By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
That's what Andros, a desolate wilderness of mangrove swamp, impenetrable bush, and pine forest, was to her: Gary Weaver's hidden tomb.
Tears fell from her clenched eyes as Donna wondered what Gary must have thought as he flew over the Bahamian waters on December 9, 1983, his last day alive. The sun was probably shining that day, the sea below a brilliant translucent turquoise. She could see his smile and hear the excitement in his voice as he asked his fellow travelers about their destination. Unlike his more cautious wife, he loved to be up in the air, and he couldn't get enough adventure.
Just before his final flight, he'd called her from the Nassau airport and said he'd be home the next day to celebrate their first anniversary. The top layer of their wedding cake sat in the freezer, waiting to be eaten. Donna decided to save the big news for his arrival. Leanna, one of their six-month-old twin daughters, had uttered her first word: "Dada."
Now, Leanna and her sister, Lauren, were 22-year-old women, and Donna couldn't stop crying under the overcast April sky. She didn't want it to be this way. Before boarding the plane to Andros, Donna had promised herself that she wouldn't lose it. For much of the trip, she tried to hide the emotion, sobbing so quietly that nearby passengers in the cramped quarters didn't seem to notice. It sounded like the sniffles.
Gary couldn't have known he would be killed when he got on that plane, she thought. He couldn't have known he was about to be stolen away from his baby girls, who would never remember how he doted on them or how he could barely wait to wash off the day's filth before holding them. "Dada" was a ghost or, as the girls would come to think of him, an angel. Leanna and Lauren grew up believing he was there, somewhere in the nowhere, looking over them, protecting them.
Donna too believes that Gary is now an angel, but she also wants the truth. Her angel left a body behind, and she wants to find it. The trip to the Bahamas in April was more than a pilgrimage; it was part of her mission to track down her husband's killers and make them pay. In Nassau, she met with high-ranking Bahamian police officials who, after all these years, finally began a homicide investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Karadbil, who works in Fort Lauderdale, agreed to assist the Bahamians.
The case represents a breakthrough for Donna, but she's learned not to expect much from her government after being stonewalled by nearly every federal, state, and local agency imaginable. When authorities weren't ignoring her, they were frightening her, saying that what she was doing was dangerous, that her search for Gary was endangering her and her children. But the fear she lived in for so many years turned into something else, something that makes her feel uneasy, something with an intensity that threatens to overwhelm her: sheer anger... not only at her husband's killers but at those who were supposed to catch them. They failed her. America failed her.
Donna kept searching. And the sparse trail Gary left behind led her to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Operation Airlift, one of the darkest and most corrupt investigations in that agency's history. Born in Miami, Airlift was the FBI's first official battle in the Reagan administration's War on Drugs. The lead agent on the case became a criminal, and Airlift turned into a cocaine and corpse-strewn debacle.
Gary, Donna believes, was a casualty of Airlift, an MIA of the drug war whom nobody wanted to find. Her collision course with the FBI began on the day in 1983 when her husband didn't come home.
Donna had an appointment with Santa Claus that day, but first she needed to take her baby twins to pick up a very real man. The 23-year-old mother, with long, brown hair and wide, brown eyes, dressed Leanna and Lauren up pretty in their matching pink overalls, strapped them into the back of her 1977 Oldsmobile, and started from their Coral Springs apartment to the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. After a long week, Gary was returning from the Bahamas.
The trip to Nassau was supposed to take only a couple days, and the absence was hard on Donna. But she knew the family needed the money. Gary worked on a bulldozer, carving up the earth from dawn to dusk, making way for the apartment buildings and homes and golf courses in the burgeoning suburbs of western Broward County. He loved his job, but it paid only about $300 a week, barely enough for rent, baby formula, and diapers. So when Gary's boss and childhood friend, Randy Krugh, set him up with extra work fixing boats and planes in the islands for about $150 a day, Donna was all for it.
The first two trips to Nassau were quick and easy. He was gone a couple of days and brought home a few hundred dollars -- along with gifts for her and the twins from the capital city's famous straw market. Then came the third flight on December 2. While a neighbor watched the babies, Donna took Gary to the airport at 6 a.m. After walking him to the gate, Donna was eager to return home to the girls.
