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Maricopa's 15 biggest stories of 2019
 
 12.31.19

1. Overpass opens at last

The crowd cheered as a train with its horn blaring went under the new State Route 347 overpass, a 16-year project that has finally come to its final stage.

The heat did not stop Maricopa city officials; federal, state and Arizona Department of Transportation officials; school board members; and residents of Maricopa from celebrating the official ribbon cutting for the SR 347 overpass.

The overpass officially opened to the public at 5 a.m. on July 13.

“This is the day that is going to transform Maricopa,” said Mayor Christian Price.

Each of the City Council members also spoke on the success of the project, thanking everyone for their patience and acknowledging the collaboration and the dedication of those who were involved in the making.

2. MUSD continues to plan new high school despite bond defeat

Maricopa Unified School District is tentatively moving forward on plans to build a basic high school using the funds given to it by the State Facilities Board, a feat that has never been done in the state at the high school level.

The MUSD board moved to use an alternative project delivery method of “construction manager at risk,” which will quicken the pace of breaking ground on the high school as well as making the budget more of a priority.

The goal and current timeline indicates that MUSD is on track to open the new high school on July 1, 2022, according to Director of Business Services Jacob Harmon.

The $26 million given to the district by SFB will not be enough to fund anything more than the fundamentals needed to build the school, or any amenities such as carpeted floors or a football field.

This decision came after voters shot down a $63 million bond in November to fully fund a comprehensive high school.

3. YouTube mom’s alleged abuse shocks community

A Maricopa woman who became nationally known for abusing her adopted children in making social media videos has died, police said.

Machelle Hobson, 48, who was accused of 29 counts of child abuse after she allegedly punished her adopted children while making episodes for a YouTube channel known as “Fantastic Adventures,” died at a hospital in Scottsdale Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., Ricardo Alvarado, public information officer for the Maricopa Police Department, said.

Alvarado had no information on the circumstances of Hobson’s death.

Scottsdale police have ruled Hobson’s death natural. Officer Kevin Watts said Wednesday there is no indication of a crime in connection her death at a Scottsdale hospital.

Hobson was accused of using pepper spray on a child’s genitals, applying a lighter or stun gun to a victim’s genitals, arm or other body parts and causing them to suffer malnourishment.

Authorities have said Hobson locked up children in a closet for days without food, water or access to a bathroom. Meanwhile, episodes featured skits about children stealing cookies and a boy with superpowers.

4. Staff leave Sequoia Pathway, citing ‘toxic environment’

As Sequoia Pathway Academy students protested math teacher Kevin Struble’s firing out in the parking lot, staff members told PinalCentral the situation behind the scenes felt like chaos, with little knowledge of what was going on or who was staying or going. One current employee reported up to six teachers having left since then, with numerous others expressing a desire to do so at the end of the semester or the school year.

Staff and student continued to talk about a complaint filed with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools detailing a toxic environment at Sequoia Pathway, including teachers, administrators and other students. Included in that complaint was a significant number of accounts of former principal and current Edkey administrator Alfonso Alva being volatile, divisive and stirring up drama. Students and staff accused him of harassing them.

Mark Worischeck from the law firm Sanders+Parks responded to the charter board’s complaint investigation by reiterating that Edkey conducted a thorough review of the allegations in the original school complaint and removed Alva from the Pathway campus after determining his behavior was inappropriate.

5. City ready for its first hotel, apartments

A “historic moment for Maricopa” arrived with the groundbreaking for the first hotel in the city, La Quinta Inn. The city’s first hotel will be located next to Copper Sky Recreation Center at 44345 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The hotel became a reality through partnering with Harrah’s and Ak-Chin Indian Community, as well as keeping a close relationship with the Arizona Department of Transportation.

The Maricopa Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 9 discussed the future of the controversial, first-ever Maricopa apartment complex, set to go up next to Walmart at Shea Way and Porter Road.

