Hialeah shootings: Seven, including gunman, dead after standoff

07/27/2013 9:22 AM

08/02/2013 11:12 AM

The negotiations with the killer began before midnight.

For hours, police watched as Zoeb and Sarrida Nek pleaded for their lives, weeping on their knees in their apartment as the intruder pointed a 9mm gun at their heads.

Six people were already dead by the time hostage negotiator Ricardo Plasencia arrived at Todel Apartments in Hialeah on Friday night, to find himself facing the bloodiest mass murder in the city’s history. One of the victims was a 17-year-old girl whom Pedro Alberto Vargas hunted down and shot while she hid in her bathtub. Moments before, Vargas had aimed his gun across the street like a sharpshooter, killing a man who had just picked up his 9-year-old son from boxing practice.

Vargas moved from floor to floor during his rampage, gunning people down — after first setting about $10,000 of his cash savings on fire in his own apartment, police said.

Eventually he kicked his way into the Neks’ fifth-floor unit, aiming to take two more lives.

So began what would be an arduous and chilling three-hour negotiation — all captured on video by a small robotic camera that police secretly positioned inside the couple’s apartment.

“Pedro, let these people out, we’re going to help you,’’ Plasencia said, according to a witness. Vargas, 42, asked for his girlfriend and his mother, and mumbled about getting a subpoena and going to court. Much of his ranting made no sense, police later said.

By 2 a.m. time had run out.

SWAT teams stormed the apartment, killing Vargas and rescuing the hostages unharmed.

“After periods of silence at the end, and seeing the images the robot brought back to us, we felt negotiations were breaking down,’’ said Hialeah police spokesman Carl Zogby on Saturday, noting that Vargas fired back and still had several rounds of ammunition when the SWAT team moved in.

Vargas, a part-time graphic artist, had no criminal record and no known history of violence or mental problems. He lived with his mother in apartment 408 in the apartment complex at 1485 W. 46th St., just behind the 49th Street Kmart.

Zogby said detectives still aren’t certain of the motive for the killings, though they think it may have started as a dispute with the building manager, Italo Pisciotti.

Pisciotti, 79, and his wife, Samira, 69, were the first to be killed about 6:30 p.m. Friday. The couple went to Vargas’ apartment after he set fire to a stack of bills, which he had earlier withdrawn from his savings account, police said.

As the couple arrived at the front door, Vargas’ mother, Esperanza Patterson, 83, screamed: “Get my son out of the apartment!’’

Mariano Arias, 46, who lives on the building’s second floor, said he heard her scream, then gunfire. “I hit the ground,” he said.

Vargas fired about 20 times, police said, shaking nearby apartments. The Pisciottis, who were to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next month, fell outside the door. Patterson ran outside as smoke billowed from the apartment and draped herself over the bodies, said a witness who did not want to be identified.

Vargas returned to his apartment, went onto the balcony and began firing. One of those bullets struck Carlos Gavilanes, 33, who lived across the street. “Run!’’ Gavilanes cried out to his son, who was just steps away. He collapsed with his son at his side.

Vargas then marched down to a third-floor apartment, kicked in the door and killed Patricio Simono, 64, and his girlfriend, Merly Niebles, 51.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Priscilla Perez, ran into the bathroom and climbed into the tub, but Vargas followed, taking her life as well.

For several hours afterward, Vargas engaged police in a cat-and-mouse game, as he prowled the complex, firing his gun before bursting into the Neks’ apartment and taking them hostage.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez said police negotiators used a small robot-mounted camera to better observe what was happening inside the apartment. The video showed the hostages on their knees, pleading for their lives while the gunman kept aim on their heads.

“He sounded upset,’’ Zogby, the police spokesman, said. “Like he was trying to get something off his chest. Vargas screamed something about court and a subpoena, but the negotiators didn’t understand what he was saying.’’

At about 2 a.m., police stormed in. Vargas, who was in a hallway, began firing from around the corner, Zogby said. One of the bullets pierced the wall, striking the neighbor’s TV on the other side.

The concrete outside the door to apartment 408 was covered in blood Saturday.

“Today is a very sad day for Hialeah,” Hernandez said.

“We have never experienced a situation such as this, with so many victims in a building with so many defenseless people and with many obstacles that the police had to overcome. It was like a movie that has now left our community in mourning.”

Miami Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn, Benjamin S. Brasch, Patricia Mazzei and Luisa Yanez, and El Nuevo Herald staff writers Enrique Flor, Melissa Sanchez and Julio Menache contributed to this report.

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