The Mystery of Missing Fort Lauderdale Millionaire Guma Aguiar
Courtesy of Jerry Levine
Just after midnight on the summer solstice, a white Jupiter powerboat drifted toward Fort Lauderdale beach. Employees at the beachfront bar Elbo Room spotted the gleam of fiberglass in the darkness and realized nobody was onboard.
It was a windswept Tuesday night. The seas were rough, and the city's most famous stretch of beach was nearly empty. When the boat came to rest on the shore, its navigation lights were still on. Roused by a report called in to dispatch, Fort Lauderdale police officers Jonathan Bohm, Melissa DiMarco, and Nathan Stoner and Sgt. Ed Wenger headed to the spot, across the sand from Las Olas Boulevard. Approaching the boat on foot, they saw that its shifter was still in gear, the keys in the ignition. The twin outboard engines were not running. Stoner climbed aboard. He found a white iPhone and a wallet on the center console, and flip-flops and a black T-shirt lying on the deck: exactly the things one might leave behind if going for a quick swim.
The contents of the wallet belonged to a man named Guma Aguiar. A check of official records showed the boat was registered in his name. Stoner woke up the iPhone, and the screen filled with a list of missed calls and panicked text messages from Aguiar's wife, Jamie. She said she hadn't heard from him. She had pleaded with him to answer.
Guma Aguiar's Disappearance
Stoner reached a Coast Guard petty officer by phone and asked him to initiate a search-and-rescue operation. He relayed some information from the boat's GPS history: a fast trajectory from Aguiar's house about two miles northeast into the dark ocean, a quick turnaround, and then a long, slow drift back to shore.
Bohm drove his patrol car over the Intracoastal Waterway and through the tony neighborhood of Rio Vista to the six-bedroom house that Aguiar shared with his wife and four children. Jamie, sharply beautiful at 33 with straight blond hair, told the officer that her husband's sudden disappearance that night was out of the ordinary. But she confessed their marriage was troubled.
Jamie and Aguiar had met in the 1990s at Westminster Academy, a nearby Christian high school. After college, with direction from a wealthy uncle, he had traveled to Texas and made more money than he'd ever imagined. But a success story would be too simple for this man, who held himself to impossible standards. He embraced Orthodox Judaism seemingly overnight just before he made his millions and then spent a good deal of that money on the people and land of Jerusalem, becoming famous in Israel. Some people saw him as an erratic narcissist; others viewed him as a devout philanthropist, even as disputes over his largess became too big to ignore.
Jamie told police they'd had a fraught conversation earlier that day, the latest in a series of fights. He kept asking if she was filing for divorce and, if not, why she was crying. She told him that she had not filed and that they would sit and talk when she got home.
But when she arrived, he was already gone. The nanny said she had seen him leave in a hurry around 7:30 p.m., after kissing his children goodbye. His wife found his wedding ring in the house.
In the first hours of the following morning, the Coast Guard began searching up and down the surrounding waterways. Police on ATVs fanned out across the beach. The search would continue for three days.
If a body or an article of clothing had washed ashore or if he were found delirious on a beach somewhere, the story would have petered out: another eccentric millionaire gone overboard. But for months, the only signs of Aguiar would be what he left behind. Reporters from New York to Jerusalem combed through court records and yearbooks, trying to determine what drove him onto his boat that night. After a life of perfectionism, anger, and jet-setting philanthropy, the most amazing thing he ever did was disappear.
Guma Leandro Aguiar was born in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, the statue that stands over the hills of Rio de Janeiro. When he was an infant, his parents converted to the evangelical Christian practice taking hold in traditionally Catholic Brazil in the mid-'70s. His father was Otto de Souza Aguiar, a strikingly handsome Brazilian model and muralist. The family moved to America when Guma was 2 years old.
Otto Aguiar continued to work scenes of Brazil into his paintings: a glimpse of curving shoreline through a gilded window or lush mountains behind a couple dining on a balcony. But his children grew up American. The family settled in Pompano Beach, and his Brazilian passport was Guma's strongest link to the country of his birth. Otto turned to public and corporate commissions for his paintings as a source of income, but he suffered from multiple sclerosis and was in pain and poor health for much of Guma's life.
