By Linda Kor
For the past 55 years, the Navajo County Sheriff’s Hashknife Posse has made the annual trek from Holbrook to Scottsdale to deliver the mail via Pony Express and plans to make the trip again in just a few weeks. Each year the posse is commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to transport the mail on horseback in a 200-mile journey culminating in the Parada del Sol Parade in Scottsdale.
Although the tradition remains in place, this year one aspect of it has changed. Since its inception, the posse has been an entity associated with the NCSO as a search and rescue posse, but this year that status changed.
According to Sheriff KC Clark, the Hashknife Posse is on suspension as a search and rescue team with his department because members of the posse failed to complete the required 16-hour training in order to maintain their certification.
“About this time last year I spoke with members of the posse and they assured me that they would take part in the necessary training. We had a statewide training in Heber last April, and another with White Mountain Search and Rescue after that, and no one from that organization showed up for either of them,” stated Clark.
As a result, the sheriff says that he’s bound by statute and cannot utilize the posse for search and rescue.
“These are people’s lives we’re talking about. I can’t risk the life of a citizen in this county due to lack of training,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has three other posses in the county, the Heber-Overgaard Search and Rescue, the County Mounties and the White Mountain Sheriff’s Posse. According to Clark, these three entities train regularly and as a result, receive support from the sheriff’s office.
“I’ve provided these groups with Hummers, radios and other supplies to help them do the job. These folks are a vital part of our county, and volunteer their time and energy to the residents of Navajo County,” said Clark. “As long as I’ve been sheriff, I don’t recall the Hashknife Posse participating in any training. When we had a search this last year for a Joseph City man, I had to call in the Heber search and rescue team.”
Hashknife Posse Captain Mark Reynolds said that he was unaware that the training had been made available.
“We’ll have to get with KC (Clark) on the training,” he stated.
When told that the sheriff said the posse was notified of two opportunities for training this past year, Reynolds response was, “That’s news to me.”
Emails obtained by The Tribune-News show that correspondence did, in fact, take place between Reynolds and the sheriff’s office between Feb. 7 and 12 regarding the April training. In a reply to notification of the training, Reynolds asked how many members he could bring because he wanted the officers to attend. The response was that he could bring as many as he wanted, but that a head count would be needed. There was no further response from Reynolds on the matter.
In correspondence with Arizona State Search and Rescue Coordinator James Langston dated May 19 and 20 of last year, Reynolds requested a current roster of Hashknife Posse members that the state has on file for certified search and rescue.
“We have some older members who are coming back and they would like to know if they have to retrain or is their certifications okay. Their training is over ten (10) years or better,” wrote Reynolds.
In response, Langston noted that the state does not keep those records, but that there are certain basic requirements. “I would think however that if they have not been thru (sic) some kind of training in 10 years, it would only be wise to go thru the new Basic Academy,” wrote Langston.
According to Clark, the lack of training isn’t the only reason that the sheriff’s office would like to distance itself from the Posse.
A Sun Valley woman has filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Hashknife Posse, claiming that in 2011 she inquired about joining the posse and was informed that women were not allowed as part of that organization.
When asked for comment on the accusation, Reynolds responded that he was unaware of the status of that complaint and did not want to comment on it until he had more information.
According to the bylaws for the Hashknife Posse, the requirements to become a member of the organization are to be over the age of 21 and have no felony convictions. The maximum number of members allowed for the posse is 40 and the current membership stands at 24. In its entire history, the Hashknife Posse has not had any female riders although in earlier years of the posse, the wives of the riders organized the Hashknife Jills to support the riders through fundraisers, but that organization hasn’t been active for many years.
Without the affiliation with the sheriff’s office, the posse now has an issue of support services for the upcoming Pony Express ride, which begins Jan. 29. In past years, the sheriff’s office has provided an escort for the posse as they travel the narrow and sometime winding highways between Holbrook and Scottsdale, but that will not be the case this year. Once again citing concerns of liability, Clark said feels it’s something his office can no longer support.
“If the members of this posse follow through with the proper training and change the way some things are done, I’m in full support of that. But I made promises to the people of Navajo County when I came into office that I was going to improve services and that’s what I’m doing,” explained Clark, who added that the sheriff’s office could not condone the “good ol’ boy” attitudes of the past.
“I think this is a great tradition, but they have to get current with the 21st century and realize that these are different times, and they need to represent the new Holbrook,” said the sheriff.
Whether an escort will be provided a portion of the way by the Holbrook Police Department has yet to be determined. According to Police Chief Mark Jackson, the matter will be going before the city council at their meeting on Jan. 14.
“If the council says it OK, then it’ll likely be me, one officer and a volunteer with city vehicles escorting them no further than Payson,” stated Jackson, who added that the cost would be fuel, use of city vehicles and overtime for one officer, since he won’t be asking for overtime for himself.
When asked if there was a concern of liability for the city since it was a private organization, he said that was something for the council to determine.
“I’ve been told that the posse have their own insurance policy. The bigger concern to me is the safety and well being of our citizens. That is a treacherous stretch between here and Payson, especially after Heber. The Hashknife is a part of Holbrook and our history; if we can help ensure the safety of the riders, then I’m all for it, but it’s not for me to decide,” he said.
Although suspended from participating in search and rescue, the Hashknife Posse remains an integral part of Holbrook’s Old West tradition. As participants in the annual Pony Express ride, these men represent the City of Holbrook as they travel through the state.
“It may be time for some new leadership in that organization. The posse’s reputation has become more one of beer drinking and too much attention for too little. The sheriff’s office will be more than happy to assist the posse in getting their training and support them in their operation once some changes are made,” stated the Sheriff. “We look forward to them getting trained, we need them in this part of the county.”
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By Linda Kor