People who knew Pedro Alberto Vargas, whose shooting spree claimed six lives before police shot him to death early Saturday, offered varying and often contradictory descriptions of the man responsible for one of the deadliest South Florida rampages in decades.
He was a solitary man who took care of and lived with his elderly mother. A freelance graphic designer and gym rat who was obsessed with his physique. The owner of a 9 mm semi-automatic Glock who said he would take up arms to fight for Cuba’s freedom.
At the LA Fitness at 630 49th St. in Hialeah, employee Najwa Jurdi gasped when a Miami Herald reporter showed her Vargas’ picture and told her he was the shooter who had killed six people and held two others hostage.
“I never would have thought …” she said, noting that she remembered Vargas as a friendly customer who split his cardio and weightlifting workouts between that gym and the other location at 1901 W. 39th St. The gym keeps a record of any complaints or problems with members. Vargas’ file had none.
Margarita Reyes, a tenant on the fifth floor of Todel Apartments, where the shooting rampage happened, remembered Vargas as a skinny man when he and his mother first moved into the complex about 15 years ago.
About seven years ago, she said, she noticed him bulking up. She said that her husband, who works out at the same gyms, often shared an elevator with Vargas after getting home from workouts.
Usually they engaged in small talk about their workouts. In the days leading up to the shootings, however, Reyes’ husband told her that Vargas was less responsive.
“He said [Vargas] would just lower his head,’’ she said.
Jorge Bagos, who also worked out with Vargas, told the Associated Press that Vargas had mentioned exercising as a way to release his anger. Bagos said Vargas complained of bad experiences with women, and blamed his hair loss on steroid use.
Although police said Vargas asked for his girlfriend while speaking with a hostage negotiator in his final hours, neighbors and associates never saw Vargas with a woman or heard of him having a girlfriend.
According to a résumé online, Vargas received an associate’s degree in graphic design from Miami Dade College in 2004. He had worked as a graphic designer for the college, the University of Miami and, most recently, Systemax, which he left in 2009. It is unknown where he worked since.
As the hostage drama unfolded, Vargas’ elderly mother could not explain her son’s actions, police said.
She referred police to a cousin in Coral Gables, but he wasn’t in touch with Vargas and had no idea what could have motivated the sudden violence.
“We asked him what he knew about this man everybody calls ‘Albertico,’ but he said he hadn’t spoken with his cousin in two or three years,’’ said Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velazquez. “He knew of no problems, said his cousin was a quiet guy that kept mostly to himself.”
Alex Perez, owner of the Florida Gun Center in Hialeah, said Vargas was “very meticulous.”
“Normally people buy their gun and then take the course to get a concealed weapons permit,” he said. “He took the course first, got the permit, then bought a gun.”
In the fall of 2010, Vargas took a two-hour introduction training and a four-hour safety course at Perez’ shop, located 10 blocks from the apartment complex where Vargas lived, at 1485 W. 46 St. Then he applied for and received his concealed weapons permit and carefully studied the guns at the store, said Perez, who keeps a detailed database of all gun purchases.
That October, he dropped $593.49 for a Glock 17, a box of 50 rounds and a background check. After making the purchase, he never returned, not even for target practice.
Velazquez confirmed that it was the same gun used in the shootings. It’s unclear where Vargas bought the hundreds of additional rounds police found in his possession and in his apartment after it was all over.
Vargas’ neighbors did not know he carried a concealed weapon, although one elderly resident of the five-story apartment building said they’d spoken about taking up armed resistance in Cuba.
“We’d talk in the lobby and I recall one time when I asked him if he’d take up arms if there was an uprising in Cuba,” said the neighbor, who declined to be identified. “And, you know what he told me? ‘Of course I’d do that. I hope that happens one day.’ ”
According to the Hialeah Housing Authority, Vargas was on a waiting list for subsidized housing.
El Nuevo Herald staff writers Brenda Medina and Enrique Flor contributed to this report.