IMMOKALEE — Standing on the pedals of a gear bike he's racing for the first time, Wilder Vasquez pumps through the first 100 feet of a path marked off by orange cones and flags in a school parking lot.
He sits in the saddle for the 180-degree turns, leaning into the curves, and jumps up again for the straightaway.
The 21-year-old says his mind is clear when he's riding. He doesn't think about anything — not school, or looking for work, or the scars on his arms and legs. Not his family that died in an Immokalee fire — one of Collier County's worst unsolved homicides — five years ago Sunday.
It's just him, the bike, and the finish line.
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Screams could be heard from inside Trailer #18 when firefighters and deputies arrived at 713 2nd Ave. in Immokalee on March 4, 2007.
The fire — intentionally set, investigators determined — ripped through, burning the structure to its frame. Five of the 11 people inside died. Vasquez's mother, Pascuala Mendez, 34; his sister, Luciana, 13; and his half-brother, Rodrigo, 6, were among them.
It took weeks for authorities to identify Vasquez, so severe were the burns to his head, arms and legs.
Healing was arduous, but looking back, Vasquez doesn't talk about the physical pain. Instead, he laments his attitude before the fire.
While his mother, a Guatemala native, worked three food service jobs to support her family, Vasquez says he didn't do enough to help out.
"I didn't have any plans. I just wanted to stay home," he says. "I was acting like a fool, I didn't find a job ... I regret it."
"I want to work (now) so I can show my mom that I'm a good worker," Vasquez says. "She worked a whole lot for us, to buy us groceries, food to eat, and everything we needed. She worked hard and now — now that she's gone," he sighs, "it's my turn to replace her."
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Once he was well enough to go back to school four years ago, Vasquez felt abandoned by his old friends.
"I think he felt alienated at that time," says Kelly Stevenson, a special education teacher at Immokalee High School, who met Vasquez when he was still healing physically. "When he came to school, he still had the bandages all around his head. I think his friends were just really taken aback ... And I think he took that as they don't like him ... so he became very withdrawn."
In 2010, he enrolled in the school's vocational program at the Immokalee Technical Center. There, he splits his time between academic classes and job training in culinary arts — another hat tip to his mother, who worked in restaurants.
In the iTech restaurant, Vasquez is the master at dishwashing. It's methodical, which he likes. The work helps him focus, he says.
He's learning food prep, too. But aside from a few ventures into baking — chocolate chip cookies that got rave reviews — he stays away from heat sources in the kitchen.
All he wants is to work after he finishes school next January. Maybe move out of his aunt and uncle's home in Immokalee, get a roommate, pay his bills. A $6 million settlement reached with the trailer park's insurers was split between survivors and the estates of those who died in the fire, a sum attorneys say went largely toward medical bills, especially for Vasquez, whose injuries required nearly $1 million in treatment.
"He's suffered such a lot," Stevenson says. "I know that's still there. But I see a future for him. He sees one for himself."
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Two years ago, after working with Vasquez in her special education classes, where he was placed because of learning difficulties, Stevenson convinced him to join Collier County's Special Olympics team.
Since then, he's brought home gold and silver medals in basketball and cycling from state championships.
"It feels pretty good when you first win it, like 'Oh! I've made it this far,'" he says.
Despite summer-like temperatures Saturday, he wears long pants to the kick-off meet for the team's summer sports.
Vasquez's legs are heavily scarred, Stevenson says, so he often rides in jeans or khakis. His T-shirt leaves the outer sides of his forearms exposed. They are covered in the latticework pattern of healed skin grafts. His right ear is scarred as well. But his spiky black hair has filled in over the scars on the right side of his head except for a few small patches, barely noticeable from a few feet away.
In staggered heats, a half-dozen cyclists take to the winding course in the Golden Gate High School parking lot before Vasquez. He watches a few cyclists on the course, memorizing the turns. Not one for chatting with other riders, he claps but doesn't cheer.
At the starting line for the 500-meter and 1-kilometer sprints, Vasquez's eyes narrow in concentration.
His focus earns him two blue ribbons at Saturday afternoon's awards ceremony.
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Five years after the fire, Collier sheriff's homicide detective Andrew Henchesmoore is no closer to closing the case than he was before the survivors scattered, several heading back to their home countries in Central America.
Trailer fire settlement
"We haven't received anything but one tip from CrimeStoppers," Henchesmoore says. "That was kind of bad."
A migrant population not always forthcoming with information for investigators makes resolving the case even more difficult.
A lot of his current work on the case involves interviewing area residents again and digging up additional names of the victims' friends and family, searching for any hint as to who set the trailer ablaze and why.
"Someone out there knows something," Henchesmoore says. "(But) they might not even be in the country anymore."
He has "working theories, but nothing rock-solid" about what happened around 2 a.m. that day.
"Any one of those people could have been the target," he adds.
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Days before the five-year anniversary, sitting in his school's restaurant before working at the dishwasher, Vasquez says when he goes to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on Sunday, he will ask the priest to pray for his siblings and his mother, who was pregnant when she died. He thinks she would be proud of him.
Saturday, with sweat beading at his forehead and upper lip, he sits on a curb after his second race, staring straight ahead.
"I just want to make her happy," he says, "and continue her journey, make it right."