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.

He called his wife. It was Sunday, August 13, 1989. Together, they drove to Cornerstone Church in Davie for a Sunday service. Fernandez hobbled into the church with crutches and sat down in one of the pews. "I started crying," Fernandez says.

Pastor Dominick Avello began his sermon. He asked for those who had not accepted God to come to the altar. "Why don't you come to the one that gave you life?" Fernandez remembered Avello's saying.

"As I made the call at the altar, he did come up," Avello later remembered in court.

Criminal defense attorney John P. Contini has maintained a close relationship with Fernandez for 15 years.
Colby Katz
Criminal defense attorney John P. Contini has maintained a close relationship with Fernandez for 15 years.
Criminal defense attorney John P. Contini has maintained a close relationship with Fernandez for 15 years.
Colby Katz
Criminal defense attorney John P. Contini has maintained a close relationship with Fernandez for 15 years.

Fernandez lifted himself up and slid the crutches under his arms. He tottered slowly toward the front of the church. Tears streamed down his face. He lost his balance. He fell, sobbing. A man ran toward him and placed his hand on Fernandez's head.

"You want to get saved?" the man asked him.

"Yes," Fernandez said through his snot and tears. "I want to get saved."

The man helped up the hulking Fernandez and began to walk him toward the altar.

"When I got up, it felt like the weight of the world had been taken off my shoulders," he says now.

One month later, Pastor Avello baptized Fernandez in a community swimming pool. "The old man is put to death in a Christian baptism, and a new man walks and rises," Avello explained in court.

Fernandez seemed to turn his life around. He started to spend more time with his young son, Gilbert III, who was then 7. His wife would soon be pregnant with their second child. They had a happy life in their modest home in Pembroke Pines.

"I buried the man I was in that watery grave," Fernandez says. "From there, I knew my life had changed. Once I got saved, no more steroids, no more womanizing, no more alcohol, no more drugs. I got everything I desired. I was going to serve the Lord."

But Fernandez's crimes didn't wash away with his sins.

About six months after his apparent conversion, BSO detectives — or "those assholes from BSO," as Fernandez called them after his arrest — had narrowed their murder investigation. They believed Fernandez was the triggerman who executed three people in the Everglades.

In the summer of 1990, detectives confronted Dwight Allen, pastor of Miramar Church of God, where Fernandez attended and volunteered. Fernandez was a murder suspect, they told Allen.

The pastor asked Fernandez about the allegation one night in the parking lot.

"He told me he had done a lot of things wrong," Allen recalled in court. "He did not name specific things that he had done wrong in his past, but he said he had done a lot of things wrong... He mentioned drug use, steroids, things of that nature. But he did say the only thing he had not done was get involved in child pornography and murder."

Allen pressed Fernandez.

"What are you going to do when this comes down?" he asked.

"I'm just going to keep serving God," Fernandez answered.

On July 3, 1990, the phone rang at Fernandez's home in Pembroke Pines. He answered and knew immediately that his time had come.

"Phone rang, and they hung up," Fernandez says. "That's the oldest trick in the book."

Fernandez walked outside and started his car. He thought he might as well try to drive to the Apollo Gym, which he'd recently redecorated with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. He headed east on Pines Boulevard. A helicopter flew overhead, monitoring him. Police cruisers filed in behind. They included officers and detectives from BSO and the Miami-Dade police. The cruisers' lights flashed as Fernandez neared University Drive. He pulled to the side of the road. The officers drew their weapons. Fernandez stepped out and surrendered.

Miami-Dade Homicide Detective Pat Diaz, the same man who once served in uniform with Fernandez, took him into custody. He remembers that day vividly. "I say it how it is," Diaz says. "This ain't movie stuff where you go into a room and talk about what happened. I spelled it out. I said, 'Gil, the game's up. You're looking at three murders. '"

Fernandez became angry and emotional. "The only thing I ever wanted to be was a good cop," Fernandez told Diaz. "I never took a dime from a person while on the police force, and the only thing I was guilty of is doing my job... Those people you work with drove me out of police work, and I'm hoping that they're happy now."

Diaz stared at him. "The game's up," he repeated.

"I'm in God's hands," Fernandez said. "God will forgive me for everything I have done."

Next week: For Fernandez, killing three men in the Everglades was only the beginning. Police believe he killed as many as six other people. But now, the professed man of God is resisting the chance to confess his sins.

For the second part of this series, see New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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