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.

 This is the first of two parts.

It should have been his last job.

Ex-cop and bodybuilder Gil Fernandez Jr. murdered three men along this canal on April 1, 1983.
Colby Katz
Ex-cop and bodybuilder Gil Fernandez Jr. murdered three men along this canal on April 1, 1983.
Ex-cop and bodybuilder Gil Fernandez Jr. murdered three men along this canal on April 1, 1983.
Colby Katz
Ex-cop and bodybuilder Gil Fernandez Jr. murdered three men along this canal on April 1, 1983.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
Gil Fernandez Jr.
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.
Gil Fernandez Jr. lived with his family in this modest Pembroke Pines home until his arrest for triple murder on July 3, 1990.
Colby Katz
Gil Fernandez Jr. lived with his family in this modest Pembroke Pines home until his arrest for triple murder on July 3, 1990.
Gil Fernandez Jr. lived with his family in this modest Pembroke Pines home until his arrest for triple murder on July 3, 1990.
Colby Katz
Gil Fernandez Jr. lived with his family in this modest Pembroke Pines home until his arrest for triple murder on July 3, 1990.
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.

Richard "Dickie" Robertson was getting out, going straight. On April 1, 1983, Robertson had orchestrated a deal to sell 20 kilos of cocaine, worth roughly $300,000. And the timing couldn't have been better. He'd just purchased a house in Fort Lauderdale with his longtime girlfriend, Linda Allard. They had a daughter, Nicole, and they looked forward to life in a new neighborhood near Griffin Road.

"He promised me that this was going to be it," Allard later testified in court. "We stood to make a lot of money, and he was going to get out of the business."

Still, that day, Allard was nervous. Something was different this time. "A woman's intuition," Allard explained. She pressed her 26-year-old boyfriend about the deal. It's OK, he assured her. The buyers, he said, had a "family atmosphere."

"He said [the buyers were] three guys," Allard said. "One of them was a spic."

Around 1 p.m., Robertson — dressed in blue Sergio Valente jeans and a black T-shirt that read "Eat Shit and Die" — left in his shiny, black, 1983 Chevy Camaro Z28. He picked up his partners, Walter Leahy Jr., 25, and Alfred Tringali, 31, and headed for a house in Hollywood.

Gil Fernandez Jr. was waiting.

Inside the Hollywood house, the six-foot, 275-pound Fernandez sat quietly in the living room. A decorated but troubled street cop with the Miami-Dade Police Department, Fernandez went by the nickname "The Hulk." He was enormous and menacing, a champion bodybuilder with a second-degree black belt in karate. No one knows exactly when Fernandez transformed from courageous lawman to ferocious thug, but by the day Robertson and his crew drove toward the house, Fernandez held little regard for life, liberty, or justice.

Fernandez was accompanied by fellow bodybuilders Tommy Felts and Michael Carbone. Felts waited by the door. Carbone hid in a bedroom, a Thompson submachine gun by his side.

Robertson and his partners arrived. They knocked, holding a styrofoam ice chest filled with cocaine. Felts answered and motioned the three men into the living room. Hearing them, Fernandez stormed toward the guests. He threw Robertson to the floor and jammed a pistol into his mouth.

"You fucked over the boss!" Fernandez yelled.

Carbone ran into the living room, bringing to the house a silent terror as he held the enormous machine gun. Nervous, he pointed the firearm at Fernandez.

"Point the gun at those guys, not at me," Fernandez instructed him.

Felts pulled out kilo after kilo of cocaine from the ice chest. There were only eight, not 20, but it didn't matter. Fernandez and his muscled partners had no intention of paying for the drugs.

Robertson's pager beeped. It was Allard; she knew something had gone wrong. A few minutes later, it beeped again. "Who is trying to call you?" Fernandez asked, grabbing the pager and smashing it to the floor.

The Miami cop then slipped on weight-lifting gloves and tied the three men's hands behind their backs. He wrapped brown cloth around their heads, covering their eyes.

They pleaded.

They begged.

Take the coke. Just let us go.

They didn't want to die.

Felts stuffed paper towels into their mouths, stifling their terrified pleas.

With Carbone guarding the detained men, Fernandez and Felts left the house. They took Robertson's new Camaro and left it abandoned in a nearby wooded area. They returned around 8 p.m. to the house in Hollywood.

"The boss wants to see you," Fernandez told the three men.

He and his fellow bodybuilders piled their captives into Carbone's white 1980 Pontiac Grand Prix. They drove west on Griffin Road, passing the new subdivisions being built, including the one in which Robertson had just bought a home for his family. The road ended at U.S. 27, a desolate highway that runs along the edge of the Everglades. Fernandez knew the area well. As a street cop, he used to patrol the northwest fringes of Miami-Dade County.

