For much of the 350-mile drive from Miami to Gainesville, Carlos Aguilar thought of the son he had buried almost two years ago.
He had made this drive so many times before, the first trip full of promise when he dropped Christian Aguilar off to begin his freshman year at the University of Florida. Weeks later, in September 2012, he raced to Gainesville when he learned that Christian, 18, was missing. Then for three weeks, he returned every few days, willing himself to search the woods and tangled brush looking for his first-born, hopeful he was alive. And finally, when the painful reality set in, he made the long drive again — this time to find Christian’s body and bring him back home for burial.
Now, Carlos and his wife, Claudia, were heading to Gainesville to attend the trial of Pedro Bravo, Christian’s close friend from high school in Miami, accused of poisoning and suffocating their son. Now, Aguilar travels the miles for justice. And he also makes the trip, with a mix of fear and love, to visit youngest son Alexander, who chose last year to enroll at UF, as well.
“This thing has broken our heart. It’s a pain you can’t take away,” Aguilar, 47, says while clutching a bracelet, the last Father’s Day present he received from Christian and Alexander. “The question is why us? I always felt that I was the type of father that I could protect my sons from anything, and that I would be able to give my life for them if it was necessary. That was taken away from me.”
This is a strange case of two Miami teenagers who left for Gainesville as friends to start their lives as college students. One was killed; the other ended up in a jail cell. And, in between, an anguished father stood before a bank of media cameras almost every day, pleading for help. During the fall semester of 2012, the Miami and Gainesville communities were united by the disappearance and death of Christian Aguilar.
Aguilar disappeared that Sept. 20, last seen in the afternoon with Bravo entering a Best Buy to buy CDs. On Oct. 12, after a massive volunteer search that bonded hundreds of friends, family and strangers, Aguilar’s body was discovered by hunters in the woods, half-buried under a carpet of sticks and leaves in Levy County, an hour from the campus that had become his new home.
Bravo, who was 18 at the time, stands charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping, poisoning and other crimes.
The trial, set to begin Monday, is expected to last two weeks after jurors from Alachua County are selected, state attorney’s office spokesman Darry Lloyd said. The prosecution anticipates presenting about 450 pieces of physical evidence and 1,500 photographs. The state is not seeking the death penalty.
Bravo’s attorney, Michael Ruppert, declined comment.
Carlos Aguilar will attend the trial in downtown Gainesville every day, leaving the courtroom only to avoid seeing the most ghastly crime scene photos of his son. He wants to see Bravo held accountable but also wants to find a way to forgive him.
“I knew God in happiness and, unfortunately, I know him in grief. He is the same God,” Aguilar says, tears beginning to well in his eyes. “And one of the things I learned is that I have to forgive, but I am not ready right now. ... I know that people might think it’s crazy for me to think that I want to forgive Pedro for killing my son, but I learned during this process that if I don’t do it, the one that is going to suffer is me and my family.”
Since Christian Aguilar’s death, the Aguilar and Bravo families have not seen or spoken to each other. Still, Aguilar says, he feels for Bravo’s parents.
“Mr. Bravo and his wife are going to suffer in this trial too,” says Aguilar, a property manager at an apartment complex in South Miami. “The feeling I have for them is compassion.”
Aguilar and Bravo both graduated from Doral Academy Preparatory School in spring 2012. Bravo enrolled at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. And for as long as anyone can remember, Aguilar wanted to be a Florida Gator.
He arrived on the UF campus that summer with plans to become a biomedical engineer. In some of the pictures posted when he went missing, he is wearing a Gator sweatshirt. In another, he has a Gator lanyard around his neck.
Bravo, arrested four days after Aguilar disappeared , initially told police he beat Aguilar badly in a spat over a girl they had both dated at separate times. He said he left Aguilar bloodied, unconscious and barely breathing in a parking lot miles away from Best Buy. Police quickly dismantled his account of what happened, but the story held a seed of hope that prompted an intense search, prayer vigils and a Find Christian Aguilar Facebook page with more than 12,000 members.
