Seven killed in South Florida hostage standoff

The Miami HeraldJuly 27, 2013 

A gunman killed the husband-and-wife managers of a Hialeah apartment complex, then terrorized the building for hours, killing four other people before a SWAT team took him down in a hail of bullets on Saturday.

The violence started about 6:30 p.m. Friday, when building managers Italo and Camira Pisciotti went to speak with a fourth-floor tenant who lived with his mother, according to police and witnesses. The tenant, Pedro Alberto Vargas, 42, fired about 15 to 20 shots at the Pisciottis, killing them. Italo was 78, Camira was 68.

“I saw my mother’s dead body,” said Shamira Pisciotti, who lives in a unit at the building her parents managed. “She died the moment she was shot, but it looks like my dad was still alive after he was shot.”

The Pisciottis, who were from Colombia, had managed the building for 20 years and were a month away from celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They were babysitting their 9-year-old granddaughter when the shootings happened.

The girl “stayed in the apartment, waiting for them to come back. After that is when the shooting started,” said Carlos Almandoz, Shamira Pisciotti’s boyfriend and the girl’s father.

“They were terrific grandparents,” Almandoz said. “They had an excellent relationship with my children. They took care of them while we worked.”

Neighbors said they believed there was a fire in Vargas’ apartment, and he got upset when the Pisciottis insisted on calling the fire department.

Mariano Arias, 46, who lives on the building’s second floor, said he heard Vargas’ 83-year-old mother, Esperanza Patterson, scream to the Pisciottis, “Get my son out of the apartment!” A moment later, Arias heard gunshots. “I hit the ground,” he said.

From a balcony, Vargas then opened fire at fire-rescue workers who arrived at the scene. One of his bullets struck a man who was walking with his son into a building across 46th Street, killing him. The man was identified by Hialeah police as Carlos Javier Gavilanes.“From up there, he was able to shoot at people across the street, catching this one man who was just walking into his apartment,” Hialeah Police Sgt. Eddie Rodriguez said.

Vargas then moved inside, to a third-floor unit. Arias said the unit’s door lock was shot out, and its three tenants — a man, woman and teenage daughter — were killed. The 17-year-old girl had been hiding in a bathroom, he said.

Vargas then went upstairs, where he took two hostages in a fifth-floor unit and put his gun to their heads. When talks with police negotiators fell through about 2 a.m. Saturday, SWAT officers stormed the building, shooting Vargas dead.

“At the time, the suspect was holding at least two hostages at gunpoint,” police spokesman Carl Zogby said.

All six victims — three men, three women — died on the scene at or near 1485 W. 46th St. No officers were hurt, Zogby said.

Friends and family of Gavilanes said he was 33 and lived with his longtime girlfriend and their two children. His parents and other family members from their native Ecuador live in Broward County.

Alberto Martinez, who said he was the cousin of one of the victims, came to the scene carrying photos of some of the deceased. He identified two of them as Priscilla Perez, 17, and Merly Niebles, 51.

“I ... found out in the morning when the detectives called,” Martinez said in Spanish.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez said police negotiators used a small robot-mounted camera to better observe what was happening inside the apartment with the hostages. The video showed the hostages on their knees, pleading for their lives while the gunman kept aim on their heads, a police source told El Nuevo Herald.

“Today is a very sad day for Hialeah,” Hernandez said, offering condolences to the families of the victims. “We have never experienced a situation such as this, with so many victims in a building with so many defenseless people and with many obstacles that the police had to overcome. It was like a movie that has now left our community in mourning.”

Witnesses said Vargas may have been armed with a 9 mm pistol. The concrete outside the door to Apartment 408 showed heavy charring on Saturday. Neighbors hung wet rugs over railings and were sweeping water from firefighters out of their apartments.

By midday, dozens of police from Hialeah and other agencies surrounded the building, looking for clues and interviewing witnesses. Authorities were keeping cars from entering the area while media helicopters flew overhead.

The apartment building houses about 90 families. Neighbor Claribel Dominguez said she heard the gunshots Friday and couldn’t go to bed.

“I haven’t slept all night,” she said.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service