Jailed in gruesome murder case, MMA fighter called The Exorcist can't shake demons

A short but powerful man with wide eyes and the cauliflower ears of a fighter, Alexis Vila Perdomo scaled the heights of the wrestling world. He won world championships and an Olympic bronze medal for his native Cuba before defecting to South Florida.

His life, however, tumbled when he crashed his car into a terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2004, causing fears of terrorism and sending him to federal prison for three years.

Then, when Vila emerged, he reinvented himself as a mixed martial artist nicknamed The Exorcist, winning his first 11 fights — seven by knockouts — before hitting the national fight scene.

But Vila, who runs a martial arts gym in Kendall, hasn't been able to shake his demons.

On Monday, he was in a Miami courtroom as prosecutors accused him of conspiring to murder on behalf of a prominent supermarket owner in 2011 — at the peak of his fighting career. When confronted about the murder recently by a Miami-Dade homicide detective, Vila reminded the investigator of his physical prowess in the steel cage.

Alexis Vila Perdomo, a former Cuban wrestling star accused of helping set up a murder, appeared in court on Monday. David Ovalle Miami Herald

"He threatened to kick my ass," Detective Christopher Villano told a judge on Monday. His defense lawyer Eric Padron insisted his client would fight and beat the conspiracy charge.

Still, Circuit Judge Martin Zilber refused to allow Vila free from jail before trial. A Cuban national, Vila might not be accepted back in the United States were he to leave. "He certainly has the ability to leave the country," Zilber said.

Vila was arrested in mid-April, seven years after police believe he helped set up the murder of Camilo Salazar, whose mutilated and torched corpse was discovered near the Everglades in June 2011.

Detectives believe the mastermind was Manuel Marin, who helped establish Miami's Presidente Supermarkets, and ran several stores before he disappeared to Europe shortly after the killing. He remains a fugitive.

Also accused is former Miami MMA fighter Ariel Gandulla and fight trainer and promoter Roberto Isaac, both friends of Vila's. Gandulla is also believed to be on the run, possibly in Canada, while Marin is likely in Spain, according to authorities.

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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 Gandull are now accused of taking part in a plot to murder. Gaston de Cardenas El Nuevo Herald

Prosecutors say Marin enlisted Gandulla and Isaac, through Vila, to help him murder Salazar. The reason: Salazar was having an affair with Marin's wife.

Vila was in Las Vegas at the time of the killing, preparing for a match. But prosecutor Gail Levine told the court that phone records showed a surge in calls with Marin leading up to the killing and 26 phone calls between him and the other three men the day of Salazar's murder.

On two occasions, homicide detectives confronted Vila about the calls. "He didn't specifically explain them," Detective Villano testified.

But police acknowledge the details remain unclear. "The substance of those phone calls — you don't know what they were about?" defense attorney Padron pressed.

"No, I do not" Villano said.

Vila and Marin had a long history together.

Hailing from the Villa Clara province in central, Vila captured consecutive world wrestling championships in 1993 and 1994, and a World Cup championship in 1996. He won bronze at the Atlanta Olympics that year. One year later, he won a gold medal at the 1997 Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico.

"Over that four-year stretch, he was generally regarded as the best wrestler in the world," one college wrestling coach would later say.

It was in Puerto Rico that Vila called Marin, who used to coach wrestling on the island and was well-known as a fan on the fight scene in Florida, to help him defect to the mainland.

"I felt unsatisfied, without recognition. I was a champion who lived in bad conditions," Vila told El Nuevo Herald several years ago. "I had no future in Cuba. That's why I made the decision to change my life."

In Miami, Marin gave Vila a job stocking shelves at a Presidente supermarket while training the businessman's son in wrestling. He also invested in a wrestling studio for Vila, who came to see the older man as a "father figure," police said.

Vila lived in Hialeah from 1997 to 2000, records show, then moved to North Carolina and Michigan, where he coached at universities. He left Michigan after breaking up with a woman, he told El Nuevo Herald. He also told the paper he was disoriented and depressed and had been driving non-stop when he crashed into the airport terminal in 2004.

"I didn't know where I was. I reached down to pick up a cellphone that had fallen and without realizing it, I hit the accelerator," he told El Nuevo Herald. "The rest is confusing for me."

Vila spent three years in federal prison for the airport wreck. After walking free, he dubbed himself The Exorcist and began fighting in the local mixed-martial arts scene at age 37.

He fought for local groups such as G-Force (created by former Miami Heat star Glen Rice) and Mixed Fighting Alliance, distinguishing himself with a boxer's aggression despite his wrestling background. Frank Morejon, a Miami MMA marketer and promoter, recalled meeting the frenetic fighter at a couple events.

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MMA fighter Alexis Vila during a 2013 press conference for the Championship Fighting Alliance in Miami. Miami Herald

"For four years, he was riding high, winning and winning," Morejon said. "He's only 5-foot-4. Every small guy has something to prove. When you talked to him, he was all over the place. When I talked to him, he was at 100 miles per hour."

He made his debut with the nationally known Bellator promotion company in September 2011 — three months after Salazar's murder, knocking out Joe Warren in the bantamweight division. Vila went on to fight with Championship Fighting Alliance and Titan Fighting Championships, but lost seven of his last 11 fights. He won his finale with Titan at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, beating Jorge Calvo in August 2016.

Until his arrest, he was running the American Top Team gym in Kendall, which trains MMA fighters.

"He is a father of four. He has been in this country since 1997. On two separate occasions, he has met with detectives and the prosecutor," defense lawyer Padron said. "At the last meeting, the prosecutor told him, 'I have enough to charge you with murder.'

"He still did not leave the country. He is anxious to defend himself."