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'Not my day to die': Maricopa student recalls having truck stolen at gunpoint

MARICOPA — 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. Wednesday, 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.

“I’m like five feet away and it’s pointed right at me. I’m looking down the barrel of it. So I yelled ‘Gun!’ and I tell everyone to run,” Wyatt said. “I just take off running, because I’m not trying to be shot in the back. It was not my day to die, so I took off running towards the front office doors.”

Luckily for the teens, administrators had been making a routine walk around the school when the incident occurred. They were able to immediate lock down the school and were waiting for Wyatt when he arrived at the office doors to let him in.

Police arrived moments later; however, the truck and the man inside had already gone. Wyatt remembers the man saying something to him like “get away” or “what are you doing?,” but in the panic of the moment, he does not remember exactly what was said.

“I can’t remember what he said to me,” Wyatt said. “It’s just — he was angry. He said it in an angry voice.”

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, his mom Kim Klee received an unexpected call from her youngest son Weston, who also attends Pathway.

“He called me and he said, ‘Mom, I think Wyatt’s truck just got stolen.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” Kim said. She hung up and began frantically calling her middle son Wyatt, with no answer, as his phone was still sitting in the Spanish classroom.

“Then Weston calls back and says, ‘I think maybe they went after him or something, mom.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ So now I’m really freaking out,” she said.

At the same time, Kim got a message from a friend saying they thought Wyatt had a gun pointed at him. Kim decided to call the school directly and was immediately put through to the police.

Kim then had to make the agonizingly long drive back to Maricopa to find out what had happened to her son.

“I couldn’t really talk to Wyatt because they were busy with the situation there at the school and the police,” she said. “So I was just shaking and definitely lots of crying. There were lots of tears on the way home.”

When she arrived on scene, Kim went to her son and hugged him.

“Honestly, he seemed very calm and all put together,” she said. “I had to go up there and just had to give him this big hug.”

The family finally reunited, they could now turn their attention to the pressing matter at hand — the crime committed.

Maricopa police conducted an official investigation on scene, interviewing witnesses and employing a sketch artist. The thief was described as approximately 5-foot-7, 230 pounds, in his 40s and Hispanic or Native American. The man held a large handgun, which Wyatt believes to be a .40 or a .45 caliber. He was unknown to Wyatt, who doesn’t think it was a targeted attack.

For one, a classmate returned to his vehicle after school to find it also had damage to the door, as though someone had tried to gain entry to his vehicle first.

His truck was also devoid of valuables, as he had just cleaned it the day before.

“They were trying to get somebody’s car and I just cannot believe that they were brazen enough to do this in broad daylight at a school parking lot — it’s just crazy,” Kim said.

“And then to draw a gun on a minor?” her son added.

“This guy needs to be caught. This guy needs to go down,” Kim said.

The Klees moved to Maricopa from Townsend, Montana, more than seven years ago. The small town of just 2,000 people was so safe that often the family would feel secure enough to leave their cars unlocked with the keys inside. The irony that Wyatt’s locked car was stolen in broad daylight with his keys still inside the school is apparent to Kim.

“I don’t feel like anywhere is safe anymore,” Wyatt said. “I’m at school and now I have to worry about someone breaking into my vehicle and, ‘Oh, am I going to get shot?’ because someone wants to steal your vehicle. I think that’s ridiculous.”

For Kim and her husband, choosing to raise their kids in Maricopa felt like the right decision. They had grown to love the city of Maricopa, but this latest incident has rattled the family.

“It really shook me up quite a bit and I still cannot believe that this happened,” Kim said. “It feels very surreal at this moment. Very surreal. It doesn’t feel like a safe, tight-knit community anymore. I’m concerned.”

Wyatt will finish out his senior year at Pathway, a school he has attended since fourth grade, which now feels a little less comfortable than it used to.

Some mixed news came a day later when someone was arrested by Gila River police after the truck was seen Thursday morning by a concerned onlooker at a Circle K in Casa Grande.

The suspect was then spotted by police driving the truck on McCartney Road near Interstate 10, leading police on a pursuit and ending when the vehicle crashed into a wash on the Gila River Indian Community.

The armed driver then fled on foot but was eventually apprehended by Gila River Police. The truck is totaled, according to Kim.

Police have not identified the driver at this time. However, it was later confirmed by Maricopa police that this was not the person who actually stole the truck from the school parking lot. They instead identified that man as Niko Biarco, who is labeled as armed and dangerous.

Wyatt had painstakingly saved for his Dodge Ram 2500 truck, purchased just seven months ago, and it was his prized possession until it was stolen. A friend of his father had given Wyatt a great deal on the old truck, a 2000 model once used for ranching, and Wyatt had cleaned and fixed it up to be his very first car.

