Florida man vanishes on Caribbean surf trip under mysterious circumstances; family suspects foul play
05/15/2018 1:22 pm PDT
In West Palm Beach, Florida, Darryl Fornatora made a living as a local tennis coach. He also had a passion for surfing. And his love of the waves took him 800 miles southeast, to the beaches of the Dominican Republic. It was supposed to be just six days, a Caribbean adventure of surfing and fun in the sun.
But Darryl Fornatora never came home.
Tennis pro Darryl Fornatora already lived in the virtual paradise of West Palm Beach, Florida, where he had a booming business and a family who idolized him.
"He was funny and adventurous. He was just so loving," said Darryl's mother Nancy Fornatora.
"Darryl had a warm personality. He was not the totally gregarious type that would make a lot of noise, but he had a warmth to him that just kind of flowed naturally with people," said Darryl's father Gilbert Fornatora.
The 45-year-old divorced bachelor liked to work hard -- and play hard, too.
"He just lived life big, that's how he was. He loved to surf, I mean he worked to surf, it was his passion, he loved it," said Darryl's sister Christina Hendrex. "Women, surf and food, and that's pretty much what made him tick, and in that order."
Darryl had a like-minded friend in local harbor pilot Matt Rigby.
"He's a good friend of my brother's," said Christina. "They've known each other, at the time of the trip, about six years. They went on surf trips together."
Eager to blow off some steam, Darryl and Matt plan their latest adventure: a six-day surfing trip to Cabarete, a small fishing town on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.
"He came to dinner on Sunday night as normal and we were talking, and he said to me 'Mom, this trip you don't have to worry about me because the Dominican Republic is just like being in the States, and my phone, I can use it just like I would if I were here,'" said Nancy.
When Darryl and Matt landed in Puerto Plata in January 2016, they rented a car and drove to their rented villa at the Perla Marina, 10 minutes outside the town of Cabarete. For the next 24 hours, Darryl keeps his mom in the loop about his adventures.
"It was Tuesday the 26th at 6:28 p.m.," said Nancy. "He texted that he'd had an epic day in the water, five hours' water time. He was exhausted and ready to crash. 'Love you, call you tomorrow.'"
But Wednesday comes and goes with no communication from Darryl.
"I thought 'I am not going to be a worrywart mother, he's a grown man,'" said Nancy. "On Thursday, when he hadn't communicated with me, I was really getting very nervous."
Then on Friday, Darryl's family received a call that turned their lives upside down.
"About 8:30 in the morning I get a call and he said 'It's Matt Rigby,' and he's calling to let us know that Darryl was missing," said Darryl's dad Gilbert.
"Matt Rigby told him that he hadn't seen Darryl since the 27th," said Christina.
According to Matt, on Wednesday, Darryl leaves on a surf scout to the nearby town of Sosua with a local man named "Gaspar." Darryl and Matt had rented surfboards from Gaspar the day before. Hours later, Darryl allegedly returns to the villa, acting extremely paranoid.
"Darryl was behaving strangely, saying he wanted to get out of there, 'Let's fly home, let's go,' and Matt said 'No, you're fine, I don't know what you're being paranoid about, let's go shopping in downtown Cabarete, we'll get you a bite to eat, it'll all be fine,'" said Christina.
Once in town, Matt decides to slip into a local surf shop to buy souvenirs.
"Darryl doesn't go in the shop with him, and when he comes out, Darryl is gone," said Christina.
"He said he couldn't find him and he looked around the stores and he looked up and down the beach and he looked all over, 'Over five hours I searched, I searched everywhere, I went up the beach, back to the beach, in the town, all over the town looking for Darryl and I couldn't find him,'" said Gilbert.
And when Darryl's worried father asks about the status of the search, Matt surprises him with his current location.
"He was at Darryl's place of work and he was calling from there because he didn't have our telephone number," said Gilbert. "He was looking for our home phone number in Darryl's personal belongings at his place of work."
Darryl's family is shocked. Just two days after his friend goes missing, Matt is back in the States in Darryl's West Palm Beach office.
