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Former Fremonters recall deadly N.M. school shooting

Makenzie Rezac wasn’t worried when she first heard Aztec High School was in lockdown.

“I honestly just thought it was a drill or that someone was going around Aztec just doing stupid things, because in the past we’ve had lockdowns called for a bank robbery and people going around and throwing things at signs,” Makenzie said.

But the former Fremont girl and her family — like others from the town in New Mexico — would learn that a 21-year-old gunman had disguised himself as a student to get into the school.

There, William Atchison fatally shot students Francisco Fernandez and Casey J. Marquez.

Associated Press reports say Atchison then walked up and down the hall — firing randomly — before killing himself.

For those who live in the town of about 6,500, the shooting was a shock.

“We never expected anything like this to happen in a small town like Aztec,” Makenzie said.

Makenzie and her mom, Mikala, and twin siblings, Macy and Jonah, moved to Aztec in 2013.

“It’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody and everyone is nice and really caring. It’s a really cool community,” said Makenzie, now a 15-year-old sophomore.

On Dec. 7 — the day of the shooting — Makenzie was in her world history class wondering if her friend was going to be late, but he made it just in time.

Makenzie was teasing her pal about almost being marked absent when the lockdown announcement came over the intercom.

Then students heard loud banging downstairs.

“We all kind of moved to a corner of the room, but I don’t think any of us had really heard gunshots — at least not like that — so we thought that maybe a student was banging on the lockers or people were moving furniture to scare us,” she said.

A woman on the intercom told students to get down, stay away from doors and windows and to get into their classroom’s closet.

Makenzie believes her teacher didn’t have his 22 students go into the closet, which faced the hallway, for fear the gunman would be able to shoot students through the wall.

Students huddled together, whispering and trying to calm each other. Makenzie said she saw her teacher crying and she started to cry, too.

The students then heard shooting and yelling coming from the other side of a windowed catwalk.

And they heard the sound of running coming toward their room.

The gunman began jiggling door handles and knocking on doors trying to get into the locked classrooms.

“Is this it?” Makenzie wondered. “I wanted to tell her (mom) that I loved her.”

The shots ended.

“We heard the last round of gunshots and it was right next to our classroom and we all just got quiet,” Makenzie said. “We were all terrified, because we didn’t know if that was the cop shooting the shooter or if the shooter shot another student.”

Makenzie’s teacher kept looking through a small window in the door and saw a police officer. Students soon learned they were being evacuated and were given back phones routinely stored during class time.

Students were told to stay quiet and text — not call — their parents.

“Mom, I am okay,” Makenzie texted Mikala. “There was a school shooting right outside my classroom. … I’m not sure what happened yet. They got the person who had the gun, but we have to stay in my classroom.”

Mikala, who works late nights and had been asleep, said a friend previously texted her, asking what was going on. Mikala also had received a vague text from the school, but like her daughter figured the lockdown was due to someone throwing rocks at signs or something similar.

She texted Makenzie and didn’t expect to hear back because students can’t have their phones during class.

Then Mikala got her daughter’s texts with the details of what happened.

“That’s when I jumped up, got my keys and my coat and went out the door,” Mikala said.

Through her texts, Makenzie asked about her 8-year-old twin siblings — not knowing at the time if there was more than one shooter.

Makenzie’s mom also asked her to look for a close family friend, a student who didn’t have a phone.

Soon, Makenzie’s teacher told students they’d be evacuated and patted down by a police officer.

Students formed a single-file line and walked out of the classroom and their teacher told them not to look to the right.

“I put my hoodie up, because I didn’t want to look, because I knew if I looked I’d be scared,” Makenzie said.

Makenzie and other students had to keep their hands on their heads as they walked outside with an officer. The students huddled, hugged each other and cried, before going to a gym where they were searched. They then boarded buses for a convention center, where their parents were to pick them up.

After getting her daughter’s text, Mikala — whose family lives about 12 miles outside of Aztec — got her best friend who lives down the road and whose son also attends the school. They drove together in his minivan.

