Finding Gary, Part 1

Donna Weaver didn't look down on the leaden Atlantic Ocean below. Fighting the three-headed nightmare of fear, mourning, and nausea, she didn't dare. Donna hated flying in even the largest jets, and this tin can hurtling above the Bahamas -- a claustrophobia-inducing cylinder stuffed to capacity with 19 passengers and a couple of pilots -- was barely a plane. But the journey to Andros Island had to be made. It was time. After more than 21 years, it was time. She was finally going to her husband's grave.

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.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman