In the first public comments since his arrest almost two years ago, Pedro Bravo took the witness stand on Thursday and tried to explain away the mountain of evidence stacked against him in the death and disappearance case of Christian Aguilar, his close friend from a Miami high school.
Bravo is accused of killing Aguilar, 18, his friend since eighth grade, because he was jealous of Aguilar’s relationship with Bravo’s ex-girlfriend, Erika Friman. Aguilar and Friman began dating in the fall semester of 2012, months after her breakup with Bravo in June.
Prosecutors contend that Bravo had plotted to harm or kill Aguilar soon after they all had moved to Gainesville to start college, presenting a catalog of evidence during the trial. But for more than two hours on Thursday — the day before closing arguments — Bravo methodically, sometimes tersely, denied the allegations or offered alternative theories of the evidence, including multiple discussions of his own suicidal tendencies.
Talking about a letter detailing Aguilar’s killing and a plot to blame a “serial killer,” Bravo acknowledged that it had been written by him. But he said that it had been dictated by a fellow cellmate who had been bullying him.
And the short-handled shovel that the prosecution believes was used to bury Aguilar’s body? Bravo said that it had been intended for digging his own grave during a suicide attempt, and also as a tool for an art project.
The full tank of gas that the state suggests Bravo had purchased after an altercation with Aguilar so he could drive outside city limits to dump the body had been meant for driving far away to kill himself, he said. And Aguilar’s backpack that had been found hidden in Bravo’s apartment closet? “I didn’t want my parents to see I had someone else’s stuff,” he said.
In his testimony — at times conversational and laced with nervous laughter — Bravo told jurors about a meeting that had gone horribly wrong with Aguilar. Aguilar, Friman and Bravo had all attended Doral Preparatory Academy School.
On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 2012, Bravo said he had met with Aguilar, 18, to talk because his problems had been mounting, he had felt helpless and he had been considering suicide. It had not been the first time, Bravo said, testifying that he had been having dark thoughts since middle school and had attempted suicide 10 to 12 times. At that time, he had been struggling with a difficult transition from Miami to Gainesville along with the previous breakup with Friman, whom Aguilar was now dating.
“Chris was someone I could open up to,” said Bravo, later adding, “Basically, I feel like a failure. Everything is a mess. I feel like I am breaking apart, piece by piece.”
The talk that had been meant to quell Bravo’s suicidal thoughts had turned into a physical fight; Bravo testified that he had first punched Aguilar in the face with his left fist while driving — after Aguilar had told Bravo to kill himself. Then, after stopping in a parking lot, they both jumped out. Bravo said that he had pushed Aguilar, swept him off his feet and struck him in the face several times. He said he had left Aguilar with his nose bleeding and lying on the asphalt in the rain, a decision he says he now regrets.
“He didn’t get up right away, but he was moving,” he said. He later said he had not intended to hurt or kill Aguilar. “If I had known how badly I hurt Chris, I would have called the police.”
After the fight, Bravo said he had planned to go through with the suicide. He had written a note, which he read to the jury. It said, in part, “I don’t want to be forgiven. I just want to stop hurting.” Bravo said he had concocted a mixture of acetaminophen, pesticides and Gatorade, chugged it and promptly vomited. “I took that as a sign from God.”
The prosecution maintains that later that evening, Bravo began covering up evidence, including disposing Aguilar’s phone and hiding the shovel under a wood walkway in his apartment complex. He placed his own cellphone on airplane mode, and at some point during the night washed the clothes he was wearing, prosecutors say. He testified that he had been worried that his parents were driving up from Miami. He didn’t want them to see vomit-stained clothes.
Before now, Bravo’s version of what happened that evening was limited to his hours-long taped interview with police, shown to the jury earlier this week. His rambling explanation, often challenged by police detectives, changed throughout, but one thing was clear: He had been obsessed with Friman, at one point writing her a “manifesto” of love. She had repeatedly refused his attempts at reconciliation.
Jurors also will consider testimony presented by Bravo’s Alachua County jail cellmate, Michael Angelo, who said on Wednesday that Bravo had told him he had planned three different ways to kill Aguilar, but ultimately went with his first choice.
Angelo said Bravo had killed Aguilar by strangling him with a strap while watching his SUV’s clock tick for 13 minutes. Angelo said that the crime had happened in a Walmart parking lot as the two had talked. At some point, Bravo choked Aguilar from the back seat of his SUV, according to Angelo, who agreed to testify for a deal. He is in jail on several gang and gun-related charges.
Aguilar went missing after a trip with Bravo to Best Buy to buy CDs. His disappearance prompted a massive search of volunteers from Miami and Gainesville. Aguilar’s body was found 22 days later, bound with duct tape, face down in a shallow grave in Levy County, about an hour from Gainesville.