2000: St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting

Steve Huettel, Linda Gibson, Kathryn Wexler, Leanora Minaiand, David Karp


Gunman Kills 5
December 31, 1999

Suspect devoted to Santeria
December 31, 1999

Motive for targeting co-workers still unknown
December 31, 1999

Article list

Gunman Kills 5 Worker's rampage spills from Tampa hotel to city streets

December 31, 1999

Beside the pool, a man lay shot to death, draped over a blue lounge chair. At the rear of the hotel, near the employees' entrance, lay two more bodies, sprawled in front of a minivan. In the hotel's lobby, near the registration desk, was another body. Elsewhere in the hotel were three more people, shot but still alive.

The stunning scene unfolded in the space of just a few minutes Thursday afternoon at the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel on Courtney Campbell Parkway.

The dead and the injured were all hotel workers -- and so was the gunman, Tampa police said. They identified him as Silvio Izquierdo-Leyva, a 36-year-old refugee from Cuba who had worked at the hotel for only a couple of months.

A fifth person would die before one of Tampa's most tragic days was over.

After the gunman fled the hotel in a stolen car, he abandoned it near West Tampa's famous La Teresita restaurant. He shot and killed a motorist who refused to give up her car, police said. Then he stole another car -- after thanking the driver for getting out promptly -- and sped off.

Minutes later, cornered by police on a city street, the suspect gave up quietly.

Two of the wounded Radisson employees remained hospitalized late Thursday, one in critical condition; the other, serious.

Izquierdo has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

What had set off the killings? There was no clear answer to that question late Thursday.

Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder said at an 11 p.m. news conference that Izquierdo had refused to talk to police and was maintaining a casual demeanor.

"At this time we don't have a motive for the shooting," Holder said. "Apparently he's not concerned about what happened. He's upstairs sleeping."

Some relatives of Izquierdo's told the Times that during the rampage, he went after his sister-in-law, Angela Vazquez, who supervises housekeeping at the Radisson.

Vazquez and one of her daughters were in the lobby collecting their paychecks when the gunman stormed in. He fired at them but both escaped without injury.

"My uncle came in just shooting," Izquierdo's niece, Liza Izquierdo, said later. "He was chasing Mommy through the halls."

Silvio Izquierdo came to the United States from Cuba in 1995, and has no criminal record in Florida or Alabama, where he lived before coming to Tampa. Relatives said he has a daughter in Cuba and visited there a month ago, returning intent upon becoming a priest in the Santeria religion.

It appeared that only hotel workers were the gunman's targets.

Wendy Sobaski, a member of a Missouri women's college basketball team staying at the hotel, told her father that one of her teammates, Robyn Gerber, came face to face with the gunman as she tried to flee.

"He told Robyn he wasn't interested in (shooting) anyone else, the team was okay," Kenny Sobaski said.

'I thought they were playing some game'

Thursday's mayhem started about 3 p.m. amid Christmas lights spread throughout the waterfront Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel. Employees were milling around the lobby preparing for the night shift to come in.

Waitress Kathy Pruniski heard sounds -- Pop! Pop! Pop!-and assumed  they were part of the holiday celebrations at the hotel.

"Isn't that funny, they're getting a jump on New Year's," she said to some guests.

Rafael Barrios, a bellman at the hotel, had arrived to get his paycheck when he saw men and women running out of the lobby and hiding behind cars.

"I thought they were playing some game," he said.

Diana Izquierdo, the suspect's niece, was just about to leave with her mother when the shots started.

"I thought it was firecrackers. My mom was screaming, "Diana, come on!  Come on!" she recounted, crying and clutching her baby daughter's teddy bear.

Silvio Izquierdo saw them and began firing, said Liza Izquierdo, who spoke to her mother by telephone afterward. Police identified the weapons as a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and .38-caliber revolver.

Diana Izquierdo said she could not fathom a motive. "My uncle snapped," she said.

Rafael Barrios, 20, the bellman, pulled up in his white Honda Accord.  He saw the men and women running out of the lobby and hiding behind cars.  Suddenly, a man calmly stepped from the bushes, stood in front of his car and lifted a pistol.

"He pointed it at me right through the window," Barrios said.

The man didn't say a word, but his expression said everything.

"Evil-just evil in his face," Barrios said.

Barrios watched in horror as the man reloaded a clip. "My life was in his hands," Barrios said. Barrios jumped from the car and ran before the man could reload.

The man, whom Barrios recognized from housekeeping, walked back into the hotel. A few seconds later, Barrios heard more shots.

When Barrios finally went into the hotel, he saw people he worked with lying on the floor, shot.

"It's tragic. There's so many things going through my mind right now," he said.

The hotel was bustling with fans preparing for the New Year's Day Outback Bowl between Purdue University and the University of Georgia.

