Their stories span decades, lives that began in Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and South Florida, and all ended within yards of each other on a blue-collar block in Hialeah.
The six people slain during Pedro Alberto Vargas’ shooting rampage were linked by geography, each of their three families living on the same block or apartment building, their names inextricably linked as victims of one of Hialeah’s bloodiest massacres.
Italo and Samira Pisciotti, longtime managers of Todel Apartments, doted over their grandchildren as they prepared to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
Carlos Gavilanes, a 33-year-old father of two, was a sports fan and hard-working salesman on the verge of opening his own shoe design and sales company.
And Merly Niebles, 51, with longtime boyfriend Patricio Simono, 64, lived a hardscrabble life with her 17-year-old daughter Priscilla Perez, who dreamed of college in New York City and beginning a career in nursing.
The gunman, Vargas, 42, suffered an apparent mental breakdown after a lawyer for his former employer confronted him with evidence he had been cyber-harassing former colleagues. Vargas lit a pile of cash ablaze inside the apartment, then shot and killed the Pisciottis as they rushed to help Vargas’ mother escape the blaze.
The shooting spree escalated when Vargas began shooting from his balcony at first responders, hitting Gavilanes as he returned home from picking up his 9-year-old son from boxing practice.
Finally, Vargas burst into Niebles’ apartment, mowing down Simono before cornering Niebles and her daughter hiding in the bathroom. He coldly shot them to death.
After Vargas took two hostages in another apartment and engaged in an hours-long standoff, Hialeah’s SWAT team shot him to death in a daring rescue raid.
The stories of the slain victims were culled together through interviews with friends, family and co-workers in Hialeah and at heart-wrenching funeral services this week.
The family anchors
Shamira Pisciotti shared with the world an online slideshow of her parents with their young grandchildren, tender moments frozen in time.
There’s Italo Pisciotti, a broad smile on his face, in front of a tinsel-draped Christmas tree, one arm wrapped around his granddaughter, the other outstretched, his finger spread into a “V”.
A side profile photo shows curly-haired Samira, her glasses off, infant grandson in her arms, both looking at each other with wonder.
And beaming Italo and Samira Pisciotti, ages 79 and 69, holding their baby grandson at his baptism, flanked by a priest.
“I want everyone to remember them as the loving grandparents they were … They lived for my children,” Shamira Pisciotti wrote on her Facebook page.
The Pisciottis hailed from Barranquilla, a coastal city in Colombia, and had moved to Miami decades ago. They were on the verge of celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They died in the apartment building that served double duty as their home and their business. For 20 years, they managed the property.
“They were incredible. They watched me grow up, since I was 10 years old. They worked with this company with my father,” said the building’s current owner, Antonio Delgado, 44. “They were incredible workers, serious and honest. They worked at all hours and if they could help you, they would help you.”
Relatives from as far as Colombia and California gathered Thursday at Memorial Vista Gardens cemetery in Miami Lakes. As their caskets were lowered into the ground, mourners wept beside a floral arrangement in the yellow, blue and red colors of their native land’s flag.
“We used to go to the Colombian festivals here,” said longtime family friend Edgardo Fuentes. “We have so many years going out with them as a couple. It’s going to be very difficult. We’re going to miss them.”
A father’s dreams
Gavilanes — father of two, handball and boxing aficionado and budding businessman — left behind a legacy of bold dreams for his family.
He toiled for years selling shoes and women’s accessories, most recently at Nordstrom, developing a passion for fashion while planning to open a shoe design business alongside his father.
“Things were starting to look up for him,” his mother, Cynthia Ontiveros, said.
The oldest of three siblings, Gavilanes was born in Ecuador, grew up in New York City and moved to Miami 11 years ago. In South Beach, he met Jennifer Kharrazian, with whom he had two children, a 9-year-old namesake son and a 2-year-old daughter, Victoria.
With his son, Gavilanes shared his love of soccer and boxing — he often showed off his son’s shadow-boxing for friends.
“He was happy. He was full of life,” Kharrazian said. “He loved his kids.”
Said Carlos Sarmiento, 43, a friend and mentor: “He was a very dedicated family man. He really adored his wife and his children.”
Friends described Gavilanes as a dynamic personality who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, worked hard to support his family while piecing together plans for his shoe design and sales business.
He had even taken a trip to China recently to meet with potential manufacturers and distributors.
“It really confirmed that he was doing the right thing. He saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sarmiento, who met Gavilanes playing handball at South Beach’s Flamingo Park. “He had a lot of energy, often going in different directions, but he was very close to getting this thing off the ground. He had the personality for it.”
Known by the nickname Los, Gavilanes was an avid handball player, part of a small but close-knit group of South Florida enthusiasts, many of whom also hailed from New York City. The group had an informal league, meeting on Saturdays to blow off steam on the court, chug beer and joke around.
“Handball for all of us, including Los, was just a stress reliever,” said Roque Florez, who planned to host a fundraising tournament in Gavilanes’ honor Saturday at Kendall’s Sunset Park. “You forget about all your troubles, and just concentrate on smacking the crap out of that ball.”
A humble family
Niebles and her teenage daughter, Priscilla Perez, never led easy lives. But they lived with grace, pride and love, friends and family.
Niebles was one of six siblings who moved from Colombia to Miami 20 years ago, to join their father already living in South Florida. Her mother remained in Colombia, heartbroken by the departure of her daughters, and died not long after, according to family.
As an adult, Niebles worked for years at a T-shirt printing factory before losing her job in the recent recession. Out of work for months, she had recently landed a job as a part-time hotel housekeeper, though she had been hobbled by arthritis in her knee.
In South Florida, she maintained a close relationship with her sisters, though they never managed to teach her to drive.
“She chickened out because she was scared that something would happen to her. That’s why she didn’t have a car. She was very nervous,” remembered her sister, Virginia Niebles.
Merly Niebles never married. But she had been with the Cuban-born Simono — who will be remembered Sunday at a wake, and buried Monday — for the past 10 years.
The two worked together at the factory, where he continued working after Niebles was laid off.
For the past decade, they shared the modest Hialeah apartment with Priscilla; Simono often helped the Pisciottis do building maintenance for extra pocket money.
Simono had children in Cuba from a previous relationship, and had even talked about returning to the island to visit them.
In Hialeah, he cared deeply for Priscilla, with whom he had lived since she was 7 years old, family said. He’d recently given her his old green car so she could drive to school.
Discipline was usually left to Priscilla’s aunts — but the 17-year-old was rarely in trouble.
Friends said Priscilla attended a weekly prayer group and sometimes went to services at Iglesia Jesucristo el Todopoderoso near her Hialeah school, American Christian.
Last week, Priscilla told her aunt that she felt she had to cut ties with some friends who had offered her some marijuana.
“She told me, ‘I want nothing to do with that at all,’ ” aunt Cira Niebles said.
Priscilla’s life was not unlike that of many teen girls. She devoured the Twilight vampire-fantasy books and movies. She shed 15 pounds after joining a nearby gym and attending Zumba dance classes.
Most recently, Priscilla had joined the work force with a paperwork and sales job at Lyn’s Furniture in the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market.
She and her pals dreamed of going to college in New York or Rome, even researching apartments online. Priscilla planned to one day have a career as a neonatal nurse.
“She was very skeptical and very intelligent with Christian principles,” said her aunt, Virginia Niebles. “She was very expressive and loved to talk with adults. She had goals.”