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After admitting fraud, former Flagstaff mayoral candidate Varela indicted by grand jury

A former Flagstaff mayoral candidate was indicted by a grand jury on 12 total counts, Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced Friday.

Earlier this month, Victor Varela admitted to the Arizona Daily Sun that he had submitting fraudulent signatures to the City of Flagstaff in order to get his name on the ballot in the Flagstaff mayor’s race.

The indictment includes four felony charges and eight misdemeanors.

Varela was charged with one count of fraudulent schemes and practices, with the indictment alleging he knowingly submitted false signatures that he represented as those of supportive Flagstaff voters. Varela was also charged with three counts of presentment of false instrument for filing and eight counts of signing of petitions violation.

The indictment alleges that Varela, in several instances, knowingly verified signature paperwork despite knowing the signatures were fraudulent.

It also alleges Varela signed paperwork saying “that each of the names on the petition was signed in my presence on the date indicated” and that “each signer was a qualified elector who resides at the address given as their residence on the date indicated” when that was not the case.

Ryan Anderson, a spokesperson with the attorney general’s office, said the office doesn’t know exactly how many of the signatures are in fact fraudulent. But Anderson said for the purposes of charging Verela, the attorney general’s office doesn’t need to prove every allegedly fraudulent signature is indeed fraudulent.

Anderson pointed to several subjects listed within the indictment who have verified that they did provide willingly their signature to Varela.

Varela could not be reached for comment before press time Friday, but he has previously told the Arizona Daily Sun that he had spoken to investigators and admitted wrongdoing.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson is prosecuting the case in the Coconino Superior Court, according to a release.

Varela dropped out of the mayoral race on July 9 after he admitted to reporters he had faked voter signatures. Despite that he dropped out of the race, Varela’s name still appears on the August ballot. The city announced that because Varela had withdrawn from the race, any votes he received would not be counted.

“I do not deny that those are fraudulent signatures, do not deny it,” Varela said at the time. “I got names from Facebook. I got addresses from a phone book. I made up addresses.”

Varela submitted more than 1,000 signatures to the city for his mayoral candidacy. According to analysis by the Arizona Daily Sun, more than 700 of the addresses on his petition were not registered with the city’s address mapping system that shows registered addresses in the city. Only a handful of addresses that exist in the city are not registered to that system.

Varela had been under investigation by the attorney general’s office since at least April, when he had denied any wrongdoing.

Clyde Ellis plays his fiddle in his parents' back garden Sunday evening during a socially distant Irish music session. The group usually meets Sunday evenings to play in a local bar but opted for the garden because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Snyder wears a mask as he follows the lead of Clyde Ellis playing his fiddle in Ellis’s parents' back garden Sunday evening during a socially distant Irish music session.

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Museum Fire scar monsoon rain flow tests county preparations

The monsoon rains that hit the Museum Fire scar Friday a week ago were pretty average for Flagstaff.

Given the dry summers Flagstaff has had since the Museum Fire burned last year, however, it also was some of the most significant rainfall the location has had since the fire was declared contained in August 2019. Rain gauges measured anywhere from a half an inch to slightly less than an inch hit the fire scar in the Dry Lake Hills above Flagstaff.

Weather watchers may remember the rain that fell during the fire, causing subsequent flooding beneath the Museum Fire scar for residents in Paradise Way. Last week's thunderstorm was different because the rain hit more of the fire scar than the previous one, and fell across the majority of the Spruce Avenue mountainside. The average rain caused an abnormal water flow for the area beneath the scar, creating water flow that crossed streets, flowed through ditches and made its way to Cedar Avenue.

County officials shared a video of the flow and sent out an alert to people living in Mount Elden Estates to shelter in place as the water was coming down.

“I’m pretty comfortable saying this is by far the most intense rainfall event since the fire. Rain also fell across a pretty significant amount of the watershed, which is unique compared to the event last year,” Coconino County engineer Christopher Tressler said.

Tressler was thankful the county didn’t see any failures of the flood protections that were set up for a much more severe storm, including public flood warnings, stabilizing natural landscapes and jersey barriers.

He added that when considering whether to send out a flood warning, authorities must consider both how fast the rain is falling and the duration it's falling. Additionally, county officials believe this flow was more significant because rain had wet the ground the day before.

Lucinda Andreani, director of county public works, said the Coconino County is seeing a similar pattern on this fire scar that they saw as a response to the Schultz Fire, where flows would increase velocity over time due to the continued erosion.

