Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah

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"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."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson

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