Finding Gary, Part 3
This is the third in a four-part series. To read the first two parts, visit newtimesbpb.com.
As she sat at the end of the long, polished, cherry-wood conference table, Donna Weaver told the story of her husband's murder. The calm pulling of the pistol on an Andros Island airstrip. The close-range blasts of the gun as bullets pierced her husband's body. The makeshift burial alongside the runway.
"They just killed him," said Donna, her voice breaking as she wiped her eyes with a tissue. "Just like that, like it was nothing."
Bahamas Royal Police Force Superintendent Glen Miller listened intently in the Central Detective Unit in Nassau while one of his detectives took notes. The tall and dignified Miller, dressed in a flawless gray suit, began that late-afternoon meeting with obvious skepticism. He had no idea who this American woman was; he knew only that she claimed her husband had perished more than 21 years ago in his jurisdiction. As Donna told her story, however, his demeanor changed perceptibly. Miller leaned forward in his chair, a glint of curiosity in his eyes. He sifted through the reports Donna had brought. His questions about Operation Airlift -- the disastrous FBI operation Donna believed was connected to Gary's 1983 disappearance -- became more pointed.
Miller, who oversees all homicide investigations on the islands, wanted to know more about FBI agent Dan Mitrione, who'd become an outlaw drug lord while heading Operation Airlift. He asked about Randy Krugh, Gary's best friend and employer, who was a wildly prolific drug runner and government snitch. And he requested details regarding Andros, the largest Bahamian land mass, which he knew was a smuggler's paradise during the early 1980s.
Once Miller digested the information, he told Donna he was going to open an investigation into Gary Weaver's disappearance. He would need a sworn statement.
A smile appeared on Donna's pain-wracked face.
"Do you promise?" she asked him.
This was the first time any law enforcement official had ever asked her to swear to anything about Gary. The date was April 26, 2005 -- 21 years, four months, two weeks, and three days after her husband had vanished.
And the belated trip to Nassau, just a few hours old, was already a success. The hourlong flight from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamian capital. The cab ride downtown, where she checked into her room at the Holiday Inn. Then onto the number-eight jitney bus to Miller's office on the city's outskirts. It was the first time Donna had ever been out of the country, and she had to borrow most of the money for the trip. But when Miller made his announcement, she believed it was all worth it.
Donna had tried to start an investigation in the Bahamas back in the early 1980s but couldn't get anywhere on the phone. She didn't venture to the country because she feared she might never come home. At the time, the islands were rife not only with smugglers but with corrupt officials.
She'd been driven to go to the Bahamas this time by years of anguish, and the trip was marked by desperation and hope: desperation because she was still largely alone in her search for justice, hope because she'd done an incredible thing. Donna told Miller she had all but solved the case.
Through an amazing coincidence, she'd found a witness to her husband's murder and had identified the killer.
Toby Lyons seemed to know everyone. The dark-haired, Ohio-born businessman, who dreamed of becoming a leading man in Hollywood, had run about a dozen bars in Broward and Miami-Dade counties over a quarter century and collected a lot of contacts along the way. Donna was one of them. She had worked as a bartender for Lyons at two drinking establishments, Mainstreet in Pompano Beach and Cheers in Fort Lauderdale.
To pay the bills in Gary's absence, Donna worked first as a cocktail waitress and later as a bartender. They proved good jobs for a suddenly single mother, with good hours, decent pay, and the priceless opportunity to spend her days with her twin girls.
Since starting at a Holiday Inn bar, she had worked at more than a dozen drinking establishments and met some of her best friends in them, both behind the bar and in front of it. But Donna also found that the highest ranks -- the owners and financiers -- were often abusive and dishonest.
Lyons, however, seemed to be an exception, which is one reason Donna turned to him for help in solving Gary's disappearance. The other was that she noticed while reading federal reports concerning Airlift that most of the smugglers seemed to practically live at South Florida bars. Since Lyons knew a good portion of the region's drinkers, she took a list of names to him.
