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Danger Road: A True Crime Story of Murder and Redemption
WDC Media PR
[WDC Newswire] -- WDC Media, a Christian public relations firm, announced that it has been retained by attorney and author John P. Contini, whose book Danger Road: A True Crime Story of Murder and Redemption, is scheduled for release in March 2006.
“John has gained a reputation over the years as one of the most capable and effective defense attorneys in America,” said Susan Zahn, founder and president of WDC Media. “Danger Road highlights one of John’s most high-profile cases, and in the process shows how God’s mercy can triumph over the most hopeless and dire of circumstances.”
“This book is going to have people talking about some of the most vital issues facing society today,” predicted Zahn, “issues like justice, mercy, repentance, and redemption."
Danger Road is the incredible true story of three drug dealers who were brutally murdered in 1983 on Danger Road the Florida Everglades. Lured into a phony drug deal each victim hoped would be his big retirement score, they allegedly found themselves at the business end of a gun wielded by a Miami-Dade police officer.
But police and prosecutors say Officer Gilbert Fernandez Jr. and his cohorts weren’t there to arrest the drug dealers; they were there to kill them and steal their nine kilos of cocaine.
Danger Road details the transformation Fernandez, a former Mr. Florida bodybuilding champion and black-belt karate champion, who became a Christian during the intervening years between the 1983 murders and his subsequent arrest in 1990.
This was no courthouse conversion. The man who had once been named “Miami’s meanest cop” had been a Christian for years by the time of his trial.
He no longer forced African American detainees to eat cigarette butts from the squad-car ashtray at gunpoint, as he did in his days before knowing Christ.
And he no longer ran the ring of bodybuilder debt collectors out of the notorious Apollo Gym, which he eventually owned.
He lived to convert people at the gym to his faith; and in 1991, he was also on trial for his life.
Does God give second chances? In Danger Road you’ll discover why He’s called the ‘God of the Second Chance.’
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.
By Trevor Aaronson
It should have been his last job.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah, Part 2
Gil Fernandez Jr. could be responsible for as many as nine murders. If he's truly repentant, his former prosecutor says, he needs to confess his sins.
By Trevor Aaronson
"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.
"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."