Although his mother, Ellen, embraced Christianity, she was from a Jewish family with New York roots. Her younger brother, Thomas Kaplan, followed a lofty path, earning three degrees from Oxford University and then turning from history to economics and launching an investment career that would eventually bring him great riches.
Young Guma earned money at the country clubs as a caddy and attempted perfection on the tennis court. When he was about 13, his parents signed him up for a tennis academy in Deerfield Beach. Aguiar went to the courts every day after school and continued going after he enrolled at Westminster Academy, a strict Christian high school near his home.
Aguiar would practice relentlessly and often excel, but he would tense up after losing a couple of points, according to his old instructor, Gary Kesl. After a bad match, he couldn't forgive himself. When Ellen Aguiar was in the stands watching her son play, it seemed to distract him even more. Kesl remembers pulling Aguiar aside and telling him to imagine he was sitting at the top of the fence, watching himself get angry. Then he could accept the anger, forget about it, and focus once more on the fundamentals of the game.
When Aguiar was 18, Kesl drove him to Vero Beach for a tournament, the last boys' match of the year in his age group. The opponent was someone Aguiar had beaten in nine of ten games. Everyone expected him to win easily, but Aguiar seemed consumed by the pressure of high expectations and lost the match that day. Kesl says it hurt the young man deeply.
Aguiar, like all the other kids in Kesl's program, got into college on a tennis scholarship. But the instructor was worried about the sensitive player's future with the tough-talking coach at Clemson University. "He took things to heart... to the point that it really affected his tennis," Kesl says. Aguiar, a quick study who made good grades, dropped out of Clemson after a year.
Kaplan, his uncle, then steered him toward a few opportunities not available to the average college dropout.
Kaplan had become a successful New York commodities investor with an interest in several oil, gas, and mineral companies. He was also influential in the New York Jewish community. (Today he is president of the board of directors of the 92nd Street Y, a prestigious Jewish social club.) His success had been largely influenced by Judaism. According to a 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek profile, "In 1988, Kaplan was completing his dissertation... and earning extra money analyzing Israeli companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. The work involved traveling to Israel, and while there, Kaplan connected with two people who would shape the rest of his life." One was his future wife. The other was an Israeli investor who became close to Kaplan and later hired him as a junior trading partner back in New York.
Just as Kaplan had been mentored, he in turn mentored his nephew Aguiar, giving him both a leg up and an education in Judaism. Like Kaplan, Aguiar studied history for a while at Oxford University. He went to work as a trader on Wall Street, near the investment firms run by his uncle. He began to work for his uncle in 2001, monitoring Kaplan's family investments.
But first, the young man had to get things straight with God.
According to Jewish law, Aguiar was Jewish because of his maternal descent. But at Westminster Academy, he'd been taught that those who had not accepted Jesus were sinners. One day when Aguiar was in his 20s, he decided to confront the contradiction head-on. He found a rabbi named Tovia Singer, who had made a name for himself by launching counterattacks at Christian missionaries looking to convert Jews.
Singer remembers receiving a call on his cell phone one evening about a decade ago. An angry Aguiar was on the phone, demanding to know how Singer justified undoing the good work of Christian missionaries. How could he read the Bible and not accept Jesus as Lord? Singer pulled into a Toys "R" Us parking lot and started a series of long conversations that would last all weekend. Aguiar argued that Jesus was the true son of God; Singer countered that he'd been falsely promoted as a messiah due to mistranslations of Hebrew in ancient texts. The two spoke on and off for the rest of the weekend, going through the Bible together, line by line. Aguiar was interested — this conversation may have provided the factual base he needed to turn back to his family's older faith.
"He took in every piece of information, and there was no emotional element about it," Singer says. Aguiar analyzed Bible verses like stock picks, looking for truth. After this research, he embraced Judaism full-on. "The change in Guma happened very quickly," Singer says.
Aguiar showed up on the doorstep of Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Lauderdale, an Orthodox synagogue near the beach, shortly after his grandmother died in 2002. Chabad Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidic Judaism that follows a series of "rebbes," or spiritual elders — something of an unusual choice for a Jew just starting to worship. He told the rabbi, Moishe Meir Lipszyc, he wanted to pray in his grandmother's memory and learn about his own Jewish background.
