Don Ruetz with his wife Cynthia, right, stepdaughter Vanessa Germani and sons Justin and Jack. The portrait was taken by the Manhattan Beach pier in the late nineties. Courtesy of Don Ruetz
From his living room today, Donald Ruetz can gaze down at the Flamingo Bay, which on a clear Saturday morning in July 2005 engulfed his family and friends.
That previous year, Ruetz had retired as the Culver City police chief and moved with his wife Cynthia and sons Justin, 9, and Jack, 8, to Costa Rica. They bought a beautiful house overlooking the Flamingo Bay and built a gym. The boys, who attended Grand View Elementary in Manhattan Beach, enrolled in an international school and surfed with their father.
On this fateful morning, Connor Kells, their good friend and former neighbor on 18th Street, was visiting with his father Paul. Everyone except Ruetz, who harbored a fear of light planes after a terrifying experience many years earlier, left the house giddily for a two-hour private air tour over the Bay.
That was the last time Ruetz saw any of them alive. He was watching the British Open tournament on television when the phone call came.
In “Remember Me: A Father’s Story of Tragedy Turned into Triumph in Costa Rica,” Ruetz chronicles a transformative chapter of his life — meeting Cynthia at a dinner party, together raising two boys (Justin had Asperger’s Syndrome) and leading an idyllic life in Manhattan Beach and Costa Rica up to the day of the plane crash — and the following years spent grieving, rebuilding his life and investigating the afterlife.
Last month’s release of his self-published book marked nine years since the crash. The official investigation determined that the plane plunged to the bottom of the ocean after two propeller blades broke off.
“Reliving the tragedy felt like I was there over and over,” the 64-year-old said in a phone interview. “But I did it so that other people can find hope and get through their tragedies.”
That morning, after identifying several of the bodies, Ruetz returned to his empty home in shock. He was contemplating suicide when the phone rang. A whispery, robotic voice repeated his son’s names: “Justin. Jack.” He hung up and dismissed the call.
A moment later, he was holding a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol to his temple when he heard the voice again, whispering, “Justin. Jack.” Ruetz, who had a built-in skepticism for the paranormal, was suddenly overwhelmed with an “all-knowing sense” that the voice belonged to Justin. He believed his son’s spirit was trying to connect with him.
Don Ruetz’s memoir “Remember Me”
After that phone call, he embarked on a journey to learn more about the afterlife and to reconnect with his family. He pored over countless books on the afterlife and started meditating. Since, then the spirits of his wife and two sons have sent him countless messages and have visited several of their friends, he said.
“We’re spiritual beings living a human existence,” Ruetz said. “We’ve probably done this more than once, and we’re here to learn lessons.”
He also sought out a spiritual medium. Documented with detail in the book, his nine sittings with Tim Braun facilitated reunions with his wife and boys, and eventually his mother and father.
“I truly believe that heaven is in the same spatial area that we’re in now — we just can’t see it,” he said.
Here in the physical realm, Ruetz sought to memorialize his loved ones lost in the crash. At his Jungle Gym, he built a yoga center for Cynthia, a basketball court for his sons and a skate bowl in honor of Paul and Connor. The son had been an avid skateboarder.
As of 2007, these spaces have doubled as classrooms for La Paz Community School, a bilingual pre-K to 12 international school started by six teachers. With Ruetz’s blessing, half the school is based on the Jungle Gym property. In 2012, a high school was built north of the gym.
The school, attended by both expatriates (many of them Canadians and North Americans) and locals, offers financial scholarships to local youths. Supporting the school’s growth and writing the book have both been instrumental in healing from his traumatic loss, Ruetz said.
“You can make it through if you dig down deep,” he said. “We all have the ability to connect with our loved ones on the other side.”