The townsfolk of Christopher Creek, a hamlet in the Mogollon Rim country, first spotted the young elk last year.
Residents of the Gila County village say they're used to seeing wildlife in the forests surrounding their homes, but never had an animal so captivated them.
Nicknamed "Spike" by a local columnist for his short, stubby antlers, the elk wandered into town one day and then seemed reluctant to leave. He quickly became a Christopher Creek mascot and tourist attraction.
Spike apparently had no fear of humans and would eat out of an outstretched hand. His playful appearances, whether he was eating the apples in George and Doris Billings' yard or frolicking in Mike and Peggy Milburn's sprinklers, were dutifully recorded by the local newspapers.
And so was Spike's death.
"He was probably the most photographed elk anywhere," noted the Payson Roundup in its eulogy of the animal. "Spike took his last walk across Highway 260 Sunday night and the community of Christopher Creek will surely miss their pet."
The paper, however, didn't describe how Spike met his demise.
At the front end of Jineane Ford's Chevy Suburban.
Ford's husband, Neil King, couldn't stop in time when Spike wandered onto Highway 260 on the night of July 26. Spike was propelled about 25 feet off the side of the road. King, Ford and their four children were more startled than hurt, but the Suburban suffered damage to its grille, hood, fender, bumper and engine compartment.
The KPNX Channel 12 anchor says her side of the car took the most direct impact, and she suffered a concussion. For two weeks, Ford had a raging headache. "I got my bell rung a little," she says.
Spike, however, got the worst of it. After the accident, his carcass was hauled off by a large family eager to turn him into elk steaks.
Payson Roundup columnist Mikey Marazza gave Spike his name when the animal first showed up in town last year. Included in her weekly dispatches about local birthdays, ladies Bible study meetings and volunteer openings at the fire department, Marazza related new Spike sightings and chronicled his dramatic growth. "The whole town was feeding that elk. There are a lot of people really upset about it. He was our buddy. He was our pet," she says.
"We thought maybe he was retarded," says Creekside Restaurant hostess Margot Holmes. "Usually they run away from people, but Spike didn't. We first saw him over a year ago. He was in George Billings' yard, taking a nap. He got up and kind of munched away and then went into the trailer park and ate from somebody's garden," she says.
"I fed him out of my front window. You just knew it was him. He'd act weird," says Marazza, who named Spike for the stubby four-inch antlers the young elk sported when he first visited Christopher Creek. Marazza says the town began to worry that friendly Spike would prove too easy prey for hunters in the fall. "We were going to spray-paint him orange so nobody would shoot him," she says.
Spike managed to survive elk season only to disappear in winter. When he returned to the village this spring, he had sprouted dramatically. Nearing 1,000 pounds and now with a magnificent 10-point rack, Spike nevertheless returned to the familiar gardens where again he was fed and photographed. "Pretty much everyone up here had Spike in their yard," Marazza says.
Just the day before his untimely death, Spike was seen entertaining about 15 people loaded down with cameras and camcorders. "As I drove by, I couldn't believe what I saw. These people were taking turns petting Spike on the head and taking pictures. This was a magnificent 10-point elk, but you just couldn't make the public aware that he was a wild animal because he was so charming," wrote Marazza in her final Spike installment.
The next night, Spike jumped into a long line of cars heading west through Christopher Creek.
Perhaps he was retarded after all.
"It was awful. . . . There was a whole chain of traffic coming through Christopher Creek, and the guy in front of us just about hit him, swerved, went off the road and he [the elk] was right on us. There was nothing we could do," says Ford.
The front of her Suburban "crumpled like an accordion," she says, and she couldn't open her door. "It was a really, really bad hit."
The news anchor says a crowd gathered after the accident, and locals realized that it was Spike lying by the side of the road. In a bid to assuage Ford's feelings of guilt, perhaps, a witness consoled her that Spike's time had come. It was a relief that Spike had been the victim, one onlooker told Ford.
"I said, 'I don't feel that way.' I was so sad. I mean, you feel terrible. 'Cause here's this beautiful bull elk and, I mean, our Suburban was toast."
A DPS officer asked Ford if she wanted to tag the animal and take the carcass home for butchering.
The question seemed gruesome at the time, she says.
"There was a man with seven kids who was a local and he said he'd love to have him. So we signed over a little thing and he tagged him. Six guys loaded him up. Then they take him away and have them butchered, just like you would if you're hunting," Ford says.
News of Spike's death spread fast through Christopher Creek, but for some reason, Ford's role was kept quiet. When Marazza got wind that Jineane Ford had been in the car, Marazza says she was told by fire officials that that was not public information.
Fire Chief Ray Larsen would only tell New Times that Neil King had been driving the car that killed Spike, and wouldn't confirm that Jineane Ford had been in the car as well.
A DPS report of the incident, meanwhile, listed the front passenger as Jineane King.
Was it a cover-up to save the former Chattanooga Choo Choo star embarrassment?
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Ford had no problem telling the story. She says she always gives her name as King, and only uses her maiden name on the air. "I have, like, very serious stalkers. . . . I decided to keep my maiden name on the air, and my married name helps me with that zone of people trying to kill me. I have probably the largest number of stalkers, even the Phoenix PD, the guys I work with over there, they just can't believe it. It's really awful."
Last week, Ford mentioned on a Channel 12 broadcast that she had hit an elk, and the station turned it into a story about the road-kill tagging law that allowed the family of seven to haul away Spike for their feast.
Says Marazza, who misses Spike and his frolics in her flower garden, "Whoever got him, got corn-fed elk. He was well-fed, that animal."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org