Racing pigeons and murder: A Miami trial casts spotlight on niche sport

Trial starts in Miami racing-pigeon murder case

Defendant Lazaro Romero is accused of murdering another man over prized racing pigeons. The video captures court proceedings on this case, Tuesday, August 29, 2017.
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Defendant Lazaro Romero is accused of murdering another man over prized racing pigeons. The video captures court proceedings on this case, Tuesday, August 29, 2017.

Lazaro Romero and Yoan Vazquez forged their friendship through Miami’s niche world of pigeon racing.

And it’s also what led Romero to plan the attack that cost Vazquez his life, jurors heard on Tuesday.

At the core of the conflict, prosecutors told jurors during the start of Romero’s trial for murder, were 20 prized breeding pigeons that Vazquez purchased from his friend. But when Romero wanted them back, he and his brother armed themselves with blades, went to Vazquez’s Little Havana home and demanded them back by force.

The confrontation ended with Romero’s brother stabbing the unarmed Vazquez to death in the yard — all while the man’s horrified 6-year-old daughter watched feet away.

Prosecutors blame Romero. “He was going to get his pigeons that day — he was determined,” Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Marbely Hernandez told jurors.

Yoan Vazquez, 32, of Miami, who stabbed to death in a dispute over prized racing pigeons in November 2013. State Attorney’s Office

Defense lawyers, however, are pinning the blame on Freddy Romero, Lazaro’s brother.

“He never condoned an attack on Yoan Vazquez,” defense lawyer Natahly Soler told jurors. “His brother, Freddy Romero, he’s the one who planned this. He acted alone and independently.”

Tuesday marked the start of a uniquely Miami murder trial, offering a window into the competitive world of South Florida pigeon racing.

The sport of racing homing pigeons, which possess navigation instincts that guide them back to their home lofts, has been around for centuries. Florida is a hub for pigeon racing, with many in Miami having bred and trained birds in Cuba.

Vazquez learned about pigeons in his native Cuba, and joined a racing club in Miami after establishing a career framing art at a Little Havana gallery. He was stabbed to death in November 2013 outside his home in the 2700 block of Southwest 32nd Court.

The 32-year-old father was friends with members of the Kendall Racing Pigeons Club, where members gathered often to drink beer, laugh and train their beloved birds. During competitions, birds are released from the back of coops on trucks, sometimes hundreds of miles away; special electronic chips attached to the bird’s legs clock in their times when they return to their coops.

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Lazaro Romero, accused of murder in the slaying of fellow pigeon-racing enthusiast Yoan Vazquez. Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office

“They breeded these pigeons. They immunized these pigeons. They took care of them like a dog, or a race horse — but they were pigeons,” prosecutor Hernandez said.

Said defense lawyer Soler of her client: “He loved those pigeons. He cared for them like they were his own children.”

That day, Lazaro Romero had called Vazquez, demanding his birds back. He refused. Prosecutors said Lazaro Romero armed himself with a machete, fetched his brother and drove to Vazquez’s home.

Vazquez was outside tending to his coop when the brothers arrived. What the brothers did not know, prosecutors said, is that Vazquez's young daughter was watching — along with a video surveillance camera

During the confrontation, both men pounced on Vazquez and Freddy Romero stabbed him to death, according to the state. The video surveillance system showed Vazquez, hollering for help, race out to the sidewalk.

Prosecutors said Lazaro Romero fetched the machete from the Cadillac and the brothers briefly chased the bleeding Vazquez. But the men quickly drove off as neighbors began to gather, drawn by the commotion.

At first, both men claimed self-defense. Freddy said Vazquez had the knife and somehow stabbed himself during the altercation.

Freddy Romero didn’t risk trial. Last year, he pleaded guilty to murder, and agreed to serve 25 years in prison.

Lazaro Romero’s trial continues Wednesday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward.