Allegations Against Teacher Spark Mixed Reactions In Arizona

BERLIN – More details emerged this week in the bizarre case of a former Worcester County resident, who allegedly absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in embezzled funds before heading west and assuming a new name and starting a new life, as the news of his apparent past reached friends and colleagues in his new home.

Former West Ocean City resident Richard Brueckner, now 65, also known as Richard Thelander, in the late 1990s allegedly forged his now ex-wife’s signature several times to clear out personal accounts and illegally obtain credit cards in a theft scheme that totaled nearly $120,000 and does not include another $92,000 Brueckner-Thelander owes his ex-wife, a longtime Ocean City Elementary School teacher, in back alimony.

Brueckner allegedly carried out his extensive theft scheme against his wife, as well as other financial entities, over a two-year period between 1996 and 1998. He then left the area and made his way out west, where he assumed a new name, Richard Thelander, and started a new life, which included a rapid ascent to a lofty position in the Arizona school system.

Brueckner was arrested in Arizona earlier this month and is being extradited to Worcester County to face the 24-count warrant sworn out on him six years ago for theft, forgery, credit card fraud and theft scheme. In the six years since the warrant was filed against him, Brueckner, now Thelander, moved quickly up the ranks in the state school system in Arizona to reach the position of administrator and chief executive officer of a three-campus charter school called the PACE Preparatory Academy. In between, he apparently taught at several different schools and held positions on various Boards of Directors in Arizona.

This week, as the news of his former life and alleged theft scheme reached his new home in Arizona, friends and colleagues reacted with a range of sentiment from shock and disbelief to suspicion of his activities there in recent years.

Some of Thelander’s colleagues at the PACE Preparatory Academy, where he served for some time as chief executive officer and administrator, even reacted with indignation that their beloved co-worker could somehow be implicated in the alleged theft scheme and fiercely defended him.

Dr. Kim Randall, superintendent of the Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District, said this week officials there had no inclination about Thelander’s alleged criminal past in Maryland and that he successfully passed through the system’s background check and application procedures.

“We didn’t see it coming at all,” she said. “We completed all the required background checks and a federal fingerprint search came back clean. We were satisfied he was who he said he was.”

Randall praised Thelander’s contributions to the school system in Arizona, although she said she knew little about his personal life.

“I obviously know him professionally, but I don’t know much about his personal life,” she said. “He did a good job for us. He was responsible for implementing a lot of new programs.”

Randall said Thelander had recently signed a contract extension with the Sedona-Oak Creek school system and was preparing to return to school in a part-time capacity this year. That all changed on Tuesday when Thelander’s letter of resignation, apparently submitted in light of his pending extradition to Maryland, was submitted to the superintendent.

“He submitted his resignation yesterday, but not in person. I’m honestly not sure how it made its way to my desk, but I got it yesterday [Tuesday] and we accepted it last night,” Randall said. “He was in custody yesterday and I believe he is en route to Maryland.”

While Brueckner, now Thelander, was able to circumvent the Arizona school system’s background check and application review process, not everybody in his new home was convinced he was on the up and up.

For example, Anthony Lozano, a former teacher and school board member, became suspicious of Thelander a few years ago and began poking around his past.

“I’ve had an investigator on this since 2004,” he said. “About two years ago, I tried to advise the Camp Verde school district that he was sharing somebody else’s Social Security number. Everything that has happened in Maryland seems to have opened up his case here again.”

Lozano said this week Thelander’s suspicious activity went beyond his bogus Social Security number.

“He was teaching with certifications, but around 2005, we learned he had fabricated some of those certifications,” he said. “I believe he was a dangerous individual.”

The opinions about Brueckner, now Thelander, are as varied as the number of people one talks to in his new home out west. For example, a colleague at the PACE Preparatory Academy, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she did not believe the charges against her colleague were accurate. She also said friends, co-workers and students there were willing to look past his alleged former indiscretions.

“Rich Thelander is a very dedicated individual who devotes his time tirelessly to all of his students, at PACE Preparatory Academy and Sedona Red Rock High School,” she said. “The events that allegedly occurred in Maryland were before his time in Arizona and have nothing to do with his work in the school systems, nor does it change his students’, employees’ or co-workers’ high opinion of him.”

The anonymous co-worker said she remained confident Thelander would be cleared of the charges against him in Worcester County.

“The allegations against him are from his past and will be cleared up in a court of law, it is not for us to judge him,” she said. “We wish him well while he is away and look forward to his return.”

In an ironic twist to the story, the alleged embezzler turned school system hero apparently taught law in Arizona, which could explain how he was allegedly able to skirt the system.

“He taught law at my school and he was always very uptight about the rules,” said one former student. “It’s odd it turns out he could be a criminal.”