By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Donna Weaver didn't look at the leaden Atlantic Ocean below. Fighting a three-headed monster of fear, mourning, and nausea, she didn't dare. Donna hated flying in even the largest jets, and this tin can hurtling above the Bahamas -- a claustrophobia-inducing cylinder stuffed to capacity with nineteen passengers and a couple of pilots -- was barely a plane. But the journey to Andros Island had to be made. It was time. After more than 21 years, it was time. She was finally going to her husband's grave.
That's what Andros, a desolate wilderness of mangrove, impenetrable bush, and pine forest, was to her: Gary Weaver's hidden tomb.
Tears fell from her tightly closed eyes as Donna wondered what Gary must have thought as he flew over the Bahamian waters December 9, 1983, his last day alive. The sun was probably shining that day, the sea a brilliant translucent turquoise. She could see his smile and hear the excitement in his voice as he asked his fellow travelers about their destinations. Unlike his more cautious wife, he loved to be up in the air, and he couldn't get enough adventure.
Just before his final flight, he'd called her from the Nassau airport and said he'd be home the next day to celebrate their first anniversary. The top layer of their wedding cake waited in the freezer. Donna decided to save the big news for his arrival. Leanna, one of their six-month-old twin daughters, had uttered her first word: "Dada."
Now Leanna and her sister Lauren were 22-year-old women, and Donna couldn't stop crying. She didn't want it to be this way. Before boarding the plane to Andros, Donna had promised herself she wouldn't lose it. For much of the trip she tried to hide the emotion, weeping so quietly that nearby passengers in the cramped quarters didn't seem to notice. It sounded like the sniffles.
Gary couldn't have known he would be killed when he boarded that plane, she thought. He couldn't have known he was about to be stolen away from his baby girls, who would never remember how he doted on them or how he could barely wait to wash off the day's worth of grime before holding them. Dada was a ghost, or as the girls would come to think of him, an angel. Leanna and Lauren grew up believing he was there, somewhere in the nowhere, watching them, protecting them.
Donna, too, believes Gary is now an angel, but she also wants the truth. Her angel left a body behind, and she wants to find it. The trip to the Bahamas in April was more than a pilgrimage; it was part of her mission to track down her husband's killers and make them pay. In Nassau she met with high-ranking Bahamian police officials who, after all these years, finally began a homicide investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Karadbil, who works in Fort Lauderdale, agreed to assist the Bahamians.
The case represents a breakthrough for Donna, but she's learned not to expect much from her government after being stonewalled by nearly every federal, state, and local agency imaginable. When authorities weren't ignoring her, they were frightening her, saying that what she was doing was dangerous, that her search for Gary was endangering both her and her children. But the fear she lived in for so many years turned into something else, something that makes her feel uneasy, something with an intensity that threatens to overwhelm her: sheer anger ... not only at her husband's killers, but at those who were supposed to catch them. They failed her. America failed her.
Donna kept searching. And the sparse trail Gary left behind led her to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Operation Airlift, one of the darkest and most corrupt investigations in that agency's history. Born in Miami, Airlift was the FBI's first official battle in the Reagan administration's war on drugs. The lead agent on the case became a criminal, and Airlift turned into a cocaine and corpse-strewn debacle.
Gary, Donna believes, was a casualty of Airlift, an MIA of the drug war nobody wanted to find. Her collision course with the FBI began the day in 1983 when her husband never came home.
Donna had an appointment with Santa Claus, but first she needed to take her baby twins to pick up a very real man. The 23-year-old mother with long brown hair and wide brown eyes dressed Leanna and Lauren up pretty in their matching pink overalls, strapped them into the back of her 1977 Oldsmobile, and drove from their Coral Springs apartment to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. After a very long week, Gary was returning from the Bahamas.
The trip to Nassau was supposed to take only a couple of days, and his absence was hard on Donna. But she knew the family needed the money. Gary operated a bulldozer, carving up the earth from dawn to dusk, making way for the apartment buildings and homes and golf courses in the burgeoning suburbs of western Broward County. He loved his job, but it paid only about $300 a week, barely enough for rent, baby formula, and diapers. So when Gary's boss and childhood friend Randy Krugh set him up with extra work fixing boats and planes on the islands for about $150 a day, Donna was all for it.
