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Retiring Maricopa police chief details lengthy career in public service
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MARICOPA -- Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl is retiring this year after spending over half of his life in law enforcement.

When looking back on his 33 year career, he speaks as much of his personal successes as he does of his comrades in the line of duty, and it’s clear to see his time in law enforcement has come full circle.

From being the new recruit, one of only five brought onto the force in Mesa in 1987, to taking on the role of chief of police and mentoring others through the program, he has seen himself grow into a role others told him he was destined to achieve.

Stahl was recruited by a neighbor shortly after he moved to Mesa in the 1980s, and he quickly saw the benefits of law enforcement.

“The more I got to exploring what police officers do and the service that they provide, the more enticing it became,” Stahl said. “In the city of Mesa where I lived at the time, it just seemed like a perfect fit.”

He was hired on as a beat cop, but worked in all kinds of facets as an officer on the force. He had an affinity for training, and helped train officers at the brand new police academy in crime scene analysis, defensive tactics, use of force and verbal judo.

Stahl remembers long nights as a traffic cop on DUI enforcement, something he said was particularly fulfilling as it helped keep the streets safe, “other than the cold weather,” he joked.

He was in his element as an officer, and liked the freedom of hours that it brought. So when he was pitched the promotion by his chief, he originally turned it down.

“But you know, the longer you’re in the career,” Stahl said, “the more you think he can make an impact on how people do their job and how management accepts how they do their jobs.”

Over his decades-long career in the force, Stahl held many roles providing for a diverse background in gang enforcement, training, communications, hiring, holding and even animal control. As a , he worked with the Family Advocacy Center and SWAT team in Mesa. He said he’d always planned on retiring as a , and felt he had reached his goal as an officer. However, others saw his potential.

When a member from the National Tactical Officers Association came in to audit the SWAT team, he offered many accolades for their abilities. They were just missing one thing, he said, a leader.

“I felt he was talking directly to me — probably because he was looking straight at me — and that was one of my defining moments,” Stahl said. “Man, I was having so much fun being a tactical team member, but if that team was going to go to the next level and be the next thing, then why not me?”

Stahl is the first, and he says likely last, police officer of his family. He was raised in Redfield, South Dakota, where he grew up on a large rural farm, the eldest of two brothers and sister.

The Stahl family farm housed around 500 cattle, a couple hundred pigs and fields of corn, wheat, barley, oats and alfalfa. Feeding the animals was Stahl’s job, he recalls, and it was character-building work.

Maricopa Police Chief Stahl through the years

Before his work as a police officer, he managed a fitness center and waterbed store in South Dakota. On a vacation in Phoenix, Stahl picked up a paper on a whim and found out his waterbed store had a location in the Valley. Not even seven days later, he was on a plane to Phoenix with a new job.

“My family was freaked out,” Stahl said. “They couldn’t believe I was doing that. ’Course, my mom and dad were farmers and didn’t like change, and I was like the ultimate of change.”

Even Stahl couldn’t have guessed where he would end up, 33 years later as chief of police in a small farming community 1,500 miles from home.

He came onto Maricopa’s police force as interim Chief of Police in 2011 after an agreement with Mesa PD, and was told by the city not to hold his breath for a position at the end of his interim term. However, just two months in he was approached by the city with a change of heart.

“Evidently, they liked what they’d seen,” Stahl said.

He and his wife Liz made the move to Maricopa, where he would spend the last nine years of his career in a role he never saw coming, but took in his stride nonetheless.

“One of my chiefs early on (that) asked me to promote — he’s the one that I said, ‘No, thank you,’ — he sent me a text that said, ‘See, I told you so.’ Kinda rubbing it in,” Stahl said. “I still don’t know what they saw in me at that time, because I thought I was just an officer, a , doing my job to the best of my ability.”

Stahl is recognized immediately in Maricopa by his cropped white hair and steely blue-eyed gaze. He stands quietly in the back of city and school board meetings, events and sports games, offering a commanding presence. He is most known for his monthly “Coffee with the Chief” citizen meetings, where he answers community questions and offers information related to crime and safety.

Though his humility wouldn’t reveal his prowess, it is clear by his repeated recommendation of leadership roles that his superiors felt otherwise. In his departure, he describes that same feeling when he looks at his own recruits and subordinates in the field.

“There are people that I trained as brand new officers — they were recruits in the academy, and now they’re Chiefs of Police in Arizona and other cities across the country,” Stahl said. “To watch them succeed, to watch our police officers here in Maricopa (as) their eyes light up, when they finally get it … That’s what keeps police chiefs coming back and doing the job.”

