Editor’s note: Mass shootings have tragically become an all-too-routine part of American life. Nine years ago, on March 3, 2008, it happened in Palm Beach County, at the suburban West Palm Beach Wendy’s restaurant at Cherry Lane and Military Trail. A firefighter was killed and four others were injured before the shooter killed himself.
Here, in edited form, is the Palm Beach Post’s reporting on the incident and its aftermath:
THE INCIDENT: “There is a guy in Wendy’s shooting’
Alburn Edward Blake, wearing a shirt and tie, stepped into the Wendy’s restaurant on North Military Trail at lunchtime Monday, walked into a bathroom and returned grasping a 9mm Glock handgun.
Without saying a word, he shot a 42-year-old Palm Beach County Fire Rescue lieutenant at point-blank range, then began firing at other customers.
There was a pause while Blake, a 60-year-old West Palm Beach resident, reloaded his weapon, but then the shooting began anew.
When it was over, Lt. Rafael Vazquez, a father of five, was dead. Four others, including a teenage girl, were wounded.
Blake then shot himself, falling to the floor in the middle of the suburban West Palm Beach restaurant, his gun clattering from his hand. He left no note, and no explanation for what he’d done.
Officials speculated that more people could have been hurt, but Blake had some ammunition that did not fit his gun.
An unidentified man, called a hero by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, kicked the gun away from Blake’s body and began administering first aid on at least one victim inside the restaurant.
Sheriff’s spokesman Paul Miller said the shooting appeared to have been random.
“This was not a robbery,” Miller said Monday as law enforcement personnel continued to work the scene with the two bodies still inside the restaurant. “We don’t know the motive.”
Wounded in the attack were Louis Rader, 65, and his wife, Antonia, 62, of Jupiter, both shot in the arms and legs; and Vanessa Soto, 17, of Lake Worth, who was shot in the arm. Carl Michalek, a 43-year-old pilot, was shot in the arm.
No Wendy’s employees were hurt.
Vazquez had been with county fire rescue since 2001 and recently had been promoted. He was in training Monday in a class called “strategy and tactics,” which includes instruction on how to handle emergencies such as shootings.
He decided to have lunch with his wife, Palm Springs police officer Michele Vazquez. The couple’s 4-year-old son joined them.
Vazquez had gotten his food and left the restaurant when the shooter arrived, but he returned to request a toy that was supposed to come with the kids’ meal he ordered.
Blake shot Vazquez from behind.
Sandra Jackson of Palm Springs was filling her gas tank at the Cumberland Farms across the street when she saw frantic customers running out of the restaurant.
She said Michele Vazquez rushed out, screaming that her husband was still inside.
“I said, ‘What happened? What happened? It’s going to be OK,’ ” Jackson said. “She said, ‘No, there is a guy in Wendy’s shooting and my husband hasn’t come out.’ “
Blake was dressed in a tan sport coat, white shirt, gold-and-blue tie and black pants. He wore a Samsung baseball cap.
Officials said they believe Blake was either unemployed or worked in maintenance. He had no criminal record in Florida.
His home was searched Monday but no note relating to the incident was found, law enforcement officials said. Blake shot himself in the head when he finished firing at customers.
“I was just sitting there eating a burger and the guy started shooting,” said Josh Maynard, who walked around the scene after the shooting with a tear in his jeans and a gash in the bottom of his brown leather work boot where a bullet grazed him.
THE VICTIM: A caring father and firefighter
Caught by a gunman’s indiscriminate bullet, Lt. Rafael Vazquez, a firefighter who saved lives across Palm Beach County for 15 years, died a doting father.
He and his wife, Michele, bought their lunch Monday and headed out of a Wendy’s in suburban West Palm Beach when their 4-year-old son, Adrian, noticed he already had a toy like the one inside his kids’ meal. So Vazquez went back inside for a new one.
Moments later, Michele Vazquez, a corporal with the Palm Springs Police Department, heard a strange sound coming from the restaurant.
“Then she heard silence. Then the second barrage came, and she knew,” said Palm Springs Lt. Mark Hall.
At fire stations across the county, trained rescuers cried Monday for Vazquez, 42: the worker, the joker, the father they all knew as Ray.
