One Way Out: Millionaire Guma Aguiar Disappeared Off Fort Lauderdale Beach; Where Could He Have Gone? | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


One Way Out: Millionaire Guma Aguiar Disappeared Off Fort Lauderdale Beach; Where Could He Have Gone?

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It was the tennis match at Vero Beach all over again: Everyone was watching, expecting Aguiar to win. For a while, it seemed as if he would.

Aguiar and Kaplan had cashed out and made their fortune in 2007, but by 2009, their relationship had dissolved and Kaplan filed two lawsuits against his nephew.

One, in Broward County Circuit Court, alleged that Aguiar had mishandled donations from Kaplan to a foundation in memory of his mother, Lillian Kaplan. Another, in federal court, accused Aguiar of committing fraud relating to the proceeds from their oil- and gas-drilling windfall. Kaplan wanted damages and to strip Aguiar of all the money he had made as a partner.

As Kaplan told it in the lawsuit, Aguiar's adventure in Texas was little more than a research errand for Kaplan. "Kaplan instructed Aguiar to identify potential oil and gas leaseholds," read the legal complaint. "To accomplish this, Aguiar spoke with Kaplan on a daily basis, during which he received instructions, discussed prospects, was tutored on the processes to be followed... and received approval for purchases."

Moreover, Kaplan said Aguiar had frittered away the exploration venture's money. This included claims that Aguiar had used the money to obtain a personal bodyguard, to pay his friend for "personal services," and to pay Jamie $100,000 as a "consulting fee." The most striking accusation mentioned in both suits: "that Aguiar has come to believe he is the messiah, and has diverted funds in part to support his messianic mission."

Aguiar did seem to be losing a grasp on where his real success ended and his dreams began. He had started telling people he was owner of Beitar Jerusalem rather than just a donor. In a 2009 interview, he had said, "I expect I'm the richest man in Israel, and I'm still growing. Whatever I do succeeds. Nobody can buy me."

Aguiar hired a filmmaker, Jerry Levine, to follow him through Florida and Israel, making a series of documentaries about his life and work. Aguiar wanted to write his own story, apart from the hounding media. Levine says Aguiar told him that "he was tired of being this guy making money for other people." In the Houston Chronicle interview, he described his venture in Texas with Leor Exploration as "a one-man show where I was the CEO, CFO, secretary, treasurer, plumber, and land man."

Even his charity often had an extreme, go-for-broke quality. When some members of Chabad wanted to travel to New York to visit the grave of a spiritual leader, he chartered a huge plane and brought bag lunches for everybody. When they were laid over in Moscow on a religious pilgrimage and needed to shower, he rented out dozens of hotel rooms for a few hours. Levine recalls, "One time, he had 14 seats on the floor for an [NBA] playoff game. That's a little over-the-top."

Aguiar had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the filmmaker saw periods of dark depression. "Unfortunately, I've seen him at his best and I've seen him at his worst too," Levine says. "That same sort of aggressiveness and drive, that ambitious focus, could be turned [to] work against him. Now all of a sudden, [he was] spending 20 hours a day doing stupid things."

In June 2009, Aguiar was arrested for erratic driving and marijuana possession. Police officers later reported he acted violent in custody and told them he would "take [their] jobs and [their] families."

Rabbi Singer concedes that Aguiar might have had a big ego but believes that if he ever called himself a messiah, it was just because he saw himself as a devoted servant of God improving the world. "Guma said to me: 'I don't care if I'm the messiah or if I bring him his coffee in the morning. I just want it to happen.' "

Late on a Wednesday night in January 2010, an ambulance accompanied by two police cars drove to the house in Tel Aviv where Aguiar was staying with a friend, according to the newspaper Haaretz, and transported him to a mental hospital south of the city.

Earlier that day, he had made some strange statements during one of his many interviews with a local paper, implying that he had ventured into the embattled Gaza Strip to single-handedly free imprisoned Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit had been abducted by Palestinians in 2006; he was the first such hostage since 1994, and fighting for his release had become a national cause.

"He's at one of my properties," Aguiar reportedly said. "I have saved thousands of people, not only Gilad Shalit." To the media, it was an outlandish boast; to Jamie, it was just the latest outburst and a source of major embarrassment for the family. (Shalit was eventually released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians jailed by Israel.) She arranged by court order to have him committed, cooperating with his mother to declare him mentally unstable. The family released a statement, blaming the incident on stress from his uncle's lawsuit.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph

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