The commission first heard from residents who voiced their concerns over the 120-unit complex, namely the street parking proposed by Planning and Zoning Manager Rodolfo Lopez and the builder, as well as the use of data from Mesa for comparison.

6. City moving forward with SR 347 study

With frustrations continuing to swell over the traffic and safety problems that plague State Route 347, the public finally got its first look at the very early stages of plans on how to solve them.

The Maricopa Association of Governments held an open house to reveal a scoping study that is taking place to improve SR 347. Those who attended were able to speak face to face with officials leading the study while getting a visual representation of what the group is looking to address.

The study encompasses all of State Route 347 from the intersection with Interstate 10 to Peters and Nall Road south of Maricopa. It looks at three different segments of the highway — from I-10 to the Pinal-Maricopa county line, from the county line to the northern city limits, and then to Peters and Nall.

Each of the segments has its own challenges and potential solutions, Maestas said, and they are thus being studied on their own.

The ultimate goal is to find solutions that will improve travel time, mobility, safety, land compatibility and environmental outcomes while respecting stakeholder interests and maintaining current easements.

7. High profile cases come to an end

A 35-year-old woman found guilty of murdering her ex-boyfriend in Maricopa in December 2016 will spend the rest of her life in prison.

Kathryn Sinkevitch was convicted May 7 on a first-degree murder charge in the death of Michael Agerter. On Thursday morning, she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Pinal County Superior Court Judge Kevin White.

Agerter was gunned down in his car after pulling into the garage of his Maricopa home. Surveillance videos captured his killer running up to the home and shooting him within a matter of seconds.

Jose Valenzuela, 42, was sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of Tina Careccia, and an additional 25 years for the second-degree murder of Michael Careccia by Judge Christopher O’Neil on Monday.

This was the maximum sentence allowed for the crimes committed. Prosecutors had previously filed notice to seek the death penalty in the case, but the plea deal removed that option.

Valenzuela was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the killing of the Careccias, of Maricopa, in June 2015. He was accused of shooting the couple with a .22 Magnum handgun following a dispute at his home.

The couple was found buried on Valenzuela’s property after 11 days.

8. APEX open for high-end car owners

After years of planning and ongoing legal battles, a first-of-its-kind business in the Maricopa area has opened.

APEX Motor Club, located on State Route 238 near Ralston Road, is a private club for high-end vehicle enthusiasts who want a place to store their cars and their own track to drive them on.

The project consists of 280 acres and is costing $40 million to develop. It currently includes a 2.3-mile race track for members to use. There are two more phases of construction to go, which will bring the total amount of track on the site to about 4 miles.

With the opening, APEX also announced that it already has 100 members, each paying anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 to join. The site will have a maximum capacity of 400 members when it is completed.

9. Pathway student survives armed car robbery

It was just another ordinary school day for Wyatt Klee, a 17-year-old student at Sequoia Pathway Academy in Maricopa. As he sat in his Spanish class at about 10:30 a.m. Oct. 30, his phone began to buzz with text messages and calls from a fellow classmate and friend.

“I thought it had to be something important because it (had) been going off for like three or four minutes,” Wyatt said.

He checked his phone and immediately had to turn it in to the teacher for using it in class, but he’d already received the message loud and clear: His Dodge Ram 2500 truck, currently parked in the school parking lot, was being broken into.

He and some friends ran out of the school, hopped the fence and approached his vehicle to see a man inside. Wyatt ran up to the vehicle, only to suddenly be staring at a deadly weapon.

10. Harrah’s Ak-Chin finished major upgrades

As part of the renovations that began in 2016, the casino updated its parking garage, including adding an indoor pedestrian bridge connecting Harrah’s to the UltraStar center, a new restaurant, new wine bar and a new buffet that also included an expansion of the kitchen area.

In addition, the hotel added 230 rooms — bringing the total to 530 — along with renovations to the entrance, a spa and fitness center and an expansion of the ballroom that includes 18,000 square feet with a seating capacity of 2,000 spectators.

