Miami father kills young son, himself in shooting rampage

 

mlamagna@MiamiHerald.com

The father of four who went on a shooting rampage in the family’s Miami home was once known for a more uplifting reason – his love of aviation and hot-air ballooning.

Carlos Zuniga, 45, took his own life Wednesday night after shooting his wife, Michelle, 43, and children Lauren, 14, and Stefan, 11.

Stefan died Thursday. Lauren and her mother remain in critical condition at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The sudden spasm of violence in the quiet Coral Way-area neighborhood left detectives, relatives and friends struggling to understand why Zuniga turned on his family. The family had no apparent history of domestic violence.

Certainly, there were clues. He had held several different jobs in the past few years — and most recently, appeared to be closing the family’s hot-air ballooning company, said family friend Colin Graham.

The couple opened the company in 2005 under the name Winds Aloft Aviation Inc. It was commonly known as Miami Balloon rides.

Graham, who worked as a balloon pilot for the family and now runs Arizona’s Endeavor Ballooning, called Michelle Zuniga “a great mom.”

“Michelle and the kids are great people. She is an absolute sweetheart. I have nothing but good things to say about her,” Graham said. “Stefan looked just like his father. Almost identical, like a mini-version of him.”

Zuniga had recently put one of his balloons on sale on an industry website. Graham said he knew the family still enjoyed hot air ballooning recreationally, but did not seem to be doing so well professionally.

The company’s website appears to be defunct, the phone number disconnected.

Carlos Zuniga recently had started working as an aviation safety inspector at the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA recently announced it would have to make major cuts – including furloughs for employees – under federal sequestration.

Before the FAA, Zuniga worked as a pilot for DHL, an international package shipping company, and before that, flew 737s for Miami Air.

The Zunigas were married in 1998. Neighbors said Carlos Zuniga also had two adult children from a previous marriage.

In an interview with The Miami Herald in 2011, Michelle Zuniga said they founded the company so she could spend more time with her family. The company has taken thousands of people on hot air balloon rides in South Florida.

“We fly in the Redland,” she said. “It’s a beautiful area, and you have a fantastic view of the ocean, the Everglades and what is in the southern part of Dade County, which people don’t even know exists.”

On Wednesday night, a neighbor called 911 shortly after 9:30 p.m. about a disturbance, possibly shots fired, at the home at 2610 SW 24th St.

Miami police rushed to the scene. Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, told The Miami Herald that he had heard four “pops.”

Neighbor Xavier Cal, who lives next to the Zunigas, said he saw a woman collapse on the patio in front of her home Wednesday night.

“She was lying on the lawn,” he said. “Later, I heard the last shot inside the house.”

Miami police spokesman William Moreno said Thursday morning “screaming and possible gunshots were heard from inside the home,” as officers arrived.

“Officers quickly assembled a small team and made entry into the home to protect those in danger,” Moreno said.

Miami homicide detectives hope to learn more about what may have caused the tragedy when Michelle Zuniga’s relatives arrive from out of state. She remains in critical condition, unable to talk.

“We’ve never heard them fight. The police have never come to the house,” Cal said of the Zunigas. “I’m in shock.”

“It’s an extremely calm neighborhood,” said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, who lives about five blocks from the Zuniga residence. “Never, in my 30 years here, have I seen a violent crime in this neighborhood.”

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