Into Thin Air
The morning before her first wedding anniversary, Donna Weaver drove to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Her husband was finally coming home.
Just the day before, Gary Weaver called from Nassau and said, "Donna Mae, I'm coming home tomorrow." Excited by the news, she told him that one of their twin baby daughters was saying "Da Da," and put her on the phone. But the baby wouldn't make a sound. Gary, a doting father, would have to wait to hear it.
At the airport Donna watched as the passengers strolled through the gate and embraced friends and loved ones. She waited to give Gary a hug. It had been a week since her husband, a diesel mechanic, left to work on a boat in the Bahamas.
The passengers stopped coming. She stood at the gate alone. Gary was missing.
It was December 10, 1983, the day Donna Weaver's husband disappeared forever, and her dream of having a normal life washed away like so much wreckage in the Atlantic. During the next few years, she would discover that Gary was involved with a den of drug smugglers, and she became convinced that he was murdered. Ever since then she's been trying to find out what happened to him, and still, 17 years later, as the twins near high-school graduation, she hasn't found her answer. No one seems able to tell her what happened -- not local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or Congress.
Now 40 years old and still holding on to some of the youthful prettiness she had as a newlywed, Weaver has yet to give up and may finally be getting the help she needs. Coral Springs police Det. Nick Iarriccio says he's going to take a crack at solving Gary's disappearance, a mystery that reaches into the heart of Operation Airlift, an FBI debacle in which a young, prized FBI agent became a drug smuggler.
Weaver had no idea that her quest to find out what happened to her husband would lead to such dark places. And she says her journey into the drug war has been harrowing and frightening at times -- especially when government officials and investigators warn her that her crusade is putting her life in danger. She's seen firsthand that the battlefields of the drug war in South Florida and the Caribbean are places where death comes cheap and truth is about as easy to grasp as a handful of finely cut cocaine.
"I was just a baby when this happened," says Weaver of the day her husband was lost to her. "I didn't know anything. I was naive, but I wasn't stupid."
In the beginning Weaver was armed with only a couple shreds of information. She knew Gary was working in the Bahamas for a man known as "Jeff Fisher." And Gary had told her on December 9, the last time she heard his voice, that he was going to fly that day with some people to an outer key to work on a boat. It is on that flight, according to police and Weaver, that Gary is believed to have met his death.
The man called Fisher was vague and uncooperative -- with both Coral Springs police, who investigated the missing-person case and contacted Fisher in the Bahamas by phone, and with Donna Weaver, who also called Fisher on the phone. Days went by without any news until December 16, when a friend of Gary's named John Simms came to Donna Weaver's apartment and told her, without explanation, that Gary had died in a plane crash. Weaver tearfully remembers her reply when Simms asked her, as she held a baby in each arm, if she needed anything: "I need you to bring Gary back to me."
Coral Springs police and an attorney hired by Weaver determined that Gary, on the day he disappeared, was likely on a known drug-smuggling aircraft that was owned by a defunct Boynton Beach company called American Air Transport. A flight plan for the December 9 takeoff listed the pilot as "Captain Boudreau" and indicated that there were two others, including Gary, on board. To this day nobody knows the true identity of Captain Boudreau. No record indicates the plane ever crashed.
Weaver says she didn't know what to think about the news that Gary might have been involved in smuggling. She says he certainly didn't make much money and believes if he was working for smugglers, his role was insignificant. "I can't believe he would put me and my children in such jeopardy," she says. "But he didn't deserve to die."
More than a year went by without any new clue surfacing. The FBI and DEA, Weaver says, didn't seem to want to touch the case. Then one day Simms, sobbing and incoherent, again came to Weaver. "He said, 'It's not right what they did to Gary,'" she recalls. "He wasn't making sense. He scared me. Both the babies were crying, and I told him to leave."
Simms left behind $1000 cash for Weaver on her kitchen counter. Just a few days later, another friend, Randy Krugh, who was best man at the Weavers' wedding, gave her shocking news: Simms had been killed. The plane he was piloting disappeared without a trace, Krugh told her.