"And that right away struck a strange chord with me because all you have to do is Google us, and he had knew where we lived, he had been there," said Gilbert.
Did he call police or the embassy? Did he call for help at all besides heading back to the States?
"As far as we know, absolutely not," said Christina. "He never called any of the local police, he didn't call the embassy, he kept saying we needed to do that -- he didn't do anything."
The Carib Surf Shop is the last place Matt Rigby says he saw Darryl Fornatora alive. He told Darryl's parents they were shopping, then he just simply vanished. Matt allegedly claims Darryl was acting paranoid and in fear for his safety.
But Matt never reports Darryl missing to Dominican authorities, and two days later he returns home to the U.S. with bizarre news for Darryl's family.
"At some point in that day he tells us about a search-and-rescue person, a man named Leon Alter," said Darryl's sister Christina Hendrex.
Leon Alter is a Canadian expatriate and founder of "Crime Stoppers Dominican Republic," and Matt Rigby somehow knows he's the man to call for help. In fact, Matt immediately returns to the Dominican Republic with his wife Paulina, plus $5,000, presumably to pay Alter.
Alter posts pleas for tips about Darryl on social media and allegedly dispatches search crews.
What did the U.S. Embassy say about him when you inquired?
"They said he's some guy that does search and rescue. They were really not clear on who he was or how he operated either, they just knew that he was involved in and could offer information, help us with information," said Christina.
Frustrated by a lack of results from Alter and a lack of action from the U.S. Embassy and Dominican police, Christina and her husband decide to fly down to search for Darryl themselves. Christina makes arrangements with Matt Rigby to join forces when they arrive.
But in another strange twist, that doesn't happen.
"When we landed in Santo Domingo on February 2nd, I texted him, and he said 'My wife and I flew back last night,' and that was it," said Christina.
Christina and her husband find a lot wrong in Cabarate, discovering a sleazy and corrupt underworld right out of a paperback novel.
"It is isolated and it is very much the 'Wild Wild West' up there," said Christina. "The countless stories we heard of tourists being drugged, their drinks being drugged, marijuana being laced, set up with prostitutes, set up by driving, being stopped on the road by police and 'Give me a thousand dollars or you are under arrest.' And interestingly, when we uncovered all of these stories, the common theme for those that are targeted: single, Western males."
For Christina and her husband, the local police become more of a hindrance than any help.
Were you allowed to roam freely?
"No, we had an escort at all times," said Christina. "It was sold to us as for our protection, but I believe it was just as much to know what we were doing as it was to keep us safe."
Is this a cover-up to you for their reputation, for the tourism? What do you make of this?
"Absolutely. From the get-go, the biggest obstacle that we have encountered is keeping his missing posters up. We would put them up, they would be torn down," said Christina.
Christina returns home, utterly discouraged. With zero faith in Dominican law enforcement, Darryl's family doubles down on the help of Leon Alter.
And that help came with money.
"Over time, yes, that is correct, we did make as much as $13,000 in donations," said Christina.
What did he bring to you -- what information did he gather?
"That is a good question," said Christina.
It doesn't take long before Leon Alter himself raises even more suspicions.
Do you think Leon was helping your family in any way?
"Well I thought he was in the beginning, yeah," said Gilbert. "And he's the one that organized the search in the beginning -- so he says -- I mean I wasn't there. The one thing that still is inexplicable is he is the one that does all of the security cameras in downtown Cabarate, so it just so happens that the time when Darryl went missing, those exact times that those tapes weren't available -- they weren't recording."
And Leon Alter, is he legitimate in your mind?
"I don't know the answer to that," said Christina.
You feel you were misguided by this man?
"Yes," said Christina.
Fed up with what they perceived as a labyrinth of lies, the Fornatora family hires private investigators from the United States -- among them, Michael Ciravolo and Richard Pimentel of Beau Dietl and Associates.
"The Fornatora family hired us because they didn't have a whole lot of confidence in the local police," said Ciravolo.
A retired New York Police detective and a native of the Dominican Republic, Richard Pimentel travels back to the exotic island to shake the trees.
"I interviewed many people during my stay in the Dominican Republic. And I have a feeling that they're all covering up for something. That's my feeling," said Pimentel.
