Seeing Things

Manuel Duasso has achieved a semblance of normality in the decade since he was blinded. The same can't be said of his assailant.

Fernando Lamigueiro, Jr., and another kid were strolling through bird Drive Park looking for trouble. A gangly sixteen-year-old with coal-black hair that curled past his shoulders, Fernando had run away from home a few weeks earlier. It was March of 1985, Youth Fair time, a Friday evening, and he and this younger kid were on their way to a friend's house, having spent most of the day drinking beer and smoking dope. He had a gun with him, a little .22 pistol he'd found during a break-in. A few minutes earlier, the younger boy had attacked a middle-age man sitting innocently on a bench. Really beat him up. Now a younger man came into view, jogging through the park.

Manuel Duasso was out for a Friday-night jog, his way of unwinding after a demanding week. Less than ten minutes into his run, the 23-year-old sixth-grade teacher was stopped short by two teenage boys standing directly in his path. The taller kid was aiming a gun at him. "Your money! Your money!" he screamed. Duasso was wearing only a T-shirt and running shorts. "I don't have any money," he explained, breathing hard. He pivoted slightly to his right in an instinctive effort to continue running and heard, "You're dead, you're dead!" He felt blood pouring through his eyes and down his face, heard footsteps retreating.

Calmly, he pulled off his shirt to mop up the blood in his eyes, which he assumed was the reason he couldn't see. He was walking, asking for someone to call an ambulance, and then he was aware of the sound of footsteps running toward him. Somebody told him to lie down. After he was carried into an ambulance, a man said, "He's going into shock." He replied, "No, I'm not, I'm just relaxing." Two days later, he would learn from doctors at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute that a bullet had entered his left temple, severed the optic nerve, and exited through his right eye. He would never regain his sight. If he hadn't made that pivot to the right, he wouldn't have been blinded.

He would have been dead.
Manuel Duasso was working toward his bachelor's degree in education at Florida International University. He was popular with his students at Continental Military Academy, a private kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade school in West Dade that has since closed down. A year earlier, he'd been named the school's Teacher of the Year, and many of his young students were stunned when they got the news about their teacher on the Monday morning following the shooting.

In order to help Duasso with his medical bills, the students organized a radiothon at WQBA. "It was amazing how many kids showed up to answer phones at the station," recalls former student Angel Menes. "Some of us stood outside on Eighth Street collecting change from cars." Menes and two dozen classmates raised $10,000, which they presented to their teacher along with clothes, cologne, and other gifts when he came for a visit at the end of the school year.

That day Duasso sat at his old desk. He joked about how quiet the boys were, told them he'd thought at first the assault was a practical joke being played by a few of his friends, and gave them a pep talk about overcoming adversity.

"I didn't believe any of that," he admits now. His upbeat demeanor, he explains, "was a front to not make them suffer, the same thing I did with my parents, a way of letting them know things were okay." The boys gave him a tape they'd recorded the day they first learned of the tragedy; he remembers making an excuse to keep from listening to it in front of them. "I was ready to totally break down," Duasso says. "It was so hard going back to that class."

Ten years after the shooting, Duasso has been able to return to the profession he feared he had lost. But the young man whose troubled life touched Duasso's so briefly is still shadowed by the crime.

"My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit: We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil: Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:

"My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood."

Fernando Lamigueiro, Jr., is seated at the glass-topped dining table in the bare living room of his father's West Dade townhouse, reading from Proverbs. "And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives."

Lamigueiro says he has always been a Christian, but not one who has always heeded the word of God. "My whole life has been one extreme to the other," he asserts. "I've been as low as anyone could be, but the times I've fallen have been because I turned my back on God." Lamigueiro now wears his black hair short and brushed back like his father's white hair. His face is long and angular, and his dark, downturned eyes appear sad. The truth is, though, he is filled with joy, because the mercies of God are poured out on him. Three days earlier, Lamigueiro explains, he was standing and praying in the front yard of a house in which he was taking part in a Christian drug rehabilitation program. "Three days ago I asked God to heal the wounds of Manuel Duasso, and to make a way where there is no way," Lamigueiro marvels. "And now I find out there's going to be an article [about Duasso]."

Having abandoned the rehab program after a conflict with the directors over his insistence on staying up one night to pray in defiance of strict lights-out rules, he is back at his father's house. His bedroom, like the living room and the dining room, shows few signs of habitation; only a few shirts hang in the closet, along with one of his sister-in-law's dresses. He says he'll begin looking for work soon, preferably at a nearby hospital. "I'm going to wait on the Lord," Lamigueiro explains, paraphrasing Isaiah. "They that wait on the Lord shall mount up with wings like an eagle."