Carson Woods of Dayton, Ohio, said he was leaving the lobby to retrieve a bag from his car when he heard shots.

"I heard two pops and saw people running out of the hotel," said Woods, who was wearing a Purdue shirt. "I knew I had to get out of there."

Members of the women's basketball team from Missouri's Truman State University, in town for a game against Eckerd College, encountered a body as they fled a pregame meal. None of the players was injured.

Wendi Sobaski, a junior guard for the Bulldogs, told her father that as they were finishing their meal, "employees from the hotel came in and said, "Get out! Get out!" said Kenny Sobaski, who talked to his daughter by phone Thursday evening.

As the team heeded the warning, some members encountered a body and  "took off running," Sobaski said.

'I knew to give him the car'

The gunman sped away from the hotel in the Honda owned by Barrios, the bellman.

Inside a food concession stand in the parking lot next to La Teresita, restaurant owner Confesor Rodriguez saw what happened next:

The assailant, who had abandoned the Honda, aimed a nickel-plated handgun at a woman in her four-door burgundy Mercury.

"Lady, give me the car," he told her, said Rodriguez.

When the woman didn't comply, the gunman shot her through the driver's side window, Rodriguez said.

After she was shot, she put the car in reverse and began to back up.

The gunman moved on to the next car. He shot at a Jeep traveling south on Lincoln Avenue. The vehicle was hit, but the driver sped away, Rodriguez said.

"He was acting real crazy," Rodriguez said.

Next, the gunman turned to the owner of a sports utility vehicle parking in the lot. He wanted the car, but before he took it, he asked whether it was a standard or automatic transmission, Rodriguez said.

It was the owner's lucky day. The car had a stick-shift, and the gunman wasn't interested.

Just then, he saw a white Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon heading toward him on Lincoln Avenue. Inside, Angel Marteliz was heading home, listening to an afternoon radio talk show.

The gunman stepped from the curb as Marteliz came to a stop. He pointed his nickel-barreled gun at Marteliz.

"Take the car," Marteliz told the man, as he stepped out.

"Thank you," he replied.

"I knew to give him the car," Marteliz said later. "I didn't argue."

Soon after -- about 3:40 p.m. -- Izquierdo barged into the home of Angela Vazquez, his sister-in-law, at 3023 Green St. The house, which faces Interstate 275, was a place he had stayed off and on over the last year.

Nely Rodriguez, 16, a longtime friend of the Izquierdo family, said she was the only one at the house when Izquierdo barged through the front door.

He was dressed entirely in white, as was his custom, and had an urgency Rodriguez found unsettling. She hadn't heard a word about the shootings.

"Where everybody at?" he demanded, as Rodriguez sat on the couch, watching TV. She said she didn't know.

"He looked weird. He looked paranoid," she said.

"They in back?" he called to her, as he darted into a bedroom where he sometimes slept, now used by Angela's daughters.

When he didn't find anyone, he went to the kitchen sink and splashed water on his face.

He ran outside, then. The faucet was still running. He left the door wide open.

Rodriguez said she stood in the door frame, watching Izquierdo go toward a white station wagon. She dialed a number on the family's portable phone.

Izquierdo suddenly wheeled around.

"He looked at me. Like paranoid," Rodriguez said. "Maybe he thought I was calling the police."

But he turned around, jumped into the car and drove off. Police cruisers stopped the car a few blocks away near Spruce Street and N MacDill Avenue. The block is next to the city's MacFarlane Park and around the corner from St. Joseph's Catholic School.

Police Chief Holder said Izquiedro was calm immediately after his arrest: "It was just like someone had been stopped for a traffic violation."

It was one of the deadliest days in Tampa's history.

In July 1983, Billy Ferry Jr. firebombed a Clair Mel Winn-Dixie grocery store, killing five people and injuring 13.

Newton Slawson murdered a family of two adults, two children and an unborn baby in Tampa in 1989.

Thursday's rampage at the Radisson brought back sharp memories of Jan. 27, 1993, when a man fired eight months earlier from the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. office at Rocky Point walked into a cafeteria at lunch time  and shot five company supervisors, killing three of them.

Paul L. Calden, 33, fled the scene and took his own life later that day with a revolver at Cliff Stephens Park in Clearwater where he often played Frisbee golf.

'Oh, my God, this is just awful'

Soon after Thursday's shootings at the Radisson, staffers, such as Dana Hagerman, streamed in for work. She had no idea about the shootings until she saw the mob of reporters and emergency workers.

"So that means George was in there? And Sam? Did any of the managers get hurt?" she asked, breaking into tears. "Oh, my God, this is just awful."

Guests, many barefoot and in T-shirts, wandered teary-eyed and visibly shaken. They were told it would be two hours before they could get to their rooms.