"Stanley Combs? I know Stan," Lyons told her after scanning the list. "He's a crazy son of a bitch, but he's one of the best friends I've ever had. We still have breakfast together about every other day."
Donna could hardly believe it -- this seemed another sign that she was truly meant to find Gary. A key figure in Airlift, the tall, white-pompadoured Combs had been closely linked with Krugh, the man who'd sent Gary on the fateful Bahamian trip.
Lyons agreed to question Combs about Airlift during one of their breakfasts. Afterward, the retired bar owner told Donna the story: Gary had been gunned down by "the Italian guy, Mitrione." The murder was committed on Andros Island near a runway. Gary was buried on the spot. Combs might still know where to find the body, but he didn't want to get involved and refused to meet with Donna, Lyons told her.
As she listened, Donna began to tremble and nearly collapsed. A friend helped her inside.
The next day, she called Coral Springs Police Sgt. Nick Iarriccio, who had reopened the missing-persons case on Gary's death. Iarriccio told her he would talk to Combs, but months passed, and the detective never contacted the former smuggler.
It was the same story, different cop. No action. Donna was becoming furious. Then Lyons told her that Combs had moved away but didn't specify where. She couldn't believe it -- a witness to her husband's murder had been named and nobody seemed to care.
Finally, almost on a whim, she went straight to a man she regarded as the personification of evil: Dan Mitrione, the former FBI agent whom Combs had allegedly pinpointed as the killer.
Donna knew a lot of things about Mitrione. She knew the FBI had concluded that he likely tried to kill his informant, Hilmer Sandini, with a car bomb but never charged him with the crime. And she knew that Mitrione had done hardly any time in prison for his part in the drug-smuggling ring before he moved to Kansas, where he wrote a true-crime book in 1995 about the murders of four women. Donna didn't miss the cruel irony in the title: Suddenly Gone.
On May 26, 2004, while looking through some Airlift documents, Donna came across a phone number for Mitrione's mother, Henrietta, in the Washington, D.C. area. On an impulse, she called it. Right or wrong, she'd become convinced this man was directly connected to Gary's disappearance. She wanted to hear his voice.
A woman on the other end, who identified herself as one of Mitrione's sisters, said her brother was out of the country. She promised he'd get the message.
Two days later, an unidentified man phoned her and asked her why she wanted to speak with Mitrione. He laughed when Donna asked his name.
"Just call me the ghost," he said.
Donna played the role of damsel in distress, telling the ghost she was trying to find her husband and meant no harm.
The next morning, Mitrione phoned her. The sound of his voice -- normal and Middle America-sounding -- sent chills through her. She hid her emotions and played on the former agent's ego, telling him that she hoped such a seasoned law enforcer might be able to help. He responded that he'd never heard of Gary but remembered Krugh very well. Donna, who took notes as she spoke to the former FBI agent, told him she thought Sandini might have killed her husband.
"There is no way that Sandini did it," Mitrione said.
Tears streamed down her face as he spoke, but she didn't dare let him know.
"It was Randy Krugh and the Colombians," he told her. "They did it all the way."
"Why did he do it?"
"Because there were contracts out on everybody at the time," he told her.
"But why Gary? He didn't do anything."
"I don't know why, but I feel sure it was Randy Krugh and the Colombians that did it."
During the rest of the 90-minute conversation, he boasted about his work in Operation Airlift, how he came close to busting one of the biggest cocaine cartels in the world, and how he still felt wronged by the FBI. Then he launched into a bizarre story about being treated badly by local police in Georgia after he found a dead body in the woods there.
Faced with a dead end, she asked Lyons to write a sworn statement, repeating what Combs had told him. But the former bar owner said he'd had quintuple-bypass heart surgery since his talk with Combs and had suffered brain damage.
"My mind is so confused I can't even read or write," he later explained to New Times. "I have an IQ of a 7- or 8-year-old. It's like you turn a light off in a room. There's nothing there. I don't know what happened to her husband. For all I know, aliens got him."