Fernandez had in mind a narrow gravel road that splinters off U.S. 27, just south of the Broward County line. The road dips down toward an embankment, then follows along a canal that leads deep into the mosquito-infested marshlands. The two dozen people who lived in nearby trailers at Jones Fish Camp called the gravel path Danger Road. Littered with clothing and old appliances, Danger Road was the perfect spot for illegal dumping. Not many people came out here, and Fernandez knew this was the place to get rid of things that you didn't want to be found.

Late in the night, Felts turned the Grand Prix onto Danger Road and parked. Fernandez ordered the three captives out of the vehicle. The three men were bound, gagged, and blindfolded. It was hot. Bugs chirped. The cars on U.S. 27 hummed in the distance.

Fernandez walked down toward the canal and forced one of the men into the water. "He told the individual to kneel; then I heard a gunshot," Carbone would later testify. "And then I heard a splash of water."

Fernandez called for the next man. Felts brought him over. A muzzle flashed.

Bang! Bang!

Splash.

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.

Bang!

Splash.

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.

"Sometimes it starts a revival," Fernandez admits. "Sometimes it causes a riot. But I'm the messenger. I'm delivering messages."

He calls his prison work Armed and Dangerous Ministries and passes out to inmates a pamphlet that tells his personal tale of salvation. "I was on a one-way ticket, with no return, to hell," he tells them. Fernandez will discuss his crimes, but only vaguely. The prisoners know he was a cop; they know he did something bad, killed a few people. But Fernandez, even in the pamphlet that tells his story, doesn't call himself a murderer. In fact, throughout his trial and even to this day, Fernandez will admit to wrongdoing: drugs, violence, extortion, womanizing. He just won't admit to killing.

His pamphlet reads: "In 1990, I was arrested for a case that happened before my conversion to Christ; and one year later, I was sentenced to three life sentences, with 75 years mandatory. My Heavenly Father knows the truth and knows my heart, where it's been and where it's at. God also knows my jail and prison ministry."

In fact, among the people Fernandez has led to Christianity is his former lawyer, Contini. For the past decade, Contini has traveled the 700 miles roundtrip every other month to visit Fernandez. They've become friends, "brothers in Christ," as they call it.

"To the same extent that Gil had fervor, arguably, for ungodly things, he has that same fervor and passion and commitment to a Godly witness and sharing his testimony," Contini says. "That's the way he's been ever since I met him. He's the closest thing I've ever seen to a Saul-turning-Paul character."

According to biblical story, Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen, was among the most vicious persecutors of Christians. But while on the road to Damascus, Saul saw a vision of Christ. It sparked his religious conversion. He changed his name to Paul and became Christianity's most prolific apostle, credited with writing 14 of the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Even while imprisoned in Philippi, the Apostle Paul continued to serve as a disciple.

Fernandez believes he's in a similar position. "God used Paul in prison to write and encourage many on the outside," Fernandez says. "Why? Where much is given, then much is required. Amen. I find it an honor and privilege that the King of Glory would allow me to encourage many on the outside."

Like Paul, Fernandez was a sinner.

And the ex-cop left a long trail of blood on his own road to Damascus.


Fernandez says he just wanted to be a good cop. At 17 years old, the Puerto Rican-American moved with his family from New York City to Hollywood. His parents operated a beauty salon in Miami, and Fernandez would sometimes help out. But he had loftier ambitions.

In July 1975, Fernandez went to the Metro-Dade Police Department (now known as the Miami-Dade Police Department) and filled out an application. According to personnel records, he was more than qualified. Fernandez, then 23 years old, was in peak physical condition and fluent in English and Spanish and had an associate's degree in law enforcement from Broward Community College. With Miami's Latin population exploding in the '70s, Fernandez was the type of young officer police brass wanted to recruit. He was hired in March 1976.

At first, police officer Fernandez was reserved, even shy, personnel reports show. But as his confidence grew, so did his attitude.

"Officer Fernandez has an aggressive personality, which definitely comes to light as his confidence increases," reads an October 1976 evaluation. "However, he always stays well within the framework of acceptable action and demeanor."

As a rookie cop, Fernandez found a second home in the police gym. Two years after joining the force, Fernandez competed in the 1978 Police Olympics.

He could fill a uniform. His large chest protruded forward. His black hair was slicked back. He wore a gun on his side and another on his ankle. He was the image of a model police officer.

"He presents the physical appearance his fellow officers should strive to emulate," read a March 1979 personnel report.

But Fernandez didn't always act like a model officer. Dogged by brutality complaints, he was consistently described as having "an aggressive personality" in reports. "Officer Fernandez is without a doubt the most aggressive officer on his squad," wrote Sgt. Chester Butler.

Internal Affairs received several complaints that Fernandez beat arrestees after handcuffing them. A high school student alleged that Fernandez charged and cursed at him for jaywalking.

"Gil Fernandez was old school," remembers Pat Diaz, a Miami-Dade homicide detective who was a street cop with Fernandez in the late '70s. "He didn't play. He didn't talk. He arrested everybody."

