Yesterday, my uncle’s murderer plead guilty to that crime and will be sentenced to 17 years in prison. In October 2009, James Arauz stabbed Vincent Pravata more than 20 times in Vince’s own home. As Vince’s beloved dog, Gracie, barked and cried, Arauz dragged Vince’s body into the hallway of his house, out of view from those who might peer in from a door or window, stole his wallet, and took his girlfriend on a spending spree that included stops at fast food restaurants and buying video games.
This brings at least some sort of closure to three-and-a-half years of legal maneuvering as we all awaited a trial. During that time, Arauz was jailed and three of Vince’s closest friends and I scattered his ashes off the coast of Lanikai Beach on Oahu, Hawaii and four of us, aged 43-70-something, formed deep lifelong bonds. It is the sort of irony that comes out of tragedy that I had not actually seen Vince in a few years (though we spoke monthly), and yet it was his death that actually made me get on a plane to Miami multiple times and get on a plane for my first trip to Hawaii to spend a week with people who have become some of my most cherished friends.
I wrote about the horrific crime on my blog (and here) in 2009. It was an excruciating, devastating loss. While he was 63, Vince was a vibrant man who was in such great shape that he could pass for 40-something. Losing him to cancer or a heart attack would have been awful enough. Having some numb sociopath violently murder him has been difficult to accept.
The first thing you need to know about my uncle was that he was a mentor to many, but especially to me, he eldest nephew, godson, and friend. Soon after hearing about the murder, I learned he chose me as executor of the estate, which was a burden I accepted as the honor he intended it to be. And it was a burden I could not have handled without the help of his friends, the ones who I met up with in Hawaii in September 2011 to mark what would have been his 65th birthday and following his wishes to have his ashes scattered there. Vincent T. Jane, and John — as well as my own dear friend, Mike O’Malley, who flew in from LA without even letting me know beforehand — all provided the emotional and logistical support I absolutely needed to go through his house, the remnants of a bloody crime scene, and try to get his affairs in order, sell his house, and close his estate with his excellent lawyer, all while dealing with a murder investigation in Miami, and all the shit that comes with that: the unannounced appearance on the doorstep of lame, if-it-bleed-it-leads television reporters for whom this is just one of a few murders that week, who could not be bothered to get facts straight or provide any context of who this murdered man was aside from “an elderly South Miami man.”
Who was he? A thumbnail sketch does little to tell the story of a great person, but he was a gay man who grew up in the fifties and sixties in suburban New York, left home to join the Navy and serve his country in Vietnam; lived in San Francisco during the height of the Haight-Ashbury period of the late-sixties/early-seventies; received advanced degrees in SF and Hawaii; worked in hospice care, writing a play about it; moved to the Lower East Side of NYC in 1979 or 1980, living through the AIDS epidemic there and working in HR at Citicorp; chucked it all to pursue his dreams of starting his own design business; opened a home furnishings store; worked as a designer for high-end clients; started an import business; traveled the world; and made deep and meaningful friendships with people who will never forget him. We will never forget him.
By the time I had reached Miami a few days after the murder, it had become clear that the lead suspect was Arauz, the son of Vince’s long-time housekeeper. She was like family to Vince. And he was trying to help her 20-year-old wayward son get on the right track. Her husband had died, leaving the already troubled kid without a father. Friends of Vince describe Arauz as having a vacant stare, showing little emotion and betraying little or no sense of engagement. He apparently attended a magnet school, though, and Vince suspected the kid was smarter than he appeared and thought he just needed some guidance. The last anyone knows, Vince had written a letter of recommendation for Arauz, who was looking for a job after getting fired from Baby’s ‘R’ Us for some petty crime. When Arauz did not show up at the appointed time to pick up the letter, there is little doubt that my uncle, never a shrinking violet, let him have a piece of his mind. How on earth do you expect me to write a letter recommending you for a job when you blow off the appointment with me to pick it up? Something like that.
But that was just one lead. No one really thought the kid would murder Vince over something like a disagreement with someone trying to help him, killing a man who was acting in his familiar mentor role.
The detectives went to talk to his mother at her house. James answered the door with bandaged hands from the knife he killed Vince with. They asked him a few questions, he confessed, and they arrested him. He has not been out of jail since. He was initially assigned a public defender but at some point hired an attorney — a family friend, I am told. Their defense was not credible. Aruaz made the horrific claim that the openly-gay Vince made “predatory sexual advances” toward the lumbering Arauz, then “became enraged” when he was spurned, all leading to an attack from the 160-pound, 63-year-old on an easily 200-pound 20 year-old. And then he did not call the police. In fact, he robbed him and hid the weapon and credit cards. The trial was delayed all that time. A bond hearing kept him in jail.
Then came insult to injury: the defense said they were going to try for a strategy using the only-in-Florida “Stand Your Ground” statute. Never mind the inherent problems with that law as written and intended. The desperate grasping for that defense by a defendant who was not at his own home, entered someone else’s house, stabbed him over 20 times, took his wallet and ran up his credit cards at a fast food place came as an additional blow. Just the idea that this had to be discussed seriously. I had bought my airline ticket in anticipation of the trial that was postponed by a hearing discussing this Hail Mary pass. The judge shot it down immediately and a new trial was scheduled. That’s when the inevitable plea bargain came.
The prosecutor has been tremendous throughout these three-and-a-half years. Highly sensitive to the feelings of Vince’s family and friends, he has kept us in the loop the entire time. He asked us if we could live with an 18-year sentence, less time served, with no possibility of parole. After a number of discussions, we all agreed it would be acceptable. Who knows what some Miami jury would do in a trial? Who know how many years he would actually serve before he received parole? We felt the 18 mandatory years was worth not going through a trial. As much as the need we felt for punishment, we collectively felt a responsibility to society to keep this guy off the street for a long period of time. As I wrote in my victim’s impact statement, “I have no feelings about James Arauz other than that of sorrow that he was not in control of his violence enough. He not only took the life of a great man, but ruined his own. I only hope that the time he serves in prison makes him a better, not a worse person.”
We also asked that Arauz recant his defamatory and slanderous statements about self-defense against “predatory sexual advances” from my uncle. He ended up bargaining to 17 years, plus two years probation and recanted the statements. In prison, he may or may not come to fully understand what “predatory sexual advances” means.
Yes, my anger naturally flares up, but we are moving on. We contacted a reporter for the Miami Herald with a press release who covered the plea story and drew a fuller portrait of Vince, a man who served in the Navy during Vietnam; a man with advanced degrees who started his own businesses; a man who volunteered his time and served as a mentor for many of us; a man of exquisite taste; a man with a highly honed, rapier-like wit; a man who loved to travel and experience different cultures.
So where are we? What do I tell my children? At the time of this writing, they are 8 and 14 and they still have not been told about how their great uncle died, never mind why. When will be the right time to tell them? They have been confronted in the past few months with the news out of Newtown and Boston, mass shootings in an elementary school and a bomb blast at a public Boston sporting event that took the life of another 8-year-old boy and maimed other children and adults here in their own city, at the hands of yet another numb 20-something male. Do they even need to know? How can I assure them they are safe? Statistics? Charts? I can’t tell them that the chances of someone entering their schools with a semi-automatic weapon is impossible. I can’t explain why this country allows for that kind of weaponry to circulate. And I can’t tell them that anyone walking down the street might be that guy (almost always a guy) who is capable of grabbing a knife and stabbing someone they love dozens of times. Violence is certainly nothing new in the world. But when it hits home like this, and when the news comes in such rapid succession, we feel hemmed in.