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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

One Year Later: Christian Aguilar remembered as Bravo case continues

<p>The Reverend William H. Russell Jr., 51, from The United New Testament Church International speaks at a candlelight vigil held for missing Christian Aguilar on the corner of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue Thursday evening. Christian Aguilar went missing on Sept. 20, Pedro Bravo, the main suspect in the disappearance was indicted with murder and kidnapping charges on Monday.</p>

The Reverend William H. Russell Jr., 51, from The United New Testament Church International speaks at a candlelight vigil held for missing Christian Aguilar on the corner of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue Thursday evening. Christian Aguilar went missing on Sept. 20, Pedro Bravo, the main suspect in the disappearance was indicted with murder and kidnapping charges on Monday.

Jump to section: 1: Brothers 2: Vanished 3: Warning signs
4: The search 5: Abandoned 6: Discovery 7: A year later

The call came in the middle of the night, jolting Carlos Aguilar awake as he slept in a Beaty Towers dorm room.

It was 3 a.m. on Oct. 13, and after spending nearly a month in Gainesville looking for his missing 18-year-old son, it had become routine for Carlos to keep his cellphone on in case police tried to call.

He picked up, and a reporter’s voice greeted him.

A body had been found, she said, in the woods in Levy County.

It was the first time Carlos heard of the body’s discovery, but it was a moment he had been preparing for since he made the 340-mile trip from South Florida on Sept. 21.

He contacted Gainesville Police to confirm what the reporter told him.

Did they really find a body?

Yes, the officer said, but investigators could not confirm an identity yet. They did, however, believe it was his son. The clothing — a striped long-sleeve shirt, dark pants and navy Vans — matched the outfit he was last seen wearing.

Pacing, Carlos asked if he should stop the search.

Yes.

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“At that moment,” Carlos, 45, said, “I knew they had found Christian.”

Next month marks a year since Carlos hung up the phone in that room and cried as he shared the news with his family.

UF freshman Christian Aguilar went missing in September 2012, starting a disappearance-turned-murder case that gripped the Gainesville community and still hasn’t ended.

His death, as well as the arrest of Pedro Bravo, the 19-year-old former Santa Fe College student accused of killing him, brought national attention to the city.

Volunteers and officers statewide came to help the Aguilars and local police search miles of woods, swamps and fields.

Now, a year later, two families are without their sons.

One is dead, the other in jail.

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Brothers

Christian was born Nov. 16, 1993, the oldest of two boys.

Growing up in Doral, outside Miami, Christian was close to his younger brother, Alex.

He and Alex, 17, often played soccer and watched TV together. If Alex encountered a problem, Christian was the first person he’d call.

Now, Alex takes comfort in learning more about his brother from old friends and Christian’s 19-year-old girlfriend, Erika Friman.

He clings to details of his older brother — like how Christian would stop on the street to pet kittens — to remember him.

“Random things like that and any little fun fact about Chris always are so important to me,” he said, “because those little actions and details add to the Chris that I knew.”

Since his brother’s funeral, Alex said, the family has tried to return to normalcy.

But it’s been a struggle because many of the questions surrounding Christian’s death are still unanswered.

“Even with all the information we know now, you never know exactly what happened,” Alex said. “And that curiosity of wanting to know ... always exists.”

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Vanished

Christian set his sights on UF when he was a junior at Doral Academy Preparatory School, where he took college-level classes in the Scholars Program. Bravo, who dated Friman for more than two years, was also in the program.

Shortly before graduating summa cum laude in 2012, Christian got his wish: He’d be a Gator starting Summer B.

He wanted a biomedical engineering degree.

He wanted to go to medical school.

He wanted to be a cardiologist.

In Gainesville, Christian spent time with Friman, who he’d started dating after their graduation. They ate at restaurants like Chick-fil-A and attended GatorNights at the Reitz Union.

On Sept. 19, the night before Christian went missing, he was at Friman’s apartment. She asked him to stay the night.

