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Former BP agent pleads guilty to sex crimes against minors, faces up to 40 years in prison

SIERRA VISTA — A former U.S. Border Patrol agent who attempted escape from police by locking himself up in a church and whose crimes against children were described as “horrific” by a prosecutor pleaded guilty on Thursday to four counts of sexual abuse, which included luring a child to have sex with one of his adult friends.

Dana Ray Thornhill sat in Cochise County Superior Court, his head hung low, as his two victims sat just a few feet away after the guilty plea.

The 49-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of luring a minor for sexual conduct. The acts against the victims, who are both now adults, began when the children were at least 8 years old, court documents state.

After Cochise County Superior Judge Terry Bannon accepted Thornhill’s plea agreement, she told him he would serve prison time for the first two counts and probation for the last two. Thornhill will also register as a sex offender for life, Bannon said.

The judge informed Thornhill that the prison sentence would be served “day per day.”

That means Thornhill could face up to 40 years in prison. Each count calls for a sentence of 17 to 20 years and they must be served consecutively, the judge said.

Most of Thursday’s session was held privately because it was a settlement hearing designed to allow attorneys from both sides to reach an agreement in order to avoid trial. Bannon sat in on the negotiations, which lasted two and a half hours.

At 4:30 p.m., the parties emerged from a jury room and Thornhill’s plea agreement was announced in open court. The judge read off each count and Thornhill answered with “guilty.”

At a hearing before Cochise County Superior Judge Timothy Dickerson in mid-April, Assistant County Attorney Lori Zucco had said that the crimes committed against the victims were “horrific and systematic.”

The abuse included oral sex with the youngsters, and having one of the children engage in sex acts with an adult friend of Thornhill’s, court documents show.

One of the victims told Sierra Vista Police Detective Thomas Ransford that she had been abused by Thornhill with such regularity that the incidents were “too numerous to count.”

After the hearing, Thornhill stood up slowly and limped as a corrections officer led him away. He had a blue cast on his right foot, but his attorney Joshua Jones said he didn’t know what had happened to Thornhill.

Thornhill’s arrest in early April was anything but ordinary.

According to testimony that Ransford gave at Thornhill’s bail hearing, the defendant knew investigators were coming for him when he hid in a church April 9, officials said. Thornhill had told his wife that he would be going to jail for child pornography and that she would be taken care of because he has plenty of money saved, investigators said.

The morning of April 9, Thornhill entered the church at the 2500 block of North Calle Segundo near Whetstone and refused to come out for more than 10 hours, investigators said. Armed with a handgun and a cell phone, he communicated with the church pastor.

While that scene was unfolding at the church, the two victims were at the Sierra Vista Police Department giving detectives details of the abuse they had endured for years at the hands of Thornhill.

Zucco told Dickerson that Thornhill had tried to convince his wife to go to the church with him, but Zucco said if that had happened, there would have been a murder suicide.

She also said Thornhill had mentioned he would commit suicide by cop.

When he finally emerged from the church that evening, Thornhill was pointing the weapon at his head, investigators previously said.

Thornhill’s sentencing hearing will be scheduled in the next few days. He remains in custody at the Cochise County Jail.


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Masks must be worn in public in Sierra Vista, mayor says

SIERRA VISTA — The mayor of Sierra Vista declared a state of emergency in the city Friday afternoon, with a mandate that face masks are now required in public.

The City Council voted unanimously to allow Mayor Rick Mueller to make the emergency declaration. Mueller said he did not arrive at his decision easily, but found it imperative because of the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in the area.

“Commercial establishments have until midnight July 1 to comply with the order,” according to a press release from the city.

“All schools, childcare centers, nonprofits that provide food or shelter, and houses of worship are requested to establish and publish their own guidelines for the proper wearing of face coverings or shields in spaces that are accessible to the public.”

“Cases of COVID-19 are increasing rapidly throughout our state and we have community spread in Sierra Vista,” Mueller said in the release. “I want to commend our citizens who have proactively practiced precautionary measures in the last several weeks and months. We must ask our citizens to be even more vigilant.”

“Data supports the use of face coverings as a vital measure to slow the spread of COVID-19 and now is the time to do everything we can to protect our community,” Mueller said in the release.

“This requirement will remain in place until we see downward trends in positive cases, or until the state takes an action that lifts or supersedes our local authority.”

Mueller said during the meeting he was told by officials at Canyon Vista Medical Center that while there is still capacity to treat people who have the virus, the hospital’s ethics board also has started training on what to do when that capacity to treat those infected with the virus begins to wane.

Mueller explained that the ethics board is the panel that must decide who gets into the hospital to be treated, and who doesn’t.

“We’re not in that situation yet, but the fact that they’re already beginning to train, gives me pause. It should give all of us pause,” Mueller said.

Curtis said “in public” is defined as indoor spaces that are overseen by the city of Sierra Vista where the public is allowed to enter; outdoor spaces such as parks, playgrounds, parking lots, and other areas such as places where the public would gather while waiting to enter an establishment; and in or on public transportation.

Anyone over the age of 10 is required to wear a mask as much as possible, the mayor said.

Not wearing the mask could also get you in trouble with the law.

Curtis provided this statement: “Enforcement of this order will focus first on education to promote best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Before any enforcement action is taken, a person shall be notified of the violation and be given an opportunity to comply. Refusal to comply may result in a citation for a class 1 misdemeanor.”

City to close some indoor facilitiesThe City of Sierra Vista will close some indoor facilities that reopened when the state moved into phase 1 of its reopening plan, according to the press release.

The Cove and all city lobbies are now closed until further notice.

The Vista Transit Center will remain open, while the number of people in the building will be limited to ensure safe physical distancing can be maintained. Transit service will continue under current operations, with the additional policy that drivers will not allow riders to board unless they are wearing a face covering.

Outdoor facilities currently open will remain open.