It’s this internal support and camaraderie that Stahl says is what keeps an officer going during hard times, and he’s seen plenty in his career.

As a detective with the Family Advocacy Center in Mesa, he worked some of the worst cases he had ever witnessed.

“(I spent) five and a half years there investigating some of the most horrific crimes I’ve ever, ever seen, that human beings should not have to see. … We see it so that others don’t have to see it.” Stahl said. “Some of the most dedicated professionals I’ve ever seen in my life worked being detectives and investigators of sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence.”

He gained notoriety for his work on the case of missing eleven-year-old Mikelle Biggs, who vanished on Jan. 2, 1999 in Mesa. A complicated case, Stahl was called in with his squad to work alongside the FBI to track down leads.

Stahl remembers documenting the tiniest of details in a case that was strange from the start.

On that crisp winter morning, Biggs borrowed her younger sister’s bike to ride up and down her neighborhood. The bike was found two minutes later, overturned with the wheels still spinning, as though Biggs had just set it down to take a breath. But Biggs was nowhere to be found — and her case remains unsolved 21 years later.

“Police chiefs are weird individuals, we think we’re like head coaches of football teams,” Stahl said. “If there’s a problem, we feel like we can solve it. That’s one that I won’t be able to solve before I retire.”

Law enforcement has streamlined since then, implementing new cutting-edge technologies and tactics to help combat crime across the nation. Stahl named body cameras and drones as big impactful technological advancements, but even just the implementation of cell phones has changed the way police work happens. In the ’80s and ’90s, Stahl remembers stopping by a payphone when he needed backup for an emergency.

But Stahl says law enforcement is still the same at its core.

“The fundamentals of law enforcement have not changed,” Stahl said. “Police officers are needed on the front line to do the best to prevent bad things happening to good people. I hope it never does change, because that is our fundamental role, to be the guardians of our community.”

Stahl says in recent years, a new kind of challenge has taken shape — in the court of public opinion. The recent national discussions about police brutality following civil unrest has ignited public discourse on the role police officers play in a community.

“Putting all police officers into this basket of ‘All police officers to do it this way, therefore, all of them are bad.’ That’s just not true,” Stahl said. “The bottom line is we work in a human environment, humans interacting with humans. Mistakes are going to be made because that’s how humans learn.”

He continues to move forward with the mantra of MPD in his ears, to “Make every contact excellent.” This discussion has also shed light on something Stahl feels Maricopa already excels at: being accepting of others.

“This community has it going on when it comes to being accepting of each other and being diverse — and it’s fragile. It really is,” Stahl said. “I worry that with the temperature of the social environment right now the way it is going, I don’t want to see that ruined here in Maricopa. Please, hold that diversity dear.”

As Stahl departs from MPD on Jan. 4, the 60-year-old will be leaving behind a career that took up much of the last 33 years of his life. He’s excited at the prospect of spending more time with his four daughters and wife Liz, who he called both his grounding force and a lifeline in the storms of life.

“It’s not my achievement alone, it’s a team achievement,” Stahl said. “My wife deserves a lot of credit for putting up with the long hours and all this other stuff and my kids — I can’t imagine being a law enforcement officer’s kid.”

The couple is in the process of building a home on his parents’ lakeside property, in a spot they reserved especially for the eventuality of their children returning home. Stahl says his 81-year-old mother will put him to work, helping around the house with projects just as he did when he was a kid.

His siblings will also be nearby, with his brother already home helping out. The two lost their sister at 39 from melanoma — “A farm girl at heart,” she’s buried on a hill overlooking the farm.

Stahl looks forward to playing catch with his grandkids, and showing them what a hard day’s work on the farm looks like. They’ll keep their home in Maricopa though, and hope to make the journey back seasonally to visit family and the city Stahl has come to love.

Commander Jim Hughes will be next to step into the shoes left by Stahl as he departs at the end of this year.

Hughes began his career in law enforcement in 1986 in New Jersey and moved to marking in 2012 to become a commander. For the last eight years, he oversaw operations, building partnerships and support services with MPD. He has also worked closely with Stahl, who has prepared Hughes over the last few months to help him transition into the chief role seamlessly.

“He is a relationship builder, and a consensus builder,” Stahl said of Hughes. “He will work his tail end off to make sure that everyone has a say. … You will find that he is a cheerleader for the City of Maricopa.”

Hughes is a father and husband, and Stahl says he exemplifies the MPD slogan in every contact.

“It has been my privilege to serve as one of Chief Stahl’s Commanders for the last eight years,” said Hughes in a Nov. press release announcing Stahl’s retirement. “I have learned so much from Chief Stahl. His mentorship and support have prepared me for this tremendous opportunity. It is an honor to have been chosen to lead the amazing men and women of the Maricopa Police Department.”

Unwilling to take credit even in his departure, Stahl said that his breadth of a career in law enforcement could not have been possible without the support of the department, or his family’s commitment.

“I thank all of the people that helped bring me here, helped support me throughout — both elected officials, city managers, community members, all of those people — they’ve all made an impact in my life,” Stahl said. “Everybody says it’s better sweet leaving, and yes, it is, but it’s meant to be right now.

“It’s meant to be right now,” he repeated.


Sports
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Sequoia Pathway welcomes new male cheerleaders in school first
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MARICOPA — Three new male cheerleaders are joining the ranks of Sequoia Pathway Academy cheer team ahead of their 2021 competition season, bringing a new dynamic to the team.

The boys are three of eight new recruits gearing up for competition season, and they will come together with middle and high school cheer teams for a large competition team of 27.

Head Cheer Coach Patty Torbert said the boys and additional teammates were added after a recent tryout held post-football season.

“One girl — her boyfriend was actually on the football team. She recruited him and then a couple other boys just kind of joined. They had never cheered before, but they were curious about trying it out,” Torbert said. “It was definitely the girls’ persuasiveness that brought them out. And then now that they realize that they actually enjoy it, that’s why they’ve stayed.”

The three boys are the first male cheerleaders in the history of Pathway, and provide valuable strength to the team. Torbert says she mainly looks for the skills that come naturally: teamwork and drive.

“For me, being dedicated and trying new things and having the heart to do it are more important to me than the talent — the talent can be taught,” Torbert said. “A lot of the boys were kind of intimidated about coming, they’re like, ‘We can’t do a split, ‘We can’t do a jump,’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not what I need, I need people who are going to be punctual and show up and do a good job and be supportive of their team.’”

The boys will be asked to do technically challenging stunts, pyramids and routines alongside their teammates as part of their role on the team, and Torbert says they are already progressing.

Carter Nebeker, 15, is one of these new additions. At 6 foot, 6 inches tall, he is a force on the court and is excited to become a member of the team. Torbert’s values are clear in her choice of Carter, who saw cheer as a great way to expand his teamwork capabilities.

“One of the main reasons why I like it is, not only am I being able to show cooperation with other people, but (also) team building,” Carter said. “What I’m most excited about is being able to work with everyone, and try out new things.”

Howard Waggner/PinalCentral 

15-year-old Carter Nebeker performs a stunt with his teammate during practice for Sequoia Pathway Academy cheer team.

He originally played basketball, but lost interest in the sport as he grew up. He then went after the mascot, but it was filled by a close friend, so instead he chose Cheer.

His parents were excited when he told them he’d made the cheer team, and his mom says it’s indicative of his hard working attitude on and off the court.

“He’s a hard worker,” said Jen Nebeker, Carter’s mom. “He and (his brother) have both been entrepreneurs, they’ve had their own business since they were 10 and 11.”

Carter has kept side jobs throughout his teen years, even paying for his own membership fee for cheerleading.

“It was important for him to do that on his own, he didn’t want to have to ask us for money,” Nebeker said. “So he asked me to make a post on the Maricopa (Facebook) page to see if anybody had yard cleanup or work that they needed done so that he could earn the money for here — and he did, he made it in like four days.”

Carter is now booked through January with lots of different odd jobs to fund his cheer commitment, and Nebeker said some people even reached out with donations. One woman who donated told Nebeker that her male high school friend had been forbidden by his parents to become a cheerleader, something that was echoed by many adults in the comments of Nebeker’s Facebook post.

This is a belief that is all too familiar to Torbert. She hopes that by being the first, Carter and his teammates will help change the discussion about cheerleading.

“Maybe they’ll inspire some other boys to come out and realize that it’s not just ‘the girl sport,’ it’s an all-person sport.” Torbert said. “I think once people see how much work goes into it and how technically hard it actually is, that it might drive some others to come out and join the team next year.”

Nebeker said she and her husband are fully supportive of their son’s choice in sport, though initially surprised.

“He waited to tell us until he could make sure that that’s what he wanted to do and see what he was in for and he’s doing great with it,” Nebeker said. “It was really neat to kind of see how the community supports it. There’s always gonna be the people that kind of make fun of it, but he loves it — he doesn’t care.”

