MARICOPA — Two shadowy figures emerge out of the cover of night, unknowingly captured on security footage as they approach a Rancho El Dorado residence with caution on Feb. 19.
The two masked and hooded people slide between two vehicles parked in the driveway and attempt to open the driver side door of one before motion sensors activate flood lights, illuminating the scene. They seem deterred, hurriedly walking off, but one returns and yanks a car door handle in one last attempt to break in.
This is just one of many cases of theft or attempted theft in Rancho El Dorado in February. According to Maricopa Police Department spokesman Ricardo Alvarado, a higher than usual number of thefts has been reported since last year.
In total, Maricopa police saw an increase from last year’s 10 incidents in the month of February to 16 reported this year. At least nine thefts or attempted thefts were reported in Rancho El Dorado, and at least three were reported in the neighboring Villages community.
This number includes thefts from neighborhoods but can also shoplifting, theft from schools, etc. Alvarado acknowledged that there had been an increase in cases, but he was reluctant to say whether crime had actually increased.
“The only thing that I can really say is the reason why it seems like it’s more prevalent is because of the Ring doorbell,” Alvarado said. “There’s definitely an increase. We’re not discrediting that there’s an increase. What I’m saying, though, is from your standpoint, it seems like there’s more to you because of the footage.”
Ring, along with other similar brands, is a newly popular security system that allows users to monitor their home from their mobile devices and receive notifications about suspicious activity outside their homes, as was the case during the Feb. 19 incident.
The Rancho resident involved in the Feb. 19 incident did not wish to be named for safety reasons but said her footage was one of several recordings made in her neighborhood that night.
“The same night that we had our vehicles targeted, there were four other videos of the same culprits trying to break into other cars,” she said. “Those were just the neighbors with cameras. Some of them stated that this had been the third attempt in the last few weeks. Even the police officer I spoke with said that our neighborhood was seeing a huge increase in vehicle break-ins.”
Alvarado acknowledges that the suspects in each case are most likely the same, but he does not believe the thieves are indicative of a larger game at play.
“I think that the people that are doing it, I think they’re the same people,” Alvarado said. “But is it like a part of an organized crime ring? I don’t believe so. No, I don’t believe that we’re having somebody from Chandler or wherever coming in here and doing that. I think it’s someone that’s local to the area, opportunists.”
Regardless, the string of incidents has left residents in feeling at risk of losing their hard-earned possessions.
“Seeing someone try to break into my car makes me feel violated and vulnerable and angry,” the Rancho resident said. “Working as hard as we have for what we have and then to see someone just walk up and try to take it in an instant is enough to make your blood boil.”
The resident said they would feel safer in the Rancho neighborhood if there were security or police patrolling the area more often than they currently do.
“I do still feel relatively safe in my neighborhood. We live on a pretty good street with great neighbors,” she said. “That being said, I have seen the crime increase a lot in the neighborhood lately and it is concerning. I don’t feel as safe as I did when I moved here six years ago.”
MARICOPA — On Feb. 23, Maricopa resident Matthew Ortega was traveling home on State Route 347 from his job at an Embassy Suites in Tempe. It was a usual night for him until he saw something strange coming toward him on the road.
“I saw this pair of lights just coming right at me and at first I’m like, ‘No, it can’t be,’” Ortega said. “It’s mesmerizing, because you’re like, ‘This isn’t right. I know what it is, but it just can’t be happening.’”
It was a wrong-way driver, a 31-year-old Maricopa man later determined to be possibly under the influence, driving north in the southbound lanes of 347. Ortega moved all the way off the road to the right and watched the man pass him while he dialed 911.
The collision occurred moments later right around Casa Blanca Road, and the woman in the vehicle the driver hit, 67-year-old Ma Ponce from Mesa, died at a hospital from her injuries. The wrong-way driver was hospitalized with serious injuries.
On the phone with dispatch, Ortega didn’t realize how close he had come to being hit until he checked the time stamp on his phone the next day — 11:40 p.m., the same time as the accident.
“The next night was when I was really apprehensive, especially getting back on the 347,” Ortega said. “When I came home the next day, I saw the screech marks and where the accident was, and I must have still been on the phone with 911 when it happened.”
