GAINESVILLE — Police have charged 18-year-old Pedro Bravo with murder for the death of University of Florida freshman Christian Aguilar, though they still have not found a body.
Police announced the murder charge Friday evening, after hundreds of officers and volunteers searched around Gainesville for yet another day with the hope of finding Aguilar alive.
Before police publicly made the surprise announcement, a tearful Carlos and Claudia Aguilar, the parents of the missing student, quickly left the area where daily searches for their son had been staged.
Hours later, a grieving Carlos Aguilar said he still feels “my son is alive in my heart.’’
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“I don’t have any more tears right now, but the pain is in my chest,’’ he said.
Despite his pain, Aguilar said he will continue the search Saturday morning and is encouraging others to return to help.
“Because if we don’t find Christian’s body, unfortunately, [Pedro] can walk and I will not let that happen.’’
Even as police prepared to announce the charge, students were returning from searches, mostly on the southern end of Gainesville, where they combed wooded fields, roadways and parking lots for any sign of Aguilar, who has been missing since Sept. 20.
In announcing the murder charge, police did not provide details of the evidence they have compiled against Bravo, a former high school classmate and the last person seen with Aguilar before his disappearance.
Investigators did indicate that they believe Aguilar may have been buried in area near a lime rock roadway. Police asked any residents with lime rock roads on their property to search for disturbed ground.
Days before Aguilar disappeared, Bravo purchased a shovel and duct tape.
“The Gainesville Police Department will continue its search for Christian Aguilar and would still encourage citizens to volunteer to help us with that search,” said police spokesman Ben Tobias.
Bravo has been in police custody since police first questioned him about his former friend’s disappearance last week. He was initially arrested on the rarely used charge of depriving a crime victim of medical care, after telling police that he severely beat Aguilar and left him “barely breathing” in a parking lot near a Gainesville motorsports store, court records show.
Police searched numerous times in the area where Bravo said he left Aguilar, but found no sign of the missing student. Police then expanded the search to cover at least 10 square miles around Gainesville, with helicopters, ATVs and bloodhounds.
Ron Kozlowski, an attorney for Bravo, said he suspected the police may have moved more quickly with the murder charge because Bravo’s parents were planning to bail him out of jail, perhaps on Friday.
“I haven’t heard or seen anything new,” Kozlowski said of the murder charge. “Pedro’s whole family is wishing and hoping and praying that Chris is found. They feel just as helpless as everyone else.”
Bravo’s parents, who live west of Sweetwater, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Bravo began attending Gainesville’s Santa Fe College in August after graduating from Doral Academy Preparatory School in west Miami-Dade, where he was close friends with Aguilar. Both were fans of Iron Man, and both had aspirations to be biomedical engineers. But recently, Aguilar had begun dating Bravo’s ex-girlfriend, also a Santa Fe student.
On Sept. 20, Bravo and Aguilar were captured together on video surveillance around 3 p.m. at a Best Buy store southwest of the University of Florida campus.
Police interviewed Bravo the following day, after Aguilar was reported missing. Bravo told police that Aguilar was riding in Bravo’s Chevy Blazer when Bravo punched him and ordered him from the car, court records show. Bravo then jumped on Aguilar and beat him for 10 to 15 minutes, leaving Aguilar “bloody, swollen and barely breathing,” records show.
Police said they last spoke to Bravo on Friday, Sept. 21. Police checked Bravo into a mental health facility after he said he was considering harming himself. He has been held at the Alachua County Jail since Monday.
Earlier Friday, police made a public plea for any witnesses who may know about Bravo’s movements around the time Aguilar disappeared. Police said they could not account for Bravo’s whereabouts for a 17-hour period: from 3 p.m. on Sept 20 to 8 a.m. on Sept. 21.
Police have also asked for help from any witnesses who may have seen Bravo’s SUV, a blue two-door Chevy Blazer, during that time. The truck has front-end damage and mismatched tires on its passenger side — the result of a wreck weeks earlier, Bravo told police.
“He said he was riding on some back roads with friends and hit a tree. They changed the tire, and he said he wrecked the car a second time, damaging the spare tire,” Tobias said.
Bravo’s roommate, Erik Skipper, told The Miami Herald that he helped Bravo change the tires on his truck on Sept. 17, three days before Aguilar vanished.
Skipper said he believed Bravo came back to the apartment sometime between 4 and 8 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 21, because Bravo left a message on the refrigerator.
Searchers are expected to reconvene Saturday morning to resume the search for Aguilar.
“This is shocking in terms of the timing of the charges. I thought it would be a while longer,” said 19-year-old Sam Schaller, a Santa Fe student who joined the search for three days. “But I am returning tomorrow to help recover the body. The family needs that for closure.”
Staff writers Anna Edgerton and Meredith Rutland contributed to this story.