When his sleek birds took wing, Yoan Vazquez’s spirits soared right along with them.
Like most everyone involved in the competitive and consuming world of Miami pigeon racing, Vasquez was devoted to his birds. His wife, a childhood sweetheart, and 6-year-old daughter came first but close behind were the 150 pigeons he kept in a meticulously tidy coop behind their home in the Coral Way neighborhood of Miami.
The 32-year-old, who had raised palomas back home in Cuba like many other South Florida racers, had recently won his first local race and had hopes of success in larger competitions. Those dreams would die late last year with a sudden savage knife thrust during an argument — with two fellow racers over the ownership of 10 prized birds.
The fight, witnessed by his young daughter, also was captured by cameras he had installed in his backyard, a surveillance system meant to protect his beloved flock.
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Now, brothers Lazaro and Freddy Romero — claiming self-defense — are in a Miami-Dade jail awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges in a slaying that has shaken a small, tight-knit community. Pigeon racing is passionate but also proudly peaceful — the bloodshed confined to those few unfortunate birds occasionally preyed upon by hawks.
“There are arguments about whose birds are better, for sure, but this type of violence never happens,” said Carlos Costa, Vazquez’s friend and a member of the Kendall Racing Pigeons Club.
Racing homing pigeons, which possess navigation instincts that guide them back to their home lofts, is an arcane sport but one that has been around for centuries. Florida is a relative hot bed, with thousands of fanciers and the nation’s largest organized group — the Gulf Coast Club in Tampa. In South Florida, it’s grown enough that the city of Hialeah in 2012 finally gave into mounting clamor and allowed homeowners to keep coops in their backyards.
“Everyone in Cuba has pigeons. There’s nothing else to do,” joked Osmany Gomez, 40, of the Kendall race club, who fled the Communist-controlled island nation in 2001.
In South Florida, a variant is also practiced — palomo de conquista or conquest pigeoning — in which the goal is for a male bird to woo and lure home a female. But racing the birds remains the most popular and demanding pursuit.
On a recent weekday, Javier Sarduy, vice president of the Hialeah Racing Pigeon Club, woke at 4 a.m. to drive his pigeons 70 miles north to release them as part of their training.
“For me, for many of us who raised pigeons in Cuba, this sport, maybe it’s a vice,’’ he said. “You spend a lot of money, you spend a lot of time, but in the end it’s satisfying.”
You don’t just buy a few birds and let them go. Training sessions start within months of the birth of chicks. As the year’s big races approach, an owner repeatedly releases a flock to strengthen wings, allowing birds to fly in circles around the loft. Then pigeons are ferried farther and farther away to accustom them to flying longer distances.
Most racers — such as Vazquez — enjoy raising birds as much as racing them. They carefully breed them with promising partners, feed them vitamins and electrolytes, even measure the spots in a bird’s eye. Veteran racers believe those can be telltale signs of a champion stud pigeon. Prized breeding birds can fetch hundreds of dollars or more.
The races themselves are often more like parties.
A special transport truck hauls South Florida racers’ birds to starting points as close as 100 miles away in Fort Pierce and as far as 600 miles away in South Carolina. Each racer is allowed to load the truck with up to 30 pigeons and once the cages open, the race — and wait — is on. As each bird returns to its home loft, a band affixed to a leg automatically triggers a computerized log that records the speed and distance flown.
With the birds flying roughly 50 mph, depending on wind directions and speed, racers have a rough idea of when they’ll return. So back at the home coop, racers, often along with their wives, children and friends, will gather to await the pigeons. Food, drinks and music are usually involved.
“It’s very family oriented,” Sarduy said.
It was at those festive get-togethers where Vazquez and the Romero brothers first met and were well known.
Vazquez, 32, grew up in Matanzas, Cuba. He married his childhood sweetheart, Adianis Jimenez, after they both left Cuba to settle in Miami eight years ago.
Nicknamed Alambre, or “wire” back in Cuba because of his lean frame, Vazquez made a good living framing art at a Little Havana gallery and was saving to buy his own home.
