Edward Celaya, Jamie Donnelly
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
Jul. 24—A burst of violence last Sunday afternoon on Tucson’s south side erupted: first a house fire, then a shooting in a nearby park, another shooting at the scene of the house fire and a gunfight with a police officer.
The chaos that day, investigators say, was the work of one man: Leslie Scarlett, a 35-year-old man who died Wednesday from wounds he suffered in the shootout with a Tucson police officer.
At the end of the rampage, the body of Scarlett’s girlfriend, Jennifer Fells, was found inside the burned house.
A neighbor who had tried to put out the house fire was dead after Scarlett shot him in the head. Cory Saunders, a self-described family man, had asked his girlfriend to marry him a day before he was shot to death.
Another neighbor escaped serious injury when a bullet grazed his head and a Tucson Fire captain was shot in the arm.
And 20-year-old Jacob Dindinger, four months into his job as an EMT, was at the hospital, where he continues to fight for his life after being shot in the head. His partner that day was also shot, but she was recently released from the hospital.
Here are the personal stories of Dindinger, Saunders and Fells:
Jacob “Jake” Dindinger, 20, was born in Long Beach, California, and grew up in El Paso and Tucson.
He’d been working at American Medical Response, Inc. as emergency medical technician for about four months.
It was the first step in a career plan he has held since he was a child.
“He was always trying to be like me, a firefighter,” said Bryan Presetti, Jacob Dindinger’s brother and a firefighter for the Long Beach Fire Department. “That was his goal. So, he was at his starting point.”
A 2019 graduate of Canyon del Oro High School, Dindinger was an athlete who played on the school’s baseball team.
Keith Francis, one of his coaches who now is a manager at Pima Community College, recalled Dindinger’s prowess on the diamond.
“I remember vividly his swing — he was advanced in hitting capabilities beyond his age,” Francis said.
Francis said Dindinger was a good athlete with a tremendous work ethic. Although younger and smaller, Dindinger showed a composure not usually found in young athletes, he said.
“Actually, he played pretty well, but he was a good character young guy. A great teammate who would fight hard.”
It was partly due to that sweet swing, and partly due to his last name being a synonym for a home run, that he was bestowed his nickname.
“I used to go Din-din-din-Dinger!” Francis said. “And everyone would laugh, and he would laugh with them.”
That infectious laughter and willingness to be silly is one of the things that will always stick with Dindinger’s uncle, Andy Dindinger. Although quiet by nature, Dindinger can be goofy when he’s around his younger cousins.
Andy recalled a time when Dindinger and an older cousin introduced his young children to the joys of hard rock music.
“They were teaching my kids how to head bang,” Andy said. “And so my little one, who was 4 years old, was shaking her head and Jake, who just loved to dance, was head-banging right next to her.”
But for all his silly antics and athletic feats, Dindinger is best known for having a kind heart, and his desire to help others.
And, Andy said, for wanting to be a firefighter.
After graduating high school, to gain work experience and prepare himself for a career in firefighting, Dindinger went to work for Charlotte Higdon.
Higdon, the executive director for Achieve Builds Confidence, Inc., a local nonprofit that helps children and adults with developmental disabilities, said she has known Dindinger, her son’s best friend, since he was in sixth grade.
According to Higdon, Jacob didn’t exhibit the same kind of awkwardness and hesitancy that some new hires and volunteers do working alongside people with special needs.
“I don’t think he ever had any apprehension of helping wherever he was needed,” she said. “The part of him that wants to help people was a major factor in him being able to overlook his being unfamiliar with the population.”
Dindinger’s respect for others and his willingness to put others before himself is, his brother said, what would serve him well as a firefighter.
“He was a gentle, loving soul who just wanted to help people and be the best that he could be,” Bryan said. “He was much better at being a human than I was at his age and he was on his way to doing something great.”
“One of the most important things in Jacob’s life is his family. Family means everything to Jacob, and he is happiest when he is with his family,” read a news release AMR issued Friday on behalf of the family.
