(This is the last of a series. See the first three installments at newtimesbpb.com.)
The small airport at San Andros was exactly what Donna Weaver hoped it wouldn't be: a desolate place. There was a hangar, a gasoline pump, trash-strewn concrete stalls with a handwritten sign that read "gabbage," and a dilapidated gazebo. The parking lot led to a lonely, pot-holed road and a sea of weeds and pine forest.
God, this is an easy place to disappear, she thought.
Donna picked a wildflower and sat down in the gazebo to mourn. This was Andros Island in the Bahamas, the place where she believed her husband, Gary Weaver, had been murdered in 1983.
Her companion on the trip haggled with a taxi driver named Carlos. Donna needed to get from San Andros, located on the northern end of the Delaware-sized island, to the airport in Andros Town. That was where the cocaine smugglers had conducted their business at the time of Gary's disappearance. Carlos said it was about 45 miles away and suggested a rental car. He showed them a white 1994 Nissan "Saloon" imported from Tokyo with a steering wheel on the right side and a flat rear tire on the left. Carlos, a man with a bushy Afro, a few missing teeth, and a cheerful demeanor, put air in the tire and promised that the automobile would be fine for the day. The cost: $90 plus gas.
The drive south was as peaceful as the towns they passed. There was Small Hope (motto: "Where there's a will there's a way") and Love Hill ("A smile breeds a smile"). Bungalows and little else marked the towns. The island's tiny population seemed tight-knit and friendly; the few people on the road waved as the Nissan rode by.
After about an hour, they made it to the Andros Town airport, which was closed for construction. Donna looked past a chain-link fence to the lone runway, where old hulls of wrecked planes sat rusting. A 26-year-old airport worker named Mario, curious at the arrival of the strangers, walked over and explained the planes' histories. The largest was a U.S. military cargo aircraft with a mechanical problem that had never been fixed. A private four-seater had run out of fuel and was abandoned. Several others had simply crash-landed.
Donna asked Mario about the reputation of the island, which lies 120 miles southeast of the Florida coast, as a smuggler's paradise. She told him that her husband, Gary, had disappeared in the Bahamas many years before.
"Oh, your husband was a bad boy?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "But he may have been with some of them."
It was a reflexive answer to a piercing question. She couldn't believe that Gary, who back then was newly married with twin baby girls he adored, would have risked his life to join the drug trade. At the same time, it was unfathomable that he had no idea about the people with whom he was involved, including his best friend and employer, Randy Krugh. One thing seemed certain: If Gary was involved in the smuggling, he worked at the bottom of the chain. Her family had seen only a few hundred dollars from his work in the Bahamas. And she'd learned from years of research that even the lowly recruits known as "kickers," who unloaded drugs from the planes, made $5,000 for a single day's work.
"A lot of Bahamians have disappeared -- a lot," Mario said in his melodic Bahamian lilt. "Do you know what we call it? 'Poking death with a stick.' If you mess with drug dealing, you're poking death with a stick."
Donna told Mario she thought the FBI might know what happened to her husband. Mario's smile broadened. He said, "Nobody is better at keeping a secret than the U.S. government."
Donna nodded. She was chasing one of those secrets. And soon after leaving Andros, she would begin to learn many more. They weren't kept by federal agents or local cops, but rather by friends and family members, by some of the people closest to her. Her journey through the drug war led her from the Bahamas back to her own home. And what she discovered shattered the illusions those around her had tried to protect.
Donna looks back and realizes she barely knew Gary. Their courtship went so fast. Within nine months she was pregnant with her twin girls, and that was followed by a whirlwind wedding and a crash course in motherhood.
She didn't meet her new husband's family until after they were married, when they took a trip to his hometown of Convoy, Ohio. There she found hard-working middle-class people. Gary's father, Paul, was a friendly tool-and-die maker and his mother, Teresa, an old-fashioned housewife. The newlyweds returned after a couple of days, and Donna barely spoke to the family again until after Gary disappeared.
"We just didn't know her very well at all," says Tim Weaver, Gary's younger brother. "She called us and said that someone had told her that Gary had died in a plane crash. I never bought that explanation, and it made me suspicious of Donna. We thought she knew more than what she was telling us."
Donna was telling the truth as she knew it, but as time wore on, she would hold back information from Gary's family. She didn't tell the Weaver family about later suspicions that Gary might have been involved in smuggling. "I didn't want to hurt them more than they already were," she explains of her secret.
