Last week, Paul and Heather went to Guatemala with the sad belief that Justin had drowned, due in part, to his decision to swim across Lake Ayarza. We returned from our trip with a completely different understanding of reality. When setting up the logistics for our travels, as well as ensuring that all of the necessary agencies were in place for this trip, we received extensive assistance from the US embassy in Guatemala , the office of Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter , the Guatemalan government and the Avis Car Rental Company .
We arrived in Guatemala City the same day as the team of Tom Crossmon and Dave Phillips of Crossmon Consulting . Tom and Dave are experts in deep water recovery. We asked the Crossmon Consulting team from Duluth, Minnesota, to accompany us to Guatemala to search the lake and investigate the “targets of interest” that the Guatemalan government personnel had located. Tom and Dave brought with them two state of the art, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV’s) and multibeam sonar, to conduct the search.
After spending the night in Guatemala City, we were met at our hotel by additional members of our traveling and search team, led by J.Q. of the Guatemalan Tourist Assistance . He is a police investigator who also acted as security and translator during this trip. L.M. and G.B. drove the two Avis rental 4WD vehicles needed to transport the team and all the equipment. They were referred through the US Embassy. In the final car of our caravan to the lake, were two Guatemalan police officers. The trip from the city to Lake Ayarza is a three-hour drive, through a beautiful country, with dramatic volcanoes all around and many small villages steeped in local culture. [We have abbreviated the names of our local contacts for their safety]
Search Day One:
When our group arrived at the lake, we were met by Miriam de Rosito, the lead onsite staff member from the US Embassy and four Red Cross search and rescue team members . The first step was to re-interview locals who were at the lake the day Justin went missing. Since day one, we have had a very difficult time getting good, consistent information from these people. We also spoke at length with the Red Cross personnel who have been onsite since the early days of the search. It quickly became very obvious to everyone, that much of what was being conveyed by the locals, did not add up. Most notably, information by the lake’s boat/restaurant concession owner/operator, who was the last person to see and speak with Justin, when he was swimming in the lake.
Once the interviews were completed, Tom, the boat owner, and several Red Cross folks went out on the lake to see exactly where Justin was last seen (by the boat owner). They also checked out the areas of interest identified by MAGA, (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, & Food). With those tasks completed, we set up the Crossmon Consulting equipment in the boats and headed out on the lake to begin working. We were able to search for five hours on this first day, with unfortunately no results. But there was a better understanding of the topography of the lake below the waterline.
Search Day Two:
Our entire team stayed at a nice little hotel about 30 minutes from the site, which allowed us to be at the lake around 7:30 am. After an hour of equipment set up, the boats headed out to continue searching. After several hours, Tom and Dave located the main “target of interest,” only to identify it as an arched formation of rock created by the volcano. The ROVs provide a very clear image of the bottom of the lake.
By early afternoon, the equipment was overheating from hours of direct sunlight and the demands on the ROV, due to the depth of the water. We returned to shore to cool the equipment, using a truck air conditioner, which also provided time for the team to eat lunch. Once the team was fed and the ROV equipment cooled, we were back on the water searching for the remainder of the afternoon. Sadly, the day ended without locating Justin. However, valuable information had been gained by ruling out several areas of interest, identified by previous searchers.
Search Day Three:
The day began like day two; up early, tasty Guatemalan breakfast with the team and heading out as the sun rose, to get started. When we arrived at the lake, things rapidly changed. The boat we had reserved with the boat owner the day before, was not there. Instead, the only boat available was much smaller and insufficient for our needs.
Also absent, was the boat owner. Instead, there were two boys there to drive the boat. There was much discussion, attempting to resolve the situation, to no avail. As a result of the small boat, the team needed to split up, so part headed to the other side of the lake to get dropped off, while the rest of the team waited at the boat launch. Because of this situation, we were losing valuable search time. Using this smaller boat, each crossing took 40-50 minutes.
The second group of our search team, finally headed across the lake, but when they arrived they were greeted by a group of local men armed with tire irons and machetes. A very tense encounter ensued for 40 minutes, as our police escort negotiated with them. Eventually, we were allowed to continue with our search effort, but it was becoming clear that something was amiss. After 90 minutes of searching, a different piece of equipment was needed from the boat launch area, so part of the team went back across the lake to retrieve it.
When they got back to the launch area, they were met by yet another group of community enforcers, who made it clear that the locals did not want us to find Justin and that it was time for us to leave. A boat was dispatched to retrieve the team members, who were still on the far side of the lake.