A Brooklyn native with Puerto Rican heritage, Vazquez cooked Latin food for his coworkers and always kept a toy engine at the station for his son. Co-workers said Michele often stopped by the station and that they could see the love between the two in the way they looked at each other.
Co-workers called the Vazquezes a “Brady Bunch family” with children ranging in age from 4 to 21: Ray’s two, Michele’s two and their common son, Adrian. Friends said all five called Vazquez “Dad.”
Ray and Michele met at American Medical Response when she was an EMT and he was a paramedic.
Along with a third firefighter, they photographed weddings as a side business, co-workers said. Ray Vazquez also worked as a real estate agent and coached his son’s baseball team.
But most of all, Vazquez was a hell of a firefighter, they said. “If you were lying on the street, he’s the guy you’d want working on you,” said Lt. Bill Bond, a former rescue partner.
THE SHOOTER: He called Wendy’s ‘a crazy place’
A friend of the man who shot up a Wendy’s in a suicidal rampage said the gunman once called the restaurant a “crazy place,” authorities said.
The friend, who wasn’t identified, told detectives that Alburn “Eddie” Blake often argued with his girlfriend over meals at the eatery, at North Military Trail and Cherry Road west of West Palm Beach.
“We know he knew this location, the layout, and had negative feelings toward the place, because he talked about it,” said Paul Miller, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “He had a lot of strong emotions toward her.”
The reported reference may offer some small insight into why Blake, 60, a landscaper with no criminal record, walked into the Wendy’s on March 3 and started firing, killing a Palm Beach County firefighter and wounding four other people before shooting himself. Blake left behind no explanation.
His ex-girlfriend, however, said she rarely visited the restaurant with Blake.
“While I was pregnant, he would go there about once a week and pick food up,” said Mary Giannico, 44, who had a daughter with Blake and lived with him in a Bensel Street row house less than three blocks from the Wendy’s. “I never had a fight with him there. We had a lot of fights - a lot of fights - but never had a fight at Wendy’s.”
Blake had stopped showing up at landscaping jobs and had lost weight in the weeks before his rampage, investigators still are unsure what motivated him to enter a restaurant at lunchtime with a handgun.
Even Giannico, who said Blake abused her during their three-year-relationship and called the gunman “demented” but “extremely intelligent,” remains at a loss to explain.
Over the years, he had encountered some money problems, but he had no history of mental illness.
He once had lived on Bensel Street, just a few hundred yards from the suburban Wendy’s. But lately, he had lived about 5 miles away on Wenonah Place in West Palm Beach. Authorities found a vehicle belonging to him in the restaurant’s parking lot.
Blake may have been at the Sunshine Flea Market, a few miles south of Wendy’s on Military Trail, two days before the shooting. Several vendors identified him from a photo. One says he tried to convince her of the value of prayer.
Inside his modest, meticulously neat apartment, framed prints — mostly of flowers — decorated almost every wall. A Dallas Cowboys poster hung in a small area off the kitchen. A big-screen television stood in the living room.
On a bookshelf rested a Bible.
THE VICTIMS WHO SURVIVED
Carl Michalek: Wounded
According to Carl Michalek, the pilot from Texas, the second shot hit him.
He was studying at Flight Safety International on Southern Boulevard on the perimeter of Palm Beach International Airport. Michalek drove a rental car to Wendy’s by himself and sat on the far side of the restaurant to eat.
“I heard the first shot and jumped a bit, and then the second shot hit me in the arm,” he says. “It blew me right out of the chair onto the floor against the west wall of the restaurant. From there I couldn’t really see what happened next.”
Vanessa Soto: Wounded
One of those first shots hit Vanessa Soto, 16.
Soto was usually on campus at Lake Worth High at that hour. But her mother, Olga, 52, was scheduled for a physical therapy appointment to treat a recently broken hand, and her daughter had gotten permission to leave school to accompany her.
Olga Soto’s older daughter, Kachi, 27, initially had planned to go along. But she has two young sons, including an infant, and Olga Soto thought it would be better for her to stay at home with the boys.
The office of therapist Charles Mitzelfeld is on Military Trail directly across the street from Wendy’s. After leaving therapy, Olga and Vanessa Soto stopped for lunch.
Vanessa and Olga Soto each had eaten about half of their hamburger and picked at the fries when Olga Soto saw a man wearing a suit jacket walk out of the bathroom.