"Oh c'mon, Donna Mae; come and sit with me until it's time to go," Gary urged her.
"I need to get back and feed the girls and give them their bath," she told him. Even though she was seven years younger than her 30 year-old husband, she was always the practical one.
"It'll be fine," he pleaded.
But she wouldn't hear of it. Donna gave Gary a hug and a kiss and headed home. Later that afternoon, he called her and, with excitement in his voice, said he was staying in a big house with big windows on the water. The owner was a man named Jeff Fisher, whom Gary described as a fine host.
During the next couple of days, however, his enthusiasm drained away. "I'm not doing anything," Gary complained. "It's nice here, but I miss you, and I miss the girls."
He finally booked his flight home for December 9, and Donna was at the airport that Friday morning, waiting for Gary with her babies in the stroller beside her. She watched the faces as they passed, expecting to see her husband's visage at any moment. But the last passenger left the gate, and there was no Gary. He must have been held over, she thought as she strolled Leanna and Lauren back to the car. She hoped he'd arrive on the next plane and take a cab to meet them at the Mother of Twins Club in Fort Lauderdale, where they were to see Santa.
At the club, Donna snapped photos of the girls sitting obliviously on Santa's knee. She kept an eye on the door, half-expecting Gary to show up. He didn't.
When she got home, Donna called Jeff Fisher's Nassau place several times. No answer. At 5:51 p.m., according to phone bills she kept, Donna also repeatedly paged Krugh, who didn't call back. The silence weighed on her nerves. Where was everybody?
She had planned to cook a big meal for Gary. Without him, there was no reason to turn on the stove. She ate a Hungry Man turkey frozen dinner, fed the girls their formula, and put them to bed in their matching bassinets.
The next morning, on her anniversary, Donna again couldn't get through to Fisher or Krugh. It wasn't until that afternoon, more than 24 hours after Gary hadn't shown up at the airport, that she finally reached Fisher. Seeming rushed, the man assured her that Gary was fine, that he'd just been delayed on the job and would soon contact her. Donna was relieved but couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. How could Gary not find a way to call her on their anniversary? For dinner, she reached into the freezer, above the wedding cake, for another Hungry Man.
The next day brought more torturous silence. With growing desperation, she called John Sims, whom she remembered had once purchased engine parts that Gary took to the Bahamas. Sims, who lived in Delray Beach, promised he'd try to find out what had happened to her husband.
Then she called Fisher again, and this time, he told her that Gary hadn't returned from a work trip and seemed to be missing. He assured her that he'd contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities and that they were conducting a thorough search.
He was officially missing. Anxiety turned to creeping panic. She called her mother, who became so upset that Donna ended up having to comfort her. That night, she had the vague realization that she would have to bear this alone. Her will, however, was strong. It began telling her, like a mantra, He's going to come home, he's going to come home, he's going to come home.
When Donna met Gary, his sparkling brown eyes seemed to smile at her before he did, promising fun. And having just moved to South Florida to find a new life, she was ready for some. But on that day -- December 26, 1981 -- she was still very much a mama's girl. In fact, Donna, who'd recently had her 21st birthday, was sitting with her mother, Carol, in a Coral Springs restaurant when Gary walked over and changed her life forever.
She'd lived a guarded existence, almost literally, in a little town on the Jersey Shore called West Long Branch. Her youth was populated by cops. Two of her uncles were lawmen, and her grandfather Jack Piantinida was a Milan-born town councilman and construction contractor who literally built the police department in West Long Branch. His unlocked home served as an unofficial hangout for neighborhood beat cops; Donna's grandmother Eunice always kept a hot urn of coffee for them to drink in the kitchen.
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.
Donna kept making phone calls until 1:30 a.m. She called the Coast Guard again and pleaded with the duty officer to look for Gary. He told her that in order for the agency to conduct a search, it needed a confirmed flight plan. Frustrated, she called the Federal Aviation Administration in Miami to see if there was one. The agency told her to call back the next morning. She fell asleep and was back on the phone at 8 a.m.
That day, December 16, several friends and neighbors visited Donna. It was a somber affair; they brought food and drink, and all of them seemed to be in mourning. This is like a wake, Donna thought. They're acting like somebody died.