“I was trying to keep calm, because he hadn’t heard from his son yet,” Mikala Rezac said.

Parents were told to go to the police station.

“There was probably 100 parents, if not more, there already,” she said. “The police had said the shooter was down.”

An officer said 15 students were injured, although that wasn’t the case.

Various rumors and falsehoods circulated, adding to the angst.

“We heard there was another shooter — that they were searching for him. It got ridiculous and that was the most upsetting to my daughter, because while she was waiting to get on the bus she was reading all this stuff online, all these rumors that were floating around,” Mikala said.

Mikala’s friend learned that students were being taken to a convention center in another town. The two headed there.

It took about 1 ½ hours for students to reach the convention center.

Mikala stayed in communication with Makenzie. But almost two hours passed before Mikala’s friend heard from his son.

Students were brought into the building, grade by grade.

Mikala saw Makenzie.

“Once I got her, I hugged her and wouldn’t let go,” Mikala said.

As time passed, parents and students learned more details about the shooter, who didn’t have a criminal record, but was found with a thumb drive on which he told how he planned to kill others, then himself.

“My understanding is that he hated his life,” Makenzie said.

Aztec High School students returned to class on Monday.

“We’re working on healing,” Makenzie said beforehand.

“It (shootings) can happen anywhere, but people shouldn’t be afraid to send their kids to school,” Mikala said, adding, “I hope every school is as prepared as well as the school here was.”


Local
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Christmas comes a little bit early for 50 area residents

Fifty Fremont-area residents received a Christmas present just a little bit early this year.

For the fourth time, an anonymous donor provided officers with the Fremont Police Department $5,000 to help make 50 people’s holiday season just a little bit brighter.

Throughout the day Wednesday and early Thursday morning, teams of officers pulled over vehicles for minor traffic violations and instead of presenting them with a ticket, presented each driver with a Christmas card containing $100 cash.

“The officers will be looking for individuals who appear to be in need this time of year,” Police Chief Jeff Elliott said. “We are looking for single-parent families, low-income individuals, things of that nature. They will stop these individuals after they find a very minor traffic violation and then they will give them that card with a $100 bill.”

Elliott said the anonymous donor initially provided funds to the department in 2014 to bolster rapport between law enforcement and the public following the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri occurring in August of that year.

For two years the department received $2,500 and the last two years, $5,000. During a Wednesday morning press conference inside of the FPD training room, Elliott said that he doesn’t even know who the donor is – an intermediary drops off the gift at the police station annually.

For many officers participating in the giveaway, this is one of their top days of the year.

“This is a big morale booster for the officers, they really enjoy going out and being involved in a situation that is a little more positive than the ones they normally are – they are very happy to do that,” Elliott said. “The teams will be going out – two teams out today, one tonight and then teams out tomorrow morning.

“Quite often they are dealing with something that is negative, almost every interaction the police generally have is something negative, whether you had your lawn mower stolen or you’re getting pulled over or something of that nature. So the officers are going to go out there and make these stops and instead of it ending with a court date, it will end with ‘have a merry Christmas.”

Violations that warranted stops included drivers not yielding, turning into the far lane, not using a blinker, minor speeding infractions, having a dirty license plate or having a headlight or taillight out, Elliott said.

While the situation virtually always ends up being positive once the stop is made, officers still must have their guard up.

“It can still be a dangerous thing because the people getting pulled over don’t know that this is going to end well, and if you run into the wrong people there is still the potential for something bad to happen,” Elliott said.

And while danger is always present for officers, this is one of the times they can focus on the really positive aspects of their jobs.

“We hear the usual, ‘what did I do? What did you pull me over for?’ then their response to getting a Christmas card and money is pretty strong,” Lt. Ed Watts said. “We’ve had people in disbelief, we’ve had people actually cry and we’ve had people who are dealing with various family and personal issues at home. And this money was very needed and very helpful for this time of year. We’ve had people even ask to hug us, which is a little unusual, but it shows how positive the result of this is.”

