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Finding Jairo

Leslie Culmer (right) and her mother, Carlota, are looking for Jairo.
Jonathan Postal

In the dream, a young and strong Jairo Sanchez stands on a beach before a vast ocean. His long-mourning sister Beatriz asks him where he's been. But he doesn't answer. Instead, Jairo only stands there, as if he is lost with amnesia. He stares out into the distance.

"Jairo, what happened to you?" the sister asks.

"Don't ask me any questions," he tells her.

The dream is about all that Beatriz has left of her younger brother, who disappeared in the Bahamas in 1983 at the age of 25. In it, she tried to find what she and the rest of the missing man's loved ones want most: an answer. But two decades passed without any new clues in the disappearance of the Colombian national who grew up in Hialeah and left behind a two-year-old daughter.

Then, earlier this month, Jairo's relatives found something that gave them new hope -- and led them to Bahamian police investigators. In a recently published series in New Times about the disappearance of Gary Weaver, the family noticed chilling similarities. The date Gary disappeared, December 9, 1983, was in the precise timeframe that Jairo was lost to his family. The smooth-talking American in the Bahamas with whom Jairo was staying was named Jeff Fisher, just like Gary's ghostly host. Both men were also last known to have been on a Beechcraft Queen Air plane that took off from the Nassau airport. And the tail number mentioned in the article, N88KP, matched the one the family had been given for the plane Jairo had boarded.

As if that weren't enough evidence, the family had also been told shortly after Jairo vanished that her son had taken the plane trip with an American friend named Gary Weaver. Jairo's mother, Lilia, who speaks little English, wrote down the name as "Guirre Wilver" and included it in a letter she wrote to the Colombian government on April 16, 1984. "With our broken hearts from the immense pain, we ask for your cooperation," she wrote in Spanish to government officials more than two decades ago.

As far as the family knows, that letter was ignored. But Jairo's daughter, Leslie Culmer, who is now 24, contacted Bahamas Royal Police Force Superintendent Glen Miller. The police official, who is conducting a belated homicide investigation into the Gary Weaver case, arranged for one of his officers to take a sworn statement from Leslie this past Monday.

"I want to find out what happened to my father," says Leslie. "I need to find that closure in my life."

She contacted Donna Weaver at a restaurant in Plantation, where they found even more similarities between the cases. Each woman had kept the phone number for the mysterious Jeff Fisher in the Bahamas -- and the numbers matched. Donna had also been told that a third man on the plane might have been named "Pete." Jairo's relatives were informed there was a man named "Pete Gallo" on the plane.

Each is convinced their loved ones perished together -- and that realization packed an emotional punch. Their two families had gone through the same painful loss and, even though they lived only a county apart, it took them more than 21 years to find out about each other.

"I always wondered who the other person was, and now I finally know," Donna says. "It was Jairo. How come nobody ever told us this?"

The revelation provides new hope for both families. The most compelling lead comes from Jairo's relatives, who are convinced a man named Gustavo Urquijo knows what happened.

Urquijo, a former family friend who is now 68-years-old, picked up Jairo on the morning of December 4, 1983, for what was the younger man's third and final trip to the Bahamas. It was the day after Donna took Gary to the airport for what also happened to be his third trip to the islands.

Echoing Donna's story, the relatives of Jairo say they had no idea at the time that he might have been involved in drug smuggling, especially since he rarely had any money and even had to borrow $30 for that final journey to the islands. Jairo, who worked as a security guard and translator, told his family that he was importing TVs and other appliances to Colombia through the Bahamas.

He last called the family on the morning of December 9, says Beatriz -- the same day of Gary's final flight. When Jairo failed to come home, relatives questioned Urquijo, who told them about Jeff Fisher and gave her the plane number and the names of Gary Weaver and "Pete Gallo."

Extensive efforts to reach Urquijo, who was convicted in the mid-1990s along with his two sons for his role in a Medicaid fraud scheme, weren't successful. Beatriz says that he was initially helpful, even giving her an address for Jeff Fisher in the Bahamas. She and Jairo's father and brother, both named Jaime, then flew to Nassau and knocked on Fisher's door.

Beatriz recalls that he lived in a large home by the ocean, which matches the description -- "a big house with big windows on the water" -- Gary gave to Donna before he disappeared.

Fisher met them at the door. Beatriz describes him as a white English-speaking American, about 52-years-old, with small eyeglasses and a thin, well-trimmed beard. Her brother reminded her that he remembered that Fisher was of average height and was gordo -- or fat.

The man assured them he was doing everything possible to find Jairo. "I really had faith he was telling us the truth," Beatriz recalls.

The family tried numerous avenues to locate Jairo. The missing man's wife, Carlota, went to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which opened a case but found little new information. She also turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which she says ignored her call for help. Carlota also stayed in phone contact with Fisher, who at one point promised her a large sum of money.

"It's $30,000, and I know Jairo's life is worth more than that, but it's all I can do," Carlota recalls the man called Jeff telling her.

Carlota says Fisher told her she could pick up the money at Urquijo's house, but he only gave her $1,000. Shortly after that, Fisher's phone was disconnected and Urquijo demanded that the family stop looking altogether. Beatriz says Urquijo told them that Jeff Fisher was a dangerous man and was connected to a Colombian cartel. Urquijo relayed a message: If they kept looking, little Leslie would be killed and she would be followed by other family members, one by one.

Those words terrified the family, which knew of the viciousness of Colombian drug smugglers. Wishing to avoid any more bloodshed, Jairo's loved ones stopped searching.

Until now. The family has new hope and have rekindled the search for Jairo.

"He was an excellent son; he treated my mother like a queen," Beatriz said of her brother as she broke into tears. "He was a very sweet person. My mother has never been the same. It has destroyed her."

Donna is working closely with the family to coordinate the efforts.

"Here we are suffering today and nobody ever told us about each other," Donna said. "It's not right."

Their first goal is to find the true identity of Jeff Fisher. Former Congressional aide Lisa Sevier, who investigated Gary's disappearance for a U.S. Senate committee in the mid-1980s, says she could never get much information on the man. "I believe he was either an informant or an undercover agent," she says. "I think the guy has had some protective status for some time. Everything goes dead with Fisher when you're trying to find out about Gary."

The fate of the aircraft is just as much a mystery as anything else. According to police reports from the time, federal agents knew that the white, nine-seat Beechcraft Queen Air was used by drug smugglers. The plane, built in 1966, was registered to a defunct Boynton Beach company called Air America Transport. Current Federal Aviation Administration records show it is still registered to that non-existent firm.

Leslie says she hopes to find the plane -- and her father. As a young girl, she was told only that he had perished in an airplane. And she, too, has had dreams about her father, whom she knows only from photos and videos in which he happily holds her. In one of her the dreams, she saw him in an airport. He just gazed at her as she wept.

"When I was little, I would look up at airplanes in the sky and wave at them, thinking my father might be up there," she says.

Not far up the road in Coral Springs, Gary's twin daughters were also told their father had died in a plane. Lauren Weaver, who is now 22-years-old, says she is frightened of flying to this day. " I always thought he was watching over us and caring for us," says Lauren. "I always knew there was more to the story, and I really want to know what happened to him. I think I have a right to know."

Leslie feels exactly the same way: "This is the time that God has found for me to find him."


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