He couldn’t. He had to wake up early.

They kissed goodbye.

Friman watched Christian walk to the bus stop, where he boarded a bus back to campus.

That was the last time she saw him alive.

The next evening, she texted Christian. He had plans to meet Bravo, who wanted his advice on something.

“He didn’t really want to go and meet with Pedro,” Friman said. However, “he felt bad not helping him.”

Later, after hours of leaving voice mails and text messages, Friman called several of their mutual friends.

None had seen or heard from him.

She started to worry but tried reasoning herself out of it.

Maybe Christian was at the library. Maybe he was at home sleeping. Maybe he just didn’t have signal.

“I always had a gut feeling from early on when he wasn’t answering, but it was kind of like, ‘Let me think of this rationally. I’m sure he’s fine ... I’m sure it was a reasonable explanation,’” she said.

She fell asleep but not for long. Friman woke up in the middle of the night and tried Christian’s phone again. Still nothing. She called Bravo several times. No answer.

Finally, Bravo picked up. He said he and Christian had an argument earlier, ending in Christian getting out of the car in north Gainesville.

Frustrated, Friman got off the phone with Bravo and called her sister. Eventually, she went to sleep.

She woke up early on Sept. 21 and called Christian’s roommate. She asked if Christian returned to their dorm.

He hadn’t.

“That’s when I started panicking.”

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Warning signs

Meanwhile, more than 300 miles south in Kendall, Carlos arrived at his KW Property Management & Consulting office.

Then, he got a call from his wife, Claudia.

She asked if he’d talked to Christian recently. No, he said, not since earlier in the week.

Claudia told him Friman hadn’t been able to reach Christian the night before.

“Immediately, as a father, I knew something was wrong,” he said.

Carlos closed his office and headed to Doral Academy, where Alex, too, had received a call from Friman. Alex hadn’t answered, but he thought it was weird she would call him.

Shortly after noon, another unusual occurrence: Carlos pulled Alex out of his Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class.

“My dad would never take me out of school without letting me know,” Alex said.

Something happened to Christian, Carlos explained, as the two drove to pick up Claudia.

They didn’t stop at their house to pack.

Instead, they drove to a gas station and left for Gainesville just after 12:30 p.m.

For most of the drive, the family was silent.

“It was one of the longest car rides I’ve ever had,” Alex said, “even though we made a five-hour trip in around three hours.”

Carlos’ mind raced: Where would he get the money to afford search dogs? How was he going to ask other people for help? Would he find his son alive?

At about 3:30 p.m., the family arrived at UPD headquarters, near Beaty.

Friman and her older sister came out of the station and told the Aguilars that officers took Bravo in for questioning.

He told police he fought with Christian the day before and left him on the 5000 block of Northwest 13th Street.

The family later learned Bravo would be detained under Florida’s Baker Act because he told officers he would hurt himself.

“We were very realistic about the situation,” Alex said. “We understood what could have happened. And even though we didn’t want to accept it, we understood the possibility of him murdering Chris.”

The family, along with Friman and several others, went to Northwest 13th Street and started the search for Christian. Later, they returned to campus, where University Police offered the family a Beaty room to sleep in.

The family was out searching before dawn the next day.

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The search

The family looked along Northwest 13th Street, and with police, combed the Interstate 75 corridor between Newberry Road and Southwest Williston Road. They’d check an area around Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road. They’d search the woods around Southwest 62nd Boulevard, Alley Katz Corner bowling alley, Windmeadows Mobile Home Park.

The search also reached UF, where volunteers posted and distributed fliers with Christian’s face on them.

GPD helicopters circled above the city while police dogs sniffed for Christian.

Most of the Aguilar family drove up from South Florida to help, cutting through trees with machetes and poking the ground with branches.

Almost all of Gainesville Police’s officers were involved in the search, GPD spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said. They worked with UPD officers and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

“Once we realized that we had good, solid evidence that something happened to Christian, and we couldn’t find him, it was literally call everybody out,” he said. “There are no off days. There’s no vacation. Everybody’s looking for this kid.”