About three years ago, he got back into pigeon racing, and relished time tending to the flock he kept behind their home in the 2700 block of Southwest 32nd Court. His young daughter often joined him.
“She was always at his side,” said Carlos Rivero, Vazquez’s father-in-law.
The Romero brothers, also originally from Matanzas, were pigeon lovers as well. But Lazaro, 43, who most recently worked in air conditioning repair, had fallen on hard times. His home, where he kept his pigeons, had been lost to foreclosure.
Last year, Lazaro Romero gave Vazquez 10 pigeons specifically used for breeding.
Romero told Miami police he had merely lent Vazquez the birds, but friends of Vazquez dispute that, saying the younger man had paid $1,000 for the pigeons, and had also tried to help the financially strapped Romero by giving him bird feed for his other pigeons.
“He was very good to them and look how they paid him back,” said Costa, Vazquez’s pigeon-racing friend.
On the morning of Nov. 7, Vazquez drove to visit Costa and Gomez at a West Kendall rural lot where they keep their pigeon lofts. They hung out for several hours when Vazquez borrowed Gomez’s phone to call someone.
After his conversation, Vazquez looked rattled. He didn’t give Costa details but said that “someone was trying to find him,” according to an arrest warrant.
Sometime that same day, Lazaro Romero drove to his brother Freddy’s Flagami home. The brothers then jumped into Freddy Romero’s black Cadillac and headed to Vazquez’s home with plans to reclaim the breeding birds.
Lazaro Romero had stashed a machete in the back seat. Freddy Romero, police believe, also carried a smaller blade. Around 1 p.m., both men entered a chain-link fence at the side of the house and walked into the backyard to confront Vazquez.
“My brother starts to talk to him. They start to argue. Then he (Vazquez) went to take out a knife,” Freddy Romero claimed in video-taped police interviews. He told detectives that he then grabbed Vazquez’s hands — and that Vazquez must have stabbed himself during the scuffle.
Lazaro Romero insisted to Miami homicide detectives that he saw Vazquez only reach for something toward his waistband — and that his brother then pounced on Vazquez — before he bolted back toward the driveway.
Lazaro Romero also told investigators that he was the one who had been wronged by a fellow racer refusing to return valuable birds.
“How good I was with him and look hows he’s treating me,” said Lazaro Romero.
What the brothers did not know, investigators say, is that Vazquez’s daughter was watching — along with a video surveillance camera. Police say both the girl and video painted a completely different version of events: it was Freddy Romero who stabbed an unarmed Vazquez.
“This individual put his hands up,” Miami Sgt. Carlos Castellanos told Freddy Romero, raising his own arms to mimic the slain man. “He didn’t have anything in his hands.”
Detective Daniel Valladares, in an interview with Lazaro Romero, said: “Alambre put his hands up. Your brother attacked him with a knife. The video doesn’t lie.”
“My brother did not take out a knife!” Lazaro Romero insisted
The video, police say, also showed Lazaro Romero joining in on the attack.
The tape showed Vazquez, hollering for help, racing out to the sidewalk, Valladares said, all while his horrified daughter screamed that the men were killing her father.
At that point, police say, Lazaro Romero fetched the machete from the Cadillac and the brothers briefly chased the bleeding Vazquez. But the men quickly drove off as neighbors began to gather, drawn by the commotion.
Vazquez collapsed outside the home, leaving a trail of blood on the sidewalk. He was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, with a wound to the heart and one to the shoulder. Twenty-two days later, he died.
His daughter, whose name is being withheld by police, is now a key witness in the slaying.
“None of this was justified,” said Rivero, Vazquez’s father-in-law. “They ruined three families. Theirs and ours.”
The brothers were initially charged with attempted murder. But after Vazquez died, prosecutor Marie Mato formally filed charges of second-degree murder with a deadly weapon against the brothers.
In their interviews with police, neither man ever backed off their claims of self-defense. Their lawyers did not return calls for comment. A trial date has not yet been set.
At one point in the interview, detective Valladares paused and asked Lazaro Romero, “Do you think we should be here in this room for 10 pigeons?”