Family Searches for Answers as Florida Surfer Disappears from the Dominican Republic: 'There's Nothing Worse Than Not Knowing'
Sister says she believes the missing tennis instructor's travel companion knows more than he's letting on
Four months ago, Florida tennis pro Darryl Fornatora vanished while on a surfing trip to the Dominican Republic. Since then, relatives of the 45-year-old have clung to a fading sense of hope that some sign of him will turn up.
But after many inquiries, interrogations, and an expansive search effort, Fornatora’s sister says she has more questions than answers. Still, she is trying to remain positive despite the mounting evidence that her brother might be dead.
“The last four months have been a real roller coaster for us and really, just a living nightmare,” Christina Hendrex tells PEOPLE.
“One minute, I’ll be convinced he was murdered – absolutely convinced. The next minute…I just don’t know,” Hendrex continues.
“My gut’s telling me he isn’t alive – that we’re searching for a ghost. That’s what my gut’s been telling me from the beginning. But then I’ll have these moments where I’ll think to myself, ‘God! Maybe whatever the situation was, he got away and he’s safe.’ But I know there’s no way he wouldn’t try to contact us. No chance.”
Fornatora went missing during a week-long surfing expedition to Cabarete, a small town on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast.
Hendrex, who lives in El Paso, Texas, says that her brother’s friend of five years, Matt Rigby, accompanied him on the trip, claiming the pair had gone on four previous surfing trips without incident.
According to Hendrex, Fornatora’s cell phone was found inside a rental car in February and his wallet, containing $400 in cash, was recovered in March from the shore of the same Dominican Republic beach he vanished from.
Hendrex claims Rigby’s behavior immediately following her brother’s disappearance raises some red flags.
“The trip started on Jan. 25, and Darryl went missing on Jan. 27,” Hendrex explains. “Matt flew back to the states on Jan. 28, and didn’t notify anyone that Darryl was missing until Jan. 29, when he called my parents. He didn t contact anyone in the Dominican Republic to inform them his friend was missing.”
On Jan. 30, a day before the surfing vacation was scheduled to conclude, she says Rigby told her he flew back to the Dominican Republic with his wife to organize a search for Fornatora.
On Feb. 1, the Rigbys hopped a plane back to America – a day before Hendrex and her husband’s plans to travel to the Caribbean nation to look for Fornatora.
“Matt was behaving strangely, in my opinion,” Hendrex tells PEOPLE. “I am not sure why he didn’t stay in the Dominican Republic to meet with me and my husband, but I feel like Matt knows something he is not telling us. He and Darryl were good friends, so I don’t think he would have hurt him. But I feel like he definitely knows something more than what he’s told us, and it seems like he’s afraid of something.”
Friend Says the Pair Separated on Day of Disappearance
According to Hendrex, Rigby reached out to her parents soon after returning to the U.S., and relayed an account of what happened that she finds difficult to believe.
“He said that the waves went flat and so he decided he wanted to leave,” Hendrex starts. “He said Darryl told him he wasn’t going to leave and that he wanted to travel up the coast to surf more. But there is no way my brother’s going on vacation in a foreign country with a buddy and they are separating. That makes no sense.”
In addition, Hendrex claims that Rigby told Fornatora’s relatives that the lifelong surfer began acting paranoid in the days preceding his disappearance.
“He says Darryl was claiming people were after him and that he got set up, but that he wouldn’t tell Matt anything more than that,” explains Hendrex. “If Darryl was, in fact, making such claims, he’s the kind of person who would have talked about it.”
A man answering Rigby’s cell phone last week claimed “he can’t comment” on Fornatora’s disappearance.
Michael Dutko, the criminal defense attorney who Rigby retained months ago, tells PEOPLE his client has “done everything in his power to advance the actual investigation” into Darryl’s disappearance.
“My client left the Dominican Republic expecting that when he got back, he would see Darryl,” Dutko begins. “Darryl had been exhibiting some rather unusual and paranoid behavior. Darryl was anxious to return to the United Startes, and had likely left hurriedly. My client thought that when he left the island – after having looked for Darryl and been unable to locate him – he thought that Darryl had left the island hurriedly and he expected he would see Darryl when he returned. When he learned Darryl hadn’t returned, that’s when he went to talk to his friend’s parents.”
