Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Lessons from the Hialeah horror


OUR OPINION: Police must study ways to improve 911 procedures to try to prevent future tragedies

If only his mother had not called off the cops after her son called for help. If only the 911 operator in Hialeah had sent the officers to the apartment complex anyway instead of canceling the call. If only the anti-anxiety Xanax pills the mother said she gave her son had worked and calmed him down so he would not kill six neighbors in a rage.

If only guns were not so ubiquitous in our society. If only mental health were given the priority and funding needed to make a difference.

If only, if only, if only.

The deaths of six innocents in last Friday’s rampage in Hialeah by a distraught and seemingly paranoid Pedro Alberto Vargas have left South Floridians with many unanswered questions and mixed emotions about how such a tragedy happened and how it might have been prevented.

Hindsight always is 20/20, but that doesn’t mean that police and emergency personnel cannot learn from this devastating experience to spot gaps where procedures can be improved.

First, to what worked: The Hialeah SWAT team saved two neighbors Vargas was holding hostage. They did a splendid job under the most difficult circumstances. Vargas, 42, died in the stand off.

But as the grieving continues, Hialeah officials should not close the book on this case. There are lessons to be learned, opportunities to seize to try to improve procedures if faced with a crisis of similar magnitude.

Officials must do this for Italo Pisciotti, 79, and his wife, Samira, 69, the building managers who saw smoke coming from Vargas’ fourth-floor apartment and ran to the unit to put out the fire only to be killed on the spot by Vargas’ Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

Officials must do this for Carlos Gavilanes, the 33-year-old father of two who was parking his car across the street, returning home from work, and died when as many as 20 bullets from Vargas’ gun came in his direction from Vargas’ apartment.

Officials must do this for Patricio Simono, 64; his companion Merly Niebles, 51; and her 17-year-old daughter, Priscilla Perez, who wanted to be a nurse. All three were shot dead after Vargas kicked their apartment door down.

Yet Hialeah officials seem to be battening down the hatches. On Thursday, Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velazquez was AWOL at a press conference called to explain how the 911 emergency operator handled the call from Vargas — five hours before the massacre.

Police spokesman Carl Zogby said at the press conference that the operator is a veteran who followed all of the department’s protocols, going as far as checking with the supervisor.

Yet the protocol does not require 911 operators to ask about weapons. Had that question been asked of Vargas’ mother, she might have acknowledged it. That might have changed the outcome.

Vargas, who had been fired by his latest employer and had been sending threatening anonymous emails and messages to former bosses and coworkers, believed he was being followed, according to his call to police earlier that day. His 83-year-old mother, who took the phone from him as he purportedly left to get gasoline to burn $10,000 in cash, told the operator that he was just nervous about a legal case and that she had smashed two Xanax pills in his meal to help calm him down. Don’t come, she said, because he’s gone. The operator complied even though two officers were on their way.

In the end an elderly mother had to witness her son killing innocents and carry the burden of “if only” in her heart.

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