The new concert venue at the casino opened in March with a performance by legendary act The Righteous Brothers. The venue also booked comedian Dave Chappelle and country artist Dwight Yoakam.

“It really is a new era,” said Mike Kintner, director of marketing and operations. “It’s allowing us to do things that a lot of our sister properties in Las Vegas or other bigger properties have done.”

11. Ram wins at state meet despite injured knee

No one, perhaps not even Logan Taylor himself, could have envisioned becoming a state champion in his condition. Just five days prior to the state track and field championships at Mesa Community College, he suffered a gruesome injury to his right knee that required 20 stitches.

Taylor, a senior at Maricopa, limped into the state meet but was leaping for joy after a surge of adrenaline carried him across the finish line in first place in the Division II 110-meter hurdles.

His roars of “Yeah! Yeah!” pierced the air as he bounced up and down with excitement. Even a gimpy knee couldn’t stop him from winning a state title.

Also champions this year were the players on the Sequoia Pathway softball team. Pathway scored in every inning including a pair of three-run innings in the second and fourth en route to a 12-5 victory over Foothills Academy.

12. New resources for those in need

The Maricopa Family Advocacy Center, which opened in April, serves as a one-stop facility for victims of these types of crimes, providing all the services needed as law enforcement investigates. Before, victims were transported to similar centers in Eloy or San Tan Valley, creating long drives that forced them to dwell on what was happening.

That was deemed by Maricopa Police Department leaders as too harsh a reality, which is what spurred them toward developing this center more than three years ago. While they can’t stop the abuse from taking place, they knew they could make the reporting process much more comfortable, if everyone put in the work to create the advocacy center.

Then in September, Food Opportunity Resources, a food bank also known as FOR Maricopa, finally reopened its doors to those in need.

Since the organization closed on the Blue Barn property a year and a half ago, renovation has continued at the food bank’s new permanent location at the back of the building. With the installation of a drive-thru, the organization is ready to serve the community.

13. Long-time politicians not running again

Pinal County Supervisor Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, announced he will not run for reelection representing District 4 next year.

“In 2008 when I was elected into my first public office, I had no idea I would have the pleasure of serving the people for twelve years,” Smith said Thursday in a news release. “As I examine where I am in my life and what opportunities I might have waiting behind the next door, I know it is time for me to head in a different direction. That said, I announce today that l will not run for reelection as county supervisor.”

Prior to being elected to the Board of Supervisors for the first of two terms in 2012, Smith served two terms as mayor of Maricopa.

The longest serving City Council member in the history of Maricopa is also preparing to take his leave next year.

Marvin Brown, 85, has been a member of the council for almost 11 years, with one left on his term. He has seen tremendous growth, hardship and the city overcoming obstacles. From the recession to the boom, Brown has been a witness to the birthing of a thriving community.

Brown arrived in Maricopa in 2006 with his wife, Helen. Originally from Detroit, they settled here for the milder climate and at the recommendation of friends. He recognizes the rarity of a city so focused on development that doubled its population from about 26,000 in 2006 to around 52,000 today.

14. First responders save drowning toddler’s life

For a period that likely only lasted a few hours but felt like eternity, the dark cloud hovered over a home in Maricopa, then traveled up to Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa as it followed a 20-month-old girl and her family — and the first responders whom they would soon call heroes.

And yet, despite the odds, some sunshine started to break through following Cate Jump’s near drowning in the pool of her babysitter’s home.

Less than two weeks later, that 20-month-old toddler, Cate, was running around the fire station on Porter Road like any kid would, looking at all the big trucks and equipment that filled the building. Little did she know that all that stuff — and the people surrounding her — had so recently saved her life.

15. Larger library in the works

A new 27,000-square-foot library that will be located next to City Hall, was unveiled during an open house in the City Council Chambers in April as the public got its first look at the designs.

