FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Billy Combass and Felix Cabrera worked a combined 78 years for sugarcane farmers in Florida. Neither had plans to stop — until gunfire changed everything.
Cabrera, 86, is charged with first-degree murder in the June 4 death of Combass, 67, at the Belle Glade headquarters of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. Cabrera quickly confessed to what the organization called “senseless violence.”
But efforts are now underway to understand what led Cabrera, an easygoing, likable janitor, to shoot Combass, a respected manager and devoted family man. It’s a tragedy that apparently no one saw coming.
Authorities have described it as a simple, but disturbing, case of a disgruntled employee intentionally killing a boss. Cabrera’s lawyers at the Palm Beach County Public Defender’s Office say it is not so clear, suggesting a claim of self-defense could be coming — if their frail client is first deemed mentally competent to stand trial.
Relatives of Combass declined to be interviewed and contribute to this article; the State Attorney’s Office said it could not comment on the prosecution outside of court.
William Vance “Billy” Combass “had the utmost respect for life,” according to his obituary, posted online by Palms West Funeral Home and Crematory.
The entry described him as a married father of three who had worked at the cooperative for over 47 years, or nearly his entire adulthood. Yet his “greatest accomplishment of all was his family.”
“He loved to fix all things; cars, tractors, household knick-knacks,” the tribute read. “He raised his family in the house he built and has left his fingerprint on everything he created.”
A GoFundMe page established to pay education expenses for Combass’ youngest child says one of the Martin County man’s goals was to continue working long enough to support his son, a college senior majoring in criminology who plans to seek a master’s degree.
Felix Cabrera does not have any relatives — he outlived them all, defense attorney Scott Pribble wrote in a pleading last month.
Cabrera wound up in South Florida’s agricultural community after struggles as a younger man from Cuba.
Cabrera served in the military under Cuban president and dictator Fulgencio Batista, but after Fidel Castro’s regime came to power in 1959, Cabrera spent over 20 years as a political prisoner in his homeland. He was exiled to the U.S. in 1980 and later became an American citizen, his lawyer said.
He built a humble life around the sugar plant and his Belle Glade neighborhood.
“His neighbors, many of whom have known him for 15 years or more, uniformly described him as a kindhearted gentle, and generous man who was especially fond of animals,” Pribble wrote.
Devastated by firing
About 20 days before the shooting, Cabrera learned he was going to be fired, bringing an end to 31 years of employment with the sugar growers.
The cooperative is a group of 44 farms, many of them family owned and in western Palm Beach County. They grow sugarcane on over 75,000 acres, yielding about 400,000 tons of raw sugar each year.
An arrest report released by prosecutors does not provide a reason why Cabrera was being let go or who told him his days were numbered. Some lines are blacked out, citing exceptions under state public records law.
Administrators at the cooperative did not respond to messages left with their offices. A Facebook post refers questions to the county Sheriff’s Office, while also praising employees for showing “compassion and kindness” to each other since the killing.
On the morning of the shooting, Cabrera left his trailer home around 6:30 a.m. and drove the 1.2 miles to the complex at 1500 George Wedgworth Way.
It was sometime after 10 a.m. when Combass told Cabrera to clock out that afternoon and never come back.
In a confession given in his native Spanish, Cabrera said he felt “disrespected in how Combass was speaking to him in front of other employees.”
“Mr. Cabrera’s life revolved around this job and the sugar plant, and the news devastated him,” the defense lawyer wrote.
A surveillance video shows Cabrera less than an hour later walking toward Combass’ office in a machine shop, stopping to pull a handgun out of his right pocket and getting it “ready to fire.”
In the office, Cabrera asked to keep his job for another year, explaining that he needed the money, detectives said.
That’s when Combass “got out of his chair and started walking towards Cabrera telling him ‘no’ and to leave the office,” the arrest report said, relaying Cabrera’s account.
Cabrera said he again found Combass to be “disrespectful.” The video shows Cabrera leaving the office with the gun in his right hand, briefly talking to nearby employees and pointing to the office. He fired two shots in the air before leaving the building.
Deputies responding to a 911 call found Combass bleeding from multiple wounds, and Cabrera was found inside another building on the property, holding a black bag containing the gun.
Mental health review
Cabrera’s lawyers say there’s no sign that he threatened any other employees and he was “waiting for” deputies to take him into custody. It’s the first time he’s ever been in trouble with the law.
Juan A. Gonzalez Jr., a friend of Cabrera’s who used to work at the cooperative, said the violence “doesn’t make sense at all” considering the man’s non-aggressive nature.
“Everyone loved Felix through the sugar mill,” said Gonzalez, who was elected this year to a term on the Pahokee City Commission. “Felix was never the type of person to get in your face.”
Cabrera’s lawyers said it’s early in their review of the evidence, but some sort of self-defense claim appears possible. They also said he might be guilty of something less serious than homicide.
They noted that the detective’s “likely biased and incriminating characterization” of Cabrera’s confession notes how the “younger and larger” Combass was “coming toward Cabrera at the time of the shooting.”
“Ultimately the altercation that led to the shooting of the decedent occurred in an enclosed office without any other witnesses present,” the defense wrote.
After filing a request for a judge to release Cabrera on bond and house arrest, the lawyers then sought to have him undergo psychological evaluations. They say he appears to have a disorder affecting “his ability to understand directions or information.”
So the case was transferred to the county’s mental health court, where the results of the exams are due July 23.
Meanwhile, the Combass family says it is thankful that the GoFundMe goal of $15,000 was met within two weeks of the shooting.
“Words cannot express how humbled we are by the generous outpouring of love and support during this extremely difficult time in our lives,” widow Ivette Combass wrote in a post July 10.