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.
Her favorite horse was Sapporo, a small chestnut mare with overgrown Clydesdale-like hooves and a scar down her face, a sign of abuse suffered as a yearling. Skittish and moody, Sapporo didn't feel any more comfortable around people than Donna did. She had a kinship with the horse and worked with her each day for hours. Donna let Sapporo eat carrots from her mouth and sometimes even slept in her stall, forming an almost preternatural bond with the animal. When she wanted her horse to run, she had only to move her finger and Sapporo would spring to a gallop.
Donna parlayed her skill at training horses into a lucrative after-school job that compensated her $15 per half-hour, but she paid the price in injuries. In countless hard falls over the years, she broke her ankles, her wrists, her ribs, and suffered a dozen concussions.
The injuries barely slowed her, but she had to cope with more than physical trauma. When she was fourteen, her father tearfully told her that he and her mother were divorcing. She and her two sisters later moved into an apartment with her mom, who took a job as a nurse's aide to pay the bills.
As her family life fell apart, Donna found glory on horseback. At age sixteen, she rode Sapporo to a New Jersey state championship. Crowning Donna was Robyn Smith, a former South Florida jockey best known as Fred Astaire's wife. That victory qualified the teenager to try out for the Olympic team, but the money she made training horses disqualified her from the Games, she says.
After graduating from high school, Donna worked as a bank teller and saved enough money to buy the yellow 1977 Oldsmobile she would drive to South Florida in December 1981. She moved into her mother's Coral Springs apartment on Christmas, and the next day she met Gary, who was thin and slight like she was. He had freckles, scruffy brown hair, a mustache, and infectious energy. He walked over to her table at the restaurant and changed her life forever.
On the third day of Gary's disappearance, Donna phoned Fisher again. "Still nothing new," he told her, adding that both the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration were now looking for her husband.
"I want to talk to the Coast Guard," she told him.
"You don't have to do that," Fisher responded. "They're working on it. Things work differently down here. Let us take care of this."
Donna peppered Fisher, who was still essentially a stranger, with questions. Who was Gary working with? Where did he go? Whose plane was he fixing? Fisher, though, had no answers and seemed intent on getting off the phone. That night she fell asleep with the mantra echoing in her head: He's going to come home.
The following evening about 9:00 p.m., John Sims, of Delray Beach, a tall sandy-haired man who wore cowboy boots and spoke with a Southern accent, surprised Donna at her apartment door. He was accompanied by a very large man in a flowered Hawaiian shirt who stood silently in the background. Donna didn't know Sims well, but he had always seemed like a friendly, easygoing fellow. On this night, though, he looked almost as tortured as she felt.
"I've been searching for Gary the last three days nonstop," he informed her. "I only stopped to refuel the plane. They're telling me his plane crashed in the water."
"What do you mean he crashed?" she asked him, tears already streaming down her face. She held both daughters in her arms and, perhaps sensing their mother's torment, they too began to cry.
"I don't know. I just know I've been looking for him nonstop and I can't find him," Sims told her. "They said he crashed somewhere between Nassau and Colombia."
Colombia. What would Gary be doing in Colombia?
"That doesn't mean he's dead," Donna said, as much to calm herself as anything else. "We need to call the police."
"I'm going to go back to looking for him," Sims announced. "Can I get you anything?"
"Yes," she said through her tears. "You need to bring me back my husband."
When Sims left, Donna immediately paged Randy Krugh. Where was he? She looked up the number for the Coast Guard office in Broward County and called it at 11:09 p.m. When the duty officer answered, she asked about her husband. "We don't have any information on a Gary Weaver," he told her.
The words sent a jolt through her. Fisher had lied. Gary might be out in the water somewhere, and nobody was even looking for him. With despair closing in, Donna called the Coral Springs Police Department. An officer arrived at her home at six minutes past midnight, took down her story, and assured her a detective would be notified.
Donna continued making phone calls until 1:30 a.m. She called the Coast Guard again and pleaded with the duty officer to look for Gary. He said in order for the agency to conduct a search, it needed a confirmed flight plan. Frustrated, she called the Federal Aviation Administration in Miami to see if there was one. The agency told her to call back the next morning. She fell asleep and was back on the phone at 8:00 a.m.
