The Mesa High School campus today is a sea of purple, one of the school’s main colors, as students and staff continue to mourn the loss of Ryne Zahner, a very popular and respected math teacher at the school.
Tempe police said Zahner, 26, was found shot to death in his Tempe backyard around 4 a.m. Sunday morning, just northeast of Mill Avenue and Baseline Road. They added that several people inside the home at the time of the shooting reported seeing the suspect flee the scene on foot.
The suspect was identified yesterday as 27-year-old Caleb Bartels, a white male, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 165 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes. According to Tempe police, Bartels is still on the loose and should be considered armed and dangerous and is believed to be driving a 2007 silver Pontiac Grand Prix with license plate number BSK8972.
The school district was closed yesterday in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday so this is the first day of school since the incident. Due to intense media coverage, Mesa High School Principal Kirk Thomas did not allow media on campus today, but district officials said additional counselors were on campus to help students and staff mourn the loss.
“Ryne Zahner was a respected math teacher at Mesa High School and a graduate of Skyline High School. The Zahner family is part of the Mesa Public Schools community and we send our thoughts and condolences to them during this difficult time,” Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Hollands said in a statement.
Zahner’s biography on the Mesa High School website said he was born in Peoria, Illinois, moved to Mesa in 1999, attended Skyline High School in Mesa before going on to graduate from Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. He had taught math at Mesa High for the past four years.
Javier Barraza, whose wife Shauna Wampler taught at Mesa High alongside Zahner, said the two had worked close together for those past four years.
“She taught with him side by side and like most co-workers, shared a bond with him,” Barraza, who was also wearing Jackrabbit purple today, said. “Like most co-workers, they spent a lot of time together so they were close and the news really hit home to us. I almost cried myself when I heard the news. It really opens your eyes to how delicate and special life is.”
Barraza said he had just seen Zahner at the school’s Christmas party: “He was a stand-up guy. I really liked him.”
He and Wampler have a senior and freshman attending Mesa High along with twin nieces who are sophomores, “so it’s a tough time for our family.” He was bringing in pizza so the entire family could have lunch together today in his wife’s classroom.
Valeria Diaz, 20, graduated from Mesa High last year and felt like she had to come to campus today in her purple shirt to support her friends and the memory of Zahner.
“It’s because of him that I finally graduated,” she said. “It would have never happened if it wasn’t for Mr. Zahner and two other teachers.”
Diaz said she struggled to graduate, but no matter the circumstances of any student, Zahner was their biggest cheerleader.
“He believed in each and every one of us,” she said. “If any of us students fell asleep in class he would always wake us up and say, ‘You always have enough time to sleep when you’re dead,’ and that gives me chills today. And it’s not just Mesa High, but all the Mesa high schools today are honoring him by wearing purple.”
Luis Ramos, 19, graduated from Mesa High in 2015 and joined Diaz on campus today wearing his Mesa High shirt in honor of Zahner.
“You’d never meet a greater person or teacher as him,” Ramos said. “I’m just so upset for his family, current students, and staff. I felt like I wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t come here today.”
Police are warning citizens to not approach Bartels if they see him, but to instead call Tempe police at 480-350-8311 or Silent Witness at 480-WITNESS (948-6377).
UPDATE: A Go Fund Me page has been set up for Zahner’s family at: https://www.gofundme.com/mr-zahner-family.
– Kelly Mixer is managing editor of MyNewsMesa.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.