Kim lamented that she only had liability insurance for the truck, as she has three teenage sons at home to insure vehicles for.

“It was old and dented, but oh, he loved that truck,” she said sadly.

But it wasn’t his truck that was on Wyatt’s mind, as he stared at the man holding the gun just 5 feet from him.

“I was thinking about the other people that were with me,” Wyatt said. “I was thinking about my friend. He’s a really good friend of mine, so I was thinking about him, making sure he’s not in the danger zone. … I didn’t want anybody to be hurt.”

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Heritage Academy settles into new campus

MARICOPA — After many delays, the students and faculty of Heritage Academy-Maricopa are in their new facilities — sort of.

The first floor is built and already accommodating students, but much still remains to be finished. Despite this, faculty and students are feeling positive about the new campus.

“It’s been going in phases,” said Assistant Principal Barry Halterman, sitting in his would-be office, currently filled to the ceiling with band equipment. “We were able to move some things over from our previous location at UltraStar, and we’re settling in here. There are some challenges, which are to be expected given the circumstances, but it’s been going good.”

The school had originally planned to be out of UltraStar’s movie theaters and event spaces by Sept. 30, but due to construction delays and a shortage of workers, they were unable to move in until Oct. 28. The kids have taken it all in stride.

“Of course, there were a lot of jokes made about the popcorn smell and whatnot over there in UltraStar,” Halterman said with a smile. “It’s been really impressive to see how resilient these kids are. ... The kids and their families have been great.”

Jared Taylor, charter representative and chief executive officer of Heritage Academy, said the second floor is scheduled to be finished in November, followed shortly by a “beautiful gymnasium.” The school will also eventually have a large field for sports and recreation and, in the coming years, an auditorium.

Dance teacher Mandi Lopez, who teaches ballroom dance, yoga, pilates and bowling at the academy, was excited to move into her new classroom. She had previously been teaching in the carpeted upstairs hallways of UltraStar, making use of the limited resources the students had to express themselves uniquely in the space.

“Now that we’re here, we’re still teaching on carpet, but we at least have a light at the end of the tunnel. We know we’re going to have some floors and they’re working really hard,” Lopez said.

With just two days on the new campus, she and her students are already planning for a performance show.

“We’re getting ready for a showcase that we’re planning,” Lopez said excitedly. “They’re performing for all of their friends and family. We’re having a catered meal, it’s going to be like a semi-formal event. So they have routines they’re working on and it’s so cute.”

In addition to the arts, Halterman understands the importance of athletics in Maricopa. The school has gotten several teams up and running already with the help of those like basketball coach James Deakyne, a Heritage Academy graduate himself. He graduated from Heritage Academy in Mesa in 2013 and returned after a stint in the Marine Corps to coach boys basketball.

Deakyne had coaching history at Heritage Academy-Mesa and South Pointe High School already, so when he accepted the position at Heritage Academy-Maricopa, he took a few star players with him. His brother is a top sophomore in the state for basketball, according to Deakyne, and he left Perry High School to come join him in Maricopa.

That’s not all — Deakyne is gathering interest to introduce a wrestling team next year, and talks of a high school tackle football team are already in the works.

Just some of the other sports offered at Heritage Academy include swimming, volleyball, flag football, cross country and softball.

Halterman has other big plans he’d like to see come to fruition over the next few years. Formerly working at Heritage Academy in Laveen, he was a geologist and science teacher before moving to administration. He hopes to take the students on field trips to help further broaden their horizons.

“We’re going to bring some of our Heritage kids along on a field trip to Puerto Rico that’ll be kind of a combined field trip where they will focus on Spanish language learning, but also science,” Halterman said, “to just help them see beyond the borders of the campus.”

With so much still under the wraps of construction, it’s hard to picture the finished campus. However, the faculty and students of Heritage Academy Maricopa remain positive as they look to the future of the school.

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Edkey announces $3 million building expansion at Sequoia Pathway

MARICOPA — Fresh off the opening of another charter school campus in Maricopa, Sequoia Pathway Academy’s parent academy has announced a major expansion.

Edkey CEO Mark Plitzuweit announced Friday that the company will be constructing a 14,000-square-foot facility on the existing Pathway campus. The building will be located between the original facility and the high school, replacing most of the pre-manufactured structures that are currently in place.

When completed, the facility is expected to contain 12 classrooms, three offices, storage and classrooms. The plans also include 25 additional parking spaces and grass fields.

The project will be funded with bonds sold through the Pima County Industrial Development Authority, which Edkey expects to be closed in December. Plitzuweit said this represents a $3 million investment in the Sequoia Pathway campus.

The expansion comes amid rapid growth for charter schools in Maricopa. Heritage Academy opened the first phase of its permanent campus this week, and A+ Charter Schools plans to open its Maricopa campus for the 2020-21 school year.

Maricopa's Ace Hardware named best retailer in LD 11

MARICOPA — At this point, it comes as no surprise that the Ace Hardware store on 21542 N. John Wayne Parkway is a community favorite. After all, the hardware store is a three-time winner of the Business of the Year award from the City of Maricopa Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of many local organizations.

This year, the business won the Retailer of the Year award, presented by the Arizona Retailers Association, signifying it as the best in Legislative District 11. The nomination came from state Sen. Vince Leach, who represents the district.

The prize was a shock to owner Mike Richey, who has operated the store since 2010.

“This award was a surprise — I didn’t even know the award existed actually,” Richey said. “I know Vince Leach, he’s a great representative for our area, and I also know the person that leads the Arizona Retailers Association. … To be able to have both of those entities come into play to offer an award like this is really gratifying for us. I see it as kind of a confirmation for the work that we put into, not only the community, but the customer service inside the store as well.”

Leach was more than happy to nominate the business and congratulated Maricopa Ace Hardware for its big win.

“I am thrilled that Maricopa Ace Hardware is the winner of this award,” Leach said in a press release. “It takes a lot of hard work and smart decisions to run a successful small business. Mike Richey does an outstanding job with Maricopa Ace Hardware. It is a strong asset to Maricopa and all of LD 11.”

The store was also nominated for the Business of the Year award last year by Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a member of Children’s Miracle Network for their donations totaling nearly $43,000 — ranking as the ninth store in the nation for donations to the organization. Donations to the network are given to local hospitals, so the money Richey and his team collect funnels directly into Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

About one child from Maricopa arrives at Phoenix Children’s for medical care every day, with an average of 400 kids every year, according to Richey.

Not stopping there, Richey and his wife Jacquie are invited to attend yet another awards ceremony from Phoenix Children’s Hospital this week, where the regional Ace Hardware stores of Phoenix area will be recognized for their contributions as a whole to the network.

Ace donates to the network in a lot of different ways throughout the year, including providing some of their products. During the holiday season, wreaths are created by interior designers for Phoenix Children’s using materials provided by Ace such as wreaths, garland and lights. The decorated door ornaments are then auctioned off for funding the hospital.

In addition, Ace Hardware regularly opens their front doors to Girl Scouts selling cookies, veterans selling Buddy Poppies and community events such as Ladies Night happening Nov. 15. Ladies Night will have raffle prizes, gift bags, live music, food and wine, and will benefit the Against Abuse La Casa De Paz, a local women and children shelter.

“We sponsor a youth baseball team, “Richey said. “That’s just another example of not just writing a check or selling tickets to support things, but actually having community members who are also employees involved in the program.”

Out of 38 employees, Richey estimates only a couple do not live in Maricopa, making it easier to hear and understand what the community needs are.

“We try to support a lot of causes around town,” Richey said. “We’ve been recognized for that as well but, you know, the recognition is not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is so that we can support the community that supports us first. It’s been very rewarding to be able to be involved in things and give back to the community.”

The vast majority of Ace Hardware stores are individually owned and operated, which leaves the owners with a little more wiggle room for what products they stock. For Richey, that means he can cater to a variety of different community members who walk through his doors.

“We really have two main customer bases. One is the do-it-yourself-ers, or the homeowners in town,” Richey said. “The other is the commercial side, whether it be handymen or plumbers, landscapers or the commercial customers such as City of Maricopa or Ak-Chin Community.”

For Richey, running a local store that caters to community needs is in his blood. Born and raised in the tiny town of Buffalo, Indiana, home to just 500 residents, Richey learned how to operate a store at his father’s knee. His father owned Buffalo Park Discount, a building material and hardware store. By age 8, Richey was driving a forklift around the store.

It wasn’t just store ownership that he learned from his father; he also learned how to interact with a community who needs them as much as they need the community.

“That’s one of the reasons why I like to get involved in things,” Richey said. “We had a volunteer fire department in Buffalo and so they’d have a fish fry ... and they’d always came to see my dad to see if he would support them.”

For a man who now operates his own successful local store, it’s hard to picture him doing anything else. But when he moved to Arizona from Indiana some 35 years ago, he first tried his hand in real estate. When the recession hit, it was time for a career change. He found the Ace Hardware store in Maricopa and hasn’t looked back since.

He lives with his wife in Ahwatukee, and makes the daily commute to Maricopa. His two daughters are grown, and he is now a proud grandpa of four.

Though his father passed away when Richey was in college, he never forgot the lessons he taught him.

“That’d be really sweet, if he could see what we’ve done at this point,” Richey said.