That day, December 16, several friends and neighbors visited Donna. It was a somber affair; they brought food and drinks, and all of them seemed to be in mourning. This is like a wake, Donna thought. They're acting like somebody died.
Donna went into her bedroom by herself and made more phone calls. That day she spoke three more times with the FAA to no avail. She again paged Krugh.
This time he finally phoned her back.
"What happened to Gary?" she asked.
"I don't know," he told her. "I don't have any idea."
"Randy, they can't find Gary. I'm calling everywhere trying to find him. I need your help."
"Okay, I'll be right over."
When he arrived at Donna's apartment, the balding and mustached Krugh seemed upset, which wasn't surprising considering his old friend was missing. What Donna didn't know was he had much more to worry about than Gary. It would take years for her to discover just how much trouble Krugh was in that day in December.
To almost every question Donna posed, Krugh professed ignorance. When she asked about planes on which Gary may have flown, he finally gave her a lead: the tail number, N88KP. It was a Beechcraft Queen Air his "contacts" in the Bahamas often used. Like Sims, Krugh mentioned Gary may have been on the way to Colombia.
"Why Colombia?" she probed.
"I don't know," Krugh said before leaving the apartment.
Newly invigorated, Donna contacted the Nassau airport and gave the tail number to an airport official who said his name was "Mr. Major." He discovered that the Beechcraft had indeed taken off at 10:46 a.m. December 9, shortly after she spoke to Gary on the phone. According to the flight plan, there were three people aboard, including a pilot named "Boudreau." The plane was supposed to be going to Hog Key, a private island in the Exuma Cays in the southern Bahamas.
The pilot never radioed the tower after taking off, Mr. Major explained, so the flight was never confirmed. Donna desperately wanted a search. She was tormented by the specter of Gary out in the water needing to be rescued. But when she phoned the Coast Guard, an officer repeated the rule: No flight plan, no search.
For the next few days, she feverishly worked the phone, calling the American Embassy in Nassau, the State Department, and the FAA. Through the embassy, Donna was able to contact the Bahamian Defense Force, which, unlike the Coast Guard, conducted an air search.
It turned up nothing.
When Gary asked her out, Donna couldn't resist. Every day after that, they were together. He would bring her fresh-picked wild flowers, not telling where he got them. And he liked to park on the side of the road -- Coral Springs was mostly rural country back then -- and simply look up at the stars with her.
Gary quickly proved to be a wonderful guide to South Florida, which was a hundred times bigger and more exciting than the Jersey Shore. When he wasn't working, he played. He could walk into a restaurant and make a handful of friends before food was on the table. He took her to barbecues at Krugh's Boca Raton home and out on double dates with his buddy and co-worker, J.P. Delaney. Donna became very close with Delaney's girlfriend, Sheila, who had a five-year-old son named Brian. She loved to be around the boy and so did Gary, who would play with Brian for hours at time.
Gary was like a hyper child, except he always had a beer in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had to be moving. And he could have an animated ten-minute tiff with Brian about who got to play with which Tonka truck. Donna thought he would make a good father.
But he was also mischievous. Once he took her out to the Everglades, and as they stood out by the car, he yelled, "A snake!"
The exclamation led to Donna's thirteenth concussion. She jumped headfirst into the side of the car and was knocked out cold. There was, of course, no snake.
One of his favorite pastimes was tossing golf balls on the fairway behind his apartment to confuse the players. He would crack up as they tried to sort out which ball was theirs.
Donna found his antics both maddening and endearing. She was in love before she knew it. She moved into his Coral Springs apartment after only a few months of dating, and five months after that, became pregnant. Though the pregnancy was unplanned, Donna and Gary were ecstatic. On December 10, 1982, less than a year after their first date, they married in a small ceremony in Fort Lauderdale. That day Krugh, Gary's boss and long-time friend, took on a third role in Gary's life: best man.
