OCEAN RIDGE, Fla. (AP) - It’s been nearly two years since Darryl Fornatora disappeared during a surfing trip to the Dominican Republic, and authorities appear no closer to finding out what happened to the West Palm Beach resident than they did the day he vanished.
For his family, frustration accompanies their grief. Not only has there been no trace of Fornatora, but there’s no certainty anybody - not U.S. authorities, not Dominican Republic police - is even looking for him.
Darryl Fornatora, who was director of the Lake Park Tennis Center at the time he went missing, flew with a friend to the Caribbean island on Jan. 25, 2016, for a surfing vacation in the northern coastal town of Cabarete.
Fornatora was last seen two days later.
Dominican authorities close Fornatora case, rule it a drowning
Security officials with the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo wrote to Gilbert and Nancy Fornatora of Ocean Ridge in April 2016 referring to an “active criminal investigation’ into their son’s disappearance and promising the embassy was “working closely” with the Dominican government on the matter.
But more than 20 months later, the probe appears to have produced few, if any, results. Whether the investigation is even active is anyone’s guess.
Fornatora’s family says it’s had no communication in nearly a year with the U.S. embassy. Robin Bernstein, a Palm Beach-based insurance agent and a charter member of the Mar-a-Lago club who was President Trump’s controversial pick to be U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, has yet to receive a confirmation hearing.
Private investigators hired by the family provided clues and promising leads, but no resolution. A $50,000 reward for information leading to Fornatora has gone unclaimed.
The family is under no illusion that Fornatora, who would be 47, is still alive.
“There are dozens of possible scenarios, and all of them end violently,” said Christina Hendrex, Darryl’s sister. “I think that my brother was murdered. No doubt in my mind. The why, I’m not sure of.”
VIDEO ONLINE: Darryl Fornatora’s parents talk about his disappearance
Hendrex and her parents say the one person who might know is Matthew Rigby, the friend who accompanied Fornatora to the Dominican Republic. They haven’t spoken since a meeting shortly after Darryl disappeared and Rigby returned to Palm Beach County without their brother and son, and they say his recollections about what happened only left them with questions.
The surfing trip was supposed to last until Jan. 31, but Rigby cut his visit short and returned to Florida on Jan. 28. The Fornatoras and Hendrex say Rigby said he did so because the waves around Cabarete were “flat” - but followed that by saying Fornatora had remained behind to do more surfing.
Gilbert Fornatora also said Rigby told him that he didn’t see Darryl again after his friend became “nervous” and “paranoid” while claiming that someone was after him and that he had been “set up.” An analysis of Darryl Fornatora’s computer revealed he searched the term “Colombian drug cartels” on Google the day he disappeared, according to Hendrex.
Despite that, the Fornatoras and Hendrex say Rigby left Cabarete without alerting authorities either on the island or in the U.S. about Fornatora’s behavior and didn’t contact Fornatora’s family until Jan. 29, two days after Darryl went missing.
Rigby and Fornatora were “best friends” for around five years and had gone on surfing trips before, according to family members. Rigby and his wife had previously been to Thanksgiving dinner at the Ocean Ridge home of Fornatora’s parents.
“I feel this is a giant jigsaw puzzle and we have all the border pieces - the outline is there - but we’re missing all the pieces that make the picture come together - and Matt holds all of them,” said Hendrex, who took two fact-finding missions to the Dominican Republic after her brother disappeared.
Michael Dutko, a criminal lawyer retained by Rigby, told People magazine in May 2016, that Rigby had spoken to the FBI and a representative from U.S. Department of State and that his client “is not withholding anything.”
Dutko told the Post this week that he hasn’t spoken to Rigby recently, “so I’m not comfortable answering questions at this point . but as far as I’m concerned, there are no new developments worth reporting.”
The Fornatoras say they are in a state of limbo. Communication with the U.S. embassy has ceased and the FBI won’t return their calls. An FBI spokesman told The Post last week that any questions regarding Fornatora’s case must go through the embassy. Multiple calls to the embassy were not returned.
The Dominican national police officially closed the case in 2016, labeling the disappearance a drowning. Fornatora’s family say Dominican authorities have appeared keen on “sweeping this under the rug” since the beginning so that it doesn’t affect the island nation’s tourism industry.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s office reached out to the Fornatoras in 2016 after reading about Darryl’s case in The Post. The family was slated to meet with the senator in late November but a scheduling conflict caused the gathering to be postponed.
Olivia Perez-Cubas, Rubio’s spokeswoman, said the meeting is being re-scheduled and that the senator has requested an update from the State Department. Fornatora’s family said they received assurances that Rubio will question Bernstein about the Fornatora case whenever her confirmation hearing takes place.
The Fornatoras have not stood by idly. Besides hiring a string of private eyes and attorneys and Hendrex’s fact-finding trips to the Dominican Republic, the family has compiled a thick binder filled with investigative reports, time lines and interview transcripts they have turned over to the embassy security officials in the Dominican Republic.
“Nothing is going to bring him back, but the least we can do is push this forward and find out what the hell happened,” Gilbert Fornatora said.
Hendrex said the anguish of Darryl’s disappearance “has eaten (her parents) alive.” Nancy Fornatora has developed Parkinson’s disease, she said, and Gilbert Fornatora “doesn’t sleep” and is struggling with his health.
“The grieving process gets stuck because you don’t have answers and no closure,” Hendrex said. “There is no moving on. It’s like you’re frozen in time. Every day might as well be January 29, 2016 - the day we found out he was missing - because you’re stuck.
“You can’t move past it.”
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com
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