Donna went into her bedroom by herself and got back on the phone. That day, she spoke three more times with the FAA to no avail. She again paged Krugh.
This time, he finally phoned her back.
"What happened to Gary?" she asked.
"I don't know," he told her. "I don't have any idea."
"Randy, they can't find Gary. I'm calling everywhere trying to find him. I need your help."
"OK, I'll be right over."
When he arrived at Donna's apartment, the balding and mustachioed Krugh seemed upset, which wasn't surprising considering that his old friend was missing. What Donna didn't know at the time was that he had a lot more to worry about than just Gary. It would take years for her to discover just how much trouble Krugh was in on that day in December.
To almost every question that Donna asked, Krugh professed ignorance. When she asked about planes Gary may have flown on, he finally gave her a lead: the tail number N88KP. It was a Beechcraft Queen Air that his "contacts" in the Bahamas often used. Like Sims, Krugh mentioned that Gary may have been on the way to Colombia.
"I don't know," Krugh said before leaving the apartment.
Newly invigorated, Donna contacted the Nassau airport and gave the tail number to an airport official who gave his name as "Mr. Major." He discovered that the Beechcraft had indeed taken off at 10:46 a.m. December 9, shortly after she spoke to Gary on the phone. According to the flight plan, there were three people aboard, including a pilot named "Boudreau." The plane was supposed to be going to Hog Key, a private island in the Exuma Cays in the southern Bahamas.
The pilot never radioed the tower after taking off, Mr. Major explained, so the flight was never confirmed. Donna desperately wanted a search. She was tormented by the specter of Gary out in the water needing to be rescued. But when she phoned the Coast Guard, an officer repeated the rule: no flight plan, no search.
For the next few days, she feverishly worked the phone, calling the American Embassy in Nassau, the State Department, and the FAA. Through the embassy, Donna was able to contact the Bahamian Defense Force, which, unlike the Coast Guard, conducted an air search.
It turned up nothing.
When Gary asked her out, Donna couldn't resist. Every day after that, they were together. He would bring her fresh-picked wildflowers; no telling where he got them. And he liked to park on the side of the road -- Coral Springs was mostly rural country back then -- and just look up at the stars with her.
Gary quickly proved to be a wonderful guide to South Florida, which was a hundred times bigger and more exciting than the Jersey Shore. When he wasn't working, he played. He could walk into a restaurant and make a handful of friends before food was on the table. He took her to barbecues at Krugh's Boca Raton home and out on double dates with his buddy and co-worker, J.P. Delaney. Donna became close to Delaney's girlfriend, Sheila, who had a 5-year-old son named Brian. She loved to be around the boy and so did Gary, who would play with Brian for hours at a time.
Gary was like a hyper kid, except that he always had a beer in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Gary had to be moving. And he could have an animated, ten-minute tiff with Brian over who got to play with which Tonka truck. She thought he would make a good father.
But he was also mischievous. Once he took her out to the Everglades and as they stood by the car, he yelled, "A snake!"
The exclamation led to Donna's thirteenth concussion. She jumped headfirst into the side of the car and was knocked out cold. There was, of course, no snake.
One of his favorite pastimes was tossing golf balls on the fairway behind his apartment to confuse the players. He would crack up as they tried to sort out which ball was theirs.
Donna found his antics both maddening and endearing. She was in love before she knew it. She moved into his Coral Springs apartment after only a few months of dating and five months after that became pregnant. Though the pregnancy was unplanned, Donna and Gary were ecstatic. On December 10, 1982, less than a year after their first date, they married in a small ceremony in Fort Lauderdale. On that day, Krugh, his boss and old friend, took on a third role in Gary's life: best man.
As the petite Donna grew huge with the twins, her new husband quite literally couldn't wait to become a father. On April 9, Gary's 30th birthday, he drove Donna in a big work truck to one of the new housing developments he was helping to build. There, he sped up and down a bumpy dirt road. As they were being tossed about in the cab of the truck, he told her that he hoped all the bouncing would bring forth the babies.
"Wouldn't it be great if they were born on my birthday?" he asked her excitedly.
