By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The first two trips to Nassau were quick and easy. He was gone a couple of days and brought home a few hundred dollars along with gifts for her and the twins from the capital city's famous straw market. Then came the third flight December 2. While a neighbor watched the babies, Donna took Gary to the airport at 6:00 a.m. After walking him to the gate, she was anxious to return home to the girls.
"Oh, c'mon, Donna Mae, come and sit with me until it's time to go," Gary urged her.
"I need to get back and feed the girls and give them their bath," she told him. Even though she was seven years younger than her 30-year-old husband, she was always the practical one.
"It'll be fine," he pleaded.
But she wouldn't hear of it. Donna gave Gary a hug and a kiss, and headed home. Later that afternoon he called her and, with excitement in his voice, said he was staying in a big house with big windows on the water. The owner was a man named Jeff Fisher, whom Gary described as a fine host.
During the next couple of days, however, his enthusiasm drained away. "I'm not doing anything," Gary complained. "It's nice here, but I miss you and I miss the girls."
He finally booked his flight home for December 9, and Donna was at the airport that Friday morning, waiting with her babies in the stroller beside her. She watched the faces as they passed, expecting to see her husband's visage at any moment. But the last passenger left the gate and there was no Gary. He must have been held over, she thought as she took Leanna and Lauren back to the car. She hoped he'd arrive on the next plane and take a cab to meet them at the Mothers of Twins Club in Fort Lauderdale, where they were to see Santa.
At the club Donna snapped photos of the girls sitting obliviously on Santa's knee. She kept an eye on the door, half-expecting Gary to show up. He didn't.
When she arrived home, Donna called Fisher's house in Nassau several times. No answer. At 5:51 p.m., according to phone bills she kept, Donna also repeatedly paged Krugh, who didn't call back. The silence weighed on her nerves. Where was everybody?
She had planned to cook a big meal for Gary. Without him, there was no reason to turn on the stove. She ate a Hungry Man turkey frozen dinner, fed the girls their formula, and put them to bed in their matching bassinets.
The next morning, on their anniversary, Donna again couldn't get through to Fisher or Krugh. Not until that afternoon, more than 24 hours after Gary hadn't shown up at the airport, did she finally reach Fisher. Seeming rushed, the man assured her Gary was fine, that he'd simply been delayed on the job and would soon contact her. Donna was relieved but couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. How could Gary not find a way to call her on their anniversary? For dinner she reached into the freezer, above the wedding cake, for another Hungry Man.
The next day brought more torturous silence. With growing desperation, she called a man named John Sims, whom she remembered had purchased engine parts that Gary took to the Bahamas. Sims, who lived in Delray Beach, promised he'd try to find out what happened to her husband.
Then she called Fisher again. This time he told her Gary hadn't returned from a work trip and seemed to be missing. He assured her he'd contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities, and they were conducting a thorough search.
He was officially missing. Anxiety turned to creeping panic. She called her mother, who became so upset Donna had to comfort her. She had the vague realization she would have to bear this alone. Donna's will, however, was strong. It began telling her, like a mantra, He's going to come home, he's going to come home, he's going to come home.
When Donna met Gary, his sparkling brown eyes smiled at her, promising fun. And, having just moved to South Florida to find a new life, she was ready for some. But that day -- December 26, 1981 -- she was still very much a mama's girl. In fact Donna, who'd recently had her 21st birthday, was sitting with her mother, Carol, in a Coral Springs restaurant when Gary walked over and introduced himself.
She'd lived a guarded existence in a little town on the Jersey Shore called West Long Branch. Her youth was populated by cops. Two of her uncles were lawmen, and her grandfather, Jack Piantinida, was a Milan-born town councilman and construction contractor who literally built the police department in West Long Branch. His unlocked home served as an unofficial hangout for neighborhood beat cops; Donna's grandmother, Eunice, always kept a hot urn of coffee for them in the kitchen.
So Donna grew up to respect authority, not challenge it. She earned straight A's in school and did as she was told. But she was painfully shy, and there was only one place she truly felt at home: in the saddle. Her father, Jim, bought her horses when she was young, and it was while riding that the little girl first exhibited the will and determination that have marked the past two decades of her life.