Loved ones mourn victims in Hialeah mass shooting
HIALEAH, Fla. (WSVN) -- Friends and close relatives of the six people who were shot and killed by a lone gunman who went on a shooting rampage at an apartment complex Friday night are making funeral arrangements to lay their loved ones to rest after paying tribute to them throughout the weekend through vigils and makeshift memorials in front of the building.
Among those killed were Italo and Samira Pisciotti, an elderly couple who managed the property and were one month away from celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary; Patricio Simono, Merly Niebles and her 17-year-old daughter, who lived inside one of the apartments; and 33-year-old Carlos Javier Gavilanes, a father of two who was just getting home from his son's boxing practice and was parking his car when he was fatally shot.
People from all over South Florida have been leaving teddy bears, flowers, lit candles, signs, poems and balloons against a fence in front of the building to pay their respects to the victims whose lives were taken by 42-year-old Pedro Vargas. The mass shooting set off a standoff between the shooter and authorities that ended in a hail of bullets and a violent death for the gunman.
At a vigil held for Gavilanes Saturday night, his wife, Jennifer Kharrazian, said her husband was a happy, funny person who was a good father and husband. "He's in a better place," she said in Spanish. "He's going to watch over our family." Dozens of people prayed, lit candles and lay flowers next to his picture as the widow tried to remain strong.
According to Gavilanes' family, the 33-year-old referred to by loved ones as "Carlitos," was struck in front of his 9-year-old son in the parking lot across the street from where Vargas was firing off shots with a 9mm gun from the fourth floor balcony.
"He heard a shot hit next to him and he told my nephew, 'Run,'" said Sherlly Ontiveros, Gavilanes' sister. "The bullet went right through him."
Sherlly added her brother was trying to hurry home because his wife had told him dinner was getting cold. Shot and bleeding, he still tried to make it indoors.
Gavilanes' mother, Alexandra Ontiveros, said she raced to the scene of the shooting the minute she received a phone call informing her what had transpired. She found a large police presence and her son lying on the ground. "I was sitting down to get close to him, and I tried to touch his hand," said Ontiveros. "Of course, [the police] don't let you."
According to Alexandra, her son's first instinct was to protect his own 9-year-old. "He didn't know he got shot," she said. "He was working to save my grandson, [yelling at him], 'Run, run,' and then [he was] walking and falling down."
"He's cheated death so many times in his life," said Sherlly. Gavilanes died right on the parking lot, in front of his son. "They found him on top of my brother," said Sherlly.
Meanwhile, Kharrazian said she hid in her bathroom with her children until the hail of bullets stopped and would later come out and find Gavilanes shot dead. "I was worried for the grandkids and my daughter-in-law," said Ontiveros. "[They were] hiding in the bathroom."
Ontiveros said she visited Gavilanes and his family every Sunday and cooked for him every Monday.
Shamira Pisciotti, the daughter of the building's husband-and-wife managers, remembers the exact moment she found out her parents were fatally shot in front of their granddaughter by 42-year-old Pedro Vargas. "I heard 15 to 20 shots, and so I went outside and my neighbors were screaming that my parents had been shot," she said.
Italo and Samira's daughter added that her father did not die right away. "My mom was dead the moment she was shot, and my dad still had a pulse when I got to him," she said.
Detectives said, after gunning down the Pisciottis and Gavilanes, Vargas violently stormed down to the third floor, kicked down an apartment door and fired at Simono, Niebles and her 17-year old daughter, identified by relatives as Priscilla Perez. "Like a blow to the heart, like a piece missing," said Priscilla's cousin, Jovanni Perez, when asked what her death felt like.
Speaking in Spanish, a family friend said Priscilla always worked, studied, helped her mother and friends, and never got into trouble.
Marcela Chavarri, director of the American Christian School that Priscilla had just graduated from, is still in shock. "Can't believe it, such a nice person, sweet," she said through a translator. Chavarri said Priscilla was entering her senior year of high school. "She never missed one day ... perfect attendance."
Jovanni said his cousin had big career aspirations. "She wanted to be a doctor to help people."
Through a translator, Priscilla's grandmother said she went to church Sunday morning to ask God for strength to accept what has happened to her granddaughter. "She was tranquil, a good student, loving, happy," said Gladys Perez in Spanish.
Another man and woman, a married couple, were held by Vargas as hostages for about three hours. Police said the couple knelt and prayed in a fifth floor unit while Vargas paced back and forth, armed with live ammunition.
After two hours of negotiations, police threw a flash grenade to disorient the gunman. A SWAT team charged in, exchanged gunfire and fatally hit Vargas before he killed anyone else. Police said the two hostages were taken to the hospital but are expected to be OK.
Ontiveros said the one important thing to take away from this tragedy is to cherish those nearest to you. "Live your life [as if] you're going to die tomorrow," she said. "That's it. When you're with your family, enjoy it. When you're with your partner, enjoy it, because you don't know [what could happen] tomorrow."
The City of Hialeah has set up a fund for the victims' families. If you'd like to contribute, send a check payable to Survivors Pathway via U.S. mail to the following address: City of Hialeah, PO Box 138882, Hialeah, Florida 33013.
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