What she didn't know was that Gary's relatives never needed Donna to tell them that Gary's disappearance was almost surely connected to cocaine. Tim Weaver says his brother seemed destined for a terrible end long before he ever left Ohio for South Florida. The family knew Gary had an addiction, the disease that fueled the immensely profitable drug trade.
After a seemingly happy boyhood spent playing Little League baseball and feeding his fascination for cars and engines, Gary began hanging out with the "not-good crowd" and getting into trouble, Tim says. It started out with kid stuff like stealing candy and cigarettes. Then he began drinking beer and smoking pot. He tried cocaine, and he was hooked.
Gary battled his drug problem for several years -- and always lost. He was arrested on narcotics charges at least twice, Tim recalls. Rehab did little good. Gary started dealing cocaine in Ohio to pay for his own habit. "My dad asked who he was working for, and he said he couldn't say," Tim recalls. "Gary said he'd be killed if he told."
Paul Weaver didn't want to talk about the day Gary vanished. He says he hopes the truth will come out, but he can't bear to relive the past anymore. "We've gone through a lot, and we would like to know what happened to our son," he said in a measured and obviously pained voice. "But this brings back so much hurt, and we just want to live in peace. We don't have much time left on this Earth."
After his 25th birthday, Gary left Ohio and headed south for Florida, telling his family he wanted to escape the drugs and trouble he'd found in Convoy. But that only worried Tim more. "When you want to get away from drugs, you don't go to the Miami area," he says. "At least not back then, when it was the drug capital of the world. It didn't make any sense at all."
About six months before Gary disappeared, Tim visited Fort Lauderdale for spring break and met up with his brother. Gary, then 29 years old, partied with Tim and his friends, who were high school seniors, as if he were one of them. Though Gary didn't openly do any hard drugs, Tim suspected his brother was back to his old ways. "He hadn't changed a lot -- he was still a wild ass," he remembers.
Not long after that, Gary disappeared and his little brother's suspicions fell upon Donna. He thought she might have been involved with drugs too. Now, after many years of slowly getting to know his sister-in-law, he believes differently. "I think she was just naive," he says. "You had to know Gary. He could really charm you."
But Tim acknowledges he had no idea what his brother was doing. One of Gary's best friends, J.P. Delaney, had a better understanding. And he too kept what he knew from Donna until recently, when, after more than two decades, he decided it was time to tell her.
Delaney remembers the day he and Gary arrived at the Opa-locka Airport sometime in 1982, about a year before Gary disappeared. Randy Krugh, who employed both men, had asked them to put seats back into a Cessna 172 and "dust-bust" it thoroughly. Delaney says he and Gary weren't naive about what they were doing.
They were going to clean a drug plane.
"Me and Gary were just the low guys in it," says Delaney. "I mean dirt low, buddy."
When they arrived at the airport, Delaney says, they noticed the tires on the landing gear were flat. He suspected that federal agents might have flattened the tires to ground the plane. Already suspicious, they then saw men approaching them from opposite sides of the tarmac. They ran.
"We thought it might have been Customs and DEA, and we took off," recalls Delaney, who worked alongside Gary at Terra Movers, the excavation company owned by Krugh. "We got out in the nick of time. After that I said, 'I'm done with this.' And I was. I never did that stuff again. But Gary kept going. He kept going with it."
Gary was not only eager to make drug money, he also used the product. His cocaine use was at times out of control, though Delaney says his marriage and the twins' birth seemed to change him.
Just not enough.
"Gary was a wonderful guy," Delaney says. "He was just a really likable guy, and I looked up to him. But I saw that this great friend who used to play with my girlfriend's son was becoming a Scarface. He was becoming one of them. He once told me he could do exactly what Randy Krugh was doing. All he needed was a translator."
Delaney never learned the truth about his friend's fate, but he believes his disappearance was linked to their boss. "Look, this won't sound good, but it's the truth -- Gary was Randy's flunky," he says. "And Randy was [cooperating with authorities] and he could be a chickenshit. The guys who wanted to get Randy couldn't get to him, so they killed Gary to shut him up. Gary was nothing but a pawn on a chessboard. That's all he was, and he wasn't important to anybody, so the police never cared either.
"And I was so stupid. I was sitting there watching all this, but I was on my 'dozer minding my own beeswax. And that's where I stayed. That's why I don't own nothing and I'm still an hourly bulldozer operator in Fort Lauderdale."
He pauses and adds, "But I'm still alive."
Why didn't Delaney tell Donna these things 21 years ago?
"I thought she would get mad at me," he explains. "And I didn't think it would do any good anyway."