Hotel employees, paramedics and guests received counseling from the Critical Incident Stress Management Team, a group of volunteer paramedics, police and mental health counselors. They plan to meet again next week after the shock of Thursday's events have sunk in.

"A lot of guests were stepping over bodies," said Diane Fojt, director of the counseling team.

Thursday evening, relatives and family members of the victims walked out of the hotel crying and holding on to one another.

One woman wailed over and over, "Why Lord, why?"

Article list

Suspect devoted to Santeria

December 31, 1999

The family of the man charged with the shooting rampage say he had begun work to become a priest of the religion created by slaves.

When Silvio Izquierdo-Leyva returned from a visit last month to his native Cuba, he was a changed man.

He had always been drawn to Santeria, a religion rooted in Africa with gods, spirits and sacrifices. But now, Izquierdo had embarked on a year's worth of studies to become a Santero, a priest of the faith.

And as such, jeans and T-shirts would no longer do, his family said.

"He must wear white," said his niece Liza Izquierdo, 16. That included even his shoes.

When, according to police, Izquierdo sprayed the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel and the streets of Tampa with bullets Thursday, he was dressed entirely in the color of purity in Santeria lore.

The rampage left Izquierdo's family dumbfounded. Never had they seen a sign of violence, his nieces and nephews said.

And he seemed stable.

"He must have been crazy but he sure didn't seem like it," said another niece, Sheena Vazquez, 14.

Even at the West Tampa house where Izquierdo lived periodically over the last year, family members said nothing seemed to bother the man who was well over 6 feet tall and had a belly that revealed his hefty appetite.

"He was the quiet type," Liza Izquierdo said about the uncle whom they affectionately called "Kaki."

And maybe, they said Thursday night, as police tallied five dead and three wounded, the silence was the problem.

"I guess he's the type of person to hold it all in," she said quietly against the noise of cars rushing down Interstate 275, just beyond the front yard.

When he came to the U.S. several years ago, Izquierdo left behind sisters, brothers and a young daughter in Cuba. He lived for a while in Alabama, according to officials, and in Mississippi with a woman, either a girlfriend or wife, said Liza and Sheena.

Maria Col, a Catholic Social Services worker in Mobile, said Izquierdo arrived in Mobile in 1995 with a group of Cuban refugees who had been detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He left several months ago, said Col, who described him as a hard worker who didn't drink.

Izquierdo had a few traffic citations but no criminal record in Mobile, said officials with the Mobile Police Department. Police in Hillsborough said they couldn't find a criminal record under Izquierdo's name, either.

Liza and Sheena's father, George, who was Izquierdo's brother, died years ago. But when Izquierdo moved to Tampa, he came to live with them, their three siblings and their mother Angela Vazquez, 40.

"He always liked my mom," Liza said. "When my dad and mom got together, she said (Izquierdo) had a little crush on her."

And yet, it appears Izquierdo might have been targeting the family Thursday. Liza got a near-hysterical call from her mother Thursday afternoon that Izquierdo tried to shoot her at the Radisson hotel when she stopped by to pick up a paycheck.

He then went to their house, at 3023 Green St., looking for family members but found none home.

When Angela Izquierdo asked him to move out seven months ago, he moved into a West Tampa home with a woman he was dating. The woman, Adrianna, who was reached by phone Thursday and would not give her last name, said there weren't any problems between them, and that he never bad-mouthed the family.

Six months ago, though, he bought a gun. Adrianna said she didn't know why he got one or how, or even what kind.

When Izquierdo was handcuffed Thursday, he was carrying two firearms. One was a 9mm pistol he bought from the Floriland Mall flea market on Jan. 2, said police Chief Bennie Holder. The other, a .38-caliber revolver, was purchased from Nationwide Sports by an unknown person, he said.

But Adrianna said that Thursday morning was like any other. Izquierdo left for work at 8:30, and when she called him an hour later, everything seemed normal.

"Get the clothes ready because when I come home, we're washing them," he told her.

But at least one co-worker thought Izquierdo seemed troubled Thursday. Hotel employee Dolly Guzman, 35, said that since Izquierdo started work there two months ago, he usually was nice, if taciturn.

"He seemed weird today," said Guzman, a maid at the hotel for 13 years. "I talked to him and he didn't answer very nicely."

Guzman also said he was known to be involved in witchcraft and once refused to go to a employee party because it was against his religion.

But even to family, he didn't reveal much about his faith. Santeria is a secretive religion begun several centuries ago by West Africans enslaved in colonial Cuba. His trip to Cuba lasted 21 days -- the longest allowable by visa.

Before he left, he collected numerous photos of Angela and her children and took them with him. Sheena Vazquez said she wasn't sure if they were part of a Santeria ceremony or if he just wanted to show them to family.

And despite his recent voyage and steady employment, money was always tight, family said.

