Crime

‘I didn’t do anything to stop the kidnapping.’ Ex-fighter is main event in Miami murder trial.

During his professional mixed-martial arts career, Ariel “The Panther” Gandulla entered the ring before plenty of crowds, but always as the undercard.

But on Tuesday, he got the limelight as the main event — testifying about helping kidnap a Miami man who was later tortured, his throat slit and his genitals torched in a sensational murder case that has drawn international headlines.

In much-anticipated testimony, Gandulla told jurors he was duped into serving as the muscle for the kidnapping of Camilo Salazar in June 2011 at the behest of Presidente Supermarket owner Manuel Marin. The reason: Salazar had been sleeping with Marin’s wife, enraging the wealthy Lighthouse Point businessman.

“I didn’t do anything to stop the kidnapping,” Gandulla told jurors wistfully.

Gandulla, 51, took the stand Tuesday, less than two months after he agreed to return to Miami from Vancouver, Canada, where he’d been living as a fugitive for years. After news broke in 2018 that he had been implicated in the murder, Gandulla lost his job as a welder and nearly committed suicide by hurling himself in front of a train.

“What made you decide to tell the truth?” Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine asked.

“I wanted to feel right,” Gandulla testified. “I was carrying all the weight of what happened.”

He testified against his former Miami gym buddies, Alexis Vila Perdomo and Roberto Isaac, who are standing trial on accusations of orchestrating and carrying out the murder of Salazar. Marin, who spent years on the run in Spain, is jailed and awaiting trial next year.

As part of a plea deal, Gandulla agreed to spend 36 months in prison for kidnapping. Prosecutors do not believe he took part in the murder itself.

Gone were Gandulla’s fighters trunks and chiseled physique. Instead, he was balding and haggard, sporting a thin beard, glasses and a red jumpsuit reserved for high-profile inmates. He spoke softly, with a slight stutter.

Defense lawyers cast Gandulla as a liar testifying to get a lenient plea deal. “Did this really happen?” Isaac’s defense lawyer, Michael Walsh, asked him incredulously.

Before his involvement in the murder case, Gandulla’s life story was well chronicled.

He fled his native Cuba in 1994 on a raft, spending six days at sea before the U.S. Coast Guard picked him up. Gandulla went on to become a legal U.S. resident.

But his life was marred by tragedy — his Cuban wife and son drowned months later while trying to make the same journey. Their deaths plunged him into a deep depression, Gandulla testified.

Eventually, Gandulla revived his interest in fighting. He’d trained in judo and Greco-Roman wrestling in Cuba, and in Miami he began training at the Young Tigers and Freestyle Fighting Academy gyms.

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MMA fighters Alexis Vila, Jorge Mas Vidal, and Ariel Gandulla at the Young Tigers Gym in Miami in 2008. Vila and Gandulla are now accused of taking part in a plot to murder. Gaston de Cardenas El Nuevo Herald

He won his first four bouts. “Now, I can go for my dream. That is why I am here,” he told Yahoo! Sports in 2007 before a World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight championship bout at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas.

But Gandulla lost that fight. His career fizzled after that. He wound up with an 8-9 record.

Gandulla became embroiled in the plot shortly before one of his fights in May 2011. He was training at Young Tigers in Kendall. Vila walked in with Isaac, and introduced him as a longtime friend — and a gang member.

“He was a Latin King,” Gandulla testified.

Gandulla shook Isaac’s hand and resumed training. A few feet away, Gandulla recalled, Vila and Isaac began discussing an unspecified “job” being offered by Marin, an MMA fan who was well-known in fighting circles.

“I don’t know. I thought it was a normal job, like a supermarket job,” Gandulla said.

Isaac later called him a couple of times, never explaining the job, and eventually asked him for help in cashing a check, Gandulla said. Gandulla agreed, and Isaac showed up at his apartment on the morning of June 1, 2011.

The two drove to Coconut Grove, where Salazar lived with his wife and newborn. They parked Isaac’s rental truck and watched, as Isaac admitted he’d been watching Salazar’s routine for a few days, Gandulla said.

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On Tuesday, November 5, 2019, Roberto Isaac sits at his murder trial in a courtroom at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami, Florida. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Later, the two men drove to the office of Salazar’s wife. Salazar was dropping off their daughter. As he left and walked to his car, Isaac pulled up, hopped out, cuffed him with plastic zip ties and put him in the truck, Gandulla said.

“I stood there frozen. I didn’t know what to do,” Gandulla testified.

Isaac handed Gandulla the hostage’s car keys, and asked him to throw them in the man’s car. That’s when Gandulla touched the passenger’s side of Salazar’s car — leaving a crucial fingerprint that would tie him to the kidnapping.

They eventually drove to Isaac’s home in Wynwood and a man came out, helping Isaac carry the hostage into the house.

Gandulla said he stayed in the rental pickup truck for at least two hours, repeatedly calling Vila, who was in Las Vegas training for a fight. Vila blew him off. Gandulla said he also called Isaac to press him on what was going on inside the house.

Finally, Isaac emerged with the hostage, and admitted they’d kidnapped Salazar because “he had been with another man’s wife.” He said they just needed to give him a “beat down.”

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do that. He hasn’t done anything to me,” Gandulla testified.

Finally, they drove north — and delivered the hostage to Marin in a warehouse area near Fort Lauderdale. Isaac and Marin moved the hostage to Marin’s SUV, which had a plastic tarp in the back seat, Gandulla said.

Gandulla testified that after he saw the plastic, he panicked and drove away, leaving Isaac with Marin.

“I started the car quickly and I leave with the car,” Gandulla said.

As he drove back to Miami, Gandulla angrily called Vila in Las Vegas and told him what happened.

“He told me that he was sorry for what had happened,” Gandulla recalled. “He also told me if i didn’t touch Camilo, nothing was going to happen ... he told me to keep [my mouth] shut.”

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Ariel Gandulla, an ex-MMA fighter, points to defendant Alexis Vila Perdomo while testifying in a trial over the killing of Camilo Salazar. Gandulla testified on Tuesday, November 5, 2019, at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami, Florida. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Later that night, Isaac showed up at Gandulla’s apartment to pick up the rental truck. Isaac said that if Gandulla hadn’t driven away earlier, Marin would have paid him $20,000, Gandulla said.

Gandulla noticed something else: “He smelled of gasoline.”

He would later learn that Salazar had been beaten and stabbed to death, and left in a field near the Everglades in West Miami-Dade. And his corpse had been set ablaze.

In 2012, Gandulla, along with his wife and three kids, fled to Vancouver. He sought asylum there, saying he was afraid of the Latin King gang. His wife opened a hair salon. He worked training MMA students and as a welder.

But when the Vancouver Sun and the Miami Herald published articles about the case against him, his life changed. “I lost my job. I lost it all. My life was going downhill,” he said. “I wanted to throw myself in front of a train.”

He soon agreed to cooperate.

Eventually, Miami-Dade police and prosecutors flew to Vancouver, as did Miami defense attorney Jay Kolsky. In a Vancouver police station, over two days in August, he laid out his story in detail — the same one he gave in court Tuesday.

His wife and children remain in Canada. He won’t be allowed to return there after his sentence is up.

“Do you have any idea when you’ll see your wife and kids again?” prosecutor Levine asked.

“No,” he said.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.
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