A man set fire to his South Florida apartment, killed six people and held another two hostage at gunpoint, before a police commando team stormed the complex and fatally shot him on Saturday, police and witnesses said.
The ordeal lasted eight hours, with Pedro Alberto Vargas running through the building, firing at random and eluding officers for part of it, police said.
Vargas, 42, set a combustible liquid on fire on Friday evening to start the blaze, police spokesman Carl Zogby said.
The building manager, Italo Pisciotti, 79, and his wife, Camira Pisciotti, 69, noticed smoke and ran to the apartment. Vargas came out and shot several times, killing both of them, according to the police account. Vargas then went to his fourth-story balcony and fired between 10 and 20 shots, killing Carlos Javier Gavilanes, 33, who was parking a car outside, Zogby said.
Vargas then went to the third floor, kicked the door in of another apartment and killed a family of three: Patricio Simono, 64; his wife, Merly Niebles, 51; and their 17-year-old daughter.
Zogby said Vargas then ran through the building, firing “at random, in a very irrational fashion.”
“He kept running from us as he fired at us, and we fired at him,” Zogby said.
Vargas forced his way into another apartment and took two people hostage at gunpoint.
Miriam Valdes, 70, lives on the building’s top floor — one floor above where the shooting began. She said she heard gunfire and later saw smoke and what smelled like burned plastic entering her apartment, and ran in fear to the unit across the hall.
A crisis team was able to briefly establish communication with Vargas.
Sergeant Eddie Rodriguez said negotiators and a police SWAT team tried talking with him from the other side of the door of the unit where he held the hostages.
Valdes said she heard about eight officers talking with him as she stayed holed up at the neighboring apartment.
She said officers told him to “let these people out.”
“We’re going to help you,” she said they told him.
She said the gunman first asked for his girlfriend and then his mother, but refused to cooperate.
Rodriguez said the talks eventually “just fell apart.”
Officers stormed the building, fatally shooting the gunman in an exchange of gunfire.
Both hostages survived.
Neighbors said the shooter lived in the building with his mother. Police do not believe she was home at the time of the shootings.
“He was a good son,” said Ester Lazcano, who lives two doors down from where the shooting began. “He’d take her in the morning to run errands” and took her to doctor appointments.
However, Valdes said he was known as a difficult person who sometimes got into fights and yelled at his mother.
“He was a very abusive person,” she said. “He didn’t have any friends there.”
Zogby said police are investigating any possible disputes between Vargas and the building manager, but do not yet have any information on a possible motive.
“Nobody seems to know why he acted the way he acted,” Zogby said.
He said police had not responded to any prior calls at his home or found any criminal background on Vargas.
On Saturday, Agustin Hernandez — the brother-in-law of victim Niebles — moved his relatives’ things out of the apartment. Hernandez said Simono was a friend of the building manager. Police did not identify the slain teen, but Hernandez’s wife, Zulima Niebles, said her name was Priscila Perez.
Marcela Chavarri, director of the American Christian School, said Perez was about to enter her senior year at the school.
“She was a lovely girl,” Chavarri said through tears. “She was always happy and helping her classmates.”
In Hialeah — a suburb of about 230,000 residents, about three-quarters of whom are Cuban or Cuban-American — the street in the quiet, apartment-building-lined neighborhood was still blocked by police tape on Saturday afternoon.
The building where the standoff occurred is an aging, beige structure with an open terrace in the middle. It has between 90 and 95 units.
Zogby called the whole building a crime scene.
“He probably fired dozens of shots during the whole incident,” he said. “It could have been a much, much more dangerous situation.”