"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.
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.