As friends and strangers, police officers and relatives trudged through thick brush Wednesday, bound by the single mission of finding University of Florida freshman Christian Aguilar, police revealed ominous details about the prime suspect in the disappearance, casting a pall over an increasingly grim search.
Police said Pedro Bravo, the last person seen with Aguilar, bought a shovel and duct tape days before Aguilar’s Sept. 20 disappearance. After searching the wooded fields around Gainesville, investigators have not found a shovel, tape or any other evidence.
Nor have they found any sign of Aguilar, an 18-year-old freshman who went to high school with Bravo at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in west Miami-Dade.
“It’s eating me alive to find out that Pedro could have actually planned this,” said father Carlos Aguilar, 45, of west Miami-Dade. “It’s hard to think about, but I still have faith and I am hoping my son is alive.”
Aguilar’s younger son, Alexander, 16, now a student at Doral Academy, said the newest development was “scary.”
“I am trying to stay positive, trying not to let myself think of the worst-case scenario,” he said Wednesday.
Bravo, a student at Gainesville’s Santa Fe College, told police that he fought with Aguilar, beating him for 10 to 15 minutes before leaving Aguilar “bloody, swollen and barely breathing or moving” in a wooded area, court records show.
Police arrested Bravo, also 18, on the rarely used charge of depriving a crime victim of medical care. Before his Monday arrest, Bravo took detectives to an area near a Gainesville motorcycle shop where he said he left Aguilar. Investigators found no sign of the missing student. Bravo has not spoken to detectives since his arrest.
Christian’s father said he still held out hope that his son is alive — injured and disoriented perhaps, or being held against his will.
“Police don’t have certainty of imminent death. We still believe there’s hope,” Carlos Aguilar said. But given the new details about Bravo, “we have to start thinking the worst.”
Aguilar and Bravo had once been best friends at Doral Academy, where they double-dated at Senior Prom. It’s unclear why they fought on Thursday, though Christian had begun dating Bravo’s ex-girlfriend, Erika Friman, also a Santa Fe student.
“My belief is this is not something related to a girl. . .Somebody is jealous that my son is living the dream that he couldn’t have,” Carlos Aguilar said. “This is devastating to both sides. This is a tragedy, no matter how you see it.”
Bravo’s parents had traveled to Gainesville earlier this week and offered to help out with the search for Aguilar, said Ron Kozlowski, an attorney for Bravo. But the parents were asked not to take part, for fear that it would create too much of a distraction, he said.
“These families have known each other,” Kozlowski said. “The [Bravo] parents, their hearts go out. They are praying that Chris is found.”
The Bravos have returned to Miami. But Aguilar’s father is hoping they will return to Gainesville, and he is even offering to help pay for it — sharing some of the donations that have poured in to support his family.
“I told them the only way I can have my son back is if Pedro answers more questions,” Carlos Aguilar said. “He may not do that if the parents are not here.”
After learning of Bravo’s purchase of the shovel and duct tape, Carlos Aguilar spoke again with Bravo’s parents.
“I spoke to Pedro’s parents about the new developments. They were very, very upset about the information and that they feel their son is being made out to be a monster,” he said. “As a parent, I had to tell them their son has been lying.”
The Bravos could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Based on Christian Aguilar’s cell phone information, police on Wednesday focused their search on a wooded stretch near the Gainesville Regional Airport.
Between 100 and 200 people have come out daily to help with the search — including students, supporters from South Florida, and police officers from around the state. Also, Texas Equusearch, the organization that launched massive searches for Caylee Anthony, joined the effort Wednesday.
Police said they will now double-back and search some areas again to look for a shovel.
“We’re going to continue the search until we don’t have any fresh information,” said Officer Ben Tobias, Gainesville Police spokesman.
Sam Schaller, 19, a freshman at Santa Fe, scanned the woods Wednesday with a machete, a canteen, a first aid kit and a walking stick, taking a break only to attend English class.
“I didn’t know either of the students, but I just thought if it were me, wouldn’t I want as many people as possible looking for me,” said Schaller, of Sarasota. “It felt like the right thing to do.”
Aguilar was last seen around 3 p.m. on Sept. 20 at a Best Buy store southwest of the university with Bravo. A security camera captured an image of the pair at the store.
Police said Aguilar’s last cell phone activity came at 8:14 that evening, when the phone was turned off. The phone has not been recovered.
Police first interviewed Bravo a day after Aguilar’s disappearance. He told detectives that he fought with Aguilar the night before, punching Aguilar in the face while the two rode in Bravo’s car, according to an arrest report.
Aguilar got out of the car, but Bravo followed him, tripped him, and jumped on Aguilar’s chest and continued beating him, the arrest report says.
Police interrogated Bravo for at least eight hours before he was admitted to a mental health facility under Florida’s Baker Act, Kozlowski said. Police said they had Bravo examined by psychiatrists after he made statements about killing himself. Bravo was transferred on Monday to the Alachua County Jail, where he is being held on $100,000 bail.
Bravo’s lawyers have argued that police are incorrectly applying the law against depriving a crime victim of medical care; they say the law only can apply if there is evidence that Bravo intentionally withheld medical care in an effort to obstruct a criminal investigation, but the police have no evidence that Bravo acted with intent.
Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this story.