“As we saw in Schultz, as we went through the monsoon season, less amount of rain would have more of an impact,” Andreani said.

That being said, county officials were happy because while the flows contained soot and sediment picked up from the fire scars, it lacked a large amount of debris such as larger rocks present upstream.

Paradise Way saw significant flooding in 2019 during rains that fell before the Museum Fire was contained. The same area was now fortified with jersey barriers to direct the flow away from the homes.

“Without jersey barriers that would have been a different story for a handful of homes in that area,” Tressler said.

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Helping the Mars rover gets its bearings

Mapping Mars, once terra incognita to scientists and researchers, no longer remains such a mystery. Not only has the Red Planet been charted down to its minutest details — the size of outcroppings, the thickness of dust, the looseness of rocks — but this precision will allow the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, to explore rugged areas previously deemed off limits.

Such advances have been made possible by precise and intricate mapping technology developed by United States Geological Survey scientists in Flagstaff and implemented onboard Perseverance, which launched on its Mars 2020 mission on Thursday and is expected to touch down on Feb. 18, 2021.

It’s that landing that’s the tricky part. And ensuring that the rover will land on terra firma inside Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide former river delta believed to once have had the possibility of hosting organic matter, has been the two-year mission of USGS research geophysicist Robin Fergason and her cohort.

From a cartographic perspective, this may have been the biggest challenge to date for Fergason and colleagues, who previously helped map other planetary bodies. Their high-resolution mapping of the terrain, every dip and jutting, will combine with real-time images taken by the rover as it descends to guide the craft to a safe, smooth site.

They, obviously, will not find out until next February’s touchdown whether their precise calculations yielded success, But Fergason, who has been mapping sites for NASA since 2003, knows this much:

“I don’t think anyone can make a better map than what we did. We spent two full years making sure this map was using the best methods we knew, combining all the tools into one processing pipeline -- which is harder than it sounds. This map has undergone rigorous evaluations by independent boards at NASA as well. Of course, space exploration is not easy; there's always uncertainty.”

The result of their work is a new system called Terrain Relative Navigation, which, as its name implies, uses onboard maps aligned and overlaid with real-time images taken on the descent to guide the rover away from hazards such as outcroppings and declivities. Once landed, TRN can also plot a safe route for Perseverance as it roams the landscape.

Before the new system's development, Fergason said, it would not have been feasible for a rover to land in such a potentially geologically fraught area as Jezero Crater.

“In order for it to land safely,” Fergason said, “the features inside the map had to accurately represent where they are on the surface relative to one another. We had to develop new methods and techniques because the old ones weren’t quite good enough. These are software packages to generate digital terrain models, the same technology to make topographic maps on earth, like on one of those USGS topographic maps that tell you how much relief I’m going to get on the hike.”

Here’s how it works: The base or “truth” map that the USGS designed will be aligned with a second mapping of real-time images taken to make sure the craft will avoid troubled spots (“red pixels”) and steer toward safe ground (“green pixels”).

“That’s the goal, to identify where on the truth map we are going,” Fergason said. “It’ll take images on its descent five times. Identify first time, then validate it, each step as it gets closer (to landing), to ensure with high accuracy that it really does truly know where on the map it’ll be going.”

Once the craft has charted its path, the “truth” map will be aligned with what Fergason called a “hazard map,” this one designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that can tell within a meter whether its headed for a troubled spot.

“If it determines it’s not a safe pixel,” she said, “it’s going to locate the nearest safe pixel (on the overlay map), fire its retro rockets and go to that safe location.”

Other rover missions have safely landed on and navigated Mars, but NASA is upping its degree of difficulty this time around by attempting to explore a rough and rugged crater that scientists believe may once have hosted life.

It’s not enough anymore for scientists to poke around the easily navigable areas of the Red Planet; now, they want to dig deeper in areas that in ancient times were believed to host lakes and river deltas — areas presumably once teeming with life and now perhaps harboring its remnants.

“It’s like, if you’re hiking on earth, you want to go to these places where you see these beautiful vistas and interesting geologic features,” Fergason said, “but those are most often the most hazardous places as well. There’s a conflict we try to balance. Where can we answer the most interesting questions scientifically but still be safe?

“Some people might ask, ‘Why are we going to Mars again? We’ve already done this, right?’ But because we now can go to a site we haven’t had the technology to go to before, that might help us address these questions in a more complete way than we have before. And these maps we’ve produced are absolutely essential to be able to land safely on Mars.”

In this 2015 photo, Tommy Rivers Puzey leaps down Agassiz Ski Slope. 

