One minute before the final assault, the Hialeah SWAT officers embraced, put their fists together and placed their trust in God to rescue the hostages and bring them to safety.
“As we embraced we lowered our heads and asked the Lord to light our way,” said Bárbaro Hernández, a member of the team. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but at that moment we only thought of rescuing the couple that had been kidnapped for hours.”
On Saturday, July 27, at about 1:30 a.m., the SWAT team entered the apartment and in a matter of seconds formed a human shield that prevented kidnapper Pedro Vargas’s shots from harming Sarrida and Zoeb Nek.
Vargas was shot to death.
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Six weeks after the rescue, most of the SWAT team members who took part in the dangerous operation gave their first interview. For a couple of hours, they shared with El Nuevo Herald unpublished details of the mission that ended the worst tragedy in Hialeah, in which Vargas killed six of his neighbors.
On the afternoon of July 26, the SWAT team member, most of them of Cuban origin, had returned to their homes to rest after a morning police operation.
Suddenly, at about 6:30 p.m, they began to receive alerts about a man who was shooting and killing people at the building located at 1485 West 46th Street in Hialeah.
“After a long day, I got home and had already changed clothes… and suddenly I got an emergency message,” said Sgt. Andrés López-Cao. “I turned on my radio and listened to the operator asking for a response from all available officers. I immediately changed, kissed my wife and daughters and left.”
On the way to the scene another SWAT officer, Sgt. Luis García, crashed his Chevrolet Tahoe into another SUV. The police vehicle was totaled, but no officers available to work the accident — they were all at the scene of the shootings, García said.
“I had to urgently call my wife and when she arrived I put my bullet-proof vest and my rifles in her car and left immediately,” García said. “Despite everything I had to go to the shooting scene as soon as possible.”
The Hialeah SWAT commander, Hubert Ruiz, told El Nuevo Herald that one of the difficulties in locating Vargas was the architecture of the building, where the doors of most of the 90 apartments faced a central common patio that exposed the police and other neighbors to anyt gunfire.
“We had to comb the building very carefully,” said Ruiz, who became chief of the Hialeah SWAT team in December.
When the first Hialeah firefighters and police officers arrived on the scene, Vargas had already killed the building managers, Italo and Samira Pisciotti; Carlos Javier Gavilanes, a 33-year-old man who was entering the building across the street; and Patricio Simono, 65, and his family, Merly S. Niebles, 51, and her daughter, Priscilla, 17, who lived on the third floor.
The last time the police saw Vargas was when he exchanged shots with an officer while he was running up the stairs from the third floor.
A command center was set up a couple of blocks away, headed by Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velázquez. At that point Hialeah had already requested reinforcements the police departments of Miami-Dade, Hialeah Gardens, Sweetwater and Miami Beach.
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.”