Added Elliott: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the citizens of the community, I mean, who doesn’t enjoy getting money?”


Local
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Commission recommends items for SunRidge Place housing development

The Fremont Planning Commission recommended approval of several items related to a proposed housing development known as SunRidge Place at its meeting on Monday.

Among items the Planning Commission considered was a request for approval on behalf of Don Peterson and Associates Real Estate Company of a preliminary plat for approximately 64.7 acres generally located at 3001 E Military Avenue to herein be known as SunRidge Place.

The subject property is bordered by East Military Avenue to the north, North Johnson Road to the east, Jack Sutton Drive to the south and North Luther Road to the west.

According to Marlon Brabec, of Don Peterson and Associates Real Estate Company, the proposed subdivision would include single family residential homes, duplexes, row houses, and apartments throughout the 64.7 acre tract of land.

“We have a long history in this town of doing subdivisions and development — we have done the Day Acres, Day Acres East, Heatherwood, Brentwood Park, Town Square, a lot of projects and we have a lot of pride in our work,” Brabec said at the meeting. “We’ve thought about this for a couple years and it is going to fill a need in our town for single family homes that may be a little more affordable for young people.”

Following a short discussion by the commission, a motion was made by Commissioner Carl Nielson to recommend approval of the preliminary plat request. His motion was seconded by Commissioner Marty Gifford and, following a vote, the motion passed 7-1. Commissioner Rol Horeis cast the single dissenting vote.

“All we are approving is the fact that, generally speaking, the lots and the streets have the intention of meeting our comprehensive plan and our codes and ordinances,” Troy Anderson, director of planning, said during staff report. “Once the preliminary plat is approved then the owner or developer can begin investment into the drainage studies the traffic studies to see whether or not the actual design will move forward. So you may see deviation from the preliminary plat to the final plat based on compliance with Federal, State and Local laws.”

Prior to the commission’s vote to recommend approval of the SunRidge Place preliminary plat, they also considered and recommended approval for a zoning change to 8.6 acres of land, located within the 64.7 acre tract, from RR Rural Residential to R-4 High-Density Residential.

During the public hearing portion of the consideration several local residents raised concerns about the proposed SunRidge Place development citing traffic, and student safety concerns related to the project.

“You just built Jack Sutton drive and as soon as you put up apartment buildings it will be obsolete, it won’t be big enough to handle the traffic,” Alan Fanning, who lives near the proposed development on Johnson Drive, said at the meeting. “Plus you have hundreds of kids walking along the street there and you’re going to put all this traffic right along those kids. I just think it is a really bad idea and I would really recommend that the Planning Commission deny the change.”

Another local resident, Mike Zentic, shared Fanning’s concerns about increased traffic in the area and the safety of student’s walking to and from Fremont Middle School and Johnson Crossing Academic Center.

“My wife is a teacher at the middle school and I agree with the comments about the traffic and one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is there already has been one death on that stretch of road,” Zentic said at the meeting.

The incident Zentic was referring to was the death of 11-year-old Andrew Perez-Martinez, who was struck by a vehicle near the corner of East Military Avenue and Luther Road in May 2016.

Currently the City of Fremont is having a Traffic Signal Warrant Evaluation completed at the intersection of Luther Road and Military Avenue. The study, which started in late November and is scheduled to conclude on Jan. 31, 2018, costs $6,060 and is coming out of the City of Fremont’s Street Fund.

Following the public hearing, and discussion by the commission, a motion was made by Commissioner Amber Barton to recommend approval of the zoning change from RR Rural Residential to R-4 High-Density Residential for the 8.6 acres of land. Her motion was seconded by Nielson and following a vote the motion passed 7-1, with Commissioner Dev Sookram dissenting.

Both the preliminary plat and zoning change recommendations will be considered by the City Council at its next regular meeting on December 26th.