As the petite Donna grew huge with the twins, her new husband couldn't wait to become a father. On April 9, Gary's 30th birthday, he drove Donna in a big work truck to one of the new housing developments he was helping to build. There he sped up and down a bumpy dirt road. As they were being tossed about the cab of the truck, he told her he hoped all the bouncing would bring forth the babies.
"Wouldn't it be great if they were born on my birthday?" he asked her excitedly.
The ploy didn't work. Instead Lauren and Leanna emerged precisely on their due date, May 16, 1982. They arrived fifteen minutes apart. The girls, at just over five pounds each, could fit comfortably on one pillow. Photographs taken the day the girls came home from the hospital show Gary carrying them into the apartment, his eyes beaming with fatherly pride. Donna carried the bags.
Sgt. John Cobban, who was assigned Gary's missing person's case, asked Donna point-blank: Was he involved in drug smuggling?
Donna told him no, Gary had nothing to do with the drug trade. It was the first time the subject had been raised.
The sergeant retraced Donna's work, calling all the same agencies, police reports show. Cobban tried to contact both Sims and Fisher but wasn't able to reach them and never tracked them down. The sergeant, who has since retired, discovered that Sims had been arrested on drug charges in the past and was a suspected smuggler. He also discovered that the Beechcraft plane was known to have been involved in drug-smuggling trips.
Even as police uncovered facts, Donna's hope of finding her husband was fading. She came to believe that if he wasn't gone forever, he would find a way to call by December 25, the twins' first Christmas. Gary had been talking about the holiday for weeks before he vanished. He couldn't wait to shop for the girls.
But for Donna the day was tense and heartbreaking. While family and friends opened gifts in her home, she stayed in her room by the phone, waiting for the call. At the day's end, when she lay down to sleep, she cried harder than ever before. The truth reverberated in her mind: Gary isn't coming home.
But that realization didn't deter her from her search. And about a month after Gary's disappearance came a strange call. It was from a Colombian whom Donna knew only as Hernando. She vaguely remembered him from her daughters' christening the previous fall. Krugh had escorted the man called "Nando" around and had treated him as if were royalty.
She drove to the parking lot, and a few minutes later, Hernando, a short and seemingly affable middle-age man, walked up to her Oldsmobile. "Come over here," he said stealthily, leading her to his red sedan.
They sat inside.
"Listen, you shouldn't be talking to the police," he began.
"What? How can I find Gary if I don't get help from the police?" she asked, mystified.
"Jeff Fisher is getting a little angry," he continued.
"He's angry? I'm the one who's angry," she remembers saying.
She couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"You tell Jeff Fisher I'm the one who is angry," she almost yelled at Hernando. "I want Gary's things, and I want his clothes, and I want the money he's owed. I can't even pay the rent. I want every single thing Gary left at that house."
She broke into tears. Hernando tried to calm her, telling her it would be okay. Then Donna composed herself and got to what she thought was the point.
"What about Cuba?"
Hernando stalled and muttered something about a possibility Gary might be there, but he didn't elaborate.
She left him in the parking lot and drove home.
The Coral Springs Police Department investigation, meanwhile, was sputtering to a close. After Gary's dental records were obtained, the probe was shut down with these words: "Until new information becomes available, this case will be inactive pending,"
Inactive pending. That was it. Donna was on her own.
Gary seemed to have been born for the Seventies, puffing on Kool cigarettes, drinking Budweiser, listening to his beloved Rolling Stones, and occasionally smoking pot with his friends. Donna still has a picture of Krugh grinning on her couch with a rolled joint in his hand. She went along with it, though she rarely touched marijuana. She would tell everyone that she got plenty just sitting in the same room with the smoke.
Even when Gary overdid it, Donna usually didn't get mad. He would crack jokes and make her laugh so hard she simply couldn't. And besides, his partying wasn't really a problem. No matter what he did the night before, Gary always rose early every morning and worked hard on the bulldozer from dawn till dusk. On the weekends, he'd employ his gift with machines. Gary did his best thinking with his hands; he'd been taking apart and assembling engines since he was in middle school and was a certified master diesel mechanic. He could fix anything, which was why the work in the Bahamas seemed natural for him.
Donna says she never saw her husband touch any hard drugs. In fact she'd seen cocaine only once in her life, back in her hometown. A date asked her if she wanted to snort some. "It will give you more energy," he goaded her.
