Hundreds mourn slain Avila couple at Tampa church

Mourners embrace beside a hearse at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa on Monday afternoon after the funeral of Dr. Hector Rivera and his wife, Debbie.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Mourners embrace beside a hearse at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa on Monday afternoon after the funeral of Dr. Hector Rivera and his wife, Debbie.

TAMPA — When Brittney Cardillo faced tough times recently in Washington, D.C., her aunt emailed her.

God gives us trials, Debbie Rivera wrote, and they don't always make sense.

"Remember," she wrote, "everything happens for a reason."

At a two-casket funeral Mass where words such as "tragedy" and "evil" punctuated warm memories Monday, the slain woman's wisdom was salve for heavy hearts.

Rivera and her husband, Dr. Hector Rivera, were shot to death at their Avila home Jan. 9. Though deputies arrested a suspect right away, survivors still struggled for answers Monday.

The couple's son, Hector Rivera Jr., 33, sat in the front row at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, braced by his wife.

When the pews filled for the 1 p.m. service, the mourners squeezed closer. When there was no place to sit, they stood, until there was no place to stand.

About 800 packed the church.

Some felt close to the wife.

Debbie Rivera had attended Tampa Catholic, and so had Vanessa Rogers, a banker.

"This is the most horrific, saddest, unimaginable day for me, as well as for other friends, the family, and anybody touched by her life," Rogers said.

Some felt close to the husband.

Dr. Rivera practiced medicine in Town 'N Country, and so did Novelle Kirwan, a urologist. He knew Rivera for 28 years.

The grief crossed generations. Kirwan's son was friends with the Riveras' son.

Amid the well-dressed high school buddies and relatives in dark tailored suits were recognizable faces from Tampa society: baseball legend Lou Piniella, former Rays owner Vince Naimoli, beer distributor Tom Pepin, developer Dick Corbett, coin dealer Mark Yaffe.

• • •

Those who gave eulogies spoke of Debbie as a hard-working businesswoman who adored her grandsons, threw elegant parties and "never met a charity she didn't like."

Her halo and wings surely have beads, one man quipped. Dr. Rivera, the man said, must be making house calls in heaven.

Hector was a gregarious man from Puerto Rico who would dance whenever Latino music played.

Hector always had to be different, said friend Dr. Jay Garcia. While in Switzerland, at an Italian restaurant, Hector ordered the seven-fish dinner.

It came to the table with seven whole fish — scales, eyes and all.

Laughter offered relief.

After a nearly two-hour service Monday, the crowd recessed as a pianist played On Eagles' Wings.

Outside, two hearses waited.

White for Debbie, black for Hector.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Statement from Hector Rivera Jr. and

close friends Jay and Lorraine Garcia:

"It goes without saying, the tragic news surrounding the senseless deaths of Hector and Debra Rivera has their family and closest friends in a state of despair and shock.

"The nature of this crime has understandably brought about an enormous amount of media coverage as well as a desire to obtain a public comment from those individuals who the Riveras trusted and considered family.

"At this time, the family requests the privacy and respect they deserve from the media and the public so they can protect the Riveras' children and grandchildren from further grief and stress.

"They are grateful to local law enforcement agencies for their efficiency in making an arrest and for handling this tragedy with the utmost care. As this is an open, criminal investigation, the immediate family of the Riveras will remain silent so as to not interfere with the justice system at work. Thank you for your understanding."

Hundreds mourn slain Avila couple at Tampa church 01/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2012 10:15pm]

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