"He was always calling us, asking for money," Liza Izquierdo said.

But the family wasn't bothered when he came around. On weekends, he took his bait and tackle and headed to the Courtney Campbell Parkway to fish. At home, he watched Spanish-language soap operas.

The day before Christmas, he was at Angela's house watching action and horror movies with the group, including Rage, Rush Hour and Carrie II at least twice.

A month earlier, Izquierdo had asked Angela if he could move back in.

She said no. She didn't want her five children to have to give up any of their bedrooms.

Izquierdo didn't bring it up again. And he didn't appear offended.

But family members still grappled with what may have triggered the rampage police say was Izquierdo's doing.

Said Sheena Vazquez, "Something must have happened that he didn't like my mom and us."

Article list

Motive for targeting co-workers still unknown

December 31, 1999

When Silvio Izquierdo-Leyva went on his rampage Thursday, police say he targeted those he worked with every day.

Four of the five people that police said Izquierdo killed were employees of the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel.

The fifth victim, 56-year-old Dolores Perdomo, simply got in the way of his escape. Izquierdo shot her as he was trying to steal her car, police said.

Those killed at the hotel were Eric Pedroso, 29, of 3907 N Tampa St.; Barbara Carter, 55, of 8718 Fountain Ave.; Jose R. Aguilar, 40, of 101 Newbury Avenue; and George C. Jones, 44, of 1003 E Poinsetta Ave.

Perdomo, of 7803 Haversham Place, was killed in her car on Columbus Drive. Records show she received her first Florida driver's license two months ago.

The surviving victims are Jorge Cano, 40, who was in critical condition at St. Joseph's Hospital; Charlie Lee White, 43, who was treated for a gunshot wound to the leg and released from St. Joseph's; and Geraldine Dobson, 53, who was in surgery Thursday night for a gunshot wound to the buttocks.

One of the dead workers, Carter, had worked in housekeeping at the hotel for 15 years. Todd Hixon, a friend, told the Times late Thursday that Carter was sitting next to fellow employee Cesar Bustamante when Izquierdo approached and fired from point-blank range. Hixon is Bustamante's roommate.

Izquierdo turned toward Bustamante. Only 2 feet separated him from the gun, Hixon said. But the gun didn't fire. Izquierdo calmly walked away.

"There was no warning and no words said," Hixon said Bustamante told him. "There was no reason for it that we know of."

Bustamante had trained Izquierdo a couple of months ago for his job as a housekeeper. He did not seem to be outwardly hostile toward any of the other employees, Hixon said.

Hixon had visited the hotel early in the afternoon. He had brought sandwiches from Schlotzsky's Deli to eat with his friends. The housekeeping staff was in a jovial mood for they had received their paychecks a day early due to the New Year's Eve holiday. Most had just finished their shifts when the shooting started.

"Barbara was in a good mood like usual," Hixon said.

Hixon described his friend as a fun woman who could take a joke. She startled easily so Hixon and Bustamante would often leave plastic spiders lying around to see her reaction.

Carter lived in Tampa most of her life and had little family, Hixon said. Carter enjoyed collecting Elvis records and was a sucker for a good western movie and model cars.

She was planning to move to a new mobile home in the next few weeks, Hixon said.

"It's still shocking that she won't be able to do that," he said. "The whole thing doesn't make much sense."

As police worked to notify next of kin Thursday evening, frightened relatives of hotel workers scrambled for any information they could find. Many arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital, where most of the wounded were taken.

Darron Duval was at work in Bradenton when his sister and cousin frantically called him Thursday afternoon, telling him his mother, Geraldine Dobson, had been shot.

Duval jumped on the highway and drove to St. Joseph's -- only to learn his mother was in surgery at Tampa General Hospital for a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

"They told me St. Joseph's," Duval said as he rushed to his car outside the wrong hospital. "I don't know anything yet. I'm going to see what's up."

Late Thursday, officials at TGH said Dobson was in serious condition.

Dobson has been a housekeeper at the Radisson Bay Harbor for a few years and enjoyed working there, Duval said. Other relatives who arrived at St. Joseph's said Dobson was engaged to White -- a hotel kitchen worker who also was shot.

Dobson's sister, Vera Ward of Tampa, was frustrated that authorities didn't know Dobson's condition -- or even point her to the right hospital.

"We just haven't heard any details," Ward said. "They just told me to get over to the hospital."

Meanwhile, others who had relatives working at the Radisson arrived at St. Joseph's to see if they were among the wounded.

Jessica Aviles arrived at the hospital with several members of her family after hearing her uncle, Jose Aguilar, may have been wounded. Aguilar worked in the kitchen at the hotel, Aviles said.

"The police and the hotel won't tell us anything," she said.

Police later confirmed Aguilar was one of the five people killed.  

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