August 29, 2011 12:00 PM

Near dusk on July 31, an Ohio couple on a leisurely seaside stroll happened upon Robyn Gardner and Gary Giordano on a stretch of white sand near the Aruba Marriott Resort, where all four Americans were staying. Sinking into neighboring lounge chairs, the married pair fell into conversation with Gardner, 35, who said that she and Giordano, 50, had arrived from Maryland that day. The couple, who were winding down a four-day trip, eagerly shared tourist tips, among them, “Go to Baby Beach.” Gardner was “outgoing [and] wanted to know more about the island,” the husband recalls, but Giordano “never said a word.” The husband couldn’t help but notice how far apart Gardner and Giordano sat, especially since they were on an exotic holiday together. “Normally when you get there, you’re kind of cozy,” he says. “It didn’t seem like they were together at all.”

Just days later, the Ohio couple saw the news: A woman had gone missing in Aruba; the photos showed the long blonde hair, the tattoos running down the left arm, the sunglasses. It was Gardner. In a case that drew instant comparisons with the unsolved 2005 disappearance of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway (see box), Aruban authorities quickly pieced together enough details to designate Gardner’s disappearance as “a mysterious death.” According to Taco Stein, Aruba’s solicitor general, Gardner was last seen at 4 p.m. on Aug. 2 in the Rum Reef restaurant. At 6:23 p.m. Giordano phoned 911 and, in a surprisingly calm voice, reported that Gardner had vanished while snorkeling near Baby Beach. Giordano cooperated in four police interviews and helped authorities search the beach twice. But when searches by land, air and sea turned up no body, he went from being a witness to being a suspect. “In asking details,” says Stein, “things began to get fishy.”

Then they began to stink. Despite police instructions to remain available for questioning, Giordano tried on Aug. 5 to slip off the island nation by changing his original plane reservation home to an earlier flight. Arrested at the airport, he has been in jail ever since and now refuses to cooperate with authorities, who have yet to bring formal charges but cite holes in his description of Gardner’s disappearance. He claims, for instance, that she was swept out to sea. Stein says that the few times there were drownings at Baby Beach, the tides kept the bodies near shore, where they were soon found. Calm waters and a lack of wind that evening also suggest that an inert body would have washed ashore. “I know we don’t have a body, so one can argue that she might still be alive,” says Stein. “If that were still the case, she would have come forward and said, ‘Here I am.'” Giordano’s defense attorney, Michael Lopez, counters that Giordano has cooperated with investigators and “there is no reason for [his] detention.”

Absent either a body or witnesses who saw them in the water, Gardner’s friends are building their own case against Giordano, whom Gardner met online about a year ago. They insist there is no way Gardner would have gone snorkeling. “I’ve been on vacation with her,” says Richard Forester, 40, her boyfriend of eight months. “She wouldn’t go in the water above the waist because she didn’t want to mess up her hair.” Her roommate Christina Jones, a hairstylist who replaces Gardner’s hair extensions twice a year, adds, “Women that spend $1,000 [per treatment] on hair extensions don’t go in the ocean, because it destroys them.”

Jones says that Giordano, who is twice divorced and owns a staffing placement agency, invited Gardner on a cruise two months ago. Gardner, also divorced, said yes, then backed out. Theirs was the sort of platonic friendship where “one month they’d talk, and one month they wouldn’t,” says Jones, yet “the way he responded when she canceled was very verbally aggressive texts: threatening to ruin her, demanding money for the ticket.” After Gardner was laid off recently from her job as a dental-office patient coordinator, she agreed to Giordarno’s offer of an expense-paid trip to Aruba-then told her boyfriend she was going to Florida with her parents. “It made me nervous,” says Jones. “I got a bad vibe about this guy.” (Days earlier he had contacted Carrie Emerson, 40, and her 18-year-old daughter via a modeling website and invited them to Aruba for a supposed mother-daughter photo shoot; Emerson, of Richmond, Va., nixed the idea when he suggested that all three should sleep together.)

The Aruba investigation is not Giordarno’s first encounter with the law. Court documents indicate that during his first marriage, his wife, Sharon Giordano, sought a restraining order for herself and their three kids, claiming, “I feared he was going to physically harm me.” Second wife Connie Klein says that “local police were involved in one incident” before their marriage broke up in 2007 after just eight months. In 2010 a woman obtained a restraining order after Giordano sent what she called “malicious e-mail” and “threatened to terminate me.”

Gardner’s loved ones took comfort in the fact that an Aruban judge ordered Giordano held for at least another 16 days as police continue their investigation into the disappearance of a woman they describe as warm and vibrant. “She’s that girl that lights up a room,” says her friend Jones. Adds her brother Andrew Colson: “She’s very loving and determined. She always worked hard toward her personal goals. She told me she lived every day as if it were her last.”

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