MIAMI — Palm Beach County (Fla.) Fire Rescue Lt. Rafael Vazquez returned Monday to a Wendy’s restaurant to collect a toy missing from his 4-year-old son’s meal. He died when a man wearing a sports jacket and holding a gun sideways, as in a gangster movie, sprayed the lunchtime crowd with bullets.
Vazquez, known to his friends as Ray, was 42. He and his wife, a police officer, were raising five children.
“It was random,” Paul Miller, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, said of the shooting. “There was no robbery attempt, no demands.”
The assailant identified by authorities as Alburn Blake, 60, of West Palm Beach wounded four other people before turning the 9mm handgun on himself and committing suicide in the fast-food restaurant a few miles from his home.
Other customers scattered and ran for their lives, including some who left their cars idling at the drive-through window or in the parking lot.
“My sister tried to run away, but he shot her anyway,” Kachi Soto said of her 16-year-old sister, Vanessa, who was struck by a bullet and hospitalized.
The barrage of gunfire came without warning, without apparent provocation and without a known motive, authorities said. The gunman said nothing and had an empty look on his face, but his hands were shaking, according to witnesses.
Little was known about Blake, though authorities believe he was unemployed, separated from his wife and lived alone. He had no criminal record in the state, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Authorities said they inspected his “neat and clean” home in an apartment complex and found no suicide note. Neighbors, however, said they saw officers remove a clear plastic bag filled with prescription medicine bottles.
“I’m in shock,” said one neighbor, Betsy White. “He looked like he was just a normal senior citizen.”
About 20 people were inside the restaurant at Military Trail and Cherry Road when the violence erupted shortly after noon.
Steve Delai, deputy chief of the county’s fire rescue department, said Vazquez was in the area for mandatory training and met his wife a corporal with the nearby Palm Springs police department and their 4-year-old at the Wendy’s for lunch.
The officer, dressed in civilian clothes, carried their food to a car but noticed that a promotional toy was missing.
So he went back inside. And he was shot dead.
“He was an innocent victim of a violent act,” Delai said.
Four other people were wounded and hospitalized, authorities said. A seventh person also was hospitalized with minor injuries.
All of the victims were adults or teenagers.
Ashley Milton, 28, of Riviera Beach, said she was walking in the door when she saw a man holding the gun. She did an about face and took off running. She said she heard people screaming and crying for help as the man pointed the gun at them.
Said Soto, whose mother and sister, a student at Lake Worth High School, had stopped into the restaurant for lunch: “My mom said it was very crazy. A man started shooting.”
Her sister was hit in the upper arm and was being treated at St. Mary’s Hospital.
According to Miller and Delai, this is what happened:
Blake walked into the restaurant about 12:15 p.m., headed for the men’s room and soon emerged holding the gun.
He walked toward the railing that channels customers to the counter and shot Vazquez in the back. The officer, apparently never aware of the threat that suddenly exploded upon him, died at the scene.
Then, Blake opened fire at other customers standing in or near the line.
A second Palm Beach County firefighter, who happened also to be in the restaurant, counted the number of rounds fired. When he reached 10 and heard silence as Blake reloaded, he rushed an injured elderly couple out the door.
Sandra Jackson was pumping gas at a Cumberland Farms across the street when she saw a woman holding a small child as she ran from the restaurant’s parking lot. The woman screamed, “My husband is still inside! My husband is still inside!”
It was not known if that man was Vazquez.
Brothers Josh and Jerry Maynard had just sat down in the Wendy’s when they heard what they thought were balloons popping.
“As soon as we heard the shots, we turned some of the tables over and stayed on the ground,” Josh Maynard, 30, said. “All I was thinking was, ‘When am I going to get shot?'”
The two brothers were about 10 feet away from Blake and a scene they described as “completely chaotic,” with people screaming and crying.
Josh Maynard has a hole in his sneaker from a bullet that grazed his shoe. The brothers were able to escape while the man was reloading the gun.
Miller said that, after reloading, Blake ultimately shot himself in the head. Afterwards, the gun and a baseball cap were found at Blake’s side.
After the assailant fell, one customer unaware that Blake was dead ran over and kicked away the gun, then offered first aid to at least one victim.
“He acted heroically,” Miller said of that unidentified customer.
Ten employees were in the restaurant at the time of the shooting, but none were injured, according to Craig Schultz, Wendy’s director of operations.
“Our sincere condolences go out to the victims of this tragedy,” Schultz said. “We’re cooperating with the authorities in every way, shape and form.”
Surveillance cameras may have captured the bloodbath. Wendy’s has turned those tapes over to the sheriff’s office, officials said.“We watch TV like everybody else and we see these random shootings and we’re shocked by them,” Miller said. “You always hope it never happens in your jurisdiction, but at this point, it seems to have happened.”