“He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look angry,” she says. “He looked right at me. He just looked like an old man.”
Then Blake raised his gun and started firing.
The Sotos screamed and ducked under the table. Vanessa was shot in the left arm, shattering the bone, although they did not realize the extent of her injury then.
Adrenaline was pumping, and when Blake paused to reload after emptying the 10-bullet first clip, the Sotos scrambled up and darted for the door, despite Vanessa’s shattered arm and Olga’s broken hand.
“I don’t know how we got up,” Olga Soto says. “Something pushed us up. If not, we’d be dead.”
Doctors later told the Sotos that had the bullet not hit the bone, it easily could have penetrated Vanessa’s chest and killed her.
Louis and Antonia Rader: Wounded
The two other people wounded in the shooting, Louis Rader, 65, and his wife, Antonia, 62, also were on the floor after the first 10 gunshots rang out. Each suffered wounds in one arm and one leg.
The Raders are snowbirds from Schenectady County, N.Y., who were part-time residents in Jupiter. A relative told a New York newspaper that they had taken a golf lesson and were on their way to a class to study Italian when they stopped to eat.
As the shooter reloaded, the Raders fled the restaurant through the nearby door.
John Brewer: Unharmed
John Brewer, 34, an electrical contractor from Polk County, and two colleagues, Josh and Jerry Maynard, were working on Florida Mango Road when lunchtime arrived and they went searching for a meal.
When the shooting started, Brewer says, he dived behind a concrete barrier that separates the serving counter from the seating area. Vazquez had fallen nearby.
“I took a quick look to my left, and that’s when I saw firefighter Vazquez right there beside me,” Brewer says.
He also looked up and saw Blake.
“I made eye contact with this dude,” Brewer recalls.
Then the first clip ran out and Blake stopped to reload. Brewer bolted for the door, past Vazquez’s body.
“I had to jump over him,” Brewer says.
He ran through the first set of doors, fell, got up and made it through the second set of doors just as the second series of shots began.
Peter and June Sansom: Unharmed
Peter Sansom, 73, and his wife, June, retirees originally from Britain who spend much of their time dancing, had driven from their home near Gun Club Road to Wendy’s, where they have been eating for 30 years.
They sat behind a planter that blocked their view of the counter and were preparing to eat their chili when the gunfire erupted. After the first several pops, Peter Sansom realized it was gunfire and yelled, “Get down!” to his wife. They partially hid themselves under the table.
Sansom thought he wouod be killed. But Blake’s hands were shaking, and while trying to change the clip he dropped the gun, Sansom says.
Sansom yelled to his wife to make a run for it, but her shoe was stuck on the table stand. He dragged her by an arm out the door just as Blake started to shoot again.
Noah Pribyl: Unharmed
Pretending he was dead was Noah Pribyl, a young Broward County man who had been seated nearest the restrooms. Pribyl was taking a class at a University of Florida agricultural extension facility a half-mile south on Military Trail and had stopped in to eat.
Of all the Wendy’s patrons, Pribyl was apparently the only one who saw Blake fire the first shot and knew instantly what was happening. But Blake’s position blocked Pribyl from any chance of running to an exit. So he dived to the floor facedown and says he did not move during all of the shooting.
Blake finished the first clip, and Pribyl heard the other survivors heading for the doors.
“After the first shots were fired, people were screaming and running,” he says.
But Pribyl stayed put and stuck to his strategy of playing dead.
‘The scariest part was when I was lying there and heard him reload the gun and start firing again,” Pribyl says. “With all my heart, I thought I was going to die.”
Then the shooting stopped.
“I think he had more bullets, but he was out of targets,” Pribyl says.
Blake had used the last shot to end his desperate life.
“When I looked up, he was dead,” Pribyl says. “There was a bullet hole in his forehead.”
These stories were written by Palm Beach Post staff writers Kimberly Miller, Frank Cerabino, J. Gwendolynne Berry and Melanie Mena, and former staff writers Rochelle E.B. Gilkin, Michael LaForgia, Don Jordan, Allyson Bird, Hector Florin, Sammy Alzofon, Susan Spencer-Wendel, Kelly Wolfe, John Lantigua, Andrew Abramson, Niels Heimeriks, Michelle Quigley and Rhonda Swan.