Without Lyons, she needed Combs in person. But she couldn't find him. When Donna met with superintendent Miller in Nassau in April, she recounted Lyons' story and told him that Combs was the key witness in the case.
Combs, all the while, was living in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. When he was called by New Times in May, a month after Donna's trip to the Bahamian police department, the ex-smuggler, now 65 years old, picked up the phone. And he talked.
There was good reason to hope that Stanley Combs would help solve Gary's murder. Combs was one of the top South Florida drug informants in the early 1980s, helping to bust not only Airlift but numerous other smuggling rings, former DEA agent B.J. Church says. And the Louisianan apparently knew how to handle himself in the treacherous world of drug-smuggling. For protection, he was said to keep a gun hidden in one of his cowboy boots.
"I don't think Stanley was afraid of anyone," Church surmises. "If somebody tried to mess with him, he'd clock them in a New York second."
And few knew the drug routes through the mostly desolate Bahamas like Combs. "Stanley knew those islands like the back of his hand," Church says. "He had all those corrupt officials in his pocket."
Donna was aware Combs was familiar with the Bahamas too. She read what he'd said in 1985 before a grand jury that was investigating Airlift: "Andros is a sparsely populated island -- you can get killed over there real easily."
But when he was asked about Andros in May, Combs claimed to know little about the island -- and even less about Gary Weaver. "I'm sorry the lady's husband got killed, but I don't know who it is, and I sure didn't have anything to do with it," he said in his homespun drawl. "I heard about somebody getting killed in the Bahamas once a week, but I didn't do the killing, and I didn't see the killing."
Combs insisted that Lyons, whom he acknowledged was an old friend, not only made up the story of Mitrione's involvement but also was lying about the brain damage done to the bar owner by the heart surgery. He said Lyons had visited his home just weeks before and could read just fine. "Somebody should smack the shit out of him for saying that," Combs said. "Toby Lyons is full of more shit than Christmas."
But how did Lyons come up with the theory about Mitrione?
"In the bar biz, that's what they do -- they sit around in the gin mills and make up big conspiracies and pretend they got something to do with them," the ex-smuggler explained. "I don't know where he got that. The SOB wants to be a movie star."
Combs claimed he never met Gary but said if there is one person who knows what happened to Donna's husband, it's Krugh. When told that the pilot was now living in Ohio, Combs seemed surprised. "Randy was all the time telling me somebody was trying to kill him," he said, "but I guess nobody got around to it."
Krugh, who didn't return numerous phone calls for comment, double-crossed so many people that he couldn't keep his own deceptions straight, Combs said. Colombian cartel members wanted to kill him because he and other Airlift figures stole cocaine from them. Sandini and Mitrione wanted Krugh dead because he was a snitch.
"Nobody trusted the son of a bitch," Combs said. "BSO and DEA had egg all over their face because of him, and I guess Customs did too. Randy Krugh ran out of agencies to work for."
He suggested a method to extract the information from Krugh, who has always claimed to have no idea what happened to Gary and in recent years has refused to speak with Donna: "Get him in a corner -- he scares easy -- and I guarantee you that you won't be able to shut the motherfucker up about it."
She was haunted by so many questions. Why would Lyons lie to her? Where did he get all those telling details? If Mitrione wasn't involved, why did the government keep her in the dark for so long?
She called Lyons. His first and only word was "goodbye" before he hung up.
Other questions lingered, fundamental ones. She still had no idea who "Jeff Fisher," Gary's host in the Bahamas at the time of the disappearance, really was. Same for Pat Hagerman, another smuggler close to Krugh. And what about the Colombian cartel? The facts seemed to be pointing in that direction. Mitrione seemed far less likely a suspect.
Donna felt flattened. She was back at square zero.
"I don't know anything now," she said.
But her search for the truth wasn't finished. Neither was the pain.
Next week: Revelations come from unexpected sources.
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