Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students returned to school this week, as the injured students and grieving families begin a long and painful reckoning with the horror of a mass shooting.
With the 19-year-old suspect in custody, officials may be able to piece together the circumstances that triggered his rampage.
But ten years after a mass shooting at a suburban West Palm Beach Wendy’s restaurant on March 3, 2008, the motives of that shooter remain as mysterious as they were then.
For at least one of his victims, the wound inflicted that bloody day has stolen years from his life.
Alburn “Eddie” Blake, 60, left no note, made no threats, gave no warning of what he was about to do that Monday shortly after noon.
The Jamaican native, dressed formally in a coat and tie for the horror he was about to unleash, walked into the bathroom of the restaurant on North Military Trail near Cherry Road and emerged shaking, a 9mm Glock pistol at the end of his outstretched arm.
Witnesses noticed Blake quivering “as if he was going to have a heart attack or a seizure,” said one, before he began emptying the gun into the bodies of five people. During 31 seconds of carnage, he never uttered a word, said bystanders.
When the bloodbath was over, Blake had killed a firefighter with five children and seriously wounded four others before shooting himself in the head. He would likely have killed more if he hadn’t paused a few seconds to reload, providing just enough time for most of those inside to escape.
“This was a not a robbery,” said a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office spokesman at the time. “We don’t know the motive.”
THE SHOOTER: Alburn Blake
A murderous enigma
To this day, Blake and the reasons behind his murderous rampage remain an enigma. He had no criminal record.
A few weeks before the shooting, he stopped showing up for his job as a groundskeeper at the private Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, a job he passed a background check to get, according to the school’s principal.
The principal said Blake returned once before the shooting to say he had been ill. Two of Blake’s friends told police he had recently lost 30 pounds and had been in the hospital. One friend said Blake thought it was from drinking spoiled milk. At the time of the shooting, Blake apparently was not working.
According to police reporters, Blake’s neighbors in a small apartment building off Antique Row in West Palm Beach recalled he and a live-in girlfriend fighting frequently. In the apartment, police found ammunition for several different types of guns.
A former girlfriend, with whom Blake had a child and difficult relationship, said recently that she has never understood what drove him that day.
“I really don’t have any insight as to why he might have done that,” said Mary Giannico, who had lived with Blake not far from the Wendy’s, but said she hadn’t seen him for nearly two years before the killing, except in a court hearing over child support payments.
Giannico denied reports that she and Blake had argued fiercely inside the restaurant.
“To the best of my recollection I have never walked into a Wendy’s with him or fought out in public like that with him,” said Giannico in a voice mail in response to a reporter’s inquiries.
An autopsy revealed Blake had cocaine residue in his blood, from ingesting the drug hours or even days earlier.
It was a mass of small details that didn’t add up to a motive.
THE VICTIM: Lt. Rafael Vazquez
‘He was my best friend’
All the victims had in common was a desire for a speedy lunch in the midst of a busy Monday.
They arrived at Wendy’s from training classes, golf lessons, after a physical therapy appointment. Within minutes, they were linked by horror.
Lt. Rafael Vazquez was a recently promoted Palm Beach County Fire Rescue officer on break from a training class in how to handle shootings, among other crises. He and his wife, Palm Springs police officer Michele Vazquez, agreed to meet for lunch at Wendy’s with their 4-year-old son.
They had left the restaurant when Lt. Vazquez, 42, returned to request a missing toy for his son’s kids’ meal. He was standing at the counter when he was shot in the back from about two feet away.
The couple had four children from previous marriages and a son together.
“He was my best friend,” Michele said in a statement the next day.
At his funeral, which was held at Coral Sky Amphitheater, she recalled Ray’s infectious smile and generosity as well as the pranks he played in the firehouse.
“It’s very hard because I can’t protect my children or fix this for them,” she said.
Today, Michele Vazquez is a sergeant with the Palm Springs police department. She didn’t return a request for comment for this story.
THE VICTIM: Carl Michalek
‘My arm is blown off’
“Ten years went by really fast,” said Carl Michalek, 53, a Texas pilot who nearly lost his right arm after a bullet shattered its bones and hit an artery. “It took five years to get most of the use of my hand back, but it’s still not back all the way.”
The day of the shooting, he had recently been hired for his dream job as a pilot for Texas-based Western Airlines, flying business charters.
He was in West Palm Beach for a training course at Flight Safety International in order to fly a turboprop Piaggio Avantis, a sleek and fast Italian-made aircraft.
