Crime

From the archives: Boy stabbed to death at Miami-Dade school; classmate charged

Michael Hernandez during his 2007 trial at the Miami-Dade courthouse.
Michael Hernandez during his 2007 trial at the Miami-Dade courthouse. Miami Herald file/2007

Michael Hernandez, now 25, is back in court for a new sentencing hearing in the 2004 fatal stabbing of a classmate at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. What follows is the Miami Herald report from Feb. 3, 2004, published in the next day’s newspaper, of the crime that shocked a school and all of South Florida.

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A quiet, 14-year-old honors student was killed in a bathroom at his Palmetto Bay middle school Tuesday morning, his throat apparently cut by a classmate in a shocking attack that paralyzed hundreds of families and terrified parents across Miami-Dade County. Jaime Rodrigo Gough was found bleeding to death in a second-floor restroom at Southwood Middle School around 8:30 a.m. by another student, who saw a pool of blood and a pair of legs sticking out from a stall. He ran to get help, but paramedics were unable to save Jaime.

Within hours, police focused on a fellow eighth-grader, who was identified as 14-year-old Michael Hernandez. He was charged late Tuesday night with first-degree murder. Such a serious charge indicates police believe the killing may have been planned.

After Jaime's body was found, administrators launched a lockdown, confining students to their first-period classrooms for the day while detectives investigated.

Before Hernandez was escorted from his class around lunchtime, investigators suspected Jaime's wounds were self-inflicted, said Pete Cuccaro, chief of the Miami-Dade Schools Police.

Only after the medical examiner ruled out that explanation did police realize a killer could be loose in the school.

"We didn't know right away who the potential suspect was, " Cuccaro said. "That's why we went into a code-red lockdown."

The teen suffered "severe trauma" from "some sort of cutting incident, " said Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez.

POSSIBLE WEAPON

He said investigators later found a "cutting instrument" believed to be the murder weapon.

The two boys knew each other, Alvarez said, but he would not speculate on what prompted the attack.

"We're at the very preliminary stages of a criminal investigation, " he said at an afternoon news conference. "Everyone knows what we know."

A few students said Jaime was sometimes bullied because he was short, bookish and a little chubby.

"He was nice, smart, but they used to pick on him a lot, " 14-year-old Larishea Bivens told The Associated Press.

Friends and neighbors, already stunned by the news of a killing at the nearly crime-free Southwood, were dumbfounded as Jaime's name began to sweep through the community. The words "quiet" and "shy" were used over and over.

"He was a good student, really nice and really polite, " said James Velez, one of Jaime's friends and classmates. "I don't know who would do this."

Only Jaime's parents, Jorge and Maria Gough, were brought into the school to talk with investigators.

Around mid-afternoon, Jaime's mother collapsed at the school and was taken by ambulance to an area hospital. Her condition was not released, but a niece said she was sedated.

FAMILY GATHERS

Throughout the day, more than a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins camped quietly and tearfully in a shady corner among hundreds of anxious parents.

"He was so happy all the time, had so many plans, " said Ana Amaya, Maria Gough's niece, whose three children often played with Jaime.

She tearfully described his violin recitals and her home video of his fifth-grade graduation.

"This never happens here, " said Maria Ramirez, Jaime's aunt. "It's a good school."

Indeed, Southwood was the district's first magnet school when it opened in 1976 and is renowned for its programs in dance, music and art. Tuesday was the first day back in class for the school's dance team, which just won a competition in Orlando.

The state has given Southwood, 16301 SW 80th Ave., an A school-accountability grade for the last three years.

Schools police recorded only three arrests on the campus last year - a burglary and two fights - and spokesman Carlos Fernandez said two dozen incident reports this year were all minor.

RARE CRIME

If there has ever been a homicide in a Miami-Dade public school, even long-time veterans cannot recall it. School Board member Solomon Stinson has worked for the district since 1960 and said he cannot remember a single precedent.

Regular classes will still be held at Southwood today, said Chief Education Officer Mercedes Toural, but grief counselors will be available for students and teachers. Many of the students were largely unaware of the horror in their building until after leaving school.

Despite the lockdown, which ended around the normal 3:40 dismissal time, students described a calm - if uneasy - day during which they never changed classes but never learned of the killing.

"They told us not to worry, everything's fine, " said Clarissa Vargas, a sixth-grader. "There was just rumors going around."

ANXIOUS PARENTS

Some students used cellphones, placing calls that allowed their parents to exhale.

But in other classes - including the science class students said Jamie was supposed to attend - teachers banned calls.

The silence infuriated some parents, many of whom waited outside for hours in the sun.

"Why won't they tell us anything? My God! Tell us something!" yelled Trenika Simmons, whose son attends Southwood.

Rumors swept through the crowd, phones chirping with unconfirmed details from lunchtime newscasts.

Every morsel of information brought relief to some and panic to others as the crowd squabbled over conflicting reports over the victim's gender.

"The school's not even answering, " said Lazaro Amador, his cellphone's earpiece dangling. "I let it ring 50 times, and no one picked up."

Shortly after noon, police told parents not to worry because the victim's parents had already been notified. Many, though, would not relax until they could put a hand on their child.

"If they let it leak there was a murder, these parents are going to go berserk, " said Douglas Ede, whose 12-year-old son attends Southwood.

While Jaime's friends in the Edgewater Park development led a candlelight march through the neighborhood streets where they used to ride bikes and play ball, more than 500 parents poured into the school for a nighttime meeting that started with tears and escalated to anger.

Two parents said their children were the ones to discover Jaime's bleeding body and report it to teachers, only to be sent back to their classrooms for the rest of the day.

"We were not even notified, " said one of those parents, Terry Dunn. "We found out when I saw my child being interviewed by Channel 7."

COUNSELING

Another parent said her child was in class with Hernandez all morning; her child said the suspect had blood on his clothing.

School officials did not directly respond, but said they would provide counseling for the 28 students in that class.

Many other parents wondered about security, especially after Cuccaro, of the schools police, said Southwood has nine security monitors for its 1,800 students. Some called for metal detectors to be installed.

"There's not anyone or any way to pinpoint where or when this might occur, " Cuccaro said.

"There was almost no way to prevent this."

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