Florida school murder: 'Lord of the Flies' machete killing at Homestead school for at-risk teenagers

Officials face questions over how gang lured classmate and killed him with machete

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Just like the vocational school itself in Homestead, Florida, much of the land around it used to be part of the local Air Force base. But no longer. Disused roads lead to long-ago abandoned car parks filled with flotsam – tyres, an open sofa-bed – with nature, dense trees and grasses, encroaching from all sides.

Police contend it was into this forsaken territory that five friends from the school, which is funded by a federal programme to educate at-risk youth, lured a classmate, José Amaya Guardado, one day in late June and hacked him to death with a machete. So disturbing are the details laid out in police reports – students ganging up to kill another student – it has been dubbed the “Lord of the Flies” murder.

Two months later, the death of the 17-year-old, brought to the US by his parents from El Salvador nine years ago, is starting to send shock waves all the way to Washington. On Thursday, the US Department of Labour, which runs 126 Job Corps schools around the country, servicing 60,000 students, announced that the Homestead location will not reopen for autumn term next week as planned.  

How long it will be before students are allowed back is not clear. The investigation is ongoing. Also on Thursday, Miami Dade police said that the last of the suspects, Joseph Michael Cabrera, 23, had been arrested in the St Louis, Missouri, area. He is expected to be extradited to Florida to stand trial alongside the four others: Kaheem Arbelo, 20; Jonathan Lucas, 18; Christian Colon, 19; and Desiray Strickland, 18.

Desiray Strickland

When it begins, the trial of the five, some of whom have already been charged with first degree murder and have entered not guilty pleas, will draw wide attention. This week, county prosecutors indicated they will be seeking the death penalty in the case, even though four of the suspects are teens.

According to arrest reports, the victim was cajoled into the woods on 28 June only to be ambushed by Mr Arbelo – depicted as the ringleader – wielding the machete. Frustrated with the feebleness of her blows, Ms Strickland, the only female suspect, briefly left to urinate in the trees. When she returned, the boy, barely alive, was forced to crawl into a waiting shallow grave where the last mortal blows were delivered.

Although a motive has not been determined – investigators have indicated that the victim may have owed money to Mr Arbelo – the plot to kill him was allegedly two weeks in the planning. And when it was over and the victim was no longer breathing, the group is alleged to have burned his clothes, along with their own, and hidden the machete and a shovel. Three then left the scene while Mr Arbelo and Ms Strickland remained behind to have sex, it is claimed.

Jonathan Lucas

It was a full three days after the boy went missing that he was found, not by the school or police, but by a brother who had gone to the woods in search of him. “I start digging there. That’s where I found his foot, and they were burned,” he told the local media later. The young man’s face was completely caved in.

As details continue to emerge, the community struggles to comprehend. Clara Dawson, 59, has lived here all her life and cannot fathom the brutality of the crime, asking: “What kind of mentality did these kids have?” But she is angry at the school too. “Of course it should be shut down. This was negligence and it’s absolutely shocking.”

Kaheem Arbelo

Pressure on the Department of Labour and the firm that was contracted to run the Homestead school, ResCare of Virginia, to explain is starting to grow. “The lack of supervision is incomprehensible, as is the lackadaisical manner in which the administration treated a missing student,” the local US Congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said in a statement last week. “The administrators of the Homestead centre didn’t look for the student and didn’t communicate with the family.”

A Labour spokesman in Washington declined on-the-record comment beyond a formal statement confirming the suspension of classes and saying “the safety and security of Job Corps students remains our top priority”. But the department has several times been faced with cases of violence and drug abuse at some of its other Job Corps locations and has tried to assert a zero-tolerance policy, on occasion rescinding contracts with its independent operators. Whether that will be the fate of ResCare isn’t clear.

Christian Colon

Intercepted in the Homestead school’s main car park, Peter Gregerson, the company’s director of operations, declined to answer questions, saying the Department of Labour had told him not to talk. “Its overwhelmingly tragic and painful ... it’s tragic, horrific, terrible,” he said.

Appropriate sentiments, for sure, but ones that will offer little consolation to the victim’s family.