Police later found blood in Bravo’s blue SUV and Aguilar’s backpack hidden in the closet of Bravo’s campus apartment. They also found a receipt showing Bravo had purchased a shovel and duct tape four days before Aguilar’s disappearance.
For 22 days, coordinated searches unfolded across Gainesville involving volunteers from as far away as South Carolina, many moved by the impassioned public pleas of Aguilar’s father. Day after day, hundreds of people — students, parents, grandparents, a few soldiers and community activists — showed up to help police agencies, cadaver dogs and mounted units from across Florida. One Saturday in late September, Gov. Rick Scott joined the search.
The groups combed 10 square miles of woods and parking lots, in trenches and ditches and along roadways. But police never found any evidence of the fight or signs of Aguilar in searches that spanned the southwest section of the city.
What they didn’t know at the time: Aguilar’s body was nowhere near the search grid. Bravo had refused to offer any other details, even when Aguilar’s mother begged him at a court hearing.
Eventually, Carlos Aguilar had privately accepted his son was dead. He knew he was looking for a body, wanting to know where and how his son had spent his last hours. He kept those thoughts to himself, not wanting to destroy his family’s hope.
Two days before Christian Aguilar’s body was found, three candlelight vigils were held simultaneously in Gainesville, Miami and Cali, Colombia, where his parents are from originally.
Carlos and Claudia, 43, and son Alexander were back on Florida’s Turnpike late one Friday night, just at the Fort Pierce exit, heading back to Gainesville when they got the phone call from a reporter saying their son’s partially decomposed body had been found by hunters in a shallow grave near Cedar Key.
That was how Aguilar heard about the discovery. A police advocate later confirmed that the body was most likely his son’s.
He says the most difficult part was robbing his wife of her last shred of faith that their son was still alive.
“I was crying, and I turned to Claudia and told her that they finally found him,” he says. “Like I had told her before, if he is alive or dead, we will find him. We were ready to move to Gainesville if necessary.”
Two days after Christian Aguilar was buried in Doral, Carlos was in his South Miami townhouse receiving neighbors who had come by to pay their respects when he was struck with a severe panic attack that sent him to the hospital.
“I was devastated. The 22 days of looking for my son, the burial. … I saw my house full of people, and I was not ready to see that. I couldn’t breathe,” he recalls. “I could not take everybody reminding me every five minutes, ‘Your son is dead. Your son is dead.’ My arms started hurting. My heart started beating really fast.”
Carlos soon began taking anti-anxiety medication. The family entered grief therapy, where he would meet other parents whose children had been killed. They seemed to be the only people who knew precisely how he felt, who knew that kind of loss.
Something else happened, too.
“You are working your way though the pain and trying to see some good in all this,” he said. “We got this idea to create an application that can help others whose children are missing.”
The Aguilar family created the Christian Aguilar K-9 Search and Rescue Foundation to help improve efforts to find children. Also, the Christian Aguilar Child Alert smart phone app, developed by the Missing Children Global Network, allows users to receive alerts about missing people and submit anonymous tips to police. It can be downloaded by both Android and iPhone users.
Last year, for the first anniversary of Aguilar’s death, UF awarded him an “in memoriam” degree from the College of Engineering. It was the first such degree given, according to Angela Lindner, associate dean for undergraduate students at the engineering college.
“We wanted to send the message that Christian was part of this family. He counted, and he mattered,” Lindner says. “Christian brought this community together like never before. That was the miracle of this tragedy, that he brought humanity back to the forefront.”
In June, Alexander Aguilar graduated from Doral Preparatory Academy. He wanted to attend UF to study pharmacy or biochemistry. His parents couldn’t bear that thought.
“I told him that his mom was not ready. Neither was I ready for him to go to the place where we lost Christian,” he said. “But he told me something that made us change. He said it was his dream and what he wanted. We have to give him the opportunities to fulfill his dreams.”