

Plans to replace the road are already in the works and the department has begun working with the Coconino National Forest on the necessary archeological studies of the area.

They also need to prepare for the next stage of operations at the landfill. At the moment, Hanson said, they believe they only have about five to seven more years of using their current landfill cell before they will have to more to another one.

“That’s why we have to start moving on some of this stuff,” he said.

And, because regulations have changed, it will be far more expensive to construct the new cell compared to previous ones.

While the current landfill cell they are using was grandfathered in and thus doesn’t have to comply with current regulations, the new cell will need infrastructure like an impervious liner and a gas system.

The liner prevents gases that are created in the chemical reactions that occur when garbage breaks down from simply escaping through the ground. With a liner in place, they will also need a gas extraction system to draw the gas that is created out of the landfill, where it is then flared, reducing its impact on the environment.

The 7.5 percent increase the council is going with would also allow them to put a gas capture system on the current cell, which is not required by regulations.

It would, however, bring the cell in line with the recently passed climate change plan and substantially reduce the impact of the landfill on the environment, said Dylan Lenzen, waste specialist for the city sustainability section.