In 2003, Guma Aguiar was a 26-year-old college dropout teaching tennis to wealthy Wall Street investors who wintered in South Florida.
Smart and charismatic, Aguiar inherited the model good looks and charm of his father, Otto de Souza Aguiar, a Brazilian artist whose colorful paintings graced the walls of Miami Beach’s City Hall.
The younger Aguiar, born in Brazil but raised mostly in South Florida, was a renaissance man like his father, but he had little interest in the art world.
Instead, he schooled himself on how to influence people and make money.
After a stint on Wall Street trading commodities, Aguiar joined his uncle, Thomas Kaplan, in Houston, where the two embarked on an ambitious venture. A geologist had steered them to some land in east Texas that contained large quantities of natural gas. They formed a company, Leor Energy, and began drilling, unearthing 2.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Forbes magazine. In 2007, they sold their company for $2.55 billion.
At the age of 31, Aguiar was a rich man, anointed Executive of the Year by Oil and Gas Investor Magazine. He was living a lavish life in a $5 million, six-bedroom waterfront mansion in Fort Lauderdale’s lush Rio Vista neighborhood. He and his high school sweetheart, Jamie Black, had four young children, 10 servants, two nannies and a $2.1 million yacht.
But Aguiar’s path from aimless college student to energy industrialist was filled with demons, both real and imagined.
On June 19, Aguiar, 35 — anguished over his tenuous marriage, locked in a vicious court battle with his uncle and struggling to hold onto his sanity — vanished.
He took his 31-foot fishing boat out to sea from Port Everglades in choppy seas and inclement weather. More than five hours later, the boat ran aground on Fort Lauderdale beach. Its engine was running, its lights were on, but no one was aboard.
It’s not clear whether Aguiar was swallowed by the sea, staged his disappearance, was kidnapped or murdered.
Fort Lauderdale police so far have found no signs of foul play, and sources say there’s no evidence his passport was used to leave the country.
Travis Mandell, a police spokesman, told reporters the next day that Aguiar got into the boat alone, “but that’s not to say he didn’t meet up with anyone.”
His mother and wife immediately filed court motions to take control of his $100 million estate, and have accused each other of using the tragedy to their own advantage. At a Broward probate court hearing Thursday, attorneys representing Aguiar’s mother said that under a codicil to her son’s will, his mother had been given power of attorney and named personal representative over his affairs. They also claimed that because Jamie Aguiar had been suing her husband for a piece of his fortune, appointing her in charge of his money would be a conflict of interest.
Jamie Aguiar’s lawyers, however, lashed out at his mother, saying that she was responsible for leading him down the road to despair, calling her an “enabler” who lived off of him while fanning the flames of the feud with his uncle, her brother. The tangle of lawsuits and lawyers had cost him half of his $200 million fortune, said Jamie Aguiar’s lawyer, William Scherer. And any documents he signed designating his mother in charge of his affairs were done when he was mentally unstable, Scherer told the judge.
In fact, Scherer said Aguiar may have been crazy enough to stage his disappearance to avoid possible court sanctions or criminal charges for allegedly hacking into Kaplan’s computer to obtain confidential legal and financial information critical to the case.
“His mother files motions in courts trying to take over everything while the divers were still out looking for his body,” Scherer said.
HIS LONGTIME STRUGGLE TO REMAIN STABLE
Despite all his success, Aguiar struggled to be stable for most of his life. He suffered from severe bipolar disorder, was arrested several times after bizarre tirades, institutionalized at least twice, and detained involuntarily for psychiatric evaluation under the state’s Baker Act a litany of times.
He divided his time between Fort Lauderdale and Israel after traveling there to explore his Jewish roots several years ago. He invested more than $40 million in Israeli properties and also owned large stakes in the country’s pro soccer and basketball teams. His charitable foundations donated millions to the country and he was on a first-name basis with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His friends and family say that despite his illness, Aguiar was a brilliant businessman whose star quality led him to rub elbows with presidents, heads of state and rock stars like Madonna.
“I look at Guma like a lion — powerful and determined — but with the nervous system of a thoroughbred race horse,” said his mother, Ellen Aguiar, 59.
Over the past year, as Guma’s mental health deteriorated, the family became concerned over sour business deals he had invested in and the possibility he was surrounding himself with people who were taking advantage of his scattered faculties.
“He was worried that people running his affairs were not loyal to him,” his mother said. And in the months before he disappeared, he spiraled out of control as if he was Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole.
His wife had filed a legal action to nullify their pre-nuptial agreement, which called for her to receive just $500,000 in the event their marriage ended. She also contended that her husband had deceived her about the net worth of the company he had sold.