When she heard Delaney's revelations, Donna seemed shell-shocked. "I look back, and I just think of how dumb I was," she says. "I really didn't know anything. I was so busy with my girls, I must not have been paying attention. But Gary knew that if I had known about any of it, I would have lost it, and it would have stopped fast."
Her sister Kathy, who lived in the same apartment complex in Coral Springs at the time Gary disappeared, concurs that Donna was simply too busy with the twins to know what her husband was really doing. "She had no idea," she says.
Kathy, who was Donna's maid of honor, should know. She helped hide the truth about Gary as much as anyone. And it wasn't until two weeks ago that she confessed what she knew to Donna.
Kathy remembers walking into her big sister's apartment's bathroom and hearing either Gary or his boss, Krugh, say, "They won't even miss it."
The two men were standing near the sink, and Gary held a large plastic freezer bag filled with cocaine.
"Where did you get all that coke?" she asked.
"Don't worry about it," Gary told her. "Just get out of here, Kath."
It was the day of Donna's daughters' christening, October 16, 1983, just two months before Gary disappeared. Kathy, who is two years younger than Donna, didn't tell her sister about it. She never told Donna about Gary's cocaine.
"He used coke -- we used coke together," admits Kathy, who now lives in New Jersey. "He would always say, 'Don't tell your sister, don't tell your sister.' He had his party side to him, and Donna was all about the kids. She was always taking care of the girls."
Kathy, who was 21 years old at the time, says Gary would routinely come to her apartment to "borrow her bathroom." He would usually arrive with a prepared hypodermic needle filled with a liquid cocaine solution and inject it. Sometimes he'd freebase. And Gary would usually bring some powder for Kathy to snort.
"Donna would have been all over him if she knew about it," says her sister. "If she knew, she would have been screaming at him."
She believes Gary and Krugh stole the cocaine she saw in the bathroom, and that was the reason her brother-in-law was killed. "I never told Donna because I thought she had suffered enough," Kathy says in an emotion-choked voice. "I didn't want to hurt her more and I didn't want to stomp on Gary's memory. But the truth is, there were secrets.
"Gary had a weakness. He had a problem. And he tried to shield it from Donna and the girls, and he did a very good job of it. I think the motivating factor for what he was doing with those people was he wanted to provide for his family. He wanted to get them out of the apartment and into a house. He wanted to give them everything."
For years after the disappearance, Kathy says she was angry with Gary: "When I saw his beautiful daughters, all I could think was, 'Look at what you're missing.' He loved those girls so much. I remember when he would come home from work, Donna would walk over to hug him and he'd open his arms and say, 'Where's my girls?'"
Why did she break her silence now?
"For the first time I realized how serious Donna is about finding out the truth," she says. "I want to help her even though, to be perfectly frank, I'm not sure I agree with what she's doing."
Donna insists she doesn't blame Gary. "Maybe I was pushing him too hard," she says, choking back emotion. "I wanted him to succeed, but maybe it was too much for him. I feel so sorry for him, what he must have gone through."
The compassion and sadness, however, is mixed with disappointment and anger.
"If Gary were here now, I would kill him after finding all of this stuff out," she says, mustering a small laugh.
And she struggles with how to tell her daughters, now grown, that their father had such fundamental flaws -- weaknesses that may have endangered the family he loved so much and led to his own death.
"All the memories they have of their father are the ones we gave them," Donna says.
But none of the revelations has weakened Donna's resolve to find Gary. "It doesn't change anything," she says. "Gary didn't deserve to die. And whoever did it shouldn't be allowed to get away with it."
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She doesn't feel much closer, however, to finding out who that is. It's a recurring trait of the mystery -- the more Donna finds out, the more clueless she feels. And of course she has more immediate concerns. Her long-time boyfriend, D.J. Girard, who has supported her efforts to find Gary, suffers from a serious illness that has been draining both of them emotionally and financially. She lives alone in a small Fort Lauderdale apartment and her assistant bar manager's salary is barely enough to pay the bills.
She still drives a huge, clanking Oldsmobile, a yellow station wagon built in 1977 -- the same year as the Cutlass she first drove to South Florida nearly 24 years ago. Donna had no idea what lay in store for her on that drive to Coral Springs a half a lifetime ago. And she says she longs to make another trip after she finally discovers what happened to Gary.
"I can't wait to burn all of these papers and put all of this behind me," she says. "But I have to know what it is first. And then I want to drive to the Grand Canyon and see all the beautiful things there are in this country. I can't wait."
Next week: An epilogue in which family members of a man who disappeared on Gary's final flight reach out to Donna.