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Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah

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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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson

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