By Tony Parra
Before 2004, most of the news that occurred in the tiny eastern plains farming community of Dora took place at the school and involved a sport.
Residents are longing for those days again as they close the door on a tragic year that saw two teenagers and a former pastor killed in automobile accidents. A longtime school board member and community supporter also died. A Roosevelt County road worker was seriously injured while cleaning a cattle guard in the area. And two New Mexico State Police officers were injured by lightning as they tried to help motorists in a storm near Dora.
“I’ll be glad when this year is over,” Bill Cathey, Dora’s fire chief, said last week.
About 130 people live in Dora, which is located at the intersection of state highways 206 and 114, about 17 miles south of Portales.
Likely all of them felt the impact of the tragedies.
The horror began on Feb. 14 when 16-year-old Clayton Stokes’ 1998 Toyota pickup left Highway 206, according to a New Mexico State Police report. The pickup flipped over several times, ejecting Stokes through the driver’s-side window, said Sgt. Jeff Vick of the New Mexico State Police.
Stokes, who lived in nearby Causey, was a Dora student and a guard on the Dora Coyote basketball team. Dora students donated more than $6,000 to help the Stokes’ family with funeral expenses on Feb. 16.
Stokes’ junior class used money from their prom fund to help with the funeral expenses, but Rooney Moon Broadcasting staged a fund-raising effort when news about the class’ sacrifice came out. The company’s radio station was able to garner nearly $17,000 in donations in one day, and several businesses offered additional services (catering, formal wear).
Lightning struck the community again on Juy 20. Literally. NMSP Officers Lance Bateman and Clint Varnell were injured by lightning near Highway 206, approximately five miles south of Portales. The two officers were helping a woman and her three children from a vehicle in a flooded ditch.
They were hospitalized for a couple of days at Lubbock Covenant.
Then perhaps the biggest blow hit the community on Halloween night. Two area teenagers were killed as they drove at a high rate of speed through an open field, according to a New Mexico State Police report.
Aaron LaRue, 17, a Dora student who lived in Clovis, and Dathan Garcia, 17, of Tucumcari were killed in the accident. LaRue had been a teammate of Stokes on the Coyote basketball team.
Dora student Travis Belcher, 17, was the driver of the vehicle. His brother, Layton Belcher, a 2003 Dora High graduate, was a passenger and was seriously injured.
“It’s been extremely tough for the entire school,” Jim Reed, Dora schools superintendent, said after the accident. “It’s been tough on all of the kids at Dora and those who were close to them.”
Sgt. Vick said Travis Belcher has been charged with two counts of vehicle homicide and two counts of great bodily harm. Vick said Travis Belcher has been released to his parents’ custody and will be tried as a minor.
The Belcher family could not be reached for comment for this story.
December produced more tragedy.
Ronny Tipton, 51, a Roosevelt County road department employee, was seriously injured on Dec. 18 when he and another worker, Efran Urias, were cleaning underneath a cattle guard. They were cleaning the 1,300-pound guard when it slipped and collapsed on them, officials said.
The accident happened one mile north and one mile west of Dora on South Roosevelt Road S, according to Becky Fraze of the Dora Fire Department and Emergency Management System.
Urias suffered a scraped shoulder. Tipton is recovering from a fractured pelvis.
Doddie Tipton, Ronny’s wife, said doctors told her he would not be able to walk for six to eight weeks and he will have a long road ahead of him to recover.
Then on Dec. 22, Phillip Shelton, 63, a former pastor at Dora Baptist Church, was killed after he was struck by a vehicle in Wolfforth, Texas, a town just south of Lubbock.
Shelton was struck by a 2003 Cadillac Escalade on U.S. Highway 62-82 after he stopped to help another motorist along the highway.
And on the day after Christmas, the community mourned the loss of Hank Merrick. Merrick, who was the mayor of Causey, died of a heart attack. Merrick served on the Dora and Causey school boards for 18 years. He was a deputy medical examiner for Roosevelt County.
Family and friends said he loved to attend Dora sporting events and was supportive of the Dora students.
“He was the center of the community,” said Willard Heck, the Causey Fire Department’s equipment manager. “Within a quarter-mile of the crossroads was the fire department, his hardware store and his house. If you needed something, you went to Hank.”
While 2004 will not be soon forgotten, at least 2005 brings hope.
“I hope people can learn from the accidents,” said Cathey, “and hopefully good things will happen in the new year.”