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Minidoka residents reel after double shooting; victim's employer has started a fundraiser

MINIDOKA — Residents of the small town of Minidoka, where the noisiest time of day occurs when children pile off the school bus in the afternoon, were still reeling last week from a shooting in the street that killed a man and wounded his daughter on April 28.

Rafael Gil Vargas, 43, was shot and later died at the hospital, and his daughter, Nallely Vargas Juarez, 19, both of Minidoka, was shot in the hand. She was released from the hospital after surgery.

Rafael worked for Idaho Acres Dairy for more than 20 years, said the company owner Ryan Hepworth.

“He worked side-by-side with us,” Hepworth said. “He was like family. He was the greatest guy and would do anything for his family and his granddaughter.”

Hepworth said Rafael leaves behind his wife, Noemi, Nallely, and his son, Avelardo “Lalo,” who is a student at Minico High School.

“We are just trying to do as much as we can to help them,” he said.

Hepworth has set up a GoFundMe page for the Vargas family.

Saydi Anderson, student body president at MHS, said the student body is urging everyone to donate to the memorial fund. Anderson, who is a good friend of Lalo, said the student council was going to set up an account, but Hepworth beat them to it.

Laurie Welch Times-News / LAURIE WELCH, TIMES-NEWS  

The Rafael Vargas home on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, near the location where he was fatally shot and his daughter wounded on Saturday in the town of Minidoka.

Lalo is on the student council and was elected senior class president for the coming year.

“He is a really good kid, and I know that his family is super important to him,” Anderson said. “I know that they could really use this money.”

Mike Rodriguez, who lives about a block away from the Vargas family, said when he’d see Rafael at the post office, he’d always shake his hand.

“When he’d drive by he’d always wave,” Rodriguez said. “He was really nice.”

Rodriguez heard shots on Saturday night and went outside to investigate but he did not see anything.

“I heard three or four shots like pow, pow, pow,” he said. “This is a pretty peaceful town, and my wife and I talked about it being a little early to light fireworks.”

He decided the noise must have come from a movie on television.

Rodriguez said the people in town are feeling an impact from the violence.

“It’s something that you don’t forget right away,” he said. “It’s hard.”

Minidoka Mayor Jim Cook said he didn’t find out about the shooting until Sunday after church.

“He was a heck of a nice guy, and that was a really traumatic thing that happened,” Cook said.

Cook went to the Vargas home on Monday and knocked on the door to see if there was anything the city could do to help the family, but no one was home.

“It has been such a nice town for so long and then this happened,’ Cook said.

Denis O. Lopez-Serrano, 22, of Rupert is charged with first degree murder, attempted murder and two counts of first-degree kidnapping in connection with the shootings.

According to court records, Lopez-Serrano sent a text telling Nallely, the mother of his child, to come to Rupert to pick up the child. On the way there with her father, she received another message telling her not to come so they turned around and headed back to Minidoka.

Nallely told police Lopez-Serrano and a friend stopped their car in the street in Minidoka by pulling in front of them head on. He pulled a gun and shot her father,and shot her in the hand.

She told police he made her get into the backseat and drove to a location east of Minidoka where he told her he was going to dump her father’s body and kill her.

Lopez-Serrano’s friend followed them. Once there, she said Lopez-Serrano made her agree not to tell police that he’d shot them.

The next court date in the case has not been set.

Cassia schools hire 2 new administrators

Ryun Payne

BURLEY — The Cassia County School District has hired new administrators for two Burley elementary schools.

Derek Johnston was hired as the new principal at Mountain View Elementary School to replace Dustin Heath, who took a job with the Minidoka County School District.

Johnston is originally from Tacoma, Wash., but he calls Idaho home. He has a bachelor’s degree from Boise State University and has taught middle and high school for nine years. He also coached football, basketball and track.

“I look forward to ensuring student success, collaborating with families, educators and engaging with the community as a whole. I also seek to surface and alleviate the challenges faced by students at Mountain View Elementary. Through education, I believe we can give students the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives that exceed all expectations,” Johnston said.

He taught world history and geography, U.S. history and introducation to law enforcement. He is a founder of the first innovation school in Idaho and said the experience was “a life-changing opportunity.” He traveled to 12 innovation schools and visited inner cities of major metropolitan areas. He has training in Big Picture Learning, Project Based Learning, Trauma Compassionate schools and School Poverty.

He enjoys hiking, singing karaoke, reading, spending time with his family and laughing.

Johnston is a big Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan and loves the BSU Broncos.

A pool of 19 candidates applied for the position and three were interviewed by the board.

The board also hired Ryun Payne as the vice principal at Dworshak Elementary School. He will serve a dual role as a special education teacher along with his administrative responsibilities.

Payne said special education “called my name. I started as a para pro and the hard work of that environment drew me in.”

Leaders should be “visible with the people they lead and always listening,” he said.

He also coached soccer and led afterschool programs to help students.

He has bachelor degrees from BYU-Idaho and Weber State University and a master’s degree in special education and his administrative license from Utah State University.

He spent five of his last seven years in education in leadership roles. He was a special education teacher for two years at Black Butte High School in Rock Springs, Wyoming and prior to that he was a special education teacher at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah.

He looks forward to bringing his belief in the diversity of learning to the district and to help students develop life skills.

