Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Man dies after being shot near Publix in downtown St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Wilson Vasquez stood, moaning, in the long shadow of the lone jacaranda tree planted in his front yard. He held in his hand a book that had pressed within its pages a cut-out newspaper advertisement for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. It showed his oldest kid, Eddy, a graduate of the school, with a boyish smile and his arms spread wide. The clipping represented something special to Wilson Vasquez, a symbol of a father's pride for the success of his child — the same child who, he had learned not long before, was shot to death early Saturday morning.

Behind Wilson Vasquez, inside the brick home where he had raised two other boys to be just like their brother, people were wailing. He is from Ecuador and struggled to explain in his second language what he had envisioned for his son's future.

"He had dreams. Crazy dreams. His goal was," he said, pausing. Wilson Vasquez leaned his head back and looked through cloudy eyes at a light blue sky.

"All the way high."

Vasquez, 27, lived in Gainesville but grew up here during his teens. He had come back to attend a wedding Friday and, afterward, joined friends to bar hop downtown. Andres Rodriguez Torres, who Vasquez had known for years, joined them.

Much of what happened next remains unclear, but, according to police, an argument broke out between the two men around 4 a.m. near the Publix on Third Street S. Torres, investigators say, shot his friend. Vasquez was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and died about two hours later.

Police soon swarmed the area and arrested Torres at his apartment, 324 Fourth St. S. Detectives said they found a gun. He was charged with armed kidnapping and second-degree murder.

Shock quickly spread.

"I know him. I know him," Vasquez's best friend, Pavle Stojkovic, said just after hearing of Torres's arrest. "I don't know… I can't … It doesn't make sense that he would do that."

Vasquez and Torres attended college together and both earned business-related degrees, friends say. They worked out and partied together. But the two left far different impressions.

Vasquez was bold and gregarious, a man whose entrance people noticed. He liked to plan get-togethers and made sure he spoke to everyone who attended. People gave him energy.

"Quiet, he was not," said Stojkovic, 26. "He's got a presence about him."

Torres was more reserved, but had a temper, especially when he drank. His aggression made people uncomfortable. Vasquez served as a calming influence, almost a buffer, for his friend.

Russell Williams, 26, remembered an pickup soccer game in which he slid into Torres, who said that if he was hurt he would "f---ing stab" him. "He for sure has a temper," Williams said.

But Vasquez and Torres, 26, were close. They had taken photos together, arms around their shoulders. Two weeks ago, Vasquez was teasing Torres on Facebook.

From about 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, Vasquez had attended the wedding of two friends, Drew Harwell, a Tampa Bay Times reporter, and his wife, Leanna, a clinical research coordinator. Soon after, the two men met to celebrate Torres' birthday (although police say his birthday was last month). People who saw him early in the night say he was jovial, but didn't seem too drunk. What sparked the fight — and why Torres has been charged with kidnapping — investigators have not divulged.

But what's not in question is the immense hurt — and anger — left behind by Vasquez's death.

He moved to St. Petersburg around age 14. Born in Chicago, but raised in Ecuador, he enrolled at Lakewood High School with just a cursory knowledge of English.

He and Stojkovic, born in Serbia, found a common bond.

Both were smart. Stojkovic said his "nerdiness" rubbed off on Vasquez, an accomplished wrestler (who doubled as Stojkovic's "body guard"). Vasquez attended the Center for Advanced Technologies, a magnet program, and wanted a career in business. Friends were certain he'd run his own company one day.

After college, he worked at a bank until Stojkovic helped get him a job in Gainesville at Grooveshark, an online music-streaming service. He became director of international sales.

At the wedding, the friends considered how far they had come. Vasquez was the best man in Stojkovic's wedding. They had also recently seen other friends find wives, good jobs, the things they had always dreamed of. Vasquez told him he was proud. "It's finally happening," he said.

Trembling in his front yard Saturday, Vasquez's father still couldn't find the right words. He remembered back to the afternoon before. Wilson Vasquez had dared his son to a video soccer game, but he had too much work to do. Next time.

Around 2 p.m., Vasquez's parents readied to leave for the grocery store. They knew he would be gone when they returned. His mother told him to take lots of photos. She wanted to see what her handsome boy looked like.

And as always, Wilson Vasquez, a Catholic, turned to his eldest and motioned his hand in the shape of a cross.

The "bendicion," he said, a blessing for his son.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and correspondent Erik Hahmann contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

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