Krugh, a childhood friend of Gary's in Ohio, is himself a central figure in the mystery of Gary's disappearance. Unbeknownst to Donna Weaver, Krugh was a prolific drug pilot who flew loads of pot and cocaine for several smugglers, including Hilmer Sandini and Dan Mitrione. Mitrione was the FBI agent from Operation Airlift who went bad. Sandini was Mitrione's murderous informant and partner in crime.
Krugh also owned an excavation company and employed Gary as his bulldozer operator. Donna Weaver swears it was Krugh who got Gary the job with "Jeff Fisher." Krugh steadfastly denies it. "I have no idea what happened to Gary," says Krugh, who was contacted in Ohio, where he now lives a much quieter life.
But the very fact that Gary was connected to Krugh inarguably put him in danger in the Bahamas. FBI and DEA records show that Krugh, at the very time that Gary was in the Bahamas, had two mortal enemies: Sandini and a shadowy drug smuggler named Pat Hagerman, who operated in the Bahamas. Sandini and Hagerman, according to reports, knew that Krugh was snitching on them to investigators. Krugh admits that his life had been threatened and that anyone linked to him could have been targeted by his enemies. Krugh says he has no idea why Simms disappeared but understands that it was in a plane somewhere off the coast of West Palm Beach.
Sandini has since died in prison. Hagerman's whereabouts are unknown. Donna Weaver, however, says she learned years ago from a federal agent that Hagerman and "Jeff Fisher" were one and the same. This, of course, answers nothing but certainly makes Hagerman a more intriguing character in the disappearance. Interestingly Krugh says that Simms, the mysterious missing pilot, also flew smuggling missions for Hagerman. New Times has been unable to locate Hagerman.
In 1986 Donna Weaver managed to spark a Congressional investigation. She contacted Rep. James J. Howard, of her home state of New Jersey, in an attempt to get social security benefits for her daughters. To get those benefits, Gary had to be officially declared dead. Howard's aide, Lisa Sevier, checked into the disappearance and wound up turning it into a major investigation that looked at the government's methods in tracking potential drug planes.
Sevier, who spent years working on the case, says the investigation ultimately changed FAA rules and delved into the many "disappeared" men of the drug war, men like Gary Weaver and John Simms, who were either murdered or died in plane crashes. But Sevier concedes that the original question -- what happened to Gary? -- "got lost" in the larger issues. Gary was declared dead, and Donna Weaver was awarded a $60,000 lump-sum payment and a stipend of $1800 a month, but she still had no answer. Weaver thinks the truth has been buried. "Do you think Congress would give me all that money without knowing what happened?" she asks. "Somebody has to know."
Weaver may be right. Sevier says she learned that information was provided by federal agents to the Social Security Administration that roughly outlined how Gary died. But these reports are confidential, she says, and may never be declassified -- just another secret of the drug war. "Gary Weaver was not a bad guy," Sevier says. "He was a guy that was trying to make money for his family, and he bit off more than he could chew."
The prevailing theory, Sevier says, is that Weaver was likely pushed out or fell from a drug plane. But why did the feds not make a case of his death? "He was such a minor figure," Sevier says, "and there were too many people who disappeared at that time in South Florida. It was like the Wild West in Fort Lauderdale back then. Federal agents were too busy investigating drug cases."
Iarriccio, the Coral Springs detective who is reopening the case, says he plans to talk to Krugh -- along with other "cocaine cowboys" of the era -- to try to find a probable cause of Gary's disappearance. Iarriccio says he's taking the case because he wants to help Donna Weaver.
But Sevier doesn't think it's a good idea. She says that Weaver, every time she digs into her husband's death, is putting her own life in danger. It's a common line, Weaver says. Numerous agents and investigators have told her that pursuing her husband's case is extremely dangerous. But she says she's tired of living in fear, and she hopes Iarriccio can find the answer. Strange names and people -- Boudreau, Fisher, Hagerman, Simms -- haunt her, and she says there's no way she's going to give up now.
"I want to know what happened to my husband," she says. "And if someone is responsible for his death, I want them to be punished."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:
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