Nearly two decades after Milda Grabis was shot in the mouth by a burglar in Little Havana, dying 31 months later, her grandson refuses to let her story fade.
Michael Grabis regularly emails and calls the Miami Police Department, which he believes didn’t do enough to investigate at the time. He persuaded the medical examiner’s office to change a key ruling, which could make it easier to prosecute her attacker for murder.
He also appeared at a recent Miami police press conference to highlight the case for television news stations.
“My goal is to get as much information as possible out there,” said Grabis, 38, a business consultant who lives in New York. “She was such an important part of my family. Miami has a lot of hard-working people, and she was one of those people.”
The efforts have paid off. Miami homicide detectives have revived the case, trying to piece together the old files, find new witnesses and scour for evidence to test for DNA. They also re-ran fingerprints found at the scene through databases of known criminals.
But so far, the attack on Grabis remains as mysterious as it was in January 1998.
“Everything has come back negative,” Miami homicide detective Rolando Garcia said.
Grabis died in August 2000, at age 82. Her life was marked by epic journeys to escape violence and poverty.
She grew up on a farm in Latvia, the Baltic country wedged between Lithuania and Estonia. The hard-scrabble lifestyle of milking cows and tending the land was etched into her steely character — and her strong body. To her amusement, her two sons used to jokingly call her Popeye.
“She had forearms that were very large and pronounced, and that was from the years growing up on the farm,” said her son, John Grabis, 68, of Fort Lauderdale.
The Grabis family fled after Russia occupied Latvia in 1940 during the initial stages of World War II. They traveled by river boat to Germany, then run by the Nazis, but managed to survive the war before emigrating to the United States, where they had family.
Grabis and her two young sons made the trip alone — her husband died of tuberculosis shortly before leaving.
After stays in New York and North Carolina, the Grabis family settled in Miami. Grabis got a job cooking for a catering company, work so demanding at first that her boys lived mostly at a charity home for children.
Eventually, Grabis and her family thrived. She bought a duplex in Little Havana, near the office of her catering job. As she aged, her sons started their own families. Grabis retired but stayed active, living alone in one unit of the duplex while she rented the other.
On the evening of Jan. 27, 1998, John Grabis got a phone call from the family that rented the other unit of the duplex at 1210 SW 15th Ave. His mother’s door was open, and she hadn’t been seen all day.
He implored them to go inside and check on her. Not long after, John Grabis got the heart-stopping call from police — his mother was found on her bed, shot in the face, and was being rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Detectives believed the intruder entered the home and shot her that morning, leaving her near death for more than 10 hours until she was discovered.
”The house had been completely ransacked,” a Miami police spokesman said at the time. “We’re talking about drawers, closets, everything. This person took their time after they shot this lady to look throughout this whole house, and then just left her there to die.”
Grabis languished for weeks at Jackson Memorial, and was eventually moved to a nursing home in Plantation.
Her condition never improved. She never again spoke, remained confined to a bed and had to be nourished through a feeding tube.
Grabis’ eyes could follow her relatives, but she couldn’t move her head. The woman could grip her son’s hand, but only lightly. “Use those forearms, you can squeeze my hand,” John would tell her.
Finally in August 2000, Grabis was rushed to Plantation General Hospital, where she died. But the attending doctor — apparently unaware of the shooting — immediately determined the case of death to be a natural heart failure, and did not call the Broward medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
It is not unusual for shooting victims to die months, years, even decades after they have been shot — and for an autopsy to declare the death a homicide.
That’s what happened to James Brady, an aide to President Ronald Reagan, who was shot and paralyzed in 1981 in the assassination attempt on the president. Brady became a crusader against guns and lived until 2014. Upon his death, a medical examiner ruled that he died by homicide, because of the gunshot wound suffered decades earlier.
Hearing that news in 2014 spurred Michael Grabis to reexamine his grandmother’s death, though it was something the family had rarely talked about. He began firing off phone calls and emails, seeking information about her death certificate and the details of the shooting.
Michael Grabis said he was shocked to learn that the Miami police case had been dormant, relegated as a burglary with a deadly weapon, with chunks of the case file gone. The homicide bureau soon assigned the case to the cold-case unit, which began piecing together the files.
There certainly have been challenges.
Grabis was cremated, making exhumation and an autopsy impossible. But Grabis persuaded the Broward Medical Examiner’s office to change the cause of death from “cardiac arrest” to “undetermined,” which would make it a little easier to prosecute her attacker for murder, although proving it would remain difficult.
As for detectives, they held a press conference with Michael Grabis to drum up interest in the case. They’ve also tracked down neighbors, including the family that lived in the duplex, and went door to door in the neighborhood, hoping for any shred of information.
So far, nothing.
“Somebody out there knows something,” Michael Grabis said. “Time has passed; maybe they would be willing to speak about it now.”