He stopped for lunch after seeing a familiar fast food sign not far from Palm Beach International Airport. He believes he was struck by Blake’s second bullet.
“It blew me right out of the chair onto the floor against the west wall of the restaurant,” said Michalek, who managed to crawl into a restroom. “I remember the ungodly noise my arm made when I tried to use my phone.”
“My arm is blown off. I’m losing lots of blood,” he told the 911 dispatcher. “Please help me. I’m gonna lose consciousness.”
He wasn’t sure he was going to make it.
“911 said not to hang up, but it was so bad I thought I should hang up and call my wife,” said Michalek.
Surgeons at St. Mary’s Medical Center operated on Michalek for seven-and-a half hours, removing a vein from his leg to replace the one blown apart in his arm. The bullet had struck both bones in his lower arm and destroyed the humerus, the upper arm bone, while also destroying nerves.
He returned to his Texas home near Ft. Hood, where his wife, a trumpet player in an Army band, was stationed. They met while Michalek was playing drums in a jazz group.
At home, he began an excruciating rehabilitation.
“Being in Ft. Hood helped. Who knew better about shootings and traumatic events than the military? I had a lot of injured veterans to listen to and talk to,” said Michalek.
Slowly, he regained most of the use of his hand, but not his job.
“After five years (out of aviation), no one wanted to hire me,” said Michalek.
Four years ago, he was finally able to pass the FAA physical and started flying for the Texas prison system, ferrying state officials and a quick response team to various sites.
These days, Michalek misses being able to play the drums and to tie a fishing line. He has chronic nerve pain.
Otherwise, he’s a guy whose glass is perpetually half full.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, ya know, life is pretty darn good,” he said. “I got a second chance. To dwell on it the opposite way, well, then evil wins.”
THE VICTIM: Vanessa Soto
‘Mommy, I’m shot!’
Vanessa Soto was a shy 16-year-old on the day of the shooting, taking a day off school at Lake Worth High to accompany her mother to a physical therapist.
Olga Soto usually ate meals at home but the struggling single mother decided to indulge her daughter with lunch at Vanessa’s favorite fast food restaurant.
They were halfway through their food when Olga saw a man in a suit jacket come out of the bathroom
“He looked right at me,” she said a few days after the shooting. “He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look angry.”
Then Blake raised his gun and began firing. Mother and daughter dived beneath a table, but not before a bullet struck Vanessa’s left arm, shattering a bone.
When the shooter stopped to reload, they ran outside.
“I don’t know how we got up,” Olga said. “Something pushed us up. If not, we’d be dead.”
Outside, Vanessa realized how badly she was hurt. She began screaming, “Mommy, I’m shot! Mommy, I’m shot!,” her mother recalled.
Weeks later, she was plagued by nightmares and had become afraid of the dark, her family told The Palm Beach Post. Fearing strangers on the bus, she insisted on taking taxis to her doctor’s appointments. Ordered by her doctor to stay out of school for the rest of the year, she tried to keep up with homework.
But most of all, she tried to forget the terror of what she saw that day.
She did not respond to a request for an interview.
According to her Facebook page, Vanessa, now 26, has a son and still lives in Palm Beach County.
THE VICTIMS: Louis and Antonia Rader
Louis and Antonia Rader were hit in the first fusillade of bullets, each with wounds in one arm and one leg.
The snowbirds from Schenectady County, N.Y., who spent winters in Jupiter, were having lunch between a morning golf lesson and an afternoon class in Italian, a family member told a New York newspaper after the shooting.
When the shooter paused to reload, a period of maybe 5 seconds, according to witnesses, the Raders’, bleeding and horror struck, fled through a nearby door.
Then the shooting started again.
The Raders did not return phone calls for this story.
HE PLAYED DEAD: Noah Pribyl
‘I thought I was going to die’
Noah Pribyl of Broward County had been taking a class at the University of Florida agricultural extension offices near Mounts Botanical Garden that morning, a half-mile south of the Wendy’s.
He was sitting near the restroom when he saw Blake come out and fire the first shot. With Blake blocking him from escaping, Pribyl dived for the floor and lay face down, playing dead.
While others ran out when the shooter re-loaded, Pribyl calculated his chances and decided to stay put.
“The scariest part was when I was lying there and heard him reload the gun and start firing again,” Pribyl told The Post afterward. He declined to comment for this story. “With all my heart, I thought I was going to die.”
He heard another few shots.
Looking up, Pribyl saw Blake on the floor, about eight feet away.
He was dead, a bullet wound in his head, leaving behind a river of blood, shattered lives and an enduring mystery: