HIALEAH, Fla. — A man set fire to his South Florida apartment, killed six people, and held another two hostage at gunpoint before a SWAT team stormed the complex and fatally shot him on Saturday, according to police and witness accounts.
The ordeal lasted eight hours, with Pedro Vargas running through the building, firing at random and eluding officers for part of it, police said.
Vargas, 43, set a combustible liquid on fire on Friday evening to start the blaze, police spokesman Carl Zogby said.
The building manager and his wife 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 10 to 20 shots in the street, killing a man who was parking a car outside, Zogby said.
Then, Vargas went down to the third floor, kicked the door in on another apartment and killed a man, his wife and their teen 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.
He forced his way into an apartment and took two people hostage at gunpoint.
Ester Lazcano lives two doors down from where the shooting began and said she was in the shower when she heard the first shots, then there were at least a dozen more.
“I felt the shots,” she said.
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. Sgt. Eddie Rodriguez said negotiators and a 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.
“They made the decision to go in there and save and rescue the hostages,” Rodriguez said. Both hostages survived.
Neighbors said the shooter lived in the building with his mother. Police don’t believe she was home at the time of the shootings.
“He was a good son,” Lazcano said. “He’d take her in the morning to run errands” and took her to doctor appointments.
But 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 called Vargas’ background “unremarkable.” He said police are investigating any possible disputes between Vargas and the building manager but don’t 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 him.
Zulima Niebles said police told her that three of her family members were among the victims. She said her sister Merly Sophia Niebles, her sister’s husband, and her sister’s teen daughter Priscila Perez were all shot and killed.
Zulima Niebles’ husband, Agustin Hernandez, was moving the family’s things out of the apartment building and into his car Saturday. Among them were several photos, one showing the teen smiling in a red graduation gown, another of his sister-in-law in a white dress and pearls.
Hernandez said his sister-in-law’s husband was a friend of the building manager.
Marcela Chavarri, director of the American Christian School, said Priscila 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 tape Saturday afternoon.
The building where the standoff occurred is an aging, beige structure with an open terrace in the middle. It has 90 to 95 units. The apartment where neighbors said the shooting started was charred, the door and ceiling immediately outside burned black.
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.”