Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah

Ex-cop and bodybuilder Gil Fernandez Jr. murdered three men in the Everglades. But he only admits to killing the man he was.

And it earned him a reputation. In 1979, the now-defunct Miami News named Fernandez "Miami's Meanest Cop." The complaints and publicity created for Fernandez a volatile and antagonistic relationship with Internal Affairs.

After meeting with IA, Fernandez later admitted, he often contemplated suicide. He had a plan: put his gun in his mouth while driving his police cruiser on Interstate 95, then pull the trigger. "You don't know how many times I've put my gun to my head and wanted to kill myself," he said later.

Fernandez could be brutal, but in a bad situation, he was the cop other officers wanted by their side. After the McDuffie Riots in 1980, Fernandez received a commendation for valor after he brought a wounded officer to a hospital.

Gil Fernandez Jr. poses in his gym with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.
John P. Contini
Gil Fernandez Jr. poses in his gym with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.
Gil Fernandez Jr. poses in his gym with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.
John P. Contini
Gil Fernandez Jr. poses in his gym with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

He stills remembers the incident. Chaos had erupted. People were looting, and an officer in another cruiser was shot in the shoulder. Fernandez ran toward him and told him to drive. He then hopped on the hood of the moving vehicle. "I just started throwing gas bombs, anywhere, everywhere, clear the way," he says.

Today, Fernandez admits that he was a bad cop. But it wasn't just him, he says. Most cops are bad. "We did a lot of things," he says. "If you ran from us, you got a beating. That way, you knew not to run from us again. We gave a lot of beatings, but you can read my police file. It's all there."

Not long after the McDuffie Riots, Fernandez married his girlfriend, Marianela, a flight attendant. That same year, concerned about Fernandez's growing complaint file, Miami-Dade police reassigned the hard-as-iron cop to a desk job, first to the personnel department and then to the inventory room.

Fernandez began to look elsewhere for fulfillment.

The Apollo Gym & Fitness Center had a reputation. It was tucked into a strip mall on U.S. 441 in Fort Lauderdale, just north of Stirling Road and the Hollywood city limits. The biggest guys in South Florida worked out there. They could bench 500 pounds, maybe more, and weren't afraid to use needles to gain a competitive edge.

It was 1980, and the 27-year-old Fernandez was stuck in a desk job. He hated it. He needed a release. And he found it at the Apollo Gym.

That's where he met the gym's owner, Bert Christie, a Jewish competitive bodybuilder 20 years his senior. In Fernandez, Christie saw a potential world-champion bodybuilder. In Christie, a confidential informant later told the Broward Sheriff's Office, Fernandez found a new "father figure." Christie quickly introduced Fernandez to the bodybuilder's drug of choice: steroids.

"The only thing I'm guilty of doing when I was a cop was steroids," Fernandez later explained to police. "When you're in a bodybuilding competition, the judges want you to be freaks and have bodies that are incredible, and in order to win, you had to use steroids."

At the gym, which was frequented by law enforcement officers from throughout Broward, Fernandez first met Tommy Felts and Michael Carbone. Christie trained both men for competitions, but Fernandez soon became the gym's star. He'd become superhuman. His whole body was ripped. Mitch Palermo, a young jail guard with BSO who worked out at the Apollo Gym, looked up to Fernandez.

"There's not many role models I had," Palermo later remembered in court testimony. "My brother left when I was 17, so he wasn't an older image for me to follow. I looked up to [Fernandez]. He was someone that, you know — what he accomplished was phenomenal. He was a top bodybuilder, karate, kick boxer... I saw him in a bodybuilding contest. And we'd all sit there, and you'd wish you could be where he was."

Fernandez's attitude could be just as impressive as his muscles, Palermo recalled. The Hulk was always a forceful presence.

"The first time I ever saw a bodybuilding contest, Tommy and Gil were competing for number one," Palermo said. "And I remember Tommy won out. And I thought Gil was a jerk, because he wouldn't get off the stage. He refused, like he wanted to win that contest, and that's what I saw. You look at someone like that and how gutsy he is, and a kid of my age at that time, I admired him."

He added: "Gil would do things and just accomplish anything he touched."

At his physical peak, Fernandez would stare in the mirror and flex. "It's good to be God," he'd say.

In 1983, Fernandez's life began to change drastically. He was on a steady regimen of steroids and trained every day with Felts for the Mr. Florida Bodybuilding Contest. He also decided to go into business with Christie, even as he remained on the police payroll.

According to reports from BSO — which investigated the members of Apollo Gym as part of a years-long investigation code-named "Operation Muscle" — Christie was much more than a physical trainer. He was a Mob associate affiliated with Chicago crime families. A confidential informant working with BSO told investigators that Christie took John "Johnnie Irish" Matera, a 48-year-old captain with the Colombo crime family, on a fishing trip in 1980 and "cut him in pieces and disposed of the body at sea." Christie, the informant said, "specialized in murder." When Mob figures in the Northeast needed a hit in Florida, the informant continued, they called Christie.

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