Darryl Fornatora case raises warning about dangers of traveling abroad
WEST PALM BEACH, Fl. (CBS12) —
For seven months now, family and friends of Darryl Fornatora have been pressing for answers to find out how the beloved Lake Park tennis pro suddenly disappeared under suspect circumstances.
There are questions that his disappearance may be part of a wider problem of crime and corruption that may very well also involve local police in the Dominican Republic.
John Ekman and Lori Breeden of Oregon returned home recently after they say they were trapped in the Dominican Republican for six months.
"We didn't have a choice," Breeden said. "Everybody was making decisions for us."
The couple said they were involved in a set-up where they were blamed for hitting a man with their car when they did not. The players in the operation include police, prosecutors and people on the street.
"They threw me in jail that was like a 16 by 20 concrete hole with a couple of gritty alcoves and wet garbage," Ekman said.
He was eventually released, but their passports were taken by local authorities. The couple said it wasn't until the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo got more involved that their passports were given back, and they were allowed to return home.
Ekman said he believes he and his girlfriend could have been home a lot sooner had he been willing to bribe public officials.
About the same time, Darryl Fornatora and his friend Matt Rigby traveled to the Dominican Republican. It was supposed to have been a week-long surfing trip.
Since that time, his family has been given little information and are now left wondering whether Darryl's disappearance may be part of a much bigger danger operating in plain sight.
Cabarate in the Dominican Republic is a magnet for avid surfers like Darryl and Matt, both of whom had been on similarly surf trips.
"On the Sunday before he left, he said to me 'mom, you don't have to worry about me on this trip," Nancy Fornatora said, admitting she always worried about her 45 year old son when he went on these trips.
Since her son’s disappearance, she has learned that places like the Dominican Republic are far more dangerous than they appear in travel brochures.
According to his family, Darryl originally planned to go the Bahamas to surf but was encouraged by Matt to instead go to Cabarate.
Investigators in the Dominican Republic have changed theories time and time again about what may have happened, and dismissed claims that Darryl, like other tourists, may have gotten caught up in foul play.
"Darryl said he felt like they were being set up," Nancy Fornatora said.
There have been similar stories about tourists being taken hostage, robbed and victimized. Exactly how many tourists become victims no one will know.
According to the U.S. Department of State, no one tracks nor records incidents of tourists becoming victims of crime in places like the Dominican Republic.
The governments of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and others are among those with travel warnings, cautioning tourists to be on extreme alert due to high levels of crime.
In a statement to CBS12 in May, the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism said "...The wellbeing of visitors is the top priority for MITUR, and the organization is committed to maintaining the country's status as one of the safest and most visited touristic destinations in the Caribbean."
The U.S. Department of State, however, ranks Dominican Republican's safety threat level at critical and says on their website "...significant crime exists throughout the Dominican Republic... criminals often have weapons and are likely to use them if they meet resistance."
The Tourism Ministry has not responded to the dozens of calls and emails from CBS12, as a follow up, in the months since the initial statement was provided.
VICTIM OF CRIME?
Facing one dead-end after another and few answers from Dominican investigators, the family of Darryl Fornatora hired retired New York City Police detective, and renowned private investigator, Beau Dietl.
He released a video recently (LINK: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=c3r8Iq_imfA&feature=youtu.be) outlining the timeline of the case and the dangers involved in Darryl's case.
Monday, January 25, 2016: Darryl Fornatora and Matt Rigby take an American Airlines flight from Miami to Puerto Plata where they rent a car and head to their rental villa in nearby Cabarate.
Tuesday, January 26, 2016: Darryl and Matt are seen spending the day surfing at a local beach. They rented a surfboard from a man named Gaspar.
On Tuesday evening, Darryl texted his mom Nancy to tell her he was out of the water and had "an epic day of surfing". This would be the last time anyone in his family heard from him.
Dietl said on Wednesday, January 27, Darryl and Matt start the day surfing. Later that afternoon, Dietl said Gaspar took Darryl to a nearby town called Sosua.
"Gaspar advised my investigators that the reason why he brought Darryl there was to show him a different surfing spot," Dietl said. He went on to say "...Sosua was found out to be a very dangerous place for tourists and outside people."
Dietl said Matt later told his investigators that after Darryl returned from Sosua with Gaspar, Darryl woke him up from a nap and was acting frantic, telling Matt that they must immediately leave. According to Dietl, Matt added that Darryl said "this is a set-up. I messed up, and they know where we live."