Now that Carter successfully funded his participation, the next step is to put in an order for team uniforms. But ordering for Carter is a tall order, literally. Torbert will need to find dress pants and a uniform shirt to fit his 6-foot-plus frame, and find cheer shoes in a size 18.

In the meantime he is working hard in practice, waking up early to head to the gym, and has already started some of the stunts they will be debuting this next semester.

“They needed some help with back spotting and they needed someone to make them stand out more. I’d say that they’ve gotten a lot more attention,” Carter said. “We’ve been really improving recently on a lot of stuff now that we have a couple new hands.”

Torbert has noticed a shift in the team since the boys’ arrival, something that may give them an edge in their upcoming tournaments.

“Having the male cheerleaders on the team actually really changes the dynamic with all the girls,” Torbert said.

Howard Waggner/PinalCentral  

Sequoia Pathway Academy cheerleaders perform a stunt during a practice for competition season next year.

The senior level one team will most likely be competing virtually at first due to COVID, and might need to change categories in competition to accommodate their new co-ed roster. Torbert says the expansion is welcome.

“I’m really excited that we have such a large team this year, and I’m just going to keep building the program,” Torbert said. “I’m looking forward to how the season goes.”


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Santa Cruz flooding study in approved water bill
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MARICOPA — Along with a congressionally approved water bill earlier this month, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema emphasized the need for a completed flood control study and plan for the Lower Santa Cruz River Basin.

“A flood control plan for the Lower Santa Cruz River Basin will protect Arizona families, farmers, tribal communities and small business owners from dangerous and costly floods and help Pinal County’s economy continue to grow,” said Sinema.

The Lower Santa Cruz River Basin occupies about 11 square miles in the center of Maricopa and currently has no flood control system in place. The study, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, would provide vital information about the floodplain and a path forward for the city.

“The river flows through a mixed system of channelized and poorly defined streams, which can flood during heavy rainfall events,” said Sinema in a letter to the Senate. “Despite a history of flooding in the area, no flood control projects have been constructed in the Lower Santa Cruz River watershed.”

As of now, the basin entirely surrounds City Hall and inhibits growth of the city as long as it remains a risk for a 100-year flooding event.

“There’s a large percentage of property within the current city limits that is within a floodplain — meaning when a rain event happens, it will get flooded,” said Nathan Steele, director of economic and community development for the city. “So you either need to have extra insurance if you’re going to develop anything on it, or all of the work that you need to do in order to make the development safe is such an economic burden that it’s better to just build elsewhere.”

Steele estimates that area as being worth about $1.4 billion in new development opportunities currently being restricted by the economic burdens of building on a floodplain. The area lies between the eastern communities of Sorrento and Tortosa, which Steele said would benefit the most from new developments.

With the redirection of floodwaters, businesses, including grocers, would have a much better incentive to build on this land.

Sinema secured a provision in the Water Resources Development Act, passed by the U.S. House Dec. 8, that highlights the need for this study’s completion and open communication between all parties.

There are quite a few hands in the pot for this project, including the city of Maricopa, Pinal County, Gila River Indian Community, Ak-Chin Indian Community, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps.

For the past five years, communication between these entities has taken place in an effort to get this crucial study underway. But now, Steele estimates the study will be complete in the next six months and has a “hopeful” timeline of starting work in the area in 18 months.

“(The next step) is going and digging some holes,” Steele said. “We’ve been talking for years and years with various stakeholders and property owners in these affected areas. So this isn’t going to come as a surprise to anyone. … There’s members of the Cortona development that are going to be really happy to see this stuff taken out of the floodplain.”

Though the study will direct the city and its stakeholders on the best way to mitigate a flood event, Steele said work could include widening some washes, fixing holes and overall diverting the water away from the city.

This area has been the site of many historical flooding events, including some documented as early as 1890. The flood of 1983 stood out as a major event, shutting down roads and wreaking havoc in the then-small town. In the following years, dam breaches and other natural disasters caused more flooding damage to Maricopa.

The city will ultimately be the project manager for this project, but funding will come from a variety of sources and stakeholders.

“It’s not going to just come from one single check,” Steele added.

Steele expressed his gratitude for City Manager Rick Horst, who he said prioritized this study when he arrived in Maricopa, and Sinema for her work to highlight this issue.

“We’re grateful also that there’s people like the senator who has shown that this is important, and has publicly said, ‘No, we need to have support here,’ because the more support we can get from everyone, the more quickly we can get this moving,” Steele said.


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