By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
So Donna grew up to respect authority, not challenge it. She got straight A's in school and did as she was told. But she was painfully shy, and there was only one place she truly felt at home: in the saddle. Her father, Jim, also a construction contractor, bought her horses when she was young, and it was while riding that the little girl first exhibited the will and determination that have marked the past two decades of her life.
Her favorite horse was Sapporo, a small, chestnut mare with overgrown, Clydesdale-like feet and a scar down her face, a sign of abuse suffered as a yearling. Skittish and moody, Sapporo didn't feel any more comfortable around people than Donna did. She had a kinship with the horse and worked with her each day for hours. Donna let Sapporo eat carrots from her mouth and sometimes even slept in her stall, forming an almost preternatural bond with the animal. When she wanted her horse to run, she had only to move her finger and Sapporo would spring to a gallop.
Donna parlayed her skill at training horses into a lucrative afterschool job that compensated her $15 per half-hour, but she paid the price in injuries. In countless hard falls over the years, she broke her ankles, wrists, and ribs and suffered a dozen concussions.
The injuries barely slowed her, but she had to deal with more than just physical trauma. When she was 14 years old, her father tearfully told her that he and her mother were divorcing. She and her two sisters later moved into an apartment with her mom, who got a job as a nurse's aide to pay the bills.
As her family life fell apart, Donna found glory on horseback. At age 16, she rode Sapporo to a New Jersey state championship. Crowning Donna was Robyn Smith, a former South Florida jockey best-known as Fred Astaire's wife. That victory qualified the teenager to try out for the Olympic team, but the money she made training horses disqualified her from the Games, she says.
After graduating high school, Donna worked as a bank teller and saved enough money to buy a yellow, 1977 Oldsmobile that she would drive to South Florida in December 1981. She moved into her mother's Coral Springs apartment on Christmas, and the next day, she met Gary, who was thin and slight like she was. He had freckles, scruffy brown hair, a mustache, and infectious energy. He walked over to her table at the restaurant and pierced her veil of silence as if he were born to do it.
On the third day of Gary's disappearance, Donna phoned Fisher again. "Still nothing new," he told her, adding that the Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration were now both looking for her husband.
"I want to talk to the Coast Guard," she told him.
"You don't have to do that," Fisher responded. "They're working on it. Things work differently down here. Let us take care of this."
Donna peppered Fisher, who was still essentially a stranger, with questions. Who was Gary working with? Where did he go? Whose plane was he fixing? Fisher, though, had no answers and seemed intent only on getting off the phone. That night, she fell asleep with the mantra echoing in her head: He's going to come home.
The following evening about 9, Sims, a tall, sandy-haired man who wore cowboy boots and spoke with a Southern accent, surprised Donna at her apartment door. He was accompanied by a large man in a flowered Hawaiian shirt who stood silently in the background. Donna didn't know Sims well, but he had always seemed like a friendly, easygoing fellow. On this night, though, he looked almost as tortured as she felt.
"I've been searching for Gary the last three days nonstop," he told her. "I only stopped to refuel the plane. They're telling me his plane crashed in the water."
"What do you mean he crashed?" she asked him, tears falling from her face. She held both daughters in her arms, and perhaps sensing their mother's torment, they too began to cry.
"I don't know. I just know I've been looking for him nonstop and I can't find him," Sims told her. "They said he crashed somewhere between Nassau and Colombia."
Colombia. What would Gary be doing in Colombia?
"That doesn't mean he's dead," Donna said, as much to calm herself as anything. "We need to call the police."
"I'm going to go back to looking for him," Sims announced. "Can I get you anything?"
"Yes," Donna said through her tears. "You need to bring me back my husband."
When Sims left, Donna immediately paged Randy Krugh. Where was he? She looked up the number for the Coast Guard office in Broward County and, at 11:09 p.m., called it. When the duty officer answered, she asked about her husband. "We don't have any information on a Gary Weaver," he told her.
The words sent a jolt through her. Fisher had lied. Gary might be out in the water somewhere, and nobody was even looking for him. With despair closing in, Donna called the Coral Springs Police Department. An officer arrived at her home at six minutes past midnight, took down her story, and assured her that a detective would be notified.