Video provides glimpse of man waving firearm during protest in Flagstaff

A video spread through the internet on Thursday that protesters say sheds new light on a confrontation at a protest last Saturday that ended with three people arrested in Flagstaff.

The Flagstaff Police Department arrested three people downtown after one man drove his vehicle in front of a march of 75 to 100 protesters and “flipped off” the demonstrators, according to police. As the protesters continued to walk, the man exited his vehicle to engage the protesters. Police said the man brought out a gun, but arrested him for driving while intoxicated, and the other two protesters were arrested for property crimes.

A Flagstaff police aide could be seen in the newly released video trying to deescalate the situation between 51-year-old Jimmy Kleinhenz, who was the driver of the SUV, and the crowd of protesters. Flagstaff police aides are not sworn officers, do not carry firearms, do not have the power to arrest and cannot initiate sworn criminal enforcement duties, according to city documents.

Levi Stallings said he recorded and uploaded the video of the incident to YouTube to allow people to see the evidence as opposed to presenting it straight to police. He felt the charges the protesters received were more harsh compared to the charges against Kleinhenz, who Stalling said parked his car in the intersection and waived his gun at a crowd of people.

Kleinhenz was arrested for driving under the influence and having a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, but was not booked into the Coconino County jail. Meanwhile, Taymond Tolthe, 24, was arrested for burglary, criminal damage, obstructing a public thoroughfare, refusing to provide a truthful name and disorderly conduct. Tolthe was also charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.

The minor was charged with felony criminal damage.

“I don’t know about the juvenile, but we do know that Tolthe was booked into jail for being a non-violent protester. He did not put anyone’s life or safety at risk,” Stallings said. “We have Kleinhenz, who, not to say it again and again, was drunkenly waving a gun around in an intersection and was not put in jail. That seems clearly unfair.”

Police said Wednesday they were unable to determine how Kleinhenz had used his weapon at the protest, citing a lack of evidence and public cooperation. Now investigators are trying to track down the unedited video to include the video footage in their investigation, according to Charles Hernandez, spokesman for the Flagstaff Police Department.

"That’s why we put out a call for action in the media release, for those who were witnesses with additional info to provide. We‘d like that brought to us to include in the investigation and to put forth a complete investigation," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said because the video is edited with a silhouette at the end, investigators would like to view the full unedited video before taking any more steps in the investigation.

"We would like to look at the original video, that way we can look at it and the totality of circumstances to determine if there is criminal activity or anything criminal that needs to be address through investigators or prosecutors," Hernandez said. "Looking at the video, I can’t say. I could say I see him holding the gun, but what is he doing when it’s slowed down and focused on? You can’t see what’s around or in front of him because the black zooms in around the picture he has."

Kleinhenz organized a protest for Blue Lives Matter in support of police funding in June on the Flagstaff City Hall lawn. On the same day, protesters in support of defunding police were on the lawn to raise awareness about the city council's budget discussions.

The video

Stallings' edited video footage is believed to show Kleinhenz at two different moments throughout the day on Saturday: first when he stopped his vehicle in front of protesters who were walking down South San Francisco Street at the East Route 66 intersection.

Resident Morgan Mo who saw the video said he was driving down to join the protest and said he almost struck Kleinhenz as he exited his vehicle in a roadway.

At the time, Kleinhenz appears to ask protesters if they have a firearm. While the protesters cannot be heard, Kleinhenz can.

“So do we, brother,” Kleinhenz said.

The video then cuts to Kleinhenz stopping his car in front of protesters.

The video shows two people approach Kleinhenz in his car after he is blocking marching protesters and making the obscene gesture. Kleinhenz begins to exit the vehicle when the video cuts to him yelling at protesters. A Flagstaff police aide is then seen separating Kleinhenz from the crowd. At this point, eggs and a water bottle can be seen hitting the driver’s windshield.

Kleinhenz then returns to his car, turns to the crowd and can be seen for a short moment holding a firearm that he appears to wave in the direction of the protesters.

Protesters yell at the police aide, who wasn't looking at the driver, to get the aide to pay attention to the gun.

“He’s got a [expletive] gun,” one masked protester yells. “He’s got a [expletive] gun.”

The police aide moves to Kleinhenz, talks him down, and gets between the driver and protesters to deescalate the situation. It appears that Kleinhenz eventually puts the firearm away.

The video then cuts to Kleinhenz continuing an argument with another protester before ending.

Kleinhenz did not respond to an attempt to comment Friday afternoon.