September 2012 was a month of endless worry and pain for the Aguilar family.
Christian Aguilar, a 18-year-old Miami native, went missing in Gainesville. He had just moved to start his first year of college at the University of Florida, but what was supposed to be the start of a new and exciting chapter in his life turned into his final day.
Volunteers from both Miami and Gainesville teamed up to comb through Alachua County in search of clues pointing to Christian’s whereabouts. The search lasted 22 days without a trace of the UF student.
But on Oct. 12, a group of hunters discovered his remains in a shallow grave on the grounds of Gulf Hammock Hunting Club in Levy County, more than 60 miles outside of Gainesville.
Alex Aguilar, Christian’s brother, remembers the event clearly. Alex was a 16-year-old junior at Doral Academy High when Christian went missing. He missed 22 days of school to help look for his brother.
After endless hours of searching, praying and hoping, Alex and his family were left heartbroken.
It’s been two years since the Aguilars found their loved one’s remains and two months since the Pedro Bravo trial came to a close. Now, the family is trying to start a new life, but Alex still wants to keep his brother’s memory alive.
Alex, 18, now attends UF as a biochemistry major. He thanks his friends from Miami for helping him through the rough patches.
“It’s an easier transition when you have a lot of people that you know, and they’re making friends and you’re making friends and you start sharing those friends,” he said.
Alex said his brother left his mark at the university by helping him find better research opportunities and get ahead. If Christian were here, though, things might be different.
“I knew him so well,” Alex said. “I knew he’d be making fun of me. He’d be telling me, ‘The only reason you’re here is because I’m here.’”
Even with the memory of his brother’s death, Alex said his family has been able to overlook the past towards a better future.
“I thought it was going to be harder than it really was,” he said. “It wasn’t that they didn’t want me to leave, but what parent wouldn’t want their kid to stay home? But, so far, it’s been pretty good for them. They’re excited for me.”
The healing process for the Aguilars began in August. After four delays, the case was finally heard.
Alex said prosecutors prepared them for the emotions they would feel in court, but the family still found it hard to watch.
“We couldn’t understand how they (the defense) wanted to pass the story that Pedro beat up Chris, left his duct tape there, and then Chris somehow stood up, walked 60-something miles, dug a hole with Pedro’s shovel, buried himself, tied himself, and then wait, walked back and buried the shovel. How are you going to explain that?” he said.
The Aguilars sat through the Bravo trial every day for two weeks and waited for a verdict.
The prosecution presented for multiple days with witnesses and evidence to support their statements against Bravo, including the shovel used to bury the body, phone data showing Bravo’s whereabouts on the night Aguilar went missing and video surveillance of Bravo purchasing items related to the case days before Aguilar was never seen again.
Alex said the state attorney told his family the chances of Bravo receiving guilty verdicts on all seven counts were unlikely. Yet after 14 days in court, Pedro Bravo was found guilty on charges of first degree murder, kidnapping-false imprisonment, poisoning, improper transportation of human remains, giving false information to law enforcement in a missing person case, tampering with evidence and providing false reports after Aguilar’s disappearance in 2012.
Alex said his family feels more at peace.
“We all agree he should get his whole life in there,” he said. “If Pedro was truly suicidal, this would probably be the worst punishment for him – having to live out the rest of his life.”
“It’s only up from here,” he added. “I can’t really let it bring me down in a way.”
Aguilar said he plans to finish his education at UF and has many things he would like to accomplish.
“The way I want to use it is as a form of motivation,” he said. “Thinking back on when my brother was alive. What would he want? How would he do something? How would he live his life?”
Alex remembers their relationship vividly and uses his memories to grow stronger and do better every day. He described some of his favorite moments with Christian as playful jokes.
“We both had the same interests in school, music and the same sense of humor. It was like a friendly competition for everything,” he said. “With me, he would always try to piss me off, so obviously, I would try my best to piss him off, too.”
Alex said his value and love for his family has grown stronger, too. “I look at my parents and I admire how much they’ve gone through and the strength they uphold to this day. It’s just incredible.”
He said his family’s experience sparked a new love for helping others. As a result, Alex and his father, along with a few family members, created an organization that trains dogs, including his own German Shepherds, Jai and Ava, to help find missing people.
“We learned that thousands of kids go missing every day, especially in the U.S,” he said. “We want to do things like that – that help other people, not just yourself.”
Alex said Christian was a blessing in his life.
“He was such a people person, and he was just so great with other people. You just want to continue that for him – find other ways to help people.”
Ryan Roberts and Zach Read contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: Christian Aguilar’s age was updated to 18 from a previous version that stated he was 19 at the time of his death.