TAMPA — Eddie Quezada fled Cuba to the United States for a better life.
Years later, Quezada told neighbors he made the journey as part of the Mariel boatlift, the mass emigration in 1980. He made a living as custodian, first in Texas and then in Tampa.
Quezada was a living a semi-retired life in a modest cottage in the University Square area when, police say, a 21-year-old woman from down the street hacked him to death with a machete during Labor Day weekend. Police who went to check on him Sept. 2 found his body inside the front door, his dentures on the bloody floor nearby.
Friends like Freddy Ortiz are struggling to understand why someone could be so vicious to a gentle man who had made a life in America after the perilous journey that the "Marielitos" made by boat across the Florida Straits.
"He survived that," Ortiz said, "and this is how he dies."
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The Mariel boatlift started in April 1980 when the Castro regime announced that all Cubans who wished to emigrate to the U.S. were free to board boats at the port of Mariel, west of Havana. In all, 125,000 Cubans fled to U.S. shores in overloaded boats, some barely seaworthy. Twenty-seven people died.
The circumstances of Quezada’s trip are unclear but he told his neighbors he spent time in a refugee camp in the United States, then got a job as a school custodian in Texas. He had a son there but never married.
Alex Flores of Amarillo, Texas, said his father didn’t talk about his arrival in the United States. They lost touch after Quezada moved to Florida, but Flores, 32, remembers him as a good father.
"He was a kind-hearted man who always helped others and befriended anyone he knew," Flores said.
Ortiz, 57, said Quezada lived in an apartment before moving into his home at 2302 Liberty St. Property records show he purchased the three-bedroom, 800-square foot house in 2004 for $86,000.
Quezada worked as a custodian in Tampa, including several years at University Community Hospital, now Florida Hospital, just a couple of miles north of his house. He retired a few years ago but decided he couldn’t stay retired, according to Ortiz.
"He thought that everybody was going to bring coffee and talk to him, but it doesn’t work that way in this country," Ortiz said. "He felt lonely."
So Quezada got a part-time cleaning job in downtown Tampa, working nights. Meanwhile, he continued to send money to family in Cuba.
For years, Quezada kept rabbits he would cook for food, and the cries of his pet peacock would ring out in the neighborhood. Quezada walked slowly because of bad knees but tended to the lush ferns and other plants and trees in his yard.
Quezada could be moody and nosy, but he kept an eye on the neighborhood and let people know if he spotted something suspicious, neighbors said. He was a good cook who had mastered traditional dishes like lechón, a whole roasted pig cooked over charcoal.
"Eddie was the type of person, if you were friends, he would get up in the morning and start cooking for you," said Tomas Diaz, 39. "He used to give me good advice. ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ He was good to me."
Based on accounts from neighbors, Quezada considered the machete a multi-purpose tool.
Maya Abadi, who has rented the house next to Quezada’s for about a year and a half, said she saw Quezada using one of the long knives to cut back plants and grass on his property.
"It reminded me of my father who did the same thing."
Ortiz said Quezada used the machete on rats that would bother his rabbits.
"He always kept it very sharp," he said.
Diaz once asked Quezada why he kept a machete in the house. He indicated it could come in handy if he needed to defend himself.
Uno nunca sabe, Diaz recalls him saying. You never know.
Quezada was wary of strangers, Ortiz said. "If Jesus knocked on his door and he didn’t feel comfortable, he wouldn’t open the door."
The person accused in his brutal murder was no stranger.
Sarah Kynay Martinez lived with her parents on Liberty Street about a dozen doors down from Quezada. Hillsborough court filings chronicle a tumultuous relationship with her parents, who told authorities they were afraid of her because she would become violent when they refused to give her money. In a request for a restraining order filed earlier this year, her mother said she used drugs.
Ortiz said Quezada got Martinez an application for the cleaning company he was working for. She kept the job just a short time and then quit. Quezada had loaned her money, Ortiz said — a detail police would note later in her arrest report.
Investigators said they were unsure why Martinez went to Quezada’s house Aug. 31. While there, police say, she attacked him with a machete, slicing long, deep gashes in his face, chest, and back. Then, covered in blood, police say, she ransacked the house. Records show investigators found a machete with Martinez’s bloody fingerprint on the 26-inch blade.
Martinez told police Quezada attacked her and she defended herself with the machete. She said she remembered hitting him in the center of the face but then blacked out. She said she searched the house for a change of clothes and claimed Quezada was alive when she left. She is charged with first-degree murder, burglary and attempted robbery with a deadly weapon and was being held on $300,000 bail.
One recent morning, shiny mobiles hung motionless in the sticky air at Quezada’s house. A small sticker on the door read CUBA. A black meat smoker sat just off the porch. The grass had grown shin-high.
Just outside the rusty chain-link fence, colorful potted plants were clustered between two makeshift crosses, a memorial to the Cuban man who lived on the corner.
Flores, Quezada’s son, is left to wonder what could have been. He reconnected with his father about a month ago and agreed to visit. They hadn’t set a date.
He doesn’t believe his father would attack someone.
"How could someone do something so vicious?" he said. "All he ever did was try to help, but it wasn’t enough for her."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.