Hialeah police dispatched two officers to a mass killer’s home hours before he gunned down six neighbors, but his mother called off the cops because her son had left the apartment to buy gasoline, according to a 911 recording released Wednesday.
Pedro Alberto Vargas phoned 911 at 1:37 p.m. Friday, sounding timid and halting, often failing to complete his thoughts.
“I feel threatened, and I am being a victim,” he told the emergency operator. “Could you run a license plate?”
No, the unidentified female operator answered. But who’s following you?
“People,” he said, later adding: “Sorcery and stuff they are doing to me.”
The operator asked for Vargas’ mother, who lived with him in a one-bedroom apartment at 1485 W. 46th St. Esperanza Patterson, 83, told the operator something was wrong with her 42-year-old son, but she wasn’t sure what.
“I don’t know why, but he is very agitated,” she said.
The recording of the Spanish-language call, which lasted 12 minutes and 21 seconds, offers a glimpse into Vargas’ unstable state of mind shortly before the shooting, which began after 6:30 p.m.
And it raises the gut-wrenching, unanswerable question of whether an early visit by police could have avoided the rampage that followed. By the end of the night, Vargas was shot dead by a SWAT team after a standoff that lasted four hours. Two hostages taken by Vargas survived unharmed.
A spokesman for Hialeah police said the department would not comment on the 911 tape until a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday.
Police Chief Sergio Velázquez did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Earlier this week he said the operator who answered Vargas’ call was “very experienced.”
Lonny Wilder, vice president of public safety for the Dallas-based Law Enforcement Training Network, said after listening to the recording that the operator “canceled the dispatch prematurely.”
“The operator had an opportunity to learn more about this individual before making the decision to hold back the officers,” Wilder said, noting that the operator could have asked if Patterson was taking medication, for example, or if there were other factors that could have made the situation dangerous.
But he acknowledged that dispatchers receive many calls from troubled people.
That’s why it’s important for police agencies to establish protocols detailing questions and answers that trigger specific responses, said Ty Wooten, education director for the National Emergency Number Association in Alexandria, Va.
Wooten, a former 911 dispatcher himself, said he couldn’t count the number of times he answered a call similar to the one made by Vargas.
“They’re an attempt to reach out, they’re asking for help,” he said. “Most of those turned out to be nothing. But it’s hard to make sense of something that’s so senseless.”
Visit from the governor
Florida Gov. Rick Scott dropped by Hialeah City Hall on Wednesday to congratulate the SWAT team that rescued the hostages in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“I want to thank you,” Scott said during the short ceremony in the city council chambers. “People appreciate what you are doing. You put your lives at risk. I hope it never happens again.”
Mayor Carlos Hernandez, a former cop, also thanked the officers.
“These people do incredible work, and too many days they don’t get any sort of recognition,” he said.
Hernandez avoided questions about the 911 tape, referring to the ongoing investigation into the shooting.
The first burial of one of Vargas’ victims took place Wednesday, with some 200 of Carlos Gavilanes’ friends and family gathered at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hialeah. The 33-year-old victim, who was born in New York to an Ecuadorean family, was killed by a round Vargas shot from his balcony as Gavilanes was entering the building across the street with his 9-year-old son, who was unharmed.
In a eulogy, Gavilanes’ father, visibly overcome, blamed his son’s death on mental illness and the lack of gun controls.
“We must be aware that if do things right in life, or if we follow a church, we should be able to prevent a future problem like the one we have today,” Javier Gavilanes said.
The shooting began Friday after the building’s managers went to Vargas’ door to investigate smoke coming from his apartment. Vargas had been burning about $10,000 in cash savings.
In the 911 tape, there is only a passing reference by Vargas’ mother about “his money.” But Patterson told the operator her son was troubled by a legal case involving his old job, in which he had “sent some things from the Internet,” she said.
“Nothing important,” she said, apparently misjudging the importance her son may have placed on the lawsuit.
Three days earlier, Vargas, a graphic designer, had admitted in a deposition that he threatened his former colleagues at Bullet Line, a national promotional products company, through text messages and e-mails after leaving his job in October. Vargas agreed to write an apology to his co-workers, and the case would be closed, according to the attorney who deposed him, Angel Castillo Jr.
But the case was still on Vargas’ mind Friday.
“They’re trying to put some sorcery on me,” Vargas told the 911 operator.
Who is? the 911 operator asked.
“It started with a lawyer,” he answered. “Castillo.”
Sometime after the call, Vargas drove to Castillo’s Kendall office, looking for him. Castillo was out. Police have said they believe Vargas was intent on killing Castillo.
The attorney wasn’t the only thing troubling Vargas when he called 911, however.
“There is a car outside that I wanted you to run the license plate,” he said. “Because it doesn’t match up with a person living here.”
Vargas then handed the phone to his mother, who told the operator he had gone downstairs, possibly with a camera. He grabbed a container to get gasoline, she said — for his white Toyota Corolla, though she sounded unsure of that.
“I don’t know if you can help him,” Patterson said, her voice later trailing off. “I’m going to die. He had never in his life had this, but...”
Several times, the operator asked if Vargas suffered from any maladies. “Does he have a problem with his nerves?”
“Now he does, right now he’s like that,” Patterson said. “I’d like you to know, Miss, that I gave her — him, sorry — at lunch, I crushed two Xanax ... to see if he would calm down a little,” the mother added. “In case they notice something on him, it’s not any drugs. He doesn’t even smoke.”
Later, an increasingly desperate Patterson made a series of pleas to the operator: “Please, help me.”
“I would like him to be treated by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, to be evaluated, to see, because he has never been like this.”
“It’s like he’s traumatized.”
The operator told Patterson police were on their way.
“I have to send a unit over there, because he was asking for police,” the operator said, referring to Vargas.
“No, he’s going to get worse on me,” said Patterson, who had earlier said she feared her son would view her as his “enemy.”
Two police officers are on their way, the operator insisted. “Should I cancel the call?”
“Cancel it,” Patterson said, “because he’s not here.”
Miami Herald staff writer Glenda Ortega and El Nuevo Herald staff writers Enrique Flor and María Pérez contributed to this report.