During the investigation, 18 agencies donated resources, which included police dogs from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Sweetwater Police Department.

Tobias said the FBI and U.S. Marshals were involved.

More than 400 volunteers, including residents from Alachua and Miami-Dade counties, helped.

UF and SFC students also joined in.

Samuel Schaller, a 20-year-old SFC emergency medical services sophomore from Sarasota, decided to participate after he saw a posting on Gainesville Police’s Facebook page.

“I just saw they were looking for volunteers, and I knew I would be somewhat decent at that,” he said.

Twelve local businesses, including Jimmy John’s, donated food, water and supplies.

Doral Academy Principal Douglas Rodriguez allowed his students and teachers — many of whom knew Christian and Bravo — to drive up to Gainesville. The school collected $40,000 in donations for the family.

“In my 27 years being principal, I’ve never seen a reaction from a community and group of students like I saw for Christian,” he said.

Working alongside the Aguilars was Patrick Sessions, of Coconut Grove, who assists families through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Sessions, 66, said the search reminded him of when his 20-year-old daughter, Tiffany, disappeared 24 years ago on a walk through UF’s campus.

“This case was a lot closer to home for me because it was Gainesville,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘God, this family is going through exactly what I did.’”

Although Tiffany’s case remains unsolved, Sessions said the recovery of Christian’s body was “nothing short of a miracle.”

With the amount of volunteers and law enforcement in the search, Tobias said he hadn’t seen a case impact a community in the same magnitude since the 1990 Danny Rolling murders.

“Every single person in Gainesville knew about [Christian’s] case,” he said. “It took this community. It really did.”

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Abandoned

Three days into the search, GPD officers arrested Bravo on a charge of depriving a victim of medical care and booked him into the Alachua County Jail.

On Sept. 28, with no body recovered, Gainesville Police announced Bravo would be charged with first-degree murder. Evidence revealed Bravo purchased a shovel and duct tape four days before Christian disappeared.

Reports also showed Bravo changed his story three times when detectives interviewed him a week earlier.

First, he said he dropped Christian off on Northwest 13th Street and denied fighting with him.

Then, he said he punched Christian in the face and forced him out of the car.

Finally, Bravo told police he got out of the car and beat Christian for “10 to 15 minutes” until he was “bloody, swollen and barely breathing or moving,” according to reports.

Police also announced they found blood inside Bravo’s 2004 Chevrolet Blazer. Christian’s backpack was found stuffed in a suitcase in Bravo’s Spyglass Apartments room.

The search changed.

Police weren’t looking for Christian alive. They were looking for a body.

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Discovery

As the search ticked close to its third week, an Alachua County grand jury indicted Bravo on capital murder and kidnapping charges. It also decided he would remain in jail without bond.

Following the indictment, the Aguilar family returned to Doral. Carlos and Claudia told their bosses they were taking more time off to look for Christian while Alex talked with teachers about missed classwork.

On Oct. 12, as the family made its way again to Gainesville, two hunters walked through the Gulf Hammock Hunting Club about 30 minutes outside of Cedar Key.

As the hunters looked for firewood, they smelled death. Maybe a rotting deer, they thought. Instead, they found a partially buried body off a dirt road.

The Levy County Sheriff’s Office responded and called Gainesville Police.

Investigators worked to identify the remains, but the Aguilars believed it was their son.

On Oct. 15, they got their confirmation.

The body, according to dental records, was Christian’s.

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A year later

The Aguilars brought Christian’s remains back from Gainesville and buried them in Doral on Oct. 23, but they’ve struggled to heal since.

In a tight-knit family of four, there are now only three.

With one less dish to wash, an empty spot on the couch and an unused bedroom, the family can’t escape memories of Christian.

Carlos said his family turned to religion and therapy to help with the loss.

They founded the Christian Aguilar Search and Rescue Foundation, an organization dedicated to using trained tracking dogs to find missing victims.

