tampabay.com

A Marine's fateful return

A young Tampa man survives tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not violence back at home.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS and MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published July 26, 2007


TAMPA - Just after the first bomb exploded in the Iraq war, Miguel Angel Suarez enlisted in the Marines.

His parents and five siblings warned him of the dangers abroad, but Suarez said he wanted to repay this country for the better life his family found after moving here from Mexico City when he was 7 years old. It was March 2003, and this new war was his chance.

He survived tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. When his four-year enlistment was up this year, he signed up again. This time, he would work from a safer base in Tampa.

The insurgents never got him. But early Saturday, Suarez was gunned down and left to die a mile and a half from his childhood home.

Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies say a 21-year-old gang member killed the Marine in a botched robbery attempt.

Jonathan Sanabria of 18425 Bittern Ave. saw Suarez, 25, walking home from a concert near the corner of N Himes and W Sligh avenues, deputies said.

In the ensuing scuffle, Sanabria pistol-whipped Suarez, shot him twice and left him lying in the street, deputies said.

They arrested Sanabria, described by deputies as a member of the Gangster Disciples gang of Chicago, Tuesday evening on a first-degree murder charge.

Sanabria, in jail without bail, told detectives it all happened because he wanted Suarez's gold chain.

- - -

Pedro Suarez sat outside his West Tampa home Wednesday afternoon, cloaked head to toe in his little brother's full camouflage uniform, still wondering how anyone could kill Miguel.

This was the man who traveled to Mexico twice a year to surprise his 81-year-old grandmother with mariachis and flowers.

The Marine who stayed quiet about the dangers in Afghanistan and Iraq to keep his mother from worrying.

Miguel Suarez had been the baby of the family.

But in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, everyone knew him as "El Toro."

He spoke in double entendre, making jokes that slid by most. Sgt. Jimmy Ray Sumaya always laughed.

"Finally," Suarez told him when they met. "Someone who knows what I'm talking about."

They became quick friends, and Sumaya encouraged him to re-enlist this year.

Suarez did and told his brothers he wanted to make the Marines a lifelong career.

- - -

The night he died, Suarez went to a Colombian Independence Day concert with a childhood friend, Janeth Valderrama.

In their tight-knit group, Suarez played the role of "the Fonz," she said. He razzed his friends, hassled waiters and never let himself - or his pals - make excuses.

"You wouldn't get the comfort; you'd get the truth," Valderrama said. In situations where some might offer consolation, he made people face reality: "Yeah, it was your fault."

Still, Suarez's friends trusted him not to judge or lecture them, said Liliana Villavicencio. He played pranks on them but was there when they needed him.

And despite his irreverence, he knew when to focus. Before exams at Jefferson High School, his normal goofing off gave way to diligent studying, Villavicencio said.

Suarez started out his usual self Friday night. Valderrama picked him up at the house he had just bought in Riverview. They drove to the concert at the Hindu Temple of Florida on Lynn Road. Suarez had a few drinks and danced with his friends.

But by 2 a.m. his mood had changed.

"He was really drunk and seemed really bored," Valderrama said. "I don't know exactly why."

She left him for a moment to check on her sister. When she returned, Suarez was gone.

When the concert ended at 3 a.m., Valderrama waited outside to see if her friend would emerge. She called him on her cell phone, and after a long wait he called her back.

He apologized for his behavior and told her how much her friendship meant to him. But he also said he wanted to be alone, and told her to go home. She could tell he was in a strange mood because he didn't crack any jokes.

She told him she wasn't going home until she knew he was safe, but the line went dead. Figuring Suarez was walking to his parents' house, she drove up Himes Avenue.

Aabout 4 a.m. she saw the lights.

"Oh, great, they picked him up and they're going to put him in jail because of public intoxication," she thought.

Then she saw him lying on the street. She recognized his white undershirt and shoes. She begged police to let her talk to him, so he would know she had kept her promise. But they held her back as the paramedics worked.

That tortures her, she said.

"Maybe if he had heard my voice he would have reacted and not gone."

- - -

Every afternoon since Saturday, his family has prayed the rosary. Each time, about 100 people come to the house to join them.

His cousins drove 42 hours from Mexico to Tampa to mourn his death. His ex-wife, Yvette Martinez, flew in from Air Force service in Afghanistan.

Suarez will be buried today after a morning mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. An expected 300 people will attend.

After the burial, the family's ordeal will continue.

There's still the man with the pitchfork gang tattoo and more than 10 previous arrests awaiting trial.

Hating Sanabria won't bring her son back, said Hermelinda Suarez. The mother only had two words to say to him: "God forgives."

"I'd like to talk to him," said Sgt. Sumaya. "Ask him, 'Why?' "

Suarez was learning how to play the guitar. He had just gotten his motorcycle permit. He dreamed of one day starting a family.

What hits his friends the hardest is the way he died. Suarez always said he hated gangs, thought they made people weak and robbed them of personality.

Suarez's friend Villavicencio is outraged by the senselessness of his death.

"He's a Marine," she said, "not some little hoodlum, to get shot in the street."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com

Fast Facts:

Postcombat deaths

Here are some of the Iraqi war veterans who died after returning home.

January 2007:

Land O' Lakes resident Robert D. Beachamp, 41, an Army reservist who led a company in northern Iraq, died when he fell from his motorcycle on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway and was struck by a car.

October 2006:

Daniel L. Bishop, 28, who spent six months as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and survived two tours as a paratrooper in Iraq, died in a Pasco County car wreck.

August 2005:

Iraq vet Christopher Germain, 21, had been home less than three months when he died in a car crash in Orlando.