Volunteers converge on Gainesville to help find the body of missing University of Florida student

GAINESVILLE – They came to help one father find his son.

This diverse stream of humanity – parents and grandparents, a soldier, a truck driver, a former civil rights activist, students and many, many more – have trickled in for more than a week, from as far as Miami and St. Augustine and Tampa, each moved by the death of Christian Aguilar, the beloved teen who had just started a promising new chapter at the University of Florida.

Twenty four hours after Aguilar disappeared, his family made the panicked drive from Miami to Gainesville. By that night, Carlos Aguilar and a few close friends were trudging through wooded fields in a western corner of the city, desperately calling his son’s nickname. With too much land to cover, too little time, he asked the public for help, a plea made day after day.

Everyday more people showed up, even as the staging areas shifted and the search transitioned to recovery. And everyday, Carlos Aguilar thanked the volunteers.

“I am the father of Christian Aguilar. I appreciate you coming to help me find my son,” he said over and over, right hand placed over his heart. “Thank you.”

On Sunday, 150 volunteers as well as 50 additional police officers and 15 mounted horse units from across the state joined the search, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Lake and Hillsborough County Sheriffs, Orlando and Key West Police departments.

On the same day Christian Aguilar’s hometown friend, Pedro Andres Bravo – now the suspect in his death – made his first court appearance on murder charges, more than 300 volunteers were looking for Aguilar’s body, a dreadful task that has blossomed into a community cause.

“Christian was a member of two communities – a very tight group of friends and family in South Florida, and then Christian became a Gator,’’ said Gainesville Police spokesman Ben Tobias.

While Saturday became the ninth day of this massive search that has spanned the southwest section of the city, it was the first day officially designated a recovery mission.

Still, the people came, mostly because they wanted to help the Aguilar family begin healing.

“I know that young man must be out there somewhere and I would like to help find him,” said Susan Miller, 49, who traveled from Newberry, arriving around 8:30 a.m. Saturday. “The family deserves closure and he deserves a proper burial.”

A commercial truck driver who zigzags the state in an 18-wheeler, Miller had kept up with the case on the radio and the Internet. As the news became more grim, she decided it wasn’t enough to support the family from afar. She was on the third search team Saturday morning, armed with a stick, a topographic map of the city and a hat to shield the early fall sun.

“If we could locate the body,” she said, “it might also help with the case, too.”

Aguilar, a UF freshman who planned to study biomedical engineering, was last seen Sept. 20, at a Best Buy store with Bravo, a friend and former classmate from Doral Academy Preparatory School in west Miami-Dade. A student at Sante Fe College, Bravo told police he beat Aguilar and left him bloody and barely breathing in parking lot. Police later found blood in multiple spots in his SUV and Aguilar’s backpack hidden in the closet of his apartment closet.

Throughout the week, a steady loop of vans and buses carried volunteers to the south and west sections of the city. Organized into teams, they came to search, some wearing rubber boots and hats, wielding machetes and carrying backpacks and first-aid kits.

“I am here because I care,” said Charity Livingston, 23, a UF student from Miami who joined a group of church friends at the search. “The family asked for help so I answered the call.”

Hers was a refrain both somber and familiar: Friends and strangers were here for the family.

For closure.

For Christian.

They had heard the grief stricken pleas of Carlos Aguilar before and after the murder charges were filed - the gracious father who vowed not to leave Gainesville without his son. Please, he said, come to walk the woods and brush and wetlands for the tiniest trace of Christian.

“They are going to see me at 9 in the morning,” Aguilar, tearful, weary, said late Friday after he had spent time with his family and a priest. “The next time I will be with my son is in the church, putting him to rest.’’

As always, he came to the search early. He wore black jeans. Black long-sleeve shirt. And black rosary beads.

A half-hour after Saturday’s search started, Gov. Rick Scott arrived, where he spoke with the family privately and personally joined Aguilar as he combed through a wooded area.

The pictures of Christian Aguilar, now on countless missing fliers, haunted Frank Lopez, pushed his mind back to his own great sadness of almost half-century ago – and inspired him to join the search.

In 1965, Lopez’s 6-year-old daughter, Felicia, died in an accidental fall. Only last year, were he and his wife able to display her picture in the living room of their Archer home.

“I know something about that kind of pain,” Lopez, 76, a retired computer operator, said, sighing. “As soon as I heard about the case, my heart just dropped. You look at the picture and can’t help thinking that could be your son, your child.”