With six people already shot dead and crazed gunman Pedro Alberto Vargas holding two hostages in a bullet-riddled Hialeah apartment building, Police Chief Sergio Velazquez made the decision every top cop dreads: Send in the SWAT team to bring an end to the hours-long saga.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Velazquez told El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald on Sunday, “because I not only have the lives of the two hostages that we want to rescue, but I have in my hands the lives of the six police officers that I’m sending in to confront this man.”
The chief, in his first extensive comments, provided new details about the massive police operation mounted after Vargas went on his shooting rampage. The violence rocked Hialeah and the nation — even drawing condolences from Newtown, Conn., where a school shooting in December claimed 20 children and six adults.
On Velazquez’s orders, heavily armed tactical officers, wielding protective shields, crept up to the kicked-in front door of unit 525, where they saw the hostages praying on their knees in the living room. Vargas was pacing the fifth-floor apartment just out of view. From outside, other officers exploded a “flash-bang’’ grenade on the unit balcony to momentarily blind and distract the gunman.
With lightning speed, the SWAT team went into action.
“It almost like this was out of a movie,” said police union president John Rivera, whose union is representing five of seven officers who fired their weapons during the eight-hour encounter.
“They went in and almost simultaneously begin engaging the shooter while grabbing the hostages, passing them to the next SWAT member like a conveyor belt,” Rivera said. “There was very little space to work with. Any mishap and they could have shot even themselves.”
“This guy wouldn’t go down. He was even reloading while still standing up at one point in time,” Rivera said. “He still had fight in him.”
In the end, Vargas, a 42-year-old part-time graphic artist who lived with his elderly mother and had no criminal record or known history of violence or mental illness, would die, too.
HAD A PERMIT
Police said he had a concealed weapons permit for his Glock 9mm semiautomatic, which he purchased three years ago at a Hialeah gun shop for $593.49.
The detailed description of the carnage came as Hialeah residents struggled Sunday to come to grips with what happened. Outside the Todel Apartments, 1485 W. 46th St., a makeshift memorial had already been created for Vargas’ youngest victim, 17-year-old Priscilla Perez, who was killed as she cowered in a bathtub. Her parents were also slain.
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.
Alejandro Mustafa, 17, one of several people who helped set up the memorial, said he went to school with Priscilla at nearby Meadowlane Elementary.
“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.”
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.
The tragedy in Hialeah garnered national attention — including in Newtown, the town rocked by the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise, formed by community members, issued a statement.
“Our hearts are broken,” it 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.”
LIVED WITH MOTHER
Vargas lived with his 83-year-old mother, Esperanza Patterson, in apartment 408 in the Todel Apartments, located just behind the 49th Street Kmart.
Detectives still aren’t certain of the motive for the killings, initially believed to have started as a dispute with the building’s managers, Italo and Samiro Pisciotti. The couple, ages 79 and 69, were to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next month.
Investigators say Vargas started by setting a stack of cash ablaze in his apartment just past 6 p.m. Friday. The Pisciottis, going to check on the smoke, were cut down immediately.
Shamira Pisciotti, the slain couple’s daughter, said Sunday that contrary to preliminary reports, her parents did not have any dispute with Vargas or his mother.
“There was no problem with them, I want to clarify that,’’ Pisciotti told Spanish-language WLTV-Univision 23. She said her parents rushed to Vargas’ burning unit to help.
“I don’t understand why he had to kill my parents. They went to his apartment to help rescue his mother!’’ a tearful Pisciotti said.
She said neighbors who witnessed the murders have told her Vargas and her parents did not exchange any words in those final seconds; Vargas just opened fire on the couple in the hallway, fatally wounding them.
Next, Vargas began firing indiscriminately from his balcony, killing Carlos Gavilanes, 33, who lived across the street.
The gunman then went one floor down, kicking in the door and cutting down Patricio Simono, 64, and his girlfriend, Merly Niebles, 51. Priscilla, daughter of Niebles, hid in the bathroom but Vargas followed, shooting her in the tub.
Virtually the entire Hialeah police force was called in, as officers from Miami, Hialeah Gardens, Sweetwater and Miami-Dade swelled the ranks.
Inside the building, which has an open-air courtyard, Vargas was going up and down the stairwells, shooting at officers. One Hialeah patrol officer fired at him but missed, according to the chief and Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association.
Vargas, police said, then burst into the unit occupied by Zoeb and Sarrida Nek.
Now, there were live hostages — and the drama took on even more urgency.
A police command center was quickly established two buildings down, as was a medical triage unit at the nearby Home Depot parking lot. Officers cordoned a zone around the building.
A Miami-Dade police helicopter droned overhead, using an infrared sight to make sure Vargas did not escape the perimeter. Snipers kept watchful eyes on the apartment windows.
Working quietly, police sent in a small robot equipped with a video camera through the front of the Neks’ kicked-in door. Though Vargas was moving around, they saw him standing over the hostages, sometimes pointing a gun to their heads.
Vargas refused the offer of a cell phone. From the hallway, hostage negotiator Ricardo Plasencia sought to soothe Vargas, telling him police would get him help. Vargas muttered something about a court subpoena and wanting to see his girlfriend.
Outside, police peppered Vargas’ mother — who had escaped the building — with questions, trying to figure out what had set him off, and who could reach out and calm his rage.
She gave officers the first name of a cousin, who investigators rousted from bed in his Coral Gables apartment. He told them he had not talked to Vargas in years, but knew him to be quiet and trouble free, Chief Velazquez said.
Meanwhile, SWAT officers examined an identical apartment unit on another floor to familiarize themselves with the layout of the hostages’ residence.
But by 2 a.m. Saturday, with negotiations stalled and Vargas still taking potshots at cops, Velazquez said he had no other choice but to send in SWAT.
“This operation was tactically difficult,’’ he said. “If the subject had been alone, we might have continued talking to him because there was no danger to anyone. But here, these two people were in danger.’’
SWAT officers quietly surrounded the front door. When Vargas wasn’t looking, union president Rivera said, one officer peeked in and was able to communicate a warning using hand signals with Zoeb Nek, who was on his knees on the tiled living room floor.
Velazquez gave the command to enter. From the command post, SWAT radioed back: “We’re going in.”
Seconds later, Velazquez heard the explosion of the flash-bang grenade, then felt the rumble of gunfire.
Agonizing moments later, the radio came alive. The target, Vargas, was “down.” The hostages were safe.
With the gunfire over, a SWAT paramedic rushed in. Vargas was immediately declared dead.
Neighbor Carlos Sanchez said the standoff ended in the Neks’ bedroom. The couple declined to speak with reporters Sunday.
Next door, the bullet-pocked bedroom wall of Sanchez’s apartment shows evidence of Vargas’ final moments.
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.”
Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas, Andre Fernandez and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report, as did researcher Monika Leal.