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A sizzlin' showdown: School culinary programs put skill and creativity to the test

SIERRA VISTA — Four high school culinary programs put their cooking skills and creativity to the test for Saturday’s inaugural Cochise County School Superintendent’s Culinary Challenge.

“We’re putting a twist on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” county superintendent Jacqui Clay said to the crowd gathered in The Mall at Sierra Vista’s food court. “... A healthy twist.”

Teams from Buena, Tombstone, St. David and Douglas high schools were tasked with creating a holiday-themed food which they sold to the public for the chance to be the People’s Choice winner. Event organizer Ben Reyna, Cochise County School Superintendent’s Office outreach coordinator, said the programs kept all the money they earned in sales to help them buy supplies and things they need since they don’t receive a lot of school funding.

Sheriff Mark Dannels, Indochine restaurant owner Tony Pham, County Supervisor Tom Borer and owner of the Blueberry Cafe in Douglas Alexandra Bo served as judges for competition. They were joined by the Grinch, who was the harshest critic.

The judges selected Tombstone’s Cauliflower “Mac” and Cheese as the judges’ winner. St. David finished second, followed by Douglas and Buena.

“Their creativity and the mix of textures (is what set Tombstone apart),” Bo said. “It was crunchy and creamy and hot and very creative.”

Pham agreed with his fellow judge but added that for him, their presentation is what set them apart.

“They had one step up,” he said. “You could see they really cared and put their heart on the plate.”

Juniors Maria Saavedra and Celeste Lineberry created the recipe Tombstone entered. Wendy West, the culinary teacher at Tombstone, had her level 3 and level 4 students compete against each other and decide wich recipes would go to the final round. A panel of teachers selected the cauliflower “macaroni” and cheese dish from the dishes in the final round.

Saavedra said the inspiration for their recipe came from Pinterest and they didn’t think theirs would be chosen since many of their friends were turned off by the idea of trading macaroni for cauliflower.

More than 100 people spent the late morning and early afternoon sampling each of the schools’ creations. Buena’s team made Thanksgiving fresh spring rolls with rice paper, lettuce, roasted green beans, carrots, roasted turkey and rice noodles. They served their spring rolls with a cranberry chilli dipping sauce.

“We are making leftover Thanksgiving spring rolls with cranberry dipping sauce,” Sarah Avalos, who heads the culinary program at Buena High School told the Herald/Review in an interview ahead of Saturday’s challenge. “Of course, the theme is ‘A Twist on Holiday Tradition’ and Thanksgiving is around the corner, so we thought, ‘Hmmm, what can we do with Thanksgiving?’”

Buena’s dish won over the fans as they took first place in the People’s Choice award with 113 votes. Sheila Holland, a Sierra Vista resident and attendee of Saturday’s competition, said she was impressed with Buena’s dish and the desserts she had from Douglas High School’s booth.

“It’s tied. I love them all,” she said. “I’m excited for the students. They worked so hard.”

Douglas High School elected to make healthy treats for those with a sweet tooth. Maggie Schmidt, the Bulldogs’ culinary teacher, said they decided to use super foods, like beats and date, to provide a healthy alternative for desserts like fudge, energy bars and cookies. Although her students couldn’t join her for the challenge she said they made and packaged the goodies in school and she was happy to be a part of the event.

“I like the camaraderie it’s building between (Cochise) College and the local high school,” Schmidt said.

The Hungry Tiger, from St. David, decided to have a much larger menu. They prepared a turkey dinner salad, pasta salad, turkey and ham sliders as well as a pumpkin bar. Their food took the first 10s of the afternoon but one 9 separated them from Tombstone’s perfect score in the judges vote. They took second in both the judge’s awards and the people’s choice.

While the food varied, the opinions about the event from the judges, public and competitors were all the same. Everyone enjoyed being able to be out in to community and showing off their skills.

“It was an honor to be here,” Bo said. “I like that it was out in the community because the community needs to know all the talent we have.”

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Former jail chaplain Packer pleads guilty to kidnapping, sex crimes

BISBEE — A former Cochise County Jail chaplain accused of sexually assaulting six female inmates pled guilty Thursday to several sex crimes and kidnapping charges, offenses that will send him to prison for 15 years, attorneys said.

Douglas Packer had initially entered a not guilty plea when accusations against him by two female inmates surfaced in January. Those claims were echoed by an additional four women who also had been jail inmates, authorities said.

Packer entered his guilty plea before Cochise County Superior Judge Timothy Dickerson. Defense attorney Jake Amaru said Packer wanted to spare his victims further anguish.

“I think Mr. Packer wanted to diminish the impact the case would have on his victims and their families,” Amaru said.

Lori Zucco, the chief criminal deputy county attorney, said Friday the 64-year-old Packer pled guilty to kidnapping with intent to commit sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and four counts of sexual misconduct with each of the six victims.

“He admitted an aggravating factor that he caused emotional harm to each of the victims,” Zucco said. “The victims were consulted about the plea and each supported it.”

Packer faces 15 years in prison, as well as lifetime probation and lifetime sex offender registration, Zucco said. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13.

Amaru had initially filed motions asking that his client be tried outside of Cochise County and by another prosecutor’s office. He said that because Packer had been a Cochise County employee, he did not think his client could have an impartial jury or an impartial prosecutor, since Packer had worked for Cochise County.

At the time, Cochise County Superior Judge Laura Cardinal said that the county attorney’s office did not have a direct relationship with Packer.

Packer was a ministry volunteer at the county jail in Bisbee from 2008 until his hiring as detention center chaplain in 2012. He was recognized as Chaplain of the Year by the Arizona Detention Association in 2015.

The accolades ended on Jan. 5 when he was relieved of duty following allegations by two female inmates. Detention officer Lt. Christy Heisner notified superiors of the allegations after talking to the inmates on Jan. 4. Cochise County Sheriff’s detectives Todd Borquez and Jesus Davidson investigated and arrested Packer the next day.

On Jan. 14, Packer pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by two of the women. Bail was set at $250,000, but then increased to $550,000 when four other inmates came forward with allegations.

The accusations were made by six female inmates whose names have not been released. The allegations against Packer date back to 2014.