The new facility sets aside plenty of space for meetings and programming, including a social space in the middle.” There will also be a much larger selection of books and other media to fill that larger space, which staff plans to start collecting soon so it can be ready for the opening.

The plan is for construction on the new library to begin early next year, and for it to be completed by the end of 2020.

Once the library does move to the new location, several other issues will be taken care of. The current building will then be split up into three purposes. The first will be a community event space in the middle. Then on one side — in what is a poetic move — will be the new veterans center, which is currently located in the small building the library used to call home.

The third function of that building will be to finally give senior citizens a space of their own following the demolition of the senior center to make way for the State Route 347 overpass. Seniors have been trying to get a space ever since, with hopes originally of having a spot at Copper Sky Recreation Complex.


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Maricopa's Desert Cedars community to get flood prevention help
 ksawyer  / 
 12.30.19

MARICOPA — When tropical storm Octave hit southern Arizona in 1983, Pinal County was drenched in rains the likes of which many had never seen. Tucson floodwaters hit 8 feet in some areas, 3,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and 10,000 people were left temporarily homeless.

Fourteen people lost their lives in the floodwaters, and total damages across Arizona were estimated to be about $500 million. David Alley, Maricopa Flood Control District manager, estimates that it was close to a 500-year flooding event.

A 500-year flooding event can occur at any time, regardless of a previous flooding event, and is merely an increment designed to show the chances of a flood. A 500-year event has a 0.2% chance of occurring each year, a 50-year flood has a 2% chance of occurring in a given year and so on.

With the chances of a 100-year flood being 1% every year, taking preemptive measures before a flooding event happens is imperative to avoiding damage like the 1983 flood caused. That’s where the Maricopa Flood Control District steps in to help.

President of the MFCD Dan Frank, along with Alley, has most recently been working on the Desert Cedars neighborhood. Residents were shocked when a new geological study came out in 2010, putting about 20 to 26 homes in a floodplain and suddenly requiring them to shell out up to thousands of dollars a year for mandated flood insurance. The rest of the homes remain out of the flood zone.

The MFCD hoped to make enough improvements to the neighborhood and surrounding areas that the homeowners will no longer be required to have flood insurance, alleviating some financial strain and flooding worries.

In order to make any improvements though, they first needed assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2018, the MFCD submitted an application through the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, which facilitates FEMA grants, hoping to nip the chances of a flooding event in the bud with preemptive measures.

“We just haven’t had that kind of storm event yet,” Alley said. “That puts us at a good time to address it. I think that’s how FEMA looked at it — ‘Let’s get this fixed before there is a problem.’ People are displaced and (they need) emergency services and they have to rebuild. Flooding creates a big mess.”

Somewhat to their surprise, they were awarded around $48,000 for the first stage of the process from FEMA, and another $16,000 will come out of MFCD’s pocket for a total of $65,000.

“It’s very competitive,” said Frank, who also sits on the Maricopa Planning and Zoning Commission. “But this is a small problem in the grand scheme of things from what she (a DEMA representative) was telling us. A lot of our competition applied for a lot more money than we did. Because our dollar figure was actually kind of on the low end of the scale, that’s part of why we were awarded.”

“I was actually a little bit surprised,” Alley said, adding to Frank’s point. “What I’ve learned recently is the federal government wants projects that are already ready to go, so they can do the improvements quickly. We’re just studying the problem. So generally, those projects go to a lower priority. That’s why I’m optimistic that once we get our plan in place, then we should have a real good chance of getting the money we need to solve the problem.”

The first phase will involve planning, studying the land and employing engineers to help uncover the issues around Desert Cedars. They are hoping that Phase 1 will be done by October 2020. When the planning stage is done, they will again need to apply for more money for the construction phase.

“Our contact at DEMA did say that, ‘If you’re fortunate enough to get to this point, and you do have a viable project out of it, then you’ll be more likely to get the construction grant as well,’” Frank said.