It was at this point, that we were informed by the Red Cross searchers, who have been investigating since the beginning, that they had heard stories during interviews, that the boat owner may have been involved in Justin’s disappearance. It seems that when Justin arrived at the lake, he was very friendly with everyone, including the boat owner’s wife. She would have been of particular interest to him because she has the job of taking the live fish from the holding nets in the lake and then scaling, gutting, and cleaning each fish before cooking them on the open wood fire grill. It is a very intriguing local occurrence that Justin would have found fascinating and helpful for when he started his dream homestead in Central America.
Unfortunately, Justin was unaware of the Guatemalan cultural machismo . Local men consider their women possessions and are extremely territorial. (This is a generalization that was told to us many times by Guatemalan men - it’s not our opinion or prejudice) The boat owner’s story about the day Justin disappeared has changed many times over the course of the search. But one truth remains: he was the last person to talk with Justin. Not one investigator, who has met this man, believes his claim that out of the “goodness of his heart,” he would go out to check on Justin’s welfare.
It is our belief, as well as many others with us at the lake, that Justin went out for a swim and was met with foul play. Unfortunately, there is no and never will be any actionable evidence. The lake is of unknown depth. If Justin went down where last indicated, his body will never resurface, due to the temperature and pressure from the depth of the lake.
The local country, villages are known to be very self-protecting and unlikely to surrender one of their own. The Guatemalan police are often reluctant to apprehend people in these communities, out of concern for their own safety. (Information provided by police - not our opinion)
The team departure from the lake was a very tense drive through many small neighborhoods, where we were warned an ambush may await us. Our police escort kept our convoy bunched very closely, reaching speeds of 145 kph (90 mph), as we made our way back to Guatemala City. Due to the incredible professionalism of our two skilled drivers and Proatur , A.Q., we arrived safely back to our hotel.
We want to be very clear - our experience in no way, taints our belief that the people of Guatemala are a wonderful, caring population. Sadly, Justin may have encountered one nefarious person.
We, from the bottom of our hearts, want to thank the many people who helped us with our search for Justin:
A.Q. POC (Our Hero)
L. M. Avis Driver (Kind Hearted Savior)
G. B. Avis Driver (Kind Hearted Savior)
Tom Crossmon Crossmon Consulting (Selfless Friend)
Dave Phillips Crossmon Consulting (Selfless Friend)
Elise Britton Office of Congresswoman Shea-Porter (Greatest Advocate)
Carol Shea-Porter (D) US House Representatives - NH
Darrien Hanley Chief ACS - US Embassy
Miriam de Rosito Lead Onsite - US Embassy Staff
Johnathan Roy Local Contact - US Embassy
Roberto Brito Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
American Red Cross
Guatemalan Red Cross Team
Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture
Volunteer Firefighters of Guatemala
And so many more...
We also want to thank everyone who donated to the “Help Us Find Justin” GoFundMe campaign, which allowed us to cover the considerable costs involved with the month long search for Justin, which has now ended. While we’ve been unable to bring Justin home, we do feel we have uncovered the answers to our questions and met some wonderful new friends along the way.
Although Justin is unable to return home, we know he will at peace residing in Guatemala: a land and people he was growing to love, as well as an area where he planned to retire to, at the age of thirty.
We would love to hear any stories or see any pictures of Justin that you care to share with us. Please send them to : [email redacted]
Thank you, for all your support,
Paul, Heather, and Ben Booska
ORIGINAL: GO FUND ME FRONT PAGE:
We don’t even know where to begin…Our son/brother traveled to Guatemala with a friend and his family for a week-long vacation. While there, they decided to check out the Laguna de Ayarza on Saturday January 6th. Justin went missing that afternoon. The various teams have been searching since Saturday: The Volunteer Fire Brigade of Guatemala, Local Police, a helicopter, the town Mayor-with a drone, Guatemalan Navy divers, and the Guatemalan Red Cross. Additionally, we greatly appreciate the support we have been receiving from friends, the Office of Carol Shea-Porter particularly the Team led by Elise Britton, the US Embassy in Guatemala - Johnathan Roy, and both the Catholic and LDS Churches.
We are starting this Go FundMe Page to raise money to support the continued search efforts.
We greatly appreciate anything you can contribute to help us continue the search. We have no set goal as every little bit counts!
Heather (Mom), Paul (Dad), & Ben (Brother)
PS…Any unused funds raised will be given to the David Gimelfarb International Rescue Resources Foundation. It is a new NGO, (Non-Governmental Organization), being formed by David Gimelfarb’s parents after he went missing in Costa Rica that is dedicated to providing free assistance to families with missing loved ones.