After the Friday-night service, Lipszyc invited Aguiar and two friends to Sabbath dinner at his house. Together they took the 15-minute walk there, because the rabbi couldn't drive on the holy day. Over dinner, they talked about the Bible. "Guma is a bloody genius," Lipszyc says. "He knew the New Testament better than I knew the Old Testament."
Aguiar returned to the synagogue in the following weeks. The rabbi says he wanted to know what kind of real guidance the Jewish religion provided, outside of temple services and special meals. The rabbi told him not to worry.
"The Jewish religion is 24 hours a day," he remembers telling Aguiar. "The Bible says that you should go to sleep on your left side and wake up on your right side."
Aguiar told Lipszyc of his growing business partnership with his uncle and said the two were looking for investment opportunities. The rabbi could tell that Aguiar was poised to make it big. This made it even more remarkable to him that the man was in his temple, looking for direction before worldly success. "Coming from poor and hitting it rich, you do not usually make a stop by God in the middle," the rabbi says.
Aguiar stayed faithful to his newfound Jewish God as he set out to make his fortune — just as he would, years later, when he ventured alone into the Atlantic Ocean.
Buried deep beneath the Texas prairies about halfway between Houston and Dallas, an ancient riverbed runs to the edge of a limestone shelf. Millions of years ago, when the river flowed on the earth's surface, its force drove sand over the edge of the cliff, to pile up in large deposits. By 2003, the layers of earth above the riverbed had already been drilled for natural gas with limited success. But the deeper deposits, called Deep Bossier sand, were largely unexplored.
John Amoruso, a former president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, had begun researching possible oil and gas reserves on his own. He had a pretty good idea there would be loads of natural gas trapped in that high-pressure pileup. It was a long shot, a "frontier play," and to test his theory, he would need someone with a lot of money and a tolerance for risk.
Amoruso was looking over some drilling logs one day at the Gulf Coast Geological Library in downtown Houston. He ran into an old associate who wanted to introduce him to someone interested in investing in "wildcat," or unproven, drilling ventures. The associate gestured to the corner, where Aguiar was looking at some maps.
Aguiar had come down to Houston as a representative for his uncle. Kaplan was convinced the world would face shortages of fossil fuels and wanted to tap the market by drilling for undiscovered reserves. So he sent Aguiar down as his "eyes and ears," scouting opportunities.
"I packed up my truck, moved down to Houston, drove out West, got an apartment at Eldridge and Westheimer, and started looking for projects," Aguiar told the Houston Chronicle in 2006.
A few weeks after the introduction in the library, Aguiar showed up at Amoruso's office. Amoruso explained his bid for the Deep Bossier in more detail, and Aguiar seemed to understand every word. "He was a down-to-earth fellow and a quick study," Amoruso recalls. "What we told him, he grasped and understood."
Aguiar called his uncle and told him what he had found. It was exactly what Kaplan had been looking for. Soon, the uncle-and-nephew team were buying land in Robertson County, amassing around 30,000 acres through a new company named Leor Exploration. Kaplan owned it; Aguiar was its CEO, earning a salary. The speculation went into high gear when they got wind of a deep-pocketed competitor, Burlington Resources, buying land in the same area. That drove land values way up. A Canadian drilling company called EnCana offered to invest in return for a share of the company.
In 2005, Aguiar married Jamie. They already had one child, Jacob, born in January of that year. Although they had known each other since high school and had dated for five years, they still signed a prenuptial agreement, which listed Jamie as having assets of $16,500 and Guma as having $3.5 million, mostly in cash, stocks, and a Fort Lauderdale house. Later, when their marriage faltered, Jamie would accuse Guma of having hidden from her the fortune he was about to make from Leor. The prenup made no mention of the windfall that would follow.
According to Jamie, seven days after they signed the agreement, Kaplan made Aguiar a 10-percent partner. Aguiar, who just a few years earlier had been helping retirees with their tennis strokes, suddenly had wealth and power. By 2007, he had hired a high-school tennis mate, Graydon Oliver, and his brother-in-law, Corey Drew. Kaplan later said Aguiar doled out payments to sister Angelika Aguiar Drew and others, spending the company's cash as he saw fit.
