Skepticism in air at hearing over missing multimillionaire Aguiar

Nine days after a multimillionaire went missing at sea, his wife, mom and a battery of lawyers filled a Broward courtroom to squabble over his business affairs.

06/28/2012 5:00 AM

06/29/2012 7:56 AM

Guma Aguiar, the Fort Lauderdale multimillionaire who went fishing nine days ago and never returned, may have staged his own disappearance to escape possible bankruptcy, his deteriorating marriage and a mountain of legal troubles, including accusations that he had illegally hacked into his uncle’s computer.

That was one of several theories posed in Broward County Probate Court Thursday afternoon as some South Florida’s most powerful lawyers paraded their thick briefcases before a judge assigned to decide who should have control of what’s left of the 35-year-old oil tycoon’s vast fortune.

On one side of the courtroom was Aguiar’s striking wife, Jamie, sobbing, with her flamboyant lawyer, political power broker William Scherer, laying out a story of Aguiar’s lavish but troubled life.

On the other side was Aguiar’s mother, Ellen, solemn and regal, and accompanied by her soft-spoken Miami attorney, Richard Baron.

And beside them and behind them, a courtroom filled with lawyers in crisply starched suits, all of whom one way or another have had their hands in Guma Aguiar’s investments, lawsuits, trusts and myriad convoluted financial problems that apparently had been bleeding the brilliant, but mentally ill entrepreneur dry.

Aguiar, who made a fortune in oil and natural gas, left his Rio Vista mansion about 7:30 p.m. June 19, aboard his 31-foot fishing boat, the T.T. Zion. The water was choppy and the weather was inclement. At about 1:15 a.m., the vessel ran aground on Fort Lauderdale beach, with its lights on and its engine running, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. His cell phone and wallet were on board, but Aguiar was gone. The Coast Guard called off the search after 72 hours and he has been officially declared missing.

Within days, his wife and mother had filed competing legal motions to take control of his fortune, estimated at about $100 million. Both said they were concerned about his money and his assets being stripped away from him as lawyers and others continued to handle his affairs with no oversight.

Broward County Probate Judge Mark Speiser, noting the packed courtroom, quipped: “This is definitely not a typical probate case. We usually only have about five people in the courtroom.”

In the end, neither the wife nor the mother won control of the estate. Lawyers on both sides agreed that one of Aguiar’s former attorneys, Glenn Goldstein, would be best suited to mediate the family’s massive legal bills. Most of his assets are already being handled by Northern Trust N.A., which had been designated by Aguiar as a personal representative of his estate under his will. However, no decision has been made as to who will handle some $40 million in real estate and investments in Israeli soccer and basketball teams that Scherer said were in danger of bankrupting the family, which includes four young children.

Despite all his wealth, Aguiar suffered from severe bipolar disorder and had been institutionalized several times, leading him to lose control of his businesses.

Scherer, his wife’s attorney, said that Aguiar had lost more than half of the $200 million he had acquired from selling an energy company he ran with his uncle, Thomas Kaplan. At least $20 million had been spent on attorney’s fees in a long, drawn-out legal war, still pending, with his uncle at the time he vanished. Among other things, Aguiar was under investigation for hacking into his uncle’s computer to illegally access legal documents critical to the case.

Aguiar was also distraught over his six-year-marriage. Jamie Aguiar, 33, in April had filed a petition to void the couple’s prenuptial agreement, and had threatened to divorce him. But Scherer said Thursday that the couple was still very much in love, and that she had no plans to file for divorce.

So, what happened to Aguiar and why?

Fort Lauderdale police, who are investigating the disappearance, have not found any signs of foul play and thus far have not issued any search warrants or interviewed close business associates.

Scherer said that police erred by turning over Aguiar’s cell phone to his mother the day after he went missing. The phone, Scherer said, may likely provide key clues as to Aguiar’s movements before his disappearance. Now that evidence could very well be tainted.

“There could have been some very important information on that cell phone,” Scherer said outside the courtroom, adding that Jamie Aguiar has already hired private detectives to try to find out what happened, hoping for the best.

“We think there has to be a trail. It’s up to us to find it.”

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