Four days after he shot Manuel Duasso, Lamigueiro returned to his parents' house near Bird Drive Park. He was filled with a sense of foreboding and inevitability. "All I could think about was that I was going to prison," he remembers. Metro-Dade police detectives had canvassed the middle-class neighborhood around the park (which has since been renamed A.D. Barnes Park) and had left a business card at the Lamigueiros. His father, Lamigueiro recalls, admonished him, "Son, the truth will set you free. If it was you, tell them." That night at about 10:30, he told his father and mother the truth. They called the detective whose name was on the business card, then made coffee and sat down at the glass-topped dining room table to wait for the police to arrive. "It was one of the most dreadful nights of my life," Lamigueiro says. "My parents were devastated completely."

Although he had no prior criminal record, Lamigueiro was classified as an adult and sentenced to two concurrent seventeen-year terms for attempted first-degree murder and attempted robbery with a firearm. His fourteen-year-old accomplice, who testified against him, wasn't charged. The teen was shipped to Brevard Correctional Institute in February 1986. In a separate civil lawsuit filed later by Duasso, Lamigueiro was ordered to pay $3.5 million restitution. (Duasso has never made any attempt to collect; he says he filed the lawsuit as a "symbolic way of saying criminals are in debt to their victims for the rest of their lives.")

His five years in prison were not good ones for Lamigueiro's family. "Due to problems with [Fernando] and our younger son, my wife and I divorced," says Fernando Lamigueiro, Sr., pain subduing his words. His work at a Christian publishing firm suffered, the senior Lamigueiro says. He left the company and has spent the past few years free-lancing as a desktop publisher. "It's like a sore scar that sometimes you run your hand over," he says of the ordeal, "and it hurts."

Manuel Duasso and his family and friends always refer to his shooting as "the accident." And it was, in many ways, just that: a random, violent collision. Lamigueiro shot Duasso, he says now, "because he was there. I didn't need money -- I was just showing off."

Duasso was two years old when his parents immigrated from Camagey, Cuba, in 1963. A brother, Jose, was born two years later. Duasso's father, Manuel Sr., recently retired after fifteen years as maintenance manager for the City of Sweetwater and was elected to the city council in May. His mother, Maria Duasso, had been an elementary school teacher in Camagey. "She always encouraged me to enlighten people, teach people," Duasso says.

Three months after the "accident," Duasso moved to the Daytona Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, in Daytona Beach. For six months he lived in his own apartment, relearning everyday skills and battling loneliness and depression. "There is where I think the whole impact of everything hit," he says. "I dealt with all the pain and depression myself; I had always been one of those little Cuban kids who is surrounded by friends and family members and never out of the house very much." Some of his students sent him tapes, which invariably caused him to "cry my little head off." One of the tapes Angel Menes sent "really made a difference," Duasso recalls. "He said, 'You have to see yourself as the same person you used to be, except you have that one little problem.' I thought that was great advice from a sixth grader, because I thought I was a horrible person."

Ciri Diaz met Duasso in 1986 at the church they both attended, Westchester Christian. "We were both Sunday school teachers, and we used to talk after class," recalls Ciri, a slender 32-year-old with brown shoulder-length hair and wide dark eyes. "He was always very happy, very confident of who he was. He'd play jokes. I thought he was a wonderful person."

At the time, Duasso and a friend were writing a play they planned to stage at the church, and he asked Ciri to play the female lead. (He would play the male lead, her blind father.) Every Monday, rehearsal night, Ciri brought a pint of Ben & Jerry's White Russian ice cream to share with Manny backstage. At some point amid the acting and the ice cream, they fell in love. They wed in November 1987 in front of 600 guests at the First Presbyterian Church of Miami on Brickell Avenue. "That was the beginning of a wonderful life for me," Ciri says.

For Duasso, though, the relationship with Ciri couldn't replace what he felt had been irretrievably lost. "My handicap never interfered with our relationship -- my marriage was like a gift. But at the same time I was so, so sad that I'd lost a love: I was afraid I couldn't work again, and my life wasn't complete at that level."

After leaving the Daytona rehab center in early 1986, Duasso spent much of the $10,000 his students had raised, plus a matching amount added by the school administration and part of his share of a $50,000 settlement his lawyer negotiated with Metro-Dade (although Bird Drive Park had been the site of several previous violent crimes, the attorney argued, the county hadn't increased security there), to buy a townhouse in Sweetwater. Dade's Division of Blind Services paid for him to return to Florida International University to complete his degree and to pursue a second bachelor's, in secondary education. Carlos Gonzalez, a friend he'd met at church, was enrolled in English literature courses at FIU. Often during the fall semester of 1986, Gonzalez drove Duasso to school and helped him negotiate the campus he was relearning as a blind student. The environment was safe and reassuring, Duasso recalls, but still fraught with hazards unimaginable before A metal statues with head-high protrusions that he couldn't "see" with his cane; water fountains that stuck him in the stomach when he bent over to drink; students sitting on the floor with their legs in his path. "It was a whole new challenge to understand the complexities of building designs that might hurt you," Duasso says. "And so many times I got lost."