His family hobbies include fishing, camping, hiking, hunting and local history.

Both men were hired during the school board’s April 26 meeting. Their contracts will begin on Aug. 1.

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: The Idaho Old Time Fiddlers Association will hold an acoustic string instrument jam session from 6 to 8 p.m. at Idaho Pizza Co., 1859 Kimberly Road, Twin Falls.


Burley's Ryan Bagley works a portrait session Thursday, March 22, 2018, at Burley High School.

A Filer 12-year-old who’s battling cancer is being honored Sunday by a Boise nonprofit

FILER — A Filer 12-year-old who’s battling cancer is focusing on enjoying her life at home and school after finding out three weeks ago her condition isn’t improving.

Mia Trease was diagnosed in July 2017 with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that starts in bones. The cancer originated in her thigh, femur and knee and spread to her lungs.

On April 10, she had imaging tests done at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where she has been receiving treatment, to see how the cancer was responding to chemotherapy.

“She was not responding well at all,” her mother Amaris Trease said Tuesday. “Her cancer was growing.”

The spots on her lungs, in particular, are getting worse. There are some clinical trials for osteosarcoma, “but they’re not super promising,” Trease said.

She talked with her daughter about the options. “She wants to just spend her time at home and at school, and doing fun things,” Trease said. “That’s what we are doing.”

Mia is among three Idaho children who’ll be honored Sunday by nonprofit Boise’s Got Faith, which supports Idaho childhood cancer patients and their families.

The group is holding its annual event — which includes a family festival, lunch, silent auction, 5K run and a children’s crazy sock fun run — at Julia Davis Park in Boise. All proceeds will go directly to the families being recognized.

“Obviously, when a child is diagnosed with cancer, there are so many concerns and there’s so much going on,” said Stephanie Tomlinson, spokeswoman for Boise’s Got Faith. “We hope to relieve the financial burden so families can focus on supporting their children.”


Mia Trease and her brother are pictured April 21, 2018 at Filer High School's prom. 

Beyond finances, it’s also a way to offer prayers and encouragement for families so they’ll see they’re not alone, Tomlinson said.

Anyone can submit to Boise’s Got Faith a nomination a child who is receiving cancer treatment and whose family could use extra help financially and emotionally. The nonprofit received a nomination for Mia from a former honoree, Tomlinson said.

Its yearly event brings in anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000, Tomlinson said, and that money is divided among the honorees.

Money can be used for a family’s expenses directly related to their child’s battle with cancer, including needs — such as travel expenses to hospitals and help if a parent loses income while caring for their child — health insurance won’t cover.

In addition to its yearly event, Boise’s Got Faith provides financial assistance throughout the year to other Idaho children who have cancer.

Mia and her family found out in fall 2017 she’d be honored at this weekend’s event. “I thought that it was neat that they reached out to someone not in Boise and not being treated in Boise,” Trease said.

They’re making the trip Sunday to Boise for the event. “We’re excited to meet all the other parents and families,” Trease said.

Over the summer, Mia’s medical issues began while she was playing on a traveling softball team and her knee started hurting. She received a cancer diagnosis shortly after.

She underwent rotationplasty surgery in October 2017 at Primary Children’s Hospital. The bottom of her femur, knee and upper tibia were removed, along with a tumor. Then, her lower leg was rotated 180 degrees and attached to the femur. Her foot is backward at the end of her thigh, essentially functioning as a knee, which she uses with a prosthetic lower leg.

Mia has also undergone chemotherapy. Despite her battle with cancer, “on the outside, she looks amazing,” Trease said.

Since coming home to Filer a few weeks ago, Mia hasn’t missed a day of school as a seventh-grader at Filer Middle School.

Mia’s school has been incredible, Trease said. “They make it possible for her to go to school every day and make sure she gets her medication every couple of hours.”

The family has also received support from Magic Valley companies, individuals, organizations and other schools. Trease declined to provide specific names, worrying she might leave someone out.

One particularly special event for Mia: Her brother asked her to prom and they attended the dance April 21 at Filer High School. A Twin Falls store donated Mia’s dress and owners of a local company transported Mia and her brother to prom in a helicopter, which landed at Filer High.

Trease said she’s thankful for community support of her family. “People are just so good.”



City of Rocks National Reserve uses social media to raise awareness about growing vandalism

ALMO — City of Rocks National Reserve reports increased graffiti and is using social media to raise awareness about the problem.

In a weekend Facebook post, the park documented a piece of graffiti that had finally been removed. Park Ranger Tara McClure-Cannon said that the piece of graffiti, reading “Lynnette” had been reported by campers to her last spring.

To remove the graffiti they had to use a power grinder and a wire brush. The vandalism was deeply carved into the rock McClure-Cannon said.

“It’s not perfect,” McClure-Cannon said. “You can still see some graffiti when you get close.”

McClure-Cannon said that if a park goer sees vandalism happening to report it to a park ranger instead of engaging with a vandal.

The rise in vandalism isn’t too alarming but it’s always important to educate the public on vandalism, said park superintendent Wallace Keck.

Keck said the park engages the public with social media. The Facebook post brings awareness to looking out and reporting vandalism.

“Our main message is to leave no trace,” McClure-Cannon said.