With six people already shot dead and crazed gunman Pedro Alberto Vargas holding two hostages in a bullet-riddled Hialeah apartment building, Police Chief Sergio Velazquez made the decision every top cop dreads: Send in the SWAT team to bring an end to the hours-long saga.
It was a very difficult decision, Velazquez told El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald on Sunday, because I not only have the lives of the two hostages that we want to rescue, but I have in my hands the lives of the six police officers that Im sending in to confront this man.
The chief, in his first extensive comments, provided new details about the massive police operation mounted after Vargas went on his shooting rampage. The violence rocked Hialeah and the nation even drawing condolences from Newtown, Conn., where a school shooting in December claimed 20 children and six adults.
On Velazquezs orders, heavily armed tactical officers, wielding protective shields, crept up to the kicked-in front door of unit 525, where they saw the hostages praying on their knees in the living room. Vargas was pacing the fifth-floor apartment just out of view. From outside, other officers exploded a flash-bang grenade on the unit balcony to momentarily blind and distract the gunman.
With lightning speed, the SWAT team went into action.
It almost like this was out of a movie, said police union president John Rivera, whose union is representing five of seven officers who fired their weapons during the eight-hour encounter.
They went in and almost simultaneously begin engaging the shooter while grabbing the hostages, passing them to the next SWAT member like a conveyor belt, Rivera said. There was very little space to work with. Any mishap and they could have shot even themselves.
This guy wouldnt go down. He was even reloading while still standing up at one point in time, Rivera said. He still had fight in him.
In the end, Vargas, a 42-year-old part-time graphic artist who lived with his elderly mother and had no criminal record or known history of violence or mental illness, would die, too.
HAD A PERMIT
Police said he had a concealed weapons permit for his Glock 9mm semiautomatic, which he purchased three years ago at a Hialeah gun shop for $593.49.
The detailed description of the carnage came as Hialeah residents struggled Sunday to come to grips with what happened. Outside the Todel Apartments, 1485 W. 46th St., a makeshift memorial had already been created for Vargas youngest victim, 17-year-old Priscilla Perez, who was killed as she cowered in a bathtub. Her parents were also slain.
The memorial included dozens of candles, a pink teddy bear, a white teddy bear, and a large white sheet of paper where mourners wrote their solemn goodbyes.
We lost a friend and God gained an angel, one person wrote.
Since kindergarten & forever we will always be friends, wrote another.
Alejandro Mustafa, 17, one of several people who helped set up the memorial, said he went to school with Priscilla at nearby Meadowlane Elementary.
I knew her for a long time and she was a really nice girl, Alejandro said. I knew her dad, too. This would have been her senior year.
Priscilla attended Hialeahs American Christian School, and her Facebook page shows she liked roller coasters, video games,and Disney movies such as The Lion King and Finding Nemo. Her favorite books included the Twilight series and the Bible.