Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: In Hialeah, a normal day — until madness erupted

Mass murder erupted out of the banal. Once again.

The killer, this time, lived in a fourth-floor apartment in a five-story building, built without the bother of architectural flourishes. An exact replica of the building next door. Same paint job. Sandy brown trim over something vaguely yellow. His balcony was furnished with white plastic chairs.

Nothing about apartment 408, 1485 W. 46th St., suggests an explanation for a massacre. Yet something about this unremarkable address seemed to have set off the second most deadly killing spree in South Florida history.

It began with what may have been arson, a small fire in apartment 408 that Pedro Alberto Vargas may have ignited himself. When the elderly couple who managed the building hurried to his apartment, it escalated into mass murder.

Vargas, 42, killed Italo Pisciotti, 78, his 68-year-old wife Samira, and then continued terrorizing his neighbors for more than seven hours, killing four others and taking two hostages before a SWAT team took him out early Saturday morning, the only death that night that came with a rational explanation.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Gerardo Peraza, from apartment 101, who was struggling to connect the gunplay with the upstairs neighbor, who in their casual encounters before Friday night had seemed so… so... “He seemed so normal,” Peraza insisted, trying to make “normal” compute with the blood and the bodies.

It was not the first time hereabouts that such awful, inexplicable violence burst out of the utterly mundane. On another sultry summer Friday 31 years ago, a middle-school teacher named Carl Robert Brown, who lived in a Hialeah townhouse three miles away, was upset over repair work on his lawn mower. That was all. Yet that was enough. The 51-year-old Brown grabbed his floppy straw hat, a Mossberg 500 pump action shotgun and rode his bicycle down North River Road to Bob Moore’s machine shop.

Within moments, eight men and women were killed, and three others wounded. Over a $20 repair job.

The killer, almost nonchalant, rode away, his shotgun slung over his back. Mike Kram, the owner of a neighboring metal shop, gave chase in his 1981 Lincoln. When Brown reached for his shotgun, Kram shot at him, then ran him down. Brown died on the roadside, crushed against a concrete light pole, a bullet through his heart.

I was among the Miami Herald reporters working the scene that day, August 20, 1982. That killing came amid the era of cocaine cowboys, when Miami-Dade County was wracked with gun violence, with Colombian drug gangs in a terrible territorial war with Cuban smugglers, while Miami was enduring bursts of rioting and racial violence. We were coming off a year when Miami-Dade suffered the nation’s highest homicide rate. We were murder city.

Yet no other single incident before or since left so many deaths as Carl Brown’s mad burst of pique over a lawn mower repair. Reporters clustered outside Bob Moore’s machine shop, peering at the mayhem beyond the yellow police tape, kept repeating the same phrase. Trying to make sense of the bodies: “Over a $20 repair bill.”

I was thinking of that Saturday afternoon, staring up at Pedro Vargas’ fourth-floor balcony. As if I might glimpse some answer to the inexplicable. I suppose that even after a burst of insane, random, murderous rage, we’d like to know that there was some rational explanation for why a man would suddenly grab his gun and start killing his neighbors indiscriminately.

But no motive was apparent. When we asked the neighbors, they mostly just shook their heads in puzzlement.

All we know is that, up until Friday, Pedro Alberto Vargas seemed so normal. Then he wasn’t.