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After 11 years, unidentified body found near Maricopa still a mystery

MARICOPA — The body of a young male found dead of an apparent homicide in 2009 in the desert of Hidden Valley is still unidentified 11 years later, and his murder case remains open.

The John Doe’s body was found around 9 a.m. on March 28, 2009, near West Pampas Grass and North Hidden Valley roads outside of Maricopa by a concerned citizen, according to a report from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.

When officers arrived, he was lying face up on the ground near the eastern edge of the roadway with his head facing north and his feet to the south. His head had “heavy trauma” and there was a lot of blood at the scene, both on the body and on the ground.

“It was very clear that this body was not alive,” the officer on scene wrote in the report. “Looking at this area I observed what appeared to be fresh shoe and tire tracks in the roadway along with fresh horse tracks. ... It should be noted that it also appeared that after the body was on the ground that an unknown vehicle ran over its left leg.”

The clarity of the tire marks led the officer on-scene to deduce the vehicle was moving slowly, and something had been dragged over the tracks at a later time.

An ambulance crew on scene evaluated the body and a doctor confirmed him dead before a blanket was placed over him.

“His death was ruled a homicide, and this remains an open investigation,” said Lauren Reimer, spokeswoman for PCSO. “If anyone has information regarding his death, we urge them to contact the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.”

Though the officer on scene estimated the man’s age to be in the early 20s, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says he is believed to have been between the ages of 15 and 21.

He was 5-foot-7 and weighed around 120 pounds at the time of his death. He was described as Hispanic, with short, thick black hair and brown eyes. He also had a half-inch mustache and no beard.

The clothing he was wearing when he was found included dark-colored denim jeans, a white T-shirt, a black, hooded jacket with a “South Side 13” design, a black canvas belt with a metal belt buckle inscribed with two crossed pistols, white socks and white sneakers. A small yellow flashlight was also found on his person.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, was a plastic urine bottle still containing urine found in his front pocket.

According to NamUs, the bottle had the name “Andrez Garcia” on it, and a date of birth of Nov. 30, 1987, on the label. Medical paperwork from “Hospital Patient Services” located at 2400 W. Dunlap Ave. in Phoenix was also found in his pocket. The paperwork, in part, described available services for undocumented immigrants.

PCSO stated the case was reassigned last month to Detective Joe Bonucci, and it is still under investigation.

Until it is solved, the young man who died in the desert will remain unnamed.

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Maricopa protesters, police mingle in peaceful rally against injustice

MARICOPA — Chants rang out from a street corner in Maricopa on June 1 and passing cars blared their horns in approval as peaceful demonstrators led a protest against police brutality.

It started as an organized event that spread through social media, but following a post by the Pinal County NAACP saying the source of the event was unclear, the organizer canceled it. The NAACP then held its own candlelight vigil on Friday at Copper Sky Regional Park.

However, people still decided to show up to express their grievances following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

A handful of protesters started gathering on the northeast corner of Edison Road and State Route 347 shortly before 7 p.m. By the time the crowd calmly dispersed at 8 p.m. in compliance with the state curfew, there were more than 30 people waving signs with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice No Peace.”

For Maricopa residents DJ Kali and Vonzell Cash, being out Monday night was a way to support the cause while making sure everyone is safe. Kali in particular was a vocal presence throughout the night, leading chants and providing information about what else can be done.

“Being a victim of police brutality myself, this is my way of getting some self-therapy as well,” Kali said. “I wanted to be able to share my experience, and to use that as a testimony versus how some people unfortunately have used it in other ways.”

He said no city is perfect, but he hopes Monday’s protest shows that such demonstrations, when done in good faith and with law enforcement and not interested in escalating the situation, can be purely productive. This comes amid large protests around the country that have started out peaceful before conflict led to vandalism and looting.

“In some other areas, the destruction and the violence they see is not being caused by the protesters,” Kali said. “It’s being caused by the police and other people who are planted into the protesters who are disrupting the protests. We’re out here being peaceful. Then things are always provoked and only one side of the story is told. So I’m out here to get things out of my mouth — and I have a big mouth, and I don’t care who don’t like it or who do like it.”

Howard Waggner/PinalCentral  

Protesters gathered at Edison Road and State Route 347 in Maricopa Monday to speak out against the killing of George Floyd.

A small group of police officers were on hand to monitor the protest, but nothing tense occurred. In fact, Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl walked along the sidewalk meeting with anyone willing to talk to him. He also joined protesters in taking a knee near the end of the evening.

“We want to set the example, to be the example, to let them know that every life is important to us,” Stahl said. “Some people just need to be heard, so a lot of what I’m doing is listening. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to hear what people have to say.”

Cash said he grew up in a city where people of color were often targeted by law enforcement just for going about their lives. Working with local police in Maricopa, he doesn’t think it gets to that point here.

“It makes me feel good because what the media often portrays is just a lot of violence, a lot of aggravation, a lot of disruption,” Cash said. “That can happen, but as you can see, we can also protest peacefully.”