“If you don’t do something good about this tragedy ... you will not recover,” he said.

Sebastian Arias, one of Christian’s closest friends growing up, is still coping with his friend’s death.

“I was really knocked off my feet,” Arias, 19, said. “Every time Christian comes up death-wise, it’s another smack to the face like, ‘OK. It’s real. Wake up.’”

And Alex, too, sometimes forgets.

He forgets about the three weeks he spent in Gainesville, walking through the woods looking for his brother.

He forgets he can’t text Christian — even though he keeps the contact information in his iPhone.

He forgets Christian’s not in his room, safe and sound, playing on his laptop.

But the worst of all, Alex said, is the silence in the house.

“That’s when you realize the gravity of what had happened,” he said.

Bravo remains in jail and faces multiple charges, including kidnapping, homicide, lying to police, providing false reports, mishandling human remains, tampering with physical evidence, and poisoning food and/or water with the intent to kill or injure a person. He’s pled not guilty to all.

In the year since his arrest, Bravo has hired several lawyers in his defense.

Currently, the state attorney’s office and Bravo’s defense team are taking depositions from more than 100 witnesses.

“I want to know everything, so I can officially put it in my mind that he’s not coming back,” said Christian’s friend Marcos Carriedo, 19.

The Alligator contacted the Bravo family through a phone number listed for their address.

A man answered the phone and confirmed the number belonged to the family but did not want to identify himself.

“We’re going through a lot of emotional stress right now,” he said, declining to comment further.

As the case slowly progresses toward a trial, which prosecutors believe might not happen until next year, Carlos said he won’t let it continue to hurt his loved ones.

“Christian would not like if I let that happened,” he said. “On my son’s name, I will not let this destroy my family.”

Top  |  A version of this story ran on page 1 on 9/24/2013 under the headline "One Year Later"

9/21/12 Christian Aguilar is reported missing. Police report he was last seen on Northwest 13th Street the day before. Pedro Bravo is held under medical examination as part of Florida’s Baker Act after he told police he would hurt himself.
9/23/12 Police identify Bravo as a person of interest.
9/24/12 Gainesville Police arrest Bravo on a charge of depriving a victim of medical care and book him into the Alachua County Jail.
9/25/12 Officers and volunteers continue citywide search for Aguilar, checking the Interstate 75 corridor between Newberry Road and Southwest Williston Road, as well as the Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road areas.
9/26/12  Police announce Bravo purchased a shovel and a roll of duct tape four days before Aguilar went missing, adding that the last-known activity on Aguilar’s cellphone was at 8:14 p.m. Sept. 20, when it was turned off. The search continues with volunteers combing through wooded areas near the Alachua County Fairgrounds, Gainesville Regional Airport, Airport Industrial Park and the State Road 121 corridor.
9/28/12 Police charge Bravo with first-degree murder.
10/8/12 An Alachua County grand jury indicts Bravo on capital murder and kidnapping charges.
10/12/12 Two hunters find a partially buried body inside the Gulf Hammock Hunting Club in Levy County.
10/15/12 Dental records confirm the body belongs to Aguilar.
10/19/12 Bravo files a written not-guilty plea to murder and kidnapping charges.
10/23/12 Aguilar is buried at the Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Doral.
11/15/12 An Alachua County grand jury indicts Bravo on five additional charges: poisoning food and/or water with the intent to kill or injure a person, lying to police, filing a false police report, tampering with physical evidence and illegally moving human remains.
11/27/12 Bravo pleads not guilty to the five additional charges.
Sept. 2013 Bravo remains in jail while his defense team and the state attorney’s office collect depositions from witnesses. A trial is expected to happen in 2014.

The Reverend William H. Russell Jr., 51, from The United New Testament Church International speaks at a candlelight vigil held for missing Christian Aguilar on the corner of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue Thursday evening. Christian Aguilar went missing on Sept. 20, Pedro Bravo, the main suspect in the disappearance was indicted with murder and kidnapping charges on Monday.

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