"What are we going to do, run around the block?" she asked before refusing.
Gary did tell her once, after they were married, that he'd had a cocaine problem back in his hometown of Convoy, Ohio, where he went to school with Krugh. He said he had injected the stuff. She was numbed by the declaration. "I'm really glad you don't do that anymore," she remembers telling him.
"I am too," he said.
They never spoke of it again.
In the year following Gary's disappearance, Donna's little girls were her saving grace. It was the little things, like the way they loved to sing. When she bought them a Barbie, the girls tore off the doll's legs. Donna couldn't stop laughing when she saw why: They made for great microphones.
Rather than work nine-to-five, Donna took a job as a cocktail waitress. That way she could work nights while the girls slept in the care of her mother, a friend, or a babysitter. Financially they got by. Barely.
But her search wasn't over. About a year after Gary disappeared, John Sims again surprised her at her apartment. This time he was alone at her door, and he was crying. "It's not right what they did to Gary," he kept saying over and over.
He wasn't making sense. It frightened Donna so much she asked him to leave. He put $1000 cash on her kitchen table and walked out the door.
Shortly after that cryptic visit, Krugh called Donna and told her Sims had been killed in a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean off Palm Beach. Yet there was nothing in the news about it. There is no record of Sims's disappearance at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office or the Medical Examiner's Office. Like Gary, he seems to have simply vanished.
Sims's disappearance terrified Donna, but by then the search for Gary had become a part of her. She wasn't going to give up.
There seemed to be only one place left to turn: Congress. In 1985 Donna typed a pleading letter to Sen. Frank Pallone of her home state of New Jersey. "I am in need of trusted council in this matter, as it is becoming increasingly confusing and frightening to me," she wrote, "but I am equally determined to follow it through and settle it once and for all. I will not give up."
Gary had become involved with "very bad people," she added.
"My children and I have not committed any crimes and are in fact victims of these people," she wrote. "Please, I hope you will agree to help me. I have to find someone who will."
The letter wound up in the hands of Pallone staffer Lisa Sevier, who also worked as an investigator for the Senate Public Works and Transportation Committee. Intrigued, Sevier began looking into the matter.
During the next three years, Donna remembers that the Congressional aide regularly told her that her life was in danger. Sevier set out numerous rules. For instance, she forbade Donna from allowing anyone she didn't know from taking photographs of her or the girls. Nor should she speak to strangers on the phone.
Donna began sleeping with the lights on, a habit she has yet to break, and bought a .38-caliber revolver. One night Sevier told her to get the children out of the house after Donna called her about an unidentified telemarketer. Donna phoned the police, and her mother whisked the girls away.
The Congressional investigation, meanwhile, dragged on for about three years and ended with hearings on Capitol Hill. Donna wasn't invited, and Gary was all but forgotten in the end. Ultimately Congress passed new legislation concerning aircraft registration, pilot certification, and criminal penalties for altering aircraft fuel systems.
Sevier, who is now retired in the Washington, D.C. area, wrote a report about Gary's disappearance and turned it over to the Social Security Administration in 1988. Based on that report, SSA declared that Gary had died, and gave Donna death benefits that included a lump sum of about $60,000 plus $1200 a month until her girls, then about to begin kindergarten, turned eighteen. But neither Sevier nor Social Security would allow Donna to see the report, claiming it was classified.
To this day Sevier says Donna's pursuit of her husband's killer may be putting her life in danger. The former Congressional investigator believes Gary either fell from an airplane or was pushed.
"I don't know what happened to him, and I wonder if anybody will ever know," Sevier says.
The report remains classified. "It will never in our lifetime be in the best national interest to release those documents," says Sevier, who also claims she has the only remaining copy of the report, which she keeps among boxes of government records in her garage.
For Donna the investigation was a jarring, contradictory experience. She was filled with fear and devoid of answers. She was grateful to be financially secure, but she couldn't shake the feeling that the government was trying to buy her silence.
And she felt the same way she did when she wrote the letter to Pallone, which repeated a single sentence three times: "I will not give up."
Donna still meant it.
Next week: Operation Airlift takes off.