Guma Aguiar hadn’t been feeling like his best self. Struggling with bipolar disorder, a rocky marriage and a bitter lawsuit, the Florida millionaire “was juggling a lot,” says friend Jerry Levine. Around 7:30 p.m. on June 19, as thunderclouds loomed, he stepped aboard his 31-ft. fishing boat and pushed the throttle, jumping waves in the wind-whipped waters off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. What happened next isn’t clear. What is: When the boat washed up at 1:15 a.m., lights still on, engine still running, Aguiar wasn’t on it, although his cell phone and wallet were. “No one,” Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Steven Novak said, “can say what happened.”
More than two months later, the mystery has only deepened. Within three days of Aguiar’s disappearance, the Coast Guard suspended their search, leaving friends and relatives to wonder if he had fallen overboard, committed suicide or even faked his own death. “We may never have answers until his body is found,” says a close relative. “At this point that seems unlikely.” What’s undeniable, though, is that Guma Aguiar, 35, a businessman and philanthropist worth a whopping $100 million, left a colossal mess in his wake. Within hours of his disappearance, both his mother, Ellen, 59, and wife Jamie, 33, who lives with the couple’s four young children in an expansive $5.1 million waterfront home, filed court papers seeking control of his fortune, sparking allegations that both are unfeeling gold diggers. Accusations flew, with Jamie’s lawyer calling Ellen the greedy beneficiary of her son’s “gravy train” and Ellen dropping the bombshell that before he vanished, Guma had called to tell her Jamie wanted a divorce. To Levine, the sordid standoff gives the lie to speculation that his friend disappeared on purpose. “Guma,” he says, “wouldn’t have wanted this.”
Money had been both a blessing and a curse in Aguiar’s life for some time. Born in Brazil and raised by Ellen in South Florida, he did stints as a tennis pro and a Wall Street trader before striking it rich with his uncle in 2007 with the $2.55 billion sale of the natural gas interests in an energy company they founded. Wealthy overnight, he found a passion for philanthropy. “We went to Haiti, and he made a big donation,” says Levine of their trip after the 2010 earthquake. “He saw his resources as a tool to do big things.”
But he was also a sick man. Diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, he experienced manic periods that led in some cases, friends say, to poor financial and personal choices. “I look at Guma like a lion-powerful and determined-but with the nervous system of a thoroughbred racehorse,” his mother told The Miami Herald after he disappeared. Says another close relative: “He could be like a child, but with unlimited money. He tried all sorts of therapy and meds, and nothing seemed to work.”
The illness took a toll on his marriage. High school sweethearts, he and Jamie wed in 2005, long before he’d made his millions. As their wealth increased, their lifestyle became more lavish: They had 10 servants, 2 nannies for their children and a $2.5 million yacht. But Aguiar’s behavior was becoming more erratic. “He would vanish for days on end,” says his relative. Last year he was hospitalized at least twice for his mental illness. The same year, he was arrested for domestic violence and allegedly threatening to “put a bullet” in Jamie’s father’s head. (He pleaded no contest and received probation.) Jamie contemplated divorce. Says Levine: “She wanted to help him, but he did things that broke her heart.” In April Jamie went to court to nullify their prenuptial agreement, contending that her husband had lied to her about the money he’d received from his company’s sale. In response, Aguiar removed her as legal conservator of his assets-an arrangement he’d made in case he got sick again-and installed his mother instead.
Aguiar’s relative doesn’t believe he was on the brink of a manic episode the night he disappeared. “I spoke to him a few days before, and he was sounding rational and talking about his future.” According to GPS data, his boat was traveling at nearly 31 mph the night of June 19 when, about four miles off the coast, it suddenly decelerated. A broken tie bar between the boat’s twin engines suggests it may have sharply veered, possibly sending Aguiar overboard-though the deceleration may instead suggest he jumped to another vessel, one of the more intriguing theories in his case.
On July 3 a Florida judge appointed two third parties to manage Aguiar’s assets until he turns up or is declared dead (which would happen if he remains missing for five years). The lawyers say both women are happy with the judge’s decision for now. “The feud has been blown out of proportion,” says Levine. “They’re both dealing with this loss.”
Two months after he disappeared, Aguiar’s anguished loved ones are still at a loss for answers. “Did money kill Guma? I don’t know,” says Levine, who believes his friend misjudged weather conditions and suffered an accident. “The biggest tragedy is that this person with incredible potential is gone. He wanted to be a stable person, but he couldn’t. He never got the help he needed.”