Apparent death of U.S. philanthropist leaves Israeli sports club in an imbroglio
Guma Aguiar, who has given millions to Jewish nonprofits, was last seen last Tuesday evening on his yacht near his Fort Lauderdale home.
On Sunday, the search for tycoon Guma Aguiar off the Florida coast was called off. The businessman and philanthropist, who has given millions to Jewish nonprofits, was last seen last Tuesday evening on his yacht near his Fort Lauderdale home. The empty yacht washed ashore the following day. His phone and wallet reportedly were found on the boat.
This appears to be the final chapter in the story of an enigmatic character. In the winter of 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, when banks and investment agencies worldwide were folding and donations to charities had plummeted, an unfamiliar man in his 30s walked into the Jerusalem headquarters of the pro-aliyah nonprofit Nefesh B'Nefesh, brandishing a check for $8 million.
It was the largest amount ever donated to Nefesh B'Nefesh.
A year later, the tycoon-philanthropist Guma Aguiar became a household name in Israel after he sunk $4 million into the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, saving it from financial collapse. Overnight, he became the Beitar supporters' White Knight. The media reported his every word, and every quote spawned more column inches.
In the local media, Aguiar was depicted as a self-made millionaire-turned-philanthropist Zionist. Whenever interviewed, he wore a broad smile and spoke of his love for the city.
He was photographed in Jerusalem pubs with leading soccer stars. He reportedly even politely turned down the Pope's request to accompany him on his visit to the Holy Land. The future looked bright.
Aguiar, 34, was born in Rio de Janeiro to a Jewish mother, but was raised as a Christian. His family moved to Florida when he was 2 years old. When he was 26, he met Rabbi Tovia Singer, the founder and director of Outreach Judaism, a counter-missionary organization, who, he later recounted, brought him back into the fold.
Meanwhile he studied at the University of South Carolina but did not finish his studies, preferring to spend much of his time playing and coaching tennis.
In Texas he established, together with his uncle Thomas Kaplan, Leor Energy, which discovered enormous reserves of natural gas and oil.
In 2007 they sold the company for a reported $2.5 billion, turning Aguiar into an overnight millionaire with an estimated fortune of between $100 million and $200 million.
He was even named "manager of the year" by the periodical "Oil and Gas Investor."
His impressive business resume afforded him an enigmatic halo, which continued to engulf him after he moved to the Holy City. The father of four settled into the prestigious Yemin Moshe neighborhood, where he had a view of the Old City. His library included some 20 copies of the Talmud Bavli, a collection of Bibles, prayer books and Chabad publications. Alongside a book entitled "How to Raise Money in the Stock Market" was another called "How to Raise a Child of God."
Delusions of grandeur
In dozens of interviews he gave in those days, he repeatedly alluded to the connection between business and religion, and between philanthropy and mysticism. He spoke again and again of his boundless love for "holy Jerusalem" and his desire to give to the city.
But at some point his tone began to change. "Whoever said I'm worth $100 million should go back to school," he boasted in an interview with TheMarker in August 2009. "I expect I'm the richest man in Israel, and I'm still growing. Whatever I do succeeds. Nobody can buy me." In the same interview he claimed that he had been buying up real estate throughout the capital "under the radar" of media attention.
In late 2009 Aguiar was involved in an incident with Florida police, who pulled him over for a traffic infringement and found a small amount of marijuana in his car.
In press interviews he claimed that the police beat him, and he publicized a photograph of his swollen face after he had allegedly been beaten up by the police. It was the first time he had depicted himself as a victim.
Around the same time he began telling Israeli journalists that he was in fact the owner of Beitar Jerusalem - something that hardly pleased the real owner, Arcadi Gaydamak. During an interview he gave to the 103 FM radio station, he said: "I love to hurt people and I love to be hurt. Maybe I'm sick. Maybe I need to talk to a professional - maybe you can recommend someone to me?"
The way from that point on was downhill.
In January 2010 he told the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir, "I saved Gilad Shalit from imprisonment by Hamas," and even claimed that Shalit was staying at one of his supposed many real-estate assets in the city.
This raised question marks about his mental health. Soon afterwards, his family hospitalized him at the Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam.
In February 2010, Aguiar announced via his lawyer that he would stop financially supporting Beitar Jerusalem "for personal reasons," and would no longer pursue his attempt to buy the club from Gaydamak.
His name began to disappear from the local media's sports and economics pages, although he continued to express a desire to buy Beitar. Yet he soon found a way back onto the sports pages. In September that year, Danny Klein, the president of Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club, announced that Aguiar had acquired 60 percent of the club's shares.
Not that the investment brought peace to the cash-strapped club. His visits to Israel were becoming rarer and he became embroiled in disputes over the club's management and his desire to take over the Beitar soccer team.
"I have a clear plan for Hapoel," he told Kol Ha'ir around that time, "but I'm not going to reveal it to you here. I have plans for Beitar also, but for now it's more logical to sink money into basketball."
But the continued friction with Hapoel's management led to Aguiar sending a letter two weeks ago to Klein expressing his desire to renege on his obligations to the club. He even offered to sell his share for a third of what he paid.
This never happened. Aguiar remains the man with the money at Hapoel Jerusalem.
The club had already become entangled in a legal and financial imbroglio. Last week, the management met to discuss ways to extrapolate the club from the mess.
Then came last Tuesday.