Weeks have passed since the mysterious disappearance of Darryl Fornatora in the Dominican Republic, and his family grows desperate for answers.
But between Darryl's evasive travel buddy Matt Rigby, the tangled red tape of Dominican law enforcement and the fruitless actions of a mercenary "crime-stopper," Darryl's family soon takes things to the next level.
"We had three different private investigators," said Darryl's father Gilbert.
"The strip of restaurants and bars alongside the beach where Darryl disappeared, it's heavy prostitution at night," said Richard Pimentel. "That's where you go and buy drugs in Cabarete sometimes, and a lot of those restaurants are owned by people connected with the mob or some kind of organized crime from Italy, and I believe that the police force does security for a lot of these establishments on the beach. So they are all intertwined in that whole world."
Navigating the seedy streets of Cabarete, Pimentel is able to track down a promising lead: the last known person who talked to Darryl outside the same surf shop where Matt Rigby says he last saw his friend.
"I found a witness, a Canadian national, her name is Jacqueline Beck," said Pimentel. "She said that she was walking into town and she saw Darryl and Matt walking in front of her, and she noticed that Darryl was acting irrational, and then when Matt went in the store, Darryl approached her and was asking her for help. He said 'I need to leave this country.' He was paranoid, asking if there were any gangs in Cabarete, if there were any mobs. She asked him if he had consumed marijuana, he said yes. And then Darryl kind of panicked a little bit because a couple of kids approached her, locals, and he backed off from her and then just left."
Jacqueline Beck's statement backs up Matt Rigby's claim about Darryl's state of mind prior to his disappearance. But what -- or who -- could cause him such extreme paranoia?
Enter Emilio Gaspar, the local who rents out surfboards who took Darryl to nearby Playa Sosua in the hours before he started acting paranoid.
"According to Gaspar, he wanted to show Darryl a good surfing spot. But I'm from the area, I know the spot that he mentioned was a regular beach where there's no surfing taking place in Sosua," said Pimentel. "So he is lying right there that he was showing Darryl a good surfing spot. He's a very shady character. He's what we call 'a player.' I believe he deals drugs. He facilitates drugs and prostitutes."
"If you're looking to buy some drugs, Sosua would be a good place to go," said Michael Ciravolo. "When he went to Sosua he could have purchased something that was laced with a drug and just been a victim that way, and then easy prey to someone who wanted to rob him or drag him off somewhere."
Was the marijuana Darryl admitted to smoking laced with something that made him fear people were after him? Whatever the answer, one fact remains: Darryl Fornatora did disappear. His paranoia may have been founded. Which begs the question: What happened in Sosua?
"I think Darryl might have rubbed someone the wrong way there over maybe a drug deal, purchasing some recreational drugs, or maybe hooking up with a local prostitute," said Ciravolo.
Could his trusted guide Gaspar have had a hand in Darryl's fate?
"It's possible," said Pimentel. "It's possible, because I wouldn't put it past him. He could be the type of person that could get involved in something like that."
If Gaspar knows anything, he's not talking. No one is. And just like Darryl's sister Christina, Pimentel suspects local police are actually working against the cause.
"I met a person that he was kind of giving me information on what was going on, and that person was picked up by the police, was told 'I believe you've been talking to a detective from the United States. You have to remember that you live here, your family is here and you're the only one that can get in trouble. So you should be careful of what you do,' and then they let him go," said Pimentel. "He called me in a panic. So why would they do that? You know what I mean? Something's going on and we can't get to the bottom of it because of the police involvement."
Richard Pimentel finally does meet with the local officer in charge of the case, and receives some shocking news.
"I wanted to compare notes and he just cut me off. He said 'Oh, that case is closed. We have two witnesses that saw him go in the water and never come out. He drowned. That case is closed,'" said Pimentel.
According to Dominican police, witnesses on Cabarete beach claim they saw Darryl wade into the water and not come back. But Pimentel says, No way.
"I don't believe that he drowned because of the circumstances and the stories that I heard doesn't add up to drowning. And he was an athlete, a professional surfer. Where he supposedly drowned was at the regular beach, was four feet deep," said Pimentel.
