Accused of a savage murder in Miami, former mixed-martial arts fighter Ariel "The Panther" Gandulla has fled the country — but not to some exotic land hostile to the United States.
He's in Canada.
Gandulla, who lived in Miami for decades, has resided in Vancouver with his wife and three children for the past five years, working as welder. He's living openly but is also in a strange and uncertain diplomatic limbo.
That's because no country seems to want a Cuban national with a felony record who faces criminal trials in two Florida counties.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Canada has repeatedly rejected his appeals to stay in Vancouver, but his case remains mired in the nation's immigration court. And while Miami-Dade prosecutors would like him extradited to stand trial for murder, the U.S. government may not want him back in the country for fear he may get acquitted and settle stateside again.
Convicted or not, his native Cuba also is unlikely to take him back.
"The federal government is not willing to let us bring him here because he's a Cuban national," Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Gail Levine said in a court hearing last month.
Reached by the Vancouver Sun this week, both his wife and lawyer declined to comment.
In his latest criminal case, Gandulla, 41, is accused of taking part in the June 2011 murder of Camilo Salazar, whose body was discovered in a rural area near the Everglades. He had been severely beaten, his throat slit, his genitals torched.
Investigators believe Gandulla participated in the murder at the behest of supermarket mogul Manuel Marin, himself on the lam, in Spain or in Cuba. In April, prosecutors charged Gandulla with second-degree murder and kidnapping; he was linked to the crime by a fingerprint on the victim's car and cellphone records, according to an arrest warrant. Miami-Dade police detectives also have arrested another former MMA fighter, Alexis Vila Perdomo, and associate Roberto Issac; both are jailed and awaiting trial.
Gandulla is originally from the Cuban province of Cienfuegos. He fled in 1994 on a raft, spending six days at sea before the U.S. Coast Guard picked him up. He eventually became a legal U.S. resident but not a citizen.
As an MMA fighter, he started 4-0, a promising beginning for a fighter trained in judo and Greco Roman wrestling. “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.
Gandulla lost that fight — and his career fizzled after that. He wound up with an 8-9 record.
His fight career didn't keep him out of trouble. He got a cocaine possession conviction in Miami in 2004. In 2011, the same year of Salazar's murder, Gandulla was arrested in Tampa on accusations of marijuana dealing and attacking a cop.
Before he could stand trial on the Tampa charges, however, he fled to Vancouver in June 2012.
He and his wife, Kelly Giraldo, a native of Colombia, applied for Canadian residency on "humanitarian and compassionate grounds." He claimed members of the Latin Kings gang involved in his Tampa case were threatening his family, according to court documents obtained by the Sun.
His claims were repeatedly rejected. The Canadian government was informed he "could not be removed to either the U.S. or Cuba, his country of origin, because neither country would authorize his re-entry."
The family's efforts to remain in Canada are still ongoing; another immigration judge is still scheduled to review their case.
In Canada, he began training at Franco Kickboxing, with his family sometimes coming to watch. “He came to me in 2012 saying that, you know, he wanted to change his life and all this stuff,” said the gym's owner, Chris Franco . “He wants to kind of … find a better environment for his family.”
The 5-foot-11 middleweight, however, lost a trio of fights in the Vancouver area. After Gandulla’s final defeat in 2015, Franco suggested the aging fighter consider retiring and instead spend more time with his family.
“After that, he trained sporadically — once every two, three months,” Franco said.
The men didn’t speak much after the last fight, Franco said. Gandulla last came to the gym five or six months ago for a Saturday boxing class, but hasn’t returned since.
“I had no indication that he had a background of violence. He was very soft-spoken — like he was not a very loud person. He was quiet, to himself,” Franco said.
But little did anyone in Canada know, Miami-Dade homicide detectives and prosecutors were looking to arrest Gandulla in recent months. The co-defendants, Vila and Isaac, were arrested in April — shortly after, Gandulla abruptly took down his Facebook page.
In an April court hearing for Vila, prosecutors revealed that the federal government may not allow him back in the country to stand trial. A formal request has not been made yet with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and prosecutors may still try.
For decades, the United States and the communist country had no formal diplomatic relations, although the relationship has thawed in recent years. Still, the United States regards Cuba as a “recalcitrant” country that refuses to accept its nationals back.
At the end of 2017, there were over 37,000 Cubans living in the United States with orders of deportations against them.
“If the defendant is found not guilty, the question then becomes what does he do. If he was an Italian national, we would send him back to Italy,” prosecutor Levine told a judge. “We can’t send this man back to Cuba.”