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HIALEAH, Fla. (AP) — The gunman who went on a shooting rampage at a South Florida apartment complex was described as a quiet man who took his mother to doctor appointments, yet also someone who was known for getting into fights and yelling at his mom.
The conflicting portrayals of Pedro Vargas, 42, emerged as police tried to piece together why he set ablaze the apartment he lived in with his mother and then killed six people before police fatally shot him.
As the eight-hour standoff unfolded, horrified residents hunkered down in their homes, at times so close to the action that they could feel the gunfire or hear negotiations between the gunman and police, authorities and witnesses said Saturday.
As the rampaged winded down, Vargas held two people hostage at gunpoint for up to three hours in their apartment until a SWAT team entered and killed him, police said. The hostages were not hurt.
“Nobody seems to know why he acted the way he acted,” said Lt. Carl Zogby, a spokesman with the Hialeah Police Department.
Detectives were investigating whether Vargas had any ongoing disputes with the building manager, as some residents believed. His mother was not home at the time of the shootings.
“He was a good son,” said Ester Lazcano, who lived on the same floor as Vargas and his mother. “He’d take her in the morning to run errands” and to doctor appointments.
Lazcano said she was in the shower when she heard the first shots, and then there were at least a dozen more. “I felt the shots,” she said.
Miriam Valdes, 70, was in a friend’s apartment two doors down. She said she heard officers trying to convince Vargas to surrender.
She said the gunman first asked for his girlfriend and then his mother but refused to cooperate.
Valdes said Vargas was also 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.”
Police were called to the aging, five-story apartment building in Hialeah, a working class suburb a few miles northwest of downtown Miami, on Friday at 6:30 p.m. The first calls reported a fire, but when firefighters arrived, they heard shots and notified police, Zogby said.
Vargas, who has no known criminal record, set a combustible liquid on fire in his fourth-floor apartment. Building manager Italo Pisciotti, 79, and his wife, Camira Pisciotti, 69, saw smoke and ran to the unit, Zogby said. When they arrived, Vargas opened the door and fired, killing both.
Vargas then went back into his burning apartment and fired 10 to 20 shots from a 9mm pistol into the street. One of the bullets struck 33-year-old Carlos Javier Gavilanes, who was parking his car after returning home from work. Zogby said his body was found next to his vehicle.
The gunman then kicked his way into a third-floor apartment, where he shot to death Patricio Simono, 54; his wife Merly Niebles, 51; and their 17-year-old daughter. Family members said Simono worked at a car wash and Niebles cleaned hotel rooms. Their daughter wanted to be a nurse.
Agustin Hernandez, Niebles’ brother-in-law, loaded several old pictures and other items from his relative’s apartment in a grocery cart and into his car. One showed his teenage niece smiling in a red graduation gown. Another pictured his sister-in-law posing in a white dress and pearls.
A binder also from the apartment had pop artist Justin Beiber’s name on the spine, presumably belonging to the teenage girl, who family members identified as Priscilla Perez.
Marcela Chavarri, director of the American Christian School, said the Perez was about to enter her senior year.
“She was a lovely girl,” Chavarri said through tears. “She was always happy and helping her classmates.”
All six people were killed in a short time span, Zogby said, and it’s possible they were all dead by the time police arrived.
Officers and Vargas then engaged in an hours-long shootout and chase, with police following the gunman from one floor to the next.
“He kept running from us as he fired at us and we fired at him,” Zogby said.
Several hours into the ordeal, Vargas forced his way into a fifth-story unit and held two people captive. Sgt. Eddie Rodriguez said negotiators and a SWAT team tried talking with him from the other side of the door.
Rodriguez said the talks eventually “just fell apart.” Officers stormed the building, fatally shooting the gunman in an exchange of gunfire. Zogby said Vargas still had several rounds of ammunition when he was killed.
“He was ready to fight,” Zogby said.