At one point last year, she filed a restraining order against him after he assaulted her and her father, Scherer said Thursday. Jamie Aguiar declined to comment for this story on the advice of her attorney.
“There was a good Guma and a bad Guma,” Scherer said. The good Guma was generous, kind, a loving husband and father and made good business decisions.
The other Guma, however, wasted millions of dollars on ghost companies and sports teams, threatened his wife and once told police he planned to kidnap his children and take them to Israel.
“He was very fearful, he felt very alone,” said his mother, who had been trying for years to get him into a reputable long-term mental-health treatment facility. She believes that medicating her son only compounded his mental problems; he needed the kind of treatment that looked more deeply into the root cause.
At the time of his disappearance, he was being treated with various medications by Dr. Scott Segal of North Miami. Segal’s onetime assistant, Suzanne Faulkner, went to work for Guma Aguiar in September, and now serves as his company’s chief operating officer.
One day after Aguiar disappeared, Faulkner, acting on Jamie Aguiar’s behest, fired the company’s chief financial officer, a move that Ellen Aguiar contends was premature, given his knowledge of the company’s financial affairs.
Scherer, however, claimed that he was fired for falling asleep and not doing his job.
“All of the mother’s claims are preposterous,” Scherer said, adding that her actions drove a wedge between family members.
Guma’s relationship with his wife, on the other hand, was “a love story,” Scherer said. His last text to his wife, Scherer said, was “I love you.”
A QUESTIONABLE DAY TO TAKE A RIDE OUT THE SEA
Aguiar is shown on his home’s surveillance video leaving their mansion at 1500 SE 10th St. at 7:36 p.m. on July 19. A small-craft warning had been issued for winds 15 to 20 knots, with thunderstorms and seas of up to five feet. Aguiar kept his fishing boat docked behind his home, next to his 77-foot yacht, Zion.
Another video acquired by Fort Lauderdale police shows him taxiing out to sea, apparently alone in the vessel. Sources say that, at one point, he stopped his vessel, about five miles out and idled for a short time.
When the boat washed ashore about 1:15 a.m. near Las Olas, there was no blood, bait or fishing gear on the boat, but a tie bar connecting the outboard engines was broken, an element necessary to help keep a boat stable. Aguiar’s cellphone and wallet were on the boat.
Jamie Aguiar called her mother-in-law about 2 a.m., crying hysterically that she feared something had happened to her husband. The U.S. Coast Guard searched by air and sea for three days, but found no sign of Aguiar.
Richard Baron, Ellen Aguiar’s lawyer, said his client is doing all she can to help police, including hiring investigators. She is hoping that Fort Lauderdale police do a thorough investigation and don’t write her son’s disappearance off as a suicide or accident.
His boat was equipped with a GPS, which the police are analyzing.
Aguiar’s will has not been made public, but court papers say that he has about $100 million in assets, including their home, their yacht and seven vehicles worth $1.1 million.
“They were just like any normal family. I would bet that 99 percent of the people who knew them had no idea that they were a couple of hundred million richer than the rest of us,’’ said Fred Haddad, his attorney and friend.
Haddad and Aguiar’s sons played on the same soccer team, and Haddad said he was very involved with his children, whose ages range from 10 months to 7.
NASTY CONFRONTATION WITH LOCAL POLICE
Haddad represented Aguiar in an ugly domestic violence case in which the entrepreneur was charged with threatening police, stalking, corruption by threat and violation of a protective order.
According to the report, on June 11, 2011, Jamie Aguiar called police because her husband had been calling and texting her in violation of a court restraining order.
Aguiar, who was driving his 2009 black Mercedes, was pulled over at Southeast 12th Court, arrested and placed in the patrol car, where he proceeded to kick the windows, shouting profanities and threats. They also found a bag of suspected marijuana in his vehicle.
“I am going to start to hurt people seriously,’’ he hollered. “I sent my guys there to kill somebody if they were at my house, they will assassinate somebody.”
He told Fort Lauderdale police officers that he would kill them and burn down their station, and also threatened to take his kids to Israel to get them away from his wife.
Haddad said police were aware that Aguiar was mentally ill. Eventually, he was able to negotiate a plea deal in which Aguiar received probation. His family — including his wife — all rallied around him to get him help, Haddad said.
When he ran into Aguiar at a soccer game afterward, he seemed fine. And during his whole ordeal, Haddad said Aguiar was never suicidal or even despondent.
“I was shocked that he disappeared. He was a good boater. It is just a mystery.”