The ploy didn't work. Instead, Lauren and Leanna emerged precisely on their due date, May 16, 1982. They arrived 15 minutes apart. The girls, at just over five pounds each, could fit comfortably on one pillow. Photographs taken on the day they brought the girls home from the hospital show that Gary carried the girls into the apartment, his eyes beaming with fatherly pride. Donna carried the bags.
Sgt. John Cobban, who was assigned to Gary's missing-person's case, asked Donna point-blank: Was her husband involved in drug-smuggling?
Donna told him no, Gary had nothing to do with the drug trade. It was the first time the subject had been raised.
The sergeant retraced Donna's own work, calling all the same agencies, police reports show. Cobban tried to contact Sims and Fisher but wasn't able to reach them and never tracked them down. The sergeant, who has since retired, discovered that Sims had been arrested on drug charges in the past and was a suspected smuggler. He also discovered that the Beechcraft Queen Air was known to have been involved in drug-smuggling trips.
Even as police uncovered scintillating facts, Donna's hope of finding her husband was fading. She came to believe that if he wasn't gone forever, he would find a way to call by December 25, the twins' first Christmas. Gary had been talking about the holiday for weeks before he vanished. He couldn't wait to shop for the girls.
But for Donna, the day was tense and heartbreaking. While family and friends opened gifts in her home, she stayed in her room by the phone, waiting for the call. At the day's end, when she lay down to sleep, she cried harder than ever before. The truth reverberated in her mind: Gary isn't coming home.
But that realization didn't deter her from her search. And about a month after Gary's disappearance came a strange call. It was from a Colombian whom Donna knew only as Hernando. She vaguely remembered him from her daughters' christening the previous fall. Krugh chaperoned the man called "Nando" around and treated him as if were visiting royalty.
On the phone, Hernando told Donna in nearly flawless English that he thought Gary's plane might have been intercepted over Cuban waters and asked her to meet him at an Amtrak station in Hollywood.
She drove to the parking lot, and a few minutes after pulling in, Hernando, a short and seemingly affable middle-aged man, walked up to her Oldsmobile. He was stealthy. "Come over here," he said, leading her to his own red sedan.
They sat down inside.
"Listen, you shouldn't be talking to the police," he began.
"What? How can I find Gary if I don't get help from the police?" she asked, mystified.
"Jeff Fisher's getting a little angry," Hernando continued.
"He's angry? I'm the one who's angry," she remembers saying.
She couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"You tell Jeff Fisher that I'm the one who is angry," she almost yelled at Hernando. "I want Gary's things, and I want his clothes, and I want the money he's owed. I can't even pay the rent. I want every single thing that Gary left at that house."
She broke into tears. Hernando tried to calm her, telling her it would be OK. Then Donna composed herself and got to what she thought was the point.
"What about Cuba?"
Hernando stalled and muttered something about a possibility Gary might be there, but he didn't elaborate.
She left him in the parking lot and drove home.
The Coral Springs Police Department investigation, meanwhile, was sputtering to a close. After Gary's dental records were obtained, the probe was shut down with these words: "Until new information becomes available, this case will be inactive pending."
Inactive pending. That was it. Donna was on her own.
Gary seemed to have been born for the 1970s, always smoking Kool cigarettes, drinking a Budweiser, perpetually listening to his beloved Rolling Stones, and, on occasion, smoking pot. She still has a picture of Krugh grinning on her couch with a rolled joint in his hand. Donna went along for the ride, though she rarely touched marijuana. She would tell everyone that she got plenty high just sitting in the same room with the smoke.
Even when Gary overdid it, Donna usually didn't get mad. He would crack jokes and make her laugh so hard she simply couldn't. And besides, his partying wasn't really a problem. No matter what he did the night before, Gary always rose early every morning and worked hard on the bulldozer from dusk till dawn. On weekends, he'd employ his gift with machines. Gary did his best thinking with his hands; he'd been taking apart and assembling engines since he was in middle school, and now he was a certified master diesel mechanic. He could fix anything, which was why the work in the Bahamas seemed natural for him.
She says she never saw her husband touch any hard drugs. In fact, she'd only seen cocaine once in her life, back in her hometown. A date asked her if she wanted to snort some. "It will give you more energy," he goaded her.