In the fall of 2007, with the ventures raking in money, EnCana offered to buy out Kaplan and Aguiar. The price for all of Leor's holdings in the newly dubbed "Amoruso Field": $2.55 billion.
Ten percent of that — $255 million — was enough to make Aguiar a very rich man. He started spending money on luxury items like cars and boats. And increasingly, he turned his focus to Judaism.
Aguiar got Jamie to convert. He began traveling to Israel frequently and buying properties in Jerusalem.
He introduced his father to Rabbi Lipszyc. Otto Aguiar had been desperate for a cure for his pain, traveling back and forth to Brazil in the later years of his life for apitherapy treatments, in which he was injected with 60 stings' worth of bee venom. Just before Otto died on a bed in Holy Cross Hospital in 2006, he said he wanted to be buried in Israel, though he'd never converted.
Guma also brought his mother and siblings into the fold. He even set one Jerusalem house aside as a gift to his mother. In 2007, he sent an email to her: "I have enclosed some pictures of your apartment in Jerusalem... I hope you love the beautiful 360-degree sweeping views from the 'veranda...' I always promised you a 'comfortable' place to retire to," he wrote.
Aguiar was as intense and impulsive as ever, but now his efforts could make a difference. In what is now the "Guma Aguiar Family Campus" of Chabad Lubavitch in the Galt Ocean Mile stretch of Fort Lauderdale, Lipszyc recalls a time when Aguiar overheard him talking about a troublesome personal debt of $10,000. The next week, there was a check for $10,000 in the collection box. Lipszyc says Aguiar once went to the hospital to sit for an entire Sabbath with a Brazilian man he did not know; perhaps he was reminded of his father. The rabbi says Aguiar appeared on his doorstep at 2:30 one morning; he wanted to go out and feed the homeless. So the two of them went to Publix and bought rotisserie chickens, then traipsed around the neighborhood to find hungry people. One homeless man said he wanted cigarettes and beer, not food. So Guma was off to the convenience store. When he couldn't help someone who asked, the rabbi says, Aguiar would torture himself over it.
He pressured his wealthy uncle to donate more to Jewish causes. Kaplan's chief project was Panthera, an organization that works to preserve big-cat habitat and encourage species reproduction. One of Aguiar's associates remembers his grousing about Kaplan's wasting time and money as a "jaguar gynecologist." The associate says that Kaplan eventually got wind of the comment and that this would later drive the two apart.
On March 6, 2008, a Palestinian gunman shot into a crowd of students at the Mercaz HaRav religious school in Jerusalem, killing eight. That night, just after midnight, Aguiar called the man who had talked him into Judaism, Tovia Singer, who had become a close friend. "Let's move to Israel," he said. Singer, who had plenty of family there, agreed and booked flights for each of them to depart the next day. Aguiar brought over his wife and young children as well. Both men would continue to divide their time between Jerusalem and the United States.
A year later, Aguiar became famous when he offered to invest several million dollars in the popular but ailing Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. He followed up a few months later with an investment in the city's biggest basketball team. For Israelis, Aguiar's good looks and macho optimism were a welcome break from the backroom scandals of team ownership. Newspaper headlines referred to him simply as "Guma."
Singer said that women began to throw themselves at Aguiar. Jamie would later allege that he had multiple mistresses. Friends knew him to smoke pot. Lipszyc said Guma did not see relaxing as being at odds with his religion. He recalls Aguiar telling him once, "Even when I'm partying, God is with me."
It was the tennis match at Vero Beach all over again: Everyone was watching, expecting Aguiar to win. For a while, it seemed as if he would.
Aguiar and Kaplan had cashed out and made their fortune in 2007, but by 2009, their relationship had dissolved and Kaplan filed two lawsuits against his nephew.
One, in Broward County Circuit Court, alleged that Aguiar had mishandled donations from Kaplan to a foundation in memory of his mother, Lillian Kaplan. Another, in federal court, accused Aguiar of committing fraud relating to the proceeds from their oil- and gas-drilling windfall. Kaplan wanted damages and to strip Aguiar of all the money he had made as a partner.