The first alteration MFCD is considering is on an already existing culvert built for Copper Sky Recreation Complex. The culvert — an underground tunnel used for water drainage — runs under State Route 347 to the west. It is currently under capacity and, with some adjustments, could be used for Desert Cedars as well.

Another solution would be to build up a plot of land that the city recently acquired on the southeast corner of SR 347 and Bowlin Road. The hope is that would create enough leverage to naturally force the water into the culvert system.

Alley and Frank believe that these changes will be enough to stop the flood risk, and the homes in Desert Cedars will not be directly affected by construction, or need alterations.

One issue to take into consideration during the planning process is, where will the water go if not here?

Water generally flows north from Mexico and southern Arizona up through the Gila River Indian Community.

“We’re in a valley — that’s how I had to get my head around it,” Alley said with a chuckle. “The '83 (storm) was almost a perfect storm. … It rained here hard, saturating the ground. Then it rained hard in Tucson and in northern Mexico. Just as that water got here, it rained hard here again. So that’s a rare event. It created a lot of water that didn’t have any place to go.”

When the engineers make their observations, they will need to factor in where the water will flow to avoid flooding the Gila River community and communities northwest of Maricopa. It is a project that requires a lot of communication between governmental entities.

“All of this may just work together to solve the problem, but we kind of have to have our engineers look and see if that’s OK, because they’ve got to trace it downstream and make sure that we don’t adversely impact anybody downstream of this location,” Alley said.

With the first stages of development already underway, the MFCD are hopeful that they will be able to solve the flooding issue before it arises in the future, sparing Maricopans in Desert Cedars from a hefty bill. As far as flooding is concerned, however, the MFCD is not concerned that there would be significant damage to these homes based on the current mappings.

“It’s not likely they’re going to have four feet of water in their living room. But, you know, any water is a problem if it gets in your house,” Alley said. “So, what we’re hoping is that we’re close enough that — with some changes — we can keep it from getting on their property and keep it from getting in their houses.”


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Blood pool, missing dog lead to child exploitation arrest in Maricopa
 
 12.26.19

MARICOPA — Sasha Verma, 50, of Maricopa was arrested Dec. 19 and charged with 11 counts of sexual exploitation of children after police received a report of a missing dog and a pool of blood.

When arrested, Verma had multiple passports and multiple citizenship documents from several countries in his possession, according to court records. Police also state he “has access to a large amount of money” and even had $70,000 cash on him when arrested at his house in Maricopa.

Maricopa Police stated Verma was a major flight risk and is being housed in the Pinal County Adult Detention Center pending the posting of a $400,000 secured bond.

His arrest was more than unusual.

On Dec. 19, the Maricopa Police Department responded to a call on West Yucca Lane when a 911 caller reported returning home and finding blood in the backyard and a dog missing.

“A large pool of a red substance consistent with blood was found on the side yard of the victim’s home,” a police probable cause statement reads. “Additional inspection of the area revealed what appeared to be blood splatter located on the stem wall of the residence, a plastic tote located west of the sidewalk and a hose also located west of the sidewalk.”

A MPD officer continued, “Based on the location of the pool in relation to the spatter, it appeared the missing dog had been struck by a high-speed projectile from the east.”

Police determined the projectile could have only come from one location based on the evidence. That location was Verma’s backyard.

Police obtained and served a search warrant on the residence.

“In the home approximately 100 firearms were located along with tens of thousands of rounds. Numerous passports were also located in the residence belonging to Sasha Verma as well as several documents sent to and received by Sasha from outside the United States,” the MPD probable cause statement reads.

During a search of the house, police found a folder marked “Sasha Verma Master of science (engineering), Dept. Of electrical and computer engineering, supervisor copy.”

Inside police found explicit photographs of underage children completely nude and posed in a sexually suggestive manner.

The search was halted by police until a new search warrant could be authored allowing investigators to also search for sexually explicit material.

During a second search police found eight photographs and 13 magazines depicting underage nude children. Some of the magazines dated back to 1975, according to court records.

