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Aztec substitute teacher hailed as hero

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

AZTEC – School had just started Thursday morning when 73-year-old substitute teacher Kathleen “Katie” Potter excused one of her students to go to the restroom.

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Kathleen “Katie” Potter, 73, was a substitute teacher the day a gunman killed two students, then himself at Aztec High School. (Courtesy Kathleen Potter)

Francisco “Paco” Fernandez, 18, never came back.

Instead, investigators say he ran into 21-year-old William Atchison, a former Aztec High School student who had come into the building armed and ready to shoot up the school.

They say Fernandez interrupted Atchison and was shot to death in the restroom. Minutes later investigators say Atchison spotted another student, 17-year-old Casey Marquez, and killed her, too.

In Potter’s computer lab classroom, she and the students heard the shots.

“It was a pop-pop-pop,” she said. “I looked out to see, which was probably stupid.”

Potter said she saw custodian Thomas Hill yelling warnings about an active shooter, who was now stalking the halls after killing Fernandez and Marquez.

So the substitute teacher corralled her 17 students into a tiny office next door, pushing a sofa against the door to barricade it shut.

“I said, ‘Everybody get down on the floor,’ ” Potter said.

That’s when the shooter entered the computer lab and began firing into the walls, knowing students were on the other side. No one was hit.

Potter said that, at first, the kids whispered to one another, but then grew quiet.

“They didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “I said it’s going to be OK.”

She said the shooting went on for about five minutes and afterward they stayed put until the sheriff came in some time later.

A retired school psychologist, Potter said she is thankful she went through active shooter lockdown drills so many times in her 25-year career.

“It kind of, instinctually, kicked in,” she said.

In a news conference Friday morning, San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen recognized Potter and Hill as two of the many heroes who helped keep the students safe that day.

“These people are true heroes right here in our community,” Christesen said. “In every one of these things someone steps up and does the right thing.”

New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said he considers Fernandez to be another hero, since the shots that killed him alerted the school to the presence of the active shooter.

“I’ll give you my opinion, regarding Paco: It was an unfortunate circumstance that he entered that bathroom, but by doing so he saved lives,” Kassetas said. “I believe the suspect would have armed himself with a weapon and walked right into a classroom, which would have been worse. That in itself, that kid is a hero.”

‘Utterly devastated’

Football coach and history teacher Matt Steinfeldt said news that Fernandez and Marquez had been killed began circulating while students, teachers and staff were still in the gym after the lockdown had been lifted.

“Every one of us would’ve known Casey and Paco,” he said. “Soon as I heard … I was utterly devastated”

Steinfeldt described Fernandez, who was his student this year, as a fun-loving, enjoyable, young man who always had a smile on his face.

“Once he put his mind to something, he would work extremely hard,” Steinfeldt said. “And, more than anything, I thought he developed great relationships with people.”

And Steinfeldt said Marquez, who was his student a couple of years ago, would bring his 6-year-old daughter out of the stands and let her cheer on the sidelines during football games.

Marquez was “a warm spirit with a big smile and a dancer at heart,” he said.

Marquez, the captain of the Aztec High School cheerleaders, also worked at Farmington Gymnastics Academy as a coach.

Kassie Buttrey, the gym manager, said she had helped her get the job there last February.

“She would break out into song and dance spontaneously, laugh all the time, and was excited for the future,” she said.

Buttrey said Marquez had recently bought a day planner and filled it with big plans, including going to Florida to cheer at the Orange Bowl, graduation and dreams of being a cheer coach someday.

She said the last time the two saw each other was last Saturday, when she thanked Marquez for all her hard work and reminded her that she was her favorite.

“She smiled and said bye,” Buttrey said. “If I had known it was the last time – I would have hugged her so tight, would have taken a picture with her. Something more grand.”

‘Aztec strong’

Signs of solidarity could be seen, and felt, throughout Aztec and neighboring communities on Friday.

The Vanilla Moose, a kitchen alongside highway 550, gave away free soup and corn bread as the signage read “prayer for Aztec, let us love all the more.”

Just down the road, young boys stood along the curb holding signs that said “Aztec strong” and “Pray for Aztec.”

And it doesn’t stop at the county line, Steinfeldt said.

“This is a community that goes well beyond the school hallways of Aztec, it goes beyond the city limits of Aztec, it goes all the way through the Four Corners,” he said, recognizing the Farmington High School and Kirtland Central High School basketball players who wore orange socks, the colors of Aztec High, during their Thursday night games.

“It’s a tragedy, but it’s also an amazing thing to see how great people really are,” Steinfeldt said. “Even though we are hurting right now, we know we are going to get through this because everybody is going to stand together.”

Francisco “Paco” Fernandez (Courtesy GoFundMe)

Casey J. Marquez (Courtesy YouCaring)

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