According to both Dietl and Darryl's family, Matt described Darryl in those moments before he vanished as being in a "paranoid" and "nervous" state.
What exactly happened during this time, Darryl's family said is blurred and complex.
Darryl and Matt were supposed to be in Cabarete for a full week, arriving on a Monday and returning the following Sunday.
Gilbert Fornatora, Darryl's father, said several days went by without a word from his son, until Friday when he got a call from Matt.
On that call, Gilbert Fornatora said he was told by Matt that he came back home on Thursday, three days earlier than scheduled, because the surf was flat.
He went on to tell Gilbert Fornatora that he had not seen Darryl since Wednesday when he was acting nervous and paranoid.
Gilbert Fornatora said Matt told him on that Friday phone call that he and Darryl went into a surf shop in downtown Cabarate to buy something. Matt said one moment Darryl was there and the next moment he was gone.
The day after that call, on Saturday, Matt reportedly flew back to the Cabarete where he met with investigators, the details of which neither side have released.
That was nearly seven months ago and those who know what happened aren't saying anything.
"We have to find answers," Nancy Fornatora said. "We want him to come home."
While there have been no suspects named in the case, and Darryl's parents said they don't believe Matt harmed Darryl; they do question why he left the Dominican Republic with Darryl in a reported "nervous" and "paranoid" state of mind. Matt returned to the U.S. three days early with Darryl's surfboard and other personal belongings. Surf experts in the Dominican Republic have also contradicted accounts that surf was flat during late January, telling CBS12 that surf was in "excellent condition".
Neither Matt Rigby nor his defense attorney have returned any of the repeated calls and emails from CBS12 requesting an interview.
While there have been no suspects named in the case, the Fornatora's said they are mindful that Darryl may have fallen victim to foul play. The mounting concern is how much corruption and involvement of local authorities may also be involved.
The U.S. Embassy is tight-lipped about what, if anything, they know. They are facing pressure not only from Fornatora's family, but also now Senator Marco Rubio whose office has gotten involved in finding out answers.
On June 16, U.S. Ambassador Jim Brewster sent a letter to Senator Marco Rubio. Brewster wrote, in part:
"I understand that the disappearance of Mr. Fornatora in January has been extremely difficult for his family and friends. Since receiving notification, we have worked closely with the Dominican authorities to ensure they pursue every possible investigative avenue to find Ms. Fornatora's son, Darryl. Whenever an individual disappears in this country, Domican law enforcement leads the official search and investigation. Our Embassy law enforcement team has remained in regular contact with the Domincan officials and has offered and provided support for those Dominican efforts. Unfortunately, the investigation has not yet produced any positive information regarding the whereabouts of Darryl Fornatora."
"It is all very strange, all we can say is Dominican Republic investigates things very different than our authorities here in the United States," Nancy Fornatora said.
Subsequent calls to the U.S. Embassy have not been returned, however the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. would only say they are aware of Darryl's case.
Dominican investigators have also refused to return dozens of phone calls and emails.
They have offered in the past conflicted theories about what may have happened, ranging from Darryl disappearing into the woods while on a drug induced high, to drowning in the ocean to a far darker theory, developed by those close to him, that he may be the victim of foul play.
In March, CBS12 traveled to Cabarate, Dominican Republic to re-trace Fornatora's steps in the few days he was there before he vanished.
While there, CBS12 was escorted by police from the various locations where Darryl reportedly had been. After mounting pressure, only the lead investigator, District Attorney Osvaldo Bonilla, would do an interview.
He told CBS12 at the time that they were committed to finding out what happened, adding that such a case was "unusual" for the small rural area.
That was five months ago, and Bonilla, along with others involved in the case, have refused to return our messages as more questions surfaced.
The day after our first story aired, nearly seven weeks after Darryl first vanished, his wallet was found on a beach. It was filled with his Florida driver's license, credit cards and hundreds of dollars in American currency which appeared to have burn marks.
Darryl's cellphone was eventually found after it was allegedly left in the back seat of a rental car and then taken by a car rental company employee and given to a friend.
A private investigator hired by the family also found Darryl's hat stuffed in the drawer of a police officer.
Investigators have not provided any answers nor evidence in the case.
Determined to find out what happened, Darryl's family and friends have launched a campaign called #AnswersForDarryl.
His family said the idea is to raise money to keep the private investigation on going and to draw more attention and awareness to Darryl's story.
#AnswersForDarryl T-shirts are being sold online. There is also a GoFundMe page set up to help with the investigation.
Darryl Fornatora would have turned 46 on August 29.