Hours before he took aim at his neighbors, the Hialeah gunman who killed six people Friday night called 911 to complain that he was being followed by someone who was casting spells on him.
Pedro Alberto Vargas’ elderly mother took the phone shortly after the 10- to 12-minute call began at around 1 p.m. and told the emergency operator that her son suffered from problems and was only nervous, according to Hialeah police sources. He also intended to buy some gasoline, she said.
The mother, 83-year-old Esperanza Patterson, asked the operator not to dispatch officers to the apartment she shared with Vargas because, she explained, she had already slipped two Xanax pills in his food.
Two hours later, Vargas showed up at the Kendall office of an attorney who had gotten Vargas to admit three days earlier that he made anonymous threats online against his former co-workers. Vargas had told his mother, according to a relative, that he might lose money as a result of the case.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The attorney, Angel Castillo Jr., was not in.
But it was rage over that legal case, police say, that likely triggered Vargas’ subsequent rampage.
“We believe that if the lawyer had been in his office that afternoon, Vargas might have killed him,” Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velázquez said. “We suspect that case motivated all that violence. That would have been what made him unstable.”
After trying to find Castillo, Vargas returned home at 1485 W. 46th St. He set fire to $10,000 in cash — which his mother tried to put out with her feet, the relative said. His building managers, who saw the smoke, knocked on his door. Vargas shot them dead. Then he killed four more people.
For four hours, he held two other neighbors hostage. The negotiator heard Vargas mutter something about a court subpoena. He asked for only one thing: to speak with his mother. But police said no, the police chief said, fearing Vargas wanted to say goodbye to her before killing the hostages and himself.
The motive behind the shooting had remained a mystery for three days after the killings. Vargas did not have a criminal record.
But court records and interviews with police, Castillo and a Vargas family member Tuesday offered an explanation about what might have set off Vargas.
The graphic designer appeared to fear the repercussions of the testimony he gave July 23 in Castillo’s office. He admitted to sending anonymous messages over several months from the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah to various employees of Bullet Line, a national company that makes promotional products.
Vargas worked as a temporary graphic designer in the company’s Miami office from May to October of last year, according to Castillo. He was let go Oct. 5 after Bullet Line advised the temp agency that hired Vargas that it did not have enough work and no longer needed Vargas’ services.
The text messages and emails, sent from a Yahoo! account, began targeting Bullet Line employees months after Vargas’ dismissal. Bullet Line investigated and filed suit against Yahoo! in December seeking to identify the anonymous user behind a “concerted cyber smear campaign consisting of repeated malicious, offensive, false and defamatory” emails.
“We were able to identify Mr. Vargas as a potential author of the anonymous messages,” Castillo said in a statement Tuesday to the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.
Castillo said he did not know Vargas’ former Miami Dade College supervisors held similar suspicions that Vargas sent them inappropriate texts, emails and Facebook messages. Police were only able to trace the origins of those messages to a Hialeah public library.
Vargas arrived half an hour late to the deposition, scheduled for 10 a.m. in Castillo’s office conference room. Vargas wore a business suit, Castillo said, and was calm and courteous, drinking a couple of glasses of water from paper cups.
“Mr. Vargas spoke softly and never raised his voice,” Castillo said. “He never refused to answer any of my questions. He never made any threatening comments.”
At first, Vargas denied making the threats. But after several hours, and after Castillo suggested Vargas might be perjuring himself, Vargas owned up to the messages.
“It won’t happen again. I swear to God. Soy un idiota,” Castillo quoted Vargas as saying.
Castillo asked Vargas to promise never to engage in similar behavior and to draft a letter of apology to Bullet Line employees.
Vargas agreed. Four hours later, he sent the letter, riddled with grammatical errors, via email to Castillo.
“This is the hardest letter I have ever written,” Vargas began.
“I feel I owe you a personal apology for my insensitive comments, disrespectful and deceiving mails. I accept full responsibility for what happened,” he wrote. “The main reason, I believe it is, I was sad to stop seeing you guys, enjoying lunch in your company and not been able to participate at the new place. Don’t believe me, but I am pouring tears right now.”
Bullet Line had moved to Hialeah from Miami shortly after Vargas left the company.
Three days after the deposition, Vargas showed up at Castillo’s office again, unannounced and in casual attire. He told an administrative assistant that he wanted to speak to Castillo about his deposition. When he learned the attorney was out of the office, Vargas left, without leaving contact or any other information. It’s unclear if he carried the Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol he legally purchased in 2010.
“He did not make any hostile or threatening remarks of any kind,” Castillo said.
Since Friday’s shooting, Castillo has met with Hialeah homicide detectives, he said. Bullet Line representatives have also been interviewed.
Vargas told the attorney he had never been fired — which appeared to be true, because he was forced to resign from his job in Miami Dade College North Campus’ media services department in 2008 when he learned of his imminent dismissal.
MDC began termination proceedings after an investigation into Vargas prompted by his poor work performance found he had downloaded a slew of inappropriate files onto his office desktop, including a so-called “Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes instructions on making explosives at home, counterfeiting money and killing someone with your bare hands.
He also downloaded other files, listed as apparent Internet browser searches, titled “Easily Hypnotize Anyone,” “Secrets of Speed Seduction” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex,” according to his personnel file.
Vargas denied the MDC allegations against him, characterizing them in a Dec. 4, 2008, email to his supervisor as an attempt “to smear my good name and reputation.”
MDC spokesman Juan Mendieta said the allegations against Vargas were never reported to police because they comprised “strictly a performance issue.” In addition, Vargas only visited one site the university considered “anti-government” — the one that included a link to the Anarchist Cookbook, Mendieta said.
“There was no red flag,” he sad. “We dealt with this administratively and started the proceedings for termination and the individual resigned.”
Of chief concern to Vargas’ supervisors was a file titled “1000 hacking tutorials,” which, according to the university, included an “Index to the Anarchist Cookbook IV, version 4.14.” The Anarchist Cookbook is a bomb-making manual first published in 1971 during the Vietnam War.
It remains unclear why Vargas, in the wake of his visit to Castillo’s office Friday afternoon, set fire to the about $10,000 in cash.
The deposition had left him anxious, according to a relative who asked to remain anonymous. Vargas had complained to his mother about “a subpoena related to his work,” the relative said.
When he called 911, Vargas asked police to trace the license plate of a vehicle he said was following him. He also feared sorcery was being used against him.
Police say they suspect Vargas for some reason felt he might lose his money — even though Castillo said the case was closed with Vargas’ apology.
“No trial is going to take place in this case. Its investigative purpose has been achieved,” Castillo said.
Later, he added: “I am happy I was not at my office last Friday afternoon at 3 p.m.”
Miami Herald researcher Monika K. Leal contributed to this report.