In 1987 Duasso interned as an eleventh- and twelfth-grade history teacher at Miami Southridge Senior High in Cutler Ridge. Despite what he considered a successful internship, and despite having received praise from the principal, Duasso wasn't offered a full-time job upon his graduation. "I felt very, very hurt because the principal had seen my work," he recalls. "I think I didn't pursue that principal enough. Then, of course, my low self-concept said, 'Well, maybe you weren't good enough.' I was in a self-destructive cycle for years."

Subsequent job interviews resulted in cool receptions A years and years of cool receptions. "I was looking to work at a high school or junior high. I have two bachelor's degrees. I know my stuff. The Division of Blind Services would provide assistance in class, all the computer equipment, everything, at no cost to the school board. But still no one wanted to talk to me. I interviewed in so many schools. I suffered from so much discrimination. They couldn't bear the thought of having a blind teacher. I sat in offices where principals stuttered and mumbled and sometimes outright accused me of not being capable enough to take the job."

When he completed a master's degree in international education in 1991, he was still job-hunting. "I really fooled myself," he says. "I thought if I get my master's, they'll really like me then." They didn't. In 1991 Ciri was laid off from her job as an executive secretary and they had to apply for Medicaid to augment his disability benefits and the remainder of the $50,000 settlement from Metro-Dade. The following year the Duassos' first child, Christopher, was born.

In May 1993, after more than five years of unemployment, Duasso got an excited call from his friend Carlos Gonzalez, who had just been given a job teaching English part-time at MDCC's InterAmerican Center extension on SW 27th Avenue. Nadine Gandia, Continental Academy's former principal, chaired the English department, and she had asked Gonzalez if he knew anyone else who might be interested in teaching part-time. "Chairs are always desperate for good adjuncts," Gandia explains. "I asked him if he had a friend. When he said, 'Manny Duasso,' my face just dropped. I hadn't spoken to him in over eight years."

That summer Duasso taught two classes. Gandia asked him if he could take two more. "It was a hard schedule to take on," she says. "But he never missed a beat; he was just so enthusiastic, and we were just lucky that two positions for full-time were coming open the coming year. I encouraged both Carlos and Manny to apply, and they were selected [by dean Jose Vicente]. Carlos says it was an act of God."

Adds Duasso: "Dr. Vicente was the very first person who didn't question whether I was able to do the job. He was the very first person who was like, 'When can you start?' To me it was like winning a million dollars, or seeing again."

The Duassos' second son, Branden, was born in August 1993; this past September 1994 they sold their Sweetwater townhouse and moved to a new, larger home in West Kendall, where a wind chime of ceramic hearts tinkles softly on the front porch and Victorian furnishings cozy up the living room. They are expecting their third child in December. Duasso is now pursuing a doctorate in education. His salary, and income from investments he and Ciri made with the settlement with Metro, allow the family to live comfortably. A uniformed maid takes care of the two boys; Ciri is her husband's main source of transportation and also must take care of the household jobs. Though they haven't been told in so many words, Ciri says, the children know their father is blind. Instinctively, they have always known how to communicate with him by touch.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, white cane in hand, Manuel Duasso stands near the blackboard in his classroom at the InterAmerican Center. Desks have been pushed back to accommodate a long table laden with food and sodas, and to make room for Apolonia, a professional singer who is one of Duasso's students. Clad in a purple satin dress, eyes glowing with purple eye shadow, Apolonia sings a few English-language pop standards and some Spanish ballads, seguing from song to song with bits of stage patter. "Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you enjoy this little party, which is in honor of our great teacher Mr. Duasso," she announces. "This will not be the last, and I hope we can have many other parties like this." She slips another cassette into her deck. "A mi profesor A a el le gusta mucho," she announces, launching into a playful cumbia called "La negra Tomasa."

The semester is ending, and Duasso's two dozen speech students have thrown him a poorly concealed surprise party. His best friend and fellow professor Carlos Gonzalez is here, and students have filtered in from Duasso's other classes, too.