As Kaplan told it in the lawsuit, Aguiar's adventure in Texas was little more than a research errand for Kaplan. "Kaplan instructed Aguiar to identify potential oil and gas leaseholds," read the legal complaint. "To accomplish this, Aguiar spoke with Kaplan on a daily basis, during which he received instructions, discussed prospects, was tutored on the processes to be followed... and received approval for purchases."
Moreover, Kaplan said Aguiar had frittered away the exploration venture's money. This included claims that Aguiar had used the money to obtain a personal bodyguard, to pay his friend for "personal services," and to pay Jamie $100,000 as a "consulting fee." The most striking accusation mentioned in both suits: "that Aguiar has come to believe he is the messiah, and has diverted funds in part to support his messianic mission."
Aguiar did seem to be losing a grasp on where his real success ended and his dreams began. He had started telling people he was owner of Beitar Jerusalem rather than just a donor. In a 2009 interview, he had said, "I expect I'm the richest man in Israel, and I'm still growing. Whatever I do succeeds. Nobody can buy me."
Aguiar hired a filmmaker, Jerry Levine, to follow him through Florida and Israel, making a series of documentaries about his life and work. Aguiar wanted to write his own story, apart from the hounding media. Levine says Aguiar told him that "he was tired of being this guy making money for other people." In the Houston Chronicle interview, he described his venture in Texas with Leor Exploration as "a one-man show where I was the CEO, CFO, secretary, treasurer, plumber, and land man."
Even his charity often had an extreme, go-for-broke quality. When some members of Chabad wanted to travel to New York to visit the grave of a spiritual leader, he chartered a huge plane and brought bag lunches for everybody. When they were laid over in Moscow on a religious pilgrimage and needed to shower, he rented out dozens of hotel rooms for a few hours. Levine recalls, "One time, he had 14 seats on the floor for an [NBA] playoff game. That's a little over-the-top."
Aguiar had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the filmmaker saw periods of dark depression. "Unfortunately, I've seen him at his best and I've seen him at his worst too," Levine says. "That same sort of aggressiveness and drive, that ambitious focus, could be turned [to] work against him. Now all of a sudden, [he was] spending 20 hours a day doing stupid things."
In June 2009, Aguiar was arrested for erratic driving and marijuana possession. Police officers later reported he acted violent in custody and told them he would "take [their] jobs and [their] families."
Rabbi Singer concedes that Aguiar might have had a big ego but believes that if he ever called himself a messiah, it was just because he saw himself as a devoted servant of God improving the world. "Guma said to me: 'I don't care if I'm the messiah or if I bring him his coffee in the morning. I just want it to happen.'"
Late on a Wednesday night in January 2010, an ambulance accompanied by two police cars drove to the house in Tel Aviv where Aguiar was staying with a friend, according to the newspaper Haaretz, and transported him to a mental hospital south of the city.
Earlier that day, he had made some strange statements during one of his many interviews with a local paper, implying that he had ventured into the embattled Gaza Strip to single-handedly free imprisoned Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit had been abducted by Palestinians in 2006; he was the first such hostage since 1994, and fighting for his release had become a national cause.
"He's at one of my properties," Aguiar reportedly said. "I have saved thousands of people, not only Gilad Shalit." To the media, it was an outlandish boast; to Jamie, it was just the latest outburst and a source of major embarrassment for the family. (Shalit was eventually released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians jailed by Israel.) She arranged by court order to have him committed, cooperating with his mother to declare him mentally unstable. The family released a statement, blaming the incident on stress from his uncle's lawsuit.
At home, the marriage was fraying. In June 2011, Jamie had Aguiar arrested for domestic violence while she was pregnant with their fourth child. Jamie said he threatened to take their kids to Israel, cease contact with her, and "put a bullet" in her father's head. She claimed he had multiple mistresses and had given one of them her clothes.
The next month, Guma filed for divorce, giving no official explanation other than that the marriage was "irretrievably broken," a standard legal term. The divorce petition said assets should be divided according to the prenuptial agreement — the one that was written before Aguiar came into his drilling windfall.
