A county police helicopter flew over the area to determine if Vargas was hiding on the roof, but saw nothing. Meanwhile, the SWAT team combed the building floor by floor until they saw that the door to apartment 523, where the Nek couple lived, was destroyed and there was a cartridge shell close by.
A county police robot was brought in, Ruiz said The four-wheel robot has a camera and a mechanic arm, and is operated by remote control. From the command center, Ruiz was watching the images captured by the robot and described them to his officers by radio.
“It was the eyes of my team,” Ruiz said. “We needed to gather as much information as we could so that our officers would have a better idea of what was going on inside the apartment.”
The SWAT team was already focusing exclusively on the fifth floor of the building. Sergeants Yan Pérez and Fernando Montalvo and officers Mark Quinian, Richard Quintero, Nicolás López and Adrián González joined Sergeants García, López-Cao and officer Hernández.
The robot entered the apartment, moved forward through the entrance hallway and stopped before getting to the dining room. The first images shocked the police officer: the Neks were in a squatting position, praying.
“They were reading the Koran and were calm even in such a dramatic situation,” Pérez said. “Mr. Nek helped us a lot because, using signs, he warned us that Vargas was armed. He even gave us [Vargas’] height.”
A sniper was in place in a nearby building, but he did not have Vargas in sight. Vargas was hiding in a hallway connecting the dining room to the bedrooms.
After failed negotiations with Vargas that lasted hours, Chief Velázquez gave the order for the final assault. While others covered them with rifles, six offices prayed: “God, please help us. Light our way.”
Ruiz said that sending his team on a man-to-man shooting match with a kidnapper involving hostages was the most difficult decision he has made in his 15-year police career.
“They are men trained for high-risk situations like this one,” Ruiz said. “But they are also parents, human beings I am sending on a mission where they can die.”
Once inside the apartment, Velázquez said, the officers waited in the hallway by the kitchen. Suddenly, from a neighboring building an officer hurled a flash grenade into the apartment balcony, which distracted the kidnapper for fraction of a second.
After the explosion, Vargas, close to the dining room, started shooting at the Neks, but several SWAT officers had already formed a barrier around the couple with their shields. The officers returned fire and Vargas died instantly.
Velázquez said some of Vargas bullets were embedded in the officers’ shields and bulletproof vests.
Investigators have been able to establish that Vargas, a graphic designer, apparently feared the repercussions of the testimony he had given days before at an attorney’s office about numerous anonymous offensive messages he had sent for months from the JFK Library in Hialeah to various employees of Bullet Line, LLC, where he had worked.
Sgt. Montalvo, one of the most experienced SWAT officers, said the rescue operation made him proud and reflected the level of training of his team.
“This group is a very united family, but mostly it’s a team prepared for extreme situations,” Montalvo said.
After the operation, Pérez recalled the several neighbors, among them Shamira Pisciotti, the daughter of the building managers Vargas killed.
“That morning she approached me and one of her arms had the blood stains of her parents,” Pérez said. “She asked me if I was one of the officers who came to save the hostages. I didn’t say anything, but despite my silence, she thanked me.”