Hialeah police on Thursday defended the actions of an emergency operator who handled a 911 call last Friday from Pedro Alberto Vargas about five hours before he shot and killed six of his neighbors.
The veteran operator acted correctly in canceling a dispatch — which had sent two officers to the apartment Vargas shared with his elderly mother — once 83-year-old Esperanza Patterson advised that her son had left the house to buy gasoline, police spokesman Carl Zogby said.
“After careful consideration, we believe that all the right questions were asked and answered to full satisfaction,” Zogby said at a packed news conference a day after the department released the recording of the call. “The 911 operator had no evidence at the time to believe, or any reason to believe, that anyone was in imminent danger.”
Under the department’s protocol, the unidentified female operator could have sent the officers to the apartment at 1485 W. 46th St. despite Patterson’s request to cancel the dispatch, Zogby said. But he did not second-guess the operator’s judgment.
There had been no prior 911 calls from the apartment, Zogby noted, and the operator, who has more than 15 years’ experience, didn’t hear “any of the tell-tale signs of something that could turn violent” — arguing or yelling.
The operator didn’t ask if Vargas had a gun because that’s not a routine question unless there are signs of ongoing or likely violence, Zogby said.
Four of Vargas’ victims were buried Thursday, surrounded by loved ones overwhelmed with grief.
Italo Pisciotti, 79, and his wife, Samira Pisciotti, 69, who managed the building, were laid to rest at Vista Memorial Gardens in Miami Lakes. The sound of church bells accompanied the funeral caravan. Next to the caskets lay a floral arrangement in yellow, blue and red, the colors of the flag of the couple’s native Colombia.
Among the 60 or so mourners was Edgardo Fuentes, a fellow Colombian who knew the Pisciottis for more than two decades.
“We went together to concerts here during Colombian holidays. So many years we shared going out on double dates,” Fuentes said. “Now it’s going to be very difficult. We’re going to miss them.”
The couple’s wake Wednesday evening was attended by the Colombian consul in Miami, Martha Jaramillo, who helped arrange travel for the Pisciottis’ relatives in that country, and by Sarrida and Zoeb Nek, the building tenants taken hostage by Vargas.
By coincidence, the Pisciottis’ daughter had made advance arrangements with the funeral home for her parents’ eventual burial site two weeks ago. After the shooting, the company returned the money and donated the services to the family.
Separately, 51-year-old Merly Niebles and her daughter, 17-year-old Priscilla Perez, were interred at Dade South Memorial Park near Richmond Heights. About 75 people assembled for a simple service, punctuated by quiet sobs from some of Niebles’ five sisters, who were all raised in Barranquilla, Colombia.
“She never made enemies with anyone,” Cira Niebles said of her sister, whom she remembered as a hard worker who made friends easily.
Another sister, Zuly, lurched forward from her chair as Priscilla’s white casket covered with pink and red roses was lowered into the ground.
“Bye, my love,” she cried. “I’ll see you up there.”
A funeral for a fifth victim, Carlos Gavilanes, 33, was held Wednesday. The sixth victim, Patricio Simono, 64, who was Niebles’ boyfriend, will be buried Monday.
Vargas, 42, called 911 at 1:37 p.m. last Friday to report that he thought someone was following him, and that he was the victim of brujería — sorcery or witchcraft.
His mother also spoke to the operator, worried about her son’s state of mind — she told the operator she had slipped two crushed Xanax pills in Vargas’ food — but made no mention of “violence or violent tendencies,” said Zogby, who characterized the type of call as “not uncommon.”
“These things are unpredictable,” he stressed. “We cancel calls [for officers] all the time.”
At one point in the call, Vargas left the apartment with a bottle to buy gasoline, according to his mother. When pressed about the intended purchase, Patterson told the operator that the gas was for Vargas’ white Toyota Corolla. But she sounded unsure and speculated that maybe he had gone to buy motor oil.
When Vargas returned home around 6 p.m., Zogby said, he carried a full container of gasoline and a bag with an unknown amount — sources have said about $10,000 — in cash. He poured the gas over the bills and set them on fire.
At 6:58 p.m., neighbors called 911 to report smoke willowing out of apartment 408. The building managers went to investigate. Vargas shot them dead — in full view of his mother, according to Zogby — using his Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol.
Police, notified by the fire department, were dispatched at 7:04 p.m. and arrived two minutes later to a hail of bullets. Vargas was killed shortly after 1:48 a.m. Saturday by a SWAT team that charged into the building to rescue two neighbors the shooter had taken hostage.
Zogby spoke Thursday at a police department news conference that began more than an hour behind schedule. Chief Sergio Velázquez didn’t attend because he was “busy running the department,” Zogby said.
The spokesman repeatedly noted that Vargas’ rampage began five hours and 15 minutes after his mother hung up with the emergency operator.
During that time, police believe Vargas purchased the gasoline and made a few more unknown stops before dropping by the Kendall office of an attorney who had deposed him three days earlier. Vargas, a graphic designer, had admitted Ssending anonymous threats to former colleagues from Bullet Line, a promotional products company.
The attorney, Angel Castillo Jr., was out. Police have said they think Vargas was intent on killing Castillo. Zogby said Thursday the motive behind Vargas’ shooting spree remain a mystery.
Zogby said police don’t know when it was that Vargas stopped by a Chase Bank branch in Hialeah to withdraw the cash he later burned.
Vargas had no known history of mental illness or drug use, according to Zogby. A toxicology screen from his autopsy is pending.
The only other time Vargas had contacted Hialeah police was on May 29, 2012, to report someone had stolen hubcaps off his car.