By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
He called for the third. The man knew he was about to die. Fernandez took hold of him and fired. Bang!
A short struggle erupted.
Fernandez fired again.
His jeans covered in blood, Fernandez walked back to the Grand Prix. He instructed Carbone to vacuum the inside of the car and wash the entire vehicle, including the tires and undercarriage.
"If you ever open your mouth about this, I will kill you," Fernandez told Carbone. "Even if you go to China, I will find you and kill you."
The threat went unfulfilled. Seven years later, Carbone, a career criminal, agreed to testify against Fernandez and his alleged Mob boss, Hubert "Bert" Christie. An immunity deal was only one of Carbone's incentives. From 1985 to 1987, six people associated with Fernandez, including Felts, were found murdered. Police suspected that Fernandez, under increasing heat from local and federal law enforcement agencies, was rubbing out potential witnesses. Carbone believed he could be the next victim.
But when he was arrested in 1990, seven years after executing three men in the Everglades, Fernandez was a different man. Or so he seemed. He claimed that he had undergone a profound religious transformation. He was a born-again Christian, he said. On the day of his arrest, police found in his car a letter that described in detail his apparent religious conversion.
"On August 13, 1989, I had the most incredible experience of my life," the letter read. "I met a man named Jesus Christ. Since then, my life has changed drastically. The Lord has delivered me from dangerous drugs, liquor, steroids, and violence."
Prosecutors were openly skeptical.
"You found God?" Cora Cisneros, an assistant statewide prosecutor, asked Fernandez sarcastically during a bond hearing.
"He was always there," Fernandez answered. "He found me."
"We thought it was convenient that suddenly he'd found God," remembers Broward Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Imperato, who at the time was one of the assistant statewide prosecutors assigned to the case. "We were sure it was all an act."
But it's been a long-running act. Despite being convicted in the triple homicide, a jury spared Fernandez the death penalty in September 1991, giving him three consecutive life sentences instead. His attorney, John P. Contini, had asked the jury to allow Fernandez the opportunity to minister to inmates for the rest of his life.
"Think of the thousands of people that he might put on the right track, not hundreds but thousands," Contini told the jury. "God knows, we have a prison problem in Florida... That's where he belongs, and he feels in his heart that God wants him in prison to do prison ministry."
For the past 15 years, Fernandez has continued that work. He's been shuttled among five maximum-security penitentiaries in that time. Today, he calls home Union Correctional Institution, affectionately called "The Rock," in Raiford, north of Gainesville. He'll likely spend his last days there. But that's where God wants him, he says, a place where hope and salvation are so desperately needed.
"If I was full blown for the devil," Fernandez explains today, "I could be full blown for God."
Even at 52 years of age, Fernandez is still massive. He weighs a solid 240 pounds. He has short-cropped black hair slicked back with gel and a face with chiseled cheekbones and shallow pockmarks acne scars from his days of steroids. His biceps measure at least 15 inches around. On his left shoulder, he has a tattoo of the Incredible Hulk. On his right arm, a bird flies free toward the heavens.
Fernandez has a strut, a way of lumbering elegantly. Contini, his former defense attorney, still likes to watch Fernandez walk. "He commands a presence," Contini admits. "Just look at him. He's like a machine."
A tall, slender 48-year-old man with white hair and a thin white beard, Contini stares through a window in a visitor's room at Union Correctional Institution on a foggy November morning. Fernandez, handcuffed, walks through a guard station as he makes his way from the prison yard to a reception area at the front of the penitentiary grounds. He's dressed in a solid-blue uniform with shiny black boots. Small reading glasses are tucked into his front shirt pocket. In his right hand, he holds a worn, leather-bound Bible.
The door opens. A guard removes Fernandez's handcuffs. He smiles and wraps Contini in his big meaty arms. They pat each other on the back repeatedly.
"God bless, John," Fernandez says. "God bless."
They sit together at a table in the visitor's room. Fernandez holds out his hands. Contini grabs them. They bow their heads. Fernandez prays; it's a long, poetic homily that weaves smoothly from biblical verses to issues of the day.
Fernandez looks up. He leans over the wooden table, his arms outstretched and hands clutching the Good Book.
"I'm a new man," Fernandez says. "It don't matter what society says. It don't matter. It only matters what God says."
Prison chaplains and guards confirm that since entering the penal system in 1991, Fernandez has dedicated his life to ministry. Every night, he and other prisoners gather in his cell for Bible studies. During the day, he can often be found in the middle of the prison yard, preaching and reading aloud from the Bible. Inmates aren't always receptive.