In a recent study, Arizona was ranked highest for wrong-way drivers out of any state in the United States. Though wrong-way drivers have been a hot topic of discussion in local media, it was still a shock for Ortega to see one on the 347.
“Just bewildered,” Ortega said. “I’ve seen wrong-way drivers on the I-10, but never on the 347 in the same lane as me.”
Maricopa Police Department spokesman Ricardo Alvarado echoed the Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s stances on what to do if someone comes across a wrong-way driver.
“The suggestion is obviously to get over to the slow lane, or the right lane, because the wrong-way driver coming in the opposite direction believes that they’re in a two-lane road and they will be traveling in left-lane traffic,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado knows this advice first hand, as he almost ran into a wrong-way driver on the way to his second job at Sky Harbor International Airport just a few months ago.
Alvarado was driving at around 5 a.m. on State Route 143 when he saw an ominous sign up ahead, the one many Arizona drivers fear.
“I look up and I see the sign flashing ‘Wrong-way driver, please move over,’” Alvarado said.
He and several other cars were spread across the lanes of the highway, approaching a bridge they could not see over and had to react quickly to the sign.
“All of us, like snakes, we all get over and as we cross the bridge — here it comes,” Alvarado said, referring to a speeding wrong-way vehicle. “I call my buddy at work and I’m like ‘wrong-way driver, I just almost got hit by a wrong-way driver.’”
The driver was stopped further down the road and was found to be intoxicated. Alvarado is still thankful to have escaped so closely by following the official advice.
By doing the same, Ortega most likely prevented himself from becoming a victim in that crash. He understands the position of official entities, as his father worked at DPS for 25 years and has also seen his fair share of wrong-way drivers. However, Ortega hopes that in the future more will be done to prevent casualties as a result of careless driving.
“They’ve done everything they can to try to waylay it by putting up the wrong-way signs, but if a person’s inebriated like that, they’re not noticing signs,” Ortega said. “I think other provisions can be made. I know we are trying to get the 347 expanded and a safer road for everyone to travel on, but this is something definitely to consider as we move forward with that project.”
MARICOPA — Saying more contaminated groundwater is making its way into their regular water supply, the Ak-Chin Indian Community on Friday sued two local irrigation districts in order to “protect water rights.”
The Arizona District Court lawsuit against the Maricopa-Stanfield and Central Arizona irrigation and drainage districts alleges that the districts have been damaging crops and the community’s water supply by introducing its own groundwater into the Central Arizona Project system.
That groundwater, the tribe claims, is high in nitrates, salinity and other contaminants that have made the overall water supply that the community relies on less pure. This, they wrote, is a violation of the Ak-Chin Settlement Act of 1984, which promised 85,000 acre-feet of CAP water suitable for agricultural use.
“The Ak-Chin Indian Community has been farming these lands since time immemorial. Agriculture is critical to our economy and essential to our culture and way of life,” said Ak-Chin Chairman Robert Miguel in a written statement. “Tribal leaders who came before us fought hard to secure the water rights we depend upon — but these rights are now endangered by the Maricopa-Stanfield and Central Arizona irrigation and drainage districts.”
Miguel said the mixed water not only reduces crop yield in the agriculture-heavy tribal land, but it could also be a public health threat because Ak-Chin’s water treatment facility was specifically designed to handle the CAP water, and not the groundwater from other districts.
The tribe is asking the court to protect the water supplied to CAP’s Santa Rosa Canal, which supplies water to the community after a contract signed with the federal government in 1985. In 1988, the government then reached a separate agreement with the Maricopa-Stanfield district for use of the canal.
“The Maricopa-Stanfield and Central Arizona irrigation and drainage districts have made it clear they intend to increase their pumping of groundwater into the Santa Rosa Canal, further reducing the quality of water our Ak-Chin community receives,” Miguel said. “It is critical for the courts to intervene to affirm the long-held water rights of the Ak-Chin Indian Community.”
The Maricopa-Stanfield and Central Arizona irrigation and drainage districts have not yet responded to requests for comment.