By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Lyons agreed to question Combs about Airlift during one of their breakfasts. Afterward the retired bar owner told Donna the story: Gary had been gunned down by "the Italian guy, Mitrione." The murder was committed on Andros Island near a runway. Gary was buried on the spot. Combs might still know where to find the body, but he didn't want to get involved and refused to meet with Donna, Lyons told her.
As she listened, Donna began to tremble and nearly collapsed. The next day she called Coral Springs Police Sgt. Nick Iarriccio, who had reopened the missing-persons case on Gary's death. Iarriccio told her he would talk to Combs, but months passed and the detective never contacted the former smuggler.
It was the same story, different cop. No action. Donna was becoming furious. Then Lyons told her Combs had moved away, but didn't specify the place. She couldn't believe it -- a witness to her husband's murder had been named and nobody seemed to care.
Finally, almost on a whim, she went straight to a man she regarded as the personification of evil: Dan Mitrione, the former FBI agent Combs had allegedly pinpointed as the killer.
Donna knew a lot of things about Mitrione. She knew the FBI had concluded that he likely tried to kill his informant, Hilmer Sandini, with a car bomb, but never charged him with the crime. And she knew that Mitrione had done hardly any time in prison for his part in the drug-smuggling ring before he moved to Kansas, where he wrote a true-crime book in 1995 about the murders of four women. Donna didn't miss the cruel irony in the title: Suddenly Gone.
On May 26, 2004, while looking through some Airlift documents, Donna came across a phone number for Mitrione's mother, Henrietta, in the Washington, D.C. area. On an impulse she called it. Right or wrong, she'd become convinced this man was directly connected to Gary's disappearance. She wanted to hear his voice.
A woman on the other end, who identified herself as one of Mitrione's sisters, said her brother was out of the country. She promised he'd get the message.
Two days later, an unidentified man phoned her and asked her why she wanted to speak with Mitrione. He laughed when Donna asked his name.
"Just call me the ghost," he said.
Donna played the role of damsel in distress, telling the ghost she was trying to find her husband and meant no harm.
The next morning Mitrione phoned her. The sound of his ordinary, middle-America voice sent chills through her. She hid her emotions and played on the former agent's ego, telling him she hoped such a seasoned law enforcer might be able to help. He responded that he'd never heard of Gary but remembered Krugh very well. Donna, who took notes as she spoke to the former FBI agent, told him she thought Sandini might have killed her husband.
"There is no way that Sandini did it," Mitrione said.
Tears streamed down her face as he spoke, but she didn't dare let him know.
"It was Randy Krugh and the Colombians," he told her. "They did it all the way."
"Why did he do it?"
"Because there were contracts out on everybody at the time," he told her.
"But why Gary? He didn't do anything."
"I don't know why, but I feel sure it was Randy Krugh and the Colombians who did it."
During the rest of the 90-minute conversation, he boasted about his work in Operation Airlift, how he came close to busting one of the biggest cocaine cartels in the world, and how he still felt wronged by the FBI. Then he launched into a bizarre story about being treated badly by local police in Georgia after he found a dead body in the woods there.
When she hung up, Donna felt no closer to the truth. The idea that Krugh had killed Gary didn't add up. Colombians, maybe, but Krugh? It all seemed insane.
Faced with a dead end, she asked Lyons to write up a sworn statement, repeating what Combs had told him. But the former bar owner said he'd had quintuple-bypass heart surgery since his talk with Combs and suffered brain damage.
"My mind is so confused I can't even read or write," he later explained to New Times. "I have an IQ of a seven- or eight-year-old. It's like you turn a light off in a room. There's nothing there. I don't know what happened to her husband. For all I know, aliens got him."
Without Lyons, she needed Combs in person. But she couldn't find him. When Donna met with Superintendent Miller in Nassau in April, she recounted Lyons's story and told him Combs was the key witness in the case.
Combs, all the while, was living in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. When he was called by New Times in May, a month after Donna's trip to the Bahamian police department, the ex-smuggler, now 65 years old, picked up the phone. And he talked.
There was good reason to hope that Stanley Combs would assist in solving Gary's murder. Combs was one of the top South Florida drug informants in the early Eighties, helping to bust not only Airlift but also numerous other smuggling rings, says former DEA agent B.J. Church. And the Louisianan apparently knew how to handle himself in the treacherous world of drug smuggling. For protection he was said to keep a gun hidden in one of his cowboy boots.