Verma was quickly arrested on 16 counts of exploitation of a minor but only charged with 11 counts by the Pinal County Attorney’s Office on Christmas Eve.

Verma was scheduled to appear in Pinal County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing on Friday. In a jail booking form Verma lists that he was born in Canada but is now a US citizen.

Court records do not indicate the fate of the missing dog or even if it had been located.


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From dancing to hiking, there are plenty of ways in Pinal to celebrate new year
 mstaude  / 
 12.27.19

CASA GRANDE — Christmas has come and gone and the countdown to 2020 has begun.

And while most federal, state and municipal offices and services will be closed on Wednesday, Jan. 1, to celebrate the start of the new year, area parks will be open.

Arizona State Parks and Trails is taking part in a national effort called “First Day Hikes” to encourage people to start the new year on a healthy note with a holiday hike.

Those visiting a state park on New Year’s Day will find special activities and tours.

At Picacho Peak State Park, near Eloy, a ranger-led moderate hike along the Calloway Trail begins at 10 a.m.

The one-and-a-half-hour hike follows the trail up to an overlook of the face of Picacho Peak. It’s a moderately difficult hike and is suitable for those age 6 and older. Dogs are not allowed.

Oracle State Park also offers a guided first day hike beginning at 10 a.m. Led by Friends of Oracle State Park volunteers, the hike meets at the Kannally Ranch House.

Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction offers several New Year’s Day hikes.

At 8 and 11 a.m., ranger-led moderate hikes will tackle the 2.4 rugged and rocky miles of the Treasure Loop Trail. At 11 a.m., a beginners hike will traverse the easier 1-mile loop of the Treasure Loop Trail.

Those taking part in a New Year’s Day hike should wear appropriate footwear and bring plenty of water, the park service says.

For more information, visit the Arizona State Parks website, www.azstateparks.com.

On New Year’s Eve, some of Pinal County’s favorite bands will perform at events and venues throughout the area.

Below is a partial list of New Year’s Eve activities for Tuesday:

Submitted 

Highway Outlaws members are, from left, Roy Lopez, Everett Lafferty, Dennis Meckel, Bob Villa and Patrick Rosales.

  • The Highway Outlaws Band performs country, blues and classic rock at a dinner dance at the Tumbleweed Inn, 3815 W. Frontier St., Eloy. The event includes an entree of grilled filet or pan-seared chicken breast at 6:30 p.m. as well as dessert and champagne toasts at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. and midnight. Tickets are $45 per person and are available by calling 520-466-9972.
  • Dedicated Entertainment’s DJ Kev is on tap beginning at 7 p.m. during a New Year’s Eve party at the Cowtown Tavern, 36796 W. State Route 84 in Stanfield. The event includes a potluck and $2 champagne toasts.
  • A New Year’s Eve countdown party is from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Rock N Rodeo, 202 E. Frontier St. in Eloy. Admission is $25 at the door or $20 in advance.
  • The Campbell’s Band perform from 8 p.m. to midnight at Sundance 1 RV Resort, 1703 N. Thornton Road in the Hole in the Wall. Admission is $15 in advance or $16 at the door. Dance attendee limit is 300.
Submitted photo  

NineBall is a Phoenix-area cover band formed in 2003 that performs a variety of songs by artist including Journey, Tom Petty, Gloria Gaynor and Heart.

  • NineBall performs from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the Lounge at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, 15406 Maricopa Road, Maricopa.
  • Cool Vibrations perform from 8 p.m. to midnight during a “Havana Nights at the Cantina” theme New Year’s Eve dance at Fiesta Grande RV Resort, 1511 E. Florence Blvd. Admission is $20.
  • The Unwound Band performs at a New Year’s Eve masquerade ball at the Gallopin’ Goose, 1980 S. Arizona Blvd. in Coolidge. Admission is $10 and includes a mask, noise makers and champagne. The band begins playing at 9 p.m.