But Fernandez, who received an Officer of the Month Award in 1979, could get results. He dependably made more arrests than his counterparts and was commended for one incident in which he stopped a suicide. Fernandez had found a man in a bathtub holding a knife and ready to slit his own throat. Fernandez pulled out his nightstick and smacked the man on the top of the head, knocking him out.

That was the way Fernandez did police work.

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.

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.

Three years after the slaying of Johnnie Irish, law enforcement reports reveal, Christie formed his own organization. Fernandez, Felts, and Carbone became his muscle. At first, they were sloppy.

"The group would do home invasions and burglaries until they started selling protection," a Mob associate named Peter Urban told BSO. "What the group would do is go into a bar and start a big fight. The following day, Christie would go into the bar and try to sell protection."

Christie's gang also did business at a Hollywood floral shop. It was a gambling front for the Colombo crime family. Christie and his crew were in the debt-collection business. The enormous Fernandez sometimes stood sentry outside the floral shop as business was discussed.

Hollywood attorney Allan Tucker remembers the day in the early '80s that he bothered Fernandez at an inopportune time. His law office was next door to the floral shop, and the cars parked out front prevented his secretaries from going to lunch. "I indicated to this guy that people had to leave, that this was their lunch hour," Tucker remembers today.

Fernandez became enraged. He walked toward Tucker and punched him, knocking the attorney to the ground. A few people then walked out of the floral shop, and they all sped away. Tucker never saw Fernandez again.

"Sometime later, that floral business was raided for loan sharking," Tucker says.

Christie and Fernandez were ambitious. Loan sharking was only the beginning of the enterprise.

"Gil Fernandez was involved in the beginning of Miami's drug trade," says Diaz, who as a homicide detective went on to investigate Fernandez. According to Diaz, Fernandez was one of the enforcers behind former South Florida drug kingpin Randy Lanier's drug enterprise. Christie tracked debts, and Fernandez collected them with force.

As cocaine exploded in the early '80s, the crew started dealing. According to a BSO confidential informant, Christie devised a scheme to profit from sellers and buyers. "Christie starts setting up drug deals in order to take down both ends (seizing the drugs being sold and money used to purchase the drugs)," BSO Detective Joe Damiano wrote in a November 1987 report.

Among the first victims was Dickie Robertson, a lower-level cocaine dealer also associated with Lanier.

According to statements that Carbone later gave to the FBI and BSO about the execution of Robertson and his associates, Leahy and Tringali, in the canal by Danger Road, Fernandez, Carbone, and Felts later drove north of U.S. Highway 27, turning right on Sheridan Street. They headed toward the ocean. As the Grand Prix crossed over the Sheridan Street bridge, which spans the Intracoastal Waterway, Fernandez threw his gun in the water.

Driving the Grand Prix, Felts pulled into a gas station on A1A. Christie stood there. He leaned into the car.

"Was it done?" Carbone remembered Christie's asking.

One week later, Fernandez resigned without reason from the Miami-Dade Police Department. Later that year, he won the Mr. Florida Bodybuilding Contest.


Union Correctional Institution is an oppressive place. Fernandez calls it "hell above ground." He says he's seen the worst of man in here: guards beating captives; inmates gang-raping weak prisoners and stabbing others; men masturbating in the yard, then flinging their semen at others.

"This is the worst toilet bowl of all," Fernandez says. "And what goes in a toilet bowl? Crap. A lot of guys here are cold, angry. They're hard. In prison, you're so down and out, you gotta look up to look down."

Most would agree that a brutal murderer like Fernandez deserves nothing less. In fact, he expresses the same opinion, although in the cagey way he has about discussing his crimes. "If I didn't know me now, I would like the man I was [before being saved]," Fernandez says. "Though I'm getting old, the Holy Spirit has made my soul young. It's the Christ in me."

Fernandez says his path to salvation started in an Atlanta hotel room in 1987. On his way to check out, he opened the nightstand drawer. He doesn't know why. He saw a Gideon Bible and picked it up. "I brought it home and put it on my nightstand," he remembers. "It stayed there until 1989."

During this time, Fernandez's wife had been feeling a spiritual calling, he says. She wanted to go to church. She nagged. He resisted. Fernandez had time to worship only his body. In early 1989, he purchased the Apollo Gym from Christie and continued to train himself for bodybuilding contests. But in August of that year, he slipped and fell, breaking his ankle. While in the hospital, he received a call. To this day, he doesn't know who it was from or even if the person had the right number, he says.

"We just called to say we love you, and we're praying for you," the caller said.

Something overcame Fernandez at that moment, he says. "I lay in that hospital bed, and all I could do is cry," he remembers. "Everything I'd done in my life flashed before me. I could see all the foolishness. And at that moment, I wanted to go to church."

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.

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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