News of the shooting came as a shock in Hialeah Gardens. One of the city's veteran police officers, 41-year-old Robert Gomez, and his fiancée, 33-year-old Martha Bernet, were killed June 26 in their home on NW 126th Terrace.
It was a murder-suicide, according to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which was assigned to investigate.
The Miami Herald reported on the deaths in a short story buried in the Metro section two days later. "Detectives declined to say who the shooter was," the newspaper wrote.
Few would have guessed that Gomez, an easygoing man who was intensely loyal and attentive to his friends and family, could have killed his fiancée and then turned the gun on himself.
But then not many people realized the scope of Gomez's problems with his family and the Hialeah Gardens Police Department.
According to a source at Miami-Dade Police who asked to remain anonymous, Gomez was the shooter that night, and in the past decade, he had offered clues that one day he might self-destruct.
Back in September 1996, the Hialeah Gardens Police Department hired the five-foot-ten, 180-pound man as a patrol officer. At the time, he was a jail guard in Homestead with a lot of life experience. Gomez had served four years in the air force and boasted five children and three ex-wives. In 1990 he had declared bankruptcy after he was unable to pay about $9000 in bills.
Despite the personal problems, Gomez's record was squeaky-clean. "Applicant admits to having used two or three times marijuana in high school," his Hialeah Gardens personnel report reads. "Applicant has a consistent background, and no other detrimental information was discovered."
For Gomez the mid- to late Nineties were peaceful. He was still a newlywed with his fourth wife, Brenda, when he started on the Hialeah Gardens force. His early police performance reviews were excellent. "He shows the skill, attitude, and professionalism of a more experienced officer," stated one report. Additionally records indicate that Gomez wasn't the subject of any citizen complaints.
On April 11, 1997, his fourth child, Emily, was born. Three years later, Gomez had another daughter, Gracie. That same year, Gomez was promoted to become a field training officer and the department's only K-9 handler. Lazaro M. Cabrera, who owned a K-9 training and breeding service in Miami, provided Gomez with Kelly, a female Belgian Malinois. Cabrera and the Hialeah Gardens officer became fast friends.
"He was an extremely loyal friend and a great police officer," Cabrera says. "We spoke periodically on the phone, but even though we wouldn't speak as often as we could, Robert was always extremely attentive. He was a kind-hearted individual and of good nature."
But things began to change for Gomez on February 9, 2002.
That afternoon, Carlos Alvarez was driving his dump truck at NW 107th Avenue and 127th Street. A bearded man approached. He was wearing several layers of clothing and swinging a three-foot board. Alvarez stared at the lumber. Nails and spikes protruded from one end. He called police.
Two officers from the 30-man Hialeah Gardens force Gomez and David Rodriguez soon arrived and found FEC train engineer Scott Van Boxtel. He said he'd seen the man in a wooded area near the track.
The two officers walked into the foliage. Suddenly a man in his sixties, later identified as Samuel Lee Williams, appeared. When he brandished the nail-studded board, the officers retreated and sprayed mace. No effect.
"Drop the club," the officers told him.
The man wouldn't. He said he was God and then added, "You're not gonna shoot me. You're not gonna do anything."
Williams walked behind boxcars that were stopped nearby. Gomez and Rodriguez followed, guns drawn. The homeless man turned, raised the spiked club, and ran toward them. The officers began to retreat, but the earth surrendered beneath Gomez's black shoes. He fell. Williams drew to within three or four feet.
On the ground, Gomez fired his .40-caliber Glock. Rodriguez then squeezed the trigger of his gun as well. Six bullets hit Williams in the left shoulder, right elbow, chest, and abdomen, killing him.
Police later found a knife in Williams's waistband, and in a nearby shelter they turned up knives, spears, and a homemade crossbow.
Seven months after the shooting, on September 26, 2002, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office cleared both officers, ruling that Gomez and Rodriguez fired their weapons in self-defense.
After that terrible day, Gomez's behavior came into question for the first time during his police career. In April 2003, Hialeah Gardens resident Aldo Oliveros complained that Gomez seemed to pick on him, threatening to jail him for placing bags of trash outside of his house. Gomez denied the allegation but was verbally reprimanded.
One month later, in May 2003, Hialeah Gardens Police received an e-mail from Rory J. Santana, a Florida Department of Transportation employee. Stuck in a traffic jam on the turnpike in Kendall, far south of Gomez's jurisdiction, Santana saw the Hialeah Gardens cop flash on his cherries and use the inside shoulder to drive past the jam.
"He went as far as a stalled vehicle blocking the shoulder at the overpass, then turned off his lights and merged back into traffic," Santana wrote.
Gomez was suspended for two days.
During the next three years, Gomez regularly missed shifts and off-duty security details, Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Van Toth says. He verbally reprimanded Gomez several times. "The guy did some great things while he was here. Did he have some bumps? We all have," Chief Toth says. "When you're in the business long enough, you're going to make mistakes."
Months before Gomez filed divorce papers on June 5, Hialeah Gardens Police brass knew he and his wife were splitting up. They also were aware the separation wasn't harmonious. Even before the divorce was finalized, Gomez left his family's home and moved in with his new fiancée, Bernet.
On March 26, Gomez explained his absence during one shift in a memo to Chief Toth: "As you know, I am going through a nasty divorce. I did not work on [March 16] because my soon-to-be ex-wife did not let me see my two girls for the last two Tuesdays, and I called and left messages on her house phone and her cellular phone in an attempt to at least speak to my daughters. I did not speak to my daughters for several days. I desperately needed to see my attorney to clear up my custody issues."
Brenda Gomez could not be reached for comment.
On May 13, six weeks before the murder-suicide, police brass found Gomez and a friend, fellow officer Vicente Amor, chatting inside a McDonald's on Hialeah Gardens Boulevard. Both were on duty. Gomez told dispatchers he was responding to a call for a K-9 officer.
Chief Toth suspended Gomez for 80 hours, demoted him from a field training officer, and took away his dog Kelly.
Some cops thought taking away his dog during a time of personal tribulations was not only insensitive but also irresponsible. "It's disappointing to me that the department could not have been more understanding," says Cabrera, the K-9 trainer. "Taking away his dog when he was having so many problems at home I can see now where Robert was when he did what he did."
"There are going to be people who question the punishment," Chief Toth says. "I bet one-quarter of this department doesn't agree with my decision to ... take away his K-9 duties, but if I had to ask my department what they thought of every punishment I give, I'd be in trouble. It's a tough part of the job, but I need to make sure that officers learn from punishments."
Gomez was without his daughters in his personal life and without his dog in his professional life.
Some time during the night of Monday, June 26, at home in his new Hialeah Gardens residence, Gomez picked up his police-issued Glock. He shot Bernet, killing her, and then turned the gun on himself.
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Although Toth knew Gomez was having trouble in his personal life, he had no reason to suspect his veteran officer was dangerous to himself or others. "It was a shock to all of us," Toth says. "It's kind of like your family. I don't have a 300-man department. Everyone here sees everybody else day in and day out. It's a tragedy."
Miami-Dade Police are scheduled to provide Chief Toth with a final report of the investigation September 5.
Kelly is now assigned to an officer at the neighboring Hialeah Police Department.