MIAMI--There is a subdued outpouring of sympathy on the streets of Miami for private citizens who have killed while defending life or property. Several men nod their heads as one says: "I would do it, too. I would kill to protect my life, my family, my possessions."
In this city, statistically one of America's most violent, there has been a rash of such killings in the last three months. Residents frustrated over the failure of police protection have decided to protect themselves. One of these so-called vigilantes is Baldomero Fernandez.
Fernandez, 62, complained to police and other authorities for three years that James Escoto, 31, a private-duty nurse who lived in his middle-class neighborhood, was taunting him with obscenities and harassing him by throwing rocks and bottles.
Fernandez says nothing was done about the problem.
Fernandez, a volunteer worker at an elementary school, claims that on Oct. 4, Escoto began taunting him again and hit him over the head with a bicycle chain. This time, Fernandez took up a gun, chased Escoto and, according to police, shot him until the gun was empty.
Fernandez then allegedly used the gun to beat the bleeding Escoto, and after Fernandez's wife, Lourdes, took away the gun, he used a rock to continue the beating. Escoto died.
There was no public outrage over Escoto's death. Far from it.
Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez came to the county jail that night to visit Fernandez and pledge him his support. Suarez has known Fernandez for at least seven years.
The next day, a Sunday, more than 200 people--including West Miami Mayor Pedro Reboredo--showed up in court to lend their support. The judge ruled that Fernandez, a PTA and Boy Scout leader, represented no danger to the community and released him without bail to the custody of his wife, Mayor Reboredo and a parish priest.
Police at first charged Fernandez with second-degree murder. A grand jury later upgraded the charge to first-degree murder, and he was jailed again.
"My client is a model citizen," defense lawyer Jose Villalobos said. He argued that Fernandez had simply reached a breaking point.
Fernandez is one of several such "model citizens" in Dade County who have taken what they see as the law into their own hands--occasionally killing in the process.
Since Aug. 22, at least six people have been killed and three others wounded by Dade County residents who say they were protecting property or themselves. Six of those incidents occurred within one week.
The federal government reports that crime nationwide is declining, but the Miami homicide rate in the first nine months of this year was running 42% ahead of last year. Through September, police say, 122 murders had been reported in Miami, compared with 137 in all of 1985.
One result of a rising crime rate, the experts say, is a siege mentality that leads people to react to violence with violence.
In Detroit, authorities recorded 314 homicides in the first eight months of this year. That city has had similar problems: Two police officers were shot and killed within nine days by the people they were sent to help.
Dade County incidents, in addition to Escoto's death:
- A security guard at a South Miami convenience store fatally shot in the back a man suspected of stealing a six-pack of beer.
- Prentice Rasheed, after eight previous burglaries, wired the window of his general store in Miami's Liberty City. Odell Hicks was electrocuted.
- A woman used an ax handle to kill a man who was crawling through a window into her home.
- A businessman chased down, shot and killed a robber.
- A former candidate for the Florida Legislature, Seth Sklarey, shot and wounded an intruder through the window of his living room.
- An elderly man shot and wounded one of two teen-agers he found in a neighbor's house.
- A fast-food franchisee shot and killed a robber in his restaurant.
- A man shot and wounded a suspected burglar who had entered his neighbor's home.
To date, only Fernandez and Rasheed have been charged with crimes--Fernandez with murder and Rasheed with manslaughter and use of an electrical device in the commission of a felony.
Miami is urban America. Some experts say what has happened here has happened, or will happen, elsewhere.
"When the Bernhard Goetz (New York subway shooting) case broke, people realized this so-called vigilantism is going on everywhere," said Geoffrey Alpert, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Miami. "This is much more than a local issue here or anywhere else. It's a human problem."
Police warn against fighting crime with violence. Florida law says a person cannot take another's life unless his own life is in danger.
But the price of bravery can be high.
"If you take a stand (resist a criminal act) you could get killed," said Metro-Dade County Detective Al Carballosa, a 30-year police veteran. On the other side, there is a moral issue.
"What is life worth?" Carballossa said. "No matter how despicable the moron may be--we're talking about a thief, a predator in society who deserves no mercy--the moral issue is, should you take a life for a $10 clock?"
People generally are more concerned about protecting themselves than about wounding or killing an intruder, Alpert said.
"Under those circumstances, you generally shoot to center mass (the center of the body)," he said, using the police target-practice jargon.
Sklarey acknowledged that he did not stop to consider the intruder when he shot James Fudge twice. "He had something in his hand," said Sklarey, whose home was burglarized twice in one week. "I thought it was a gun. I certainly wasn't going to ask him, 'Excuse me, sir, do you have a gun?' "
No gun was found.
Ari Sosa, executive director of the Dade County Community Relations Board, said he has found no pattern in the incidents.
"They have occurred during a short period of time," he said, "but that doesn't seem to reveal any pattern we can follow."
Nothing really new is happening, said one criminologist.
"It's just a matter of the media attention and the level of force being used," said Sam Latimore, a criminology professor at Miami-Dade Community College.
Few Firearms Restrictions
It is easy to buy a gun in Florida. "All you need . . . is a driver's license," said Mike F. Reire, general manager of the Tamiami Range and Gun Shop. "In fact, all you need is proof of Florida residence, which could be a phone or light bill."
Reire said Florida law requires only that a firearms purchaser be over 21 and have no felony convictions. Dade County, he said, does have a three-day "cooling-off period." The buyer picks out a weapon, puts down a deposit and returns three days later to pick it up.
No permit is needed to carry a gun in one's car or to keep one in the home.
People apparently have taken to arming themselves in the belief that the police are overextended and can no longer protect them, said James Stinchomb, director of the Florida Institute of Criminal Justice at Miami-Dade Community College.
"A lowering level of public confidence can be a very serious thing," he said.
Won't Take It Anymore
Victims of repeated crime are vowing not to take it any more. People are becoming more defensive as drug dealers take over neighborhoods. And the public sympathy may have some people thinking that they, too, can get away with shooting burglars, experts say.
"It's going to be very difficult for a jury to convict someone on such a highly emotional and sympathetic case," said Alpert, who added: "The laws have to be brought up to date with modern society."
He says that limits on the degree of force that may be used to protect oneself or property need to be broadened, and the courts also must think about the civil ramifications.
"What if someone is guilty of trespassing and attempted burglary, and he was shot while being chased out of the house?" Alpert asked. "Has civil law been violated, and can this man go to civil court and sue the man whose house he broke into?"
Intent to Kill Denied
Prentice Rasheed says he did not intend to kill anyone when he electrified the bars on the window of his store in Liberty City. He says he tried to get help from the city and Dade County before he took matters into his own hands.
"The burglars are making me a criminal," he said. "That's not what I want, but I think I have a right to protect what is mine."
Every member of the Merchant Assn. in Liberty City has been robbed at least once. When Hicks' body was found at Rasheed's general store, members of the association said that Rasheed had their unanimous support.
"If he (Hicks) hadn't been there (inside the locked store)," said the association vice president, Robert Reese, "he wouldn't have gotten killed."