Maricopa City Councilman Henry Wade showed up to the protest with a group bringing cases of water for the protesters and police officers. He said he never worried about tension in the city, but was happy to see everyone together that night honoring the memory of Floyd and all those like him who were killed due to racism.

“I’m glad to see the activism of folks,” Wade said. “I think it shows the tide is changing as far as the conservative nature of our community. It’s positive.”

Wade praised the relationship between the police and the community on issues like this, and he said it comes down to leaders showing empathy and not adversarial rhetoric that he said he’s seen coming out of the White House.

“We’ve got a respectful relationship with each other, and that goes a long way,” Wade said. “I’ve traveled around the world as a veteran, and I can say we’ve got the best thing going here in the United States. But we’ve still got work to do. We’ve definitely got work to do in regard to race relations and privilege.”

Wearing a T-shirt with Floyd’s picture on it, Melissa Knox brought her 13-year-old son with her so he could start seeing what it takes to make change in his community. Knox is a Native American woman married to a black man, and they both want their son to have a more tolerant world in which to live.

“He needs to know he can stand up for change,” Knox said. “He’s gonna face those racial issues sometime in his life. God forbid it isn’t anything like this. God forbid he loses his life. But he needs to know it’s time to take a stand, and not everything is with violence.”

Knox said she hopes everywhere from Maricopa to Minneapolis the message is heard that racial ignorance and white privilege will not be tolerated and that people of color demand to be treated with the respect and dignity of anyone else.

“The biggest thing is change,” she said. “Just because my color of skin is different and I can’t scrub it off doesn’t make me any different.”

When the clock struck 8 p.m., meaning the beginning of the state-ordered curfew, Kali thanked everyone for coming out and urged them to continue the fight by joining future demonstrations.

Stahl said he admired that the protesters had a message they wanted to get across, but that they were doing so in an uplifting way rather than through anger. He said that showed him they want to be a part of the solution. As for the message he wants them to receive from the Police Department, it’s that every officer values human life and works hard to help all people in the community.

“I’m so impressed with the city of Maricopa, the people here, the diversity in this city, the humanity in this city,” Stahl said. “The people who called me all week long once this started coming out, whether they were black or they were white, were concerned about the safety of the city. Was this sending the right message and on the proper platform?”

Pinal Black Lives Matter Protests 6/3/20

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New Maricopa assistant fire chief is longtime public servant

MARICOPA — The Maricopa Fire Department recently welcomed a new assistant chief but one who is familiar to all on the team.

Brad Pitassi, who has been with Maricopa Fire for almost 14 years and was deputy chief, was thrilled to accept the job in February. His new role as assistant chief of administrative services is kind of a “kitchen sink” job — as he puts it.

“You never know from one hour to the next what’s gonna cross my plate, but I’ve got an incredible team: My deputy chiefs, our management analyst, the administrative assistant that helps us over at admin,” Pitassi said. “They put their heart and soul into the department, and I see that every day, so I’m really proud to represent them.”

While assistant chief of operations Jerome Schirmer takes care of day-to-day operations, Pitassi works more on making sure firefighters have the tools and equipment they need to do their jobs. Pitassi is excited to work closely with the city and assist in economic development to make sure life safety components are implemented as well as being more aggressive in public outreach. His hiring came several months after the retirement of previous Assistant Chief Lonnie Inskeep in June of last year.

Pitassi now oversees the community services aspect of the department, which is a good fit considering his previous role as public information officer for MFD. Deputy Chief Chris Bollinger takes over public information officer duties, a title that is assigned in addition to the person’s role in the department.

It was a winding road to where Pitassi is today, and he wasn’t always sure he would land in the public safety field. Born in Rhode Island and raised in Boston, Pitassi is a New England sports fan through and through. He originally set his sights on law school, but 9/11 put things into perspective and he made a “sharp turn” into public safety.

He attended EMT school in Phoenix and started in the Maricopa ambulance service in 2003, around the time he met his wife, Christina.

The meeting happened outside a porta potty at the Phoenix Open. His friend pointed him out to Christina, helpfully calling him, “that ugly kid over there.”

“This beautiful woman came up and said, ‘Hey, are you Brad?’” he said. “(I had to) pinch my cheek because that never happened. I’m like, there’s no way this is a reality. Then I came out, and Christina was still standing there. We hit it off.”

Pitassi earned two higher-education degrees over the course of his career, a bachelor's in organizational communication from Northeastern University and a master's in public policy and administration from Northwestern University.

The two now have a 7-year-old daughter together, Ava, who recently helped Pitassi decorate his new office with her personal touch. Pitassi says through all of his late nights, early mornings and long hours in the library, Christina has been by his side.

“She’s really one of the main reasons why I have been successful and able to accomplish what I have in the department,” Pitassi said. “She’s been an incredible partner because we met when I was working on the ambulance and she’s supported me all the way through today. That’s one part of the fire service a lot of people don’t understand, is the amount of sacrifices that families have to deal with.”

In addition to his two degrees, Pitassi has also taught classes to fire departments around the country, including the New York Fire Department, on how to be an effective public information officer. He has also served on the national Type 1 incident management team, which works on wildfires and mass fatalities nationally.

Through all of that though, there’s one department that stands out from the rest.

“I’ve gone all over the country on incidents — from big departments to little, volunteer to paid — I spend a lot of time in firehouses across the country when I’m out on wildfire assignments just because, you know, those are my peeps,” Pitassi said. “(But) there’s really nothing like Maricopa and, I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s what’s kind of anchored me in.”

It’s not surprising, after all, he had witnessed Maricopa boom from a tiny town to a thriving city in just a few short years and was pivotal in getting the department where it is today.

“I take a ton of ownership in the department just because I’ve seen the struggles that the first original seven firefighters went through to get this to be a full-time department,” Pitassi said. “I’ve seen the leadership over the years. I kind of feel like I’ve grown up with the department, and that’s why I’ve always stayed loyal to them.”

In the space of about five years between 2000 and 2005, Maricopa expanded by the tens of thousands, meaning the department had to expand along with it. Over the course of one year in 2005, Pitassi estimates they hired about 95% of their staff.

Witnessing that was a struggle, but Pitassi said that it was the hiring of Chief Brady Leffler in 2013 that has really pulled them through the last decade seamlessly.

“His leadership style and the needs our department lined up perfectly, and he’s been spending the last seven years of his career building the department that he envisioned from day one,” Pitassi said.

For Pitassi, his job comes down to the love that he has both for the job and for the brothers and sisters he works with in the line of duty every day. It really is a team effort, he says.

“The department has wrapped their arms around me and supported me. I have incredible mentors from the fire chief and Jerome and I look up to a lot of the firefighters themselves,” Pitassi said. “I’m just incredibly lucky, I’m proud. It’s been an honor in my life to get picked for the Maricopa Fire Department, and it's even more of an honor to see where we’ve been over the last 14 years or so.”

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Police Q&A, Horst's donation part of protest outside Maricopa City Hall

MARICOPA — Around 30 peaceful protesters outside City Hall on Tuesday night were met by Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl and other city officials, who addressed questions for about 40 minutes before the state curfew dispersed the crowd.

While the City Council meeting continued inside, Stahl responded a variety of inquires from protesters regarding safety measures, vetting and discipline of police officers, and body cam footage. He also shook hands with a protester and briefly took a knee during the demonstration.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 33 years, folks,” Stahl said. “What I can promise you is the effort is there to be excellent. There is no way to make use of force look pretty. … It’s going to be ugly. But our mission to you, our vision statement to you, is to make it excellent.”

Protesters also asked Stahl to address the killing of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 that sparked worldwide protests against police brutality. All four of the officers involved in that incident have been arrested.

“It’s unacceptable,” Stahl said. “We do not condone that behavior, none of us accept that behavior as acceptable behavior as police officers. I think that’s a pretty consistent theme in most police departments throughout the county. It’s not acceptable, and yes it is criminal.”

As Stahl spoke, City Manager Rick Horst left the meeting in progress and approached the crowd to make a spur-of-the-moment proclamation.

“Thank you for being here,” Horst said, addressing the protesters. “I have to get back to a meeting, but I would like to say, whoever wants to be the person I work with, I will commit $5,000 out of my budget to help you put together a public education campaign that you direct and lead.”

For Horst, the issue of discrimination hits close to home. His 14 grandchildren represent a variety of races and ethnicities and speak a total of seven languages. Diversity runs deep in his family, and he believes it is essential to the success of any city.

“Between my children, their spouses and my grandchildren, we speak seven languages — well I don’t, I barely speak English,” Horst joked in a follow-up interview with PinalCentral. “I have grandkids that speak Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Lesotho — believe it or not, an African native language — and I have two grandchildren of color.”

His wife is originally from Quebec, Canada, and speaks French. Some of his grandchildren live in Maricopa, and as he watched them play together the other day — a mix of different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities — he recognized the need for public education.

“They’re best friends. They love each other. They do everything together. And I thought, ‘Man, why can’t we adults act like our children sometimes,’” Horst said. “They (protesters) feel like they need a voice and an education process and my goal was to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna help you.’”

The city manager is, by occupation, keyed in to what the city needs both economically and socially, and Horst says it’s too often overlooked that these two issues intertwine.

“I think people misunderstand sometimes the value of diversity. Even economically, there’s a lot of value in diversity,” Horst said. “Local government is the government that’s closest to the people. It’s the government that the people have the easiest opportunity to speak to our mayor and our city council. … The truth is that everything that’s good about the community mostly comes from the cities and from the grassroots up.”

Horst is now in talks with several people from the event who reached out to him to share ideas about how best to use those funds, and he said he’s looking forward to deciding that course of action in the coming weeks.

“It’s not the money that’s important, it’s what can come out of it that’s important,” Horst said. “There’s an old proverb that to make friends, you must show yourself friendly. I came here two years ago and the reason I fell in love with Maricopa is because everyone was friendly. It didn’t matter your skin color, it didn’t matter your religion, it didn’t matter your income levels. Everyone’s just friendly.”