Darry's sister Christina doesn't buy it either.
"He's an excellent swimmer. He grew up in the water, that was his life. Surfing and the water were his life," said Christina.
During her next visit to the Dominican Republic, Christina meets with one of the witnesses to Darryl's so-called drowning.
"I said 'We've been told that you said you saw him swim out and never come back,' and he's like 'No, I saw he went up to his chest, and he was in the water and that was it, and then I didn't pay attention to what he did after that,'" said Christina.
The family says this kind of account shouldn't be enough to call the case closed.
"The national police were the ones who were saying that, 'Oh, you know, it looks like it's a drowning, moving on,'" said Christina. "It impacts tourism. They do not like that. That is a barrier that we have absolutely come up against."
But there's another undeniable matter.
"Everybody tells me that whenever somebody drowns, no matter how long it takes, the ocean tends to spit the body out -- and that never happened with Darryl," said Pimentel.
In mid-March, a Florida news reporter calls the drowning into question -- then almost two months after Darryl went missing, something incredible happens.
"His broadcast aired on, I believe it was March 15th. The next day, after that piece aired, Darryl's wallet washes ashore," said Christina.
Darryl's wallet still contains his credits cards, identification and $462 in cash.
"Literally a local kind of druggie bum that lives on the beach found it," said Christina. "Where the wallet washes ashore is maybe a hundred meters down the beach from where he supposedly swam into the water seven weeks prior. So in seven weeks the wallet went out supposedly in the shorts my brother was wearing -- which he doesn't generally take his wallet into the water with him -- and then washes back in the same spot seven weeks later."
And a wallet with hundreds of dollars in it, still intact when it was found.
"That is correct, and I can tell you no one would not keep that money," said Christina. "Why was that wallet turned in? That's not normal behavior for how it works down there."
Pimentel agrees: Darryl's wallet washing ashore does nothing but raise further suspicions about a local conspiracy.
"I was lied to by the police. I was lied to by some witnesses, I was lied to by so many people that my conclusion was that something bad happened to Darryl and they are covering it up," said Pimentel.
"Everybody for some reason is very scared to talk," said Christina.
And that "everybody" seems to include Darryl's friend and travel partner, Matt Rigby.
Months after his disappearance, Darryl Fornatora's family is still no closer to finding answers.
"He was a wonderful, warm, caring loving son, and I miss that every single day," said Darryl's mother Nancy.
Is there a thought in your mind that maybe he's alive?
"No," said Darryl's father Gilbert.
With all the roadblocks the investigation has hit, one person seems to hold the key: Darryl's travel partner, Matt Rigby. But Matt has been shockingly elusive. After he didn't join Christina and her husband during their initial visit to the country, Christina did manage to get him on the phone.
"I called him to kind of say, you know, 'What in the world happened? I thought we were going to meet, why did you leave?' And he really never had a clear answer," said Christina. "He actually broke down crying and was saying 'I can't believe this is happening,' and he actually said 'No more surf trips for Matty -- my wife is never gonna let me go on a surf trip again,' and that's what his tears were for."
And shortly afterwards he ended up hiring a criminal defense attorney.
"That's correct," said Christina.
Since then, the Fornatora family says it's been mostly radio silence from Matt Rigby's camp.
As Christina looks into Matt's actions in the days after Darryl's disappearance, deeper suspicions take root.
"When Matt left the Dominican Republic, he takes my brother's surfboard, his laptop computer, his digital camera, his GoPro camera, and a lot of his clothes as well," said Christina. "It made no sense at all."
Matt Rigby eventually gave those items back to the family. But once Christina took possession of Darryl's laptop, she found what she believes are a suspect series of emails sent by Matt throughout the 48 hours after Darryl vanished.
"On the face of it that doesn't seem so odd, but you're on vacation with your buddy, you both have cellphones -- why are you sending an email?" said Christina.
In the bulk of those emails, Matt is updating his missing-in-action buddy on his whereabouts, and asking him to get in touch. In one message, Matt attaches an enticing photo of himself and some babes at a bar, allegedly awaiting Darryl's arrival.