Guma eventually backed down, and the divorce did not go through. Last spring, Jamie, who had lawyered up on her own, fired back with a lawsuit saying Aguiar had admitted to concealing his expected wealth when drafting the prenup. In court papers, she cited his manic-depressive, sometimes-violent mental history.
While his wife described him as unstable, Aguiar's uncle argued that Aguiar knew what he was doing and was competent to face lawsuits. To settle the matter, the judge on the federal case ordered Aguiar's mental-health records from Israel to be made available to Kaplan's legal team. That order went through on June 18 of this year.
The next night, Aguiar disappeared.
Footage from a security camera at Aguiar's home shows him pacing back and forth on the outdoor walkways, barefoot, wearing a gray-green T-shirt and black shorts, around 6:30 p.m. He holds his phone to his ear for an instant and then looks around. Later, another camera catches his boat, the T.T. Zion, leaving its berth in the canal.
A boat captain who had been performing a burial at sea during the rough weather told police that he saw the T.T. Zion moving at high speeds, "wave-jumping" over the swells, as it headed into open water.
The GPS log shows a quick, straight course northeast. Then, in a tight diagonal loop, the boat turned abruptly and stopped moving. This is where it began drifting back to shore. Later, police found that the tie bar connecting the two engines had snapped, which they say might have caused the boat to move erratically.
Levine, the filmmaker who was helping Aguiar write his story, says aloud what some people still cannot: that Aguiar fell off the boat accidentally and drowned. "I think he had a really bad day and made some bad decisions: to take the boat out when the weather was bad and not to wear a life vest."
But for some reason, that story isn't enough for the public and those who knew Aguiar. It seems too mundane, too accidental, for a man who moved as strongly as Aguiar. Maybe he was murdered. Maybe he was kidnapped. Maybe he committed suicide. Maybe he was picked up by some mysterious accomplice. His body has not been found, and police continue to treat the case as an open missing-person investigation.
"There was a time when I was really hoping that he was here, in a hotel somewhere in Fort Lauderdale, just watching the show," Levine says.
"I don't know what happened out there. But I will hope like mad," John Amoruso, the geologist, says.
"He had every incentive to get away," Rabbi Tovia Singer says.
"I would love to see Guma in the South of France, living the good life. Just leaning back, letting life come to him a little bit," Gary Kesl, the tennis coach, says.
"I believe very strongly that his soul is at peace," Rabbi Lipszyc says. "I believe that he's been released from all these tests that he had. I hope and pray that wherever he is, he's OK — and not torturing himself."
The recovered boat showed no signs of a struggle, but there were indications of what might have happened onboard. He had removed the keys and wallet from his pockets. But investigators would find one other thing on the boat: a Jewish tefillin, or collection of scrolls to be worn close to the body during morning prayer. These ancient, leather-bound words of the Torah, which are never allowed to touch the ground, accompanied Guma as he sped away into the ocean, heading toward the horizon under darkening skies, the lights of Fort Lauderdale receding in his wake.
He clearly planned something big that night. We may never know what.
News reports since his disappearance have centered on the legal dispute over his remaining fortune, which has been claimed by his uncle, mother, and wife. Ellen Aguiar moved to take control of his assets immediately after he was reported missing, and Jamie fought back. Attorneys began to tie up the various credit cards and accounts through which Aguiar had diffused his money and enthusiasm in Jerusalem. The bulk of his money — Guma's fortune is roughly $100 million, according to his mother — is currently under the control of two court-appointed conservators — big-shot lawyer Tom Panza and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, who is also an attorney.
It's unknown what will become of Aguiar's empire. His wife, Jamie, put their house on the market and tried to keep her and her children's names out of the papers. Each tense hearing between mother and wife draws spectators, looking for something like an answer to the disappearance of a bigger-than-life philanthropist.
Even the Sun-Sentinel, which has diligently revealed new developments in the court cases, has pondered the possibility that Aguiar escaped. "If Aguiar disappeared on purpose, he may want to note that many have tried in Florida, and most have failed," the paper wrote. Aguiar's bank statements, his family, his legacy — everything is in a mess. In a world like this, his final act looks almost like perfection.
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