In the middle of that first night, Carlos Aguilar trekked through the woods in northwest Gainesville searching for his firstborn.
With a few close friends and family members, a wooden stick, a single flashlight and his unyielding faith, the Miami father of missing teen Christian Aguilar searched among puddles and trees and layers of fallen leaves until just hours before sunrise.
He frantically called out into the night “Papi! Papi!”
“I wasn’t even prepared for a search, I just needed to get out there and look for my child,” Aguilar, 45, said of the late Friday night search. “I just kept hoping I would hear Christian’s voice. Even his cry, because that would mean he was injured, but alive.”
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It has been a week since Aguilar received a phone call about the disappearance of his son, an 18-year-old student who had arrived on the University of Florida campus 55 days earlier with dreams of becoming a biomedical engineer.
Now, Aguilar has become the paternal head of a movement to find Christian. He and members of his large, close-knit family — originally from Cali, in western Colombia — spend the days almost 350 miles from home, held captive by the uncertainty of Christian’s fate. For the past few days, a county fairground has become the buzzing command center for the case.
The searches continue everyday, groups of strangers and friends and relatives from as far as Simpsonville, S.C., all on a mission to find Christian. By foot, by car, in the air and on mounted horses, police have led teams across 10 square miles, in wooded fields, parking lots, along rural roadways, behind businesses, in alleys.
Carlos Aguilar is no longer participating, now staying at the fairgrounds to be close to police.
So he and family sit under a pitched white tent on the grounds and wait. And pray. And wait.
“I have asked the officials if they can provide us a priest who can come see us,” said Aguilar, who is Catholic. “And I just keep praying to God that Christian is OK and that he is not somewhere suffering.”
His wife, Claudia, 41, rarely speaks publicly about the case. She kept busy Thursday handing out more fliers. When she allowed herself to sit for the moment, the words trickled out slowly.
“I am holding on, just trying to be strong for my family,” she whispered before retuning to the task.
Christian Aguilar was last seen Sept. 20 with Pedro Bravo, a close friend and former Doral Academy Preparatory School classmate who attends nearby Sante Fe College. Bravo was arrested Monday, charged with depriving a crime victim of medical treatment. He told police the two had fought and he left Aguilar bloody and barely breathing. He is in the Alachua County Jail, held on a $100,000 bond.
As the first week stretches into the second, Carlos Aguilar’s life has fallen into a grim routine: restless nights, followed by morning searches, endless media interviews, and hours of emptiness in between.
“I don’t really know the words to describe this nightmare. It’s a tragedy. A sad story,” he says, clutching the beaded rosary given to him by a stranger several days ago.
Aguilar came to the United States when he was 19 years old. Like his son, he too dreamed of attending college. He wanted to become a journalist, but without money he abandoned those plans, finding odd work at hotels in Miami. He saved his money and soon sent for his wife, whom he had known since they were children living in the same Cali neighborhood. He later became a property manager and Claudia works at a freight company. They live in a three-bedroom townhouse in West Miami-Dade.
The couple married in October 1992 and Christian was born just over a year later.
“My firstborn,” he says, his words trailing off. He takes a moment to compose himself, tugging at the bill of his baseball hat to shield the tears. “He was such a special baby, a gift, which is why we named him Christian. He changed my life, because he made me care about my, our, future.”
Overwhelmed, Aguilar turns to his younger son, Alexander, asking him to talk about Christian.
Away from the chaos of searches that have drawn more than 200 police officers, canine and mounted units from across the state, Alexander remembers an older brother who loves the Gators, funny YouTube videos and reruns of Scrubs. Almost three years apart, they had shared a bunk bed for 12 years, and as young boys had idolized cartoon duos, especially Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story. Alexander said Christian’s favorite treat was Krispy Kreme glazed donuts; he had even changed his Instagram username to KrispyKremeChris.
“I put on a brave face, but when it’s quiet, I break down,” Alexander says. “The thought that he is still alive is what keeps us going.”
The family last saw Christian on Sunday, Sept. 16 when he made a surprise visit home. Eight days later, the Aguilar family went to Christian’s dorm room with police.
While there, Aguilar discovered a montage of family photos that Christian was apparently creating for his parent’s upcoming anniversary in October. “He had added words that talked about love being fulfilling,” Aguilar said. “It broke my heart when I read it.”
Miami Herald staff writer Diana Moskovitz contributed to this report.