IMMOKALEE — Detective Andy Henchesmoore is stumped.
More than three years after someone started an Immokalee trailer on fire, killing five of the 10 people inside, the case is stalled.
Henchesmoore doesn’t have a motive. He doesn’t have a suspect. Four of the five survivors have left town.
Worst of all, nobody is calling with tips.
“I haven’t gotten a single lead in the last two years,” Henchesmoore said. “Not one.”
The Sheriff’s Office is featuring the arson fire as part of a renewed effort to raise awareness of some of its unsolved homicides. The move comes on the heels of a recent Scripps Howard News Service and Daily News series focusing on unsolved homicides in Southwest Florida and across the country.
Henchesmoore believes that someone, somewhere has information that could lead to a break in the case. He just needs that person to come forward.
“This is one of those ones that I keep going back to. I’ve never stopped working it,” Henchesmoore said. “You bang your head against the wall sometimes trying to figure out what the next step is.”
The fire erupted around 2:30 a.m. on March 4, 2007, inside the small, brown trailer on lot 18 of Cleve’s Trailer Park, 713 Second Ave. It took less than a minute for the flames to rip through the entire structure.
Five people were killed in the blaze: Emiliano Lopez Figaroa, 27; Adalmo Granado Ramos, 21; Pascuala Mendez, 34; and Mendez’s 15-year-old daughter, Luciana Vasquez, and 6-year-old son, Rodrigo Carrillo.
Among the five survivors was Mendez’s then 16-year-old son, Wilder Vasquez, who Immokalee firefighters pulled from the flames.
Friends and family members initially though Wilder was killed. In fact, he was burned so badly that it took weeks for family members to identify him.
Wilder spent months in the hospital. When he was finally released, he had to wear protective fabric to cover his healing skin, and had to relearn how to walk and write with a badly burned hand.
Wilder, now 19, continues to live with his aunt and uncle, Juana and Pascual Vasquez, in Immokalee. This spring he graduated from Immokalee High School.
COLD CASE CHRONICLES
Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo
“Thank God that he is doing well,” said Wilder’s aunt, Juana Vasquez, 40, adding that three years later her nephew is better able to care for himself. “When he got out (of the hospital) we had to help him do everything.”
He’s now in Guatemala visiting his grandparents for the summer, she said. It’s the first time he’s been able to travel since the fire.
Vasquez said she is glad the Sheriff’s Office is highlighting her nephew’s case and hopes they catch the culprit.
It’s been awhile since law enforcement officials visited the family’s Immokalee home, Vasquez said.
“Since about a year after it happened, I haven’t heard from them,” she said.
Henchesmoore said he tries not to drop by too often, so as not to give the family false hope.
Arson cases are difficult in general, Henchesmoore said, because the fire burns much of the evidence, and then hundreds of gallons of water from the fire hoses tend to wash away whatever is left.
“Fires like that are always frustrating for us because we can’t go in and rebuild things,” he said.
This one has proven particularly difficult, occurring in a community where people tend to want to mind their own business and not get involved, Henchesmoore said.
What he does know is that around that same time period, there was a streak of arson fires in Immokalee — most were set in trash bins around town. And there were at least two other arson fires at the trailer.
Cold Case Contacts
If you have information about these or any other unsolved homicides in Southwest Florida, contact your local law enforcement agency.
■ Collier County Sheriff’s Office — (239) 252-9300
■ Lee County Sheriff’s Office — (239) 477-1000
■ Naples Police and Fire Department — (239) 213-4844
■ Marco Island Police Department — (239) 389-5050
■ Fort Myers Police Department — (239) 321-7700
■ Crime Stoppers — 1-800-780-TIPS (8477)
One of those fires was set in a car parked outside the trailer. The man suspected of starting that fire was in jail at the time of the deadly fire and is not considered a suspect. The other fire, which was set on the trailer itself, may be connected, however.
Also, the night of the deadly fire, someone set a fire in a trash bin at a nearby gas station, Henchesmoore said.
“It could have been diversionary, or if it was an actual arsonist, it could have just been them lighting something else on fire,” he said.
Henchesmoore said he’s not ruling anything out. The fire could have been the work of an arsonist randomly starting fires, but two fires at one trailer leads Henchesmoore to believe the trailer was targeted.
But who was the target?
Mendez still had a husband living in Guatemala, but investigators determined he was still there at the time of the fire. People were subletting rooms in the trailer, and moving in and out all the time, so it’s possible the target wasn’t even living there.
No one who was living in the trailer at the time of the fire appears to have had any gang or drug connections, Henchesmoore said.
“They seemed to me that these were kind of migrant workers just getting by,” Henchesmoore said. “Nothing pointed that they were doing anything illicit. ... They were human beings.
“You can’t put a value on one human being over another.”
* * * * *
Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the Collier County Sheriff’s Office at (239) 793-9300, or call Crime Stoppers at (800) 780-TIPS (8477) to remain anonymous.
SHERIFF KEVIN RAMBOSK'S COLD CASES INITIATIVE
COLD CASE CHRONICLES SERIES
THE STATE AND NATION