WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Paramedic Rafael Vazquez left a training course on how to help when several people are hurt at once, and went to lunch at a nearby Wendy's. He became exactly the kind of victim he was being trained to save.
As Vazquez stood at the counter waiting to exchange a promotional toy for his child, he was shot point blank in the back by a gunman wearing a jacket, tie and baseball cap. Four others, including a man from Killeen, Texas, were wounded by gunfire during the lunch hour rampage Monday, and the 60-year-old gunman — Alburn Edward Blake of West Palm Beach — committed suicide.
Investigators were still unsure why Blake, a handyman and maintenance worker, chose the crowded restaurant, and why he decided to kill in a seemingly random attack.
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"This was not a robbery. He didn't demand anything," said Paul Miller, a Palm Beach County sheriff's spokesman. "Looks like this was just another random shooting like we've seen around the United States."
Miller said Blake had no relation to anyone at the restaurant and no suicide note was found. "We don't know why he picked this location to do this horrible deed," Miller said.
Vazquez, the slain off-duty firefighter, "probably didn't even see him," said Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Steve Delai. Vazquez's wife and child were outside in the parking lot when the shooting began.
Vazquez, 42, was on a lunch break Monday and had been attending a course called "Strategy and Tactics," after being promoted to lieutenant in January. Delai said the course teaches officers how to "manage large-scale incidents like we had today."
Witnesses said Blake entered the restaurant and went to a restroom. He appeared nervous when he emerged and killed Vazquez. He died at the scene without ever uttering a word.
The injured — Louis Rader, 65; his wife, Antonia, 62; Vanessa Soto, 16; and Carl Michalek, 43, of Killeen — were hospitalized in stable condition, officials said. Two others had minor injuries, including one person who was hurt while running away.
Bob Bertini, a Wendy's Inc. spokesman based in Dublin, Ohio, called the shooting "a senseless tragedy."
The mayhem unfolded on a major suburban road lined with strip malls, car dealerships and fast food restaurants, about five miles from downtown West Palm Beach.
Josh Maynard, 30, said he and his 20-year-old brother Jerry hit the floor when Blake opened fire. Jerry Maynard said the shooter held his gun sideways, repeatedly pulling the trigger, and said nothing.
He emptied at least one clip before shooting himself in the head.
"I just saw a lady with a little boy in her arms come running out screaming, 'Somebody's shooting!"' said Sandra Jackson, 43, of Palm Springs, who had been getting gas across the street.
One customer, who authorities called a hero, kicked the pistol away from the gunman after he'd shot himself, then started first aid on the wounded.
Neighbors described Blake as a quiet man who "kept to himself." Public records show that Blake owned a maintenance and handyman company until 2003. A 1996 story in The Palm Beach Post showed that he accidentally ran over an 18-month-old girl with his van, leaving her seriously injured. The story said he had a young daughter, who would now be a teenager.
Michele Grippe watched police search Blake's apartment after the shooting. "The only thing they took out of the house was a bag of pills," Grippe said. "Right now, I'm really, really shocked."
Vazquez's wife was a law enforcement officer, a corporal at the nearby Palm Springs Public Safety Department. The couple had one child together and four from previous relationships.
"It's just tragic," said Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Captain Don Delucia.