Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah, Part 2

Attorney John P. Contini talks to Gil Fernandez during the 1991 murder trial.

This is the second in a two-part series. See the first installment at New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

"I haven't been to this area in nearly 15 years," says John P. Contini as he looks for the site where his former client, Gil Fernandez Jr., executed three men and dumped their bodies in 1983.

It's a cool December morning, and Contini, a 48-year-old criminal defense attorney with white hair and a gentle demeanor, is traveling down U.S. 27 on a 20-mile trip from his home in Weston to a spot of marshland just south of the Broward County line.


Gil Fernandez Jr.

On April 1, 1983, Fernandez made a similar drive on U.S. 27, which runs along the edge of the Everglades. At the time a Miami cop and competitive bodybuilder, Fernandez was with two fellow bodybuilders in a white 1980 Grand Prix. Also in the car were three blindfolded, bound, and gagged drug dealers — Richard Robertson, 26, Walter Leahy Jr., 25, and Alfred Tringali, 31. Fernandez took the three men to a secluded canal and shot them to death.

Contini's car pulls off U.S. 27 and into a dirt lot at Jones Fish Camp, a ragtag collection of roughly 50 mobile homes surrounding murky canals and bayous. Marshall Heath Jones, whose family has owned this land for five generations, stands near one of the slowly meandering canals.

"I'm looking for Danger Road," Contini says.

Jones stares at him.

"A long time ago, there was a murder," Contini continues. "Three bodies were found. We're trying to find the exact spot, on Danger Road."

"That was a hell of a story back then," Jones recalls. He points. "Danger Road is over there," he says.

Contini heads back to U.S. 27 and, as the road bends, pulls off on a dirt trail. It drops down into a marshy area that leads to a gravel road. Danger Road runs for about a mile along a shallow canal. In 1983, Fernandez forced his captives, one by one, to kneel in the shallow water, then shot each man in the back of the head. The next day, three Hialeah residents riding dirt bikes around the swamp found the victims on the bank of the canal.

Strolling over the same ground where Fernandez marched his victims, Contini says, "They were walking like this, hearing the crickets and knowing they were about to die."

He's here, at the 22-year-old scene of the gruesome triple murder, to gain some perspective. Contini is not only finishing a book about his complicated relationship with Fernandez but is also aiding what is likely to be Fernandez's final appeal.

Contini agrees that his relationship with Fernandez is unique. In 1990, then a 33-year-old hotshot criminal defense attorney, Contini took Fernandez on as a client and basked in the high-profile case's media spotlight. It was a stunning case — Fernandez was a cop turned murderer who claimed to have found God. "My guy is going to walk," Contini bragged to a reporter.

He was wrong. A jury found Fernandez and his Mob boss, Hubert "Bert" Christie, guilty of killing three men. But while Contini lost in court, he claims he gained in life. During the six-week trial, Fernandez became Contini's spiritual guide. The attorney, with the help of a man on trial for murder, experienced a religious awakening.

Today, Contini is obsessed with Fernandez. He believes that the convicted murderer, portrayed by police and prosecutors as a ruthless criminal addicted to steroids and cocaine, is a true man of God. He believes there are two versions of Gil Fernandez Jr.: the brutal killer who existed before the religious conversion and the gentle, studious, spiritual man who lives today.

"It was as though I represented someone completely different from what everybody described," Contini says. "And for all intents and purposes, I did — if you believe what the Bible describes as the new man versus the old man once there is a radical transformation."

It's this old-man/new-man story that Contini believes will inspire others. Later this year, Contini will finish a book he hopes to have published, Danger Road: A True Crime Story of Murder and Redemption, about his relationship with Fernandez. For the past 15 years, Fernandez has spent his time behind bars as a devoted jailhouse preacher. Contini believes that Fernandez is the "real deal," a man who can serve as an example to fellow Christians.

But others aren't convinced. That's because an enormous flaw exists in Contini's old-man/new-man theory. Fernandez has never confessed to the three murders in the Everglades for which he was convicted. What's more, police and prosecutors suspect the Everglades killings could be only the beginnings of his crimes. Authorities believe that Fernandez could be responsible for as many as six other murders from 1985 to 1987.  

"Redemption? I'm not sure," says Cynthia Imperato, a Broward Circuit Court judge who as a prosecutor helped convict Fernandez. "If this is legitimate and he's truly redeemed, then why won't he bring closure to all these families and confess to what he's done?"

Located roughly 40 miles north of Gainesville, Raiford is a small town built around the state Department of Corrections. Most of the town's residents live in Union Correctional Institution and the Florida State Prison, which includes death row and the electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky."

This town is where Fernandez will likely live the rest of his days. The 52-year-old is six feet tall, with a large torso and hulking arms, and wears a standard, state-issued blue uniform and shiny black boots. It's a November morning. Fernandez is in a visiting room at Union Correctional Institution, talking about his life. He's made the best of it, he says, because he's providing hope. Calling his work Armed and Dangerous Ministries, Fernandez tells other inmates about his religious transformation, how he went from violent thug to peaceful preacher. He carries a Bible with him everywhere, and when he studies it, he places small black reading glasses on the bridge of his nose.

Fernandez is a Puerto Rican-American, but his Hispanic features are subtle. In prison, where inmates usually align themselves by ethnic group, he's encountered resistance to his preaching.

"I've heard every excuse," Fernandez says. "'It's a white man's religion. Your god is white.' But, c'mon, pick a color. God is whatever color you want him to be. God is there. He don't care what color you are or what color you think he is. He desires all men."

One year before being charged with the execution-style murders of the three men in the Everglades, Fernandez became a born-again Christian. Many were skeptical. But a decade and half later, Fernandez still says he's as addicted to God as he once was to cocaine and steroids.

Barry Scott Collins, now chaplain at Holmes Correctional Institution in Bonifay, Florida, can attest to Fernandez's faith. He met the convicted murderer in 1994, when he was assigned to work at Cross City Correctional Institution, in Cross City, Florida. Collins first saw Fernandez standing in the prison yard, preaching to other inmates. "He was right there, witnessing and sharing his story of conversion," Collins recalls.

At that point, Collins realized Fernandez was the man who could help him reach some of the most hardened prisoners. Collins introduced himself to Fernandez in the middle of the prison yard.

"He gave me a good looking-over, and then he stepped to me," Collins remembers. "We sat and shared our experiences. I wasn't a real good guy all my life. The difference is, I didn't get caught. He did. We're all guilty of something.

"I can only relate so much with an inmate, because I'm a free person," Collins continues. "Gil had the credibility of being another criminal. Just to have blue on was credibility enough, and Gil never hid anything. He would tell them, 'I'm a pretty bad guy, and it didn't get me nowhere. No dignity, no person, no name. Just a number.' He did great work. He was a missionary to those in prison."

Fernandez has been a model prisoner. While incarcerated in five different maximum-security penitentiaries, he has never been disciplined or cited for improper behavior. For a normal prisoner, that's unusual. For an ex-cop, that's an enormous accomplishment, Collins says.

"Everybody knows who you are. They try you. They poke you," he adds. "Gil probably gets more fire and trials than anyone."

Fernandez commanded respect, Collins says, but many of the same people who respected him also wanted to see him fail. The cop turned killer's religious conversion couldn't be legitimate.

"In the spiritual world, he never did falter," Collins says. "Everybody looked for a stumble. Everybody looked for him to fall. Everybody looked for him to get caught stealing — something."

Collins ministered to prisoners with Fernandez for roughly three years, until October 1997, when the Department of Corrections transferred the inmate to another prison. During that time, Collins never asked about Fernandez's crimes. The ex-cop would talk openly — "I've done a lot of bad things," he'd tell Collins — but he never admitted to murder.

"In prison, everybody's innocent," Collins says. "Gil was one to say, 'I've done some things wrong.' I've been in prison work for 12 years. Out of three prisons I've been at, I've known over 5,000 men. I have five on my hand who I'd give another shot. Gil Fernandez would be one of those five."  

Fernandez's murder trial 15 years ago was high theater. Littered with biblical references offered by both the prosecution and the defense, Fernandez's days in court were covered by the media with the zeal of sportswriters covering a pennant race.

At the height of the media circus, on September 21, 1991, defense attorneys filed an unsuccessful motion for an injunction to stop the tabloid television show A Current Affair from airing a segment about the alleged crimes titled "Lift and Let Die."

To this day, Contini believes Fernandez might have been found not guilty had the trial not been in the spotlight. "We did not get a fair trial, and most observers outside the prosecution table made that comment to me," Contini says.

Fernandez and his Mob boss, Bert Christie, were tried together after Broward Circuit Court Judge Robert Tyson, who has since retired, refused to grant separate trials. Prosecutors alleged that Fernandez murdered the three men on orders from Christie, who at the time owned the steroid-fueled Apollo Gym & Fitness Center in Fort Lauderdale.

In the courtroom, which included armed guards, Fernandez and Christie were shackled and seated next to each other. "They both looked like hulking guys from The Sopranos set," Contini remembers.

Because Fernandez kidnapped his three victims in Hollywood, then crossed the county line to kill them in Northwest Miami-Dade, the Office of Statewide Prosecution handled the case, which was tried for six weeks in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The state's case was problematic. The murders had occurred eight years earlier, and all of the evidence linking Fernandez and Christie to the killings was circumstantial. Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Michael Carbone, a convicted extortionist and drug dealer who helped Fernandez carry out the murders. Carbone agreed to testify against Fernandez and Christie in exchange for full immunity and admission into the Witness Protection Program.

Carbone was an odious man who revealed at trial that he had had a sexual relationship with the sister of one of the victims years after the murders and told her he had no knowledge of the killings. But the detail of his testimony was powerful: He described how Fernandez kidnapped the three men, drove them to the Everglades, and shot them all execution-style. Fernandez then traveled to Hollywood and met with Christie, Carbone told the jury. "Was it done?" Carbone claimed Christie asked.

Contini grilled Carbone during the trial, suggesting that he was in fact the murderer and had flipped to protect himself. Carbone admitted that he guarded the three victims, machine gun in hand, for six hours as Fernandez disposed of their car. All that time, Carbone had an opportunity to release them, Contini told the jury during the trial.

But Carbone's testimony was enough to convict Fernandez and Christie. A jury found them guilty of three counts of first-degree murder but spared them the death penalty, instead sentencing the pair to three consecutive life sentences.

Fernandez and Christie seemed to have little hope of release or parole until eight years after their conviction. In July 1999, Broward Circuit Judge Susan Lebow overturned Christie's conviction based on ineffective legal counsel and granted the Mob boss a new trial. She found that Christie's attorney, Louis Vernell Jr., had not adequately defended him. Contini agrees and claims that Vernell did as much damage to Fernandez's case as the prosecution did.

"I'd shoot holes in a witness' testimony, and then Vernell would get up and undo all the damage," Contini says today.

Vernell, who had previously defended other alleged Mob associates, had a documented relationship with organized crime. Among evidence submitted in Fernandez's and Christie's murder trial was a November 1987 report from the Broward Sheriff's Office. A confidential source told BSO that Vernell asked members of the Colombo crime family to kill his wife, who was allegedly having an affair. Vernell, who was not charged with the alleged crime, wasn't known for his ethics. The Florida Bar suspended him for six months in 1979 after he was convicted of failing to file income tax returns for five years and then again in 1987 for three months after he withheld money from a client. Finally, in September 1998, Vernell was disbarred after misappropriating another client's money.

"Louis Vernell wasn't there to defend Bert Christie. He was there for one reason — to make sure Christie didn't talk," Pat Diaz, the Miami-Dade homicide detective who investigated the murders, tells New Times.

Christie, who was 66 years old and in poor health when he won a new trial, died six months later.

Fernandez is still waiting for a successful appeal of his own.

His chances are slim. "He's already been through every state and federal appeal and post-conviction motion," says Mike Gelety, a Fort Lauderdale appellate attorney who shares offices with Contini and agreed to take Fernandez's appeal. "Plus, there's no judge I know who's dying to jump in on a 15-year-old case."  

Winning a new trial may be highly unlikely. But Gelety believes Fernandez might have a chance at having his sentence overturned. Fernandez is serving three consecutive life sentences, each with a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years. He won't be eligible for parole until 2065, when he'd be 112 years old.

"I feel confident that I found a problem in Fernandez's sentencing," Gelety says. "It's an illegal sentence."

When Fernandez and Christie were convicted in 1991, Judge Tyson gave the jury a verdict form that ranged from first-degree murder with a firearm as the most severe to not guilty at the bottom end. Beneath first-degree murder with a firearm was the verdict first-degree murder without a firearm. The jury chose that verdict, even though first-degree murder with a firearm and first-degree murder without a firearm were on the same level of offense and carried the same punishment. Having two verdicts of the same level on a single form is technically illegal, Gelety says.

"The jury instructions and the way the verdict forms were set up caused confusion and basically caused Fernandez to be sentenced on a higher degree than the jury intended," Gelety contends. "You had multiple choices which appeared to be lesser-included offenses but which turned out to be the same offense."

Adds Contini: "The prosecution got two bites at the apple. They missed on the first but got the second."

Based on the mandatory-minimum sentences at the time of his conviction, Fernandez could be eligible for parole immediately if he wins his sentencing appeal.

On a dark fall night, Contini drives his black Mercedes down State Road 100, which cuts through the middle of the state toward Raiford. He's on a trip to visit Fernandez in prison. He's done this dozens of times. But one visit two years ago was particularly important. Contini had a confession to make.

"Our sickness lies in our secrets," Contini says. "This was bothering me, and bothering me more over time."

Contini was an ambitious defense attorney when he took Fernandez's case in 1991. He'd done two stints as a prosecutor at the Broward State Attorney's Office, and he knew Fernandez's case would give his career a boost.

There was one problem: Fernandez insisted on having a Christian attorney.

"I led Gil to believe, when I first became his lawyer, that I was as sold out in the faith as he was," Contini remembers. "I knew it was a big press case. It was on the TV nightly news every night. It was going to remain that way for a good year. It was in the paper, the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel, every day for weeks. I knew it was going to stay that way for at least a year. And it was a possibility to make a six-figure fee. I took the case for all those reasons. It wasn't because I was coming to the aid of a brother in Christ or because I was a sold-out believer, and yet I led him to believe I was right where he was at spiritually. I was disingenuous. I felt like a fraud. I was even embarrassed to be seen praying with him."

Contini sat down with Fernandez at a table in Union Correctional Institution. He feared the worst, expecting Fernandez to pound on the table and yell: "See! That's the reason! The enemy was in our camp!"

But he didn't.

Instead, Fernandez smiled broadly.

"What are you smiling at?" Contini asked him, suddenly annoyed.

"John, don't you see? It's Jesus," Fernandez replied. "Only Jesus could do this."

Since then, Contini's relationship with Fernandez has grown stronger. He talks about Fernandez's transformation in churches around the state and uses him as an example of redemption. He wants to write the book so more people can know Fernandez's story.

Some of Contini's colleagues wonder if that unique relationship is driven more by guilt than faith. Fernandez is now serving three consecutive life sentences despite Contini's claims to reporters 15 years ago that Fernandez "is going to walk."

"John's relationship with Gil is definitely unusual," says Fernandez's former prosecutor, Jim Lewis, who is now a criminal defense attorney in Broward. "Generally, after defending a client, the relationship goes 100 percent the other way. The guys I end up with on death row or with life sentences, they don't call or write too much. I get Christmas cards from time to time, but I can tell you that they're not very happy Christmas cards.  

"I thought John did a good job in the trial," Lewis continues. "He did everything he could do. If he has guilt, I don't know why he should. We represent our clients as best we can, but we're not responsible for what our clients do."

When Lewis prosecuted the case, he believed that Fernandez's religious conversion was an act. Today, he's not sure. But he has no doubts about Fernandez's guilt.

"The thing I'm reminded of most about the trial is when Contini got up and started referring to the Bible, talking about sins being washed away in a watery grave," Lewis says. "When I heard those words, I couldn't believe it. The watery grave I remembered in this case was the one that the three victims had been found in. They were executed one by one, and their bodies were left in the water."

Lewis takes a pause. He's still passionate about the case.

"I'm a Christian person, and I believe in redemption," he says. "I also believe there are some crimes so heinous that they deserve the ultimate punishment. I believe Gil Fernandez deserves that punishment."

Another of Fernandez's prosecutors, Cynthia Imperato, believes that if Fernandez prays, it's for freedom, not inner peace. Now a Broward Circuit Court judge appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003, Imperato built relationships with the three victims' families that continue to this day.

Did Fernandez kill three men in the Everglades on April 1, 1983? "There's no doubt in my mind," Imperato says.

Imperato is discussing the case over lunch on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. It's mid-December, and Imperato remembers certain details about the case as if it were yesterday. That has a lot to do with a recent conversation she had with Contini. Fernandez's former attorney had invited Imperato to discuss the case with him. Contini talked about the relationship he has had with Fernandez and how he's writing a book about the murderer's conversion to Christianity.

"I'm not 'born again,'" Imperato says, creating quotation marks in the air with her fingers, "so I don't understand John's relationship with Fernandez. He killed three people. It was brutal. How do you see beyond that?"

And there's potentially much more to Fernandez's life in crime.

While investigating the 1983 murders in the Everglades, BSO and the Miami-Dade Police Department formed a task force to investigate Fernandez. Police and prosecutors believe that, in addition to the three murders in the Everglades, Fernandez could be responsible for six other killings over a two-year period. All of the victims had connections to Christie's and Fernandez's Apollo Gym, and investigators suspect Fernandez was feeling increasing pressure from law enforcement. He started killing off people who could have potentially testified against him, they theorize.

"What's the first rule of murder?" Diaz asks rhetorically. "Don't leave any witnesses behind."

Fernandez's purported killing spree began on October 6, 1985, when Tommy Felts, the 36-year-old fellow bodybuilder who allegedly helped Fernandez and Carbone kill the three men in the Everglades, was gunned down while driving on Interstate 95. Felts had told family members that he wanted out of organized crime, according to police reports.

Soon after the murder, Fernandez arrived at Felts' house. He demanded from Felts' wife a stash of cocaine as well as "a little black book." The book contained a list of debts owed to the criminal organization. In mid-October of 1985, Fernandez knocked on the door of Nealon Frisch's Hollywood apartment. Records indicate that Frisch dealt cocaine in the late '80s and, according to a BSO report, owed Felts $500. The debt was likely recorded in that black book.

Fernandez wanted to collect the $500. Frisch objected, saying he owed the money to Felts, not him.

"I'm Tommy," Fernandez said, then gave Frisch one week to pay up.

Fernandez returned, and when Frisch could come up with only $150, he beat the man severely, according to the BSO report. "You [are] a fucking lucky person," Fernandez told Frisch. "Do you want to end up the way Tommy did?"

One year after Felts' murder, on October 21, 1986, Miramar police found William Halpern, 28, dead in his townhouse. He'd been strangled, his hands bound, throat slashed. Halpern was a Hallandale Beach firefighter-paramedic until 1981, when he hurt his back. He then began to sell coins and artwork and also worked out at the Apollo Gym. Police investigating his murder did not find signs of forced entry, and a gun that Halpern kept behind the front door was unmoved. He likely knew his killer, police say.

The murders continued. On May 6, 1987, BSO detectives found Charles Mitch Hall, 27, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Charlinda Draudt, in Hall's Tamarac home. As in Halpern's death, the couple's hands were bound and their throats were cut. Hall, who often socialized with Halpern on Hollywood's muscle-bound Garfield Beach, worked out at the Apollo Gym and knew Fernandez. Draudt, a bartender at a local restaurant, was likely a victim of circumstance. There was no sign of forced entry.  

On May 14, 1987, eight days after the double murder in Tamarac, James Hinote Jr., 31, and Harry Van Collier, 28, were found shot to death in Collier's Coconut Creek townhouse. Again, there was no sign of forced entry. Hinote was friends with Halpern and Hall and knew Fernandez from the Apollo Gym. Collier was a bodybuilder friend visiting from New York.

Police investigating the murders believed that Halpern, Hall, and Hinote were small-time drug dealers whose connections to Fernandez and Christie came from the Apollo Gym. It's unclear whether these men had knowledge of the 1983 Everglades murders.

Either way, the rising death count was among the reasons Carbone brokered an immunity deal to testify against Fernandez and Christie. He believed he was likely the next one on Fernandez's hit list of potential witnesses, according to a BSO report.

Since Fernandez's trial, only Felts' murder has been solved. Bobby Young, an associate of former South Florida drug kingpin Randy Lanier, confessed to the killing. Detective Diaz, of the Miami-Dade police, believes that Fernandez also played a role in the murder.

Nearly two decades after these unsolved murders, Imperato wants to see the cases finally closed. After Christie was granted a new trial in July 1999, Imperato approached him. She offered to help him broker a deal if he'd testify about the other murders. "Christie seemed willing, but he didn't want anything to come out until he was dead," Imperato remembers. "I guess he didn't want his daughters to know about the killings while he was alive."

But Christie's unexpected death soon after the meeting ruined those chances. He never testified against Fernandez.

For that reason, Imperato discussed a possible deal with Contini. Assuming his final appeal is denied, Fernandez will never experience freedom again in his lifetime. If Fernandez would be willing to come forward and confess to the unsolved murders, Imperato believes prosecutors would agree to spare him the death penalty on those murders. Since additional prison sentences would be meaningless, Fernandez would have nothing to lose.

"He's in for life," Imperato says. "If this religious conversion is for real, he should confess to these murders and bring closure to all these families."

Lewis, who sat next to Imperato at the prosecution table, believes that the effort could be a waste. Fernandez is a killer, a brutal murderer; that's all he needs to know.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Gil Fernandez is responsible for those unsolved murders," Lewis says. "I'm quite sure he's responsible for five or six of those killings. He can confess or not confess to murders. I am just as sure in his guilt now as I was then. Am I bothered that he won't come forward and confess? No, that doesn't bother me particularly. Given that he won't be executed, I just don't think he should ever get out of jail. I think what he's doing — some of the things in the jail — it's admirable. But I still don't want him out on the street with you and me."

Diaz leans back in a chair at Miami-Dade police headquarters and laughs. "Gil is a smart guy," he says. "He's not going to give you something for nothing. What does he have to gain by confessing?"

To be sure, Fernandez has no incentive to confess to murders for which he hasn't been charged.

Except maybe one — legitimacy to his claim of salvation.

Fernandez is crying. His eyes are red, and tears stream down his face. His chin quivers gently. He lifts his large arm and wipes it across both sides of his face. Fernandez is thinking about his family. He hasn't seen his wife and two boys in years.

In 1993, two years after his conviction for triple murder, Fernandez's wife divorced him. He no longer hears from his two sons, including his youngest, David, who was born shortly before the trial.

Prison is hell, Fernandez says. But he believes that the man-made hell is the only one he'll ever know.

"I'm not going to hell," Fernandez says. "When people hit hell, they hit it for eternity. There is no appeal, no clemency. The Bible says hell greets you at death. It welcomes its participants."

Fernandez was a bad guy. He'll admit that much. "I was a stone-cold devil," he says. Fifteen years ago, Fernandez told a pastor that he'd done every crime except "child pornography and murder." He's never wavered from that statement, and with an appeal in the works, Fernandez refuses to talk about any of the murders.  

Contini supports that decision. Fernandez's unwillingness to confess in court, he says, in no way speaks to the conviction of the inmate's religious beliefs.

"Confessing to man is some measure or barometer of one's faith," Contini says. "But it's not the only measure or barometer. Leading a life of repentance and ministry, albeit in prison, for 15 years and leading hundreds if not thousands of inmates to saving faith is another barometer or measure of his sincerity."

But away from his client's ear, Contini admits that he's played an active role in negotiating an eventual confession with Imperato. If the appeal is turned down, Contini wants to have a "serious talk" with Fernandez to persuade him to finally come forward.

"If it's true that my client had anything to do with any of those unsolved homicides, then it's my hope and prayer as a man of faith that over time I can be helpful in bringing closure to those other families," Contini says. "I have children of my own now, and I can imagine the pain. I can only imagine it, because there is no way to know their pain. I would love to believe that over time, I can be used to help bring about closure for those families.

"I know Gil's heart, and I know not many people on this planet have a sweeter spirit than Gil Fernandez has," Contini continues. "I have every reason to believe that Gil would want to help as many people as he possibly could, including the victims' families, as we move ahead in this process."

Yet whether Fernandez would ever be willing to confess to these unsolved murders is uncertain. He's never given any indication that he would even confess to the three murders police, prosecutors, and a jury of his peers say he committed.

A guard looks in the window as Fernandez sits in a visiting room at Union Correctional Institution. It's time to go. Fernandez stands and puts his reading glasses in his front breast pocket, then embraces Contini.

"God is not like a cop who pulls out a billy club," Fernandez says, trying to summarize his message. "God draws you with love. Unlike cops, God cannot lie. He's just. But be careful, because with God, there's no mistrial or retrial."

Fernandez walks toward the door and turns, leather-bound Bible clutched in his right hand.

"I believe this is the end of the line for me," he says. "I'll go home from here, to God."

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