According to Dutko, the missing surfer never identified the source of his alleged anxiety when talking to Rigby. Instead, “he said things like, ‘They are after me’ and ‘They know what the car looks like’ and ‘We need to be careful.’ It’s possible Darryl became involved with the wrong people.”
Osvaldo Bonilla, a prosecutor for the Dominican Republic province of Puerto Plata, did not return PEOPLE’s calls seeking clarification on the missing persons case. Meanwhile, Fornatora’s family has hired renowned New York private investigation firm Beau Dietl & Associates to probe the tennis pro’s disappearance.
Dutko tells PEOPLE his client has met with that firm and has cooperated with investigators from the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, answering every single question that’s been asked of him.
“We have remained mindful of the sensitivity of an investigation like this, and we’ve been quite cautious about making any casual comments to anybody else,” Dutko says. “My client has been cooperating with investigators and he’s letting them do their job.”
Dutko claims he was hired by Rigby to handle the influx of interview requests coming from the various agencies involved in the missing persons investigation.
“He doesn’t have a criminal defense problem,” Dutko says. “He hired me to coordinate with investigators who’ve been inundating him with interview requests. He has turned over all of the information he has and voluntarily submitted to a polygraph exam that indicates he’s disclosed everything within his knowledge. He is not withholding anything. No one is intentionally making false statements here.”
Michael Ciravolo isn’t sure what happened to Darryl, but has a number of theories he’s working on. Ciravolo, who is leading Beau Dietl’s investigation into Darryl’s disappearance, suspects the vanished surfer “got entwined with someone dangerous,” and even believes it is possible the missing man was drugged.
“Darryl is a very, very outgoing guy who likes to party and have a good time,” Ciravolo starts. “In the last hours before he disappears, he was not at all acting himself. He was agitated and paranoid. I just don’t know yet what happened to him and who is responsible.”
According to Ciravolo, his firm has interviewed several witnesses who’ve corroborated Rigby’s claims his friend hadn’t been acting like himself.
“It seems like people are simply afraid to talk, and we really don’t know who we can trust at this point,” Ciravolo says. “I also don’t know if this paranoia stems from a threat that was real or imagined. There’s a lot we don’t know.”
‘We Are Losing Our Minds Over This’
Fornatora’s sister says the Dominican Republic detectives who’ve been working Fornatora’s case have been “pushing us to believe he went into the water and drowned.” However, this theory, she claims, is flawed. “He’d been surfing since the age of 13 and can swim 10 miles without taking a breath,” Hendrex explains.
“Really, there’s nothing worse than not knowing what happened to him,” she continues. “My parents are non-functional; they’re just a wreck. Not knowing is eating us all alive every day.”
In her heart of hearts, Hendrex believes Rigby knows more than he’s been willing to disclose.
“I am not saying he was involved in anything nefarious, but he’s not telling us something,” Hendrex tells PEOPLE. “I don’t think Matt was involved, he just knows more than he’s willing to let on. I believe he is lying by omission, and telling us a verson of the truth. Not one shred of the information he has provided has given us any additional clarity, and that is what is so strange to me.”
Hendrex continues: “Again, I don’t believe he did anything to hurt Darryl, but he can’t say he knows nothing. Part of me feels like maybe Matt thinks that if he tells the truth, and reveals he left the island knowing what sort of a state Darryl was in, it will make him look like a total jackass. It could be his self image that he’s worried about. He could be withholding something valuable, and that’s a problem.”
Ciravolo says he’s similarly convinced Rigby had nothing to do with Darryl’s disappearance, but thinks it is possible “he might be selfishly and conveniently keeping certain things to himself.”
“I certainly hope I’m wrong about that,” Ciravolo says.
Hendrex tells PEOPLE that her family is desperate for answers – even if it means her brother’s deceased.
“We are losing our minds over this,” she explains. “You feel really raw and vulnerable…like people are taking advantage of you. It’s a horrible situation for my family to be in. We just want the truth.”