Still reeling from one of South Florida’s deadliest mass shootings ever, the Todel Apartments in Hialeah was a quiet place on Sunday. Shock and sadness hovered over everything, as residents struggled to process all that had taken place.
Bullet holes pockmarked a 5th-floor stairwell where shooter Pedro Vargas had traded gunfire with police. On a sidewalk in front of the yellow-and-tan apartment complex, a makeshift memorial had already been created for Vargas’ youngest victim, 17-year-old Priscilla Perez. The memorial included dozens of candles, a pink teddy bear, a white teddy bear, and a large white sheet of paper where mourners wrote their solemn goodbyes.
“We lost a friend and God gained an angel,” one person wrote.
“Since kindergarten & forever we will always be friends,” wrote another.
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Alejandro Mustafa, 17, was one of several people who helped set up the memorial. Alejandro said he went to school with Priscilla at Meadowlane Elementary School, located about a mile away.
“I knew her for a long time and she was a really nice girl,” Alejandro said. “I knew her dad too. This would have been her senior year [in high school].
Priscilla attended Hialeah’s American Christian School, and her Facebook page shows she liked roller coasters, video games, and Disney movies such as The Lion King and Finding Nemo. Her favorite books included the Twilight series and the Bible.
Mustafa said he and others began setting up the memorial around 6 p.m. Saturday evening. Drivers passing by the apartment building frequently slowed down to look at it.
Tenants of the apartment building came and went through the lobby of the complex Sunday afternoon, as they would on a typical weekend day. But several had serious looks, and tenants did not linger in the lobby area for very long.
“I never imagined something like this could happen,” Alejandro said. Of Priscilla, he added, “I couldn’t believe it. She got shot for no reason. It’s really sad.”
Vargas, 42, shot the teen while she hid in her bathtub — one of six lives he claimed in an inexplicable shooting rampage that police are still trying to make sense of. Before opening gunfire on his neighbors — and shooting another man who was simply walking across the street — Vargas set $10,000 cash on fire. That first act of madness was followed by Vargas shooting and killing the apartment building managers, Italo and Camira Pisciotti, who had come to the apartment because they noticed smoke coming out of it.
Water used to put out the fire still pools in the building’s courtyard.
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. Neighbors remember Vargas as a gym rat — he used to work out at the local LA Fitness, where a staffer remembers him as cordial and quiet.
Others who knew Vargas, however, described him as having pent up anger. Jorge Bagos told The Associated Press that he worked out at the same gym as Vargas, and that the gunman had in the past mentioned using exercise as a way to release his anger. Vargas had also talked about using steroids, Bagos said, and he blamed his hair loss on past steroid use.
“He'd just say this was the only thing that would keep him normal, pulling out all the anger in the gym,” Bagos told The Associated Press.
Vargas also complained about bad experiences with women, Bagos said.
Vargas became more closed off recently, Bagos said. When Bagos tried to say hello, Vargas would abruptly walk in the other direction.
"I thought he was going through problems and I kept away from him," Bagos told AP.
The tragedy in Hialeah has garnered national attention — including in Newtown, Connecticut, the town rocked by the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The non-profit organization Sandy Hook Promise, formed by community members in Newtown, issued a statement on the Hialeah killing spree.
“Our hearts are broken,” the statement said. “Our spirit is not. Sending prayers and condolences to the victims and families of the Hialeah, Florida mass shooting. Another tragedy that invites us all to reflect on what individual and collective changes we can make as a nation to save lives.”
Police still aren’t certain of the motive for the killings, though they think it may have started as a dispute with the building managers, the Pisciottis. The couple, ages 79 and 69, were to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next month.
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 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.
On Sunday, Hialeah detectives continued to talk to Vargas’ mother, looking for clues on what sparked her son’s rampage.
The elderly woman told detectives her son did not have a girlfriend, although a neighbor said that during the hours-long negotiations with Hialeah police that started Friday night, he heard Vargas tell police he wanted to speak to his girlfriend.
The hours of tense negotiations took place as Vargas pointed a gun at two other neighbors, Zoeb and Sarrida Nek, who he had taken as hostages in apartment 525.
Neighhbor Margarita Reyes said she saw Zoeb run out of his apartment barefoot after hearing the initial gunshots.
"We went inside, but he stayed there," she said.
She and others think that because Zoeb remained outside in the spot where he usually had his morning cigarette and tea, with his door open and wife inside, Vargas spotted him and forced him inside 525.
Police then watched as the Neks pleaded for their lives, weeping on their knees in their apartment.
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,’’ hostage negotiator Ricardo Plasencia said, according to a witness. Vargas 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 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,’’ Hialeah police spokesman Carl Zogby said, noting that Vargas fired back and still had several rounds of ammunition when the SWAT team moved in.
Neighbor Carlos Sanchez said the standoff ended in the Neks’ bedroom. The bedroom wall of Sanchez’ own apartment now shows evidence of Vargas’ final moments — it’s littered with bullet holes. Sanchez, who had evacuated from the building before the shots were fired, is repulsed by the whole scene.
“I don’t even want to sleep in that bed,” Sanchez said. “It’s terrible.”
Said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez: “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, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.