"What are we going to do, run around the block?" she asked before refusing.
Gary did tell her once, after they were married, that he'd had a cocaine problem back in his hometown of Convoy, Ohio, where he went to school with Krugh. He said he had injected the stuff. She was numbed by the declaration. "I'm really glad you don't do that anymore," she remembers telling him.
"I am too," he said.
They never spoke of it again.
In the year that followed Gary's disappearance, Donna's little girls were her saving grace. It was the little things, like the way they loved to sing. When she bought them a Barbie, the girls tore off the doll's legs. Donna couldn't stop laughing when she saw why: They made for great microphones.
Rather than work 9-to-5, Donna took a job as a cocktail waitress. That way, she could work nights and the girls would sleep while being cared for by her mother, a friend, or a babysitter. Financially, they got by. Barely.
But her search wasn't over. About a year after Gary disappeared, John Sims again surprised her at her apartment. This time, he was alone at her door, and he was crying. "It's not right what they did to Gary," he kept saying, over and over.
He wasn't making sense. It frightened Donna so much that she asked him to leave. He put $1,000 cash on her kitchen table and walked out the door.
Shortly after that cryptic visit, Krugh called Donna and told her that Sims had been killed in a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean off Palm Beach. Yet there was nothing in the news about it. There is no record of Sims' disappearance at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office or the Medical Examiner's Office. Like Gary, he seems to have simply vanished.
Sims' disappearance terrified Donna, but by then, the search for Gary had become a part of her, like a new limb. It might hurt and it might ache, and at times it might seem useless, but it was there to stay.
And there seemed to be only one place left to turn: Congress. In 1985, Donna typed a pleading letter to U.S. Sen. Frank Pallone of her home state of New Jersey. "I am in need of trusted counsel in this matter as it is becoming increasingly confusing and frightening to me," she wrote, "but I am equally determined to follow it through and settle it once and for all. I will not give up."
Gary had become involved with "very bad people," she added.
"My children and I have not committed any crimes and are in fact victims of these people...," she wrote. "Please, I hope you will agree to help me. I have to find someone who will."
The letter wound up in the hands of Pallone staffer Lisa Sevier, who also worked as an investigator for the Senate Public Works and Transportation Committee. Intrigued, Sevier began looking into the matter.
During the next three years, Donna remembers that the congressional aide regularly told her that her life was in danger. Sevier set out numerous rules. For instance, she forbade Donna from allowing anyone she didn't know from taking photographs of her or the girls. Nor should she speak to strangers on the phone.
Donna started sleeping with the lights on, a habit she has yet to break, and bought a .38 revolver. One night, Sevier told her to get the children out of the house after Donna called her about an unidentified telemarketer. Donna phoned the police, and her mother whisked the girls away.
The congressional investigation, meanwhile, dragged on for about three years and ended with hearings on Capitol Hill. Donna wasn't invited, and Gary was all but forgotten in the end. Ultimately, Congress passed new legislation concerning aircraft registration, pilot certification, and criminal penalties for altering aircraft fuel systems.
Sevier, who is now retired in the Washington, D.C., area, wrote a report about Gary's disappearance and turned it over to the Social Security Administration in 1988. Based on that report, SSA declared that Gary had died and gave Donna death benefits that included a lump sum of about $60,000 and $1,200 a month until her girls, then about to start kindergarten, turned 18. But neither Sevier nor Social Security would allow Donna to see the report, claiming it was classified.
To this day, Sevier says Donna's pursuit of her husband's killer may be putting her life in danger. The former congressional investigator believes Gary either fell from an airplane or was pushed.
"I don't know what happened to him," Sevier says, "and I wonder if anybody will ever know."
The report remains classified. "It will never in our lifetime be in the best national interest to release those documents," says Sevier, who also claims she has the only remaining copy of the report, which she keeps among boxes of government records in her garage.
For Donna, the investigation was a jarring, contradictory experience. She was filled with fear and devoid of answers. She was grateful to be financially secure, but Donna couldn't shake the feeling that the government was trying to buy her silence.
And she felt the same way that she did when she wrote the letter to Pallone, which repeated a single sentence three times: "I will not give up."
Donna still meant it.
Next week: Operation Airlift takes off.