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Vigilante killings on the rise UPI NewsFeatureIn Miami, sympathy for those who take the law into their own hands

By
JEFF HARDY

MIAMI -- There is a subdued outpouring of sympathy for citizen vigilantes on the streets of Miami. 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, one of America's most violent, there has been a rash of such killings in the past three months by ordinary citizens who, railing at the failure of police to protect them, turned vigilante. One of these is Baldomero Fernandez.

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Fernandez, 62, complained to police and various other agencies for three years that his neighbor, James Escoto, 31, a private-duty nurse, had taunted him with obscenities and harassed him with thrown rocks and bottles in their middle-class neighborhood.

Fernandez says nothing was done.

On Oct. 4, Fernandez, who does volunteer work at an elementary school, claims Escoto again taunted him and hit him over the head with a bicycle chain. Fernandez chased Escoto with a gun and, according to police, shot him until he ran out of bullets.

He allegedly used the empty gun to beat the bleeding Escoto, and when Fernandez' wife, Lourdes, took away the gun, used a rock to continue the beating. Escoto died.

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There was no public outrage over Escoto's death. Far from it.

Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez appeared at the county jail that night to visit Fernandez and pledge 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, presented no danger to the community and freed him without bail in the custody of his wife, Mayor Reboredo and a parish priest.

Police originally charged Fernandez with second-degree murder, but 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 says, arguing that Fernandez simply reached a breaking point.

Fernandez is but one of a string of 'model citizens' in Miami and 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 wounded by Miami and Dade County residents who say they were protecting property or themselves. Six of those incidents occurred in one week.

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The federal government reports that crime nationwide is on the decline. But Miami's homicide rate in the first nine months was up 42 percent over last year, second only to Detroit's increase. Through September, police say, 122 murders had been reported in Miami, compared with 137 in all of 1985.

One result, the experts say, is a siege mentality that encourages ordinary citizens to react with their own violence.

Detroit -- which recorded 314 homicides in the first eight months of this year -- has had similar problems: two police officers were shot and killed in a nine-day period by people they were sent to help.

In Dade County, in addition to Escoto's death:

-A security guard at a South Miami convenience store shot in the back and killed a man suspected of stealing a six-pack of beer.

-Prentice Rasheed, burglarized eight times, set an electric booby trap at his general store in Miami's Liberty City. It killed Odell Hicks.

-A woman used an ax handle to kill a man who was crawling through her window.

-A businesman chased down and shot and killed a robber.

-Former Florida Legislature candidate Seth Sklarey shot and wounded an intruder through the glass window in his living room.

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-An elderly man shot and wounded one of two teenagers he found in a neighbor's house.

-A fast-food franchise owner shot and killed a robber at 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 the use of an electrical device during 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 case broke, people realized this so-called vigilantism is going on everywhere,' says 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 very high.

'If you take a stand (and resist a criminal act) you could get killed,' says Metro-Dade County Detective Al Carbalossa, a 30-year police veteran. On the other side, there is a moral issue,

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'What is life worth?' Carbalossa 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?'

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