For weeks, Carlos Aguilar made the 350-mile trip to Gainesville to continue the agonizing search for his missing son, Christian Aguilar, a University of Florida freshman.
But on Saturday, after the worrying and waiting, the father and family rushed to Levy County an hour outside of Gainesville. They came after the discovery of a body in the woods, likely that of Aguilar, the beloved teenager who united strangers in South Florida and Gainesville in a relentless but futile three-week search.
More than anything, Carlos Aguilar wanted to bring his son home.
Volunteers from across the state combed dense patches of woods, but it was 60 miles southwest of the campus town that hunters scouring for firewood discovered the body of a young man on a rural dirt road, with blue jeans and blue Van sneakers — clothing that matches the description of what Aguilar was wearing when he disappeared Sept. 20.
“Our prayers have been heard,’’ Carlos Aguilar said of his first born. “We as a family, we believe that Christian has been found but we will wait until the authorities confirm it… We are having the honor to take Christian back home and have his funeral.’’
Aguilar, a soft-spoken property manager who personally searched for his son since the day after he disappeared, told members of the media late Saturday — as supporters gathered for a candlelight vigil back home in Miami — that he wanted to express his gratitude to those who showed up for Christian.
“We want to thank every single person that supported our family during this horrible time, during this pain, during this agony,’’ he said, his voice unsteady as his wife, Claudia, sobbed by his side. “If it wasn’t for the prayers, for the support, for all those angels that came through …”
The two hunters, searching on the grounds of the Gulf Hammock Hunting Club near Cedar Key, noticed a horrible stench and stumbled onto a skull and decomposing body on Friday afternoon. They thought it was a dead deer and hurried over, thinking they’d remove the antlers. While it will take a few days to make an official identification, police are fairly certain it’s Aguilar.
Gainesville police, who are leading the investigation, are assisting the Levy County Sheriff’s Office in the forensic processing of the body. They do not expect an official confirmation before Tuesday.
“It looked like somebody tried to bury it, unsuccessfully,’’ Fred Oliver, a volunteer with the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, said Saturday. “They [the hunters] saw the skull, realized it was face down, and they realized it was not an animal.’’
The partially buried, partially decomposed body was left in an obscured area near Otter Creek, where the ground is particularly hard and tough to dig.
“I knew this was coming, but it’s still unexpected. This just makes everything real,’’ said Nicole Montero, a high school friend who had traveled to Gainesville twice to help with the search. “Christian brought together so many communities. This just breaks my heart.”
Now, the tedious task of piecing together the 18-year-old’s last hours begins. What is known is that he went out to Best Buy with Pedro Bravo, his high school friend from Doral Academy Preparatory, to buy a Kanye West CD.
Bravo, an 18-year-old Santa Fe College student, has been indicted by an Alachua County grand jury on murder and kidnapping charges. He remains in the Alachua County Jail.
Arrested four days after Aguilar’s disappearance, Bravo later told police he beat Aguilar and left him bleeding and barely breathing in a parking lot. He said the two had a dispute over Aguilar’s girlfriend, who Bravo dated previously.
But police never found any evidence of the fight or signs of Aguilar in a massive search that spanned the southwest section of the city. Day after day, hundreds of people — most of whom never met Aguilar — showed up along with police agencies, cadaver dogs and mounted units from across Florida. Gov. Rick Scott joined the search two weeks ago.
They crisscrossed woods and marshes, parking lots and alleys for any sign of Aguilar. Even as the search grid shifted and the headquarters changed location, volunteers came, from students to soldiers to grandparents.
“While some people still hoped to find Christian alive, the unfortunate reality is going to sink in,’’ said Gainesville police spokesman Ben Tobias. “I’m glad the family is finally going to get some closure.”
The case drew national attention and inspired a Facebook page — now with more than 14,000 followers — to spread the news about Aguilar and support his family.
For those who didn’t know him, they learned that Aguilar was a bright, popular teen who walked on the University of Florida’s campus with dreams of becoming a biomedical engineer. He loved YouTube videos, reruns of Scrubs and the character Iron Man.
Just Thursday, three vigils were held concurrently: in Miami, Gainesville and Cali, Colombia, the western city where Aguilar’s family is originally from.
And on Saturday as the grim news spread, some gathered at Doral’s J.C. Bermudez Park for another candlelight vigil, including Diego Aguilar, Christian’s uncle.
Parents, children and community leaders marched around a pond in Aguilar’s honor.
“We’re all saddened and taken aback from this,” said Douglas Rodriguez, principal of Doral Academy Preparatory School. “Christian was excellent, he was one of the best.”
Organized mostly via Facebook, students and parents sold t-shirts, food and admissions bracelets, the proceeds of which will go to the family.
“I know they’re trying to be strong,” said Stephanie Rincon, a Doral Academy student who helped organize the event. “It’s been a struggle."
Rincon is one of many students who traveled to Gainesville to search for Aguilar. “It was hard because you go up there thinking that you will find something,” she said.
In Gainesville, William H. Russell Jr., a minister who led the city’s vigil, said this: “We learned so much about Christian. This is a great loss, someone who any one of us would be proud to know.’’
Russell knows something about the pain of the unknown. His own son, 16 at the time, ran away for three months. He still remembers the grueling routine of passing out fliers and imagining the worst.
“We were touched by Christian,’’ he said. “People who did not know each other went searching for him and they returned and hugged and cried together and prayed together and hoped that somehow he would be found alive.’’
Miami Herald staff writer Diana Moskovitz and Mike Finch II, as well as Chris Alcantara and Benjamin Brasch of The Independent Florida Alligator in Gainesville contributed to this story.