"The embassy did time stamps on the emails, and one of the emails he says, you know, 'I'm gonna catch a flight in a couple of hours, I'm getting ready to leave the villa.' When he sends that email he's sitting in the airport in Porto Plata," said Christina.
Christina also doesn't buy the handwritten note Matt allegedly left at the villa letting Darryl know he was flying back to the States, asking where he went and if he was safe.
In another odd twist, Matt returned their rental car before he flew out -- even though he allegedly thought Darryl was still somewhere on the island. Matt's timeline for that also gives Christina pause.
"We know he returned that rental car at 12:30 to the airport in Puerto Plata. He tells us and has told us repeatedly that he was on his way to the airport at about 9 o'clock, so there's about three hours of time that is unaccounted for. He says he just went straight to the airport, he didn't do anything. There's about 100 miles missing, unaccounted for, that that car traveled."
Christina later learned that Matt's suspect behavior didn't end there that day.
"My husband and I traveled back to the Dominican Republic to meet with the embassy," said Christina. "And one of those agents said 'We got the airport footage of Matt on camera at the airport.' He actually goes into a bathroom, changes clothes completely -- like shirt, pants, shoes, even his baseball cap -- and the agents told us he was behaving very, very strangely. I did not see that with my own eyes, so it's a second account story from the agents who did see it."
The question is: Why did Matt Rigby put extra mileage on the car? Why did he fly home, only to immediately return to the Dominican Republic with $5,000?
"All of those things that he did were done with a purpose, a specific purpose," said attorney Stuart Kaplan.
Stuart Kaplan is the third private investigator hired by Darryl's family. He floats a theory.
"There has been some rumors and some conjecture as to whether or not Darryl was being held against his will, and whether or not a ransom was required to have been paid," Kaplan tells Crime Watch Daily. "One of the theories is whether or not Matt returned to the United States to retrieve cash to return to the Dominican Republic, only to find that unfortunately Darryl had already been murdered."
Was Matt Rigby strong-armed by some bad operators? He's certainly had plenty of chances to explain himself.
"There was an agent from the embassy who was going to meet with Matt per our request, and Matt agreed," said Christina. "They had a date scheduled, they had the interview scheduled, the agent flew in to Miami, and as soon as he landed, got a text saying 'Can't do it, sorry, talk to my lawyer.'"
But Matt says he has provided information. Four months after Darryl's disappearance, Matt's then criminal lawyer Michael Dutko told a national magazine: "Rigby had spoken to the FBI and a representative from the U.S. Department of State, and that his client is not withholding anything."
Crime Watch Daily traveled to Palm Beach, Florida to ask Matt Rigby for ourselves. Two places are registered to Matt Rigby, including an apartment building about five minutes from his workplace.
Matt Rigby did not want to talk, and this was a fear for the family. They believe he knows what happened to their son, and it's clear he's going to remain silent.
What is the most frustrating?
"Matt not being forthcoming with the information that we feel he must have is probably the worst part," said Nancy Fornatora.
"On the best day, Matt is a complete coward and the worst friend in the history of friends, and did something or didn't do something, that contributed to Darryl being killed," said Christina Hendrex.
Darryl Fornatora's fate remains unresolved -- for now.
"I think that if the United States Embassy pressures the police department, I am sure that somebody is going to speak, and this case could be solved," said private investigator Richard Pimentel. "But unless that happens, you know, we have to just rely on luck and time."
"The Dominican Republic is a pass-through country with respect to the importation of drugs into the United States," said Stuart Kaplan. "It will be just a matter of time to whether it's the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Embassy comes into contact with a specific individual who has the right information to be able to connect the dots as to exactly what happened to Darryl Fornatora."
In the meantime Darryl's family must live with the pain of his absence.
Crime Watch Daily did talk on the phone to Leon Alter, the mercenary crime-stopper, who told us he believes Darryl drowned, but then again, "For all I know he might turn up somewhere in Mexico 10 years from now," he said. We requested an on-camera interview, but he told us he couldn't do one because he's an agent of Interpol -- something we've not been able to confirm.