In some Mesa schools, the fun break during recess is being spoiled by a thief targeting teachers' purses.
The last few weeks, a thief has come into unoccupied classrooms at Red Mountain Ranch and Zaharis elementary schools in Mesa and stole items out of purses and wallets such as credit and debit cards before using them at nearby businesses, according to police. The thefts occurred while the teachers were at recess supervising students.
In fact, at least twice, a teacher actually spoke with the suspect and asked why he was at the school, and he said that he was looking for his child or the office. But, after being shown where the office was, the suspect exited the school.
As of Thursday, the Mesa Unified School District was still trying to determine how the suspect is entering the school buildings.
After a teacher encountered the man inside the classroom about 2:10 p.m. at Red Mountain Ranch on Dec. 16, the teacher told him to leave the room immediately and sign in at the office, which the suspect did not do. The school then was placed under lockdown for about 40 minutes until school officials made sure the intruder was no longer on campus, and informed parents of the incident through its automated alert phone system, according to district spokeswoman Helen Hollands.
Hollands said each school has different avenues of entrances and exits and district officials are talking to principals at each of those schools to discuss the incidents and how they are happening.
"It's certainly unusual," she said.
The suspect in the Mesa thefts, who rifles through purses and wallets left under desks, has been captured on camera several times using the stolen credit cards.
Hollands, who is also a school board member in the Gilbert Unified School District, said a similar theft had also recently happened at Gilbert's Superstition Springs Elementary School, triggering a heightened alert that remains in place.
Gilbert district spokeswoman Dianne Bowers said that a man had entered Superstition Springs shortly after 3 p.m. around Jan. 19, and a teacher who saw him in the hallway noticed he was not wearing a badge. After the teacher told him to go to the office and get a badge, the man then went inside another office and stole credit cards out of two purses, Bowers said.
School had been dismissed and no students were in the school at the time the man came inside, Bowers said.
"Since that time, we have communicated information with our administrators and posted his picture at our schools," Bowers said. "Anyone seen coming inside the school is to be escorted to the office. We have had these safety and security measures in place for several years; we're just reminding everyone to be aware of anyone inside our schools without a visitor's badge."
The Mesa Police Department is asking for the public's help in identifying and locating the suspect, who faces charges of criminal trespassing, theft and credit card fraud.
The suspect is described as a white male with blond hair that is balding in front, who is in his late 30s to early 40s, about 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 240 pounds.
He also is known to wear a red or black Titleist cap and black sunglasses with a white or black short-sleeved pullover.
Anyone with information can call Mesa police at (480) 644-2016 or Silent Witness at (480) 948-6377.
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