GAINESVILLE -- Finally facing a jury, Pedro Bravo admitted this much: Back in September 2012, he got into an argument with his former friend, University of Florida freshman Christian Aguilar, as the two sat in a sport utility vehicle.
Fists flew. But then Bravo drove away, his attorney told jurors Tuesday, leaving Aguilar in the woods outside Gainesville — bloodied but very much alive.
“Pedro was wrong for that, getting into a fight with his friend,” defense lawyer Michael Ruppert said on the first day of testimony in Bravo’s murder trial. “But he did not kill Christian Aguilar.”
But Bravo’s opening defense glossed over many of the damning details surrounding the brutal slaying of Aguilar, who vanished and was later found strangled — in a case being closely watched in South Florida, where the two young men grew up as friends.
Bravo’s lawyer offered no counter-theory of how Aguilar wound up dead and buried in a shallow grave in the woods about an hour’s drive from Gainesville.
And in methodical and clinical fashion, Alachua County prosecutors offered their chilling narrative of Aguilar’s disappearance, which spurred a massive search, desperate public family pleas and impassioned vigils in Gainesville and Miami.
Prosecutor Brian Kramer called it a “story as old as time . . . elimination of a rival fueled by jealousy, hatred and anger.”
Kramer said that Bravo — angry that his ex-girlfriend has begun dating Aguilar — had researched how to hide a body and how to sedate someone. He purchased duct tape and a shovel. Then, Kramer said, Bravo lured Aguilar to a meeting and strangled him for some 13 minutes inside the vehicle parked at a Gainesville Walmart.
When police detectives chipped away at his story, Bravo gave vastly conflicting versions of what had happened. Forensic evidence, including key pieces of the duct tape, also linked Bravo to the woods where Aguilar’s skeletal remains were discovered, Kramer said.
And perhaps most bizarre: After his arrest, Bravo tried to get a fellow jail inmate to concoct an outlandish plan to “convince the world that Christian was murdered by a serial killer who is still out there,” Kramer said. But the plan backfired when the inmate turned to prosecutors and led investigators to a key piece of evidence hidden under a wooden walkway.
“This is the shovel,” Kramer said, showing jurors a photo of the mud-stained tool purchased by Bravo days before the killing. “It’s only been used for one thing — to bury Christian Aguilar.”
Bravo, 20, waif-like in his dark suit on Tuesday, is charged with first-degree murder and several other felonies. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Witnesses Tuesday painted two different pictures of the two former friends after they graduated from Doral Academy Preparatory School.
Aguilar, 18, had longed to go to UF and wanted to become a biomedical engineer. “He was very happy because he was fulfilling his dream and being in a new place,” his father, Carlos Aguilar, testified Tuesday.
Bravo, meanwhile, was an emotional wreck from his recent break-up with high-school girlfriend Erika Friman, who tired of his possessive nature in the months before she was to leave for college at UF.
Bravo wound up moving to Gainesville and enrolling in Santa Fe College, like UF in Gainesville, for one reason, testified Rosa Felibert, a high-school friend who was also living in Alachua. “He came to get Erika back,” she said.
By then, Friman had reconnected with Aguilar, who was also a high-school friend. She told jurors the two tried to keep a low-profile relationship amid the exciting new world of college.
“It was personal. We were just starting out,” Friman told jurors. “We were really, really happy.”
When Friman learned her ex had moved to Gainesville, “I was in shock,” she said. “I didn’t think someone would pack up their bags and move so far for a girl.”
She rebuffed his overtures. With friends, Bravo began to talk of suicide. “He had an obsession with getting her back,” the prosecutor said.
Bravo soon arranged a meeting with Aguilar. On Sept. 20, 2012, the two went to eat, then to a Gainesville Best Buy store to buy CDs. The next day, Aguilar was reported missing.
Bravo initially told police that he and Aguilar had been talking about their problems while driving around and picking up a hitchhiker, before leaving Aguilar in the woods not far from the store.
“It’s odd, but this is his story,” Kramer said.
When police searched his car — and found Aguilar’s blood inside it — Bravo changed his story several times. Ruppert, Bravo’s attorney, insisted that his client’s memory during the police interviews grew hazy because of sheer exhaustion and the effects of sleeping pills.
Eventually, Bravo admitted he had struck his pal “for 10 minutes,” leaving him unconscious and bloodied in the woods. But Aguilar’s skull showed no injuries consistent with Bravo’s claim that he beat him in the face, Kramer said.
The evidence against Bravo soon mounted. Detectives found a receipt showing Bravo had purchased a shovel and duct tape four days before Aguilar went missing.
Foragers in the woods then found Aguilar’s skeletal remains buried in the dirt of Levy County, depicted in a chilling photo shown to jurors in a slide-show presentation.
Dirt with minerals unique to Levy County and the crime scene was found on Bravo’s SUV. And the duct tape found on Aguilar’s ankles had been ripped off strips found on the windshield of the vehicle, Kramer said.
Ruppert said the roll of duct tape fell out of his SUV during the fight with Bravo — a suggestion, perhaps, that someone else came along and used the tape to bind Aguilar.
Bravo was arrested four days after Aguilar went missing. For law enforcement, the twist came after Bravo was in jail.
Kramer said the defendant asked an inmate named Michael Angelo to help him make it look like the real killer was still at large.
In Bravo’s mind, the state said, Angelo had cohorts “on the outside” who could kill three to four other people in the same way Aguilar had been murdered — to cast suspicion away from Bravo. But the plan would work only if the same shovel used in the real crime was planted at one of the murder scenes.
So Bravo confided in Angelo the location of the shovel he had purchased, which investigators promptly found.
Bravo’s defense attorney pointed out that Angelo is a felon banking on getting favorable treatment on a prison sentence. But he did not address the discovery of the shovel.
Testimony is to continue Wednesday.