There’s a GoFundMe set up in Jacob Dindinger’s name. Find it here: http://tucne.ws/1i42+
Cory Saunders, 44, was born and raised in Tamaroa, Illinois, the fifth of seven children. He was rambunctious and active, but grounded in his beliefs.
“He was very much that classic middle child,” said his oldest brother Ryan Saunders. “All extremes of passion and dedication.”
Growing up, Saunders was full of energy, a trait he displayed in school and playing sports.
During a Little League game when Saunders was about 7 years old, the family recalled, he hit a foul ball.
“But he didn’t care,” Ryan Saunders said.
“He took off running to first … and then took off running to second … and then finally the person on the Intercom speaker said, ‘Just let that boy run the bases.’ “
He moved to Southern Arizona in 2002, following family members first to the San Manuel area, then eventually into Tucson.
According to his brother, Saunders loved the Sonoran Desert. He particularly enjoyed fishing and prospecting with his father.
Saunders worked 12-hour shifts as a long-haul truck driver hauling ammonium nitrate. It was a job Ryan and his girlfriend, Melissa Snyder, said he loved.
But Saunders lived for weekends.
“He loved to relax and unwind and have a couple Coronas” said his girlfriend Melissa Snyder. “He loved time with family. He relished when all of my kids would be here. And if Mason (his son) was here on a weekend, it was 10 times better.”
Saunders did his best to emulate his father while raising his two children, Ryan Saunders said.
“He loved his kids more than anything,” his brother said. “He wanted to be a good dad, like he would say, the dad he had.”
That love for family was something Snyder, who met Cory Saunders on a Bumble date in early February of this year, saw in the interactions between him and her own daughters.
“He would spend time trying to grab the phone from me when we (her daughter living out of state) were FaceTiming, so he could have a FaceTime conversation with her.”
One of Melissa’s daughters, Emily Snyder, remembered Saunders for being “just the best guy” for her mother. “He was a very giving person,” she said.
So much so in fact, that because Emily loved Saunders’ old ’86 Firebird so much, he sold it to her. For nearly nothing. It doesn’t run, but part of the deal was they would both fix it up together.
When Melissa Snyder thinks back on it, the weekend of July 18 was almost too perfect.
Following a Saturday of cold Coronas and pool time, Saunders popped the question.
“He actually proposed to me in front of his son,” she said. “And his son was clapping and I remember him being like, does that make you happy buddy? And his son was just like ‘absolutely.'”
“He just brought such a light to my life,” Snyder said. “I just need to figure out how to turn it back on.”
There’s a GoFundMe for Cory Saunders’ children and his girlfriend. Find it here: http://tucne.ws/1i43+
Jennifer Fells, a 36-year-old mother of three who had a bright smile and a contagious laugh, lived with Sunday’s attacker.
She was the first victim in Sunday’s violent rampage. Police said this week she’d been shot before being left in a burning house.
Her family has declined to talk publicly about her, but co-workers recently shared stories about her caring nature, bright smile and a booming laugh that filled a room.
Fells had the loudest laugh in the McDonald’s restaurant where she worked, Cristobal Mireles, one of her co-workers, said during a vigil last Wednesday night for her and other victims and survivors of the attack.
That loud laugh let everyone else on the crew know Fells was working, Mireles said.
Other co-workers shared similar stories about her megawatt smile and bright personality. They carried colorful posters with her picture and butterflies on them to honor her memory.
Fells was a high-energy person, said Michael Higgs, her general manager. She was always having fun and had no filter, he said with a smile on his face.
Fells cared for everyone, especially her children, who she would always mention in conversation, Higgs said.
“She cared very much for her children,” he said.
He said they had a close relationship in part because of their similar ages.
Fells was loved, cherished and respected among co-workers who will miss her being part of the team.
“She played a huge part in the store as an employee, and a person,” Higgs said. “I don’t know how we are going to move on without her. She has a place in all of us forever.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for Fells’ children and to help with funeral expenses. Find it here: http://tucne.ws/1i48+
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