Duasso's deep-set eyes are in shadow, his thick brown hair slightly rumpled, no doubt because he has been moving around the room and occasionally grazing another body or being grazed. He is uncharacteristically subdued amid the talking, eating, and nonstop salsa. "Everyone here is struggling to get ahead in their lives. That's a bond we all have," he says, impressed with the fact that most of his students aren't native English speakers and many attend school while working and raising a family.

"At first I said, 'I refuse to let myself be led by the blind,'" concedes 22-year-old James Bertrand, one of Duasso's English composition students. "But as a psychology major I'm always interested in seeing how people work. I told myself, 'Let me just observe what will happen.' Now I truly feel he's an excellent professor. He's capable of explaining things very clearly. I still wonder how he grades papers, and how he knows who's speaking and where they're sitting."

"He's different than the other ones," adds Marielena Enriquez, a 24-year-old speech student who just received an associate of arts degree in psychology. "He worries about people."

Despite having recaptured what he calls "my professional self-esteem," Duasso says self-doubt still ambushes him. "It's never vanished," he admits. "I have struggled in the last ten years to convince myself I am a worthy person."

He says his experiences with discrimination have sensitized him to the plight of other misunderstood groups. That feeling A and, perhaps, a sense of political drive inherited from his councilman father A have inspired in him the urge to gain public office. "I have this little secret dream of sometime running for something," Duasso says. "I've always wanted to be in a position to enlighten people, to help people understand my disability and others, and to call attention to the discrimination against handicapped people, whereas before my disability I didn't know it existed."

Duasso doesn't remember when exactly he forgave his assailant, but it was early on. "The way I looked at it in those years, it was a very, very scary thing, because at any point you could become so bitter and hurl so much hatred. I was really scared my family would pick up on it if I was angry, and I felt something bad would come out of it. Let's say my family, instead of dealing with the situation, would have done something really radical [to retaliate]. We never talked about him; we kind of tiptoed around that and hoped everyone would forgive or forget. It was too much of a Pandora's box. It was very good for me that he was caught and convicted A it was sort of like an affirmation that God is in control and there is a justice system."

Fernando Lamigueiro, Jr., was released from the Hendry Work Camp, where he'd been transferred in 1989 after a stint at the Dade Correctional Institute, on April Fools' Day of 1991. "I had lost the better part of my youth in prison, and I thought I'd have some fun," Lamigueiro remembers. "First thing, my old buddies came by: 'Oh, we're so glad you're out,' but they weren't. My cousin came by with drugs and girls in his car. He said, 'We're gonna have a good old time.' This went on for one year. I was living from one party to the next."

At the close of that year, Lamigueiro dropped LSD at a South Beach disco. Amid the drunken revelry and sexual posturing, he says, he saw demons. The sight turned him back to God. "I realized there are spirits that control every person," Lamigueiro asserts. "I saw the system of this world is controlled by the Devil and his angels, and the result is death." He began meeting with followers of Orlando evangelist Benny Hinn. He'd earned his GED and had taken some college-level accounting courses while in prison, and he was able to land a sales job with a company that published Spanish-language Christian literature. He made good money, drove an almost-new Acura, dated a Christian girl. Then, in July 1994, he was fired after what he says was a disagreement with company managers about back pay.

He retreated from his Christian contacts and grew increasingly depressed. "For six months I was sinking deeper and deeper, until I found myself with a drug habit," he says.

In November he was arrested for car theft, but the State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute.

One evening a few months ago, Lamigueiro found himself in his room going into convulsions; over the past six hours he'd consumed seven grams of cocaine. "I was subconsciously trying to take my own life, but I didn't die," he says. "I called out to God. I confessed my sins. The next day I began to tell all my friends, 'God is going to deliver me from this drug habit.'" Through his girlfriend, he learned about the Christian Center of Hope, the program he entered and subsequently abandoned.

Three and a half weeks ago, Lamigueiro was arrested in Miami Beach and charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault. According to the police report, Lamigueiro and an armed accomplice tried to steal a gold chain from a man. Encountering resistance, Lamigueiro allegedly broke a beer bottle over the man's head. His accomplice escaped, but witnesses managed to subdue Lamigueiro until the police arrived. He is now in jail awaiting an October 2 trial date.

Back in 1988, while still in prison, Lamigueiro mailed Duasso a brief letter. "It has been three years and a few months now," the last paragraph began. "I was sixteen years old then and without the supervision of a responsible person. I neglected my parents and what they stood for, and for that, I ran away from my house.... I'm quite sure that it is late for apologies, but I have to try; my conscience has haunted me enough. I pray that some day the Lord will make room in your heart for forgiveness. From a human point of view I see the absurdity of even such a thought, but I believe in a powerful God."

When the letter arrived, Ciri read it aloud to Duasso once, then put it away with other papers and photographs from the past.

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